Vladimir Nabokov said, “Although we read with our minds, the seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder blades. That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science. Let us worship the spine and its tingle.” Try your hand at writing a spine-tingling tale. You might create a feeling of mystery or unease by introducing a creepy premise in the first sentence, or decide to lull the reader into a sense of security with a few run-of-the-mill details before unleashing an element of horror. For inspiration, read Nabokov's short story, "The Visit to the Museum."
The Time Is Now
The Time Is Now offers a weekly writing prompt (we’ll post a poetry prompt on Tuesdays, a fiction prompt on Wednesdays, and a creative nonfiction prompt on Thursdays) to help you stay committed to your writing practice throughout the year. We also offer a selection of books on writing—both the newly published and the classics—that we recommend you check out for inspiration, plus advice and insight on the writing process from the authors profiled in Poets & Writers Magazine. And don’t miss Writers Recommend, which includes books, art, music, writing prompts, films—anything and everything—that has inspired other authors in their writing.
Last week, the 2015 Nobel Prize recipients were announced, awarding a writer, scientific researchers, and peace advocates from around the world whose areas of work range from molecular cell DNA repair to political mediation in Tunisia. Write a short story in which your main character finds himself invited to the Nobel Prize award ceremonies in Stockholm, Sweden. What preconceived notions might he have about the festivities and winners? Is he star-struck, mildly impressed, or ambivalent? Does he have dubious plans beyond celebrating with the recipients and guests?
Though in many ways the act of writing can be considered an exercise in control—over everything from plot arc to characters to the weather in your setting—what happens when you take a more passive position and relinquish control, allowing a story to emerge from your unconscious mind? Many scientists, spiritualists, and artists have reported on “automatic writing,” in which a person steers clear of putting any conscious intention behind the words that are put down. Try your hand by first writing about what comes to mind immediately: perhaps the changing colors and textures of autumn leaves outside, or everyday details about upcoming holidays and visiting family. Try not to pause or edit yourself. Gradually let your mind progress into an associative stream of consciousness. Take a look at what you’ve written and, using your favorite elements, write a short short story with a seasonal theme, allowing it to be nonsensical, absurd, or surreal.
Autumn leaves are a pleasurable part of the season, until it’s time to rake them up. Write a story about a character who rakes her neighbors’ lawns for extra cash. Have her deliver a short narrative about each home she visits. Delve into how these narratives relate to one another and whether they are intertwined. Do they reveal a greater story about the neighborhood that has been hidden until now? Does your narrator uncover secrets about her neighbors or her home?
Recent wildfires in California and an earthquake and tsunami in Chile are potent reminders of how destructive forces of nature can be upon modern civilization. Out of catastrophe, however, we see acts of bravery, generosity, and compassion. Write a short story that takes place in the aftermath of a natural disaster. Examine the ways in which your main character's psychological and physical strength might be tested under the circumstances.
Last week, scientists announced the discovery of a new species in the early human lineage: Homo naledi. Write a short story that takes discovery into the future by imagining a character who is of a new human species from the next millennium. What useful adaptations or physical differences might she have developed in order to survive an advanced environment? Would the progression of technology alter the need for long fingers or certain emotions?
Designed by the French robotics company, Aldebaran, Pepper the robot is able to read emotions and respond accordingly, and has the ability to learn over time. Write a short story imagining that your protagonist has somehow acquired one of these highly sought-after robots. What plans or hopes does he have for Pepper? Will having the robot turn out to be a nightmare or a dream come true?
In the recent animated film, Inside Out, the main character’s mind is steered by five personified emotions—anger, disgust, fear, joy, and sadness. Imagine a scene in which your main character suddenly feels one of these emotions intensely. Jot down a list of colors, sensations, and personality traits you associate with this emotion. For example, if you choose anger, you might find yourself thinking of the color red, heat, erratic gestures and movements, and loud noises. Write a short story in which this emotion completely overtakes your character’s personality, using vivid sensory details to match the atmosphere and tone.
In the game of telephone, a sentence is whispered down a line from person to person until the last person says the sentence out loud, which oftentimes turns out to be humorously different, and distorted by misunderstandings, from the original. Write a short story that opens with a dialogue between two characters talking on the phone. After the conversation is finished, imagine that one character has completely misheard or misinterpreted something the other character has said. What are the consequences? Is the chain of events that the error sets off tragic or funny, relatively insignificant or life-changing?
When the weather turns warm and the pace of life relaxes, it's a natural time to think about traveling. Whether you set off on a rambling road trip across the country, or catch a plane to a distant land, being away from home always feels like an adventure. But what happens if the person you planned to take a trip with can't go at the last minute? Write a story about this scenario, and have your main character decide to take the trip alone. How does this person handle traveling solo? What obstacles does she encounter? Maybe she decides to document the trip for the person who couldn't make it by writing diary entries, or perhaps she sends a postcard home every day. Write about the effect of this experience on the traveler's self-confidence and sense of independence.
In modern storytelling, a deus ex machina is a plot device in which a dramatic and oftentimes contrived occurrence suddenly saves the day or solves a seemingly impossible problem. This week, write a short story using this device in the form of a character, object, or newfound ability. How will you manipulate the pacing to create the most effective sense of surprise? Consider the tone of the story, perhaps incorporating tragedy and comedy, as you lead up to the unexpected turn of events.
This week, think back to the most memorable books you read as a child, and pick one of your favorite children's book characters, such as Harriet the Spy or Curious George. Write a story that places the character into adulthood. What are the character’s distinctive traits that remain consistent? Would this well-known character be able to solve his or her grown-up problems in the same way?
Penelope Lively says, "History is in fact not so much memory as it is an examination of conflicting evidences. And this is the same for a fictional purpose: in any scene there can be as many accounts of a scene as there were people present." This week, write two separate accounts of a scene in which a crime is unfolding, witnessed by two people who are standing side by side looking out the same window. How might two individuals be compelled to notice different details? What might this reveal about their personalities and emotional states?
What happens when you've created and written a character who is so thoroughly realized that he or she is always, well, in character? This week, write a scene in which your character is caught doing or saying something shockingly out of character. What event or realization has caused this atypical behavior, and what is your character's response to being confronted about it? Will the consequences be immediate and dramatic, or gradual and subtly psychological?
Coco Chanel famously said, "Fashion has to do with the ideas, the way we live, what is happening." This week, focus on the way one of your characters gets dressed: Does he throw on the first thing he sees, or will it take hours for him to get ready? Is a typical outfit an accurate representation of his personality, or more of a disguise? Write a scene describing your character’s clothing in detail, and what is revealed about his demeanor through his attire.
Keep your ears open this week, and write down an intriguing phrase that you overhear. This might be a snippet of a sentence exchanged between two people talking, a few words spoken by someone on the phone next to you, or even part of a loudspeaker announcement. Spend some time imagining what led up to that remark. Then write the rest of the story making the overheard phrase your last sentence.
This week, jot down a list of five actions you perform on a daily basis—maybe it's tying your shoes, getting off at a certain bus stop, buying a cup of coffee, or brushing your teeth. Choose one of these mundane moments and write a scene in which a character is in the middle of performing this everyday task. Then bring in an element of the fantastic: Does an extraterrestrial or a doppelgänger appear? Is the character suddenly transported into the past or future? Explore the possibilities of what can occur when the ordinary collides with the extraordinary.
In Elegy for a Dead World, a creative-writing video game featured in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, players write stories and poems while traversing through deserted worlds inspired by the poetry of Shelley, Keats, and Byron. This week, find fictional inspiration by choosing a Romantic poem and writing down, in complete sentences, the mood or atmosphere. Describe the visual landscape that you imagine, then create a scene and introduce characters.
You know that weird notion that sometimes surfaces when you meet new people—that feeling that you already know them, but can’t remember why or how? Write a scene for a story about two people who both experience the same déjà vu upon meeting, with a plot driven by their need to figure out how they know each other. Use this opportunity to add an element of magical realism to your story. Perhaps they were married in a past life, or maybe they met in a dream. Once they solve the puzzle, how does this impact their lives going forward? Do they even believe the answer, or do they agree it’s too far-fetched?
Every so often, we run into people we recognize but can't quite place. Perhaps you catch sight of a strangely familiar face at your favorite coffee shop, and then later at a diner while visiting family out of town, and are puzzled by the coincidence. Write a story in which two of your characters keep crossing paths, either accidentally or because of particular circumstances. What keeps them from properly introducing themselves? Could they become good friends, or will they become adversaries?
Cooks usually have a specialty dish that is made with pride—one that is requested by friends and family for special events and holiday gatherings. This week, write about a character who is known for his or her specialty dish. It could be as basic as chocolate chip cookies, or perhaps he or she has invented an original dish with unheard-of ingredients. Has this character's culinary genius been influenced by a family member? Is this cook a raw talent?
Take some time this week to discover the work of a well-known photographer. Whether you visit an exhibition at a museum or peruse the internet, look for photographs that capture your imagination. Examine a photograph closely and write the story you see in the frame. Rely heavily on descriptive language and offer details of the composition through your writing. What did the photographer keep in focus?
This week, write a story in which one of your characters gets lost in an unfamiliar location with no one around to help him. How did he end up in this situation? Perhaps his car breaks down in the middle of the desert, or he's adrift in the Pacific Ocean after a shipwreck and is the lone survivor. Is he able to find his bearings? Does he manage to get to safety? Consider the perils of being stranded in an unforgiving and potentially dangerous environment.
Did one of your characters have a major turning point in her past? Is this event or decision crucial for this character's development? This week, take a scene you're stuck on and rewrite it as if that turning point had never occurred, and an alternate option was chosen. If your character moved to London because she was transferred by her company instead of moving back to her parents' house in Florida, how would this outcome deepen the evolution of this character? Think about what this character needs to face—what shortcomings, fears, and hindrances she needs to overcome—and force her to come to terms with these obstacles.
This week, have a character stumble upon an abandoned object that is oddly out of place. Perhaps a wedding ring is spotted dangling from a tree branch on an afternoon hike, or a stack of family photographs is found stuffed in a handbag for sale at a thrift store. Write this scene into one of your stories. Does your character recognize this item? Does he or she keep it, or try to find the owner? Consider how this scene might help develop your character or unexpectedly affect the main plot of your story.