By Jake Burt
Middle grade novel author Jake Burt shares his experience teaching writing and how to get students to start with a problem and work backward when creating a story. Read on for his ideas on helping students tap into their creativity and get past the same old “and then they all woke up” endings.
My students are no different from yours. They’re wildly creative. They’re hilarious. They’re capable of deep empathy and glorious whimsy.
They are brilliant storytellers.
So why is it that when our students sit down to write a story, they either start strong, then fizzle (the old “they all woke up” ending), or freeze after the first sentence? And no matter how much we urge them to “add detail,” the story never goes anywhere? It’s a conundrum that puzzled me for the first half of my teaching career. I followed the models: 6 + 1, writer’s workshop, and graphic organizers. I taught adjectives, prepositional phrases, and vivid verbs. I taught stories as hamburgers. As trains. As medieval weaponry (I used lances and jousting. It was a thing). None of it worked, except in fits and starts, with more hand-holding than pencil-moving.
It wasn’t fun.
I didn’t really get it until I became a writer myself. Even then, it took me five books or so to identify the disconnect between what I was doing and what I was asking my students to do. How I was asking them to think of stories—beginning, middle, end—wasn’t how I thought of my stories. It wasn’t how I developed a narrative framework, created compelling characters, or made my settings come alive.
Our lessons usually began like this: I’d introduce an optional prompt, one that included a character, setting, and general plot structure. It would also suggest a genre, depending on which unit we were in and where Fountas and Pinnell had us going next. Kids could use the prompt or delve into something of their own crafting. Once they got started, I’d mill around, coaxing, cheerleading, and offering pointers to kid after kid who had launched in without a plan. And that was even with mini-lessons about brainstorming and outlining beforehand!
To be fair, my own writing approach used to look like theirs. I’d get an idea for a character or setting, then try to roll with it. And why not? Characters and settings are comparatively easy. They’re what I call “lattitudy”–you can expand on them as much as you like, right down to the tiniest detail, but your story won’t go anywhere. That’s what I saw happening when I’d ask my students to add more detail. They’d describe the setting in increasingly lavish ways, busting out the thesaurus and generally mangling the English language in pursuit of enough detail to make Mr. Burt happy.
By comparison, thinking about the problem of the story is “longitudy”–the more complexity and events you add to it, the more your story grows. Along the way, characters get deeper and nuances of setting become apparent. So I set out to devise a fun way I (and my students) could think about developing the problem of their story. Here’s what I came up with:
- Think about the problem first. Identify it clearly, whether it’s “Cat stuck in a tree,” or “Bully at school,” or “Crippling self-doubt,” or “Cat stuck in a tree as a result of crippling self-doubt brought on by a bully at school.”
- Brainstorm five solutions to the problem. Make at least one mundane and obvious, and another as outlandish as possible. For the “Cat in a tree” one, it might range from, “Cat climbs down on its own” (mundane) to “Ancient ritual causes tree to come alive and deposit cat safely on the ground.” The others can be anywhere within that range.
- Make a list of possible obstacles one might face in getting to that solution. Five to ten is a good number here; the writer won’t necessarily use them all, but they’ll form the backbone of the “rising action” of the story, as the main character grapples with the problem. Examples might include, “A bee’s nest in the tree,” or “A terrible thunderstorm,” or “The tree is in Mr. Hagglekamp’s yard, and he throws Pepsi cans at trespassers.”
- Now it’s time for the setting. Most frequently, my student-writers choose a setting based on where they think their main character is most likely to live. That’s fine, but it’s not always compelling. I challenge them to ask, “Where is the PROBLEM most likely to be at home?” That is, I encourage them to pick a setting that will give the problem as many advantages as possible. Place the tree right outside the main character’s house, and the main character will have all kinds of resources to solve the problem. Place it in an old, stick-strewn yard across town, one near a set of train tracks that feature roaring locomotives that terrify the poor kitty every half-hour, and you’ve got a place where the problem has the advantage…which, of course, makes for compelling storytelling.
- Finally, the main character. I know it’s weird to think about the character last, but having the problem and setting firmly established allows the writer to reframe the most important question of all: Who is my main character? For a fifth grader, that’s a daunting question. To scaffold it, I have them think about all of the above, then ask a different question: Who is most likely to struggle with this problem? The key word here is struggle. I tell my students that means “someone who can’t easily solve the problem, but also can’t simply walk away.” In other words, their main character has to have a vested interest in solving the problem and no easy solution on hand. In our cat/tree example, if a kid picks Spider-Man as her main character, it might get a laugh or cheers from her classmates on the first sentence, but that’s a story that’ll be over faster than you can say, “Thwip!” [Author’s note: I think “thwip!” is the canonical sound effect for Spider-Man’s webshooters.] Pick the cat’s owner, and you’ve got a more compelling story. Pick the cat’s owner’s great-grandson who accidentally scared the cat up the tree in the first place, and you’ve got layers. Pick the cat’s mother, and you’ve got genre…
So, to sum up: Problem -> Solutions -> Obstacles -> Problem-friendly Setting -> Character who will struggle. Feel free to try this out, to adapt it into a graphic organizer for your students, or even to use it in your own writing. And if you have any questions, feel free to get in touch.