Gotta Have Story: Connect Those Dots

Post Date: January 24th, 2012
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We’re hardwired to tell stories. We are born to interpret, to weave and spin yarns, and fill in the gaps. Even if these gaps aren’t factual, we’ll build bridges that soar over the chasms. We require story in order to make memories.

Check out cognitive scientist Michael Gazzaniga’s explanation of how our brains work this way.

In Daniel Pink’s book A Whole New Mind, he argues that jobs of the future will require more storytellers and narrative designers.

Good thing our kids love telling stories, and so do we.

I’m always exploring ideas of how we can teach better storytelling while teaching literary analysis. How can we boost and hone our ability and our students’ ability to tell a great story and spot a stellar one? Here’s a two-day lesson plan.

Many teachers use E.M. Forster’s wonderful quotation about plot and I’ll up it one with the wise P.D. James:

E. M. Forster has written: ‘The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died and the queen died of grief is a plot. The queen died and no one knew why until they discovered it was of grief is a mystery, a form capable of high development.’ To that I would add: the queen died and everyone thought it was of grief until they discovered the puncture wound in her throat. That is a murder mystery and, in my view, it too is capable of high development.

  • Give your students this quotation and announce that “we’re going to connect the dots–seemingly disconnected dots.”
  • Show students the DIRECTV commercials, which are hilarious cause-and-effect sequences that lean toward the ridiculous but have enough plausibility that we pay attention. After you watch these with students, ask: which are the best connections? Which are the most far-fetched? Why do we follow the far-fetched? What do you prefer, realism or fantastical creativity in your plot connections? Why?
  • Don’t Wake Up in a Roadside Ditch
  • Stop Taking in Stray Animals
  • Don’t Have a Grandson With a Dog Collar
  • Give the students a list of disconnected actions on separate cards: the baby cried; the phone rang; the tub overflowed; the man screamed; the swimmer dove; the woman danced; the dog surfed. Students can work in pairs to connect these two actions in a paragraph of 50 words or less The story needs to make sense and entertain. Students can work in pairs or triads to practice making connections. If partners have similar cards, it will be fun to see how different partnerships connect the same dots in very different ways.
  • Explain the importance of these elements in a strong plot: a catalyst that moves a character from one situation into another; a conflict with varying obstacles; and stages of escalation. (You may wish to bring in the screenplay formula from Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat and the 15 Beats of plot or the hero’s journey model from Joseph Campbell.) 
  • Assignment: take two dots and connect them according to one of the above formulas. The story should be as long as a Three-Minute Fiction piece
  • Assignment: divide chapters among partners or groups and ask students to connect the dots between key events and present them to the class with the following answers to these questions: Which plot development is most logical? Which plot development is most startling, yet works? Which plot follows either Snyder’s or Campbell’s formula? (Limit these presentations to 3 minutes per group; time them and require that the first minute be listing the outline of plot events and the last two minutes provide answers to the questions.)
  • The reward for the best stories can be measured in Dots candy. 
There are a gazillion more creative writing assignment ideas where this idea came from, but if you’re interested in more lessons of this sort connected to classics like Shakespeare or other literature, you can check out Teaching Julius Caesar (NCTE), Teaching Romeo and Juliet (NCTE, co-authored with Delia DeCourcy and Robin Follet), The Compassionate Classroom: Lessons That Nurture Wisdom and Empathy (Chicago Review Press, co-authored with Jane Dalton), or the Macbeth and Civil War units in the ASCD book Differentiation in Practice: A Resource Guide for Differentiating Curriculum, Grades 9-12

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