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Creative Writing Activities

I've had several requests to write a page outlining creative writing activities or creative writing exercises for use in a classroom or workshop situation, so this area is for teachers and others who need new challenges and inspiration for their students or workshop participants. Some of them may be adapted for use as online exercises.

I hope the creative writing ideas here can also be of use to writers looking for warm up exercises or story starters. You'll find many more ideas under two separate but related pages: story starters and writing prompts. Here, I have divided the creative writing activities into groupings according to the elements of fiction they address.

Creative Writing Activities for Short Stories
  1. Color Coded. Ask students to write a short story that begins with the word "blue," and in which the first word of every paragraph is a color. Use the "color word" only once in each paragraph, but suggest the colar in as many ways as possible. For example:

    The world had turned grey. 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-coloured 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.

  2. 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 for a narrative. 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 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? What would a character in this setting and situation want more than anything else, and what obstacles would 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.

  3. Dictionary Detail. A somewhat 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.

  4. Unusual Sretches Often ideas come when strange or contradictory words or phrases are strung together. When you use this creative writing activity, provide a list of mixed nonsense proverbs and have students literalize them and write a paragraph on whichever one fires their imagination. Explain that the paragraph needn't be perfect or polished but should "free their muse."
    [a] Beauty visits once a year.
    [b] Bad news is the best medicine.
    [c] Silence makes the heart grow fonder.
    [d] Strike while the head wears the crown.
    [e] A rolling stone is worth two in a bush.
    [f] Uneasy lies the head that gathers moss.
    [g] A penny is the mother of invention.
    Creative Writing Activities for Dialogue

  5. Persuasive Dialogue. Dialogue 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 dialogue between these two characters, where one character is determined not to give in to the other, to create extrinsic tension.

  6. Argumentative Dialogue. Dialogue simulates real conversation, it is not an exact copy. Dialogue must be pared back to remove redundancies, mistakes, and filler words. To illustrate this, pair individuals off and provide each pair with a subject of debate. Whichever side one's character will take, 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 dialogue as closely as possible. Then have them remove all niceties such as please and thank you, any repetition, all filler words, etc., to capture the essence of the argument rather than the argument in its entirety. When they have finished, have both members of each pair 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 "beats," or the the "action tags" that show the small actions characters take as they engage in dialogue.

    Creative Writing Activities for Character Development

  7. 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."

  8. Memorable Characters. An individual in the group names a character from a book or short story and explains in detail what made this character memorable. Then, using word association, the person next to him or her picks up on something the first individual said, tells the group what triggered the association, and then names another character, providing a similar explanation.

  9. Name That Character Give each small group or pair a photograph of a person. 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 intuit 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)

  10. 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 change the telling into active showing by writing a passage that first dramatizes the statement. Then have them summarize the same passage in vivid and appropriate detail. When everyone has finished, have each individual or a member from each group read the passages aloud to the entire class or workshop.

    Creative Writing Activities for Setting or Description

  11. 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.

  12. Photo Shuffle This exercise encourages vivid description and also illustrates how perception will vary from person to person. Have each member in the class or workshop bring in a photograph or image, along with a short written passage describing what the image signifies to the individual. Collect the images, shuffle them and pass them out, so that no one has the image with which he or she arrived. Now have each person write a passage that describes the subject or event shown in the photo and what it signifies. Then have each individual read his work aloud. Following this, ask the owner of the image explain what the photo meant to him or her.

  13. Skimping on Adjectives
  14. Creative writing instructors often caution against using too many adverbs, but adjectives too can 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 Put the Focus on Diction

  15. 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)

    Ask students to name the ways this sentence imitates or draw parallels with the brook it describes?

  16. 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 repertoires. 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. 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. Alternatively, have them create a piece of flash fiction one word at a time, with each student contributing where possible.

  17. 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.

  18. 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 could 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.

Please see links to longer reader-suggested activities after the submission form below

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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. Ground rules: No talking to one another No …

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 …

Click here to write your own.

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