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  • Objectives
  • Estimated Time
  • Subject Matter
  • Materials and Preparation
  • Quote from Stephen King, ON WRITING
  • Teaching Procedure
  • Assessment Recommendations
  • Extension/Adaptation Ideas
  • Relevant National Standards
  • References/Resources
  • About the Author
    By Ann Willmott Andersson

    Grade Level: 5-8

    Can easily be adapted for older or younger children (see Extension/Adaptation Ideas.)

    In his book ON WRITING: A MEMOIR OF THE CRAFT, Stephen King wrote that a story is like a fossil, already whole underground and waiting to be uncovered. To "uncover" the story, he develops an interesting situation and some characters, and then writes about what happens to them. He doesn't map out plot points so he knows where the story is going, but rather, discovers the story as he goes. In this set of classroom activities, students try a similar method of story development, working in a group to create their own writing assignment. But first, they analyze a short story to see how a situation can form the seed of a story.


    Students will:
    • Read and comprehend a piece of fictional writing.

    • Analyze how setting, characterization, and plot affect the theme of a story.

    • Work in a group to create a new writing assignment.

    • Write a short story, using age-appropriate vocabulary, grammar, and punctuation.

    • Experience the creative process as a concrete method of working and writing.

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    Estimated Time

    5 standard periods, 40-45 minutes each.

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    Subject Matter

    Language Arts

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    Materials and Preparation

    Read the Stephen King quote below to understand how an author uses situations more than plot to generate stories.

    Choose a short story for analysis by the class. If desired, you can use a short story or novel that students have already read and studied. Any appropriate short story will do, as long as it has a strong situation and characters. Here are some suggestions for short stories that you can get online. Read the story carefully and be sure you select one you feel comfortable working with.

    A FINAL GOODBYE by Kelly Bartlett (age 11)

    NAME DROPPING by Lila Guzman

    A variety of short stories by well-known authors are available on Bibliomania. Suggested: THE YOUND KING by Oscar Wilde

    LOST IN THE MAIL by Robert J. Sawyer (Note the copyright notice; you can only make a single copy, which can be passed around the room. Alternatively you can write to the author to request permission to make duplicates for educational purposes.)

    The Story Exchange has a selection of short stories.

    NET ESCAPE by Rekha Ambardar

    THE NECKLACE by Guy de Maupassant

    Print copies of the story for each member of the class. (Note any copyright restrictions posted on the site where the story is found.)

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    Quote from Stephen King, ON WRITING

    "In my view, stories and novels consist of three parts: narration, which moves the story from point A to point Z; description, which creates a sensory reality for the reader; and dialogue, which brings characters to life through their speech. You may wonder where plot is in all this. The answer -- my answer anyway -- is nowhere ... I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our 'lives' are largely plotless ... and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren't compatible. It's best that I be as clear about this as I can -- I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow (and to transcribe them, of course.) ... I lean more heavily on intuition, and have been able to do that because my books tend to be based on situation rather than story ... I want to put a group of characters (perhaps a pair; perhaps even just one) in some sort of predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free."

    Stephen King, ON WRITING: A MEMOIR OF THE CRAFT. Pocket Books, Simon & Schuster, New York, NY, 2000. Originally published in hardcover in 2000 by Scribner.

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    Teaching Procedure

    Day 1: Read and Analyze

    • Step 1: Review plot, setting, and character as three major elements of fictional writing.

      • Plot: the story line, usually based on some sort of conflict.
      • Setting: where the story takes place.
      • Character: the people in the story.

    • Step 2: Read a short story out loud with the class. If appropriate, you can go around the room and have each student read a paragraph. (Use any story you like, or see suggested stories, above.)

    • Step 3: After reading the story, have a short discussion reviewing plot, setting, character, and theme, making sure the details of the story are fresh in the minds of the students. For older students, this can be very brief, but for younger students you may want to spend more time so you know they understand the basic details and mechanics of the story.

      • Plot: what was the basic story, in just a few sentences? What was the conflict in the story - was it between two people, or was the conflict that of a person against himself, or against nature?

      • Setting: where did the story take place, and how did you know that's where the story took place? What else did the author say or show about the location of the story?

      • Character: who were the characters? How were they related to one another? Were there conflicts between them? How did you know who the characters were and what they were like?

      • Theme: what do you think the story was really about?

    • Step 4: Finish the day by reading the Stephen King quote to the class. Help the class to see this as one method for a writer to use in generating a story - not the only method, but one that has been successful for at least one writer.

    Day 2: What If?

    • Step 1: Review very quickly yesterday's discussion of plot, setting, character, and theme in the short story you're studying, and review the idea of using situation to generate a story.

    • Step 2: Now lead a discussion in which the students step back from the plot and the details of the story, and focus on the "what-if" question at the core of the story. Note that there may be many variations, and there is no right answer. Let the kids come up with creative ideas here, and write their "what-if" questions on the board. Different ways of asking this question reflect different views of the story and its theme. Remember that the "what-if" question doesn't have to cover all the plot points, just the "seed" of the story, a point from which the author might have started. Note that the core of the story doesn't always have to start with the main character.

      Here are some examples from the suggested stories.

      • What if someone borrowed something valuable from a friend and lost it, then worked their whole life to get enough money to pay for it, but then they found out that the thing wasn't valuable at all?
      • What if a poor woman always wished she were rich?
      • What if a rich woman never understood what a poorer friend's life was like?

      • What if, at the moment you had to make an important decision, the universe split in two - one for each decision - and you had two lives after that?
      • What if a man who had always regretted not following the career he wanted got a second chance to have that career?
      • What if a person found out that there was another version of him- or herself living in a nearby town?

      • What if a person got a chance to communicate with an animal?
      • What if a gorilla that had been abused were just like a human being?
      • What if you could communicate with the saddest person in the world just before they died?

      • What if someone bought some junk at a yard sale, and it turned out to be very valuable because of something hidden inside it?
      • What if a husband hated something his wife bought, and he broke it accidentally?
      • What if a famous person has hidden something that is found far in the future?

    • Step 3: Now it's time to start a new story by coming up with new "what-if" questions. Students can break up into small groups of 4 or 5 to do this activity. Each group will come up with a new "what-if" question, plus some characters and a setting, and each individual in the group will write a story about that question. Circulate among the groups to help them in their discussions.

      One easy way to do this is to take the "what-if" questions you've written on the board, from the story they just analyzed, and ask them to change the nouns and verbs in the question to something else. The question, "What if a famous person has hidden something that is found far in the future?" becomes: What if (a person or thing) has (done something) that is (verb) (elsewhere in time or space). They might end up with something like this: "What if a kid has buried a secret object that is found somewhere far away, in a foreign country?"

      The group could also make up a new question from scratch. Or for younger students, you may want to give them some sample questions to get them thinking.

      • What if a monster lived in a car wash?
      • What if a monster worked in a supermarket?
      • What if a person could become very large or very small?
      • What if a person turned into a tree?
      • What if a person turned into another person?
      • What if a kid from our town went to the moon?
      • What if a kid from our town went to the White House?
      • Etc.

      Each person in the group should participate in making the choices to create a new question.

      At the end of the discussion period each group should have a question written on paper, and they should present their question out loud to the rest of the class. Each member of the group can write the question down and take it home, thinking about adding characters, setting, and plot points to it.

    Day 3: Adding Details

    • Step 1: The kids meet in groups again to flesh out the story by adding characters and setting. (Note that you can skip this step for older kids who have more experience with creative writing, if desired. These kids can move directly to the writing exercise.)

      • Where and when does the story take place?

      • Who are the main characters? (If the question asks "what if a kid from our town", then give that kid a name and some personality characteristics that make him or her unique and realistic.)

      For example: "What if a kid has buried a secret object that is found somewhere far away, in a foreign country?" They need to define:

      • Who is the kid, what is his or her name, and what is his or her age?

      • What is the secret object that is buried?

      • Where is the object found, and by whom?

      Each group should have only one question if possible, but at this point, they may diverge if they want to. Individuals might want to use the same main character but have the object found in a different place or by a different person, for instance.

      Give them 20 minutes to do this and let them know when the time is up. See if they have any questions or are stuck on anything before moving on. They don't have to have it all worked out, because they will move on to working it out in the writing process.

    • Step 2: Writing time in class, if time permits. Each student takes the "what-if" question and the details worked out in the group, and adds their own individual plot. At this point they can go back and change any details if they need to. Their job should be, as Stephen King puts it, to "uncover" the story.

    Day 4: Writing the Story

    Writing time in class, with access to individual help from the teacher. If you want to truncate the lesson, this can be homework, and the lesson can be wrapped up after several days have passed.

    Day 5: Sharing & Wrap-Up

    • Step 1: Each person shares his/her story with the class, if possible. If there's not enough time for each student to read their story, you can go around the room and have them summarize their plot, highlighting the different approaches they have taken.

    • Step 2: Wrap up with a discussion of this method of story writing. Did they like it? Did the results surprise them? What did they think of the stories of others?

    To complete the lesson, you could publish the stories in a booklet or on a Web site so they can be shared with others.

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    Assessment Recommendations

    You can assess students based on these elements:
    • Participation in classroom discussion and group work.

    • Understanding and ability to analyze the short story, based on classroom discussion and group work. (You could also easily devise a worksheet to test comprehension at the end of Day 2.)

    • Age-appropriate grammar, vocabulary, and punctuation in the written story.

    • Creativity and imagination displayed in classroom and in the story.

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    Extension/Adaptation Ideas

    This lesson can easily be adapted upward for students in grades 9-12. In this case more of the work would take place outside of class, and you might add a critique and revision session so students can really develop the story as a piece of literature. You might weave this exercise into a longer teaching cycle on a work of fiction, perhaps even a novel, to help students understand the dynamics of the writer as well as of the reader.

    You could also adapt it for younger children, foregoing the writing exercise altogether and making it more of an exercise about group story-telling. You can weave this into a lesson on the oral tradition of storytelling.

    You can also create a historical connection for students, using this exercise after reading a work of historical fiction, and allowing them to fictionalize based on some facts about a period in history that they are studying. A science class could do the same thing to help students create speculative science fiction, which is based on factual elements.

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    Relevant National Standards


    Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process

    Prewriting: Uses a variety of prewriting strategies (e.g., develops a focus, plans a sequence of ideas, uses structured overviews, uses speed writing, creates diagrams)

    Evaluates own and others' writing (e.g., applies criteria generated by self and others, uses self-assessment to set and achieve goals as a writer, participates in peer response groups)

    Writes narrative accounts, such as short stories (e.g., engages the reader by establishing a context and otherwise developing reader interest; establishes a situation, plot, persona, point of view, setting, conflict, and resolution; develops complex characters; creates an organizational structure that balances and unifies all narrative aspects of the story; uses a range of strategies and literary devices such as dialogue, tension, suspense, naming, figurative language, and specific narrative action such as movement, gestures, and expressions; reveals a specific theme)

    Writes in response to literature (e.g., responds to significant issues in a log or journal, answers discussion questions, anticipates and answers a reader's questions, writes a summary of a book, describes an initial impression of a text, connects knowledge from a text with personal knowledge, states an interpretive, evaluative, or reflective position; draws inferences about the effects of the work on an audience)

    Uses the stylistic and rhetorical aspects of writing

    Uses descriptive language that clarifies and enhances ideas (e.g., establishes tone and mood, uses figurative language, uses sensory images and comparisons, uses a thesaurus to choose effective wording)

    Uses paragraph form in writing (e.g., arranges sentences in sequential order, uses supporting and follow-up sentences, establishes coherence within and among paragraphs)

    Uses grammatical and mechanical conventions in written compositions

    Uses pronouns in written compositions (e.g., relative, demonstrative, personal [i.e., possessive, subject, object])

    Uses nouns in written compositions (e.g., forms possessives of nouns; forms irregular plural nouns)

    Uses verbs in written compositions (e.g., uses linking and auxiliary verbs, verb phrases, and correct forms of regular and irregular verbs)

    Uses adjectives in written compositions (e.g., pronominal, positive, comparative, superlative)

    Uses adverbs in written compositions (e.g., chooses between forms of adjectives and adverbs)

    Uses the general skills and strategies of the reading process

    Establishes and adjusts purposes for reading (e.g., to understand, interpret, enjoy, solve problems, predict outcomes, answer a specific question, form an opinion, skim for facts; to discover models for own writing)

    Reflects on what has been learned after reading and formulates ideas, opinions, and personal responses to texts

    Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of literary texts

    Uses reading skills and strategies to understand a variety of literary passages and texts (e.g., fiction, nonfiction, myths, poems, fantasies, biographies, autobiographies, science fiction, tall tales, supernatural tales)

    Understands elements of character development (e.g., character traits and motivations; stereotypes; relationships between character and plot development; development of characters through their words, speech patterns, thoughts, actions, narrator's description, and interaction with other characters; how motivations are revealed)'

    Makes inferences and draws conclusions about story elements (e.g., main and subordinate characters; events; setting; theme; missing details; relationships among story elements, such as the relevance of setting to mood and meaning in text)

    Understands the effects of an author's style (e.g., word choice, speaker, imagery, genre, perspective) on the reader

    Understands inferred and recurring themes in literary works (e.g., bravery, loyalty, friendship, good v. evil; historical, cultural, and social themes)

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    Stephen King's Web site Teen Writing
    Resources for teen writers.

    Power of the Pen
    A creative writing program for 7th and 8th grade students in Ohio.

    The Story Exchange
    A selection of short stories published on the Web.

    A variety of short stories by well-known authors, available for reading on the Web.

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    About the Author

    Ann Willmott Andersson is a free agent producer, writer, and interactive designer living in Northern California. She has more than ten years of experience working on interactive media projects that combine education with entertainment. She was formerly the Director of Interactive & Broadband at Thirteen/WNET New York.

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