Story Prompts for Reluctant Writers
Walton Burns is the senior editor of Alphabet Publishing Books, an independent publishing company that specializes in ELT materials that use creativity to practice language, including Stories Without End, a collection of unfinished story prompts for all levels, by Taylor Sapp. Our latest book is What Would You Do, collection of 81 philosophical dilemmas for discussion and writing, also by Taylor Sapp. www.alphabetpublishingbooks.com Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Only writers can write
“I’ve never written a story before, not even in Arabic,” Mohammed said to me one day. “I’m not a writer.” I was teaching an afternoon elective on reading and writing journalism. Part of the class involved students writing their own news articles. Most of the students were intimidated even though they were in upper-intermediate- to advanced-level classes. They were used to writing academic essays, but something about writing more creatively terrified them. So, I was actually very pleased when Mohammed put it so succinctly: I’m not a writer.
Student motivation is a persistent problem in every classroom. It’s also a complex problem with various causes and solutions depending on the task. However, when it comes to putting words down on paper, the problem seems to come down to some variation of “I’m not a writer: “I don’t know how” “I’m not creative” “Writing isn’t my thing”.
For some reason, students accept that they must do some academic writing in school albeit with a bit of grumbling. But when it comes to being more creative, writing a story or poem or even crafting a narrative as part of a report, a presentation, or a speech, they just don’t think they can do it. It doesn’t help that creativity is somewhat subjective, an intangible talent, meaning the myth persists that some people got it and some don’t.
However, I’ve recently discovered a powerful tool that helps get students over their reluctance to write. And one of the wonderful things about writing, is that once they’ve written a few things, they can’t deny that they are writers. What is a writer, after all, besides someone who writes? Of course, it won’t all be good, but as in anything practice makes perfect, even in writing. And, as I tell my students, if they did everything perfectly, I would be out of a job.
Story prompts trick students into writing
The powerful tool that gets students writing is unfinished stories or story prompts. Typical writing prompts are short, one or two sentences, and leave a lot of freedom for students to create. But if your students feel that they aren’t creative, that freedom can be intimidating.
Story prompts, by contrast, are anywhere from a paragraph to two pages long. That gives students more to work with. They have a setting, characters, a plot, and probably even a theme. It’s a lot easier to imagine what a character will say next in the middle of a dialogue, than to invent two new characters and a reason for them to talk. And yet story prompts still allow for plenty of freedom. Students can add characters, introduce plot twists, change settings . . . The elements are there for those who want and need them. So creativity is not limited.
Some reluctant writers get blocked up with thinking too much about making mistakes. With story prompts, students have to grapple straight away with literary issues such as plot, character, and theme. There’s no instruction to use the past perfect or select phrases from a useful phrases box. Instead, they have to tell what happens next and why and to whom, and bring it all to a conclusion. This helps take their minds off grammar and accuracy (which they can come back to when they revise and edit) and get them writing. And again, the more they write, the more they are writers who can write!
Finally, since your students are going from readers to writers, using story prompts helps them understand the connection between writers and their audiences. This relationship can be lost in the classroom where the audience is usually the teacher. And unlike an authentic reader, the teacher is reading your work because it’s their job and their purpose is to grade you. So having your students take a minute to reflect on their own reading experience before writing can improve how they shape their stories: What was clear? What was confusing? Where was the writing too flowery? Where was it too brief?
In fact, because each student will finish the story differently, students can hold a writing workshop, comparing the choices they made. And as they discuss the reasons for the choices they made, they’ll be analyzing how writing works. How did the author give the impression two characters liked each other? How can your writers in your class employ the same device in their own writing? They’ll also be learning how a reader can read written work differently.
What makes a good story prompt?
A well-written story prompt for students draws the reader in and elicits a reaction. Have you ever finished a book and thought, “But, wait, we never found out if her sister escaped.”? Or, “So what really happened at the party that made her so angry?” Or even, “No, this ending is completely wrong. He would never do that. If I had written this, it would have ended like this. . .” Ideally, a story prompt should engage your student in the same way, giving them things, they want to say. It may be a character or an event or the overall theme that draws them in (and it will likely be different things for different students), but the story should give them something to say.
For this reason, science fiction stories often work well because they raise interesting questions such as, “What if we could teleport anywhere in the world?” or “What if weather control was real?” Often science fiction or fantasy books take us to imaginary worlds that resemble our own except for one significant difference. Perhaps women are expected to work and men stay at home and care for the kids. Or people above the age of 50 are killed and turned into food. Or lying is illegal. Stories like these help us explore why our world is the way it is or how it could be better, something students always have something to say about!
A final way to draw students in and trick reluctant writers into writing is to use a plot twist. Stories that end on a cliff-hanger, where the ending is unclear always get people talking. There are plenty of stories to choose from. The Lady, or the Tiger? by Frank R. Stockton is a well-known example and writers such as Maupassant, O. Henry, and Richard Matheson are well-known for their cliff-hanger endings. However, it isn’t difficult to write a story that ends on a cliff-hanger, particularly when you don’t have to have a real ending in mind.
Treat your students like writers
Once you get your students writing, feedback is very important. Engaging them as writers, not students, is key. That means reacting to the piece of writing itself, noting where the characters are believable, showing where their motivation is unclear, suggesting where the plot could be a bit clearer, telling which settings are described well, even recommending something for the student read. After all, this is the sort of feedback real writers get from editors and reviewers. How better to make our students feel like real writers than to treat them like real writers? And hold them to that standard?
That doesn’t mean ignoring grammar mistakes, but it does mean keeping the red pen marks to a minimum, particularly in the early stages. They are learning vocabulary and grammar in other classes; a writing class may be the only place where they can study plot, character, motivation, and story structure.
How does creative writing help academic writing?
I started this article with a story about a student writing news articles and yet I’ve been focusing on creative writing. This method could be adapted to non-fiction or academic writing, I suppose. You could give students short essays that lack a conclusion, or even a longer report in which every section is unfinished. This would help students understand the structure of a particular type of writing, as well as topics and other common language features. And many forms of academic or business writing require reading, summarizing, and adding onto previously written sources, including research reports, literature reviews, case studies, and annotated biographies.
However, even academic writing requires the ability to construct a narrative. More and more people consume non-fiction from TED talks and podcasts, which often use a story to convey information. Even serious non-fiction books tend to frame their facts as a story.
I hope you will find it as successful as I have to use short story prompts in the classroom to get reluctant writers writing creatively. Someday, a student may say to you, “I’m going to write more about this. After all, I’m a writer.”
Please check the Creative Writing with Mario Rinvolucri course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the Methodology and Language for Secondary course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the Teaching Advanced Students course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the Creative Methodology for the Classroom course at Pilgrims website.
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