Monday, October 17, 2011

WHAT IF? and WHAT ELSE?: Helping Young Writers Expand Their Stories

by Jacqueline Jules

What if your character was pursued by a wolf? How could she save herself?

What else could you add to make the reader feel your main character’s fear?

“What if?” and “What else?” These two short questions can help young writers get into the habit of expanding and resolving their fiction stories. Post them with a cute graphic and remind your budding writers to brainstorm throughout the creation of their stories, particularly when they find themselves stuck in the middle. Young writers are often unable to end their stories because their main character doesn’t have a problem to solve. Asking WHAT IF—the character wanted something, the character was afraid of something, the character was in danger, etc.—naturally leads to a problem in need of resolution.

The question WHAT ELSE? opens the conversation about adding details.

A great picture book for modeling this process is The Plot Chickens by Mary Jane and Herm Auch. In this book, Henrietta, a book-loving chicken, writes a story with the help of her three chicken aunts. Together, they brainstorm an adventure entitled, “The Perils of Maxine,” about a hen who ventures into the woods and is pursued by a wolf. Henrietta follows a set of “Writing Rules” which includes the very wise advice of developing your plot by asking the question, “What if?”

After reading The Plot Chickens with several groups of students, I’ve had a humorous frame of reference for asking the question “What if?” during writing conferences. Brainstorming should never be restricted to pre-writing. It is an essential part of plot and character development and the best way to move a stalled story forward. Questions fuel stories like gasoline powers cars. Help your students keep their pencils moving by asking “What if?” and “What else?”

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