Monday, May 16, 2011

Character + x= Action. Solve for x.

I've been going on and on about reading lately; let's talk about writing, fiction writing.   This is an activity I found in What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers (Bernays & Painter).   You may search the entire text of this book on  

To prepare for The Story Machine, you will need note cards and 2 Sharpies of different colors.   You also need your imagination to create situation cards.   One deck will contain professions.   One deck will contain seemingly quirky actions.   Use different color Sharpies for the decks to make sorting easier.

For example, one card might say "game show host(ess)," the other "filled in all of the holes at Jungle Golf with concrete."   This breaks writing a story into a simple equation.   Character + x= Action.   Solve for x.   What is x?   X is motivation.   You give students the who and the what; they provide the why.   The action on the card should be in the final scene of their story.   This is called retrograde plotting.

So here's how it's going to go with 8th graders.   You are going to explain the concept to the kids.   They are going to look puzzled.   You are going to go around the room and have the kids pick from both stacks without looking, no trades.   They will complain.   They will be certain that had they chosen their neighbor's pairing, they would be able to write the best story of all time.   They will complain some more.   Let this go on for about five minutes.   (More about why I allow a little talk time whenever we write later.)   Then you will announce that it is quiet writing time.   They will enjoy it.   They will want to share their stories.   They will want to write another one.   They will think that it was one of their favorite writing activities ever.

Sounds fun, right?   But, do writers ever right this way?   Remember Bobbie Gentry's hit "Ode to Billie Joe"?   Back in college I remember reading somewhere in the reference section of Grissom Library that the first line that came to Gentry was "Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge."   She then worked backwards to create those eerie, mysterious lyrics.   We can't be sure exactly why Billy Joe jumped; Gentry doesn't reveal that to her audience.   Listeners worldwide were so fascinated by the song that people made all kinds of presumptions about the storyline, and even a movie was born from the passionate interest in getting to the bottom of the lyrics.   And Billy Joe's story was all fiction in the first place.   Pass the biscuits, please.

Thank you to Christopher Newport University's Teacher Preparation Program for donating a copy of What If? to my new classroom!


  1. Why aren't you writing your own book? I want to follow you on the lecture circuit! So cool.

  2. Susan, You are the best cheerleader ever. I don't have the tenacity for book writing, but feel free to print out all of these entries and put them in a binder. :)