Monday 10 November 2014

Kids, Impress Your English Teacher!

My 10 year old nephew asked me if I knew of a book that taught kids how to write a story. It would be nice if this was because he already wanted to be a writer, but my nephew has no love for writing. He enjoys reading and watching movies, but when it comes to writing something himself, he’d much rather stick his face in an iPad (for several hours).

However, his English teacher keeps giving him story-writing assignments, which he finds a chore. In addition to which, there are other kids in his class who can spit out a story rat-a-tat-tat

He would also like to be able to write a good story quickly and without having to spend ages staring at a wall. 

I’m not aware of any “how to write fiction” books specifically aimed at children. So, instead, I sat him down and attempted to walk him through the basics of what makes a story a story by having him come up with something on the spot.

First, I told him, you need a character who wants something. It can be a boy or girl, or even a group of people, but they have to want something. What does your character want?

Nephew: World peace.

Okay, that’s a good general goal, but how does he intend to achieve world peace. I mean if he could do anything, what would be his plan? 

Nephew: He wants to stop war.

All war?

Nephew: Yes.

Okay, you could do that but it’s much harder to make a story about stuff that’s general and happening somewhere out there. The more personal you make it for the boy, the easier it will be to work out what he does. So rather than him wanting to do something about stuff he sees on TV or whatever, if it’s happening to him in his life, it will make a better story. And be easier to write.

Nephew: What if there’s a war in the country where he lives and he wants to stop that war?

Yes, good. He wants to stop the fighting going on around him. So here’s the next thing. Whatever it is he wants to do, there should be a good reason why he can’t do it. If it’s too easy it won’t be very interesting. Do you understand what I mean?

Nephew looks blankly at me.

If it’s a story about a kid who wants to find his missing toy, and he looks under his bed and there it is, that’s going to be a very short story, and not very exciting. Whatever he wants has to be difficult so the person reading the story will want to know what’s going to happen and how the story will turn out. In your story, what’s stopping the boy from stopping the war?

Nephew (looking at me like I’m an idiot): He’s just a kid, nobody listens to him.

Fair enough. So then what does he do?

Nephew shrugs.

You’ve got your main character—does he have a name? No? That’s fine, come up with it later—and you know what he wants, and you know why it’s hard for him to do it, so now the readers want to know how he’s going to stop the war. What does he do?

Nephew: I don’t know. 

That’s okay. There are two types of stories, one where the hero decides to do something and then he goes off and does it, or maybe it’s his job, like he’s a policeman or a spy. But then there are some stories where the hero starts off as a more normal person. Most people have lots of things they’d like to do, but they never do them because they’re too hard, or they don’t have the time, or they’re stuck doing other stuff. In those sorts of stories something happens that changes everything. They go from dreaming about doing stuff to actually having to do it, because of the change.

Nephew looks at me blankly.

Like in Spiderman, Peter Parker gets bitten by a spider and then he has these powers and everything changes. Or Harry Potter gets a letter telling him he’s going to Hogwarts. What happens to the boy in your story that makes him realise he has to do something about the war?

Nephew: When they get to 14 or 15 all the boys have to go in the army.

Okay, that’s interesting. So he’s 13 and he’s about to turn 14?

Nephew nods.

That works. And is there any special reason why he doesn’t want to fight, or any particular person he...

Nephew: There’s a boy who he used to be friends with...

Who’s on the other side now? Right, so what would help is if you made this other boy quite important, like he’s the son of the leader of the enemy. And maybe your hero is the son of the leader on this side. And the boys used to be best friends before the war started. 

Nephew: So if can get to his friend and talk to him maybe he can find a way to stop the war. 

Maybe. But now that you know what the boy is going to try and do, it’s important that thing he doesn’t want to happen, happens.

Nephew looks at me blankly.

Let’s say the hero doesn’t want to end up fighting his best friend, that means near the end of the story he should end up fighting his best friend.

Nephew looks at me blankly.

Look, when you read a story or watch a film, you know the good guys going to win, right? You know the guy looking for the treasure is going to find the treasure. You know the boy and girl who fall in love are going to end up together, but it’s the writer’s job to make you not so sure. 

If someone’s trying to stop a bomb going off, you could have them arrive ten minutes early, and stop the bad guys before they have a chance to start the timer, but that would be pretty boring. That’s why the bomb always has ten seconds to go and everyone’s running around like crazy.

Nephew nods slowly.

If he ends up fighting his best friend, maybe the whole war will be decided by who wins. If he refuses to fight all his family and the people on his side will lose everything. But his friend wants to fight. He’s changed.

Nephew: He’s been brainwashed.

Okay. So now the reader of the story isn’t so sure what’s going to happen. He still wants to stop the war but maybe he can’t. What you have to do is come up with a solution, but instead of stopping it before anything bad happens, he has to stop it when the bad thing has already started, in this case that’s him fighting his best friend and not getting killed.

Nephew: He can shake him and say, “I know you’re in there.”

Yes. But he’s known him since they were kids, they used to play together, so he knows stuff about him he can use. Like maybe they used to play superheroes and he was Captain Fantastic, so he shakes him and says, “I know you’re in there Captain Fantastic,” to snap him out of it. Something like that.

Nephew: He could have a flashback.

Yes, or you could have a scene at the start of the story of them playing as kids.

Nephew: But don’t make it obvious.

No, you want it to be there but have other stuff happening around it so it’s isn’t too obvious.

Nephew : Or maybe it looks like it’s going to work, but it doesn’t.

Yes, you can do that too. You can trick the reader and that makes it more interesting to read, but then you have to still come up with a way for him to win. But that's the thing about being the writer, you get to find out how the story ends and then you can go back and change things so he has the answer. Like that flashback idea, or something else he finds out along the way. 

You don't need to have know everything that happens. When you reach the end of a story you're writing, that isn't the end of the story. You can go back and slot stuff in, and the person reading can't tell you did that. It also helps if you write it on a computer, so you don't have to squeeze words onto the page.

So, if the flashback doesn't work out like he hoped, how does he convince his friend to stop fighting?

Nephew stares at the wall deep in thought. I leave him to it... 

It was interesting to see which bits of information he needed and which he didn’t. Things like the name of the boy, what he looked like, what kind of world he lived in all seemed unimportant; he was confident he could come up with that stuff himself. I asked him if he had a title for the story and he immediately said, Friend or Foe.  I was also surprised he knew about flashbacks (I guess watching a lot of television has it's benefits after all).

Still, there didn’t seem to be a way to totally avoid staring at a wall trying to think of something interesting to write next. 

Will be interesting to see if he approaches his next English assignment any differently.
If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

That was hilarious! You handled it well. And hopefully got his gears going enough to create the story.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

Kids have such imagination if they only could learn how to tap into it. What if the teacher had talked the entire class through something like this.

Marina Sofia said...

My children have great imagination, but like your nephew, they too hate having to write school assignments. I think it's the physical act of writing as well that they hate (I'm thinking of teaching them to touch-type) as well as having to mind all the spelling, adjectives, adverbs etc. I'll have to try this technique next time...

Andrea Mack said...

I meet up with this gap between imaginative ideas and the ability to physically write them down all the time when I'm working with my kindergarten students. It can be so helpful to talk kids through a story to help them shape it. It's sad how school assignments can take the love of something away (kind of like how analyzing books takes away the joy of reading them).

One writing book that I've come across about story-writing that is written for kids is Writing Magic by Gail Carson Levine.

LD Masterson said...

Hmm, now how can I have this same conversation with my writing-hating grandson? Stealing all your best ideas, of course.

mooderino said...

@Alex - he tends to be much more enthusiastic when no pen or paper is required.

@Susan - the main problem with teaching is time, not enough of it to focus on one student. Our en masse approach is cost effective but not effective in any other way.

@Marina - any kind of physical exertion seems to be a problem for kids these days. Probably something in the water.

@Andrea - Thanks for the tip, will try to track down that book.

@LD - steal away.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I think you're the perfect person to teach lessons on writing.

And Moody, in response to your comment about Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver being Inhumans (or not being Inhumans), they can't be mutants because Fox owns all the mutants. Since Disney doesn't own Fox, I think they have to be Inhumans.

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