Discover Success: How to Write Better Story Prompts for Students

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!

What to Read When Teaching the Hero's Journey

In a previous blog post, I discussed how I teach the Hero’s Journey and a project that my students complete to demonstrate their understanding of it. Below are a list of novels, short stories, and poems which each have a protagonist set off on or forced into an adventure and change as a result of it, not necessarily for the better.

To Kill a Mockingbird: This story takes place in Maycomb, Alabama during the Great Depression when quality of life was low and racism was high. The story’s perspective is that of a little girl named Scout Finch who is forced into adventure when her father, Atticus, a prominent lawyer in the community, takes on a case to defend a black man who is accused of raping a white woman. The whole Finch family has to weather the backlash of Atticus’s decision which in turn leads to young Scout being educated in the essential goodness and evil of humanity.

Don Quixote: The protagonist of the novel is Don Quixote, a man so obsessed with fantasy novels of chivalrous knights that he sets out on a quest of his own imagining. Although Don Quixote is only a hero in his own mind, the series of misadventures he embarks upon leaves an impact on himself and the unfortunate people he forces his delusions upon.

Lord of the Flies: After a plane full of young boys crash lands on a deserted island, the protagonist, Ralph, is tasked with leading the group and ensuring their survival until help arrives. Life outside of civilization proves to be trying for the boys as baser instincts and the struggle for power begin to take hold of them. As the boys’ integrity and innocence begin to dissolve, Ralph learns of the savagery within himself and the rest of humanity.

Short Stories
A Sound of Thunder: This thrilling short story by Ray Bradbury tells of a group of hunters who travel back in time to hunt the ultimate prey, the Tyrannosaurus Rex. As with most adventures in time travel, the hunters’ actions have far reaching effects, educating them in the harsh lesson that even the smallest actions have consequences.

Marigolds: On the brink between child and woman, the protagonist, called Lizabeth by her brother, tries to come to terms with the reality of her impoverished life as a black girl living in rural Maryland during the Great Depression. Unable to cope with her helplessness and degradation, she sets out on an endeavor to destroy the only thing she had known to be beautiful, destroying her innocence in the process and spurring her on into adulthood.

Thank you, Ma’am: After a purse theft gone wrong, a boy named Roger is at the mercy of the indomitable Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones. Rather than call the police, Mrs. Jones drags Roger to her home to wash him, feed him, and then send him away with money along with an enduring lesson on choices and kindness.

The Odyssey: Homer’s epic poem is one of the oldest examples of the Hero’s Journey archetype. Odysseus, the protagonist of the epic, is a hero who after having fought in the battle of Troy wishes to return to his kingdom of Ithaca and to his wife Penelope. However, all manner of perils lie in his way including monsters, temptresses, and the wrath of an angry sea god. Unlike most Homeric heroes, Odysseus actually changes over the course of his journey, learning the importance of controlling his temper and pride.

The Epic of Gilgamesh: At the beginning of the epic, Gilgamesh is a hedonistic and ravenous king who rules his kingdom cruelly, but is soon changed after the gods bless him with a friend who is nearly a match for the god-king’s greatness, the beastman Enkidu. Together, Gilgamesh and Enkidu embark on fantastic adventures until Enkidu is struck with illness by the gods and perishes. Mourning his friend and fearing his own death, Gilgamesh embarks on a final adventure to achieve immortality but instead gains the closest to immortality that a mortal can hope for.

Inferno: The protagonist of the poem, Dante, must delve into the deepest pits of hell in order to reach heaven where Dante’s wife, Beatrice, awaits him. Through the horrifying yet vivid imagery of the underworld, Dante learns of the nature of justice as well as evil and God’s will.

If you are looking for a fun and engaging classroom activity, check out last week's blog post!

Teaching the Hero's Journey

Teaching the Hero's Journey in the Secondary ELA classroom.
One of my favorite lessons to teach in my short story unit is the Hero’s Journey. I enjoy teaching this lesson because I love seeing my students’ aha! moments - the moment when they get it, and they start making the connections between the content I am teaching and their favorite books and movies. Their faces light up, and faint chatter about Harry Potter, various Disney movies, and other stories slowly fills the room.

Teaching the Hero's Journey in the Secondary ELA classroom.
To introduce the Hero’s Journey, I first teach this Prezi by Laura Randazzo. I adore this Prezi because she makes the content completely accessible for the students. It provides relatable examples that the students know, and it also includes videos that show key events throughout the Hero’s Journey cycle.

After teaching the Prezi, I then show the Ted Ed video “What Makes a Hero?” by Matthew Winkler. This video is spectacular for a couple reasons. First, I love how it presents the Hero’s Journey in relation to a clock and a cycle. This visual sticks with the students. I also like how this video relates the notion of the Hero’s Journey to students in their everyday lives.

Once we go over the Prezi and video, we then read a short story and track the protagonist’s journey as a hero. Together, we identify each element of the Hero’s Journey cycle as outlined in the video and then discuss the qualities that make the character a hero. This helps me gauge whether or not my students are ready for the Hero’s Journey project. I have a graphic organizer in my Sticky Note Literary Analysis Unit.

The Hero’s Journey poster project is one of my favorite projects of the year. Students form groups of 2-3 and select a movie or book that they feel is a quintessential representation of the Hero’s Journey. Together, they discuss the movie and create a poster that represents all of the elements of the Hero’s Journey.

Teaching the Hero's Journey in the Secondary ELA classroom.

Teaching the Hero's Journey in the Secondary ELA classroom.

Teaching the Hero's Journey in the Secondary ELA classroom.
To conclude the assignment, I have students present their findings to the class so that they can practice their presentation and public speaking skills.

I usually give my students 2-3 days of class time to work in their groups.

This is the first of two blog posts that outlines how I teach the Hero’s Journey. The next post will be about short stories and poems that you can use in your classroom when teaching the Hero’s Journey.
Teaching the Hero's Journey in the Secondary ELA classroom.

Three Universal Themes Every High School Student Should Know

Three Universal Themes Every High School Student Should Know
As English teachers, we are in a unique position where we not only shape and refine students’ writing skills, but also, possibly, hopefully, their world view. We are able to do this because most of  the literary works crucial to our curriculum were written with the intention of inspiring profound and controversial thought. Here are three thought provoking themes that are essential to teach high school students.

Sometimes, in order to foster a student’s growth for the better, it is beneficial to show them a monster rather than a role model - an anti role model if you will. Showing examples of humanity’s inhumanity can be quite revealing in regards to our own character flaws. After all, oftentimes the reason we do not like someone is because we see an aspect of ourselves which we hate within them. In Elie Wiesel's novel, Night, Elie recounts his first hand experience as a prisoner in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. Aside from the infamous atrocities committed by the the Nazis, Elie recounts the noteworthy observation that cruelty breeds further cruelty. Fellow prisoners and even family members would betray and fight each other to bolster their own chances of survival. Studying cruelty and its effects can help students realize the consequences of their own actions, such as bullying and gossiping, and hopefully dissuade them from spreading cruelty themselves.

Novels with Inhumanity as a theme: Night, Animal Farm, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Lord of the Flies

There are many interpretations to how the American Dream is defined, but generally they all allude to the naive belief that an individual is guaranteed to achieve material wealth, success, and/or untarnished happiness through some combination of hard work, honesty, and morality. Regardless of the interpretation, the ideal of the American Dream profoundly shaped American values and culture, so much so that you may even want to coordinate lessons with whomever teaches History. It can be argued that immigration to America was largely motivated by the American Dream as it seemingly promised that anyone could achieve prosperity regardless of their social status, ethnicity, or nationality. However, many immigrants were disappointed to find that prejudice, amongst other barriers, limited their choices within the land of opportunity much like it did for the Lithuanian family in Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle.

Another reason to study the American Dream is to show students how even ideals with the best intentions can be corrupted. After World War I, in the 1920’s era, many Americans became disillusioned with America’s traditional cultural values and morals after witnessing the widespread chaos and carnage. This disillusionment combined with the sharp upturn in the stock market after the war led to rampant hedonism. Noble ambitions fell out of fashion as Americans chased a new, perverted American Dream which revolved around attaining money and pleasure without the previous notions of honesty and morality. F. Scott Fitzgerald vividly portrays this period of excessive greed and vice in American history in his novel, The Great Gatsby.

Novels with the theme of the American Dream: The Jungle, The Great Gatsby, Of Mice and Men, Death of a Salesman

This theme is sure to strike a chord with students as they are all in their formative years and are still figuring out what they find to be meaningful as well as who they are as an individual. In my opinion, the most important lesson that can be gleaned from this theme is how potentially harmful it can be for someone to force an identity upon another. Most people have at one point in their life been a victim of such a crime; they’ve been called a nerd, or a jock, or a diva, or worse. Similarly, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, The Scarlet Letter, the protagonist, Hester Prynne, is forced to wear a badge identifying her as an adulteress as a means to humiliate her. In Ralph Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man, the narrator finds the development of his identity stunted by the emphasis everyone, including the people he considers to be his allies, places on his race. Students will likely find inspiration in the methods these characters employ to develop their identities while rebelling against societal forces which try to steal their identities from them.

Novels with the theme of self discovery are also helpful in giving students examples of pitfalls to avoid during their formative years. For instance in J.D. Salinger’s novel, The Catcher in the Rye, the protagonist, Holden, alienates himself from other people as a means to protect his identity, but his isolation proves to be harmful as most of Holden’s pain can be attributed to his loneliness and his inability to understand others. In Hemingway’s novel, The Sun Also Rises, most of the characters within the story do everything they can to distract themselves from developing their own identities, foregoing any form of self reflection in lieu of  drunkenness and other forms of escapism. As such, their lives are completely joyless and stagnant, the kind of lives we hope for the next generation to avoid.

Novels with the theme of Finding One’s Identity: The Scarlet Letter, Invisible Man, The Catcher in the Rye, The Sun Also Rises, Beloved
Three Universal Themes Every High School Student Should Know

Scaffolding the Literary Analysis Response

For several years now, I’ve watched students struggle year after year with the same concepts. They have a difficult time analyzing literature on a deeper level, and they also struggle with properly embedding their quotes. Rather than face the same struggles again this year, I anticipated the struggle and revised how I teach my students to read and write about short stories. It is working. Not only is it working, but it is working far better than I ever could have imagined. My students are understanding the stories more, and their analytical writing has improved leaps and bounds since the first assignment.

I began my short story unit by directly teaching various literary devices and how to properly embed quotations. I also placed an emphasis on close reading with my Sticky Note Literary Analysis graphic organizers. Then, I started small with a super short story and an even shorter writing response.

We read Kate Chopin’s “Story of an Hour”, and I assigned my students this short, little three-sentence response writing assignment. While I expect more than three sentences from my students by the end of the year, I wanted to start short so that I could help remediate writing in an effective manner. Even though the written response was only three sentences long, it was no picnic in the park. I told my students that I would only assign 2 grades: an F (50%) and an A (100%). I only assigned two vastly different grades for this assignment because I wanted my students to continuously work toward the A. They had infinite chances to keep revising their response for full credit. I really focused on having students properly embed their quotations and provide insightful analysis.
Because the writing prompt is so short, I can quickly grade each student’s writing and provide meaningful feedback during the class period. The quick access to meaningful comments and feedback allows students to learn from their mistakes and grow as writers. Also, only needing to rewrite one or two sentences in a short response is far less intimidating than needing to rewrite an entire essay.

Before moving on to a lengthier response, repeat the 3-sentence response a couple times. This way, students learn how to properly write literary analysis without being too overwhelmed with a major writing task. I did this two times with two different stories in my classroom, and it was a major game changer. Within the first two weeks of school, I the vast majority of my sophomores were writing thoughtful and intriguing literary analysis responses with properly embedded, cited, and explained quotations.