Have you hit the wall trying to come up with new ideas to inspire your creative writing students? Maybe your own enthusiasm is waning a bit, and it’s rubbing off on your students. After all, it’s not always easy to stay motivated when repeating the same lessons over and over again. So perhaps a fresh outlook will help to rekindle your passion for teaching creative writing and spark greater interest in your students.
There are those who argue that creative writing can’t be taught at all. And while that may or may not be true, certainly the techniques for developing creative expression are learnable skills. Ones that can be honed and refined through a variety of practices and exercises.
Creative writing is much more than merely a descriptive process, it involves a number of elements that need to be explored in order to refine our thoughts, so we can communicate them to others. Elements such as idea development, motifs or themes, arguments and questions, plot development, characterization, dialogue, and narration.
These elements are some of the fundamentals of creative writing. And to get students involved in the exploration of these fundamentals, to really spark their interest with tangible results they can consistently repeat, try out the following tips for great creative writing lessons.
The Elements of Storytelling
Effective fiction writing shares common elements across all genres – whether the story is told in the form of comic books, movies, novels, mythology or the performing arts, they all contain the basics of setting, plot, characterization, theme and conflict with dramatic action.
Introduce your students to these basics by encouraging them to develop and connect these writing fundamentals with storytelling. Great storytelling has the ability to “capture, direct and sustain the attention of others”. It’s what gives a memorable story presence – that ineffable quality that stays with a reader long after the novel or performance is finished.
Storytelling also develops the subtler elements of tone and atmosphere as these are the components that flesh out the bones or underlying structure of a story.
The hook is a problem introduced at the beginning of a story that triggers curiosity. Compelling the reader to keep turning pages all the way to its successful resolution somewhere near the conclusion of the story.
Encourage your students to write engaging hooks by tapping into an emotion we all share – fear. Fear, in its many disguises, forms the crux of all the introductory problems contained within the great novels of literature throughout the ages. And each generation updates the story form to fit the appropriate fears of the day.
Use the tool of comparison to demonstrate to your students how these fears, the problems that form a good hook, are easily applied to contemporary storytelling. For example, the fear of monsters (within and without) that make Frankenstein and Dracula such timeless classics is the same fear that makes today’s zombie and vampire franchises so popular. And the fear of loss found in the themes of unrequited love and rejection so prevalent in 21st-century song lyrics and music videos, are simply condensed versions of the same problems that made 19th-century Italian opera wildly popular in that days.
As an exercise, present your class with some of the common hooks found in the great novels, plays or librettos of the past and have them write a short story around it – updated to contemporary issues, themes or current events.
The power of questions is a great way to teach students how to develop narration, characters and atmosphere.
At the start of class, present your students with a series of questions that, when answered, will progress into a paragraph that establishes setting, motivation, action and tone. The key aspect of these questions is to design them “so that they always lead on from the previous, regardless of how that question has been answered.”
This exercise is easily adapted to suit the specifics of the individual classroom, as long as the primary aspects are maintained:
- Instruct the students to write a paragraph that tells a story.
- The paragraph will be their responses to the posed questions.
- All sentences they write are acceptable, as long as they follow the sequence of questions.
- Pertinent inquiries regarding the exercise are permitted.
For a more detailed explanation and examples, please visit Adam Simpson’s blog post “The greatest creative writing activity ever”.
The Tickle Trunk
While writing prompts such as sentence snippets, magazine clippings and old photo albums are well established techniques to engage the imagination, they limit creative exploration to two dimensional images and the sense of vision.
Open up a broader sphere of tactile stimulation that encompasses smell, touch, sound and taste by having students dip into a “tickle trunk” of costume pieces and props to write a paragraph or short story around. A trip to the local thrift store or garage sales will quickly and inexpensively provide plenty of pieces to fill your tickle trunk and unleash your students’ imagination.
This exercise is appropriate for “children” of all ages and is particularly well suited to character and setting development.
Park Perfectionism at the Door
Yours, and your students. There’s nothing that will squash imaginative endeavors such as creative writing quite like the belief that it should come easily and perfectly the first time it’s attempted.
Introduce your students to the concept of the “shitty first draft” so eloquently explained by Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird to get them beyond the terrifying expectations of the inner critic’s perfectionism. Rather, teach them the skills of evaluation, objective criticism and revision to shape their writing into polished material suitable for publication.
Give these ideas for intriguing lessons a try and see if they inspire your students (and you) to greater heights of imaginative discovery in creative writing.