Nature Narratives: Teaching Story Structure to Third Grade Classes at Whittier Elementary

By Clare Hodgson Meeker, WITS Writer-in-Residence

Creating a story from idea to finished book sounds like an ambitious undertaking for an eight-year-old. But I am always amazed at how quickly these young writers take a character and run with it when they are given a simple three-problem approach to creating a story. Asked to write a fictional story with an animal as the main character, each student picked an animal and had to find three facts about it that could be turned into an opening problem for their story. For example, having to find food, shelter, raise a family or deal with predators or humans interfering with their world. Then they prepared outlines of their stories using this worksheet.

In my mini-lesson on beginning a story, I asked them to emphasize a problem or event that grabs the reader’s attention right away and pulls us into the story – either something the character wants (a goal) or an inciting event that propels the character to take action and do something. Here is a great example from Kian Graham in Ms. McGrath’s class who picked an endangered animal, the Pangolin, for his main character. Note how the sound effects help create a sense of urgency and add energy to the story:

           Pangey the Pangolin lived in the South African forest. He was as happy as can be, when, “chop, chop, chop!” Some construction workers were cutting down the South American forest. “Chop!” The tree Pangey was sitting on was being cut down.

           Luckily for Pangey, it was only with an axe, so he had time to jump to a different tree. He realized that he should get out of there. He leaped from tree to tree for hours until he grew very sleepy.

From then on, we focus on story development – the steps the main character takes to reach his or her goal and the problems (at least two) they face along the way. We talk about how every action or inaction causes some effect on the character or their situation, good or bad. The idea is to make the character struggle until he finally figures out how to solve the story problem. My favorite part of story development is “the darkest moment,” just before the story’s climax. Renowned children’s author Jane Yolen describes this as getting your character up a tree with no idea how he or she will get down. It can be a situation that is life threatening or an emotionally low moment in the character’s journey. But from this low point, the character somehow summons the courage and figures out how to solve the problem (the climax) and reach his or her goal (the end).

A surprise twist is a great way to end a story, and Kian surprised us all with this ending. After Pangey bravely breaks out of a cage he’s imprisoned in, he is captured by a nasty crook who says,”This one’ll sell for millions!” and puts him in the back of a car in Washington D.C:

          They passed by nine black limousines. “Wait, what? That means the president was in one of them,” the cooks thought. Suddenly, one of the limos pulled out of the group. The other limos followed. The limo window opened and Barack Obama’s face appeared.

          “What are you guys doing?”

          “Ummmmmm,” the crooks stammered. “We were giving this pet away for a national yard sale,” one of the crooks lied. “We’ll give it to you if you want it?” the crook said.

          “Okay, I will take it,” said Barack Obama.

           As soon as the president took him, Pangey felt a wave of calmness come over him. Pangey and Barack Obama drove back to the White House and Barack Obama gave Pangey the leftovers of his lunch, which was chicken, potatoes, and gravy with a side of salad. Pangey ate very slowly.

          When Pangey finished, Barack Obama played with Pangey until they both tired each other out.

          Next Barack went and told one of his men to go to Petco and get a drinking bowl and a very nice dog bed for Pangey. Pangey ran around in circles, jumped up on his hind legs, and hugged Barack Obama, so Barack hugged him back.



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