One of the most frequent questions I get asked as a writer is: ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ This is a difficult question to answer, but it becomes even harder when teaching writing to students and their question becomes: “Where am I going to get my ideas from?’
This is where paying close attention to my own writing process over the years has been very helpful. Ideas don’t pop into my head fully formed, but start with a spark – something I see on the news, a conversation I have with a friend, an unusual person I meet in the queue at the post office. Often story ideas can be sparked by something as simple as an interesting picture, and this is a technique I have been using recently with students as a creative writing exercise.
I begin with a picture I have found online or in a magazine – the more intriguing the better – and ask students suggest answers to three ‘W’ questions: Who/What is in the picture, What has happened up to that point, and What is going to happen next. Often I will ask students to answer these questions in groups. This is another technique that has been informed by my own writing experience – idea sparks can’t burn in a vacuum, and other people’s input is often needed to fuel the flame.
For younger students, creating the pictures themselves can be the first step in writing a story. As a child, many of my stories were sparked by character-driven board games such as Dungeons and Dragons, and my students also love to create alter-egos for themselves as a first step to creating new characters. I recently ran a Top Trumps card competition as a writing exercise, where students first created a drawing of their character before describing it. I found students whose characters were based on aspects of their own personalities often came up with more interesting or insightful stories. This made me reflect on my own stories, and I realized my best work also contained personal touches from my own life experience.
Having learned from my students what makes a good story, I hope to put this lesson to use over the next year to encourage new writers to create their own story sparks and bring them to life using their own personal experiences.
Victoria Williamson is an author from Scotland who has been a grade school and high school teacher as well as a teacher trainer in the UK, China and Africa. Her debut children’s novel focusing on refugee issues and finding a sense of belonging was published in April this year, with twenty percent of the royalties going to the Scottish Refugee Council. You can find out more about Victoria and her work on Twitter @strangelymagic and on her website: www.strangelymagical.com.