The Beginnings of an Inquiry into 'Story'

At the beginning of the year (way back in August), I introduced the concept of a 50 word story to help engage my students with writing. They love to tell stories, but often they got bogged down in too many ideas and they spiral out of control, losing all sense of cohesiveness. This is a normal upper elementary phenomenon. Even really strong writers succumb to this. To keep them focused on the story, and how to make it more interesting, I introduced a 50 word story.

This is an Enabling Constraint. It limits what you can do, and the scope in which you do it, but it opens a space for a completely new way of thinking and being. That is what I was after, a re-conception of what stories are, and a fresh way to look at them.

This was before I had read Kendall Haven's Story-Proof. Now, I am feeling as if we should re-examine our previous stories and start to make some definitive choices about what a story is. I have a feeling we are all defining this term differently, which is of course, inevitable. However, we are after elements of a GREAT story, and trying to use storytelling to inform our thinking.

The time seems ripe for an inquiry into story itself.



The Beginnings of an Inquiry into 'Story'

First, we made a huge list (as a group on the whiteboard) of all the elements we believed that went into a GREAT story. Of course, we all had different ideas and beliefs, and we all had different tastes. This depends on the person. The word GREAT is subjective, so we need to approach it with a subjective eye and an open mind. In order to narrow down the list, we personally made Top 5 lists, and then conducted a class poll to choose which were the five most important elements among the collective.

Surprisingly, our list was strikingly similar to Haven's list in Story Proof. Actually, it was almost identical if you reword a couple of the choices.


We decided to use this as a guide to re-read our old 50 word stories. As we did this, we wrote notes in the margins to reflect on how well we used these elements (if the school had any kind of tech infrastructure I would have had each child with a blog or a googlesite and then we could have done this in comments, but we are pretty analogue).

They decided they were ready to try again with a new story, seeing if they could improve on their previous efforts....

However....

Some of the students were concerned that these 5 elements were too much for a 50 word story. They crunched some numbers and decided that it was only 10 words words per element. Too difficult, they protested. I disagreed, and said that if they are careful with their words and focus, they could do it. This did not fly, and we had to change the 50 word story to a 100 story (ah, the wonders of a democratic classroom, I just could not deny such overwhelming support for one position without having it seem tyrannical, but more than that, they packed up their position and provided good rational that I could still disagree with, but I couldn't deny how thoughtful and logical it was).

There were a piles of books on my desk and I looked at the spines of all them and quickly blurted out the first sentence that came to my mind:

"A Wizard found a Mouse in his shoe"

Off they went, finding a spot to sit and a group of like minded individuals to confer with.

I find what happens during the actual writing phrase to be among the most interesting in all my kid watching experiences. There were times in the past where I would be the police officer (I lovingly call that old me the Corporeal of Quiet), hushing everyone up and getting them settled to write. You need quiet to write, right? Isn't that what popular culture tells about the life of writer? They are solitary animals, living in a cabin in the words, alone in their heads, eating food out of tins, drinking brownish coloured liquid, until finally the story is done and they arise from their self-induced prison and enter the human world again, only to retreat back to their writing hideaway to tell the next tale.

Not exactly. Writing is a highly social activity. I remember reading on Brain Pickings (by far the best website on the internet if you love books, art and anything related to humans as thinking creatures) about how Ernest Hemingway spent about 80% of his writing time helping other writers, responding to letters, and having conversations about writing. Chuck Palahnuik used to go to Emergency Rooms to watch what real emotion looks like. There is an entire book dedicated to the daily routines of famous authors. Reading through them it is amazing how many authors alternate between solitary writing conditions and social engagements.

However, as the authors in that post almost unanimously agree on, writing is also a solitary act. You and the story. The author works out the mechanics themselves. Of course, during the process they come up for air, meet with others, collaborate, discuss, argue, debate, and then off they go back down the rabbit hole and into their own world of story and characters.

Once I let go of being the Corporeal of Quiet, I noticed that is exactly what kids were doing. They would chat, they would get animated, they would laugh, and then, they would be quiet, self absorbed in their own work, until they were pulled back up by others or came up themselves for a breath of air. It is not quiet and orderly any more (though every once in a while, all the planets line up into a row and the class goes eerily silent and a chill runs up my spine until it is broken by a voice and the chatter returns), but it more resembles how real writers work (and more importantly, I have seen the quality of written work improve). The ideas they share with others allow them to create more of their own ideas. Saying it out loud gives it new life.

Come to think of it, now I am thinking out loud here, I wonder if I should share this idea with my kids, because I don't know if they are explicitly aware of this or not. Of course, if I make them aware, and I give the thing a name, will it result in a change of attitude? Not sure what to do, need to think about it.... to be aware of the thing, or to let the thing just be?

Anyway, where were we? Yes, so we wrote our 100 word story (by the way, these side topic thinking rants are by far my favourite thing about blogging, I learn so much about myself) and then re-evaluated them using our 5 elements of story criteria. I found this was a difficult task for the kids. They were able to spot the elements in the story and name them, but they had no tool in which analyse the quality. They could recognize that they included Intent (or they didn't, which was more likely the case) but they didn't know if they did it well. Finding it is only half the work, we need to be able to assess ourselves in the process.

As much as I hated to admit it to myself, they needed a rubric.


I'm not sure I am in love with this, but at least it is a place to start. I don't like how the first column in each section is phrased in a negative, but I just couldn't think of a way to say "I didn't do the thing that I was trying to do" in a positive way.

Next week, we will create a new story and use this rubric to talk about how GREAT our stories are.

Finally, before I end my ramblings and get back to my book, one of the easiest and most powerful entry points I have found to editing and opening discussion of our writing, is to present the writing to the class. It is always optional, and every student has the write to pass (though most are eager). I have bad memories of being forced to share writing I wasn't proud of. Me, standing in front of the entire class, with a piece of paper full of handwriting I couldn't read (I have dysgraphia, which wasn't spotted until much later in life), and a story that I knew was bad. Horror.

We have been doing this in three ways:
  • Read it aloud to the class
  • Teacher or a friend reads it out loud for you
  • Record yourself reading and listen to the audio
By far the most popular choice is reading it out loud yourself, with a few choosing me or a friend to read it. This reminds me of a pod-cast I listened to with David Sedaris, where he talks about how he edits his own work by reading it out to large audiences, and marking down how they react to certain parts. If he was expecting a laugh, and it doesn't come, he needs to re-work it. The words he uses and the way he structures the story evoke reactions in the audience, and he is explicitly trying to achieve a specific reaction. His audience is always in mind when he writes. This is something that young writers struggle with, reacting to how the audience will react. 

I just decided, that will have to make its way into our discussion sooner or later.

When the time is ripe.


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