I just listened to a pretty right-on lecture about fiction writing by Jenna Blum (The Author at Work: The Art of Writing Fiction), so I’ll share an activity based on something she recommends. I think this can help all creative writers, any age. It’s about writing “log lines.”
For those who dabble in screenwriting, this is probably a known term, but it was new to me. A log line is a one-sentence distillation of a story, and can be a very useful means of getting to the bones of a body of creative writing. Whereas “theme” can usually be expressed in one word or phrase (“making new friends” or “recovery” or “loss”) a good log line includes the protagonist and his/her goal or central conflict. Note that endings (spoilers!) are not included in log lines.
Here’s how this activity might work:
1. Find a bestsellers list, such as the New York Times “Children’s Best Sellers,” and read all the descriptions for the books there. Some in last week’s NYT—
• “A filthy bird is persuaded to bathe.” (Mo Willems’ The Pigeon Needs a Bath!)
• “A teenager uncovers the mysteries of a village surrounded by a beast-filled forest.” (David Baldacci’s The Finisher.)
• “A girl saves books from Nazi burning.” (Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief.)
2. Think about a book or short story you like and know well, and then create a log line for it.
• For Alice in Wonderland that might be: A girl tumbles into an alternate universe and meets many strange characters in her quest to get home.
• For Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak: After a traumatic experience at a summer party, a teenage girl tries to endure her next year of high school while keeping a secret.
3. Now, think about something you’ve written or want to write, and create a log line for it. I’ve done this for two of my books here.
• In letters to her best friend back home, a thirteen-year-old girl describes her progress at accomplishing a list of things she has been dared to do while on a Mediterranean cruise (Four Things My Geeky-Jock-of-a-Best-Friend Must Do in Europe).
• A ten-year-old girl describes her angsts and adventures in a journal she starts to keep after her memory-impaired grandmother moves in with her family (Lucy’s Completely Cool and Totally True E-Journal).
Some writers might find that brainstorming log lines is a good way to get a handle on a story idea before starting to write. Other writers might find it a useful exercise to guide the revision process, particularly after some free writing. (See Jacqueline Jules’ “Transforming a Free Write” for more ideas along thoselines.)
If used in the classroom, this exercise should help meet the requirements of the following Common Core standards:
CCSS.ELA—LITERACY.RL.1.2 thru 11-12.2