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Storytelling and creative writing – How to get students’ creative juices flowing

Martin Griffin and Jon Mayhew offer some advice for getting secondary pupils’ thinking like an artist during those storytelling assignments...

  • Storytelling and creative writing – How to get students’ creative juices flowing

Often there’s a misconception about what an idea is. Students who claim they don’t have any ideas, or any good ideas, usually mean ‘I don’t have a fully formed idea,’ ‘I don’t have a complete idea,’ ‘I don’t have a startlingly original idea’ or ‘I don’t have an idea I really love.’

You don’t need any of these things. You need a collection of micro-ideas.

As the name suggests, micro-ideas are small – expressed as a sentence, a phrase or perhaps just a word. They’re rough and unformed. Often they’re lifeless until they’re combined with another idea.

Stronger ideas come, says writer and broadcaster Will Gompertz in his book Think Like an Artist, “When we encourage our brain to combine at least two apparently random elements in a new way”.

Take Suzanne Collins’ story of how she conceived of The Hunger Games trilogy: “One night, I was lying in bed, and I was channel surfing between reality TV programs and actual war coverage,” she told the School Library Journal.

“On one channel, there’s a group of young people competing for I don’t even know; and on the next, there’s a group of young people fighting in an actual war. That’s the moment when Katniss’ story came to me.”

Mix and match

The ‘good idea’ that a student is mistakenly assuming should arrive in one piece might be an accumulation of four or five micro-ideas.

As Picasso famously said, ‘I begin with an idea, and then it becomes something else.’ You might consider sharing micro-ideas and asking students to experimentally combine them.

Here’s an example we used with some Year 8 students recently. We shared a bank of micro-ideas we had previously recorded ourselves (don’t judge – like all micro-ideas they may strike you as insignificant, inert or dull) and asked students to combine them.

The micro-ideas they decided to use were:

  • A stately home in a rainstorm
  • Two sisters – one happy, one sad (Why?)
  • Wild creatures from another planet (Like dinosaurs?)
  • A boy with an eyepatch
  • Being trapped overnight (in a hotel?) with the ghost of the guy who last slept there

The story summary that emerged was as follows:

A wild jungle planet is used as a hunting base for rich people from Earth. There’s a big fancy mansion surrounded by a high fence. There, a group of adults and their children gather. The monsters break free and terrorise them, killing them one by one. There’s also a ghost who only the sisters can see and talk to – a boy with an eyepatch.

Many were enthusiastically plotting and planning by the end of the session. Plenty were excited – they felt they had got something fresh and interesting by carefully choosing, discarding and combining micro-ideas.

Disney’s three rooms

You may be familiar with the details of Disney’s creative approach, but the chances are that your students won’t. It’s well worth sharing.

According to Michael Michalko, author of Cracking Creativity and Thinkertoys, the master storyteller required his concept artists, storyboarders and animators to function with three distinct roles:

  1. ‘A dreamer spins innumerable fantasies, wishes, outrageous hunches and bold and absurd ideas without limit or judgement.’
  2. ‘The realist [turns] the dreamer’s ideas into something realistic and feasible.’
  3. ‘The critic reviews all the ideas and tries to punch holes in them.’

Disney physically moved his staff from room to room to indicate a shift in role and to keep them focused. Room 1 was the room to dream in, room 2 was where the realists took over and room 3 was the place to be critical.

Students who dismiss their own ideas as ‘rubbish’ move too swiftly from dreamer to critic, which hamstrings them before they’ve had a chance to establish themselves – or gather a few other ideas around them. Students who are too loyal to ideas that aren’t working might lack the no-nonsense approach of the critic.

Sharing Disney’s technique with your students, and insisting they stay in each role for a longer period, will help to create a climate in which students can non-judgementally generate a stack of micro-ideas.

Imitation and theft

We all start off by copying. Martin wrote Doctor Who fan fiction and once impressed his creative writing tutor by submitting poetry composed entirely of stolen song lyrics.

Jon wrote numerous fantasy stories – carbon copies of The Lord of the Rings and Conan that involved wizards and elves, barbarians and orcs. He also used to write and draw his own versions of Marvel Comics.

A pre-designed universe populated by fully realised characters means nascent writers can shortcut their way to practice, just like the aspiring piano player who hammers out stilted covers one slow note at a time.

Students need to dismiss the judgemental inner critic who tells them, ‘This is no good. It’s been done before.’ After all, as Will Gompertz observes, “You have to imitate before you can emulate.”

This is an important point for any creative manifesto. Paying homage via imitation is all part of the process. Imitation becomes emulation becomes theft.

A word about the differences here. Imitation is copying – producing a close facsimile of an admired source work without yet fully understanding it (Perhaps in order to understand it?).

Emulation is producing a work that pays homage to a source, reproducing many parts of it, but adding original elements, perhaps through subversion, inversion or parody.

The writer is beginning to recognise how the source text works and can experiment within the constraints of its world. Fan fiction lives here.

Theft is sophisticated. It involves seeing the working parts of the source, recognising and assessing these subcomponents, stealing one or two, and recasting them in new and interesting ways.

As screenwriter Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) once told filmmaker Brian Koppelman, “You have to steal around. You can’t go back to the same 7-Eleven. They catch you. [So] you go to the floral shop. Then you go to the gas station. Then the hot dog stand nobody goes to. And eventually somebody will think you made it up.”

According to artist Austin Kleon, in his book Steal Like an Artist, good theft transforms rather than merely imitates. It remixes rather than rips off.

Like Schrader, Kleon emphasises the need for rich and varied sources:

“There’s an economic theory out there that if you take the incomes of your five closest friends and average them, the resulting number will be pretty close to your own income. I think the same is true of our idea incomes. You are only going to be as good as the stuff you surround yourself with.”

The message for the student who feels they have to be original? There’s nothing new under the sun. We’re all working with the same material. Copying is a natural starting point, but the ultimate aim is to surround yourself with great work – then to steal around. To try to combine familiar elements in new and interesting ways.


Creative writing starter ideas

You might want to make the early stages of creative work about creating a visually accessible bank of 50 or 100 micro-ideas. Go for more if you can.

They could include:

  • Character names
  • Possible locations
  • A single scene
  • A strange opening
  • A phrase, word or saying
  • A character trait
  • A weird situation

Letting students withdraw because they have one good idea is dangerous and not to be recommended. Abundance is key! Keep encouraging collection until you have your fifty, or hundred or even more. Get the students to record them all.

Take the ideas jotters in at the end of sessions and keep them safe. Assure the students that you won’t be checking them.


Martin Griffin has previously worked as an English and SEN teacher and deputy head; he is also a published author, whose books include the YA thrillers Lifers and Payback.

Jon Mayhew delivers writing workshops spanning KS2 to sixth form, is a Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow and the author of the Monster Odyssey and Mortlock series.

 

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