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Activities to inspire you with new subjects for your creative writing (I)

Updated on May 31, 2013

All writers at some point or other experience that horrible cold emptiness that is called ‘writer’s block’ when they sit down to start spinning their stories or crafting their articles. Just as an artist may sit down from time to time and stare in horror at the yawning blankness of an empty canvas, or the stubbornly shapeless clay lying beneath their fingers. It is part of being human – sometimes the inspiration is not there. At least, not without a little help.

The learning curve starts when we accept that we are never really the origin of the ideas that capture our imaginations anyway. The spark always originates somewhere outside of us. If not in an ethereal sublimation from the raw stuff of dreams then most certainly from the things we have seen, read, experienced, been influenced by in some small way. So-called ‘inspiration’ that seems to come from no-where does come from somewhere.

When we find ourselves without ideas we need to stop relying on our subconscious interpretations of experience and make a conscious decision to take control of our creativity. This hub series is an attempt to bring together some of the strategies that have helped me in my own writing. The source of most of these have been the inspirational teachers of outstanding ability who were central to my own teacher-training.

The activity

  1. The first activity that I came across was a simple word game in two parts. The first part is called ‘Word Association’ and the second more interesting level is ‘Word Disassociation’. This is best done with another person to bounce off but can be done just as effectively with only yourself for company.

· Word association is as simple as it sounds. You simply decide on a starting word, for instance: Mountain, and go from there. It is better to stick to one word type to begin, and then develop. I’d always advise starting with nouns as it informs the next stage.

· If you don’t have someone to bounce off simply make the list yourself in a stream of consciousness fashion. Don’t allow yourself time to think, simply start at your origin words and go full tilt until you come to a natural halt.

· Record the words in a list as you go – alternatively (and I prefer to do it this way) actually record the association process using your computer or phone microphone with a program like audacity. This means you don’t lose any concentration focussing on the writing process when you go over the list in the next stage. I’ve recorded a short example list below.

Noun List











- and so on ad infinitum…

· Now, either one of you reads the list back, or the recording is played. Listen to the words and as you go, make a secondary list this time of adjectives. Make them as colourful as you can. Run through this twice so that you have at least two adjectives for each noun. The example below illustrates how this might look.

For some reason, scottish mountains came immediately to mind.
For some reason, scottish mountains came immediately to mind. | Source
As one word comes, it leads your mind into a free-fall of images - all naturally linked.
As one word comes, it leads your mind into a free-fall of images - all naturally linked. | Source

Nouns with accompanying adjectives

Mountain – massive - ominous

Eagle – fierce - ravenous

Eerie – high - lonely

Eggs – fresh - young

Chicks – vulnerable - sweet

Feathers – ruffled - soft

Talons – sharp - dangerous

Prey – small - fearful

Rabbits – frightened – wild-eyed

Warrens – dark – safe

· Go through and replace any adjectives you think you can think of more interesting synonyms for.

· Now guess what? Repeat this step but with verbs, again taking time to think of more interesting synonyms.

· Finally repeat the process but this time with adverbs, again using the most interesting ones you can summon up. Don’t feel guilty for using a thesaurus either – the more you use one the less necessary it will be to use one (if that makes any sense?). In the end you should have a word-list that looks something like this:

complete associated-word list

Mountain – massive – ominous – looming - forebodingly

Eagle – fierce – ravenous – plummeting - rapidly

Eerie – high – lonely – sitting - proudly

Eggs – fresh – young – developing - inevitably

Chicks – vulnerable – sweet – calling - tremulously

Feathers – ruffled – soft – stretching - assuredly

Talons – sharp – dangerous – reaching - eagerly

Prey – small – fearful – scattering - breathlessly

Rabbits – frightened – wild-eyed – trembling - cowardly

Warrens – dark – safe – hiding – passively

What you have here is the basis for a first scene of some sort. Don’t worry about where its going. Just take the framework you’ve built up and develop it. See where it takes you. You don’t have to use the actual words you’ve ended up with in your list – they are merely the starting blocks in the race. Once you have formed this dna of a story start into something with a structure that is coherent, fleshed it out with more description, action, similes, metaphors and the like, it’ll come out as a mostly descriptive paragraph. Add a narrator or character/protagonist for the final development. It isn’t just the scene that’s important, remember, it’s the relationship between the world you paint and the character you place within it.

Story Start (draft 1)

Dark and foreboding, the mountain loomed over its neighbouring hills and their glacier-carved crags with an ageless paternal shadow. Pat Mckinnock had been tracing the foot-paths worn by his forebears over those heather quilted hills since he was knee-high to a grass-hopper. He watched with respect in his heart as a solitary female eagle plummeted from steel-grey skies to bring swift endings to her unwitting prey. A small smile creased his worn features as his gaze tracked the triumphant predator pin-wheeling across the sky to its lonely eerie. No doubt a clutch of hungry chicks were shrilling a raucous tumult into the chill air as they waited impatiently for their mother’s grisly gifts. Eagle chicks were a demanding lot, Pat knew. Not so different from his own less feathery brood he noted wryly.

Time passed by as impassively as it always does until the fading light found Pat standing at the crest of the hill that overlooked his modest turf-roofed croft. A comforting curl of wood-smoke wisped out of the crooked chimney stack like a beckoning finger. Pat’s smile dwindled away as he stood staring down at the familiar sight. Today, for the first time in reliable memory Pat Mckinnock wasn’t looking forward to his homecoming. Out here he was alone with the raw, honest essence of the world. Down there was determinedly becoming claustrophobic and complicated. Pat shook his head at his own maudlin procrastination and stepped forth firmly. This was no time to be thinking of himself.

Instructions continued...

· Now, the final result as you can see seems only to reference the actual words from the list in the barest sense, but then again the content is clearly built around the themes originating in that initial word game. The act of forcing yourself to fit these images into some kind of linear structure naturally stimulates further ideas. All of a sudden, the mood of the landscape we have described has informed a decision to give the protagonist some kind of secret worries to colour his actions with their shadow. I can feel the buzz coming on now – I’m intrigued as to where this is going. Why is Pat reluctant to go home? It could be anything! We know so little at this point that the plot opportunities are nearly endless.

· This would be a good point to develop your ideas into a story structure. There are many ways to do this, none more correct than any other. The right way is the one which you are most comfortable with.

· I know I’m in danger of teaching grannies how to suck eggs here, but if you’re really struggling, then one method which is tried and tested is the simple story structure you probably learned at school when first learning to write creatively. It is a four parter written in summary or note form.

  1. Get an idea of where your character stands to start with.
  2. Introduce some kind of change that somehow takes your character out of their comfort zone.
  3. Give him/her/it a seemingly insurmountable problem to overcome.
  4. Come up with a solution maybe with a twist or two.
  5. Then finally reconnect with the beginning of your story for closure. In what way has the experience of living through your plot changed your protagonist? What, in essence, was the point of it all?

Obviously, genre changes things, but this is a good broad structure if you should need one. I sometimes find this does help if I’ve not written in a while. Most times the final story bears little resemblance to the original, but seeing that evolution take place is part of the pleasure of the process.

To conclude

In the next hub of this series, I’ll look at word disassociation and how this method can lead you to some very different and challenging story starts. If you don’t think that any famous literature has started this way, think again. The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, anyone? Pretty ground-breaking piece of work and it sprang from a simple title-generation game that anyone can do with successful results. I’ll go into detail in the next hub. All my waffling aside, I hope this has proved useful to some of you readers. If you have any suggestions for improving or developing the process, I’m always open to soaking up new wisdom and passing it on.


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