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  • ekbray6

Finding the Spark that will Create Worlds

Updated: Apr 16, 2023

What to write can be a debilitating question for writers. Some of us have too many ideas swirling around inside, and others can’t seem to bring any ideas to the page. As with all art, we need a spark that keeps us going, keeps us engaged, and keeps us coming back to the same story for as long as it takes.

This idea was given to me from my amazing graphic artist friend who eventually left teaching to pursue her art (and a cozy bed and breakfast in Mexico. However, after all these years I still believe it rings true.

Today’s post is about an activity to delve into anytime you are stuck on what to write next. While it can be turned into a lesson plan for a classroom of students, it was originally intended for an individual.

Let’s Get Started.

A note before we start: This activity is going to use some tactile pieces. I have used strips of paper (of various colors), index cards, post-its, etc. You may want to have them ready before we start. This activity was originally broken into separate parts, however, you could do them all at once.

These 10-minute exercises will hopefully help you find something you “must” write about. It might be a vague idea, a type of character, a setting, a genre, but the idea is to focus your thoughts and come to a larger understanding of yourself and your art.

10 minute Exercise #1

Look at the photos on your phone, Instagram, Pinterest account. Look at the photos that are not of social gatherings/your friends/ notes from class you never reread/ etc. Pick ten and describe them briefly, and then give three phrases that stand out for why you like that photo. Example: Green succulent from San Juan Islands Phrases: Depth, cool, natural

If you are using index cards you can use the front for the description and the back for the adjectives.

**Teaching Note: If doing these with a class, I created a sheet that just has two columns and ten rows. Later students cut out the rows to be able to move them around. It saves on having to purchase index cards or post-its, and can be kept together until necessary.

You may be tempted to start looking at patterns in what you wrote down, but hold off for now. I do encourage you to look around. Expand this to as many pictures as you would like. What draws you into something? What makes you not immediately flick past on instagram? What colors, motifs, ideas jump out at you?

An example: bright city skylines I scroll right past, but broken infrastructure I find very intriguing. Its mysterious, and almost haunting.

10 Minute Exercise #2

Choose 10 of your favorite books, movies, series etc. Describe them briefly and then come up with three phrases for why they appeal to you. Example: Knight’s Tale Phrases: Heart, underdogs, loyalty

For writers, it may be hard to find only 10 books, but think about the books/movies/ series you can’t let go of. What kinds of characters are there? What makes your heart swell when you think about the book? What broke you about the ending?

For instance, one of my favorite movies is Knight’s Tale. Besides having jokes about Chaucer, and Heath Ledger, there are a million reasons to love that movie. But the things that stand out about it are the loyalty to each other that the characters have and how they come together to overcome odds.

If I wrote all of my favorite stories, I would probably find similar things in all of them. If you are finding all of your phrases are looking similar, fear not, but think about a new way to say those things. For instance, Knight’s Tale could also be considered a found family or a rags to riches story.

What you write down does not need to be a trope like enemies to lovers, but it could be something that seems silly. For instance you might really like the plucky comic relief character. I do love Wat, in Knight’s Tale (played by Alan Tudyk). It turns out I love all the characters he has played. You could also write down something specific about a character you like: Edgy guy with a heart of gold.

10 minute Exercise #3

Think about the classes you have taken or are taking. What are the things that grabbed your attention and made it interesting? This could be activities, subjects, memories, specific interests, etc. Include as many as you like. Example: History Things that interested me: ancient civilizations, mythology, codes of conduct, underdogs

Has it been a while since you were in school? Think about the typical classes for high school. English, Math, Science, History, Art, Foreign Languages, etc.

Since I used history as the example above, I’ll expand on it. When I think about history, I remember loving it until about 7th grade. Why? I found it a lot less fun when guns were involved. It seemed more about remembering dates and people rather than ideas and culture. That is just me personally. My significant other would say the opposite most likely.

It doesn’t necessarily need to be something you were taught. Even though I was an English major, probably one of the things I liked the most about English class was arguing. I distinctly remember arguing with my friend over the meaning of something while reading Julie of the Wolves in 7th grade. And while I have all but forgotten the book, I do remember the rush of arguing.

Have some pretty awful memories of a subject or a time at school. You are not alone. You can also create negatives with any of these items throughout the list. Things you don’t like can be as important to map out as those things you are interested in. It might help you stay away from a plot or a character that you will find boring, unexciting, or downright confusing to write.

**Teaching Note: Sometimes students find it hard to find anything they ‘like’ about school other than friends or limited homework. You may need to give them a few more examples. I like to do these activities with students so they can see the process before they try it. Adults have a lot more distance from school which allows them to release some of the drama of being in high school to look beyond that. Students may need help. Or you can help use the drama to find conflicts.

10 Minute exercise #4

Listen to some of your favorite music. What kinds of songs grab you? Which songs do you gravitate towards no matter your mood? Which songs make you stop at your desk and listen, sing along, or move?

Choose five songs and their corresponding phrases. The phrases may describe the lyrics, the sound, the feeling, the impact, or all of the above.

Example: Mama’s Broken Heart Phrases: Angry, betrayal, empowered

While creating a playlist for my own wedding, I realized a lot of the songs that I loved were angry (not great wedding songs). The genre didn’t matter as much (country to musical theater and everything in between) as the vibe from the song. It made me wonder about why that seemed to be true.

Think about the music as well as the lyrics. Songwriters use the music to help tell the stories they want, what is it about the music that fuels you.

**Teaching Note: Having students listen to music can be a controversial thing, and beyond that it takes about 3 mins to listen to each song. This may be one that you want to assign as homework.

Now Let’s Put it All Together

If you wrote these on paper, you may want to cut them into strips so you can move them around. This is a nice tactile approach to seeing how your thoughts fit together. Try making piles of similar ideas.

Over all of the things you wrote down, what patterns did you see? They could be conceptual (blue) or they could be more grounded (war). Try to look at the pieces you came up with from 50,00ft up and see the broader connections. Some things may fit in two places. Some things might take some thought process to connect. Try to come up with four distinct patterns and name them.

**Teaching note: Having students write with large handwriting is helpful in this stage. I also encouraged them to stand at their desks to arrange their pieces freely. I invited them to draw connections (as one student put it "like a murder board") or to rip up the pieces as they needed.

Have your patterns?

Good! Let's turn this into writing!

Let's say the first pattern I identified I names destruction. Let's say I got that from the following phrases found within this activity (goddess of war, dark city streets, heavy guitar, revenge)

I can now start brainstorming ideas for a story with this in mind. Here is my example. Keep in mind you can create as many character/plot ideas in these boxes as you would like. To keep it simple I will only include one. The different sections do not need to follow the same story plot, but they could. In the example below I will have a different idea in each category.

​Pattern Name



Idea or theme


A character that seems like she has it all together, but inside anger boils just below the surface.

-Kale plans on taking down the government from the inside. He will need everything he has learned as an outcast to survive this mission, and he'll need to keep his anger in check if he wants to complete his mission.

-Getting revenge on the bully who caused Sarah to be ousted by the rest of the school.

Again, you can come up with lots of ideas in each category, or just one idea through the whole row.

You may not feel like you have come up with much, but let's just take a look at that first character. I have already made some decisions about her. One, she's a she. The fact that she seems like she has it all together gives me an idea of how she interacts with others around her, and possibly her place in the social structure she is involved in. It also gives me a hint into the thing that is holding her back from having a perfect life. While there are no specifics in this example, you have the beginning of a round character.

**Teaching note: If you have some students who still really struggle to come up with names, characters, plots, etc. You can create an adopt a character/plot/etc. binder. For instance after students create their patterns, they could donate any unused ones into the adopt a character binder, so those struggling could pick something to start with. As an example the character created above could turn into anything from the high school valedictorian with a horrible home life, to a princess who wants nothing to do with the crown. This gives students both a chance to create, and they don't need to start from scratch. This might be especially helpful for a student who has been absent and is behind, a student that procrastinates, or a student who does not trust their own first ideas.

Complete the rest of the patterns you see in your collected ideas. Now you have a whole bunch of characters, plot ideas, and more to help you the next time you are staring at a blank page, or need to find a new twist on an old trope.

Did it work for you? Let me know in the comments, or send me a message! I'd love to hear about it! Have anything to add? Drop a comment.

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