Anyone who has ever taught creative writing is familiar with story prompts. They’re usually presented in the form of a What if? scenario where the protagonist meets with an unexpected event. For example: Mary wakes up as usual and prepares to go to school, but when she goes to get into her car, she finds it isn’t where she parked it yesterday! What does she do?
On the surface, this prompt seems to have everything necessary for the basis of a story: a protagonist whose expectations are defied by an unusual event. It is very likely that your students have received similar writing prompts to this one since they were in kindergarten. Sadly, it is prompts like these that are teaching students the wrong way to write stories.
The problem with What If? scenarios like these are they promote students to write externally, meaning they write a series of events that the protagonist reacts to. Reactions and unusual events are not enough to make a compelling story. Realize, I’m not criticizing my fellow English teachers. Let’s face it, creative writing is hard. We can teach our students how to master the metaphor and how to place each piece of punctuation perfectly, but the rules for making an engaging narrative are much more elusive than the rules of grammar. After all, if everyone knew the secret to writing a good story, we would all be best-selling novelists.
At this point you are probably wondering if it is even possible to learn much less teach something as ambiguous as what makes a good story. Thankfully, Lisa Cron, a professional story coach, has insight into what readers crave and expect whenever they pick up a book which can be explained through actual brain science. According to Cron’s research, when a person reads a book or even watches a movie, their brain activity mimics that of a participant rather than an observer. The evolutionary explanation for why our brains like to place us in the role of the protagonist is likely because stories were a survival technique for our early ancestors as stories allowed them to perceive and react to potential threats. We enjoy reading about people reacting to unusual events because our brain craves information that will help us adapt to new situations. So when we pick up a book and put ourselves in the shoes of a teenage girl trying to survive in a dystopian future, (think The Hunger Games), our brain releases dopamine, a neurochemical associated with reward behavior, as a way of saying, “Thanks! This information might help me in the future.”
What all this means is that in order for readers to get that dopamine rush that makes it difficult for them to put a book down, they need to be able to place themselves in the role of the participant. In other words, they need to know how the protagonist is reacting internally to the external events forced upon them. Our brains derive meaning from emotion. We cannot effectively perceive what the protagonist is going through unless we understand what she is feeling. If the hero of the story simply reacts to a series of chaotic and external events with no real emotion then the reader will only be an observer watching the events unfold, most likely with indifference.
According to Cron, the best way to instill emotion and an internal struggle into What if? story prompts is to ask your students, “What point are you trying to make with this story?” As simplistic as this sounds, young writers often forget that stories need a point, especially if they are on a deadline. By having the students focus on what point they want their story to make, they can more effectively write the internal struggle of their protagonist.
The point of their stories doesn’t have to be anything profound. For instance, going back to the story prompt of Mary and her missing car, suppose I want the point of my story to be that what we say can have significant effects on others. I could write a story about how Mary, age eighteen, is in charge of her fifteen year old brother while their mother is away on business for the week. Mary has a huge argument with him the night before and when she sees the car is missing the next day, she naturally freaks out, thinking she drove her little brother to run away. And even worse, he doesn’t even have a learner’s permit yet! By effectively conveying Mary’s internal struggle involving her the fear and the guilt she feels for her actions, I immediately create a more compelling story than if I just wrote a series of events of how Mary reacted to the unusual event. Just remember, if your prompts only focus on the external, readers will also be external to the story.
Check out these resources to help your students with their creative writing!