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.
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.
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.
This week, think about what types of stories you write most often and the elements you tend to use when building your story. Then, write a story in a genre you've never tried before being sure not to employ any of your usual techniques. If your stories don't often include romantic themes, make romance a main plot point. Instead of always writing in the first person, try third person omniscient. Even if you've already discovered your favorite style of writing, it's good to dust off other instruments in your literary arsenal every now and then.
Sometimes we pick up a book or read an article at the exact moment it's so needed. This week, write a story in which one of your characters is going through a difficult time and picks up a book that changes his outlook. Have your character become so connected with the book that he feels like it was written for him. Who knows, maybe it was?
Do you have a buddy that also enjoys writing? This week, write something in the voice of your friend. Ask her for a particular topic to focus on, or just let your imagination run wild. It may be fun to have your friend do the same for you and swap stories once you’re both finished.
C. S. Lewis used a wardrobe, J. M. Barrie used the second star to the right, and Lewis Carroll used a rabbit hole—each a gateway to another world. This week, pick an object that is important to you and transform it into a portal to an alternate world. Write a story about someone discovering the portal and adjusting to life where everything is foreign. Take into consideration where this secret passage is located and what it feels like to pass through it.
Gold is one of the most valuable metals on this planet. People have been unearthing it, stashing it, and fighting over it for centuries. This week, write a story about a character who creates a large amount of imitation gold so convincing it passes for real gold. What circumstances compelled him to produce this form of counterfeit currency? What will he do with his “fool's gold?”
Have you been writing about a character who seems stuck? Shake things up a bit and have him move to a new town. It could be the next town or the next state over. Make the new setting just different enough to make your character an outsider to the residents, but familiar enough that he feels he should fit right in.
Just as we often have a favorite t-shirt, sandwich, or brand of coffee, we also have favorite words; the ones we use in everything we write without even realizing it. Think about why you use these words so often. Is it because they reflect your personal writing style, or because it’s become a habit? This week, read carefully through one of your stories, circling the words that keep popping up. Then explore different options for expressing the same sentiment.
We can imagine that animals have a very different concept of life than we do. To a lobster gazing through the glass of his tank at humans in a seafood restaurant, the world looks very different. An ant, whose average life expectancy is sixty days, most likely does not fear death the way humans do. This week, write a story from the perspective of your favorite animal. Watch Tim Seibles read his poem “Lobster for Sale” for inspiration.
Children’s stories are often allegorical and presented in a straightforward manner. This week, take your favorite children’s story, fairy tale, or myth and complicate it. Use the original as a jumping-off point to introduce wild elements, unlikely back stories, and off-center characters.
So many great films have been released over the past year, many of which have been adapted for the screen from works of fiction and creative nonfiction. This week, think of a movie you love that isn’t based on a book and try to write a short story version of it. Examine the types of shots used, the lighting, how scenes are staged, and try to translate these visuals into the structure of your story. For inspiration, read this article in Electric Literature.