writing ideas

Play and pretend your way to writing ideas

My little niece used to love to sit with a grown-up book spread across her lap, reading a story out loud — except she couldn’t read yet. She was making it all up — pretending.

During play, she invented new words. One time we were playing with some toys, and I asked one of their names. Without missing a beat, she made up the name Hoken. Hoken sounds to me like a great name for a character in a science-fiction or fantasy story.

Play and pretend can lead to some innovative writing ideas, whether you’re looking for a simple concept for starting a new writing project or trying to break through a block in a project that you’re already working on.

The Quest for Concepts

Through play and pretend, children learn about themselves and their environment. You’d think that with all that practice, adults would have even better imaginations than children, but that’s not the case. Kids will engage their imaginations with hardly any effort. They don’t stop to think or reason; they just react intuitively.

The first time I asked my niece who put the moon in the sky, she said, “You did.” And when I asked my nephew the same question, his response was “Peter Pan.” Sometimes, it’s Mommy or Daddy who put the moon the sky. Sometimes, it’s Batman. Kids aren’t confined by rules, science, or belief systems. They are delightfully open-minded.

When I’m playing with my niece and nephew, I get tons of writing ideas: a story about someone who put the moon in the sky, maybe a superhero named Hoken who can fly.

If we grown-ups could shake off the realities we’ve all come to accept about the world, and if we could learn to play freely, without rules or limitations, then we could unearth an endless fountain of writing ideas and inspiration.

Breakthrough Writing Ideas

I recently got stuck in a story that I was working on. The characters were in the middle of a conflict, and I had to find a way to get them out of it. There were plenty of options, but I wasn’t sure which one they would choose. I tried to think through it, but I just thought myself in circles. I tried writing a list of possibilities, but that didn’t help me make a choice.

Then I decided to do a little pretending.

I decided to step away from my narrative and do an exploratory exercise. These types of exercises are often helpful during story development. Basically, you create content that doesn’t belong in the final draft, but it shows you what does belong in it.

I needed to work out my characters’ plan of action. So I sat there and held a conversation between two characters who were trying to make a joint decision about what to do next. It was almost as if I was performing a scene. I have to admit that I felt a little awkward at first, but the conversation moved along. The characters worked out a plan, and I saw the path they would take. I never wrote down the conversation that I acted out, but the plan that my characters concocted played out in the final draft.

I was basically playing and pretending — play-acting and pretending that I was my characters. And after struggling for several days to work out a problem, I got to a solution in just a few minutes.

I think that’s pretty amazing.

Exercise Your Imagination

Those of us who are on a perpetual quest for writing ideas could benefit from a little playing and pretending. You might feel silly at first, but if you relax and trust your imagination (and your intuition), you might end up with some incredible ideas for a writing project.

Here are some ways you can use play and pretend to generate breakthrough writing ideas:

  • Become one of your characters: As you go through your day, pretend that you’re one of your characters. What is this character’s morning routine? How do they feel about the weather? Who do they want to see? Who do they want to avoid? What goes through their mind while preparing a meal? What do they eat? What you’re doing might not be what your character would do. That’s where pretending comes into play.
  • Get a recording device and act out the dialogue between your characters: Creating dialogue between characters as a developmental exercise is one of the best ways to work though problems you encounter while writing an outline or an early draft. If you use a video recorder and make an effort to get into character, you can also find out how your characters move — which gestures and body language they use.
  • Use action figures to work out a scene in your story: Don’t have any? Head to a junk store. Any toys will do. If you can’t get your hands on some toys, use something else, like salt and pepper shakers. Set up the scene with items from around your house and play out their dialogue and actions. Capture the scene by taking photos or making a video, or take notes as you walk your characters through the scene.
  • Be bold and take your characters out into the world: Dress up as your character and head out into the world. Go to the gym, a coffee shop, or a thrift store and see how your character views the world and behaves in it. This one takes a lot of guts, so kudos if you even entertain the possibility of doing it!

These hands-on approaches get you out of your headspace and move you into your story world, giving you a fresh perspective that can open up innovative ideas.

Playing and pretending is not for everyone. Kids do it naturally, but for grown-ups, it can be awkward and uncomfortable. On the other hand, maybe one of your writer friends or a child in your family would be willing to play along with you. You’ll never know unless you ask.

Have you ever acted out a scene or used play and pretend to develop writing ideas? Do you think these techniques would work for you? What do you do when you’re stuck or need fresh ideas for new projects? Share your thoughts and experiences by leaving a comment, and keep writing.

Ready Set Write a Guide to Creative Writing

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