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Crafting the Narrative

Crafting the Narrative

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Published by Rob Melton
More than 40 writing activities created by writers to teach students about aspects of writing narrative stories.
More than 40 writing activities created by writers to teach students about aspects of writing narrative stories.

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Published by: Rob Melton on Dec 22, 2008
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08/16/2009

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by Rob Melton based on ideas/lessons from writers Karen Karbo, Chelsea Cain, Ariel Gore and Lee Montgomery and the Writers In The Schools program 
The general format is a three-week workshop in whichstudent do a number of structured freewriting assign-ments and activities and expand one of their piecesinto a 3-5 page, 1,000-word short story that usesdialogue, description, narrative summary, and plot.
ADVICE FROM WRITERS:
1. Cover your eyes when listening to a story, Listen forthe one best line out of the piece and memorize it.Write it down, or say it back to the author.2. Get past sight information, and use smell, taste, touch.(Use highlighters in different colors, one color for eachof the senses.)3. Use stage directions to naturally move a characterthrough a scene.4. Use telling details.5. Use mood/attitude to create subtext.6. When you are crafting your plot, take the advice fromfilm school: Something that happens to turn the actionaround and send it in another direction. Initially, itneeds to be something that frustrates your character.What does your character want? Why can’t they get itnow? Start the story with action.7. Three essentials when creating an invented character(when in doubt, make it up): 1) the character is definedby what he or she
look
like — physicality, dress, smell(too much cologne); 2) how they
behave
, what they do,action; and 3) how he/she speaks, talks, or not, cam beimplied; what they
say
.8. Point of view: Recommend first or third person.Writers struggle with who to have tell the story. Lot ofcontemporary writers use first person. Traditionallythird person omniscient. Write first person point of viewfrom your character the first day. On the second day,turn it around so the he or she in your story becomesthe I looking at your character.9. The longer a piece, the more companionable youneed to be. Short pieces are better if they are weird andshort.10. Part of being a writer is being an actor. This is theenergy, engine of a story. You always want drama.
Crafting the Narrative
Assignments and Activities For Writers by Writers 
11. Advice: Nobody in their heart of hears wants to readabout religious or political views they don’t agree with.12. As a writer, you are always looking for a balancebetween what is familiar to your readers and what isforeign to your readers. The more foreign what it isyou’re talking about, the more familiar elements mustbe. People are curious about things they don’t under-stand or haven’t been through.In freewriting, be quiet and listen for your inner voice.Let it guide you. Follow its lead.
WRITING EXERCISES FROM WRITERS:
13. Pick one of the following that describe a character,and write a 1-1/2 page story: paranoid, in love, de-pressed, obsessed, a miser who has won the lottery. Thestory must be in first person.
It is 4 p.m. on Christmas Eve,and the character hasn’t done any shopping yet. The character goes to the mall to do shopping for one hour.
Everyone writes the same scene.14. Identify three things that make you angry or afraid,and write a paragraph. You cannot say “I am afraid ofrats....” Say, When I was a child I enjoyed the darkuntil....”15. Brainstorm a list of 6 story ideas. When you findsomething interesting, your mind and hear sit up andtake notice. There is a place where good writing comesfrom. The only good writing you will do is what inter-ests you. Start with something meaningful and embel-lish it from there.16. Ahead of time, clip full page magazine photos ofone or two people without advertising or words on thepage. Pass out photos of the characters from themagazines. Starting with the character’s name, write apresent tense narrative. Collect descriptions. Tackpictures to the wall. Read descriptions and see if classcan guess which descriptions match which photos.Think about how effective it is to describe your subjectin that moment. Underline your favorite sentence inthe story.17. Write a profile about a person, about who they arestripped of what they usually project. To tell the truth isthe highest purpose of a writer. What makes greatwriting is that it rings true.18. Give each student a piece of paper with a word on itthat could be a personality characteristic. Describe thisperson eating in the cafeteria using this characteristic.Think about what they’re eating and how they areeating it. The words to choose from are: lovely, nervous,
 
creepy, dumb, content, sick, shy, pathetic, joyful, anxious,child-like, clumsy, polite, hungry. You have to describethe person without using the word you received. Tellingtakes us out of the actual moment. When you arewriting, freeze the moment, then take your time andexpand it.19. Take five minutes to visual a memory — a reallysmall moment, such as sitting at the table eating cereal,and make a story out of it. First person, about you.Freeze time and recreate the moment.20. Group story. Start with a noun and end with a wordor phrase on a note card or sticky note. Must all be inthe same setting. Leader writes beginning and ending.What student gets is the last transitional sentence,something like: “I am a ____.” “but she was afraid of _____.” “She heard a _____.“She screamed and it was a _____.” “...much like a _____.” Each student’s segmentbegins with a noun. This is a good activity to illustrateplot turns. Disneyland makes a good setting. Written infirst person. A motivation word for character helps, too.21. To develop descriptive writing awareness, take afamous name and put it on a card, and stick it on astudent’s back. The student has to figure out who he/ she is by asking questions about who they are (exceptname of person).22. Think of someone you met who had a strongimpression upon you, or make up somebody. Take thatperson and begin writing imaginatively. Divide intogroups. Read to each other. Listen/look for: 1) whatstrikes you most about what you hear, the thing youspark to, the most interesting. 2) what’s missing. Reader/ listener will pick up more about what’s missing “I wantto know more about.” Pick one story from each groupto read to the class. Cover your eyes while listening thestory. Choose a “telling detail, listen for a solid, conver-sational voice.23. Set-up is important. Get past sight info. Use smell,touch, taste. Stage directions. Naturally move characterthrough a scene, using telling details. Read Ileana Parks,Brandon Scheulein pieces.24. Come up with six ideas of stories you could write. Bythe end of the period, settle on something. From yoursix ideas, present 3 to your group. This is the partwhere I will leave you at the trailhead.” First draft forcredit due Tuesday.25. Come up with a good first sentence. A good open-ing should intrigue the reader, creating questions, as in
To Kill A Mockingbird 
.26. List the things you’ve memorized.27. Tell a story about a lie you’ve told.28. Write down a secret on a sheet of paper. No names,please. Throw it in a box. Each person then draws one ofthe secrets out of the box and has to write about it. Thisgets you out of your own point of view and intosomeone else’s point of view. Have the class read theirstories without revealing the secret. After each personis finished reading, have the class try to guess thesecret. This is also good for getting at character motiva-tion.29. Write an early childhood memory. Then exaggerateeach element of it until it is a new story.30. Communicate the way dreams do with this activity.Make four lists: 1) list 4 ordinary human activities 2) list4 human emotions 3) list four observations from thenatural world 4) list 4 objects. Combine 1 and 3, and 2and 4. Then write a story using the combined elementsfrom the lists.31. Pretend to be someone you are not. Develop thecharacter that results into a short characterization.32. List five concrete details in three rooms in yourhouse that reflect who you are. Using these descrip-tions, write a story that reveals who you are onlythrough the objects you identified. Begin with “I amfrom…”33. To develop a sense of plot, have students think of adramatic ending to their story. Once they have writtenthat down, have them work the plot backwards,beginning each line with “Before that….” until theyhave written 15-20. Then have them start the story fromthe beginning, with action.34. Write a one page description of a person’s roomwithout the person being present. Describe only theplace. This helps writers create a sense of the character’stastes, background, and place as a way of defining acharacter.35. To explore point of view, write two pages of thesame event (four pages total) from two differentcharacters’ points of view. Write two pages from onepoint of view, and two pages from another point ofview. Events can be the student’s choice. This works wellwhen combined with the newspaper stories activity.36. Ahead of time, clip 20-30 newspaper stories thatshowcase dramatic conflict — murder, deceit, theft,disaster. Have students go through their story andunderline all the characters involved in the story. Havethem choose the most interesting point of view and trywriting a narrative from that point of view. Allow themto depart from the facts of the news story if they like.Follow this with the two point of views activity above.37. Knife, egg, moon. For this activity, have each studentwrite down three objects. Then have each studentdescribe a landscape with no people in it. Allowenough time for them to clearly picture the landscape
 
in their mind (they don’t have to finish this part of it).Now have them uses the three objects, in order, with acharacter they’ve invented with one of the previousactivities (above) in the setting they described.
READINGS FROM WRITERS:
38. Read “Sunday at the zoo” to give a sense of how bigstory will be that you are writing. One to two charactersis fine for a short story. The more detail, the better.39. Create subtext. This is like a bad horror film. The girlwho goes back in the house, except in a more subtleway. Read “Reading the paper” by Ron Carlson. Her
lovelynervouscreepydumbcontentsickshypatheticjoyfulanxiouschild-likeclumsypolitewhungryrestlessgreedyscarylazyrestlesslonelysaddepressedcrazystarvingmessydirtysexyprepjocksultrylovelynervouscreepydumbcontentsickshypatheticjoyfulanxiouschild-likeclumsy
attitude creates subtext -- she doesn’t look at it as odd.40. “Any minutes mom should come blasting throughthe door” from anthology. This is one incident thathappened over five minutes, wringing out everymeaning possible. This is what two pages can do.41. Read “The Final Wish.” Write a sarcastic thank-younote.42. Read The Things They Carried.” List the things youcarry around with you. Then write a story that uses allthe things in order through the story.

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