Digging Deeper for Original Ideas

Q: What’s something you might associate with Christmas?

A: Santa Claus, presents, Christmas lights, spending time with loved ones.

Family Feud is a hilarious television show which asks contestants to think of the popular answers to questions. To be successful on the show, you have to run with the obvious and deliver stereotypical ideas or responses. While Family Feud may make for excellent television viewing, the show asks contestants to do exactly the opposite to what young writers should be doing. It asks players to think like everybody else.

One of the most interesting activities I run in schools is a task which requires students to brainstorm what they might find buried at the beach. I usually allow five minutes for this activity and encourage the students to come up with at least twenty ideas.

At the conclusion of brainstorming time, I ask the students to examine their first five responses. I call these the top answers. I ask the students to raise their hands if ‘shells’ was in their top five. In every case, close to 90% of students raise their hands. I then ask the students to leave their hands up if ‘shells’ was in their top three. Around 75% of hands remain in the air. And finally I ask the students to leave their hands up if ‘shells’ was their first response. Not surprisingly, around 50-60% of the hands remain in the air.

Like on Family Feud, there are always going to be popular answers; responses we default to or make instant connections to. This can be a big problem for young writers who are trying to come up with original ideas. I shudder at the thought of a few hundred thousand school children all writing a story about ‘shells’ in NAPLAN. Yet it happens all the time.

After the students have shaken their heads in the realisation that everyone had the same idea, I ask for a volunteer to share their tenth idea. Perhaps they say ‘ray guns’, ‘empty jam jars’ or ‘a stash of money’. There are usually only a handful of students who shared the same idea. And when we venture down to the twentieth idea, there are little to no double-ups at all. It makes sense, doesn’t it? For young writers to come up with original ideas of their own, they need to spend time digging past the obvious and popular. They need to do the opposite of Family Feud. They need to think divergently.

Just like children playing at the beach dig, we need to encourage young writers to dig. We need to encourage them to dig until they get past the shells and crabs. We need to encourage them to dig until they identify an idea which presents an interesting story. And we need to encourage them to continue digging at every opportunity.

The next time you watch Family Feud, try to come up with a few responses which are not very obvious, but could somehow be linked back to the question at hand. This is a great way to train your mind to stop thinking like everybody else.

To finish with, I’m often asked where I came up with the idea of ‘The Top 79’ – a part of each Exploding Endings book which presents an extensive list of excuses such as ‘The Top 79 Excuses for Being Late’. This idea was a happy accident. I often write lists to warm up before brainstorming. It helps me think a little more divergently. ‘The Top 79’ is a good example of digging deeper. And in the end it was so much fun, I had to include it in my books. After I got rid of the first ten obvious responses, of course!

If you are interested in having me visit your school, please shoot me a message via the Contact page.

Happy writing!


  • Bill
    Posted at 20:26h, 04 April Reply

    I think of the QI klaxon when you mention “shells”.

    • tim
      Posted at 20:55h, 04 April Reply

      I had to Google that – now I can imagine the sound, too!

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