Writing prompts can be like the quiet kid in the corner; they are often expected to behave in a particular way by those around them, and their true potential remains forever unfulfilled.
Writing prompts in the classroom can be like this. So often we never think to use them for anything other than in class writings or writing homework. There is a vast array of ways to use writing prompts in the ESL classroom, and this series looks at some of them. In this installment of What You Can Do With Writing Prompts, learn how story starters and essay prompts can be used to focus on the individual elements of story, that is those components of a fictional work that come together to make a really believable and engaging story. By focusing on one component at a time, your students will get the practice they need in each of the essential story areas so they can apply the principles to whatever complete fictional piece they write next.
Elements of Story
While many writing prompts ask students to tell about real life experiences or write academic style essays, story starters are a type of writing prompt targeted specifically to fictional pieces. They encourage your students to use their imaginations and think outside typical daily life. However, a well-written story is not something a person often starts writing with once upon a time and finishes with happily ever after. A good story uses planning and fictional elements to create convincing stories with believable characters and settings, bringing all the pieces together to a convincing whole. With this in mind, these exercises and writing prompts will get your students focusing on the pieces that, when put together, make for the best fictional pieces of writing.
Creating a Story Plan
You can use writing prompts to get your students thinking about the elements of story. Instead of asking each person to write his own story from a prompt, direct a discussion with your entire class about how they might write a variety of different stories based on that one prompt. Give them a few minutes to think about the story starter, and then ask them who the main person in the story would be, aka character. As a class, you may want to list several. Then ask your students where the story might take place, aka setting. Again, list them on the board. What would happen in the story? What problem would the character encounter? That is the conflict, and you can make a list of these as well. Then using all of these lists, your students can make a set of short story plans by simply pairing character, setting and conflict together. Each student should create multiple story plans and then choose one from which to write. If you like, have your students write solely from the story plan rather than the prompt.
- There will be an extra prize at the end of the school year. Will it be for a student or a teacher? What will the winner have to do to earn it?
- Start a story with the following sentence. Yesterday I found a dusty box beneath the floorboards.
Character is one of the key elements of a piece of fiction. Even the most outrageous settings, plots and conflicts can seem real if the characters in the piece are well written. Using a writing prompt, ask your students to choose a person, not to write about using the prompt but about whom they can write a character sketch. To write a character sketch, give your students some questions to answer as they keep that particular person in mind. You can use the following questions to guide the character sketch or make up your own list. Each person should write as much detail about the person they have chosen as possible. If you like, you can then ask your students to write a fictional piece using that character. Otherwise, just limit the exercise to writing the character sketch, and encourage your students to use this method to create characters for future pieces of writing.
- Who is the wisest person you have ever met and why?
- If you could be a god from any mythology, which one would you be and why?
Questions for creating a character sketch
- What does the character look like? Include as many details as possible including the jewelry she wears, the type of shoes she likes, and what her favorite color nail polish is.
- What does the character’s voice sound like? Think of five adjectives to describe his voice, then think of five expressions he likes to use. Write them down.
- What does the character like to eat for breakfast? What would she choose for her last meal? What does she have to have in her lunch bag every day? What is her favorite flavor of gum and does she blow bubbles?
- Think of a smell that is important to your character. Why is this smell important to him? What memory does it bring to his mind? What type of cologne or perfume does he like to wear? What does he like his significant other to wear?
- Who does your character love more than anyone in the world? Why? What is it about her best friend that makes them perfectly suited to one another? Is your character married or does she want to be? Does she have a crush? What celebrity does she wish she could meet?
- What does your character want more than anything in the world? Why? What would he do to get it? What would he NOT do to get it?
Often, the most interesting characters in stories are those based on real life people. When a writer writes about someone he or she knows, the character has depth and the writer is able to describe that person from experience and with familiarity. Using a writing prompt, ask your students to write about someone that they know, either from their present or their past. Later, you may want to put that person into a story setting which may be unfamiliar so the writer has to use his or her imagination.
- If you ran into your childhood bully as an adult, what would you do? If you could confront that person, what would you do or say?
- I found out last week that crime does not pay. Here is what happened.
Sometimes rather than bringing real life people into our stories, we would rather bring fictional characters into our real lives. Let your students’ imaginations run wild by bringing one of their favorite characters into a setting they experience each and every day. That person could be a character they have read about, someone they saw in a movie or one of their favorite television characters or even cartoons. Encourage your students to think big and not be limited by their imagination or practical concerns.
- If you could choose one fictional character to be your best friend in real life, which character would it be? What would you do together?
- If you could have two storybook characters for your parents, who would you choose? Why? How would they make your life different?
Characters that are either all good or all bad make for uninteresting subjects. Every character that your students create for a piece of their writing should have more depth; they should be more than only good or only evil. With that in mind, as your students create characters, challenge them to include both admirable and disreputable qualities in every character. A hero should still have a majority of good characteristics, and a villain should have a majority of bad characteristics, but each should have at least a taste of the other. If you like, have your students make a list of all the traits they admire in a person and make a second list of all the traits they dislike in a person. When creating their characters, have your students choose two qualities from one column and one from the other.
- If you were the lead character in a tragedy, what would your fatal character flaw be? How would it lead to your demise?
- Imagine the most despicable person who could possibly exist. Describe him or her and what makes that person so horrible.
In some pieces of fiction, it is not people who are the main characters. Classics like Winnie the Pooh and Charlotte’s Web use personification to create animal characters that are like humans. As a class, brainstorm all the ways that people are different from animals. When these characteristics are given to animals, it is called personification. Then, challenge your students to think of ways that those characteristics could be given to animals that they might use in a fictional piece of writing. Using the writing prompt, ask your students to think of a personified animal who could serve as the main character. You can have them share their answers in discussion groups or ask your students to write about the animal that they choose.
- I wrote a note to my friend telling him to meet me in the playground after school, but something went wrong. Finish the story.
- When I looked over the fence, I saw the strangest looking animal. Finish the story.
Aliens travelling from outer space to land on earth, mythical creatures who walk out of the pages of fantasy and into the modern world, monsters and superheroes and characters who instill fear or fanaticism in their readers, these are ways that fantasy creatures move from fictional writing into our hearts and minds. Challenge your students to think further outside the box by writing about a creature that has never existed and using that creature in an original piece of writing. When you do, you may want to invite your students to first draw a picture of their creature to help them when they write about that living being.
- If there were aliens, what would they look like? Describe them and how they would act.
- If you could crossbreed two different animals, which two animals would you breed and what would be the result? Describe the resulting creature.
Some people have the luxury of travelling to far off places. For the rest of us, we must imagine the outer reaches of our world (and other worlds) and what it would be like to go there. Using a prompt for inspiration, you can encourage your students to use their imaginations to describe a part of the world they have near visited or to create their own fantasy worlds. Not only will these places be important for any piece of fiction in which they are set, they also provide an additional opportunity to write descriptively, that is using all of the senses. Make sure your students know that the reader should be able to feel like he is in that setting based on the writer’s sensory descriptions. You can walk them through one sense at a time: sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch. Ask several questions starting with each word to inspire your students and get them thinking, and then challenge your students to answer those questions with their far off place in mind.
- If you could visit any planet in our solar system, which would it be and why? Would you prefer to live there if you could fill the air with oxygen?
- During the fire drill at school, you were sent through a fire door you did not know existed. Where did the door lead?
Setting is not just the place that something happens; it can influence the overall tone of a piece of writing. Give your students a simple plot outline, for example, a boy and girl meet and then fall in love. Then, challenge them to write the same story in two or more different settings and see how the story changes. Try to make the settings very different from one another so your students get the full impact of how setting can influence the rest of the fictional piece.
- Imagine you can breathe under water. What might happen? (Use any of the following settings: public pool, depths of the ocean, a popular tourist beach, a shark tank at a zoo.)
- I was awakened by a strange noise. Finish the story. (Use any of the following settings: a hospital, a desert island, a large forest, the moon.)
Genre can be an unfamiliar idea to your students, especially if you teach younger students. Though typically teachers would give examples of writing to help explain genres to their students, you can help your students understand the differences between literary genres by showing them collections of writing prompts as well. For example, questions that ask about a person you remember, a person you would like to meet or a person in any other situation tend to elicit biographical pieces. On the other hand, prompts which ask the writer to imagine the world differently may encourage fantasy or science fiction writings. Using writing prompts, you can help your students understand what a genre is and what types of writing might be classified into each genre.
- Do you have any extended relatives like aunts, uncles, or cousins? Are they like you or do they look like you?
- Describe what a day in the life of your teacher might be like.
- What do you think your children or grandchildren will be like?
- Something scratched at the door. When I opened it, a hefflegump was staring at me.
- Imagine coming home and finding a dragon in your house. What would you do? Would you keep it? What would you feed it?
- If you could travel to any planet in our solar system, which would it be?
- Imagine that you travel to Pluto and meet an alien living there. What would they look like and how would you communicate?
- Imagine you find a secret door in the back of your classroom. Where would that door lead and would you go inside?
- Imagine finding a very old black and white photograph in the attic and seeing your face in the photo. Build a story around what you would do next.
- I put on my new sneakers and felt them buzz. Then they took control of my feet!
- Imagine you are given an ancient map leading to buried treasure. Build a story based around your adventures hunting for that treasure. What kind of treasure would it end up being?
Voice is often a difficult concept for students to grasp when they are writing fiction, but voice in a narrative is one of the key elements to composing an effective story. To help your students understand voice, give them a simple writing prompt. Ask them to write from that prompt imagining that they are a homeless child living on the street. They should write in the first person. Then ask them to write on that same prompt again this time pretending that they are a child movie star. Again, they should write in the first person. When both pieces are finished, ask your students to read them and see how much of the character’s voice comes through in the pieces.
- If you could take a trip around the world for free, how would you travel and why?
- If you could invent a great device that would help all of humanity, what would it be? What would it do?
The audience for which a piece is written will also affect the voice that the writer uses. Using the same writing prompt, write for a different audience in three different versions of the same piece. You might want to imagine an audience of children, engineers and political figures. Another set of audiences might be your parents, your teacher and your best friend. After your students write the three versions, ask them to compare and contrast what they have written. What are the subtle differences that come through because of who they are writing to?
- Write a sales pitch staring with the line, “You too can be a millionaire in these three easy steps.”
- Write a letter to someone a thousand years in the future.
Another quality that makes a difference in the voice of a piece of writing is the emotional state of the writer. Challenge your students to write the same piece imagining that they are angry and then imagining that they are ecstatic and see what differences come through in the voice of the piece.
- Imagine that your pet dog just gave birth to a litter of 18 puppies. What would you do with all the pups?
- Do you think proper table manners are important? How about when you are eating alone at home? How about on a date?
When investigating, law enforcement officials interview multiple witnesses whenever possible. This is because different people, even those who have witnessed the exact same event, produce very different versions of the same story. You can challenge your students to see how the difference in who tells a story affects the voice of the story by having them retell a narrative from someone else’s perspective, that is tell the same story from the perspective of two different people who witnessed it. Have them start by writing their own story and then write the same piece from the point of view of someone else who was there.
- Write a short fictional story about your long lost, great, great, great aunt dying and leaving you a small fortune in inheritance. (Write from your point of view and then from your sibling’s point of view.)
- Write a short story about you and a friend trying to break a world record in something, anything. (Tell the story from your perspective and then from your friend’s.)
Point of View
Very closely linked to voice is point of view. Point of view is extremely important for a piece of fiction. The point of view of the author determines whether the piece is written in first or third person (rarely but sometimes in second person) and whether the teller of the tale knows only what the character knows or if he or she is omniscient and knows everything. All of those things then work together to create the feel of a piece of writing. Though most often teachers will explain the idea of point of view by reading pieces written in each style, you can also use writing prompts to help your students understand the concept of point of view. By walking your students through three versions of the same story, first person (the writer tells his own story), third person limited (the author tells someone else’s story but only knows what the character knows), and third person omniscient (the author tells someone else’s story with complete knowledge of what is going on throughout the story), they will understand firsthand what each point of view reads as in a piece of fiction.
- Write a story about two crocodiles playing poker when one finds out the other is cheating.
- Write a short story about what would happen in your school if all the water fountains dispensed strong, caffeinated coffee.
Point of view can also be explained by writing the same story from the perspective of different people present in the story. For example, though Sherlock Holmes is the star of his stories, they are written from the point of view of his assistant Watson. You can challenge your students to write the same story from the first person point of view of one of the characters in the story and from the third person point of view from another, minor character, also in the story.
- Finish this sentence and elaborate, “The urgent letter from the FBI was addressed to me and read…”
- Name something that is very important in your life. What would you do if you woke up tomorrow morning and that thing or person was missing?
Another way that you can help your students understand point of view requires a historical writing prompt. Ask your students to write a story from their past or from a point in history and to write it in the first person. Then ask your students to write the same piece from the perspective of an object present in the room at the time of the event. The object would tell the tale from the third person point of view while the person would tell the tale from the first person point of view.
- What do you think a school day in the 1800’s was like? Would you like it?
- Write a short story with the following setting. Two women are sitting at a restaurant table. One is crying and one is laughing. There is water spilt all over the floor. (Have students write from the perspective of one of the women and from a piece of silverware on the table.)
Telling the same story two different times but from the point of view of two different people involved is another way you can reinforce the idea of point of view with your students. Using a writing prompt, have your students write about a day in their lives from their own point of view and then again from someone who witnessed those events but was not involved in them.
- If you could have one day repeat over and over again for the rest of your life, which day would it be and why?
- What is your earliest memory, and why does it stand out?
Plot is important in a story since it is the moment-to-moment events in the narrative, and it is the element of story that most writers focus their time and energy developing. Give your students a choice of writing prompts to practice developing a story’s plot without asking them to write the entire story. Do this by challenging your students to write the events of a story in list form, simply noting the actions or events that might happen in the story. Later, if you like, have them use the list to write the entire story.
- Write a story about the following situation. During PE our new teacher mixed up the instructions and gave out the wrong gear. We ended up inventing a strange game.
- While we waited in our car at the light, another car pulled up beside us. I looked in and saw someone who looked exactly like me!
In a similar manner, you can use a writing prompt to list the plot events not in written form but in picture form. Ask your students to create a comic style plan for the events that will happen in a fictional piece that they might write from one of the prompts. They should draw a series of pictures that represent the events that will occur in the story. In addition to helping your students understand and develop plot, this will also help overcome language barriers your students may struggle with as they develop their fictional pieces.
- “Quick,” the teacher said and pulled my friend and me into the storeroom. “Look at this!”
- When I was born, my fairy godmother said I could choose one special skill when I turned thirteen. What happened on my thirteenth birthday?
As you can see, writing prompts can be used to focus on just one of the important elements of a fictional piece of writing.
When you take time out of your normal writing routine to focus on plot, character, point of view, voice, genre or setting, your students will naturally become better writers in each of these areas for the present writing assignment and future writing assignments as well. Not only that, creative writing that challenges the imagination as well as the language abilities makes class fun and engaging and brings a freshness to writing class that is always welcome, so start your day with some writing prompts and a little imagination, and there is no telling where your class will end up by the close of the day!
Do you have favorite writing prompts that teach elements of story? If so, share them with us.
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