Do you remember the scene in Beezus and Ramona when the girls are in art class and the teacher announces that the children are to paint a make-believe animal? Any animal from their imaginations. Ramona gets right to work, but Beezus just stares at her blank paper considering the possibilities. -sigh- If only she had an imagination like Ramona’s.
This is so often my children. They sit in front of their journals or laptops ready to write and then… nothing. An exasperated “There is nothing to write about!” is sure to follow.
As author Andrew Peterson says, “The trouble isn’t that there isn’t anything to write about; the trouble is that there’s too much.” (Adorning the Dark)
So where do the ideas actually come from? And how can we help our children narrow those ideas down to one situation which will spark a story?
Ideas can come from both “synthetic” and more “natural” sources. By synthetic, I simply mean that ideas are generated by a book, a game or some other source outside the child’s mind. “Natural” ideas are ones that pop into the child’s mind through various personal experiences. They are both real ideas that can be used to create great stories.
The Synthetic Approach:
These are great when a child wants to write without the pressure of coming up with an original idea. When multiple children are given the same prompt, it’s fun to compare the different directions a story can go. The downside of a writing prompt is that a child may not really be “into” the chosen topic, and then you are back to where to started. There are a million sites available if you google “writing prompts” but here’s one that’s not bad. See what you think: https://blog.reedsy.com/creative-writing-prompts/
Now and then we will pick up one of the following to get some story-writing inspiration: Writing Magic by Gail Carson Levine (author of Ella Enchanted), Writer to Writer by Gail Carson Levine, Spilling Ink by Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter, How to Write a story by Caroline Lawrence, and How to Write Your Best Story Ever by Christopher Edge
Story cubes: There are now many different variations of this game available. Basically, you roll the dice and use the pictures on the dice to spark an idea for a story.
Storymatic– We have both the kids and adult version of this game and it’s worth every penny in my opinion. You can use this for dinner-time storytelling, story writing, and playtime. There are several different variations of the game that are described in the instruction manuals. Basically, the box contains a bunch of characters and other words or situations. You might pick “scarecrow” and “a person who is lonely” and then come up with a story about a lonely child who creates a scarecrow, or a lonely scarecrow who comes to life, or anything else that might come to mind.
Pixar collaborated with Khan Academy and created a course called “The Art of Storytelling”. Children will enjoy learning how professionals come up with some of our favorite on-screen stories and perhaps be inspired to create their own!
The Natural Approach:
For this approach, you and your children will just need to be careful observers of the world around you. Having a small notebook and pencil handy while you are out an about is helpful since the best ideas are sure to be forgotten by the time you get home.
Museums– Observe the objects, paintings, artifacts, etc. Jot down any interesting things you see: a queen awaiting her execution, a girl getting her long hair brushed, an Enigma machine, a hero’s return home, a mysterious door, an unfinished tube station used as a bomb shelter, etc.
Shops- markets, antique shops, bookshops, etc. Roam through the shop and write down some of the interesting items that you find. Whom might they have belonged to? Read the titles as you walk through the bookshelves. Write down the titles that provoke some kind of reaction, intrigue, etc.
Dreams– Wake up to a weird dream? Write it down. It might make a great idea for your next story!
Other people’s conversations– Usually I don’t advocate for eavesdropping but if someone is talking loud enough for the entire bus to hear their conversation then it doesn’t really count. I overheard this one the other day between two teenage girls who were sitting behind me: “I might go to church more, but can you imagine if, like, someone from school was there? That would be so embarrassing!”
Newspaper headlines– Flip through the newspaper skimming the headlines, especially the ones in the more obscure sections of the newspaper. Write them down, and save them for later.
Look back through the notebook of ideas that you have collected. Choose two ideas, merge them together, and… poof! A new idea has been born!
- You see pigeons everywhere.
- You attend an exhibit about how the Underground was used as shelter during WW2.
New idea: Mutant pigeons have taken over the city and force people to shelter in the Underground stations.
Or this one:
- You see some fox poop on the sidewalk
- You see a poster in the park about a missing wedding ring with a reward.
New Idea: A fox accidentally swallows a wedding ring and poops it out somewhere else. A small child happens to spot it (whose family was really strapped for cash).
Or this one that my daughter came up with after reading the kids newspaper:
- Article about Frozen 2 coming out.
- Article about football/soccer.
New Idea: A rat wants to become a football player, but he can’t because he lives in the arctic.
Now all that’s left is to get writing! If you haven’t already, click here to grab a free copy of my Story Mountain Workbook including a link to a video one of my daughters made demonstrating how she took two ideas from our Storymatic cards and created an original story. Happy writing!