• Teaching Tips

Sparking Ideas for Student Stories

by Janet Lawler
December 6, 2012
We all have unique lives, experiences, and interests, no matter what age we are. These can be springboards for each of us to create stories that no one else can write. Students who comprehend this may write with more confidence and, perhaps, come to see themselves as authors too.

I regularly visit schools and give presentations on my children’s books and writing process. When students have an opportunity to ask questions, one invariably posed is, “Where do you get your ideas for stories?” I love answering this question, because by sharing the “sparks” for my stories, I hope to inspire kids to create their own. Starting points for stories may be found in relationships with family and close friends, personal interests, personal experiences, and even dreams. All of these have jumpstarted my fiction.

Another source of inspiration that I like to discuss in some detail with students is the great big world of ideas, happenings, and information that constitutes current events. These offer boundless opportunities for authors looking for story ideas.

I was browsing the Internet in early 2008 and read an online news article from the Alaska Dispatch about a cease and desist order issued to prevent an Anchorage, Alaska man from building a 25-foot snowman. There was a photograph of Snowzilla (built the year before), and I marveled at his enormity. He dwarfed people and nearby houses. The huge snowman had caused chaos in town; tourists clogged roads, and people claimed he might hurt someone if he collapsed.

So the town issued the order to prevent the second rising of Snowzilla. This struck me as a very sad commentary on our times. Legal action against a snowman? I ruminated for months before writing the first draft of SNOWZILLA, based on the true facts. But I write for children, and this version had an adult protagonist and a not-so-happy ending. After brainstorming with colleagues, playing “what if?” with the facts, and putting myself “in kids’ boots,” I wrote a fictionalized version in rhyme about a little girl and her brother:

It snowed without stopping for week after week.
When it ended, at last, Cami Lou took a peek.
She bundled and booted and zipped up her brother.
“Let’s build a huge snowman, unlike any other!”

Departing from fact to create fiction isn’t always easy, especially if you are basing your story on true facts within your life experience. But a good fiction writer must often depart from the facts to serve his or her story. For example, a character inspired by a cranky uncle might be more memorable if there’s a secret reason for his unhappiness. The same freedom to change and mix things up applies to plot. A good fiction author doesn’t limit him or herself to “how it really happened.”

Since I had only read about Snowzilla and wasn’t wedded to his true story, it wasn’t that hard to turn on the “fiction switch.” How could I ratchet up the humor, the story, the size of this tall tale? I started with a spunky child protagonist who enlists her mom to plow the whole yard and her dad to place Snowzilla’s head using a rig. I thought of funny reasons for people to complain:

“Poochie is scared to go out the front door.”
Another said, “Views were much better before.
A lady warned everyone, “Make no mistake—
when temperatures rise, he’ll turn into a lake!

I changed the town ordinance violation into neighbors bringing lawsuits. And when I ruminated about how to save Snowzilla, my own life experience kicked in with a fact—in my New England town, the flattest, most open space is our community garden. What a perfect spot to move Snowzilla! Major scaffolding, many hands, a trip down Main Street, and marching bands helped complete the joyous move. And when the inevitable happened, Cami was ready for the challenge:

Weeks later, the sun became hotter and bright.
Snowzilla grew smaller and flowed out of sight.
Cami Lou waved, hardly shedding a tear,
because she had much bigger plans for next year.

My completed manuscript had grown into a humorous tall tale far different from the original news story I’d read. My creative journey can be a model for similar journeys in your classrooms. Consider encouraging students to use a news story as a starting point for writing fiction. Such assignments or exercises will introduce or expose them to journal and newspaper articles as a reading option. Interest in current events may be kindled. And opportunities abound for tailoring assignments to particular literacy goals.

For pre- or early literacy students, a teacher might propose a simple fact line drawn from the day’s news, or from the day’s events—“Principal Jones stood on the playground.” The class can brainstorm to invent a story, with the teacher saying, “What if?” or “What might have happened next?” This storytelling exercise, led by teacher prompting, can encourage all students’ creative juices while targeting specific skills. For example, the class story line might include, “Principal Jones ran away.” Students can brainstorm a “best word” for the verb “ran.” (Students might suggest, “He hopped away,” or “He dashed away,” “He hurried away,” or “He zoomed away.”)

For more experienced writers, a teacher might select and read two or three short news articles that would be of interest to kids. Students can write a fictional story, developing a story idea from the article. Teachers might model an example, creating a short fictional story. An article about a giant underground ant colony might lead to a story about a child using all his leftover dinner food to set up a soup kitchen for ants. Students could share their articles and brainstorm together to come up with story ideas.

For older grades, students themselves could select an article from a print newspaper, or online news source. That article would provide the story idea. A teacher might refine such an assignment to focus on specific traits or mechanics of writing, such as story arc, descriptive passages, hyperbole, active verb choices and tenses, etc. Students should tackle such assignments with enthusiasm—they will be reading and choosing an article that piques their curiosity. Some will be drawn to human interest stories; others may be drawn to science or medical writing. Still others may be fascinated by local, state, national, or international history or current events.

With a bit of guidance, students of almost any age can mine news sources for a story idea. Creating fiction out of real events will help students develop confidence as story tellers and provide myriad opportunities for teachers to present or reinforce numerous language arts concepts and literacy skills. Hopefully, students will soon see stories everywhere in the world around them—as do all good fiction authors.

Janet Lawler is the author of IF KISSES WERE COLORS (a Common Core Curriculum Map-suggested work for kindergarteners), A FATHER'S SONG, and A MAMA BUG'S LOVE. Her latest book, SNOWZILLA, was published this past October. OCEAN COUNTING is slated for a 2013 release by National Geographic. Learn more about Janet and her work at

© 2012 Janet Lawler. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.


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