This article doesn’t pretend to give you any clue to write down best-sellers.
Its purpose is more modest. I merely present a few technics to make teenagers write stories in the classroom. We expect to overcome their shyness and make them find interesting ideas.
Prepare the classe
Debunk the myth of genius.
Best is the enemy of good. We make our students read the best novels possible. And we are right. But when they have to write by themselves, it may be frightening for them to compare themselves to the great genius of the past, especially if you say that originality is the most important thing. Many students don’t write anything, because they fear that their ideas are just uninteresting. They may have something to begin with, but they fear the judgemental reader, who will find it insufficient.
Creativity is a very rare skill, if it exists at all. In fact, the best writers are, before hand, very knowledgeable people. They read a huge quantity of books. And then, they are able to combine their knowledge, in order to invent new stories. It may be very useful to explain to the student where the greatest writers have found their ideas. For instance, to write the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien took the ring of invisibility from two main sources: the Greek philosopher Plato and the German legend der Ring des Nibelungen. In Plato’s work, this ring is also a ring of power that corrupts the heart of it’s bearer, because it allows him to do anything without the fear of punishment. From the German story, Tolkien took also the broken sword that must be reforged by the hero. And you could find the origins of almost all the key features of the novel. In fact, Tolkien imagined very little. But his novel is still a masterpiece. If you are interested, I could do the same job about many writers, including J.K. Rowling or G.G.R. Martin, or about the Role-Playing Game Dungeons and Dragons. But you can surely find your own examples.
Train your students to start modestly, by using their memory: novels they have read, movies they’ve watched, life experiences they may have. If they find it a little bit silly, tell them that the trick is to combine enough materials, and to alter them so that none of them is too easily recognized. Eventually, you get used to it, so that you don’t mind to quote great writers any longer. You just use the materials and technics you need. It has become a second nature.
Organize the working time
There are many ways to organize one’s work. But it’s not something the students do spontaneously. Most of them need some guidance from the teacher. Here is a method that if found rather efficient. Feel free to adapt.
Suppose that I have 2 hours to make them write a story.
15 minutes: I explain a new writing technic (see below).
5 minutes: I give them a topic and answer their questions.
10 minutes: I don’t answer any more questions. The students have to try by themselves. If I answered too many questions, my explanations would become confused, and the students could go on asking them for the entire session without writing anything.
35 minutes: The students try to find ideas and make a draft. They don’t necessarily have to write paragraphs or even full sentences during this step of the work. But they have to think, and write their ideas in whatever order. I monitor the class, in order to provide individual support to those who need it. I give much attention to those who are stuck, and not only those who ask for help. To avoid losing time, I give them the dictionary for spelling questions and vocabulary. With a proper monitoring and some training, it’s possible to make every student write a fairly long story.
45 minutes: The students are required to write down their story on a neat worksheet.
10 minutes: They review their work for spelling mistakes and consistency.
Obviously, those numbers are just rough estimates, I tell the students when to start writing on the final sheet, to help them manage their time, but not to make them feel uncomfortable. It’s an advice, not an order.
Or you can keep it more simple: 1/2 of the time is spent thinking, 1/2 of the time writing.
Find a good topic.
Do you really think the students want to tell you anything about their vacations? Do you really want to read it? If it’s boring for you, it might also be boring for the students.
Just a few recommendations.
To choose the topic, consider what kind of stories they like to watch or to read. It may be a good starting point. Also consider your own taste. It will make you more comfortable to explain it.
Variety is important. Not all the students like the same things. You cannot please everybody at the same time, but you surely can please everybody at least once.
Find a balance between exoticism and familiarity. The Lord of the Rings is an imaginary world, very different from ours, but there are men with a medieval style of fighting, and the hobbits are very British in their way of life. Harry Potter learns in a school of magic, but apart from that, he’s a normal teenager who wants to prove himself.
The students can’t speak about a topic if they don’t have the knowledge. But they may find their daily life quite boring. They like to dream and discover new places. They like adventures.
Find a topic precise enough to provide a good start, but with enough freedom to adapt to the various knowledge and taste of the students. For instance “an adventure” is not precise enough. “The shipwreck of a English frigate on the shore of Tortuga Island around 1750” would be too precise. “The attack of a big merchant vessel by pirates at the time of sails” would do fine. If needed, you can add a few features: a spy, a coward second lieutenant, and so on. It may be useful for weak students who don’t know how to start, but it isn’t necessary. However, it’s a good idea to do the exercise after having read a book about pirates.
The work of the teacher will be much easier, if he tries to prepare a whole series of topics, instead of imagining just one at a time. A good big brainstorming is more efficient than several attempts to find ideas. With good archives, you don’t need to waste too much time to prepare each activity. Next week, I’ll translate a few topics I have in my own archives.
Set up explicit objectives. Precise your scale for marking the students’ work. They should know what to pay attention to. Precise your objectives, especially in terms of writing technics. Marking complex activities such as essays or stories is difficult and there are many options. We’ll discuss this matter another time.
A few technics to find ideas
Define the problem
Any significant action is a response to a problem, a danger, or a difficulty. The more difficult the problem, the more interesting the story.
Try to think from the problem rather than from the character or the thing.
Imagine the topic is about a warrior. By itself, it doesn’t make a story. The story will begin when an enemy threatens to invade the realm. If the enemy is very dangerous, the hero will have to find smart solutions and act with bravery. Find an important and difficult quest. Then, the actions of the hero can be deduced with logic. The enemies have a huge army, and their leader is very cunning and cruel. As the allies are less powerful, they will need to delay them, until they can find better weapons or the hero can find a way to reach and kill the tyran. Imagine more obstacles on the way, and find solutions to overcome the obstacles.
In general, and not only for story-telling, good questions bring good answers. Always begin with the classical set of questions: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? How much?
As a preparatory work, the students draw a timeline with all the events of their story. It’s much easier to write, when you know what you want to tell to your reader. The timeline helps the students express all their ideas, without having to worry too much about grammar or spelling. That will be their next work. First the ideas, then the form. When you have the plan for your story, it’s not very difficult to find the good expression. Keep it simple, and everything will be OK.
This technic has the same purpose as the previous one: knowing what you want to say. To describe a person or a place, the best method is to simply draw a rough sketch of it. You don’t need to be a skilled artist. Even an ugly drawing is enough for our purpose of finding ideas. When all the elements you want to talk about are included in the sketch, you just have to choose the order. Just put numbers on the sketch. For instance, you describe a woman from head to toes: 1 the head 2 the hair 3 the nose 4 the lips 5 the breast 6 the hip and so on. Classical method for love poems.
The same goes for places.
When you draw your sketch, choose significant features. If you want to write a romantic story, choose the place accordingly. It’s a little bit cliché, but a beach at sunset is significant (cliché are to be avoided when you try to write interesting stories, but they can be useful to explain the technic). Explain to the students that they can express feelings just by describing the place. Fear can be expressed by darkness, clifs, jungle with strange and loud noises. Anguish can be expressed by fog on still water, and soft noises, or quicksand, or wastelands with just a few dead trees. Associate a landscape and an emotion.
You make an ID card, with all relevant information for each of the characters of the story (or at least the important ones).
Stories written by children are often like this: “A man told another man to be careful, because a man wants to kill him.” Avoid this problem by making the students write all the key information about each character, for instance: physical appearance, age, job, family and so on.
Chart of characters
Contrary to the previous, you don’t consider the characters individually, but you explain their relationship. You draw the family tree or the chart of responsibilities in a company. Policemen do the same think, when they try to understand complex crimes with a lot of suspects or a criminal organization.
We call synopsis a document that shows several series of action at the same time. It’s a very useful technic to create suspense or to have deep understanding of the psychology of the characters. You consider different actions and what different characters may know at each time about the course of events. For instance, a man is buying flowers for his wife, without knowing that she’s cheating on him and that her lover is trying to kill them both. When you have three or four series of actions in a big table, you check them for inconsistencies, for instance, it takes more time to travel from Kampong Cham to Phnom Penh than to buy flowers from your neighbor. The last step is to choose in which order you’ll tell about the events. You can even choose not to tell about everything, in order to keep the story somewhat mysterious. But the writer must have a clue about the gaps in his story to avoid inconsistencies.