These creative writing activities or exercises can be used in a classroom or workshop situation. Some of them may be adapted for use as online exercises.
I have grouped the creative writing activities according to the elements of fiction they address.
I hope the ideas here will also be of use to writers looking for warm-up exercises or story starters. You'll find more ideas under these related pages: story starters and writing prompts.
Creative Writing Activities for Short Stories
Color Coded. Ask students to write a short story, or even a paragraph, that begins with the word "blue." Use the "color word" only once, but suggest the color in as many ways as possible. For example:
The world had turned gray. Nothing but mud and asphalt surrounded the unpainted house, little more than a box made of concrete blocks. Charlie, dressed in faded work pants, rubber boots, and a thick wool sweater, steadied himself with a hand on the top rail of a weathered cedar fence. Behind him, nothing but ash-colored sky, bare trees, and plumes of smoke belching from the factory in the distance. A lone sparrow rested on a branch, one beady eye watching.
(Note that all the words in bold type are a gray color, suggesting a dismal atmosphere.)
Turn a poem into a short story. A poem uses tight language to convey emotional or intellectual ideas in an imaginative and new way. A single poem can provide a rich source of creative writing ideas for fiction writers who can use specifics in the poem as a starting point.
Using the poem of their choice for inspiration, have group members create a character, a setting, a situation, and a character goal, from the poem and write a brief short story.
For example, a whimsical visual poem by the late poet bp nichol contains only two words, blob and plop. If you write the word blob, draw a line under it and align the word plop under it, the visual suggestion is that of the word blob reflected in water, and overturned, to plop.
(It's a clever little poem that has to be reproduced visually for its full effect.)
What sort of character do these two words suggest, in what setting, and what situation? Maybe a person sitting hunched at the edge of a pond, watching his or her reflection in the water?
What might a character in this setting and situation want more than anything else? What obstacles might he or she have to overcome to attain that goal?
With these components or ones inspired by a more conventional poem, individuals may construct a story.
Dictionary Detail. An easier creative writing activity is to have each individual choose ten random words from a dictionary and use them to suggest a character, a setting, and a problem. Put the character into a situation where the problem is not easily overcome and write a short story.
Creative Writing Activities for Dialog
Persuasive Dialog. Dialog needs some form of tension or suspense to hold reader interest. Sometimes suspense is created intrinscially, as when readers know more than the character, and sometimes it is created extrinsically, through character conflict.
Imagine two characters. One wants to do something and the other does not. Or one wants something the other has. Write a dialog between these two characters, where one character wants to persuade the other, and the other is determined not to give in. This will create extrinsic tension.
Argumentative Dialog. Dialog simulates real conversation, but it is not an exact copy. Dialog must be pared back to remove duplication, mistakes, and filler words.
To illustrate this, pair individuals off and provide each pair with a subject of debate. Whichever side one takes, the other's must take the opposing view. Have each pair politely and respectfully debate their subject for five or ten minutes.
When the time is up, have each individual transcribe the dialog as closely as possible. Then have them remove all niceties such as please and thank you, any repetition, and all filler words, to capture the essence of the argument, rather than the exact words each spoke.
When they have finished, have both individuals read their transcriptions aloud to see how the accounts differ.
If you have time for a "Part II" to this exercise, have each pair revise their dialogue set to include a couple of "beats" or the the "action tags" that show the small actions characters take as they engage in dialogue.
For example: He swung around to glare at her. "I didn't say that at all."
Creative Writing Activities for Character Development
Know Your Characters. This exercise may be used in pairs or small groups and is designed to test how well each writer knows his or her characters. Have a writer ask the person next to him a question about his or her protagonist. This individual will answer the question and then ask a question of another person, who will answer and ask a question of someone else.
During this creative writing activity, encourage group members to ask questions that reveal character, rather than only questions about appearance. For example, someone might ask "How does your character express anger?" or "Has your character ever shoplifted?"
The answers may be kept short or, if you have time, answers may explain the "why" of the response, such as "My character suppresses his anger because when he was a teenager, in a fit of rage, he slammed the car door as hard as he could and caught his dog in the door as the dog tried to jump out after him. This broke his dog's spine, and the animal had to be put to sleep. Ever since, the character avoids confrontation, and when faced with the anger of another turns pale and stutters."
Name That Character. Give each small group or pair an image of a person, taken from a catalog, a magazine, a book or a photo . The photographs can be close up headshots, distance shots, or activity shots. Ask each group to suggest a name for the character, based on whatever they can learn or imagine from the image.
The groups should discuss this for several minutes and then choose a spokesperson to present the group decision to the class with an explanation of why they chose the name they did.
Creative Writing Activities to Encourage Dramatization (Show Don't Tell)
Show and Tell. Learning to "show" rather than "tell" is an important writing skill, but showing is not always appropriate, and there is also a place for narrative summary, particularly between active scenes.
Discuss the appropriate use of dramatization and narrative summary, and provide students with an example of each.
Then present individuals or small groups with a statement that inappropriately "tells," such as Jane was angry with her father.
Have them first change the telling into active showing by writing a passage that dramatizes the statement.
For example: Jane turned away from her father and rolled her eyes at her brother, then she stomped from the room.
Then have them summarize the same passage in an appropriately vivid way.
For example: Jane did what she always did when she was angry with her father. She turned away from him and tried to get her brother on-side by rolling her eyes. Except this time, her brother didn't smile or say something funny or reassure her in any way. He just looked down at his plate as if she had done nothing at all.
When everyone has finished, have an individual from each group read the two passages aloud to the entire class or workshop and ask the group if they would change anything about either example.
Creative Writing Activities for Setting or Description
Everything but the Eyes. Many of us are visually oriented. We forget that others may respond equally well to a sense of smell or hearing. Ask writers to describe a place of importance to them using sensory details of taste, smell, hearing or touch. Anything except the visual.
Photo Shuffle. This exercise encourages vivid description and also illustrates how perception will vary from person to person.
Have each member in the creative writing class or workshop bring in an image, along with a short written passage, on a separate piece of paper, that describes what the image means to the individual.
Collect the images, shuffle them and pass them out, so that no one has the image he or she brought. Now have each person write a passage that describes the subject or event shown in the photo and what it means.
Have each individual read his work aloud. Following this, ask the owner of the image to explain what the image meant to him or her.
Skimping on Adjectives. Creative writing instructors often caution against using too many adverbs, but adjectives can also become problematic if overused. To combat that, have students or workshop members perform a simple creative writing activity: Describe something in detail without using adjectives. Note—the use of color is permitted.
Creative Writing Activities That Focus on Diction
Consider the extraordinary sentence below, by Vladimir Nabokov, from his novel Pnin.
The brook in the gully behind the garden, a trembling trickle most of the time, was tonight a loud torrent that tumbled over itself in its avid truckling to gravity, as it carried through corridors of beech and spruce last year's leaves, and some leafless twigs, and a brand-new, unwanted soccer ball that had recently rolled into the water from the sloping lawn after Pnin disposed of it by defenestration. (p.108)
Activity: Ask students to name the ways this sentence imitates or draws parallels with the brook it describes.
Word String. Good diction can make the difference between an ordinary piece of writing and a spectacular one. This exercise is designed to have individuals notice the language used in a piece of writing and encourages them to expand their own vocabulary.
Distribute a short story to everyone in the group and have them read it. Ask them to make an A-Z list of appealing words from the story, one word for each letter of the alphabet, if possible.
When everyone has finished, suggest a starting word, and have someone choose a word from his or her list that begins with the final letter of your original word. Have each person in turn add a word that begins with the final letter of the word that came before it, and say what they liked about the word they chose.
Alternatively, have them create a piece of flash fiction one word at a time, with each student contributing where possible.
Alphabetical Sentence. To spark new and unusual ideas, have students work alone or in small groups to write a sentence where each subsequent word begins with the next letter of the alphabet. For instance:
"Acids, bases, compounds," Dorothy explains, "for group homework." Instantly jaded, knowing long monosyllabic nonsense oozes, pupils quickly revolt.
Have students go on for as long as they are able (X,Y, Z can get a little tricky), and then if you like, have them work in the reverse direction. Or ask them to use the idea, setting, or character that resulted to write a short piece of fiction.
Such limited constraints will sometimes yield fresh and surprising concepts or descriptions.
Removing Stale Similes. To inspire fresh language and avoid phrases such as "melt like butter," "fresh as a daisy" and "slippery as an eel," make a list of the beginning of similes, similar to the example below, and have students complete these phrases with new comparisons that help lift the prose.
As cold as __________
As unpredictable as ______________
White like a _______________
As an accompanying creative writing exercise, a discussion of what a simile should not be would have value.
Students might choose the worst simile they can find from sites such as The Manbottle. They could then explain to the others why the simile does not work.
Reader Suggested Activities
Year 2072: Choose a year in the future and have students write in detail about the world and what they or their characters will be doing in it. Will the story be distopian? Will the future be good or a dark scary place?
Word Bag: Each group receives one brown bag containing 10 or more words. Students work together to categorize the words or create an interesting sentence.
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Creative Writing Activities Submitted by Other Visitors
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The good old walk outside Take students outside and have them look, listen, touch, taste, and smell around for fifteen minutes.
No talking to one another
The Missing Person The activity is fun for young children but might be used to inspire imaginative stories with adults, as well.
Try this with a class you are comfortable …
Get inspired with photographs Take a walk. While on your walk snap photographs of the scenery, wildlife, or people.
Later, write about your walk. Describe everything you photographed …
Picture Perfect Analogies After introducing the concept of analogies, students are challenged to find visual representations. Students use magazines to make connections between …
Word Toss Went to a workshop recently and this was used as a opener. Have a group of five to 10 form a circle. Take a small beach ball and have the ball passed …
Character interview This is more a task suited to the individual rather than a group, however, someone more creative than I can probably swing it.
It's quite simple; imagine …
Descriptive Hero This idea is great for independent practice or for work as a group. Start by chosing a well-known character. Cartoon characters are ideal. Then, without …
A Dramatic Moment Begin by making a list of 10-15 things that happened to you today- big or small. Then, choose the most boring one. Now write a few paragraphs about that …
Noun Jumble Take a sheet of paper and write down any nouns, adjectives, adverbs, etc. Cut the paper into small squares so all brainstorming ideas are into little sheets. …
Pile of Pics Having taught creative writing since 1983, I find students respond to colourful/atmospheric photos cut out of mags such as cottages, lakes, castles, swimming …