Fiction. Certainly this is one of the most popular genres to read for students and adults. Realistic fiction, fantasy, mystery, and legends, among others, are popular with readers of all ages. Yet, while this type of writing is fun to read, it can be very challenging to write, particularly for young writers.
In the past, many of us have used planning sheets for fiction writing that are, quite frankly, ineffective. These sheets simply ask students to identify the main character, the setting, the problem, and the solution, and little beyond that, to help students “plan” for a piece of fiction writing. It is shallow thinking that leads to shallow writing.
In my new book, The Writing Diner 2: Creating Active Thinkers for All Types of Writing, I offer an approach to help students learn how to write fiction. It’s an approach grounded in my belief that the ultimate goal of writing instruction is to help students become active thinkers while they are independently writing. It is an approach that I hope will not only help students be successful in a fiction writing unit in your classroom, but with all fiction writing in their futures. The approach centers on helping young writers understand what it is like to think through the process of creating a piece of fiction.
Thinking about Characters: A Starting Point
It seems to me there are three starting points for writing fiction: thinking about a character, thinking about plot, or thinking about setting. Stories can grow from doing deep thinking that originates in any of these three areas. When it comes to student writers, I choose to take them down a path of doing deep thinking about a character as a starting point for fiction writing.
In my book, I teach students to start by doing basic thinking about a main character: What is the character’s name? How old is the character? What does the character look like? What are some words that describe the kind of person (or being) the character is? Who does the character spend time with?
I then move on to some deeper thinking: What is something that is different/unique/special/strange about the character? You know, like, does he have a lightning bolt on his head? Does she have a secret fear that no one knows about? Does he have a talent that makes him stand out? I point out that, in most works of fiction, main characters have something that makes them a little different.
We then move on to thinking about who might cause the character problems. The students think about this character a bit.
I then teach students to try to piece together all the information they have created in order to find the character’s story. For example, maybe the main character is an orphan girl who has a prized possession. A neighborhood trouble maker takes that prized possession, and the story revolves around how she tries to get that prized possession back.
Students then get to work writing their stories. They may not know how the stories will end when they begin, but that is authentic writing. They will discover what happens to their characters in the process of writing. The teaching throughout the unit will focus on ways to improve fiction writing, for example, the effective use of dialogue and ways to get specific details into their pieces.
A Question-Driven Strategy
In short, the process relies on teaching students how to ask questions about a character in order to discover a story. While students may not have the solution to the problem all worked out before they write, they will have done some deep thinking about a character that gives them the chance to create a rich story with depth. More importantly, it will give them a structure of thinking to rely on in the future when it comes to writing more fiction.
Fiction writing is great territory for helping our students grow as thinkers. Whether we ask them to create a realistic fiction piece or a historical or science fiction piece based on something studied in social studies or science, fiction writing will move our students to the highest levels of thinking. It is well worth our time and effort to give our students the opportunity to live like fiction writers.
Tim Hargis is an academic support coach for the Kentwood Public Schools as well as an independent literacy consultant. He is the author of two books on teaching writing, The Writing Diner: Creating Active Thinkers in the Writing Classroom and The Writing Diner 2: Creating Active Thinkers for All Types of Writing as well as the children’s novel, Ol’ Man Caudill’s Hat. He has worked as a classroom teacher in the Grand Rapids Public Schools and as an adjunct professor of English at Grand Valley State University. Prior to teaching, Tim was a television news producer at WLWT-TV, the NBC affiliate in Cincinnati, Ohio. He holds degrees from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio and Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan. Tim lives with his wife and two daughters in Grand Rapids.