How to run a novice writing class

Being a writer has come in handy for me in a few unexpected ways.

I’m also an English tutor and a disabilities volunteer. And in these spaces, I often find myself drawing upon my writer’s training – both formal and experiential – to explain storytelling conventions.

I realise that the ‘beginning, middle and end’ model of story crafting is probably well-intended, and mandated by the curriculum. However, I don’t think it gives a thorough enough understanding of how a story works. It gives the impression that a story is just ‘stuff that happens’. For young students, this can sometimes mean that when it’s time to analyse a work of fiction for an assessment – or produce one – they end up a bit lost.

I’ve run writing workshops with adults as well, and found that even the other volunteers (who didn’t have intellectual disabilities) had missed out on a lot of what I think ought to be basic knowledge.

So today, I present an antidote to the ‘beginning, middle and end’ model. This resource is intended for anyone who intends to teach storytelling to others. Originally, I conducted this lesson at Access, but it could work just as well for schoolchildren. The basis for the lesson was what I decided to call the ‘universal conventions’ – these being character, setting and plot. We followed it up with some writing activities, based on the lesson.

Feel free to use these notes as you wish; just drop me a line in the comments or through my contact page. Directions for the teacher are in italics. Bold terms are intended to be written on the board.

 

Greet the class. Explain that there are many types of stories, and ways of telling them:

‘You are writing a story, but what other ways can you tell a story?’ (Answers: speaking, acting it out, still images (comics, illustrations), moving images (film), even music or dance.) ‘These are called media. Each one is a medium.’

‘Not everybody agrees about the number of story types, either. One way to classify stories is by genre.’ (Ask them about genre. Movies etc also have genres.) ‘Your local librarian might put a sticker on the spine of a book to tell people what genre it is: a little dragon for fantasy, a magnifying glass for mystery, a heart shape for a romance. There are many different genres, with different conventions.’ (What genre is their story? What are some conventions of certain genres?)

‘But there are some conventions that all stories have in common. I am going to call these story elements the ‘universal conventions’ today.

‘Let’s begin with the most important universal convention: CHARACTER.

‘Characters are the active entities in your story. They are usually people, but not always: sometimes they are animals, objects or imaginary creatures such as aliens. It is impossible to tell a story for very long without characters. Characters are the ones who do things, or have things done to them.

‘There are many types of characters, but there are several basic types that many stories have in common.

‘The main character is called the protagonist. This is the character that has the most important things happen to him or her (or it). A protagonist is sometimes called the hero or heroine, especially if he or she is a “goodie”.’ (Ask the class to tell you about some protagonists in popular culture.) ‘But this is not always the case. In a drama, there may be no “goodies” or “baddies” – just people who know each other and have problems. Some stories have no set protagonist; they might have a group of main characters who share the spotlight equally. You can have protagonists who are evil, too. Usually, though, the protagonist is somebody who the audience can sympathise with. Their actions, decisions and experiences make up the bulk of the story. They must have a compelling goal – that is, they must want something, and the story then follows his/her/its pursuit of that goalDo you have a protagonist in your story? Who is it? What are they like? What do they want?

‘Often, stories have one or more antagonists. I use this word because an antagonist is not necessarily a “baddie” (although the best ones are) – an antagonist is simply someone who works against the protagonist. They set up the circumstances that force the protagonist to do things. A story doesn’t have to have an antagonist – it might just be a set of circumstances that the protagonist must overcome, instead, like making up with his children, or surviving in the mountains by herself. But even then, there must be something in the protagonist’s way. Tell me about some antagonists. Tell me some stories with no antagonist. What does your story have?

‘And usually there are secondary characters – everybody else. They are the people that surround the protagonist. There are many types of secondary characters. (Sidekick – the protagonist’s helper; mentor – the protagonist’s teacher; love interest – somebody the protagonist is in love with…) They can also have very important roles in the story. They might help the protagonist, or get in his/her way, or even be the thing that he/she wants. What are some other types of secondary characters? What secondary characters are in your story?

‘The next universal convention is SETTING. This is the time and place (or times and places) where the story happens. The setting is important because it affects the characters – their culture and their circumstances. For example, it would be unusual if you had a New York detective slaying dragons. It is also part of the general type of story. You expect that a science fiction story will be set in the future, for example. Sometimes, the setting is so important to the plot that it can almost be a character itself, especially in a story with a set of circumstances rather than an antagonist. Setting is also a way to create the mood of the story. A dark, cold, dirty city is a perfect setting for a crime story, whereas a fantastical magic land would be more difficult. But you don’t always have to make the setting match the type of story: you could have a dragon in the city, or a New York detective solving crimes in a magical land. What is the setting of your story? How does it fit the story – or not?

‘So now we have some characters, in a setting… but it’s still not a story. Why? Because nothing is happening to them! Let’s talk about the PLOT.

‘What is a plot, everyone? It’s all the important stuff that happens in the story. Today, we’ll look at a traditional narrative (the most common plot structure), which has seven stages.’ 

Use a story the whole class will know as an example. I used ‘The Lion King’. Almost any well-known story can work, although I’d advise against using picture books, which are often too short to demonstrate the lesson effectively. Myths and fairytales don’t make great examples either, because the nature of folklore is that it changes with every telling; not everyone will know the same version. Also, mythical and legendary storylines are often kind of random. It’s not uncommon for the protagonist to be saved by a deus ex machina (woodcutter ex machina, prince ex machina, etc).

You might like to draw a graph on the whiteboard of how the tension rises and falls throughout the story as you explain.

  1. ‘The setup.

‘This is usually a very short stage, but it is important. This stage gives the audience an idea of what the story will be, who will be in it, and all the other important things that let us get our bearings.

  1. ‘The problem.

‘We learn what is going to be the main source of conflict in the story – that is, the main thing that the protagonist will have to face.

  1. ‘The motivating incident.

‘This is the first incident that forces the protagonist to do something, and pushes him into the next phase of the plot. Something has changed; the problem, whatever it is, has become something that the protagonist must personally resolve.

  1. ‘The obstacles and challenges.

‘This is usually the longest part of the story. The protagonist experiences things which increase the tension in the story. It usually consists of several events or developments.

  1. ‘The darkest hour.

‘This is when things are as bad as possible for the protagonist. Her friends have abandoned her, she is locked in the changing room right before the championship, or she’s sitting in the guts of a monster with no way out. She has to realise that it’s up to her to fix things.

  1. ‘The climax.

This is the point of greatest tension for the audience and the protagonist. This is the bit where everything is at stake. The ending depends on the outcome of this stage.

  1. ‘The resolution.

‘This is the ending, where problems are sorted out (or not) and the new circumstances are established. Order is restored… usually.

‘Who can think of another story that follows this pattern? Does your story follow this pattern? (It doesn’t have to.) If it does, though, what happens at each stage?’

 

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