Unlocking the writer inside: What if?

 I love stories, and I love sharing my passion for writing with pupils and teachers. Scottish Book Trust asked me to show one way into the writing process by giving examples of the imagination exercises I use during school visits. So here’s the first of six blog posts!

When I visit schools, I’m often asked, “Where do you get your ideas from?” I say I get ideas by keeping my eyes and ears open, asking lots of questions of the world around me, and then playing with the answers.

I explain how I got the idea for my first novel: I was playing with one of my daughters, who made a unicorn from a plastic pony and a pointy shell, then found a little plastic vet to examine the unicorn. I suddenly thought: “What if there was a vet who only treated magical animals?” Then I started to scribble a list of magical animals (dragons, fairies, centaurs) then a list of injuries they could have and finally a list of adventures which could have caused those injuries. That list turned into First Aid For Fairies And Other Fabled Beasts, then into a series of four books. Inspired by one tiny pony, one pointy shell, one plastic vet and one “What if?”

Abstract questions about the world around us (what if, what next, why) are wonderful, but sometimes quite slippery. It can be easier to learn to unlock your imagination with concrete objects that you can look at and touch.

As an exercise, you could fill a bag with familiar and unfamiliar objects (I found weird things in local charity shops: medals, tiny ornaments, odd hats…) then let each child close their eyes and choose one, and let the objects inspire questions:  

Who is searching for this?

Who lost it? 

Does it have a hidden power?

What will happen to it next?

Then start building stories out of the answers.

But young writers can be inspired by anything, if they are encouraged to bounce ideas about. You could go into the playground or visit a local landmark and ask questions of the landscape, and see what story ideas appear. You could sniff strange smells and see what they remind you of, or listen to old myths and ask questions to fill in the gaps. You could give each pupil an ideas notebook, and encourage them to ask the world questions every day for a week (or, indeed, every day for the rest of their lives – that’s what makes a writer!).

The trick is to keep your mind open, keep asking questions, and if any of the answers feels like the start of a story, write them down!

Questions to ask the World

Why?  (Why did that person suddenly turn round and look behind them? Why didn’t Cinderella just say to the prince “here I am”?)

Where?  (Where is that car filled with balloons going? Where do werewolves hide their clothes when they change?)

What next? (What will happen when that boy runs round that corner? What happens after Happy Ever After in fairy tales?)

How? (How are they going to get that couch through that doorway? How do fairies get their dresses over their wings?)

What if? (What if there was a vet who only treated magical animals? Though I think someone already did that…)

You don’t have to know the real answers to these questions – just let your imaginations come up with your own exciting answers. (Then write them down and turn them into stories. Which we’ll talk about next time…)

This blog is part of a series about creative writing by children's author Lari Don. Click here to see the full series!

Lari Don

Lari Don is an award-winning children’s writer who writes novels, picture books, retellings of old folklore and novellas for reluctant readers. She also works in schools and libraries with children of all ages, sharing her passion for stories and encouraging children to write their own. Check out her child-friendly writing blog at www.laridon.co.uk/blog or follow her on Twitter and Facebook.