Friday, August 23, 2013

Guest Post -- The Shape of the Story

Special Thanks to Nikolas Baron for contributing this Guest Post on Creative Writing ~ I know my readers will find it very helpful!

The Shape of the Story

Introducing homeschool students to writing fiction is easy. Set them up with a laptop, or a pen and paper, and have them tell us a story. While this can be a fun exercise, and a great way to get children to open up about what matters to them, if they're just starting out, the stories will often take one of two forms. It will either be a jumbled mass of ideas that don't make sense or, most likely, derivative of a famous work of literature. There's nothing wrong with either of these scenarios, especially for younger writers. We can sit with them and enjoy their hard work, reading their story together and talking about what it means. All of that is good.

However, for many older students (and a few younger ones), this writing exercise will awaken something within them. They'll want to write more stories, and more importantly, they'll want to write better stories. But what exactly does that mean? Really, in writing, “better” can have multiple meanings. It can mean “better” on a technical scale, such as grammar, punctuation and word choice. Or, it can refer to “better” storytelling, such as story structure, character development or dialogue.

For my work with Grammarly, I handle the first “better.” I study and research how people are writing, what tools they're using, and how they can improve their English. Our website,, even has an online grammar check that can help find 99% of errors in a piece of text. If your young writer wants to polish their work and really make it shine, it's important to get the basics down, and is a great way to do just that.

The second “better,” however, is a little trickier. If you're a literature student yourself, or you've spent years studying story structure and form, this will all be easy for you. For the rest of us, however, where do we even begin? How do we teach our students to take their jumbled mess of ideas and turn it into something that's not only well-written, but enjoyable to read? Well, there are multiple places to begin, but I like to start with one of the fundamentals: What story shape do they want to write? To understand this better, let's turn to one of the great novelists of the 20th century, Kurt Vonnegut:
The above video is from a short lecture by Vonnegut on the shapes a story can take, though the information was originally from his rejected anthropology thesis on the similarities of stories throughout multiple cultures. While the thesis was rejected on the grounds of unprofessionalism, Vonnegut's theory on the shapes of stories has become a valuable asset for young writers who want to learn how to write an engaging story.

Essentially, Vonnegut's idea is that every story, no matter how short or long, can be visually displayed by a series of up and down movements on a graph. The resulting shape shows how the character's fortune changes throughout the story. This visual representation of a story's movement often helps young writers wrap their heads around one of the most basic questions of storytelling: where do I want my character to end up, and what do I want them to go through to get there?

From there, we work to incorporate that idea into their own writing. Begin by having them map out their own story's shape, looking for the high and low points of their main character(s). After that, move onto mapping out some stories that your students enjoy. Have him or her sit down with a short book and detail the shape of the story, trying to figure out what in the story's shape engages them and why it engages them. Lastly, have them compare that shape to the shape of their own story. Do they give their character too much at the beginning? Do they take him or her too low in the middle? How does the character end up – better or worse than they started? Is any of that a bad thing?

While writing fiction is a very rewarding experience, it doesn't come easily. With some foundational basics and a little practice, however, your young Vonnegut will grow leaps and bounds with each draft, eventually crafting a story that he or she can be proud of.

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