Lessons from Fourth Graders

Last week I visited the local elementary school and spoke to two 4th grade classes about writing. I’ve done this for several years, and I enjoy it every time. Partly because they bring in a cake, but mostly because the kids are a great deal of fun.

My favorite exercise, and the one that seems to work best, is when we make up a story together. They have some of the same questions most people have. “Where does your inspiration come from?” “How do you turn an idea into a story?” So I show them…

Inspiration can come from anything. For the exercise, I made them pick two objects in the classroom. They chose a pencil case and the American flag hanging over the teacher’s desk. Before long, we had a character named Bob/Bobbi (we never did decide, so I flipped back and forth) with an overactive imagination. Bob thought the flag was alive and moving on its own, but of course nobody believed her.

One afternoon after the kids had left, the janitor was trying to get a pencil case unstuck. The flag grabbed a yardstick, whacked the janitor, and then enveloped him, sucking the patriotism out of his body and turning him into an anti-patriotism zombie!

Lesson: introduce characters, a problem, and some action quickly.

This wasn’t where I had intended to go with the story, but I liked their ideas, so we ran with it. The janitor began going from room to room, “awakening” the other flags and building a flag army. Bobbi tried again to tell his friends and the teacher, but once again nobody believed her.

Lesson: the protagonist has to solve his/her own problems.

Eventually Bob snuck out and watched through the classroom window. She saw the flag grab the teacher, Mrs. M, and turn her into a patriotism zombie! Bobbi was so frightened she jumped and accidentally bumped the window. Mrs. M spun and saw her. Now the flag-zombies knew Bob was on to them. They had to move quickly!

Lesson: escalate the danger/conflict!

One of the kids suggested that Bob should grab a pair of scissors and cut up the flag. Given the environment, I tried to steer them away from flag-destroying ideas. I’d like to be invited back next year, after all…

Lesson: know your audience.

The flag-zombies launched a full assault against the school. The principal was one of the first to go. Bobbi rallied the remaining students, who ran outside. But they had forgotten about the ENORMOUS flag on the pole in front of the school. It had bent its pole and was devouring an entire bus!

As we reached the climax of the story, the class flung out suggestions like an uncapped blender. One kid said Hulk Hogan should show up and wrestle the flag. Another said they would use magic to stop the flags. I did my best to steer them back to Bob, reminding them that this was her story.

Lesson: no deus ex machina Hogan.

I reminded them about the flags eating patriotism, and asked what happens when they overate. They decided to stuff the flags with patriotism until they threw up. Soon Bobbi was leading his classmates in the National Anthem, while others grabbed a smart board out of the classroom and projected images of eagles, and another kid (somehow) started setting off fireworks.

Lesson: everything’s better with explosives!

The flags were vanquished, the patriotism zombies went back to normal, and the principal cancelled school for the rest of the week so they could clean up and recover.

Lesson: yay happy endings!

And best of all, when Bob told her friends about the dodge ball ghost a few weeks later, they actually believed her.

Lesson: include internal and external conflicts, and try to resolve both.

#

There are no absolute rules of writing, and this isn’t the story I’d have written on my own. That said, most of these lessons apply quite well to the stories I’ve been working on. Most importantly, it was a lot of fun, and it worked for this class.

Whoops — I almost forgot the final lesson.

Lesson: once the story is finished, it’s time to celebrate with cake! (Or candy, or ice cream, or whatever you prefer.) Enjoy!

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  1. 1. Steven

    Brilliant post, Jim.

    Not a single one of those kids is going to forget that storytelling exercise or the story it generated for years to come.

    I wonder how many of the kids’ teachers wish you were an elementary school teacher instead of a novelist with a day job, based on your ability to engage the kids and get them interested in writing and English.

    Steven

  2. 2. Jim C. Hines

    Thanks, Steven. I have a blast doing this sort of thing, but I don’t have anywhere near enough energy to teach elementary school every day :-)

  3. 3. J. Andrews

    No deus ex Hogan.

    That’s going to be the hardest one to follow.

  4. 4. Jim C. Hines

    The trick is to foreshadow Hulk Hogan.

    Remember what Chekov said. If in act I you have Hulk Hogan on the mantel, then he must body slam someone in the last act. Or something like that…

  5. 5. Elias McClellan

    I can’t stop laughing long enough to type anything relevant or intelligent. And that’s the story I’m sticking with. Excellent, topic and lesson, as always, Mr. Hines.

  6. 6. Jim C. Hines

    Thanks, Elias :-)

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Author Information

Jim C. Hines

Jim C. Hines' latest book is THE SNOW QUEEN'S SHADOW, the fourth of his fantasy adventures that retell the old fairy tales with a Charlie's Angels twist. He's also the author of the humorous GOBLIN QUEST trilogy. Jim's short fiction has appeared in more than 40 magazines and anthologies, including Realms of Fantasy, Turn the Other Chick, and Sword & Sorceress XXI. Jim lives in Michigan with his wife and two children. He's currently hard at work on LIBRIOMANCER, the first book in a new fantasy series. Visit site.

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