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Once upon a time

magazine article | Published in TES Newspaper on 19 September, 2003 | By: Pie Corbett

Pie Corbett suggests some story types that will give children a framework for their own writing.

As a child, I loved writing stories. Mrs Wilson exhorted us to "use our imaginations", so I sat with my eyes screwed up, seeing flashes of red and black. Then she would remind us to have a "beginning, middle and end" and off we went. My tactic was to launch in and see what happened, one incident leading into the next. To end the story, I relied on the police arriving and the baddies being caught.

Children are naturally creative but if they have not internalised the building blocks of narrative they have little with which to be imaginative.

Those who read avariciously can call on a range of sentences and narrative possibilities. Like thieves in the night, they take what they know and use it to create. You cannot create out of nothing.

I have collected basic story types, rather like writing frames, that provide narrative patterns. Those who struggle with story writing can adapt these structures to make their own tales.

Problem/resolution stories

This is probably the most basic pattern. The structure falls into five parts: Opening: introduce the characters.

Build up: they do something.

Dilemma: a problem arises.

Resolution: they sort it out.

End: tale ends (usually showing what the character has learned or how they have changed).

To help children visualise the pattern, draw a mountain shape to show the narrative journey. Annotate each section on to the mountain. Work with the class to invent several stories, using the mountain. Once they are comfortable with using the basic pattern, they design their own stories.

The five parts might provide five paragraphs or sections. Later, a mountain range might be developed with several dilemmas. Collect and add on to the mountain useful narrative connectives - one day, when, suddenly, after that, so, eventually.

Quests

Young children find a story picture-map a powerful visual device for looking at the concrete structure of a plot. Use well-known tales such as Red Riding Hood to practise mapping. Quests vary - the simplest often start at A and journey to B with incidents en route. Stories such as Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak bring the main character home at the end (A to B to A). Others are circular, like Rosie's Walk by Pat Hutchins. Not all quests are simple - look at Lord of the Rings for instance. Key questions should be considered: Who is on the journey? Where are they going? What is their task? What happens en route? (Avoid too many incidents.) What happens when they reach their destination? Other ideas may crop up but the planning provides a structure within which the writer is free to manipulate.

Cumulative tales

Cumulative songs ("There was an Old Woman who Swallowed a Fly") and stories often provide a simple pattern, giving confidence to young writers. Instead of The Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, we could have The Hungry Worm.

Instead of The Enormous Turnip we could write The Enormous Radish. "Days of the week" stories such as On Friday Something Funny Happened, by John Prater, offer a simple structure.

Warnings

In Roald Dahl's The Minpins, Billy is told not to go into the forest. Of course, he goes in - and almost gets incinerated. Michael Morpurgo's Why the Whales Came opens with: "'You keep away from the Birdman, Gracie.' My father had warned me often enough." These stories begin with a warning. The main character swears to be good but soon becomes involved in the forbidden activity. Something goes wrong, a rescue is needed and the end usually involves a circle back to the initial warning, with an adult saying: "I thought I told youI" Warnings about the dangers of local places such as canals or car dumps work well.

Siege

Stories such as Ted Hughes's The Iron Man are based on the idea of being under siege. Begin the story with everything happy. Introduce an "invader" who has to be conquered (usually by someone who is not necessarily "hero" material). This could be a monster, such as the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk, or a bully, a nasty neighbour, a wild dog, a plague, an alien invasionI Harry Potter's world is endlessly under siege from the dreaded Voldemort. The famous wooden horse of Troy is a form of "breaking the siege".

Wishing tales

The traditional tale of The Three Wishes can make a handy model - the main character performs a good deed, is granted three wishes, wastes them and ends up back with the status quo. Or begin the story at the moment when a wish is granted. It then gets lost, destroyed or stolen and the main character has to resolve the situation. Kenneth Oppel's Galactic Snapshots starts with the words "My own camera! Finally!" George Layton's The Fib is built around desperately wanting a balaclava and what the main character does to get one (lies and steals).

Transformations

The Gift from Winklesea by Helen Cresswell is a classic transformation tale. The main character might acquire something that turns into something quite unexpected, eg a dragon, a goblin or a snake. Meanwhile, in Allan Ahlberg's Woof, the main character keeps turning into a dog - often with hilarious results.

Cinderella stories

This pattern involves a vulnerable character, mistreated in some way, overcoming the key problem, often through kindness (rewarded by others), loyalty or bravery. The story of ET is an interesting example, as it features someone rescuing a vulnerable character. Harry Potter is the classic male Cinderella.

Character

A plot might be driven by a good character set against the odds, who does something heroic and is rewarded. Or by a character with a flaw who gets their comeuppance - eg, a greedy character caught stealing, who promises never to steal again. Start with a list of negative traits (eg, greed, selfishness, cruelty) and discuss the consequences.

Dares

Humpty Dumpty is the best-known "dare" story. The main character does something silly, there is a disaster, they need rescuing. This simple pattern can provide exciting adventures, often based on children's own experiences.

Are you sitting comfortably...

The more children investigate patterns, the more they internalise the underlying structures. Map out several tales that follow a similar pattern and use the structure to plan your own stories. If the school agrees a set of fundamental patterns, these can be revisited each year with increasing sophistication. Many children find story writing troublesome - it either peters out because there is no story to tell or rambles, repeating itself.

Internalising story structures liberates young writers to create their own tales within classic patterns that have been handed down since Homer's time.

Pie Corbett's How to Teach Story Writing at Key Stage 1 (companion volume to How to Teach Fiction Writing at Key Stage 2) has just been publishedwww.fultonpublishers.co.uk


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