Once a month, I write a page-long adventure for my youngest daughter’s class that features the kids, a feisty teacher, a goofy principal, a silly dragon and a resurrected lizard. I read my story, then the kids come up with their own ending. If you want to sharpen your storytelling skills, I discovered there's no better laboratory than a live reading in a fourth grade class. Here are some things I've learned about effective storytelling from fourth graders.
Jewel Allendivides her time between being
a wife, mom, a freelance journalist, a musician,
and a novelist aspiring to be published someday
soon. She runs the Pink Ink blog.
Use a familiar setting with a fantastic twist. The new student turns out to be a ghost, a rainstorm sucks the class into the bottom of the sea, or Santa Claus gets stranded outside their class portable.
Introduce a mystery. How did a dead lizard get out of its aquarium? Who threw an eraser at the next-door teacher?
Add a dragon, if at all possible. Dragons come in handy when a fourth grade class needs to fly somewhere quickly. And kids always perk up at the word “dragon.”
Feature memorable, quirky characters. Denny the dragon usually gets in trouble. Mr. Brunsdale, the principal, reluctantly grants them permission to go on outlandish field trips. Mrs. Walker, the teacher, isn’t scared of bopping sharks on the nose. These characters stick out to kids and are easily remembered.
Get the characters in lots of trouble. Sensory details—like how dragon wings feel and look—are important, but nothing engages a fourth grader quicker than a problem that turns from bad to worse. The rain storm turns into a flood … the class gets washed out of their portable … they get sucked into a hole in the soccer field.
Slapstick comedy works. The kids have laughed loudest over an octopus plastered over a teacher’s head, the principal swimming the backstroke in a flood, and the new dragon-student’s wings whopping his seatmate on the head. (This probably explains why, as a fourth grader, I laughed like crazy over The Three Stooges.)
Don’t kill off a sweet character or you won’t hear the end of it. The kids really, really didn’t like the plot twist about the class lizard dying. I had to bring her back to life somehow!