Christian Homeschool Resources & Homeschooling Advice

Training the Imagination through Imitation

  • Danielle Olander Home School Enrichment
  • Published Sep 27, 2010
Training the Imagination through Imitation

The greatest fallacy in creative writing instruction is the imagined divide between the creative and the non-creative. Because we are all created in the image of God, we all have creativity welling up inside of us. Yet we are all created with different personalities that cause us to express our creativity in different ways.

When most parents tell me that their child is not creative, they mean that he is not artistic or imaginative in the same way the parents want him to be or think he should be. I have a confession to make. I'm not artistic or imaginative. Given the choice, I would rather write a factual article (like this one) over a novel or short story. And yet, I'm being creative. Before I sat down to write it, this article did not exist. Now it does. I created it. You can teach even the most realistic, down-to-earth, engineer-to-be child to be creative.

First, notice what your child reads and teach him to analyze it. If you are reading this article, creative writing is important to you. That probably means that good writing is important to you, which tells me that reading good books probably happens on a pretty regular basis around your house. So I'm not going to tell you that good readers make good writers. Some do, some don't. But good writers are always good readers.

Noticing what your kids want to read, especially as they get into later elementary and middle school, will probably give you an idea of what they will enjoy writing. If they are always reading Brian Jacques, talk to them about the choices he makes as an author in creating the Redwall books. Authors make countless choices in words, event sequence, and characterization that make us either want to read more or set the book aside.

Next, give your kids something to imitate. No, I'm not talking about plagiarism: as you read books and short stories together, make a note of the plots. You'll begin to see that most plots are not all that different from one another. In fact, most literary analysis courses will tell you that all plots are variations of the same five or so conflicts. Think about how many "girl meets boy, girl intensely dislikes boy, boy intensely pursues girl, girl decides that she actually loves boy after all" stories you've read. I mean really, I assumed I was going to hate my husband before I would decide to marry him. When I got to college, I began looking for the most unlikely suspect, assuming that he was going to be my husband someday. Yes, I had read Anne of Green Gables and Pride and Prejudice too many times! But I digress. Let your students write a story based upon another story.

Here is how I teach this process:

We begin by reading a fable together and analyzing it for setting, characters, plot, conflict, and resolution. Fables are perfect for this because they are short and contain few details in the characters and setting. My favorite one to use to introduce this process is "The Fox and the Crow."

The Fox and the Crow 

A Fox once saw a Crow fly off with a piece of cheese in its beak and settle on a branch of a tree. "That's for me, as I am a Fox," said Master Reynard, and he walked up to the foot of the tree. "Good-day, Mistress Crow," he cried. "How well you are looking to-day: how glossy your feathers; how bright your eye. I feel sure your voice must surpass that of other birds, just as your figure does; let me hear but one song from you that I may greet you as the Queen of Birds." The Crow lifted up her head and began to caw her best, but the moment she opened her mouth the piece of cheese fell to the ground, only to be snapped up by Master Fox. "That will do," said he. "That was all I wanted. In exchange for your cheese I will give you a piece of advice for the future. Do not trust flatterers."1

After reading the story, we take our notes in keywords, as shown below. In the blank spaces we record additional adjectives and verbs to describe the characters, setting, and plot that the fable didn't have. We also add characters and events and sometimes a twist at the end.

Characters and Setting: 

1.  fox, crafty, hungry
2.  crow, gullible, has cheese
3.  forest, tree
4.  ___________________


1.  fox desires cheese
2.  fox flatters crow
3.  ___________________
4.  ___________________


1.  crow believes, drops
2.  ___________________

We spend lots of time brainstorming adjectives for the characters, strong verbs for the actions and events in the plot, and emotion and sense words to add to the details of the plot. My students then rewrite the fable, adding additional characters, describing the setting in detail, and keeping the plot the same. Many children's authors have gotten their start in publishing by doing this very thing, usually with fairy tales, folk tales, myths, and legends.  The shelves in the children's section of the library are crammed with various retellings of "Beauty and the Beast," "Cinderella," and "How the _____ Got His ________." While fairy tales are fun, I still prefer fables because the plots are solid and they have room for additional description, allowing my students to train their imaginations.

For most students, a three-paragraph story from a single-paragraph fable is quite an accomplishment, and they stop there. However, I will always have one or two who don't want to stop. So we move on to changing the characters and setting and keeping the plot the same.

During a recent summer writing camp, one of my students took the fable "The Lion and the Mouse" and turned it into "The Octopus and the Crab." He kept the plot the same but developed personalities in the creatures and added a couple of plot twists that made us all sit back and laugh. Most students are skeptical when I tell them that they will be able to write a three-paragraph story in a single class period, but they do.

Finally, as their imaginations grow stronger and more confident, give your students other sources for stories. As an English major, I was required to take a creative writing class in college. Among other weekly requirements, we had to locate three stories in the newspaper and discuss how we could incorporate those into a story. For this non-creative writer, it was like discovering a deep well. I realized that most writers don't live their stories before writing them. They just find the sources. After spending a week on jury duty, I learned where most mystery writers find their information! In my file at home is a folder with an article, copied way back in college, about families of Portuguese Jews who have lived double lives for centuries, acting as converted Catholics but secretly preserving their festivals and traditions. There is a story there!

If you have a student who loves science, have him pick a scientist, research an early biography a bit, and then write it as a story. Writers constantly take a historical person or event and craft a novel from it, inventing characters, dialogue, and events to tell of someone or some event that might not be known otherwise. How many historical novels fill the shelves of most bookstores? When I wrote a book of lesson plans incorporating science and writing, I had fun researching and writing a brief story about Robert Boyle, the inventor of the microscope.

The summer sun shone brightly on the thatched cottage. The midwife bustled out the door to the soberly dressed man who was sitting on an upturned log. "It's a boy, sir." He raised his eyes toward heaven and murmured a prayer of thanks. "And his mother? How is she?" His voice quavered a bit, revealing an unusual show of emotion. "She's fine, sir, resting with the boy. You may go in to see her." The minister quickly crossed the small yard that was joined to the church and entered the parsonage, such as it was. In the small room off the kitchen, his wife lay with a small bundle tucked in next to her. "Robert, meet your father."

"Father, look!" The boy knelt beside the tide pool, excitedly motioning to his father. The small animals and waving plants never ceased to fascinate him. "Remember, my son, record what you see, because tomorrow, it may be completely different." Robert reached into the bag hanging at his side and pulled out a small sheaf of papers. Carefully he drew the sea life and wrote a detailed description in a neat hand. "Finish up, my son. We must return to complete your Latin and Greek studies today." The boy obeyed, reluctant to leave the wonders of his outdoor classroom to return to his books.

As Robert grew, he explored every inch of the small island village of Freshwater. The animals and plants fascinated him, as did the motion of the waves and the changing of the tides. His father was his teacher and taught him to look, to listen, and to wonder. He learned to record his observations and discuss them later with his father. He was apprenticed to an artist, which only served to increase his bent toward investigation and recording. At the age of thirteen, he left his small island home and began attending Westminster School. His father's training served him well, and he soon moved on to Oxford University. After completing his studies, he remained at Oxford, conducting his own experiments as well as collaborating with other preeminent scientists such as Sir Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle.

Recently I discovered the History Lives series by Brandon and Mindy Withrow. This incredible series uses narrative stories to retell the history of the church through the stories of leaders and lay persons alike. I use these in all my classes to illustrate how to take a bit of fact and write a story.

God is the only one who can create something out of nothing. For the rest of us, we are given the task of taking what we have and making something new with that. Writers often refer to the well from which they draw characters, events, and settings. Many students don't know how deep their well is or how to draw from it. Training their imaginations through imitation is a vital step in giving all students confidence in their own creativity.  

*This article published September 29, 2010.

Danielle Olander, when not caring for her husband or homeschooling their four children, teaches homeschool writing and literature classes near their home in West Michigan. As both a homeschool graduate and a homeschooling mom, she understands firsthand the benefits and challenges of home education. Also a freelance writer and editor, she is an Accomplished Instructor and exhibitor with the Institute for Excellence in Writing and the author of Life Science-Based Writing Lessons. 


1Aesop's Fables, available at dirs/etext92/aesopa10.txt

This article was originally published in the Jul/Aug 2010 issue of Home School Enrichment Magazine. Sign up now to receive a FREE sample copy! Just click here: