Teaching kids to structure a story is not easy. A lot of students know how to begin, but can’t seem to finish. Others don’t know where to begin. There are plenty of writing templates out there which focus on detail: the five senses, character sketches, describe a setting… All of these are useful, but not at the planning stage.
What to give students at the very beginning?
This is the template I use with my nine-year-old daughter. For more experienced writers there’s a lot more to it, but I have had great success with my own kid. She loves this template. She now knows how to finish off a story.
1. Who is your main character?
What makes your character scared/angry/upset?
How do they treat other people badly?
2. What do they want?
What is the one big thing your main character wants in THIS story?
They might want two things.
They KNOW about one of these things. (e.g. a new guitar)
But they DON’T KNOW about the other thing. (e.g. to play guitar in front of an audience so everyone loves them and claps)
3. Opponent / Monster / Baddie / Enemy / Frenemy
Who is against your main character?
Who wants the exact OPPOSITE thing?
Or maybe they’re after the SAME thing, but only one person can have it.
Who thinks they’re helping, but really they’re not?
Who pretends to be their friend, but really they’re not?
4. What’s the plan?
How will your main character get that thing they want?
What are they going to do?
Where will they have to go?
Who needs to help?
Sometimes plans work, sometimes they don’t.
Sometimes the first plan has to change a bit before it works.
Sometimes a character does not get what they want. This is called a ‘tragedy’
5. Big Battle
Before the end of your story there will be:
A big fight
A big argument
A near-death experience
6. What does your character learn?
Your main character has learnt something.
It might be about themselves. It might be something about life in general.
They did not know this thing at the beginning of the story.
7. How will life be different from now on?
Does your main character live in the same place, or in a new place? Maybe it’s the same place, but feels different now.
Do they have the same friends and family?
Have things changed between them and other characters?
Have they lost something, or got something new?
This template is a simplified version of John Truby’s 7 Step Story Structure, which you can read more about in The Anatomy of Story.
In juxtaposing a series of pictures in order to imply the sequence of a story, picture-book artists act much as filmmakers do. Andre Bazin[film critic] suggests that montage, assumed by many to be the essence of film art, is “the creation of a sense of meaning not proper to the images themselves but derived exclusively from their juxtaposition”. In films, the arrangement of a succession of shots provides the events depicted with their significance; not surprisingly, filmmakers often prepare themselves for shooting by using storyboards, sequential drawings of the various shots they intend to make of the scenes they will film that look much like picture books.
– Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures
1. Media Study – Studying Feature Films, while not particularly attractive as a website, and targeted at the GCSE syllabus (England), this website has useful links for resources which are not specific to GCSE.
3. Artemis Film Guides are classroom resources created by English and Art History teacher of many years’ experience, Judy Lewis. I have worked with Judy, used her resources and can vouch for their quality. Judy knows which films will appeal to teenagers. Schools can purchase these resources through the site, with no further worry about breaking copyright by photocopying.
9. Form Cuts (or Match Cuts) are a film technique quite often used in picture books, for example in The Garden of Abdul Gasazi by Chris Van Allsburgh (round back of old sofa, curved bridge) Nodelman notes that Pat Hutchins depicts the same tree in each picture of Goodnight, Owl, but adds a new set of birds each time. Form cuts are good for making the differences in each picture really clear — the fixed position of objects anchors changes that are significant to the story.
10. The dynamic frame is even more common in picturebooks than it is in film. Filmmakers who use dynamic frame change the size and shape of the image on the screen. It has gone out of fashion in filmmaking. You still see it in contemporary films when shooting through doorways, for example, so hat the lighted area seen by thte audience is shaped, even though the shape of the screen itself doesn’t change. For an example of this technique in a picture book see Hyman’s Sleeping Beauty, with views through the arches. In Where The Wild Things Are, the pictures gradually grow in size and then become smaller.
The change in frame sizes is not annoying in picturebooks as it can be in films — instead, this is an accepted picturebook convention. It’s fairly common to place more pictures on a single page when there’s a lot going on.
11. Robert Lawson’s The Story of Ferdinand is one of the few picturebooks to use many of the very common film shots. Most picturebooks make heavy use of medium close ups.
Ferdinand is only one of many picture books that, in its choice of vantage points, its quick cuts, its total flexibility, would have been unthinkable before motion pictures.
For all the similarities between motion pictures and modern picturebooks, Perry Nodelman notes one big difference:
Even when picture-book illustrators do vary from eye-level middle-distance or long shots, the effect of the variation is not cinematic. In films, we see the same scene from a variety of angles; in most picture books, indeed even in Ferdinand, every picture marks a different point in the story, in effect a different episode….almost every picture in most books represents a different scene. The whole point of film montage is that we come to understand action by means of the various ways the action has been broken down into smaller bits. But that does not happen in picture books. That, I believe, is the major difference between the depiction of action in picture-book narrative and in all other sorts of visual media; we see only a few carefully selected moments out of numerous possibilities, whereas on film we see many different ones of those possibilities, and on stage in any given scene, we see all of them. Because picture-book artists are restricted in the number of moments they can depict–usually it is fewer than fifteen, including the title page– they must choose their moments carefully and vary them more than do film-makers. If the angles remain the same, the actions depicted are always different; Max may make mischief in two different pictures, but they are two different sorts of mischief…Comic books can be located somewhere between picture books and films; they almost always show many different pictures of the same sequence of actions, and they tend to make use of every conceivable sort of shot, every possible angle…When picture books show more shots, they tend to take on the conventions of comic books and films.
– Words About Pictures
From Christian Metz
In a discussion of the semiology of film, Christian Metz suggests that films demand from their viewer knowledge of at least five different systems of signification, most of which can also be found in slightly different ways in picture books: culturebound patterns of visual and auditory perception (such as knowing how to understand a perspective through drawing), recognition of the objects shown on screen (labeling), knowledge of their cultural significance (such as knowing that black clothing stands for mourning), narrative structures (knowledge of types of stories and how they usually work out), and purely cinematic means of implying significance, such as music and montage. Metz suggests that each complete film, “relying on all these codes, plays them one against the other, eventually arriving at its own individual system, its ultimate (or first?) principle of unification and intelligibility.” In other words, filmmakers make use of the differences between various means of communication in the knowledge that each medium they bring into play will finally merely be part of the whole along with all the others; consequently, they deliberately (or sometimes, given the varying narrative capabilities of different media, inevitably) make each incomplete so that it can indeed be part of a whole and so that the meaning will be communicated by the whole and not any specific part of the whole. What the clothing and gesture do not reveal to us, the music or the narrative structure might; and what the clothing and the music communicate separately is different from what they communicate together. So each medium that filmmakers use always communicates different information differently, and all of them express their fullest meaning in terms of the ironies inherent in their differences from each other.
At The Art Of Manliness blog is an article called ‘How To Read A Book’. I’m in need of a few tips on manliness. I’m also wondering if there is, in fact, a right and a wrong way to read a book, so I read it. Turns out there are many different ways of talking about levels of close reading. This article divides them into these four:
Since a synoptical level of reading texts is generally achieved at the university level, a good analytic understanding of texts is something to aim for in high school graduates. Yet as pointed out in the article, many aren’t getting there.
Analytical reading is where most readers fall short. The average high schooler in America reads at a 5th grade level, and the average adult American reads somewhere between the 7th and 8th grade levels.
A guy called Mortimer Adler has a few theories on this: school never really teaches how to read a book. So that was back in 1940, and I’m confident schools all over the place are doing a better job of educating the masses than way back when, but one thing hasn’t changed: schools are still pressed for time.
So we get to high school and college and get overloaded with reading assignments that we’re supposed to write long papers about, and yet we’ve never learned how to truly dissect a book and get the most value out of it.
There simply isn’t the time to guide students through a deep-read of all the worthy high school texts. Instead, teachers can guide them through a few and hope for the best.
This is where picturebooks can be useful. The most recent review of our first picturebook app, The Artifacts, tells us that, in Ireland at least, our first storybook app is being used in high schools. I find this really interesting, because that’s how I’d use such a thing, too. Picturebooks are the perfect tool for teaching analytical reading skills to high school aged students because you can do the entire thing in a 50 minute period if you have to. In a couple of weeks you can do 6 or 8 deep reads, from start to finish, and that includes multiple readings. Short stories are good too, and ideally the teacher would have time to collect a variety of short texts on a similar theme. To do the same deep read wit, say, Lord of the Flies it takes five or six weeks and then the teacher has to rely on students reading in their own time. Short texts are better for less advantaged students who don’t necessarily have the peace and quiet to complete long reads at home. Also, a wider range of short texts allows for the fact that different students will be engaged by different stories. So although few students are going to like all six short texts, all of them are going to like at least one.
Then there’s the fact that most of our students are going to be parents themselves, sooner or later. And even if they never finish another novel in their entire lifetimes, we can hope that they will read picturebooks to their own offspring.
Quentin Blake told an audience that children learn to read from an “emotional motivation”, as he urged educators not to “turn their backs” on the fun of illustrations. (The Telegraph)
“The relationship between text and illustration can on occasion be quite complex, but what illustration can first of all do is to welcome you to the book,” he said in the Hay Library Lecture.
That’s why I love picturebooks in the high school language arts classroom.
Here, Cathy Jo Nelson suggests using ‘easy’ books in the classroom because:
These books are a GREAT way to introduce a topic in any classroom or content area. They can be the perfect segue from topic to topic or activity to activity in any classroom. These books also tap into the inner creative side for some, and we all know there are plenty of students who do not respond to dry text, but will respond to stories or pictures that make connections, evoke feelings, and allow for the appreciation of literature, dramatic readings, and in its purest form, the appreciation of art.
I did my fair share of teaching with pictures when I was a high school language teacher. I love this approach partly, I’m guessing, because I’m a visual learner myself. But there is one big problem with teaching like this to a group of 30 students: The ones at the back can’t see it properly.
When our school acquired its first data projector, that thing lived mainly in my classroom. I believe many schools have since achieved funding for a data projector in every classroom and this is great news for our daughter, who starts school next year.
So I’m perplexed when I read things like this from picturebook enthusiasts (with blogs that I love, by the way):
The close proximity, the intimacy of [teachers reading picturebooks to a classroom of students], explains why reading picture books online or on a tablet feels so much less satisfying.
As far as I’m concerned, a classroom equipped with a tablet and a data projector is the best possible set up for teaching with picturebooks. A picturebook projected at movie-screen size in a darkened classroom, especially when accompanied by excellent sound equipment, is a wonderfully immersive experience. I’d like to know if students, as well as their teachers, find reading picturebooks via tablets ‘so much less satisfying’. It’s not quite the same as sitting on Nana’s lap, granted, but the addition of tablet computers and other tech equipment feels to me like a huge step forward.
In the above video (of about four minutes) the founder of Edutopia talks a lot of sense about what Language Arts Education (a.k.a.) English should involve. He argues a case for teaching colour symbolism, composition, perspective and cinematography under the Language Arts umbrella. The Dish summarises the video here.
This is surprising to me. For four years in my twenties I taught English at a New Zealand high school, and I can happily tell you that in New Zealand, colour symbolism, composition, perspective and cinematography all fall under New Zealand’s high school English curriculum, assessed under NCEA. I was very grateful for my high school art education (I studied art all through high school) but in hindsight wished I’d done a few fine arts papers at university.
Art, art history, art theory, music, speech and drama, debating, film studies — anyone intending to be a high school English teacher would be well advised to engage in all of these pursuits, not just in literature.