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Word up

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By Joe Quirk

Character sheet

Newbie writers think we write stories like we read them, which means we start with sentence one, march through an orderly series of sentences until we reach the last sentence, and the story or argument is supposed to occur somewhere in the middle. This unplanned approach leads to rambling, getting lost, and giving up.

An architect doesn't start his house by building the front door. Architects need a blueprint before they lay their first brick, and writers need a blueprint before they write their first word.

One of the easiest elements of a good-story blueprint for creative writing is something called a “character sheet.” Write the name of the character at the top. Then answer four questions: What does the character want? What are the obstacles? What is his strength? What is his weakness? Ask your children to answer these questions for each character before they start writing. Only after character sheets are completed for every main character do we move on to thinking about whole story.

If the children are writing persuasive essays, I ask them to create a blueprint called an "argument sheet," where they answer four questions: What do I believe? What do people who disagree believe? What is the strength of my argument? What is the weakness of my argument? Only if they answer these four questions do I allow them to write their "essay outline," which I will explain in a moment.

The nine story points

If starting a story is hard, finishing a story is even harder. Many kids who love writing are terrific beginners and terrible finishers. Writing a plot without a plan leads to getting lost, frustrated, and stuck.

When I was working at Pixar, writer and director Teddy Newton taught me the nine story points every compelling story must follow. Ask your children to complete these sentences before they start writing:

Once upon a time there was a ...
And every day ...
Until one day ...
And because of this ...
And because of this ...
But then one day ...
And because of this ...
And because of this ...
And ever since that day ...

I don't care if it's The Cat in the Hat or The Godfather — all stories that captivate millions follow this format. Whenever one of my little writers says, "I don't know what to write next," I make them stop and answer the nine story points. Any writer who completes those sentences above will have a clear plan for a story with a beginning, middle, and end.

For persuasive essays, I ask my students to follow a five-paragraph essay outline. At the top students should write "I believe." This is their introductory paragraph. Then they should write "Reason one. Reason two. Reason three." These are their three supporting paragraphs. Only after they write their three reasons do I allow them to write beneath each reason: "Supporting detail one. Supporting detail two. Supporting detail three."

After they have written their nine total supporting details, I have them begin writing. This allows them to conclude in light of the essay they have developed. The essay outline should look like this:

I believe …

Reason one
Supporting detail one
Supporting detail two
Supporting detail three

Reason two
Supporting detail one
Supporting detail two
Supporting detail three

Reason three
Supporting detail one
Supporting detail two
Supporting detail three

Conclusion

I don't ask them to write their conclusion until after they have written the essay.

A child's naturally emerging storytelling gift gets quashed by the way we traditionally teach writing in school, which is why I say:

Joe Quirk is a novelist, science writer, and creative-writing teacher living in Berkeley, Calif. His bestselling book, The Ultimate Rush, is an action thriller about rollerblading.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

08/19/2010:
"Absolutely BEST article I have ever read on getting a kid to write! My son thought I was crazy when I told him to not worry about the spelling, etc. and just get the idea on paper.I ask a question and have him tell me the answer, then rough draft it, then worry about edits, then penmanship(or typing). I learned this when my oldest broke his arm in third grade, he had been labeled as 'unmotivated' aka lazy, when in reality he had not yet been diagnosed with dyslexia. Well, the truth came out when his classmates (bless them) volunteered to transcribe what he dictated, and amazing stories came through!! Needless to say, life has been much easier for him ever since, and essays are no longer to be feared and dreaded!! Great article, thank you. Donna"
08/16/2010:
"Great advice for every age!"
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