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25 Ways to Inspire Creative Writing

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Creative writing can be one of the most fun and fulfilling activities for ELA students, but sometimes the hardest part is just being inspired! Here is a list of 25 items to use when your students need to find that magical writing spark. 

1. Artwork

  • Paintings & Drawings: Use famous pieces to inspire the premise of a story. Whether it is the image itself or the title of the painting, there are many layers to this artistic medium that can help to spark an idea. 
  • Photographs: Print old or unusual photographs off the internet, or find some of your own that you don’t mind your students going through. The key is using photos that seem to have a story behind them. 
  • Graffiti: Find pictures of graffiti online or take pictures of the graffiti around your town and ask students to write about the story behind it – Why was it created? Who created it and what is their life like?

2. Song Lyrics

  • Individual song lyrics: You can do a Google Image search for song lyrics and print off a variety of images and doodles of single lines. Print these off for students to use as the first line of a story, or as the inspiration for their premise. 
  • Extend the story in song lyrics: Ask students to choose a song that tells a story, and then write a story that extends the ending, tells an alternate ending, or tells the story from a different perspective.
  • Check out my Lyrical Analysis of Taylor Swift’s Teenage Love Triangle for an assignment that asks students to analyse the songs, “Cardigan,” “Betty,” and “August” – three songs that tell the story of a teenage love triangle from three different perspectives at different times in their lives. Students then write their own creative writing piece that retells the story in a new way.
Lyrical Analysis of Taylor Swifts Teenage Love Triange

3. Overheard Conversations / People Watching

Ask students to keep a notebook or a note in their phone of overheard conversations and people watching observations. Remind students that the point of this exercise isn’t to actively invade people’s privacy, but to take note when they happen to overhear interesting dialogue that could inspire their writing, or people watching that might lead to the development of a character.

4. Dreams / Dream Dictionary

  • Students can keep a dream journal and write down everything they remember about their dreams each morning. Somewhere in all the fuzzy memories is an epic story waiting to be written! 
  • Students can flip through a dream dictionary to see what different dreams mean. The random nature of dreams and the interpretation of these could inspire the conflict for a story.

5. Newspapers

  • A great premise for a story can be found in a newspaper headline. You can provide students with actual newspapers or just a collection of headlines. 
  • Find historical newspapers, especially ones that document important events in history to help spark ideas for historical fiction.

6. Baby Names Book

Need help coming up with a character’s name? Look no further than a baby name book (or website), especially ones that give the meaning of the name. This can help to round out a character and guide their personality.

7. Trinkets

Vacation souvenirs, snow globes, old coins, stamp collection, jewelry box… you get the idea! These kinds of items can trigger memories or evoke scenery. Students can write about the owner of the item, and the significance of the item in their life.

8. Items of Clothing

Concert tees, hats, baby onesies, glasses, pipes, suspenders – no, I’m not talking about New York Fashion Week, I’m talking about your next great piece of writing! You can give students one item of clothing and have them tell the story of the person they imagine wearing it, or you can put together multiple pieces of clothing and have students analyse it as a whole outfit and desciper what it tells us about the person.

9. Paint Chips

You’ve heard of Paint Chip Poetry, but what about using the names of paint colours to inspire works of fiction? Possible ideas would be to have students title a story the name of the paint colour, for example, “Campfire Smoke,” or “Ice Cave,” or have students use the paint names in the first line of their story. 

Mochas and Markbooks

10. Grocery & Pharmacy Receipts

Save your receipts and ask friends if you can have theirs as well. If you don’t want to use your own, a Google Image search for “reciept” brings up plenty of examples. Ask students to analyse the receipt to develop a character – what do the items on the receipt say about the character and their life?

11. Social Media Profiles

Stuck for character ideas? Scroll through social media profiles to piece together a character and story premise – it’s like people watching but for millenials.

12. Abandoned Places

  • A search on Youtube for “abandoned places” brings up search results like, “The 10 Creepiest Abandoned Places Around the World,” and “12 Most Unusual Abandoned Places That Really Exist.” Sounds like you just found your next story setting! 
  • Check out Instagram photographers who document abandoned buildings. One to check out is @sshindlephotos who has photo carousel posts on abandoned places, including close up shots of items found inside. Storytelling waiting to happen!

13. Music Videos

Students can watch music videos and then tell the story in a different way, extend the story, or tell the story from a different perspective.

14. Childhood Toys

Telling the story behind childhood toys can inspire all types of storytelling – sentimental, creepy? It can really go in any direction, and the older the toys the better! 

15. Old Yearbooks

Students can peruse old yearbooks to find inspiration for characters, settings, and story premise. There’s something about a really old yearbook that seems to hold so many stories (and secrets!) Bonus if the yearbook has signatures and messages all over it!

16. Classified Ads

  • Students can analyse classified ads to create characters.
  • Use the “Missed Connections” or “Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down” type of ad, as these have all the makings of a good story!

17. Architecture

  • Use architectural drawings of house plans to help inspire setting.
  • Use pictures of famous architectural wonders to inspire the setting, tone, and atmosphere of a story, such as the Colliseum in Rome, Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, or the Taj Mahal in India. You can also use pictures of famous architectural homes such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Fallingwater,” and Antti Lovag’s “Bubble Palace.”

18. Postsecret.com

Postsecret.com is a site where people can share their secrets anonymously. The idea is that you can get something off your conscience without having to actually tell people that know you. NOTE: Depending on the age of your students, you’ll probably want to make your own document of approved secrets instead of having your students visit the website as some secrets may not be suitable for school.

19. Travel Brochures

Visit a travel agent and grab some travel brochures and booklets for your students to flip through to get ideas for story settings. Once a location has grabbed their attention, they can continue their research online.

20. Tattoos

  • Print out pictures of interesting tattoos and have your students write a story with a character whom the tattoo belongs to. 
  • Google “stories behind tattoos” to read the stories and meaning behind tattoos that people have gotten. Students can use these stories as the premise for their own writing.

21. Children's Drawings

Children’s drawings are the best! Huge head, lanky arms, four fingers and oversized shoes. These depictions can inspire some wacky and wild characters or settings.

22. Nail Polish Names

Similar to paint chip samples, nail polish have some interesting names that could inspire the title or premise of a story. “Shattered Souls”? “Startling Sea”? Do tell!

23. Humans of New York

Visit HONY to read stories based on interviews with people on the streets of New York and around the world. Students can read one of the profiles and write a story based on that person’s life. NOTE: you may want to choose stories from the site for your students as some may not be appropriate for school.

24. Ancestry.com / Ancestry.ca

Ancestry is a paid site, but there is a free trial. Students can look up information about their family tree and see actual historical documents pertaining to their ancestors. These documents and information could inspire a personal narrative or telling the story of a family member.

25. Epitaphs

An epitaph is a short text honouring a deceased person, usually engraved on their tombstone, memorial plaque etc. You can Google “Unusual Epitaphs” to find some interesting images that will generate memorable writing. Your students can choose an epitaph and tell the story of that person or someone related to them.

I hope these ideas ignite the creative writing spark in your students. Who knows, you could be nurturing the next Stephen King or Angie Thomas in your classroom! 

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