When it comes to ESL, there’s no real substitute for simply using the language.
And loathe as some native speakers may be to admit it, some of the best stories in recent generations are coming from those who are not native English speakers.
History, and by extension its literature, have been very white male dominated for almost as far back as you want to look.
But for the last century or so, the rest of the world has been looking to the West and saying ‘well hang on a minute, your story is only half of it’.
It’s not always easy to start though. Sometimes need is a little prompt to get the creative juices flowing.
Take a look out of the window, or focus on something nearby. You can make a story about a desk, a chair, a man or a woman. It can be anything.
Some of the best stories don’t focus on grand settings and extravagant places – they focus on the people in them. That’s what we connect with – people. The stories that really stay with us are the ones that give us someone to get to know.
So don’t just focus on a jungle or a swamp, or a construction site or a house; write about the people in them.
Below you will find a series of creative writing prompts – some generic, and some more outlandish.
Remember to experiment with tenses (‘I did this’, ‘you do this’, ‘he did this’) and don’t forget to feed the reader’s senses; don’t just tell us what we can see. What can we hear? What does it smell like?
1. Marooned in space
Imagine a character left adrift in an escape pod, orbiting a distant planet. They look through the rear window and see the hulking, charred wreckage of the ship that used to be their home. They are the only survivor.
2. Walking in the country side
Imagine a man walking through a wooded area. Why is he there? Is he escaping the hectic and near-constant ‘on the go’ nature of the modern world? Is he out for a nice stroll? Perhaps it’s a lovely sunny afternoon. Or perhaps it’s the middle of the night, and it’s raining. Ask yourself: what brings a man to the woods in the middle of the night?
3. A detective solving her final case
She’s been in the job for thirty years, and she’s just about ready to retire; but there’s one case that’s always stuck with her… Whatever happened in that house? Where did the boy go? And what was the gardener hiding? Maybe she’s got time for just one more mystery…
4. Love at first sight
People always talk about love at first sight like it’s this actual ‘thing’. Like you can see it. And he’d always thought these people were crazy, overly-romantic schmucks. But as he looked across at him, he was reminded that maybe, just maybe, he didn’t know everything…
5. Locking yourself out of the house
It wasn’t the first time she’d done it, but every other time her room mate had been there to let her back in. This time, it was an empty house. This time, she’d have to get creative…
6. Freaky Friday
You’ve woken up in the body of another person. You can try telling people, but who would believe you? Maybe you recognise the person you’re in, maybe you don’t. But you know one thing for sure: this couldn’t have come at a worse time…
7. A sentient robot
Robots have been ingratiated into modern society for the past 300 years; but honestly, they’re still basically furniture. They can do your dishes and cook your meals, but nothing too extraordinary. The latest model has been programmed to be more ‘human’. It can read your kids a bedtime story and tuck them into bed at night. But they’re still not human. They’re not alive. You ask your robot to climb onto the roof of your house and clear the guttering. But it refuses. Expecting some excuse about it violating programming or some such thing, you ask it why. It simply responds ‘because I do not want to’…
8. Civilization 1000
What will the world look like in 3019? It wouldn’t necessarily have to be our world. Will it have the same problems we do? Why? Are these societal problems surrounding inequality and fiscal irresponsibility; or are the problems more innately human – violence, envy, lust… What will that world look like? And what kind of people will live in it?
9. Civilization 1000+
Take the same world as before, and advance it another 1000 years. What will it look like in 4019? Will they even call it 4019? Maybe the New Holy Roman Empire will have restarted the calendar following its conquest of the Aggregate Spanish Republic. Maybe we’re on year 3, and the world is still rocked from the nuclear armageddon wrought upon the Greater Pacific Alliance, and struggling under the tyranny of Pope Alexei the 13th?
10. The Future Book
In an old, forgotten wing of a long abandoned library, you happen across a small book. It’s unobtrusive, delicate, almost designed to avoid being noticed. Its page are blank. It’s not long before you realise that everything you write in the book happens. You wield the power to shape the face of history itself. How do you use it?
11. Reflection stops copying you
You brush your teeth before going to bed every night. You always have done. You see your reflection, the two of you brushing in unison. As always. But when you duck to spit, it carries on brushing its teeth.
12. Toys come to life
If toys had lives of their own, what would that look like? If Pixar had approached you and asked for your input in their movie ‘Toy Story’, what kind of things would you have contributed? Do they break off into warring factions? Do they have a black market or a seedy underbelly to their society? Do they have money? Or trade goods in exchange for services? What goods? And what services?
13. Shipwrecked on an island
Imagine a character stranded on an island after his ship has gone down. Who was he? A pirate? A naval officer? A wealthy land baron on his way to see his new plantation in the Americas? What’s his life like now? This prompt is very similar conceptually to the ‘marooned in space’.
14. A man who cannot die
Perhaps he’s fought in all the wars humanity has ever waged. Been present for the birth of Christ, witnessed the construction of the pyramids of Giza, danced with Cleopatra and seen Napoleon fall. Or maybe he’s just a regular guy, trying to get by, who just can’t die? Jumping off bridges, hit by cars, stabbed, shot, burned – but he’s still here. Why? How? And what would this knowledge do to a person?
15. Missing home
What if you came home from work to find your house was just… gone? Maybe there’s a smouldering, hollowed out shell of a building – or maybe there’s nothing. Just space. Like it was never there. And everyone you loved, everything you owned, was all just… gone.
16. Visiting a different country
Where have you always wanted to go? Imagine you’re there. What do you see? Smell? Hear? What are the people like?
17. Moving to a new city
Imagine a character who’s been forced to leave their old life behind. Why? And where are they now? What’s the city like? How does it meet their expectations, and how do they feel in this alien environment?
Hopefully these prompts will get your adult ESL students flowing with ideas! Or even get you started on writing a novel!