The Science of Teaching Writing

A blog on teaching, with an emphasis in teaching writing.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Plot and Character Conferences

My students are finishing their first round of music prompts that they're transforming into short stories, and so I decided that my conferences with them should be different--what they're writing is really different, so conferring with them should be different, too.
I had my student fill out a sheet of paper that had three questions: who is your main character, what is the biggest problem in your story, and how does this problem affect your main character. What has come out of these conferences has been wonderful: I usually start with a question about the main character, asking the writer to tell me what their reader with know about this main character after reading their work. This question is met with a little, sometimes a lot, of silence. I ask them questions, "What kind of person is your main character?" and when they answer this, I ask, "How does your reader know this?" Lots of writers leave their best stuff in their heads, not on the paper, and the practice of them answering these questions I hope will rub off.
The other half of these conferences have been about plot. We talk about the problem, they tell me about the things that have happened, and we talk about how the problem will be resolved. For some, this is a difficult question--with as many adults in the world who don't know how to solve their own problems, it shouldn't be surprising that kids struggle with this, too. Before students were more than a day or so into their story, they know there are no magic endings, their main characters are not allowed to wake from a dream to end their piece. One student had two characters who were in-love, and one character had to leave for college, the other character wasn't allowed to come along. She was content with this. I wanted to scream, "You can't do that! Who in their right mind would forgive you if you wrote that?--a life of longing and unfulfillment and resignation? I asked her if she thought her reader would like the story. She said yes. Another one of my students was sitting near my desk and I relayed the gist of the story and asked her what she thought. She didn't want to say anything negative, and she just made a face of indecision. I asked her what she wanted to happen. "She has to go after him! She can't just quit."
It reminded me a little of when I was in college, taking a creative writing fiction class. This is much gentler, but advice, conversations, and discussion of how important the main character is, how important the problem at least me attempted to be resolved is guidance I'm sure most of my kids have never had before. If I don't talk to them about it, who will?

I thought it was important to add that with the pieces of paper my kids write on, I use those in my conferences with them, and make notes about what we talk about, what their plan is as they go back and revise, tighten-up, etc. When they get close to being finished, I can use it as a method of evaluation, and also for follow up conversations on their pieces, "Cassey, this is a great way of showing how much these two characters care about each other. Fabulous!" Or, "Steve, you said you were going to have your character confront his mother before he left. Why didn't you do it? Did you think he couldn't do it and leave? Or was it something else?" I think having these conversations with students is good for them--explaining why--but also for us as teachers as we understand them better as writers and people.


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