For years, school teachers have proven that creativity can be nurtured, and mounting research shows that providing the brain with challenges boosts output.
Chemistry teacher D. J. Harrington, author of The Diseased Ones and The Unseen Ones, embraces this concept. She presents students with problems and encourages them to propose solutions, then test their hypotheses. “Being creative is at the core of scientific investigation. Coming up with a process to test the phenomena around us requires creative thinking. Not just once, but over and over again when the first idea doesn’t work.”
I’ve long believed that authors can benefit from the methods educators employ in the classroom. Applying them to short pieces or rough inspiration may open up reservoirs that would otherwise go untapped. And daily mental aerobics train your mind to approach topics from a variety of angles.
Although teachers promote innovation through numerous games and projects, three of my favorites are F2OE, Word Walls/Brainstorming, and SCAMPER. In this article, I’ll explore these three activities plus two others: Dress the Part and One-Word Prompts.
One pathway to creativity involves generating a large amount of ideas. Think of it like buying a lottery ticket. The more you purchase, the more likely you are to win.
Every idea is an opportunity to introduce a plot twist, deepen worldbuilding, or refresh a cliché. But you never know which ones will fly or flop, and your progress will be slow if you only play with a couple. That’s the goal behind F2OE: to mass-produce ideas (whether original or borrowed) without passing judgment on their merit prematurely.
The letters in F2OE stand for Fluency, Flexibility, Originality, and Elaboration. Start by choosing a topic or theme. After that, move through the letters in the acronym:
- Fluency – Make a list.
- Flexibility – Categorize the list.
- Originality – Invent an item that fits your topic.
- Elaborate – Add details to this imaginary creation.
To better understand F2OE, place yourself in the mind of a spy novelist. Your hero must infiltrate a government facility and retrieve top-secret information. Throw in a few obstacles and high-tech security, and he won’t succeed at his mission unless he has a special advantage. What could beat a new spy gadget?
Ian Fleming equipped his famous character, James Bond, with an impressive collection of gizmos: camera pens, spike umbrellas, lipstick gas, an X-ray desk, and grappling suspenders. In Artemis Fowl, Eoin Colfer displayed similar genius with mirrored contact lenses. The plot hinged on the device restoring Artemis’s memory after a mindwipe. Fleming and Colfer likely followed a thought process comparable to F2OE to develop those ideas. So watch me walk through the steps with spy gadgets as the topic.
Fluency: I decide to list twelve tools. Flashlight, hand lens, tranquilizer gun, tracker, recording device, rope, binoculars, disguise… Right away, I’m at eight, but instead of stopping, I push my brain to keep firing and reach my target number. Transmitter, earplugs, first-aid kit, cell phone.
Flexibility: Time to categorize.
- Weapons: tranquilizer gun, rope
- Surveillance: binoculars, tracker, recording device, disguise
- Communication: transmitter, cell phone
- Defense: first-aid kit, earplugs
Now that I’ve classified everything, my ideas multiply: knife, gun, camera, briefcase, carrier pigeon, bulletproof vest.
Originality: A metal detector or pat-down might catch a normal weapon, so the hero needs a means of protecting himself that’s effective but won’t attract suspicion. As I look over my ideas, I combine them in unusual ways. Ahh. How about a pair of glasses that functions as a tranquilizer gun?
Elaborate: I have to figure out how these defense specs work. Maybe if the hero turns on the interface and blinks three times, a sensor on the glass triggers the frame to shoot a small, immobilizing dart. Now I can incorporate that into my plot. Armed guards burst in as the hero is rifling through files. Stuttering to explain himself, he adjusts his trusty glasses and activates the interface. Then blink, blink, blink, the bad guys topple, and he escapes.
If you’re eager to try F2OE, consider enhancing a lackluster section of your manuscript with it. Or, if you’d rather treat it as an exercise to strengthen brain muscles, flesh out a writing prompt. You can find prompts on Pinterest and Instagram, in workbooks, or among upcoming topic lists posted by magazines.
2. Word Walls/Brainstorming
Nancy I. Sanders, best-selling and award-winning children’s author of more than one hundred books, loves to dedicate an area of her classroom to rows of words related to a particular theme. For many educators, myself included, Word Walls are integral to the routine. When we’re studying scientific matter, I tack up descriptors like solid, liquid, gas, mass, texture, density, and magnetism. Students refer to the list to fuel writing or build new connections.
Nancy takes this teacher trick and gives it a writer’s twist: “When I wrote Jane Austen for Kids, I drew pretty teacups to decorate the pages of my Word Walls in my writer’s journal. Then I brainstormed lists of words to write in each teacup that described Jane, her era, and her writings. I used these Word Walls to spark my creative process as I wrote.”
Alex Osborn devised a similar method called Brainstorming. In the classroom, teachers assign students a topic and sanction spontaneity without any threat of criticism. Every idea, whether wild or tame, is scribbled down. Sometimes categorization or synthesis is involved. (Sound familiar?) Afterwards, students evaluate the assortment and use it as a springboard for their writing.
I often engage in Brainstorming when I tinker with poetry. Recently, I assembled words that remind me of fall. I then sorted the ones that rhymed or were alliterative into groups, which became the foundation for a piece I’ve titled “Monarch’s Migration Lament.”
The Monarch with her stained-glass wings
Alights as mournful crickets sing.
She lets her gentle spirit grieve
The fading of once vibrant leaves.
She weeps for all the beauty lost
To icy kiss of morning frost;
Alone, her tender tears release,
An ode to flocks of feathered geese.
Yet still, like dying seeds, air-led
She seeks a cozy winter bed.
Once more she flees from fall’s last breath
And dreams beyond its quiet death.
Nancy I. Sanders puts together unique Brainstorming sheets for practically every stage of her writing process. “I use them for choosing a working title, for planning the plot, for picking names for my characters, and more.” She offers one on her website that targets settings, from familiar to exotic and dangerous to mysterious.
Any writer can repurpose these two classroom mainstays. After all, if Word Walls and Brainstorming can inspire a crowd of kids, you can’t do yourself any harm. Grab your notebook again. Focus on the theme of your latest novel, short story, or poem and Brainstorm as many corresponding words as you can. Then pause to hunt for patterns or ah-ha moments and see where they lead.
Alex Osborn, the mastermind behind Brainstorming, proposed this flexible-thinking strategy too. But it was educator Robert Eberle who developed it into SCAMPER, an acronym for verbs that trigger ideas. The letters represent…
Substitute. Can you replace or change any parts of your story, such as characters or settings? What about cultural customs, magic systems, the time period, a hero’s personality, or a villain’s goals?
Combine. Can you blend two scenes, characters, or even plots? Like Hannibal Lecter meets Sherlock Holmes? Or Jack the Ripper battles Katniss Everdeen?
Adapt. What would happen if you dropped your story premise into a different context?
Modify, magnify, minify. Can you alter, enlarge, or shrink anything? Can you add extra features to an animal or give a character superpowers? Can something be heavier, louder, or brighter?
Put to other uses. What elements could be symbolic or serve an uncommon role? Like a dragon for a furnace or a robe for a sign of power?
Eliminate. If you remove a character, clue, problem, ability, or rule, how would that affect the plot?
Reverse, rearrange. Flip a scenario on its head. What if the protagonist pursues a goal that opposes an earlier one? Or the villain turns into the hero? Or the weak becomes strong?
If you want an example of what a writer can accomplish with SCAMPER, I’ll reimagine Goldilocks and the Three Bears for you.
- Substitute: An astronaut and three robots. The “porridge” is a battery charger.
- Combine: The three robots are related to the tin man in The Wizard of Oz. They often rust up, are prone to singing show tunes, and their knees knock whenever they see a broomstick. They’re also drawn to the yellow-lighted hallways in the space station.
- Adapt: The astronaut is a secret rebel.
- Magnify, minify, modify: The three robots have the ability to merge into one giant machine.
- Put to other uses: The charging station can also electrocute nosey astronauts. And since it’s combined with The Wizard of Oz, it can fry witches too.
- Eliminate: Bye-bye, daddy robot. (Sorry, buddy.)
- Reverse/rearrange: The robots return home before the astronaut sneaks into the pod.
Now here’s your challenge: filter your own work-in-progress through the letters in SCAMPER or, if you prefer to manufacture new possibilities, pull from a popular novel like Moby Dick.
4. Dress the Part
This past year, my teaching team organized several “theme” days where we transformed our classrooms into bakeries, pirate ships, factories, and candy houses. Costumes made the experience even more immersive, helping students get into character. They began to think like chefs, monsters, and gingerbread men. One kid would ask, “What if my lunchbox were an oven?” while another would announce, “I’m going to use licorice for shoelaces!”
Can role play be enriching for writers too? It definitely has been for Wilma Hollis, author of the upcoming book LifeSpeak 101: Speak Life and Win! “Sometimes, depending on the project, I’ll wear something that’s consistent with a character whose perspective I’m working to capture. That could mean a baseball cap, a crazy T-shirt…even something they might wear but I wouldn’t.”
The act of dressing up allows a new mindset to take over, just like it does for the students in my classroom, and creativity flows. Aspiring writer Deanna Smith says it provides her with an avenue to explore her characters’ personalities firsthand: “It gives me an idea of how my characters would react in any situation, and it helps me develop their voices.”
Marie Sontag, historical fiction author of California Trail Discovered, stretches this method even farther. Since her novel is set on the Oregon Trail, she decided to travel the same dusty path as her characters. Along the way, she snapped pictures and filmed short videos talking about the sites and their importance to her book. This visual approach not only lent more authenticity to the adventure, it broke through her shyness. “I’ve always worn my ‘Indiana Jones’ hat during classroom author visits, so I decided to wear it on the trip as well. It served as a physical reminder of my passion for telling stories that bring the past to life. It enabled me to tell tour guides, museum docents, and strangers at historic sites about my upcoming book. Several invited me to send them the book as soon as it comes out.”
5. One-Word Prompt
I joined a challenge on Instagram that revolved around this tactic and discovered that concentrating on a single word nudged my brain into new territory. For instance, what jumps to mind when you hear the word new? A story? A poem? A play on words using homophones? The fun, fanciful limerick I ended up writing never would have occurred to me without this forced focus.
There once was a curious gnu
Who wanted to learn something new.
He read a long book
And then he said, “Look!
I know a lot more than I knew.”
Since every scene tends to have an underlying mood, novelists can implement this technique to evoke a specific emotion. Pretend you’re a mystery writer and dread is your prompt. Words like apprehensive, creepy, ominous, and disquiet fill your notepad. Keep those handy as you revise because they’ll spark even more options. Next, swap out words in your current draft that lack the intended connotation with those that do. Instead of “the abandoned building stood before her,” write “the ominous building loomed ahead.”
Still unconvinced? I’ll aim for a playful mood this time. I jot down flirty, lighthearted, joyful, sassy, twinkle, tease, and laughter. After skimming my chapter, I pinpoint the following bland sentences and upgrade them with the results of the one-word prompt.
- He smiled at her. A grin teased his lips.
- Loud music played in the air. A sassy, light-hearted melody danced through the air.
What if I want the mood to be more sinister? I come up with evil, creepy, poisonous, menacing, leering, and vile. With just a few tweaks, the sentences sound completely different.
- He smiled at her. He leered at her.
- Loud music played on the streets. A vile discord of notes poisoned the air.
Earn an A+ in Creativity
A brain muscle that’s never pushed outside its comfort zone might not achieve its full potential. With a little practice, you can increase your creativity. These exercises may even help you overcome writer’s block! The key is to be flexible, persevere, stay curious, and take risks. If you do, you’ll be sure to surprise yourself.
Elementary school teacher Lori Z. Scott usually writes fiction because, like an atom, she makes up everything. Her down time is filled with two quirky habits: chronic doodling and inventing lame jokes. Neither one impresses her principal (or friends/parents/casual strangers), but they do help inspire her writing. Somehow her odd musings led her to accidentally write the 10-book best-selling Meghan Rose series and purposely write more than 150 short stories, articles, essays, poems, and devotions. In addition, Lori contributed to over a dozen books, mostly so she would have an excuse to give people for not folding her laundry. (Hey! Busy writer here!) As a speaker, she’s visited several conferences and elementary schools to share her writing journey. Some of Lori’s favorite things include ice cream, fuzzy socks, Batman, Star Trek, Star Wars, books, and hugs from students. Guess which one is her favorite?