Inventing new worlds, exploring new experiences, probing new ideas – creative writing is unrivalled in its capacity to engage and entertain children, all the while honing vital skills of empathy and imaginative thinking. And right now, given that there’s scant opportunity to explore the world outside, the intrinsic value of the imagination – and the joy to be had from imaginative writing – is more pertinent than ever. Few feelings beat the satisfaction and fun to be had from creating your own worlds and characters, and the lock-down experience presents a perfect opportunity to foster that sense of satisfaction and fun – there’s no better time to unlock a lifelong love of creative writing. Joanne Owen suggests ways to do just that through activities to spark story ideas, and projects that offer young writers the opportunity to write with real purpose.
Fear of the blank page can be a big obstacle, but there are plenty of effective ways to banish blank-page-blues, not least when you give activities a collective framework and move from off-the-page discussion to on-the-page creativity.
Every object tells a story
Objects are excellent for sparking story ideas, and in workshops I usually contextualise this activity by saying that writers are a bit like explorers and archaeologists, digging up stories and ideas through objects. Ask budding writers to pick an interesting object to use as a springboard for digging up a story idea. Any object will do (which is one of the beauties of this exercise), but old photos, postcards, maps and ornaments work well. Next, pose a series of questions about the object:
- What is it?
- Does it have any special value or powers?
- Where is it? Where did it come from? (the story setting)
- Who does it belong to? Is it theirs, or did they find it, or take it from someone else?
- Does someone else want it? Why do they want it? (this could set-up the story conflict, the action, the what-happens-next)
Once a story has suggested itself through the answers and been partially created aloud, ask young writers to put pen to paper to write-up their story.
This five-minute burst of activity is excellent for warming-up the imagination, plus few things beat the sense of urgency that comes from a ticking clock. Ask young writers to transform three words into a short story in five minutes. The more absurd the better – how about a pineapple, a policeman and a parrot? Alternatively, ask writers to note down the last thing they ate, what they want to be when they grow up, and an item of clothing they would never wear. So, you could end up with a story about, for example, a tutu-wearing footballer who loses a cup final because he scoffed too much chocolate before the match. Once writers have their three words, set the timer for five minutes.
Starting out and weaving back
Story-starters are a perennially effective tool for sparking story ideas – simply provide a selection of opening lines or titles and, as with the ‘every object’ activity, encourage young writers to ask questions about scenarios suggested by the line. As before, the bones of a story will form from the answers. Providing the last lines of stories works well too. Again, encourage questions, this time working to unravel the story backwards. How about this for a last line? ‘Remind me to never, EVER, wear Grandad’s wig ever again!’ What on earth happened when they wore it? Why did it happen? Was it Granddad’s fault? Who wore it? And so on, until hey presto! – stories emerge for writers to develop on the page.
Fiction from Fact
Finding out fascinating facts from the fields of sport, science and nature can provide a fruitful foundation for writing stories, especially for children who are less comfortable letting their imaginations run wild. What’s more, asking individuals to use their favourite hobby or interest as a springboard gives them a deeper sense of agency, which in turn is a powerful motivator – more powerful than being told what to write. Having said that, it’s useful to provide a few examples to get their research going – hummingbirds are the only birds that fly backwards; Venus and Uranus rotate backwards (facts not involving retrograde movement are also available). Fact selected, it’s time to transform it into a story.
‘Pass the Person’ Prompter
After contextualising characters as being like people in our real lives (i.e. they’re what make life interesting), gather an assortment of costume accessories in a box. Seat your young writers in a circle and play music as they pass the box, as you would to play pass the parcel. When the music stops, the person holding the box picks an item from it to prompt ideas for a character – what kind of person would wear a hat/scarf/cape/helmet like this? To accompany this activity, create a character profile worksheet with space to fill out things like character name, age, occupation, likes and dislikes. Completed worksheets can be used as the basis for individuals’ short stories. To deliver this remotely, pick an item yourself and ask individuals to come up with a character based on the item.
Writing with purpose
Discovering the pleasure of writing goes hand in hand with writing for purpose i.e. having a reason to write is hugely motivational, and often intrinsic to unlocking a lasting love of writing. Here are a few ideas to do just that:
Make a magazine or newspaper
Budding writers could take on expert roles as, for example, news reporters, sports correspondents, book reviewers and comic strip creators to make their own magazine. The sense of ownership prompts enthusiasm and a strong sense of purpose, especially if the finished work will have an audience.
Arrange a Festival of Words
Easily adaptable for a school or home context, holding a Festival of Words is a fun way to celebrate and showcase creativity. Task individuals to create work to perform at a live event (in person or online). Short stories and plays; poems and comedy sketches – think of it as a talent show of the written word.
Write for reward
Entering writing competitions is a great motivator, offering the thrilling possibility of winning a prize alongside a sense of being part of something bigger. Highlights include the Henrietta Branford Writing Competition 2021 that’s run in conjunction with the prestigious Branford Boase Award and open to anyone aged 19 and under with an entry deadline of 23rd May 2021. Alternatively, the Radio 2 500 Words short story competition is open to children of 13 and under.
How-to creative writing books
How to Write Your Best Story Ever by Christopher Edge
The Usborne Creative Writing Book by Louise Stowell
How to Write a Story by Simon Cheshire
You Can Write Awesome Stories by Joanne Owen
Recommended online resources
www.worldbookday.com has a brilliant “stay at home” activity hub and information about online events and workshops hosted by authors and illustrators. Similarly, www.authorfy.com offers a daily “10-minute challenge” set by talents from the children’s book arena.
The National Literacy Trust is a treasure trove of fun book-themed resources, especially the Words for Life site. Booktrust’s Hometime offering includes activities and competitions, while The Centre for Literacy in Primary Education has a host of free resources covering story-writing, poetry and developing imaginative skills.