“Tsup?” I ask, smiling through a fry.
She hesitates. “I don’t like it anymore.”
I take it she is referring to the sheaf of papers in her hand. “Your story?” I push the fries toward her. She looks grateful, something to do so she won’t have to look directly at me. She takes a few limp fries.
She nods. “It got boring,” she says quietly. She adds a big squirt of ketchup to the cluster that she has piled on her napkin. “It’s not like the story you showed us.”
We are both chewing now. She leans on her hand, dangles a fry like a worm with the other. It wiggles a little in the air, nearly dripping its ketchup. “It feels like it should be more interesting, but...” She sighs dramatically.
“But it’s not.” I nod sympathetically.
“I just don’t know how to write.”
A common reaction at this point. “Why don’t you read it to me?”
She looks surprised, swallows her fry, takes a minute. “Right now?”
She looks around to see if any of her friends are near, and then picks up the paper and starts reading.
The lesson: Earlier in the day, I had talked about frame stories, stories that start in one place but have a transition and go to another place, then return to the place of origin. I talked about the classic examples: Alice in Wonder Land, Wizard of Oz, Chronicles of Narnia, dozens of movies— all of them start in one place and, through a strange transition, (the hole, the tornado, the closet) connect to some other place. The main character usually has a problem in the present that is dealt with in the other place. Or the other place spills into the present and informs it in some way. It allows students to move into more experimental places, worlds they don’t know. It also helps them add depth to a character because the problem in one world gets worked out in the other world.
I like this assignment for students who are a ways into the year, who have written one or two pieces of more conventional stories first. This one gives them some freedom to use the lessons they have garnered earlier. For a very good example of a students’ version of this strategy, look at Nicole Maffeo’s story, “The Russian Woman” from Scholastic’s Critics’ Picks. This is a story that begins on the F train into Brooklyn. The rocking of the car takes the main character back to her tragic past in Russia. We learn her sad story as she rides the train, but most of the story takes place in her memory of Russia. The story is vivid with detail about the Russian winter.
Carrie has written an adventure story about a little girl who gets lost in the woods, falls asleep and has a big dream adventure. But the dream adventure doesn’t really go anywhere and she realizes—though she hasn’t said this yet—that she doesn’t really have a direction. When she started thinking about what would happen and didn’t come up with anything, her language faded. Though I have never read studies about this phenomenon, I know from years of teaching that when their language is ordinary, these young writers lose energy. Vivid language seems to keep the writer interested as much as the reader. When detail becomes evocative again, very often the story will take off.
Draft strategy: some younger writers sometimes need to move into a story from the bottom up rather than the top down. By that I mean that once they get action going (the structural “top” of the story), and they have a partial draft—as Carrie does—they may lose interest unless the sentences are rich in sensory detail (bottom of the story). To help with this, I use the sensory interview. This lesson works best in one-on-one conversation—students can do it with each other or with you. In their community of writers, they talk it out.
How it works: Carrie reads her story and I listen closely. I remember one line, maybe several, and jot them down. I zero in on this one. “The woods are creepy.” Not bad, but it doesn’t get the senses going. It’s just not evocative enough to trigger a sensory response. I say, “Close your eyes, Carrie.” She glances sideways but does what I ask.
“What does creepy smell like?”
She giggles. The french fries cool on the napkin. Finally she says, “Like mud…”
“Creepy smells like mud?”
“Like air with mud in it.” She has intuitively extended the simile.
I push a bit, “And if you could taste creepy, it would taste like?”
“Mud with sour milk in it.”
“So the woods are creepy as mud with sour milk in it.” I extend the simile for her.
Her eyes fly open. “OH gross,” she says.
Yeah, but it's better writing.
We keep going with this sensory interview. I run through the other senses—touch, sound, sight—inviting bizarre similes, sometimes rephrasing them for her. She writes a few of them on her draft. By the time we are finished she likes her creepy woods, and in the process she has begun to think of what her heroine might be afraid of. Bad smells? Milk? Things that are sour? She knows now that her main character has to overcome a fear—and that gets her back into her story.
I talk more about how, in Wonderland, Alice’s curiosity got her into trouble, how Dorothy in Oz had to find her home, how the children of Narnia had to each over come a fear or gain maturity. Each tale has a frame that links an interior issue to an exterior adventure. I don’t expect her to write like these skilled authors, but having a model helps a young writer feel more secure.
So what do her creepy woods have to do with what happens in her dream?
She giggles and says, “She doesn’t like sour milk. That’s why the mud scares her so much. I think she has to run into something like a sour milk sea.” Though I’m not at all sure how I feel about the subject matter—it’s pure 6th grade—what she has done is to connect the frame story to its core story—through the sensory interview. The details have led her to a discovery that informs the larger action of the story.
Summary: One assignment that helps writers start to understand story structure is the frame story. It is an assignment that helps them connect one world with another world and to see how an interior issue for a character might be played out in another place or world. If they get stuck, help keep them interested in their writing through the sensory interview. Or once they have read models, have them try it with each other. I used many examples from Scholastic winner, The Russian Woman, but more examples of good student work in sensory detail occur in two other Scholastic stories you can share with your young writers, A Perfect Lesson, by Zoe D. and A Night Visit by Monica I.
Anne-Marie Oomen is author of Pulling Down the Barn (Wane State University Press), which received a Michigan Notable Book Award; two chapbooks of poetry, Seasons of the Sleeping Bear and Moniker (with Ray Nargis); and the forthcoming Uncoded Woman, (Milkweed Editions). She is also represented in New Poems of the Third Coast: Contemporary Michigan Poetry and was editor of Looking Over My Shoulder: Reflections on the Twentieth Century, an anthology of seniors' essays funded by Michigan Humanities Council. She has written and produced several plays including the award-winning Northern Belles and Wives of An American King, based on the James Jesse Strang story. She is chair of the Creative Writing Department at Interlochen Arts Academy, a premier arts school located in Northern Michigan where she teaches fiction, poetry, and playwriting, and serves as faculty editor for the Interlochen Review. She is an active member of Michigan Writers, Inc. and the Theater Guild. She and her husband have built their own home in Empire, Michigan where they live with a large cat named Walt Whitman.