Monday, September 30, 2013

Elements of Story and what I learned

Lots of kids like to write stories. But sometimes those stories go on forever, or they’re super short,  or they're sort of...not really stories, or they’re all the same, or whatever. So it’s worth it to try to stretch kid writers by taking a look at the elements that typically go into stories, and to let them experiment with those elements. 

Lest you reject this as too much like yucky fourth grade language arts requirements, let me make a case for learning the elements of story. They are a good thing to understand as a reader, as well as a writer. Stories typically have a common structure. Once you know the pattern and can recognize it in a variety of contexts, you can start building (filling) a reservoir of models to support a critical stance. Kids can start seeing it in their own lives. They can start seeing it in commercials, start understanding how advertisers use it to hook us. They can appreciate its complexities in literature and film. And see and appreciate when authors and filmmakers deviate from the structure. Not that any of this is necessary, but it makes life richer and more interesting. 

Background Information (Just the facts, ma’am.)
I Googled “elements of story” to check my facts, and it turns out that there are conflicting opinions as to what, exactly, the elements are. Everyone seems to agree on setting, characters, and conflict or problem, but after that it all falls apart. Some people say that plot is an element, others break out exposition, rising action, climax and resolution, still others include climax and resolution in the plot but drop everything else, and even other others skip plot altogether and go with theme.

Keeping in mind that one of the goals is to write a story, I’m going to go with 
  1. setting (where and when)
  2. characters (who)
  3. conflict or problem (what/why)
  4. rising action, or steps toward solving the problem (how)
  5. climax
  6. resolution

Even though the last three all go under the umbrella of plot (maybe even the last four, since the conflict is what drives the plot), it makes sense to me to think of them separately to make sure they all get recognized in the story.

These elements are pretty self-explanatory, and it shouldn’t be tough to present them directly and go through, say, a fairy tale or a fable, to make sure your writer can recognize them. 

Two elements, conflict and climax, can get a little knotty. I think it’s worth examining the complications, so if you don’t mind the detour, skip to the end. If you first want to know how to do something with your writer/reader, just keep reading. 

What We Did Together
After a quick introduction of the elements, we tried finding them in something that Tai finds engaging: a Clone Wars episode. The Shaun the Sheep television series worked well, too. Hint: Reluctant writers, when it’s their turn to write, can just create a new episode--the problem of creating original characters out of whole cloth is solved for them. They can use the setting, too, if necessary.

Cool. Want to try making a story frame using the five elements?

By the way, I realize that a lot of stories, and most novels, develop organically. Characters take on a life of their own, and all that. Often, the solution to the problem isn’t clear at the outset, even to the author. So I’m not suggesting that every story a child writes be bound to the framework of story elements. But it’s worth trying out once or twice. Also, this can get kids (like mine) to experiment with writing a story in a way that doesn’t require them to have to write pages and pages of “creative” stuff.

What Happened Next
Just make a skeleton, I said. Anything you want. He said he wanted to do a Clone Wars episode, so okay, sure. I used the word screenplay, and he responded by turning the setting into a series of scenes. 

I realize that reading his writing requires kind of a lot of prior knowledge, so here are the essentials: Separatists (Darth Sidious, Count Dooku) = bad guys; 
Jedi and Clone troopers (Anakin, etc.; Cpt. Rex, Com. Cody, Com. Wolff) = good guys; 
Yavin 4 = planet, location of ancient Masasai civilization. 

Here’s the result, spelling uncorrected:

Aurra Sing, Cad Bane, IG88, and Bossk. (bounty hunters)
Trandoshon, Duros, Clawdite, and falleen. (bounty hunters)
Captain Rex, Comander Cody, and Comander Wolff.
Anakin, Obi-Wan, Plo-Koon, Ahsoka, and Yoda.
Darth Sideous, and Count Dooku.

Problem: Separatists send a team of elite bounty hunters after sacred Masasai object.
Solve problem by getting another team of bounty hunters to fight back.
Adventures to Yavin 4 and big fight for a Masasai war temple.
Lots of small skirmeshes in the jungle ending in hair-raising getaways for both teams.
Big fight in the air in fighters for control of the temple to get at the Masasai sacred object.
Bad team of bounty hunters crashes and escapes in a cloaked escape shuttle.
Good team of bounty hunters find the object but lose the bad bounty hunters.
End, credits


Scene 1: Jedi War Room
Scene2 Masasai Main Room.
Scene3 Yavin 4 jungle clearing.
Scene4 Finished Bounty hunter camp.
Scene5 Skirmish #1
Scene6 Contacting the Jedi.
Scene7 Skirmish #2.
Scene8 Deploying the probe.
Scene9 Finding the object.
Scene10 Battle in the sky.
Scene11 Crash!
Scene12 Escape.
End, Credits.
Scene13 Regroup.

Whoa. I had not anticipated this level of complexity. So I learned something: After watching all of those Clone Wars episodes, Tai developed a pretty sophisticated sense of the structure of a 22-minute action/adventure television episode, right down to creating a cliffhanger, rolling the credits, and including a teaser. 

My original intent was to have this be Phase I of a Big Project. But when I tried to turn this cool frame into a screenplay, Tai was not interested in creating dialogue, did not want to describe each scene in detail, and ran into a couple of sticky plot problems. Kablooie. No use telling him that every author struggles with these things. He was done and he hated me and he hated writing.

Looking Back
I think the idea of a Big Project wasn’t bad. But it should have been limited to one  scene, maybe two, from the beginning. Or maybe doing a narrative of a couple of scenes instead of dialogue. Because what were my goals for this project? 1) To familiarize Tai with the elements of a story, 2) to get him to experiment with using the elements, and...3) to have him write a screenplay? Oh. Right. Kind of ambitious for a kid who hates to write. Describe setting. Describe actions, entrances, exits, shots. Practice dialogue. Practice show-not-tell to create characters. For thirteen scenes. No wonder he had a meltdown.

Other Options:
  • Do the screenplay skeleton and that’s it.
  • Make a plain story elements skeleton and that’s it.
  • Or fill it in, if your writer wants to. Depending on enthusiasm and/or amenability, suggest a focus on setting or character. Better, especially for I-hate-to-writers, just fill in some plot details.
  • Modify one scene (screenplay) or plot point (story) into a paragraph describing the action. Illustrate it.
  • Describe one element of the scene or plot point: a person, a key object, the setting. Illustrate it.
  • Make a flip book (see below), except instead of the yucky "don'ts", label each page with the title of the scene, and on the page, write a sentence or two about what happens. Maybe draw a picture. Or each page could just be an element, with a couple of sentences providing more detail.
  • Take turns
  • Make skeleton of story w/ five elements
  • Play Your Turn, My Turn: pick a scene and take turns writing sentences to fill in the action, description, or dialogue.
DON'T make a flipbook of don'ts like this one. I have no problem with addressing the reader. You're supposed to keep the reader in mind. And weak endings and poor transitions--yes, good to avoid them, but we know that already.

I'm definitely going to try this again. 

Oh, yeah--
My issues with conflict, climax and plot diagramming:
Sometimes the conflict or problem can be tricky to identify. It’s fair to say, for example, that Cinderella’s underlying problem is her disenfranchisement--the fact that her evil step-family have made her a miserable slave. Or maybe it’s her passive acceptance of her situation, if you’re doing a deconstructionist feminist reading. The more directly plot-related problem is that she has been forbidden from attending the royal ball. The problem with the royal ball conflict is that it’s solved the moment her fairy godmother appears. It might be worth discussing this conundrum with your writer, depending on his age.

The term “climax” in a story context was described to me in fifth grade as “the most exciting part of the story” or “the height of the action”. According to a web search, it continues to be described this way. Most plot diagrammers draw it that way, too. And they often put the climax in the middle of the plot as well, like this:

I have two problem with this. First, it’s misleading. “Most exciting” is purely a matter of opinion; I agree that it is often (but not always!) the most emotionally charged, intense moment of a plot, but kids typically equate excitement with action, and not all climaxes are action packed. Let’s call the climax the place/time where we find out how the problem will be solved. If there’s a direct one-against-one conflict, it’s the point at which it becomes clear who will win. The turtle crosses the finish line first. The giant falls off the beanstalk. The shoe fits. (See what I mean? Emotionally intense, yes. But less exciting than a panicky race home against the clock. Also, it would be a shoe. How Sex in the City is that?) 

Second, the graphic is wrong. Plot diagrams showing the climax in the middle confused me in elementary school, because the climax of a story--a good story, anyway--happens at the end, not the middle. I hated writing in what I knew to be the climax of a story on the line attached to the apex of the hill in the middle of the plot diagram line. But that’s easily addressed by not putting it in the middle. 

Check out this guy’s blog; he has the same issues as me, and also an alternative.

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