In my primary school we’d occasionally be given the opportunity to write stories. But what I remember about these exercises is that, like most things in life, they came with a catch. The teacher would give you the first line of the story, or the title, and you had to finish it.
To me that always felt like being promised something exciting and then having it snatched away. I remember one that had to be called ‘The Magic Shoes’. I didn’t want to write about magic shoes, I wanted to write about meeting Santa. But I was an obedient kid so I wrote a story about meeting Santa, in the last sentence of which, Santa declared I had been so helpful that he’d give me the gift of a pair of magic shoes.
Alas, my teacher read this work of literary genius and said only, ‘You haven’t talked about the shoes enough.’ I kinda knew that wasn’t the point, but at 8 years old, I hadn’t the vocabulary to tell her to stop crippling my creative spirit, man.
Instead I just went home feeling like my story wasn’t very good.
We all agree that kids are much more creative than adults (if you don’t believe this, go get a cardboard box and try playing with it) so why don’t we trust them to come up with their own writing exercises as well as their own stories? If you want a kid to exercise their muscles you don’t carry them to the park and do the running around for them.
Standing there in front of a group of expectant kids, perhaps we rely on activities because we’re afraid of there being a gap. A silence. A space where they’re doing nothing, wasting time, thinking about the weekend, not paying attention. In secondary school especially, where every minute counts, time-wasting is sacrilege.
But here’s the thing. Creativity happens in the gap. It happens in the background. In the daydreaming, dandering, doodling, absent-minded spaces between things. (‘Wasting’ time is a seriously underrated activity.) And all those ‘Write a story using these ten verbs!’ exercises can be a distraction from a child’s own ideas. We want to give them assistance but actually what we may be doing is giving them restrictions.
Recently in my writing group, I asked one of the girls what she was planning to write today and she said she’d been reading a story and liked it so much she wanted to write her own ending before she read the real one.
Fantastic, I said! Brilliant idea! It’s exactly the same writing exercise I was given in primary school but the difference is she came up with it herself because she’d found something that sparked her imagination. If I’d suggested this exercise to her with a story opening that I’d chosen, she’d have been like,
So Rule Number One at our club is always ‘write whatever you like’. But having said that, there is also a place for writing exercises and prompts. I am not at all against writing prompts, they can produce amazing things. My whole novel came from a prompt in fact.
Something about this picture in my Redstone Diary grabbed me and I wrote a tiny story on the back of a postcard about a high-wire walker. She later became Alouette Franconi, matriarch of the Flying Franconis circus family in Flying Tips and she pretty much changed my life. Writing prompts can be brilliant.
They’re also practical. Because there are times when a young writer is just too tired to think. And there are kids with an inner critic so loud they have no faith yet in their own ideas. So prompts can be helpful and I do make them available, but I make it clear that they’re optional and don’t have to be taken literally, they’re just jumping off points. I’ve noticed that the more their confidence develops, the less they use the prompts, but it’s helpful to have some available, so I’ve put together some for you.
I mostly found these by trawling the internet. There are many places to get prompts online but there’s probably one good exercise for every fifty rubbish ones, so it’s time consuming. I’ve collated 36 good ones I’ve found, but there are also links to places you can get more if you want. (See below)
At our group, I put each prompt in a tiny envelope in a biscuit tin. Et voila: The Little Box of Inspiration.
I leave it on the table and if a writer wants a prompt they can grab one. They don’t have to use the prompt if they don’t like it, but they should take five minutes to think about it before giving up, because sometimes they’re surprised with what they come up with. They also write their names on the envelopes they’ve opened, so they know they’ve had that one.
For a group activity, you can also provide empty envelopes and slips of paper and get them to write their own prompts to add to the box. This gets them thinking about things they’d like to write about and the kind of prompts that work for them, it gives them a sense of ownership of the group, and they love hearing what another writer comes up with when they use their prompt.
I hope this is a useful backup but I honestly think you’ll find lots of kids prefer to come up with their own ideas and if that’s the case, sit back and let them.
And if your group is happy to share, do send me some of their work! I’d love to read it and feature it on the blog, with their permission.
Link to Download: The Blank Page Little Box of Inspiration
Links to prompt websites:
https://writeshop.com/creative-writing-prompts-teens/ – this is a massive site with writing exercises for kids of all ages.
https://www.cambridge.org/elt/blog/2017/09/26/get-teens-writing-creatively-1-top-tips/ – this one includes stories written by teens that might inspire your writers.
https://www.journalbuddies.com/journal_prompts__journal_topics/creative-writing-prompts-for-tweens/ – 55 prompts for tweens and teens
https://www.journalbuddies.com/creative-writing-2/teen-prompts/ – 31 prompts for teens