3 ways to turn idea-getting into a game to help students who can’t get ideas for stories

Two kids writing while armwrestling in an active learning experience.

Sammy (not his real name) didn’t love writing—as most young boys don’t. Sammy was in 5th grade when I met him, and he struggled to get ideas for stories—really struggled. And when he did get an idea, he didn’t know how to make his stories longer. Getting ideas was a frustrating process.

Typical brainstorming with Sammy looked something like this:

Me: What do you want to write about?
Sammy: Uh . . . I don’t know.
Me: Do you like knights?
Sammy: I guess.
Me: Do you want to write about them?
Sammy: Maybe.
Me: What could the knights be doing? What problem are they trying to solve?
Sammy (shrugging): I don’t know.
Me: What about dragons or treasure or something? Do you want to write about that?
Sammy: I guess.

This conversation would go on like this for some time, and when we finally settled on an idea, each word in the sentence was a struggle. It was so much of a struggle that when I first started working with Sammy I didn’t know if he didn’t know how to write or if he was purposely hiding his abilities from me so he didn’t have to write.

When I encounter students who hate writing and who can’t come up with ideas, who have difficulty putting words together to form sentences, let alone paragraphs, I settle myself in to play a long game. Working with these students takes patience over the long haul and lots of creativity. In this post, I want to share three strategies with you that I used to turn hair-pulling brainstorming sessions into fun writing experiences that got even Sammy to roll on the floor, laughing (and that’s not an exaggeration, the giggles were intense).

Strategy One: make a game out of getting ideas

Getting ideas for stories is one of the biggest struggles for young writers. It’s no wonder many students don’t like writing because it’s often not fun to get ideas for stories. Students are told to list ideas for stories or do freewriting exercises—and teachers get frustrated when students still don’t know what to write about.

Don’t get me wrong—brainstorming and freewriting are awesome tools, but some students need their teachers to present idea-getting in new and fun ways.

So Sammy and I turned idea-getting into a game. I got out a six-sided die and printed off a copy of The Random Story Machine (get your free copy here).

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We filled out the chart and rolled up a fun writing prompt about a human who lived in France, always wears short sleeves, and is now lost in a tundra.

Here’s the trick: this is basically brainstorming dressed up as a game. You can make getting ideas exciting by simply doing the same strategy in a fun way. I use dice in most of my games, but you could also turn brainstorming into a game by . . .

  • Having an idea competition where you and your student take turns sharing ideas for stories. See how long you can keep it up.
  • Each of you point to a random object in the room and then combine them to make a story (for example, “A clock and a desk are mortal enemies and fight every time the teacher leaves the room.”).
  • Take turns shouting random words and writing them down. Do this until you have a list of 10 words. Write a story using these 10 words as the prompt.

Strategy Two: make a game out of creating characters

Once students have an idea for a story, they may get stuck on writing the story or making it longer. There are many strategies for making stories longer, but I’m just going to talk about one: making a game out of creating characters.
Sammy had an idea for a story, but his first draft was only three sentences. I suggested he come up with interesting characters so he would have more ideas to write about.

Here’s an idea for you to try:

Character Name Generator

Number a paper from 1 to 6. Then split your numbered list into two columns. Working with your student, make a list of 6 two-syllable names, writing the first syllable on the left-hand column and the second on the right.

When you’re done you should have something that looks like this:
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Roll a six sided die for the first column to get the first syllable of the characters first name. Then roll again for the second syllable, using the second column. You may continue adding syllables in this way until you are satisfied with the name.

By the time we returned to his story, he has lots of options for creating an interesting story because he had an interesting character.

Strategy Three: make lots of problems

Characters drive stories, but conflict drives characters. Conflict is the problem the characters are trying to solve. I told Sammy that one way to make his story longer is to introduce new problems into the story.

We used dice again to create problems, but you could use the Random Story Machine, simple brainstorming, or other online tools.

For Sammy’s story, the main conflict was that the main character had to escape the tundra. A wall blocked his character, and he decided it was a giant golden wall, the size of the Great Wall of China (this was his idea, thought on the spot, off the cuff, easily and without pulling any teeth—amazing how a simple game unleashed his creativity!). This wall created a serious obstacle for his character to overcome before he could even think about leaving the tundra.

We spent most of the next page of his story trying various methods of getting over the wall, while Sammy obsessively rolled new problems for his character to solve. His poor lost Frenchman fell asleep twice, got stuck inside a golden cube, woke up confused, and dodged a boat and math papers that fell from the sky. Sammy had taken control of the game, rolling all kinds of dice and thinking up his own problems with minimal help from me. By this point in his story, we were both howling with laughter at the plight of his poor character. And I had to keep reminding Sammy to write his ideas down (which were coming so fast we even forgot some of them).

Putting it together

So, next time you have a student who is struggling to get ideas, use these three strategies to break out of writer’s block:

  1. Make a game out of getting ideas
  2. Make a game out of creating characters
  3. Make lots of problems

When you use these strategies, you will find your students will brainstorm easier, write stories easier, write longer stories, and have more fun in the process.

What strategies do you use to help your students get ideas for stories? Share them in the comments or head over to my Facebook page and let me know!