seven steps Archives - Education Matters Magazine
  •      
Originality in plot writing

The Quest for Originality – fun or folly?

Seven distinct story types According to Christopher Booker, every story follows one of seven universal plot lines. In his book, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, he gives a detailed outline of each story type as well as a wealth of examples from ancient myths, folk tales, plays and novels. Here is a summary of the seven story types with some examples from children’s literature.

  • Overcoming the Monster – The main character battles against the villain(s) or an evil force and eventually triumphs against all odds. For example, What the Ladybird Heard by Julia Donaldson.
  • Rags to Riches – The main character rises up from humble beginnings and gains everything they wanted before losing it and having to fight to get it back again. For example, The Peasant Prince by Li Cunxin.
  • Voyage and Return – The main character travels to an unfamiliar place where they meet new people and overcome difficulties before returning with a newfound wisdom. For example, Greetings from Sandy Beach by Bob Graham.
  • The Quest – The main character sets out to achieve a particular goal, but they must overcome a series of challenges to succeed. For example, The Big Fish by Pamela Allen.
  • Comedy – A humorous story that centres on some sort of misunderstanding or confusion which leads to conflict, but is eventually resolved. For example, Grandad’s Teeth by Rod Clement.
  • Tragedy – The main character’s actions set in motion a series of events that lead to their downfall or death. For example, The Boy Who Cried Wolf by Aesop.
  • Rebirth – The main character has flaws, but is shown the error of their ways and eventually redeems themselves. For example, The Swap by Jan Ormerod.
Some stories may vary slightly from these basic plot lines or combine multiple plot lines, but they still bear the hallmarks of these seven overarching themes. Challenge your students to think of a book, film or play that doesn’t fit one of these seven story types. One basic story structure As well as following one of these seven plot lines, all stories also have the same basic structure:
  • Sizzling Start™ – start with an action scene or at a moment of change.
  • Back fill – the Who, What, Why is filled in as the story unfolds.
  • Gradual build-up of tension – pebble, rock, boulder.
  • Action climax – the main character almost fails, but triumphs against all odds.
  • Character resolution – the character’s inner story is wrapped up.
[caption id="attachment_3100" align="alignright" width="300"]Story type: comedy Example of one of the seven plot archetypes in action. Click to enlarge.[/caption] This basic structure is covered in more detail in a recent Education Matters article: ‘Narratives – the pattern that authors use’. The Narrative Story Graph mentioned in the article is a visual representation of this story structure. To demonstrate how the seven universal story types, tie in with the basic story structure, two of the examples above have been plotted on the Story Graph template. Go to www.sevenstepswriting.com/samples/free-downloads/ to download these examples. Don’t reinvent the wheel While being faced with such limited options may seem to hinder creativity, in the quest for originality writers can use it to their advantage. Rather that wasting time reinventing the wheel, great writers put a new spin on tried and tested plot lines and structures. Encourage students to do the same by familiarising them with the seven plot types and the Narrative Story Graph. Switching the focus from the basic plot line and structure to the actual content of the story will increase the alpha brain waves which boost students’ creativity. As the saying goes, knowledge is power. Related article: Narratives – the pattern that authors use For more examples of completes story graphs become a Seven Steps Online member at www.sevenstepswriting.com/info-seven-steps-online/. Sarah Bakker Publishing and Content Manager at Seven Steps to Writing Success and a qualified primary teacher with over a decade of experience in creating educational resources.]]>

Originality in plot writing

The Quest for Originality – fun or folly?

Every author strives for originality. However, anyone who has ever tried to come up with a ‘new’ plot will know that it is not easy. Every plot seems to have been done before. Is it impossible to come up with something truly original or is a challenge worth pursuing?

Seven distinct story types

According to Christopher Booker, every story follows one of seven universal plot lines. In his book, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, he gives a detailed outline of each story type as well as a wealth of examples from ancient myths, folk tales, plays and novels. Here is a summary of the seven story types with some examples from children’s literature.

  • Overcoming the Monster – The main character battles against the villain(s) or an evil force and eventually triumphs against all odds. For example, What the Ladybird Heard by Julia Donaldson.
  • Rags to Riches – The main character rises up from humble beginnings and gains everything they wanted before losing it and having to fight to get it back again. For example, The Peasant Prince by Li Cunxin.
  • Voyage and Return – The main character travels to an unfamiliar place where they meet new people and overcome difficulties before returning with a newfound wisdom. For example, Greetings from Sandy Beach by Bob Graham.
  • The Quest – The main character sets out to achieve a particular goal, but they must overcome a series of challenges to succeed. For example, The Big Fish by Pamela Allen.
  • Comedy – A humorous story that centres on some sort of misunderstanding or confusion which leads to conflict, but is eventually resolved. For example, Grandad’s Teeth by Rod Clement.
  • Tragedy – The main character’s actions set in motion a series of events that lead to their downfall or death. For example, The Boy Who Cried Wolf by Aesop.
  • Rebirth – The main character has flaws, but is shown the error of their ways and eventually redeems themselves. For example, The Swap by Jan Ormerod.

Some stories may vary slightly from these basic plot lines or combine multiple plot lines, but they still bear the hallmarks of these seven overarching themes. Challenge your students to think of a book, film or play that doesn’t fit one of these seven story types.

One basic story structure

As well as following one of these seven plot lines, all stories also have the same basic structure:

  • Sizzling Start™ – start with an action scene or at a moment of change.
  • Back fill – the Who, What, Why is filled in as the story unfolds.
  • Gradual build-up of tension – pebble, rock, boulder.
  • Action climax – the main character almost fails, but triumphs against all odds.
  • Character resolution – the character’s inner story is wrapped up.
Story type: comedy
Example of one of the seven plot archetypes in action. Click to enlarge.

This basic structure is covered in more detail in a recent Education Matters article: ‘Narratives – the pattern that authors use’. The Narrative Story Graph mentioned in the article is a visual representation of this story structure. To demonstrate how the seven universal story types, tie in with the basic story structure, two of the examples above have been plotted on the Story Graph template. Go to www.sevenstepswriting.com/samples/free-downloads/ to download these examples.

Don’t reinvent the wheel

While being faced with such limited options may seem to hinder creativity, in the quest for originality writers can use it to their advantage. Rather that wasting time reinventing the wheel, great writers put a new spin on tried and tested plot lines and structures.

Encourage students to do the same by familiarising them with the seven plot types and the Narrative Story Graph. Switching the focus from the basic plot line and structure to the actual content of the story will increase the alpha brain waves which boost students’ creativity. As the saying goes, knowledge is power.

Related article: Narratives – the pattern that authors use

For more examples of completes story graphs become a Seven Steps Online member at www.sevenstepswriting.com/info-seven-steps-online/.

Sarah Bakker
Publishing and Content Manager at Seven Steps to Writing Success and a qualified primary teacher with over a decade of experience in creating educational resources.

Creativity in the classroom – practice makes perfect

Ask any author and they will tell you this: ideas are the most important part of creation and they take a long time. How do you get ideas? How much time do you spend coming up with ideas before you start writing?

First try this test. Say just one word to students in your class: Writing.

Immediately ask them what picture comes into their mind. Chances are it will be of a person at a keyboard or writing at a desk with a pen, or a visual of a pen on paper. Not many students will visualise the first and most vital step in creating a piece of writing – brainstorming and creating ideas.

Boys studying at school.
Creativity isn’t restricted to a few gifted individuals. It’s something that can be developed in any student.

The importance of brainstorming

There is a misconception that ‘creativity’ is reserved for the special few, the gifted, the ones who invoke the muse by wearing a special hat and retreating to the silence of a special place. As a result, brainstorming – the generation of original ideas – is often not taught explicitly in classrooms.

According to Jackie French, ‘anyone who can daydream can create a story’. Furthermore, creativity can in fact be practiced just like any other skill; ask any author, the more you write, the more easily the ideas flow. However, the generation of ideas needs one important element – time.

‘Ideas are like small plants sprouting in the compost of experience; it takes time and patience to find out if they turn into trees.’ (Shaun Tan)

Compare that to the pressure students are put under in a NAPLAN writing task. Students are asked to write a narrative or persuasive piece in 45 minutes with just fve minutes of planning time. This model has led to the narrowing of planning time in normal classrooms, despite the fact that it is definitely not best practice.

The gifted and strong writers, who intuitively or have been explicitly taught to brainstorm and plan, are heavily penalised in this scenario. Authors are too. Take a look at author Jen McVeity’s response to this year’s NAPLAN writing tasks, the marks she received and her insights into the process of completing these tasks.

Ways of generating ideas

Fortunately, generating original and thought provoking ideas can vastly improve with training and practise. Research shows there are three common ways students, adults and authors generate ideas:

Brainstorming

Brainstorming refers to the process of quickly recording thoughts, imagery and ideas. It is important not to sensor ideas, nor be concerned with spelling, neat handwriting or grammar. Ideas can be recorded all over the page, in bullet lists or even in the margins.

Mind mapping or clustering

Like brainstorming, techniques such as clustering and mind mapping allow ideas to be recorded without censor and this enhances creativity. Both techniques focus on a central word (usually something that embodies a theme, topic, motif, etc.), which you then work out from by associating other words, thoughts and ideas to that central word. These are very useful techniques for visual learners. There are very elaborate and decorative examples of graphic organisers online such as the array of templates in the ‘Resources gallery’ on the Global Education website.

Question-Asking 

The ‘what if…?’ approach. What if the main character lost a ring? What if the best friend lied? Why did the brother want to hide? Script writers use this approach a lot to generate new ideas. Aristotle did too.

Training in any of these strategies will enhance students’ creativity and originality, although students may find they have a preference for a particular approach. The more visual learners will prefer mind maps, the more linear would go with bullet point ideas.

It is important to note that there is no ‘right’ way to generate original ideas; authors use multiple strategies:

‘The best place to start is with the characters…my best characters are part real world crossed with something unexpected…like the loud and obnoxious goldfish…often stolen from parts of my own character or that of someone I know…I am confident that once I have the character the rest will flow. Then sometimes it happens exactly the opposite way around. Idea first and then the character emerges.’ (Terry Denton)

‘Stupid thoughts and absurd ideas that pop into your head are not necessarily so stupid or absurd. If something’s not quite right, try adding tentacles.’ (Shaun Tan)

The important thing is that all of these strategies tap into the free flowing ‘alpha’ mode of thinking which is the basis for idea generation. A common term for this is ‘creative flow’.

Putting this into practice

Imagine walking into a classroom and giving students a topic:Gold

Let them work in groups as a collaborative lesson. This also works as a strong scaffolding tool.

In five minutes, challenge students to brainstorm ten different ways to approach the topic. For example:

  • A wedding ring found on the beach
  • A sickly child living during the gold rush
  • A gold nugget discovered on school excursion
  • Gold sunsets, sands and memories from a holiday
  • Wedding proposal where everything went horribly wrong…

The first ideas students come up with are usually not the most creative. They will be the ‘easy’ ideas, the ideas everyone else will think of too. It is only when they push through and get into creative flow that the original ideas will emerge.

At the end of five minutes, students take their ten ideas and share them with another group. In doing so they realise how many ideas can be generated by brainstorming one topic in groups. Repeat with another group to further reinforce this. Repeat this activity with different topics every morning for a week. Soon students will realise that ideas are easy to generate.

That’s all! Don’t get students to write the story. Don’t make it hard work. Let students practise idea generation in its own right and enjoy the creativity and freedom of thinking this brings.

Try out the sample lesson on Planning for Success™ (see link below) and see how creative your students can be when you give them time to think and brainstorm.

Brainstorming is a form of imaginative research

It is commonly accepted that students can be allowed time to carry out research for informative and persuasive writing tasks, but the same time is often not allowed for imaginative research – the generation of ideas from scratch.

Ultimately, however, if we want more than ‘cookie cutter’ ideas, or the revamp of the latest TV show, we must allow students time for reflection, deep thinking and creative flow.

When we respect the time creating original ideas takes, we see a much greater richness in writing as a reward.

To access the sample lesson on Planning for Success™ go to: www.sevenstepswriting.com/samples/lessonplans/.

For more lesson plans become a member of Seven Steps Online: https://www.sevenstepswriting.com/info-seven-steps-online/.

Jen McVeity is the creator of the Seven Steps to Writing Success (www.sevenstepswriting.com) and the author of over 20 books for children.

Seven Steps to Writing Success

Collaborate, create and celebrate great writing

Typically writing classrooms are quiet. People often regard writing as a personal and solo activity, intense and full of concentration. It does not have to be this way.

Collaborative classrooms are vibrant, interactive and tick all four boxes of speaking, writing, reading and listening in literacy. It is certainly possible for students to work together when writing.

What’s more, the benefits are huge: ‘individuals are able to achieve higher levels of learning and retain more information when they work in a group rather than individually’. Gokhale (1995)

Most importantly, however, collaborative learning engages students and makes learning far more efficient and enjoyable.

Verbal is vital

While physical writing is seen as an important part of the literacy process, speaking and listening are often not valued as highly. However, the National Curriculum stresses that, ‘language, verbal or non-verbal, is critical for the development of literacy skills’ (ACARA).

Orality is a common theme in academic research worldwide. ‘An important, albeit obvious, early marker needs to be entered here that listening and speaking are the roots of reading and writing.’ (www.literacytrust.org.uk/assets/0000/1175/Rose_Review.pdf)

In the USA, an addendum was added to the Common Core curriculum, highlighting the need for teachers to focus more strongly on verbal literacy. ‘Reading, writing, speaking, and listening should span the school day from K–12 as integral parts of every subject.’

(http://www.corestandards.org/other-resources/key-shifts-in-english-language-arts/)

Talk is a vital scaffold for writing for all students; it is the first step in literacy. It is also particularly important for students from ESL (EAL/D) backgrounds and those with learning difficulties.

Collaborative writing lesson

Here is an example of a collaborative writing lesson on writing a Tightening Tension™ scene in narratives.

Imagine. One topic. Four students. Their heads are close. They are engaged, interested and on task.

The topic is a churchyard (or graveyard) late at night.

They are all contributing ideas. One of them is quickly recording the ideas. The others are talking even faster, thinking, brains working freely. Here’s what they might be saying…

I SEE

Tall monuments

Broken headstones

Names, births and deaths carved in stone

Tattered flowers

Broken bricks in grass

Darkness

I HEAR

Wind

Eerie rustling

Heart beating

Breath coming fast

I TOUCH

Cold, too cold on skin

Trees or bushes

Cobwebs on skin

Coat hugged tighter

I TASTE

Fear, bitter in mouth

Strange tingling on tongue

I SMELL

Jonquils – too sweet, and out of season

Something old, very old

New mown grass

Cold air

I FEEL

Alone

Eerie

Growing fear

Frightened

Determination

Total panic

Then comes the call: TIME’S UP! The brainstorming all stops. Kids suddenly scramble to their desks, hauling out paper, grabbing pens. Ready, set, WRITE!

In 30 seconds they are writing furiously. No hesitation, no resistance.

For four minutes they write. They are passionate and confident. Then come the words: STOP writing.

They groan in frustration, and refuse to look up. But gradually, finally they finish their last sentence, sit back and smile with pride.

Given the brainstorming above, here’s what students might have written in just four minutes.

If only I hadn’t been late home, I would never have taken a short cut through the churchyard.

The night was cold, far too cold. I hugged my coat tighter around me. It was weirdly dark too. There were all these shadows around me, tombstones and monuments of people long dead. Names, births, deaths…and now the broken bricks and long grass tells the true story – they are forgotten.

If only I had started home earlier. It would not have been so dark. And so cold…

The wind picked up, cutting through me. I smelt fresh mown grass, someone was paid to care. But over it all was a smell of sweetness. Too sweet.

I put my head down and walked faster.

Then the scream pierced the darkness. Heart pounding, I ran.

If only, if only, if only…

Writing does not have to be silent

Writing is brainstorming and creating first, and actually pushing the pen second. So to aid in creation, writers use collaboration as a tool. There has been a long history of this collaboration:

  • Script writers for TV shows work in groups, bouncing ideas off each other, arguing over what to include, piggybacking on each other’s ideas quickly and creatively to create great shows fast.
  • Remember the ‘soiree society’? Famous authors Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo, or expatriate Americans living in France in the 1920s and 1930s such as Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, Oscar Wilde…they all hung out with fellow author friends and gained inspiration (and companionship) from each other.
  • Modern authors gather in critique groups either in person or online, to share ideas, inspiration and get feedback on their latest work. For example, The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators in Australia: http://www.scbwiaustralianz.com/our-blog/2016/3/31/online-critique-group-update.

Compare this style of writing to the ‘cone of silence’ where we give students a topic, don’t let them talk and ask them to write individually for a whole lesson. We have given them few support structures and no way to tap into the help and creativity of others.

A collaborative classroom

  • 3–4 is the optimal size of groups.
  • Lower ability students work better in mixed groups.
  • Medium ability students are best placed with peers of their own ability.
  • Higher ability students are not affected by the mix of the group according to research. Lou, Y., Others (1996)

In collaborative classrooms, group members are intensely curious about what their fellow students have written. Taking the writing back to the group is an essential part of the process. After writing, students read out or pass their work to other group members. The benefits of this are enormous:

  • It is a form of publication where writing is shared and celebrated. Enthusiastic faces nodding, smiling and laughing at humour…these are all forms of feedback that real authors never get.
  • Students learn from each other: ‘Hey, I loved the way you used dialogue there. I’m going to use that too.’
  • Students are analysing each other’s writing – some good, some not so strong. This gives them a basis for comparison and learning.
  • Engagement is dramatically increased. Compare the passive nature of ‘students write, teacher corrects’ with the dynamic nature of sharing students’ work. Sharing in groups IS the assessment and the feedback and it comes from multiple people rather than just one teacher.

Sharing effort and product is an important part of collaboration and a great way to improve students’ writing.

Teachers are often concerned that students will ‘steal ideas’ from each other. However, you will be surprised at how students can take the same material and shape it according to their own skill sets and experience into something completely different.

Try out the sample lesson on Tightening Tension™ (see link below) and see the extraordinary diversity of writing that comes from each student – even if they were part of the same group.

The positive impact of collaboration

The positive impact of a collaborative classroom is that it increases student engagement and improves their results. Research has shown that when students work collaboratively they learn more, retain more and have a far more positive attitude towards learning. They also have a lot more enjoyment and engagement every day in their classes.

As teachers we don’t want to just ‘stand and deliver’ information. Students love to know that we have the confidence to allow them to be active learners and that we trust them to learn, listen and share with each other throughout the learning process.

To access the sample lesson on Tightening Tension™ go to: https://www.sevenstepswriting.com/samples/lessonplans/.

For more collaborative lesson plans become a member of Seven Steps Online: https://www.sevenstepswriting.com/info-seven-steps-online/.