Look at a museum’s website. Find an object. Or an object in the background of a painting. Think about its significance to the culture it belonged to. Write a story about a character in a culture that values such things (real or imagined).
If you know a lot about a particular historical culture, you can write about a real culture. Otherwise you’d probably better setting this in a fantasy/futuristic/galaxy far, far away type setting, so that you don’t waste all your writing time researching Incan customs or some such thing.
If you’re stuck, write about the culture you know best: yours. What if someone from outside your group (from another societal group, or from the far future) found an object you hold dear. What might they infer about you from that object? Is there a story there?
This could be a funny story: if you’re a Doctor Who fan, there’s a lovely moment in one of the Christmas episodes, where the supposed tour-guide instructs his guests on Earth’s Christmastime customs. He gets it hilariously wrong.
This could be a tragedy: think of Pompeii…
Look at the object. Is it something our culture still values? Why? Why not? What might drive someone to value a huge urn, or a tiny carving of an elephant, or a blue plate with a spiny fish glazed onto it. Does that seem reasonable to you? Why? Why not? Is there a story there?
When I toast the raisin bread, the raisins get very hot.
The bridge of my nose is a little dry.
I’m sleepy, but I can’t lie down.
The sound system in the examining room playing folk music.
I don’t look forward very much to that sandwich.
There is a new weatherman on the radio.
Now that the leaves are off the trees we can see the neighbors’ new deck…
There is no ‘happening’, no crisis, no rising action, but do you get a sense of character? I do.
What is a story if not a portrait of a character or characters?
Write A Non-Narrative Short Story That Allows The Reader To Experience Another Character’s Life
You can copy Lydia Davies’s idea and write a story of complaints. Make sure all the complaints belong to one, very specific character. (They can be like you, or unlike you. It can be a secret portrait of your annoying coworker, your ex-mother-in-law, your little brother…) [remember, this is an exercise. If you decide to publish this, you might want to credit Davis as the inspiration!]
Today’s prompt is inspired by three things. The first was the release this week of a US prisoner of war. It made me think of the many hostage and prison stories I’ve read, where people have lived in tiny cells for years on end and how it changes them. The second is the story “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, in which a woman, trapped in her domestic life, fixates on the wallpaper of her room and always finds something new to see. The third is the essay “Fish” by Robin Sloan, which shares an observation exercise, in which students are asked to observe a dead fish long past the point when it would seem to be interesting.
If you can, read both those stories and then try this prompt.
Write about a person who is forced, by circumstance or outside agency, to observe a limited view for an unlimited time.
Describe what they see, remembering that their use of language will reflect how they feel about the situation they find themselves in.
How what they see and how they feel about it change over time?
What do they think about when all they to do is look at the same thing over and over again?
How does this change over time?
What does this tell us about the character?
What universal truths might there be in what your character is thinking?
If you get stuck, just start a new paragraph as if some time has passed. Have your character describe the view again, and think about how they might have changed in the intervening time.
Don’t worry if you don’t think this is making a great story. Keep going. You’ll find a way to end it if you let the character speak.