Lecture: Getting Them Organized
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Titles | Leads | Paragraphs | Excellent Endings |
How many times have you reviewed beginning of the year essays and felt frustration and rising panic as you see page after page of scribbled words with no paragraphs, no titles, and only the most rudimentary sense of sentence structure? Where do you begin? Unschooled student writing can be overwhelming and daunting to the most experienced teacher. However, if you understand the 6+1 TraitsTM system, you will know what to do and how to go about it.
Organizing student writing takes a systematic approach. In this lecture I'll discuss basic narrative writing structure. Other modes require different approaches. However, if you specifically teach Title, Lead, Paragraphing, and Ending techniques, your students will have tools they can apply to many forms, including standardized testing situations.
There are specific techniques for teaching each of these elements of organization. Clicking each link will take you to a mini-lecture.
The Working Title, The Title As Hook, Titles That Lead, Titles That Will Echo In The Ending, Titles That Shock, Long Titles, Short Titles.
The Typical Lead, The Action Lead, The Dialog Lead, The Puzzle Lead, The Emotional Lead, Combining Lead.
Two or Three Body Paragraphs? Yes You Have To Teach Indentation! When To Paragraph? Change In Time Or Place, Dialog Paragraphing, Paragraphing For Dramatic Emphasis.
Knowing When To Stop. Answering The "So What?" Question. Surprise Endings, Echo Endings.
Consider the title as your story's first impression. You can do a lot with a title to set the scene, intrigue the reader, and create anticipation. On the other hand not having an appropriate title usually means a lack of structure, while a misspelled or improperly capitalized title tells the critical reader to expect many conventions errors.
Student writers will often resist giving their stories a title. What can you do?
The working title:
Insist on a 'Working Title'. This is a temporary fix, just a way of identifying the story while the student works on his/her ideas. This allows some breathing room and time to think of a better title (which will no doubt come to mind once you explain how titles work). Examples: My Vacation, The Accident, My Dog etc.
The evolved working title:
You have convinced the writer to add descriptive or showing detail to their original idea. My Terrifying and Insane Vacation, The Accident That Changed Everything, My Dog Pete, the Hairless Chihuahua.
A title taken from the story itself:
Look for an essential idea or line in the story that will serve as a title. Be sure to "keep a little mystery'" about the dramatic elements in the story. In other words if the dramatic highlight of the story is a broken leg, avoid calling your story, The Broken Leg.
The short and punchy title:
Death Trip, Screaming Dogs, After Midnight.
The long and ornate title:
The Strange and Terrible Saga of Pete the Hairless Chihuahua; After Midnight, Strange Steps on the Stairs, or....What's the Number for 911? Titles that go over the top, that break the standard short and unimaginative mold, or that hint at the writer's Voice and sense of humor will stand out from the crowd.
Introducing the Title concept with examples:
- To convince your students of the importance of titles, show them a list of story titles so they can see for themselves.
- Read the titles one by one.
- Ask the student to note the titles they would be most likely to read.
- You can then read a list of well-known professional titles, intermingled with simple working titles.
- Another approach is to gather all of the titles proposed by students in your classes and list them (without author's names).
- Ask: What sticks in your mind? What stories will you want to read? Are there any boring titles you would avoid?
The Human Zoo
The Sun Also Rises
Rocket From Infinity
The Dog bite
| The Chocolate Egg
Our First Win
Bat in the Camper
The Old Lady and the Mogul
The Monster in My Closet
When I Slipped in the Store
Wherever You Go Emily (You'll Always Have your Friends)
He Should Have Died
Which titles stick in your mind?
The opening paragraph should grab the reader's interest and drag him/her quickly into the story. The calculated use of lead technique will distinguish any student story simply because the story begins in a dramatic and effective fashion.
The Typical Lead:
The typical lead seen in most student stories is really no lead at all. The story will meander about as the student tries to get started. Often we get a chronological listing of meaningless events that slowly lead up to the real action.
I got up. I brushed my teeth. I had breakfast. My mom gave me my lunch. I walked to the bus stop. I had to run back home for my homework. I rode to school with my friends. Suddenly the bus driver grabbed his chest and slumped over the steering wheel.
The typical meandering lead is a first draft phenomena that should be edited out once the writer understands how to craft effective leads.
Here are some effective lead techniques:
Open with action:
The bus swerved bumping up against the curb as Mr. Rollston clutched his chest and slumped against the steering wheel.
Open with a question:
Have you ever thought you were going to die?
Open with an announcement:
I just learned that the most dangerous part of any kid's day is getting on to the school bus.
Open with a bold statement:
I nearly got killed on the way to school today. Let me tell you about it.
Open with dialog:
"Get your hands back in the bus you jokers!" Mr. Rollston yelled. We just laughed at him. Then suddenly he went all stiff in his seat. "Aaahg! My heart!" Mr. Rollston moaned as he grabbed his chest and fell from his seat at the front of the bus.
Open with a puzzle or riddle:
What's black and yellow and doesn't get to school on time?
Open with a description of emotion or personal feeling:
My hands clamped up. My stomach twisted in a knot. Everything happened in slow motion. The bus just seemed to drift towards the oncoming traffic as Mr. Rollston tumbled out of his seat.
Time to re-write
After explaining and demonstrating different leads, consider having your students rewrite their leads using several different techniques.
- Emphasize that a lead is more than an opening sentence...push for a complete paragraph.
- Have everyone try an action lead, a dialog lead, and a puzzle lead.
- Ask students to read their original lead followed by the best of their revisions.
The radical improvement of the new lead is so obvious to the class that everyone is quickly convinced that lead techniques work. However, I suggest you always give the writer the option to keep their original lead...students need to own their work.
I tell my students that an essay or narrative story without paragraphs will automatically fail on my Organization rubric. This unambiguous stance makes it easy for students to realize just how important paragraphs really are. Early on in the year, I make a show of it by quickly walking the classroom looking at first drafts. When I see a paper that shows paragraph structure I smile and announce "Pass!" At first, most papers will not pass, but with consistent reinforcement, the message becomes clear!
Where does the paragraph go?
Students often have trouble understanding when they should create a paragraph break. While some may be well schooled in the 'Hamburger Paragraph' technique of exposition, they need direction when 'paragraphing' creative work.
This simple metaphor reminds students to have a strong beginning topic sentence and powerful concluding transition sentence which act as the Hamburger Bun. The meat and condiments of the burger are the developing details that illuminate the main ideas!
Begin a new paragraph:
- when you change time or place.
- when something suddenly occurs.
- when you wish to emphasize a dramatic event. It can be very effective to follow a long paragraph of description with a very short (even one-word) paragraph that delivers the action.
- when you introduce a new speaker using dialog technique. (More about this when we discuss Conventions.)
The big picture:
Students often don't know how to use paragraphs in a narrative. They may think it is the same as a five-paragraph essay. I remind them:
- Always start with a strong lead.
- Follow this up with at least two body paragraphs that build to a point of excitement.
- Conclude with an ending paragraph that displays strong technique. See Excellent Endings
Once Students associate these paragraphing guidelines with the techniques of Titles, Leads, and Endings, you will see a remarkable improvement in the structure of your student's writing.
How often have you seen a strong story lose punch and promise because the writer did not know how to finish? The story either ends abruptly at the bottom of the page, stumbles on after the climactic event, or peters out in a tangent. Teaching the technique of "Excellent Endings" will help your students craft more satisfying stories.
Excellent Ending Techniques:
The Echo Ending:
Look for an important sentence or theme in the story. Use a slightly rephrased (or verbatim copy) of this sentence in the last paragraph or last sentence. This intentional repetition or 'echo' helps wrap up a story in a very satisfying way.
End a little early (rather than a little late):
It is better to surprise your reader with a quick ending rather than carry on too long. Look for the opportunity to sum up shortly after the culminating event of the story.
Answer the "So what?" question:
Explicitly state your answer to the questions, "So what did you learn from this experience? So what was so important about all this anyway? So what was the moral of the story?" This is a standard summing up technique that students can understand.
Hard to do, delightful when done well. The surprise ending takes considerable planning (or inspiration)! Reading an O. Henry story, by way of example, can be an enjoyable link to literature. Since the surprise ending is a treasured cinematic technique, consider discussing the endings of movies like Planet of the Apes or Psycho.
And one cliché to avoid:
Students will often be very pleased with themselves by discovering the old potboiler trick of ending with the words, "And then I woke up." For kids this may be something new.. but for the sophisticated reader, this is a disappointing cop out. Make a point of explaining what a cliché is and why it should be avoided.
Some students will simply come to the bottom of a page and write "THE END". Explain to them that they have reached the end of a page, not the end of the story.
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