Sunday, 12 October 2014

Let’s play! Some fast and fun writing games to try.

Moira Butterfield
I’m in the midst of writing something that’s pretty off-the-wall at the moment. I hope it’s funny. It’s meant to be, and to do it I have to get into a different mindset away from my everyday concerns. 
To get into ‘anything goes’ mode I need to free up my thinking, so I’ve made a list of quick writing games to try at the beginning of writing sessions. I thought you might like a list, too, to have handy whenever you fancy a bit of writing play. I think of it as taking a lovely warm cleansing brain shower! Use the games to kickstart any kind of writing, from picture books upwards. Tailor them to suit.

In general the idea is to chuck away what you’ve written as it’s for pure fun, but if you decide you’ve hit on something, then good luck!

Add your own suggestions and favourites in the comments section and I’ll then create a document of creative writing games that we can all share as a writing resource in the free download section of this blog. When it’s ready we’ll tweet about it on @PictureBookDen.

I’ve found some of the game suggestions online. A couple I’ve experienced in workshops and a couple I’ve made up for myself. I haven’t tried them all yet, so I’ll be working through them and perhaps tweaking them a bit. I’ve not put them in any particular order, but I’ve given them my own names.

As a rule of thumb I reckon that none of these should take longer than it takes to sit and drink a cup of coffee. 
Story photobomb
Grab a magazine or a catalogue that you’ve got lying around. Open it and select a photo (do this really quickly - no going through the pages and making involved decisions). Now write one paragraph of story about it (for any age you like, depending on how you feel). Stop after 5 minutes (you could put your phone alarm on to stop yourself). 

Snake eats bus
Write down the numbers 1 to 12. Now quickly write the name of a character by 1. Then write a plot sentence by each number, taking this character onwards. It doesn’t have to be good because nobody is going to see it. It can be as mad as anything. That’ll be all the more fun for your brain. Here’s one I’ve just started quickly for the blog, as an example.  
1.snake 2. eats bus 3. bus keeps driving 4. snake has to go where bus goes.      

You get the idea. 
 Brain takeover
Open a book or a magazine. Choose a simple everyday word (point at one randomly with your finger). For just a couple of minutes at most write down lots of other ways of describing that word, and gradually just let yourself go off in any direction. Go as off-the-wall as you want. I’ve just done one quickly, and I began by pointing to ‘no one’. 
No one, nobody, no person, nix persona, lots of twos, all alone, no humans, hold on, there’s an alien, does that count? so if someone said ‘there was nobody there’ but there was an alien were they lying or not? 
I went an unusual way and ended up with a fun idea for a sci-fi short story (which I will probably never write but who knows).  
 Head yoga
This exercise comes from a psychologist, to encourage ‘thinking fluency and flexibility’ apparently. Maybe we need to keep exercising our brains this way to keep them flexible, hence my title. 
Begin by choosing a four-letter word. (The example I saw was IDEA). Now write three or four sentences using the four letters as word initials. Eg: 
I Don’t Enjoy Apricots
If Dogfish Eat Apples
Interview Didn’t End Angrily
India Elephants Dawn Attack  

Then swap for another four letter word. It doesn’t matter one bit if your sentences are nonsense. It’s the word association that’s the brain-stretching part. 
 Eureka writing
Varying the words in a given phrase can bring about exciting problem-solving  breakthroughs and once led to a man inventing an entirely new type of food (a microwaveable egg cube). Or so I read in Thinkertoys. A handbook of creative-thinking technique, by Michael Michalko. His book is about solving problems using creative thinking, but I’ve adapted the idea to make it purely for fun. 

Write a simple sentence or find one from a picture book. Spend a little time substituting new words for the key words in the sentence. Do it fast. Here’s one I just tried: 
a teddy loses a hat
a dog finds a hat
a hat finds a dog
a girl finds a dog
a girl finds a hat
with a teddy in it 
I think I’d be happy to do this all day! It’s oddly soothing and it could go anywhere. The sentences could get longer or you could start a new sentence. It's your game!
Quickly choose a noun, any noun. Spend five moments writing one word to describe it, thus:
Door - big door, blue door, rotten door, ancient door, metal door, cold metal door 
Don’t give up if it gets hard, Just allow yourself to go a bit crazy:
jelly door, talking door, lizard door 
(No idea where that lizard door came from!). 
I’m little and I like…
Make quick lists of three things you loved as a child: 
Pieces of clothing
Mmm, I’m thinking of the smell of clean sheets that billowed all day on the line…

Write the letters of the alphabet down. Then write a word by each letter that’s as silly and as personal as you like (it’s for you, nobody else). I’ve got one on my wall that says g for gaullimaufry!  It was created by Peter Chasseaud at his Tom Paine Printing Press in Lewes, Sussex, and I've got it on my wall, handprinted on lovely handmade paper. Here it is for some inspiration.

That’s it from me. Over to you. Have big fun and it'd be great if you added your own favourite writing game below.

Moira Butterfield  
New picture book series: My Feelings. Published by Wayland.  



  1. Great fun post ;-) I love word games, though we don't play them so much in this age of computers etc. We used to play them as family fun things at Christmas when I was a kid, with the grandparents and all.
    We had a game like your Head Yoga example, called telegrams, in which you choose a word, at least eight letters, and each write a cogent and preferably surreally funny message using the letters of the word in turn as the initial letter of each word of the telegram. My Grandpa always had us in stitches with his dry wit. Us kids always tried too hard, adults smiled indulgently but we knew we were crap ;-) Good training for kids books though. .

    1. That sounds great, Jonathan. Yes, let's bring back Christmas word games!

  2. This is a fab list of games, Moira. I would add:
    Six word stories (as in the famous 'Baby shoes for sale. Never worn')
    Drawing games (Close your eyes and draw a squiggle then open them and see what shapes/creatures/things you can see in it. Or, if you can persuade friends or children to help you, play the childhood game where someone draws a head and folds the paper over, the next person draws a body and folds, then the last draws the legs and you end up with a bizarre cross-breed creature)
    All good for getting the brain working!

    1. I love doodling, too, and I reckon it's a good way to start thinking visually, as picture book authors do.

  3. Love these ideas. Another good one to try is Lego poetry (see or @legopoetry on twitter) - write words on Lego blocks and then make them into short sentences or poems.

    1. Excellent, Helen! Take a handful with you to the coffee shop :)

  4. What a brilliant list! Specially love the Eureka one.

    I love fortunately/unfortunately (self-explanatory) though have never tried playing it by myself. I think I read an old Emma Darwin post recently saying it was the basis of all plotting. Yesterday one of my children got us playing food associations over lunch - rhubarb, custard, pie, chicken…

    1. So I'm guessing you write a 'fortunately' sentence and then an 'unfortunately' sentence, and keep going until you curl up laughing! This sounds great.

  5. Wonderful ideas, Moira. To remember my pin number I use what you call the Head Yoga game. Eg 4=D=Demented, etc.
    In the first session of my adult education classes I often get students to warm up by getting them to write about a colour (I tend to use purple). I always adore the way everyone is so very different (yes, some things are duplicated, but there's always something very individual about each person's response to the colour).

  6. I have played the 5 W's and H game with students and many love to then play it at home. Basically on a sheet of paper down the hand hand side write who - where - what - why - when - how. Then if you are on your own just pick random answers to each question and use these to write a short story. If with friends or students get each student the answer the question. If you have more than 6 students when you go around again they expand on the first answer. e.g. who = Tasha second student gives Tasha a surname etc. The more inventive your answers the more you have to think about your story to make it work.