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Story Writing with your Child - How to Speed Up Learning Using Chunking

Mar 5, 2008
Writing a story is hard work, even for authors. There are characters to create, dialogue to deliver, plots to plan, tension scenes to capture, endings to invent and starts that have to sizzle so much they superglue your reader onto a chair.

Then you have to put it all into interesting sentences that flow smoothly. Whew! Breaking the complex process of writing into chunks makes helping kids with their writing more effective - and far more fun too.

Here are two 'chunks' you could try to help your child write with more impact.

Show, Don't Tell

As we read words, pictures form in our mind. See what happens when you slowly read the lines below:-

* Snow glistens, thick and white on a mountain top.

* Orange and yellow poppies stand tall and cheerful in a vase.

Our job as writers is to create these pictures in the brains of our readers. That's what Show, Don't Tell is all about.

However, how can we do this when the idea is more abstract - like emotions? That's much harder for kids to write as there is no picture. Therefore we need to show them how to create one. For instance:-

TELL: My brother is lazy.

SHOW: 'Your turn for the dishes Tank,' said Mum.

'Yeah, later,' he said, yawning, and turned up the TV louder.

'No, now,' said Mum. She stood in the doorway, arms crossed. She knew later in Tank's mind meant somewhere between the year 2012 and infinity. Once, as punishment, Mum put all the dishes and saucepans Tank had forgotten on top of his bed. He just dumped them on the floor. A week later they were still there, a shoe in the spaghetti sauce, sweaty socks on the plates and a really bad smell wafting out the door.

Ah, now we have the picture for our minds. It takes much longer to write - but as readers, we are far more convinced.

How to Write Tension Scenes

Imagine a birthday party, a top restaurant, friends and family - and a massive earthquake that ends in disaster.

Here's the starting point by a 9 year old boy:

We were having fun in the restaurant when suddenly the ground started to shake. I didn't believe it. Then glasses started to break all over my plate. My sister tried to stand up, she was afraid. The ground was trembling, there was noise everywhere...

Tension scenes are one of the hardest parts of a story to write. Kids often make them too basic and short. Why? Well, we say 'write what you know', but children often don't have enough 'emotional experience' to imagine this sort of thing.

However, other people do - and their words are all in a dictionary or thesaurus.

So try this: Get your child to underline key words in the story - and then use a thesaurus to help bring the scene alive. You can actually do this BEFORE they write as well. Just ask, 'what are some things which will happen?' and make a list for them to use.

e.g.

fun - delight, enjoyment, amused, teasing, laughing, happy

shake - shudder, shiver, quake, quiver, buzzing, tremor,

break - crumble, disintegrate, collapse, crush, shatter

afraid - scared, fearful, terrified, panicked

tremble - quiver, shudder, beat, vibrate, grind

The idea is NOT to merely substitute one word for another. It is to give a greater variety of words/inspiration/ideas to the writer - and let their subconscious do the melding.

After:

The waiter smiled as he put down a hot chocolate pudding right in front of me.

'You're not going to eat all that!' said my Dad. 'Here, I'll help!' He reached across with his spoon, teasing me. I pulled my plate away fast. Everyone laughed.

'Just a little bit,' Dad begged.

I shook my head. It was weird, but there was a strange buzzing sound as if everything was not quite real. I lifted my spoon, my hands felt like they were shivering. Or was it really the floor shaking? It wasn't possible, but now all the glasses were starting to clink. Suddenly one fell, shattering glass across my plate and into the dark chocolate. Then the noise hit me, harsh, grinding, vibrating right into my brain...

Get the idea? See how the word 'fun' has turned into something more specific - teasing and Dad trying to steal chocolate pudding. A simple 'shake' now has triggered 'shivering' and a 'buzzing' in the head. Best of all look at that last line; the words suggested from 'tremble' have now made this incredibly evocative and powerful.

If you want rich writing, give kids plenty of rich ingredients to work with.

(C) Jen McVeity, National Literacy Champion.
About the Author
The fun Seven Steps to Writing Success program, by successful author, Jen McVeity, is in 900+ schools. Suited to the home school curriculum & gifted children, it has rapidly increased students' writing skills and enjoyment. Visit http://www.sevenstepswriting.com for top writing tips and activities - more in the free Parent Newsletters. Click on 'Sample' tab for a free Story Starters Worksheet.
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