Use A Short Story to Teach Story Writing

Do you wonder how to study short stories with your children–and how to use a short story to help them understand how a good writer develops a story? Or perhaps you as a parent feel that your understanding of story writing is lacking, and you’d like to develop your own skills. Well, you can learn writing skills together by studying short stories!

Following is an example from a study I did with one of my tutoring students. The story is “The Wild Duck’s Nest” by Michael McLaverty, and we used the copy from p 230-233 of the anthology, Impact: 50 Short Short Stories, Second Edition, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, c1996. The story in this book is followed by Multiple Choice comprehension questions, Talking It Over questions, Setting and Character discussion, Vocabulary Multiple Choice and Matching, and Writing It Down description and sensory images exercises. The entire anthology includes exercises like these for each story, and if you can find a copy of the anthology for your short story studies, I do recommend it–though I think you will find the hints in my discussion below will help your child go beyond “paperwork” type exercises. However, if you can’t find this anthology, you can do an internet search for “The Wild Duck’s Nest by Michael McLaverty” and will find multiple locations with copies of the story, a number of which include useful worksheets and discussion questions. Or you can use the explanations below to develop your own study with a short story of your choice.

This blog post will describe how I approached the story with my student. This young lady was a teen who had some learning differences and was reading at about a grade 4 to 5 level, with a general comprehension level about the same. I was not sure she’d be able to succeed with this story–but as it turned out, she really enjoyed it and got far more out of it than I expected, ending up creating a story of her own that was well beyond anything she’d written previously.

The following description of our study (done over 4 sessions) provides some useful hints on how to work with students who may struggle with short stories. Parents should read the story first, of course, and search out the elements of the story they want to discuss, before studying with the student. Try to have the student relate the different story elements to his or her own life experience and understanding.

As we read the first part of the story, taking turns reading aloud, and stopping to discuss words she struggled with, I stopped frequently to discuss things an author does to start a good story, such as:

  • creating the setting, using the five senses to draw the readers into feeling they are right there experiencing the scene through the writer’s own eyes, ears, etc. I had my student identify what sense was being used in each sentence or paragraph, and we related the setting and scene to her own personal experiences.
  • introducing a character, by both direct description, and also by paying attention to his or her actions. We listed the protagonist’s characteristics as we came across them, and discussed how the author showed each one of them. We also discussed some characteristics the student personally shares with the story’s main character, and she thought of other people she knows who have other characteristics belonging to the protagonist.
  • introducing actions which will help us understand the developing “problem” and later the “solution” to the story. It may be helpful to students to create a three-column chart with actions in one column, a note on the “problem” each action introduces (or builds on) in the second column, and “solutions” in the third column.

In the second session, we reviewed what we discussed last time (about setting, characterization, use of senses, etc.). Then we carried on and read some more of the story. As we read, we continued to discuss what the author does to make the story well-written and interesting to the reader (as well as continuing to discuss difficult vocabulary). This included:

  • introducing the “action” which is building up toward the climax, (the boy, Colm, wades to the islet where the bird’s nest is, and he picks up the egg) and this action introduces an important part of the internal “conflict” he feels (the feelings he experiences about picking up the egg and then realizing it may cause the mother duck to abandon the nest and egg). I had my student talk about her own experiences and understanding of wildlife, and what she thinks she would do if faced by the character’s situation. If a student has pet birds, be sure to bring those experiences into the discussion; you might also extend this discussion by going to a pet shop and observing the birds there, or go out and observe wild birds and read about them in a birding book, or learn from an experienced bird watcher.
  • we talked more about how the author uses senses, and I had my student continue to locate examples of the use of the different senses (e.g. sound words like “splashing” and “squawking” and “whirring”)
  • more discussion on how the author describes action so clearly that we as readers can imagine we are right there, seeing and experiencing it (e.g. by using precise verbs instead of plain ones: “clambered” instead of “stepped” or “walked” as well as use of clear, vivid, concise nouns).
  • we talked about how the author hints about what will happen next (foreshadowing) (e.g. before the boy actually sees the nest, he sees gull feathers scattered around that have been blown from the nest). We talked about how carefully the egg’s colour is described (e.g. “with a faint tinge of yellow like the reflected light from a buttercup”) and other things she may have seen herself that were that kind of colour.
  • we discussed how the author helps us feel the emotions the boy is feeling–like nervousness, fright, curiosity, delight, guilt, sadness–so many emotions that make the story so relatable and clear. I had her talk about experiences in her own life in which she felt similar emotions, and how she reacted and what she did and decisions she made when she felt that way. I had her think about how she would react if she was in the character’s place and, if she thought she’d do something different, why she thought she and the character would make different choices.
  • finally, we talked about how we can feel “cold” both from low temperatures and from feeling guilt or sadness, just as the boy did in the story.

In the third session, we finished reading the story. We reviewed some of the author’s methods we’d discussed in previous sessions, and then we took note of other ways the author brings the reader into the story, etc., such as:

  • use of dialogue (the words the characters use–and how the particular words and “dialect” tell us more about them)
  • SHOWING experiences and feelings that most readers would relate to, rather than just TELLING us–and the way the author does that, through actions and dialogue. We talked about how the author could have just told/explained to us the character’s feelings, but how that would have been much less interesting and less relatable for the reader.
  • we looked at description that SHOWS rather than just TELLS (e.g. “the lake creased and chilled by wind”–rather than just “waves on the cold lake”; “smoky with drifts of slanting rain” and “dusty rain”–rather than just “misty”; “light cries of loneliness” to describe a bird’s sound rather than just “cawing” or “tweeting.” We talked about her own experiences with chilly, damp, windy days at our nearby lakes, and I had her try to describe them in her own unique words and phrases.
  • we looked for vivid descriptive words and phrases: rain that “dribbled”; “sodden” instead of just wet; “the day dragged on interminably” instead of just “passed slowly”; “stealthily” instead of just “quietly”; “He stood transfixed” instead of just “stood silently” or “stood staring.” We used the thesaurus to look up other words the author could have used instead of simple words like “silent” or “wet” and discussed how they have different shades of meaning, and when would be a good time to use those words. We also talked about how we may need to look thesaurus words up in a dictionary to be sure of the meaning.
  • we talked about how the author developed the characters by SHOWING rather than TELLING: for example, we could infer that the two boys are poor, due to the fact that they go to school in bare feet, and they have home knitted sweaters and homemade schoolbags.
  • we discussed the continuing use of different senses (e.g., “The wind was…rustling noisily the rushes…”; “…his heart thumping with excitement”) and what the author was trying to show us by using sensory imagery. We talked about how the author could have just said, “The wind blew the rushes” and “the boy was excited,” but how using physical senses (and emotional feelings) makes readers feel like they are right there with the character, in fact almost as if they are the character.
  • we talked about the surprise ending (twist): “There in the nest lay two eggs” (when all along he had been worrying about the mother duck forsaking the ONE egg that had been there before, and which he had touched), and how it made the ending so much more interesting and satisfying.

In our final session, we reviewed about how this story used very strong descriptive writing to create the setting and to tell the story. My goal was to help my student develop her descriptive skills. So I had her plan a descriptive piece about her hometown. We started by making a web with 5 categories she chose (each child might choose different categories, reflective of their viewpoint on what is important): her street and neighbourhood; mountains and beaches; schools; important buildings and places; and downtown.

Then I had her think about sensory items (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch) she could use to describe each category, adding details to each item/location on the web. At first, she found it quite difficult to “picture the town” in her mind and describe it in the given categories. She was quite eager to describe her own house and yard, but seemed puzzled as to why we would want to think about anything beyond that (due to her personal situation, she spends the majority of her time in just a few locations where she feels comfortable).

When I asked her to describe downtown, she said, “Well, there are stores.” What kind? I asked her. She said, “I don’t know.” I had to ask her quite a lot of fairly pointed questions to get her going, but eventually,her web starting filling in well and she became much more eager to list sensory descriptions.

Then I asked her to use the web to tell me about the town generally. I asked her to pretend she was on vacation with her family and how she would describe her hometown to someone she met who had never been there or even seen pictures of it. Then it seemed like suddenly the assignment made sense to her, and it didn’t take her long, using the web and the sensory list, to dictate quite an interesting piece. She went beyond just description to include personal commentary, such as how she feels (emotion) when she’s in the various locations, and the things she likes to do in each of them.

As you can see, a relatively short story like “The Wild Duck’s Nest” can be used effectively to help a student understand how an author develops a story with a variety of elements of writing–and help the student, through relating each of the elements to their personal life experiences, to develop their own well-written stories.

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