For Teachers

The Life of the Party: Setting Is Where the Action Takes Place

As I was driving with my tween, she made a comment about the high school parties she’s seen in movies. In each one, something awful occurred, making her a little wary of wanting to go to parties when she’s older. As I thought about it, I realized that parties and school dances in movies do often feature a horrifying event unfolding . . . just think of the prom scene in Carrie.

I started to think about how parties and school dances are portrayed in middle grade books. Even my own novel has the big climax scene happen at a school Halloween party. It occurred to me that my thoughts were worth sharing with fellow writers and teachers (who, I hope, will share them with their middle graders): What is the power of the setting?

Often we think of setting as where the story takes place. We are taught that it helps the reader gets a sense as to what the scene looks like (which, of course, includes the concept of time: year, season, time of day, etc.). A well-developed setting is also crucial to ground a scene and prevent the “floating in air” phenomenon that I have been accused of when I give no mention of where my characters are.

But the setting can have an even bigger role in the story. Here’s where the party scene comes in. Most stories have more than one setting: school, home, the dentist’s office, etc. This helps to keep the story interesting but allows us to focus on the character and their actions. However, if you also take your reader somewhere out of the ordinary, such as a school dance, something monumental had better happen there, such as an argument that’s been building up, the character’s first kiss, or the mom showing up and dragging the character out. You can’t just have a school dance scene where nothing unusual occurs or where the plot doesn’t move forward.

The setting can be closely linked to the plot parts: In the exposition, it helps us learn more about the main character. Where does the opening scene take place: on a soccer field? In the main character’s bedroom? At an arcade? This gives us a window into the main character’s life and interests. Of course, we can add an extra layer if the main character does not like where they are. If the setting is on the soccer field and the main character is groaning and wishing the game would just end already so he can get out of there, we glean some details about who the character is.

A muted setting is also used to help us focus on what the characters are saying. I have found that just about every movie has a tooth-brushing scene for this purpose (watch for it in live-action films and animated films, even those with animals as characters). Two of the characters chat while one or both are in the bathroom brushing their teeth. They discuss the problem or give some details we need to know about the characters. In your own story, where does this scene take place? Maybe over dinner at the kitchen table? Or in the main character’s bedroom?

A unique setting is a great place for the climax to occur. If the scene seems a little off or needs more pizazz, is it possible to rewrite the scene somewhere else? In my novel, the story needed one extra push with the main character and her soon-to-be-friend. It was suggested to me that they get lost in the woods—this was great for my non-outdoorsy main character. This added scene ended up being a turning point in the book, because the main character faced one of her biggest fears.

As for rising action and falling action, it’s often where the upcoming setting is mentioned—such as a school dance the character or characters plan to attend. Here is where the reader can also get excited about the imminent scene and feel the importance of the event to the character(s).

Finally, the setting can make the resolution scene pop. I’m picturing that first kiss at the school dance that we, the readers, have all been waiting for. Or maybe the opposite is true—the scene would have more punch if it happens somewhere more common. Playing with this can really change the impact of the action.

Teachers: When you’re working with your students on finding the setting in a novel, help them see how the setting is more than just where the story takes place. How does it impact the action? What if that climactic scene took place somewhere different? [Writing prompt: rewrite that scene with a different setting.] Was there any growth by the main character shown through how the setting is described?

Writers: I hope this made you think about your own setting; and teachers: I hope it gets your students to notice the importance a setting can make within a story.

And may the parties you attend be less eventful than the ones we’re creating.

Here are some books that have a dance or party scene.

Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret by Judy Blume
Book Scavenger: The Unbreakable Code by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman
Bug Girl: Fury on the Dance Floor by Benjamin Harper & Sarah Hines Stephens
Cookie Cutters & Sled Runners by Natalie Rompella
Counting Thyme by Melanie Conklin
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Third Wheel by Jeff Kinney
Dork Diaries: Tales from a Not-So-Happy Heartbreaker by Rachel Renée Russell
Dork Diaries: Tales from a Not-So-Popular Party Girl
by Rachel Renée Russell
Fortune Falls by Jenny Goebel
Hoops: Elle of the Ball by Elena Delle Donne
In Your Shoes by Donna Gephart
Jessica Darling’s It List by Megan McCafferty
Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart
Rules by Cynthia Lord
Sorry You’re Lost by Matt Blackstone
Take Your Best Shot by John Coy
The 12th Candle by Kim Tomsic

Movies Inspire Reading!

Bringing Books and Movies Together

Robyn Gioia

Teaching today’s students is a different ballgame than twenty years ago.

Even ten years ago. This is a generation of visual learners. Students in middle school down through elementary have grown up on cell phones and tablets. Visuals accompany almost everything they read. There isn’t a day go by that my students don’t say, “Can we see a picture of that?”

In the forefront are movies, moving visuals that provide setting, plot, memorable characters, action, and a storyline that comes to life in a different era.

This provides a great opportunity to take advantage of the stage movies produce.

Heroes stand out. It is from their hardships and the trials that follow that make history. One such hero is Harriet Tubman, a slave and political activist, who escaped captivity, and returned as a “conductor” to lead slaves through the “underground railroad” to freedom during the 1800s. She did this repeatedly, even though it put her in grave peril and she carried a bounty on her head.

Enter the Harriet Tubman Movie:

teacher's guide

A tremendous opportunity for children to understand what these women worked so hard to accomplish—one succeeding and one coming close. —Kirkus Reviews, starred review

Give students rich opportunities to learn more. Set the background. Provide students with information that provides historical depth and broadens the movie’s perspective.

Go beyond the internet. Teach your students the value of book research. Provide the class with a broad collection of books, both informational and historically based. Encourage them to be detectives. Encourage them to find the clues that tell us more. (Adjust as needed for your level of students.)

Brainstorm with the class. Discuss the different aspects of the movie. What questions do they have? Was the movie historically accurate? What was correct and what was fiction? Were the characters true to life? Did the plot follow the facts?

Examine the bigger picture. What drove the economy? What kind of  society was it? What was happening politically? What were the customs? How did these things contribute to Harriet’s plight?

Divide the class into topics that were generated from their discussion. Let your students discover the answers through research. Teach them how to use the book index and chapter headings to speed up fact finding. Groups love to share what they’ve learned with others. Provide time each day to let them tell their favorite fun facts. Help them become experts.

Make an Experts’ Bulletin Board: At the end of each session, have students post fast facts and visuals from their book research. Provide a parking lot for questions. Let the specialized experts research the answers and post them on the board.

Have a Socratic Seminar: Pose thought provoking questions and let students discuss the answers citing evidence from their research.

Stage a Debate: Students choose an historical issue and debate the pros and cons.

Read historical novels.

Below are some of my favorite activities for Book Reports or/and Research Projects:

  • Write a Readers’ Theater.
  • Produce a historical newspaper with student journalists.
  • Write a picture book for first grade.
  • Create a Jeopardy game.
  • Design a board game of the Underground railroad. Create a schoolwide simulation.
  • Make a Slideshow to teach others.
  • Write and perform a skit.
  • Design posters.
  • Produce a new book jacket cover.
  • Design an informational brochure.
  • Produce a video clip.
  • Create trading cards.
  • Write a story using historical evidence based on a different perspective.
  • Write and perform a song.
  • Create a dance.
  • Write a poem.

 

How to Conquer a Blank Page

October is almost over, but even with the scariest ghosts and goblins getting ready to beg for candy in the US, a blank page is way more terrifying. The possibilities are exciting.

But…

*What if the words turn out wrong?

*What if this awesome new idea is a flop?

*What if the murky middle sucks the plot in like a pile of quicksand?

Take a deep breath. You can do it!

Here are some helpful hints.

Challenges

Challenges can be extremely motivating, and you’re in luck—because NaNoWriMo starts on November 1st. The goal is to write 50,000 words of a novel by the end of November. They have motivating posts, a supportive community, and a fun way to track your daily and overall progress.

If your novel ends up being less than 50,000 words, you can still win. Start a second novel! Or see what’s missing from your first draft and add those scenes in.

*Teachers—there’s a fantastic program to use with young writers!

 

Word Wars

You can have word wars with others or challenge yourself. Put aside an hour (or half hour) and do your best to have uninterrupted time. It helps to jot down what you hope to cover in the next few chapters ahead of time, then write, write, write! No editing allowed—there’s plenty of time for that later. This helps word counts soar. Plus, it’s amazing how many gems pop up that might not have been discovered if an internal editor butted into the draft.

Think about what’s often missing from your first drafts. For me, it’s usually sensory details. So during word wars, I concentrate on adding in as many as I can. A bunch get streamlined or deleted…but I also find amazing details that I love. Ones that might not exist without this fun challenge.

 

More tips and tricks:

*If you get stuck, think about the worst thing that could happen to your character. I learned this from author Bruce Coville at a conference years ago, and it’s always been a huge help.

*Brainstorm! Set a timer for 10 minutes and type or write all the possible things that can happen non-stop. Don’t edit yourself, no matter how silly something might seem.

*Have your main character write a journal entry and see if it gives you more insight into wants/needs/conflict. It also works great with secondary characters.

*Let your internal editor know they aren’t allowed in your first draft! They can be stubborn, but there are ways to trick them.

-Write when your internal editor is too tired to butt in (it might be late at night or early in the morning).

-Signal your brain that it’s time for creativity—not your internal editor. Some people do this with one scented candle for writing and another for revising. Authors like Bruce Hale have a writing hat and an editing hat. Play around to figure out what works best for you!

 

Blank pages are scary—but take a deep breath and remember the fun and excitement of writing as you plunge into your novel. Your page won’t be blank for long!

Happy writing. 😊

I’d love to hear your tips for tackling a blank page and shushing your internal editor.