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Generate Short Story Ideas With This Powerful Creative Writing Exercise

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Sherri is an online writer with years of experience writing about health-related issues.

This small and unassuming brown paper bag exercise will help you maneuver writer's block.

This small and unassuming brown paper bag exercise will help you maneuver writer's block.

The Brown Paper Bag Creative Writing Exercise

Many years ago, I was fortunate to have an English teacher who sparked his students' imagination with challenging creative writing exercises designed to provoke introspection. One of the exercises involved taking a walk outdoors while carrying an empty brown paper bag. The goal was to find five small objects, put them in the brown bag and examine them in detail, by drawing them, in order to generate short story ideas.

I recall vividly, all these years later, the day I participated in this creative writing exercise for the first time. It was an early spring day, warm and mild, and perfect for taking a leisurely walk after lunch before my creative writing class met. Following the only instruction we'd been given in our previous class, I had brought the required small brown paper bag for collecting the five objects.

Finding Five Small Objects To Put in the Brown Paper Bag

I don't remember actively looking for the objects I collected that day; rather, I remember that I kept my gaze wide and broad, looking neither up nor down. When an object caught my attention, I simply picked it up and placed it in the brown bag. I collected:

  • a broken piece of linoleum tile I found on a stairway in the school
  • a bird feather lying in a gutter
  • a crumpled piece of white paper destined for a garbage can but having missed its mark
  • a smooth round stone about the size of my thumb sitting oddly out of place on the top of a fence rail
  • a thick shard of clear glass resting on the iron frame of a storm sewer grate

It had been a pleasant walk in a somewhat mindless state, and I felt relaxed.

Accepting the Found Objects for What They Were

When class began, I joined the other students in turning out my brown paper bag of small objects onto my desk. My objects, at first, did look pretty much like what they were: trash, junk, things broken and discarded by humans or animals. As a collection, my found objects dampened my mood into something like melancholy. I felt the bright, warm day go gray. Some of the other students had found colorful objects and even items of value like a coin and a lost piece of gold jewelry. I felt a twinge of envy, even resentment, about my fellow students’ more appealing finds, but my five objects were what I had to work with and so I did.

Words Become Associated with Drawn Found Objects

The process of drawing suppresses conscious thought, allowing the subconscious to filter through.

The process of drawing suppresses conscious thought, allowing the subconscious to filter through.

He Wants Us To Do What?

After we turned our objects out onto our desks that day, our teacher instructed us to draw each of the objects on separate sheets of paper in our journals and to write, next to the drawing of each object, whatever words and thoughts came to mind.

Moans, groans, and complaints went around the room. We weren't expecting this.

“We’re here to write, not draw!”

“Hey, I’m not an artist!”

“I can’t draw!”

Our teacher said nothing. Instead, he walked to the chalkboard and wrote:

“Drawings + associated words = short story draft due next class”

He then stacked his notes and books neatly, stood up tucking them under his arm, and left the room.

It took only a few minutes for the class to quit its griping and settle down. For the remainder of the class period, all you could hear were the sounds of pen and pencil on paper.

Drawing My Found Objects – What They Revealed

The Broken Piece of Linoleum Tile: As I drew the tile’s abstract shapes that were defined by a faux marble design in dull brown and dirty white, two dolphins began to emerge, one large and one small. I wrote the words “mother” and “child” next to my drawing.

The Bird Feather: The moth-eaten appearance of this feather gave it a hard, skeletal aspect. As I looked closely and began to draw, I could see that most of the vanes had lost so many barbs that the feather appeared prickly. I had the feeling that if I touched it carelessly, it would hurt. The word “fractious” immediately came to mind.

The Crumpled Piece of White Paper: There were so many creases, folds, and angles in this object that I had to half-close my eyes in order not to be overwhelmed with the task of drawing its detail. As I forced my eyes into a softer focus and started to draw, images of steep sand dunes and narrow beaches emerged. I wrote “erosion” and “Marconi.”

The Thick Shard of Clear Glass: I had to be careful handling this object because of its sharp edges. As I drew, I discovered that it was very slightly concave, a feature I hadn’t noticed at first. I wondered if it had been part of a container. If so, what kind of container? I remembered that I had found this object resting on the frame of an iron sewer grate, and sketched the frame behind the shard. I wrote the words “metal and glass - container - water - sharp” on the journal page.

The Smooth Round Stone: By the time I began to draw the stone, weariness had set in although I still felt relaxed. I skimped on this drawing. I drew an oval blob, lightly shaded to give it some depth, and abruptly quit drawing as the name “Mrs. Beans” nearly wrote itself on the page.

Before I closed my journal in preparation for leaving class, I took a few minutes to reflect on my mood which had been bright before finding the objects but had become increasingly dark as I drew them. I jotted these words in my journal: storm, wind, heavy, oppressive, destruction, loss, darkness, jealousy, resentment, biting.

When I arrived home a half an hour later, I was physically and emotionally exhausted.

The incessant battering of the Atlantic Ocean has cut a sharp face into the sand dunes and exposed their underlying clay.

The incessant battering of the Atlantic Ocean has cut a sharp face into the sand dunes and exposed their underlying clay.

Using the Drawings and the Words to Draft a Short Story

The next day, after a long and deep sleep which left me alert and refreshed, I looked at the drawings and words in my journal and saw them as if for the first time. Now, their messages were so obvious that I nearly danced for joy. Almost immediately, a story began to take shape, starting with the setting.

The Setting: Cape Cod had been an important place in my life since I was a child, but at the time of taking this class and implementing this exercise, it was no longer a part of my life. That loss had driven barbs through my heart. The setting for the story became the steep dunes of Wellfleet, near the site of the long-gone Marconi station.

The Characters: Mrs. Beans was a real person in my young life. She was an old woman (as I saw her in my youth’s eye) who ran a rooming house not far from Wellfleet, what we would call today a bed and breakfast. She was a kind and comforting woman, the antithesis of my maternal grandmother who excelled in the principle of divide and conquer. The main character of the story I eventually wrote was modeled on a combination of my grandmother and Mrs. Beans. The supporting characters were fractious hermit crabs imprisoned in a metal and glass aquarium.

The Plot: The story begins with the heroine facing her life’s losses as they are played out in the impending destruction of her family home. Her home had been built on a cliff above the sea two hundred years ago. Through recent decades, the sea had been eroding the cliff, and now a late summer storm, reaching its height in the darkness of night, would make the final assault.

The Conflict: Does she leave, or does she stay?

I completed the draft on schedule and eventually revised and finalized the story. But it wasn’t until months later, when a cousin of mine read the story and shared her thoughts about it with me, that the full emotional impact of what I’d written hit me. This brown paper bag exercise is a powerful tool not only for writing creatively but also for gaining insight into your thoughts, feelings, and memories.

The Model for the Secondary Characters in the Short Story

The fractiousness I was feeling when drawing the jagged feather led me to imagine biting, pinching hermit crabs.

The fractiousness I was feeling when drawing the jagged feather led me to imagine biting, pinching hermit crabs.

5 Tips for Getting the Most Out of the Brown Paper Bag Creative Writing Exercise

  1. Leave your mind open when collecting found objects. Don’t actively look for them. Let them find you.
  2. Keep in mind that your drawing ability or lack of has nothing to do with this exercise. Use the pencil in your hand to help you observe your found objects more closely, more slowly. By coordinating your hand with your eye and focusing only on letting your pencil record the details of your found objects, you will quiet your conscious thoughts, giving your subconscious a chance to step forward.
  3. Find a quiet environment - no radio, no TV, no cell phone, no child looking for your attention. All you want to hear is the sound of pen or pencil on paper.
  4. After you’ve made your drawings and recorded the words that came to the surface of your mind, put your journal away and sleep on the experience, even if the drive and desire are there to keep on going. Your mind needs that restorative sleep time for you to understand the import of what the exercise is telling you.
  5. Pay attention to your mood and your feelings. Record them in your journal along with the drawings and the words you associated with them.

© 2012 Sherri

Comments

Nicole K on July 14, 2019:

This is a very unique idea. I think it will be helpful for me. Thanks for sharing!

johnmariow on February 19, 2017:

An informative and helpful tutorial. I often get an idea about how to start a short story. I write without having any idea which direction the short story will go nor how the story will end. At this stage, I don't much care about grammar. I just want to put my idea in written words and see if the idea is worth expanding on.

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on February 16, 2017:

This was a great writing exercise. I will surely try it. Thanks.

Rafini on December 22, 2016:

Thank you for writing about this! I am always on the lookout for good writing exercises but rarely find anything worth trying out because they're usually poorly organized prompts outside my usual genre or writing style. What I am always looking for is something to open up my creativity, and this exercise appears to be exactly what I am looking for. Thank you, again. Can't wait to try it!

Gabby Galaxy from The Universe on January 22, 2016:

This is a delightful piece that made my mind spark. Thank you!

Lareene from Atlanta, GA on January 12, 2016:

Very interesting and I'm going to try it.

Nadine May from Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa on January 04, 2016:

Wow I loved reading your hub. What a wise teacher! If I ever have to give people an idea for creative writing, I will use your teachers suggestion. Its amazing how our minds will draw from our lives experiences. After all we ourselves do create the reality we perceive every day by the very thoughts, dreams and beliefs we hold dear. Thank you for sharing.

Marlene Bertrand from USA on July 29, 2015:

I can see how the mind can be expanded with the necessity of drawing an object, especially for people like me who have trouble drawing anything more than stick figures. I enjoyed reading how this exercise transformed a few seemingly innocent items into a grand story idea.

Cynthia B Turner from Georgia on June 10, 2015:

Excellent idea for freeing the mind. I like the thought of pairing drawing with writing as a prompt. Your English teacher gave you a gift that will be useful all of your wiring career. Thanks for sharing it with us.

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on April 26, 2015:

Great ideas, Sherri. Very useful for those who write short fiction and have stumbled with writer's block. Voted up!

Disillusioned from Kerala, India on August 14, 2014:

An interesting read. First I thought you were supposed to write a story connecting all the objects in someway!

mickeymug from Australia on April 21, 2014:

Very interesting idea and definitely one which I should give a go. I have had so much hardship in the past when it has come to generating good ideas for short stories and such and am keen to try this method out.

Nadine May from Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa on March 07, 2014:

Your hub brought me back to the days when I use to give drawing classes in the evening. I gave an eight week course on how to learn to see. ( the negative spaces and so on...) You have greatly inspired me to look up the notes I wrote twenty years back, if I can still find them! Glad to have found this hub.

Mary Craig from New York on June 28, 2013:

I don't have to tell you how useful, creative, interesting, and valuable this hub is...I think everyone else has already done that. I think it is wonderful that your teacher created this exercise and that it made such a lasting impression because of the wonderful results. There isn't a writer among us who couldn't benefit from trying exactly what you've written!

Voted up, useful, awesome, and interesting. Wish there was a valuable button!

Liz Rayen from California on June 28, 2013:

Sally, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this hub. Your teacher was wise and knew exactly what to pull from you. What a great exercise. I also see a great meditation exercise within this example of collecting thoughts and drawing and writing. I appreciate you for sharing this with us. I think I will give this a try. It sounds like exactly what I need from time to time. Well done! Voting up & Shared!♥

Sherri (author) from Southeastern Pennsylvania on February 13, 2013:

That Grrl, I'm glad you found this article useful and worthy of sharing. This is an old exercise that I learned many years ago, and since writing this hub I've been surprised to hear from so many writers that it's new to them. Thank you for your good words!

Laura Brown from Barrie, Ontario, Canada on February 13, 2013:

A great post. I forwarded the link to my Creative Writing Inspiration feed.

Sherri (author) from Southeastern Pennsylvania on December 30, 2012:

Thank you, RTalloni, for reading and commenting. :)

ARUN KANTI, you are so welcome, and the best New Year wishes to you.

OanaBoteanu, enjoy the process! Even if a story doesn't come of it, insights will.

brsmom68, yes, my teacher was a wise man and also inspiring. You may be under a blanket of snow, but it's amazing what you might find within your house. Maybe this is an opportunity to take an indoor walk. :) Thank you so much for reading and commenting.

velzipmur, yes, this is a powerful way to tap into subconscious thoughts. What flows from that can be enormously revealing.

Shelly Wyatt from Maryland on December 30, 2012:

Wonderful Hub! excellent ideas I will definitely be using this exercise soon this is a very good way to put your imagination to work and to tap into your subconcious thoughts.

Diane Ziomek from Alberta, Canada on December 29, 2012:

This may be something to help me with my creative writing. Right now I may not find much as we are under a blanket of snow, but perhaps a walk will tell me different. I will be bookmarking this Hub for future reference. Thank you for the great ideas. Your teacher was a wise man. :)

OanaBoteanu on December 29, 2012:

Brilliant exercise, thank your for this. I love writing but I never studied it. This is great teaching and so much inspiration. I am going to put it in practice.

Thanks a lot.

Voting up.

ARUN KANTI CHATTERJEE from KOLKATA on December 28, 2012:

Although I have tried to be creative in my own way in writing few short stories already published on Hubpages I find your hints very interesting and inspiring.Thank you for sharing your experience and wish you a very happy new year.

RTalloni on December 28, 2012:

So interesting--inspiring, helpful, well-done… Thanks for sharing your experience and what you learned in this how to generate short stories hub. Definitely worth returning to soon!

Sherri (author) from Southeastern Pennsylvania on December 28, 2012:

Tricia, love your comment! It's already tomorrow, as I read your comment. Hope you had that walk and collected things to inspire. :)

Tricia from Scotland on December 27, 2012:

Great idea.... I have a similar experience , although my inspired teacher was a poetry teacher! Teacher with Passion was inspired by him. Visualisation or tangible objects are great writing exercises. I remember leading a workshop with a prompted story and despite the same prompts you get 20+ different stories. I think I may go for a walk tomorrow

Sherri (author) from Southeastern Pennsylvania on August 21, 2012:

Aubrey, what a great comment, meaning it touches me in a very personal way. I don't write short stories, nor novels. I don't write fiction. However, this exercise has helped me so many times and in so many ways to look at expository writing from different viewpoints. I think it's a great exercise for any writer who wants to write anything. My goal as a writer is to give readers information useful to them. This exercise, for me, is about exploration. Every time I use it, I learn something new about how I see the world, and that is the juice that fires my ability to look into the ways others see the world. Thanks so much for your input. ~Sherri

AE Williams from Atlanta, GA on August 21, 2012:

Sally!! This is an awesome article, definitely a cool exercise. While I don't really write short stories, I'm sure this'll work for a novel idea as well. It was cool to stop by!

-Aubrey

Sherri (author) from Southeastern Pennsylvania on August 20, 2012:

Thanks for stopping by to read and share, whittwrites. :)

Timothy Whitt from New Jersey on August 19, 2012:

I love accidental discovery exercises. I find them really creative

Sherri (author) from Southeastern Pennsylvania on August 19, 2012:

@KDuBarry03, glad you find this useful. You are so right about every single object helping to tell a tale, but you know, just one of those objects can elicit a single, powerful tale on its own. Thank you for the tweet and pin!

@mary615, thank you so much for the votes and shares. You know, even though fiction is not a money-earner here, I'm pretty sure lots of people who have come to know you would love to read your stories. I know I would. :)

Mary Hyatt from Florida on August 17, 2012:

This is a very interesting Hub. I used to write short stories, but then after I started writing here on HubPages, I've pretty much stopped because they don't get much traffic. I've written some that I thought was pretty good, too.

This is a good exercise to get a writer thinking. Thanks.

I voted this Hub UP and shared, too.

KDuBarry03 on August 17, 2012:

A Very useful idea! Every single object can help tell a tale. This can also help people conjure up hundreds of ideas for hint fictions to expand into full fledged stories.

Thanks for sharing this! Tweeted and pinned.

Sherri (author) from Southeastern Pennsylvania on August 17, 2012:

TY, Bill, for the good words. This is an exercise that challenges.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on August 17, 2012:

This is really a fascinating exercise! I actually had to do something like this in a teacher workshop and I was amazed at the creativity it gave birth to. Wonderful read Sherri!

Sherri (author) from Southeastern Pennsylvania on August 07, 2012:

Dan Barfield, thanks for the good words. :) And please do share those other activities. You never know when a new one will really hit the mark for someone.

Dan Barfield from Gloucestershire, England, UK on August 07, 2012:

Great inspirational task - this has reminded me of a couple of other activities that have similar intentions. I'll have to share them some time soon. Nice work - keep it up!

Timothy Whitt from New Jersey on July 25, 2012:

Great Hub. I had never heard of this writing exercise before. I love the exercise it is so creative and so adaptable.

Sherri (author) from Southeastern Pennsylvania on July 23, 2012:

TY, Julie and Linda. This was and is a powerful technique for tapping what's in the subconscious. Isn't that what fiction/creative writing is about?

Linda Bilyeu from Orlando, FL on July 23, 2012:

Amazing hub with valuable information! I could see why Julie gave this hub a shout-out :)

Blurter of Indiscretions from Clinton CT on July 23, 2012:

Wow! Impressive- I want to bookmark it! :)

Sherri (author) from Southeastern Pennsylvania on July 18, 2012:

Thank you for the good words, g-girl11. This exercise will not disappoint.

g-girl11 on July 17, 2012:

As a former English teacher, I love this idea. I hope to teach again, and I would definitely use this in the classroom.

Sherri (author) from Southeastern Pennsylvania on June 19, 2012:

Thank you for your comments, buckleupdorothy and Vanderleelie.

Vanderleelie, you summed it up so well...accidental discovery can open a window into the subconscious.

Vanderleelie on June 18, 2012:

This is an excellent hub, providing a concrete exercise and helpful hints for writers who need inspiration. It's amazing that found objects can be so evocative and speak to the writer's subconscious. I like the fact that drawing the object has the effect of drawing words and story ideas from the writer. Voted up and useful!

buckleupdorothy from Istanbul, Turkey on June 17, 2012:

I just love this - and look forward to doing it with my next writing group!

Sherri (author) from Southeastern Pennsylvania on May 21, 2012:

What an interesting comment, Deb. Maybe there's a place for both kinds of exercises...the ones that make you sweat (maybe like a cardio routine) and the ones that make you relax (like yoga). :)

Deborah Neyens from Iowa on May 21, 2012:

This sounds like an interesting exercise. Many writing exercises seem so forced, but this seems like one that you can take at your own pace and reflect on for a while. I may have to give it a try. Thanks for sharing.

Sherri (author) from Southeastern Pennsylvania on April 06, 2012:

What a neat idea, brutallyhonest30s, about using this writing exercise to remember a holiday. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and leaving the good words. :)

brutallyhonest30s from Lancashire on April 06, 2012:

I love this hub. I did a similar exercise in college where we had to bring one object to class from home and then use it as the main feature of a story. I believe I used a coin and I wrote the story as if I were the coin, I described things I had seen, places I'd been left and forgotten about, hands I'd been held in etc. Using an object is a great way of finding inspiration and I'll definitely be trying the paper bag exercise. It would be a great way of remembering a holiday. Perhaps go on three walks, collect two things from each walk and then create a story from the 6 things collected! The story would be a great keepsake from the holiday. Thanks for this inspiring hub!

Sherri (author) from Southeastern Pennsylvania on March 17, 2012:

Amanda, I know what you mean about not finding successful writing activities. And I do think this one's different, precisely because it engages the non-writing side of the brain, a part of us that sees the world differently. I wish you good luck with this one! Let us know how it works for you.

Amanda Rogers from New York on March 16, 2012:

While I haven't found any successful writing activities in a while, this one looks very promising! Excellent hub! Thank you for the thought. :)

Sherri (author) from Southeastern Pennsylvania on March 16, 2012:

You're welcome, bestrxpillstore.

Roberta Kyle from Central New Jersey on March 16, 2012:

What a fabulous exercise in creativity-- I used to belong to a writers group that did these 15 minute writing exercises using a random word or phrase and they too were a lot of fun. This hub is so full of excellent advice on getting the creative juices flowing that I just have to vote it up across the board-- great not just for fiction writing, but also for bloggers and hubbers. Super as always ST.

bestrxpillstore from USA on March 16, 2012:

Thanks a lot..

Sherri (author) from Southeastern Pennsylvania on March 15, 2012:

Thanks, Eddy!

Eiddwen from Wales on March 15, 2012:

A great hub;well informed and easy to follow.

A vote up plus bookmark.

Take care and enjoy your day.

Eddy.

Sherri (author) from Southeastern Pennsylvania on March 15, 2012:

@sgbrown, I'm glad you are going to give this exercise a try. I think you won't be disappointed. :)

@Kulsum Mehmood, thank you for reading and commenting. :)

@FP, you are so funny. Yes, I remember emailing you that list. But you know what, it's a lot easier to generate ideas for someone else to write...my personal idea tank too frequently runs on fumes. Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

Feline Prophet on March 14, 2012:

I'm sure I didn't know the meaning of the word 'fractious' in school...and I definitely would have benefited from such an exercise back then!

Great ideas, as usual, ST. I remember you had sent me a long list of ideas after reading one of my hubs where I was bemoaning my lack of ideas...obviously you never run out of interesting things to write about! :)

Dr Kulsum Mehmood from Nagpur, India on March 14, 2012:

Very unusual hub. Very creative ideas. Thanks for sharing.

Sherri (author) from Southeastern Pennsylvania on March 14, 2012:

@Earth Angel! So nice to see you. Thanks so much for reading and commenting with your good words. ~Sherri

@UW, get that little brown paper bag and go scavenging for some objects. They might just be the key to writing the stories that have been sitting with you for so long. :)

@randomcreative and Diana Lee, I do hope this inspires others.

Sheila Brown from Southern Oklahoma on March 14, 2012:

Hi Sally! This is a great idea. I find unusual things all the time when I am walking and have been having a little writers block lately. I am going to try this and we will see what happens! You have some great ideas! Voted up and useful! Have a great day! :)

Sherri (author) from Southeastern Pennsylvania on March 14, 2012:

jen, thank you for sharing your thoughts. You are not alone. This exercise is a way of centering the self, finding a place of calm, and shutting out a self-conversation, especially a self-critical self-conversation. :) I hope you do try it.

Diana L Pierce from Potter County, Pa. on March 14, 2012:

Thanks for sharing this experience with us. I'm sure many will find it useful.

Sherri (author) from Southeastern Pennsylvania on March 14, 2012:

@billybuc, you are so welcome.

@homesteadbound, since you like to draw, you are totally in line with the benefits this exercise can bring. TY for reading and commenting!

@moneycop, thank you so much for your affirming words. I, also, hope this hub reaches many.

Rose Clearfield from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on March 14, 2012:

Great idea and so well explained! This will be a great inspiration for so many writers.

Susan Keeping from Kitchener, Ontario on March 14, 2012:

Those are great ideas. Even though I don't write fiction these days maybe I should try those kinds of exercises. I have have a couple of ideas for fiction stories that have been kicking around for years, maybe one day I'll do something with them.

Earth Angel on March 14, 2012:

Very Original! GREAT Hub! Thank you for sharing! Blessings Always, Earth Angel!

jenubouka on March 14, 2012:

I wish I could click awesome 10 fold here Sally. What an incredible exercise, at first I was thinking, how the heck is this related, as you wrote. Then I read further, and it makes so much sense. I like to paint, I do feel a sense of connection with my brain and words as I do, however I am a space cadet at times and loose all date of a story line. I am def. going to try this exercise, I do desire to creatively write fiction and I think this will help immensely.

moneycop from JABALPUR on March 14, 2012:

this must become the hub of a day,

so much complete and beautyfully u have narrated the creative side of writing in a creative manner,

if i would be the owner this would be the hub of the day

it needs now more attention...by all hubbers how to write and how to make a hub

voted up and amazing and thanks for lesson

Cindy Murdoch from Texas on March 13, 2012:

I really like this exercise. I will consider using it after I have finished this 30/30 challenge. I like to draw as well as write, so it could be a very rewarding experience.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on March 13, 2012:

Very helpful and informative. I readily admit that I don't do writing exercises but I should. Thank you for some great suggestions.