A very quick way to improve your students’ story-writing creativity

In almost every ESL class I’ve taught, when it comes to creative story-telling, there are always one or two students who just get completely stuck, unable to think of any story-writing ideas.

As I was writing this post on using ghost stories to revise narrative tenses, I was reminded of a super-quick and very useful technique which really helps students overcome mental blocks on creativity.

If you set a creative writing task in class, and find that one or two students aren’t writing anything, and perhaps are casting envious or disbelieving glances at their classmates who are scribbling away, I advise you first to wait a minute or so to see if inspiration strikes (they may simply be thinking very deeply about what they’re going to write). If they still haven’t started writing, ask them to come with you out of the room (so they won’t disturb the other students). Once outside, explain that you have a simple way to help them think of a story: you’ll ask them questions and they must answer with just one word. Explain that it’s important that they don’t think before they answer, and that there are no wrong answers either. Then ask them a series of closed questions about their story until they have something to write about.

For example:

Y = you; S = blocked student

Y: How many characters are in your story?
S: Two.
Y: Do they know each other?
S: Yes.
Y: Are they friends?
S: No.
Y: Are they lovers?
S: Yes.
Y: Are they happy together?
S: No.
Y: Do they fight a lot?
S: Yes.
Y: Are they a man and a woman?
S: Yes.
Y: Who has more power, the man or the woman?
S: The woman.
Y: Who is bigger, the man or the woman?
S: The woman. (starts to smile)
Y: Is your story a comedy or a drama or a tragedy?
S: A comedy.
Y: Is it set inside or outside?
S: Outside.
Y: Is it warm or cool?
S: Cool.
Y: Is it a place the characters know very well?
S: Yes.

…and so on.

I’ve always found that within a couple of minutes of these closed questions and quick-fire answers, the students suddenly have a good idea about their story. And if you demonstrate the technique in class, you can also ask your students to ask each other such questions in pairs the next time you set a creative writing task in class, so they get more fluency practice before they begin writing.

Acknowledgement: I first came across this idea in Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre, by Keith Johnstone.

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