Children’s Picture Book Author Explains Plotting for Kids

by Deborah Underwood author of children’s picture books including The Quiet Book, Spring 2010.

I recently saw a video that shows an adorable little French girl telling a convoluted story with baby monkeys, frightening trees, crocodiles, a battling hippo and lion who go to heaven, a mammoth with claws, and a witch-killing orange ring. It reminds me of some of the plots I’ve written—and no doubt, some of your adorable children have written.

Even in my college writing classes, we didn’t talk about how to craft a strong plot.  Until recently, I would have assumed teaching early-elementary kids about story structure was overly ambitious—until theater educator Kenn Adams introduced me to his Story Spine exercise to teach the craft of story structure.

Kenn is a veteran improviser, a playwright, and the author of How to Improvise a Full-Length Play: The Art of Spontaneous Theater. He’s been doing school theater enrichment programs for 20 years. (Full disclosure: He is also my boyfriend. If you’re a writer, I highly recommend finding a partner who is a plotting prodigy.) The Story Spine exercise is one Kenn uses not only with kids, but also with adults in improv classes.

The Story Spine is exactly what it sounds like: a structure that supports a story. It consists of a series of sentence beginnings that you complete:

Once upon a time…

Every day…

But one day…

Because of that…

Because of that…

Because of that…

Until finally…

And ever since then…

Although the Story Spine seems simple, it’s really an ingenious way to help kids learn how to construct a satisfying story.

  • Once upon a time and Every day set up “ordinary world,” the way things are before the action of the story starts.
  • But one day cues what students of plot would call the inciting event—the thing that sets the story into motion.
  • The Because of that series ensures that each story event causes the next one to happen, so that the plot elements aren’t just disconnected incidents.
  • Until finally signals the climax and resolution of the story.
  • And ever since then shows how the character or situation has changed over the course of the story.

There are many ways you can use the Story Spine exercise. For instance, you can write out the beginnings and have your child (or your students) complete them. If you write each beginning on a separate sheet of paper, the kids can write the endings, illustrate the scenes, and then compile the pages to make their own books.

How to plot a story with story spine exercise

You can also use the Story Spine to make storytelling a collaborative game. One person completes the first line—for example, “Once upon a time, there was an enormous dragon who lived in a magical cave.” Another person goes next: “Every day, the dragon flew through the skies looking for humans to eat.” And so on. This is fun for two people, and also works well for larger groups. (And it’s a much better option for your next car trip than singing “Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall!”)

I would never suggest clamping down on a child’s creativity by asking her to use a story template if she doesn’t want to. Kids’ rambling stories often contain brilliantly creative gems that adult writers envy. But if you have a child who wants to write a story but is stuck or frustrated, or if you want a fun game to play while you’re waiting in line at the grocery store, try out the Story Spine. (And the adult writers you know might benefit from it, too—I know I did!)

————————————————–

Note from Melissa: I LOVE Deborah’s post here, don’t you?  Thank you, Deborah, for contributing to Imagination Soup and helping us all become better plotters.  (In the good plotter sense~!) 

Please read my review of her new book, The Quiet Book on Bookmarkable and enter to win a copy.

Deborah Underwood grew up in Walla Walla, Washington. After graduating from Pomona College with a degree in Philosophy, she worked as a street musician, puzzle writer, jewelry maker, and administrative assistant before embarking on her career as a children’s author.

Deborah has written over 20 nonfiction books for kids. Her first three picture books—The Quiet Book, illustrated by Renata Liwska (Houghton Mifflin); A Balloon for Isabel, illustrated by Laura Rankin (Greenwillow Books); and Granny Gomez & Jigsaw, illustrated by Scott Magoon (Disney-Hyperion)—are being published this spring.

  • http://www.teachachildtoread.net Mary Gallagher

    I can see this working well with students who struggle with writing. Giving them this scaffolding with the Story Spine helps them organize their stories without taking away from their creativity!

  • Sheralee Hill Iglehart

    Deborah Underwood’s post here is awesome!
    I enjoyed seeing it! Bravo!
    Sheralee Hill Iglehart
    SCBWI member since 2006

  • cynthia

    This framework is a helpful tool for children learning to organize narrative writing and would work for many children. I also suggest we keep in mind that narrative discourse patterns vary across cultures and languages — that values regarding quality storytelling, and communication in general, are rooted in our sociocultural contexts. Depending on the language/culture there may be a higher valuing of curve-y story paths with purposeful side jaunts, or a preference for circular story patterns and for stories that have no end. Lisa Delpit, one linguist-hero of mine, provides insights about this in two of my fav works: Other People’s children and The Skin That We Speak. In any case, I think the imagery that Kenn Adams provides for guiding organization is useful in many ways.

  • http://www.triffx.com Triffany

    Brilliant!

  • http://thebookchook.blogspot.com Book Chook

    This is such a great nitty gritty scaffold for helping kids develop story. The fact it has its roots in improv and I LOVE improv, is a total clincher!

    Thanks, Melissa and Deborah!

  • Stacey

    Another great book that teaches scaffolds for writing is called Mentor Texts: Teaching writing through Children’s Literature. Our school did a book study with this particular text since we use Writing Workshop and it is by far one of the best professional development texts I have read and has had a significant impact on my student’s writing abilities.

  • http://www.imaginationsoup.net admin

    I love Mentor Texts — here’s a link if anyone wants one. http://www.teacher2teacherhelp.com/mentor-texts/

    Cynthia, thanks for reminding us how cultural our story structures can be — I’ll be hitting you up for a guest post soon. I don’t know very much about that and I know YOU are the expert.

    I’m going to try the Story Spine game with my kids this weekend. Can’t wait! Anyone else?

    Melissa

  • http://deborahfreedman.wordpress.com/ debbie

    Thanks for this! I’m going to try the “story spine” idea in a workshop I’m doing soon with 4-6 year olds – we will be creating characters together, and then will craft stories & illustrated “books” based on them. This looks like a terrific way to get the children going on their characters’ stories.

  • http://www.onbeyondwordsandpictures.com/ Megan Frances

    It can be really helpful to reduce story structure to basics – even for adult writers. Thanks for the reminder.

  • http://www.brimfulcuriosities.com Janelle

    What great information. My daughter loves to start her stories with Once Upon a Time. I’m sure she’d love playing the collaborative game with me.

  • http://www.DonnaPerugini.blogspot.com Donna Perugini

    Well put! Thank you for that exercise….

  • http://natashawing.com Natasha Wing

    The Story Spine helped me rethink a story I’m in the process of editing – thanks!

  • Pingback: Plots, storylines – what are they? « How it began()

  • Sheralee Hill Iglehart

    Deborah Underwood : Your ingenity, originalty, are amazing! Sheralee Hill Iglehart B.S.,M.A. California Reading Specialist, website: sheralee.com

  • Pingback: Make Your Own Note Card Book - Imagination Soup()