On June 16, modernist book nerds around the world celebrate Bloomsday in honor of James Joyce’s highly experimental novel, Ulysses. The novel has 18 episodes, each of which play with different themes, styles, and unconventional writing methods.
In honor of the arrogant but brilliant author, here are 18 writing prompts inspired by these episodes. Don’t worry—you don’t have to take on the year-long challenge of reading the novel to enjoy them (should you want to, though, reach out to our secretary at email@example.com for tips on how to get started on your odyssey).
Telemachus: Religion as Everyday Life
Describe a normal, day-to-day ritual (brushing your teeth, making dinner, going to bed) through the lens of a religious ritual. The key is to mix something plain with the severe, dramatic tone of great ecstasy, or great sacrifice.
Write a scene in which an adult teaches a child how to do something. What does their instruction tell the reader about the teacher? What does the reader learn about the student? What does the scene say about the world in which the teaching takes place?
Proteus: By the Sea
Forced metaphors: Put your protagonist in a beautiful natural setting where they look for a metaphor to explain the problems in their life. Embrace the melodramatic. This protagonist really wants to sulk.
Calypso: What Isn’t Said
Think of a bodily function that most fiction either glosses over or romanticizes (snotty noses, indigestion, hangovers). Describe it in painfully honest detail.
Lotus Eaters: Smells (and other secondary senses)
Describe an object using only secondary senses: no sight or sound. Focus on smell, texture, and taste.
Write a scene in which your main character is in the company of their close friends. They are trying to act naturally while holding back a deep secret. To add pressure, their friends should be talking about something related to the secret. For example, their friends are talking about the person they’re having an affair with.
Plan out a scene by dividing its plot points into newspaper headlines. What titles would you give for the opening scene, main conflict, and climax?
Lestrygonians: In the Body
Many important scenes happen around meals—dinner table conversations, coffee meetings, and more. Write a scene in which the food becomes more important than the plot points.
Scylla and Charybdis: Debate
Write a debate scene where your protagonist is pitted against one of their enemies or rivals. The catch? They can’t debate about anything relevant to the main story.
Wandering Rocks: Perspective
Write the same scene three times from three different points of view. What does each POV teach the reader about what’s really happening?
Sirens: Song and Sound
Listen to a piece of music and use it as the starting point for a story or scene. What does the sound inspire? What about the tone? The lyrics?
Cyclops: Belligerent Narrator
Write a scene in which the narrator (not a character) is inebriated. They could be drunk, high, or otherwise indisposed.
Nausicaa: The Gaze
Write the same scene from the perspective of two characters. Make the scenes as different as possible when you switch perspectives. Ensure the two characters have completely different ideas about what’s happening. For example, imagine an impoverished mother of five shoplifting food from the local grocery store that recently raised prices and the shop owner who is desperately struggling to stay open during the pandemic.
Oxen of the Sun: Another English
Write a story or scene where there is a mismatch between the language spoken and the place or time period. Think Shakespearean English in the 1970s disco scene or modern internet slang in a Jane Austen setting.
Interrupt a story or scene with a sudden change in form. Turn the story into a poem, a screenplay, a play, or a memoir inspired by your own life.
Eumaeus: The Way Home
Pick any one of your favorite characters and describe their journey home.
Ithaca: Question and Answer
Frame a story or scene in the form of an interview. It could be a religious catechism, a journalistic interview, a detective’s interrogation, or any other scene in which the main character (or narrator, or both) is consistently challenged by questions.
Penelope: One (Long) Thought
Embrace the most extreme form of stream of consciousness: write for ten straight minutes without using any punctuation. Don’t start or end sentences. Abandon all structure. Simply pour out your character’s thoughts on the page.