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A Right-Brained Notebook & Showing Prompt from WritingFix
Focus Trait: Idea Development Skill: Slowing Down Moments when Writing to Show Them

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A Teacher Who Keeps a Writer's Notebook:

Corbett Harrison has been a Northern Nevada Writing Project Teacher Consultant since 1996. Since 2010, he has been creating teacher-models of writer's notebook pages that go along with our Writing Lessons of the Month Program.

You can access more of Corbett's writer's notebook lessons and ideas at his personal website.


Inspiration from Student Choice!
Showing Plots & Conflicts
Using Serendipity to Build and Introduce Three Unique Stories

a writer's notebook page that introduces three unique plot-lines that a student is willing to show a reader with a longer piece of writing

This prompt was revised in 2011 as part of our
"Year of Showing Writing" Project.

The mentor text that inspired this lesson is Ralph Fletcher's Live Writing: Breathing Life into Your Writing. This book provides fifteen short, easy-to-read chapters, each offering a piece of advice from a real writer to your student writers. If you're looking for a voice-filled book to help you teach better writing lessons, you can't do much better than this little gem. This lesson focuses on chapter seven of the book.

Purchase Live Writing at with this link, and WritingFix will receive a small portion of the sale. Thanks for helping us keep WritingFix free and online for all teachers to use.

Overview of Notebook Prompt & Writing Lesson:

After discussing the importance of quickly introducing a story's conflict (or plot) early on in a story, which is advice found in Ralph Fletcher's seventh chapter of Live Writing, students will create three original introductions for three storylines--one introduction for each of the three types of conflict the author defines in his book. These three story introductions can be recorded on a special page in student's writer's notebooks for future reference when reviewing plot and conflict. Inspired by the student samples included in this chapter as well as one from chapter nine, students will develop one of their three original plot/conflict introductions and craft a showing, opening paragraph (or two) that follows these two pieces of advice from the great Ralph Fletcher:

  • "Don't expect readers to wait too long before finding out what the problem is."
  • "Slow down crucial moments."

Discussing Plot & Conflict:

Write this quote from Live Writing on the board and have students discuss it: "Trouble is a necessary ingredient to writing."

Chances are yours students will think the quote means that the trouble Fletcher is talking about pertains to their own writing process rather than connecting the trouble to characters in a storyline. If this is the case, explain that he's actually talking about characters and plots, and challenge them to discuss the quote again.

On the second page of Live Writing's seventh chapter, Fletcher includes a two-paragraph sample of writing that is well-written but contains no conflict. Share this. Share Ralph's explanation of why it's so dull, and then share his explanation of the three types of conflicts characters can experience:

  1. Person against person
  2. Person against nature
  3. Internal conflict (person against self)

A story plot is built from three elements: setting + character(s) + conflict. It doesn't matter which of the three types of conflict is included in the plot, but one of them has to be there.

Put students in small groups and, thinking of books they have read or movies they have seen, have them provide an example or two for each type of conflict they can share/explain with the rest of the class. To help them "own" the academic vocabulary associated with plot, require them to use the following words when explaining their examples to the whole class or to partners: setting, character, conflict.

Tell students they will be devoting a writer's notebook page that records three original story idea, one for each of the three types of conflict they have just learned about. Their three story ideas will also focus on the two other necessary plot elements: settings and characters.

If you have the ability to project the following interactive button-pressing game where all can see, or you have an opportunity to have all your students on computers simultaneously, you can do some practice for identifying the three types of conflict. The goal of playing this serendipitous game is to spark some creative thinking about original story-lines that can end up in students' writer's notebooks.

Our Interactive Plot-Building Game:

Each time you click all three buttons, ask, "Which type of conflict would this one be? Does this sound like an original story you might like to explore in your writer's notebook, then in a longer piece of writing?"

Person against person, person against setting, or person against self?




Recreating the Plot Game with Three Coffee Cans:

Put students in small groups after playing the button-pressing game above. Tell them you want the class to recreate the button-pressing experience but change the way the game is played. Instead of online buttons, this lower-tech version will involve three coffee cans.

Hand each group eighteen index cards or Post-it® Note-sized templates. As a group, they are to come up with six original ideas for story characters (ones not seen when pressing the buttons above), six original ideas for interesting settings, and six original ideas for conflicts. Require them to check their spelling as they record their ideas--one per card.

Challenge them to be creative here: "a guy" is a pretty vague character idea, but "a sportswriter" comes across as more specific and interesting. Same thing goes with setting; don't forget to remind them to include adjectives: "a murky cave" instead of just "a cave."

When they create the six conflict cards, they are not to associate the conflict with any specific character they have brainstormed; for example, if they have "a sportswriter," they aren't to make a conflict that only the sportswriter would experience. Instead, their conflicts should be general enough to be able to be applied to any character. Press the "Conflict" button above to see what we mean. Your student groups are to make six general (and original) conflicts that fit the following categories:

  • two person against person conflicts (like the police are chasing your character)
  • two person against nature conflicts (like your character is lost in the snow)
  • two internal conflicts (like your character is too proud to accept charity)

Check your students' work as they carefully print their finalized ideas neatly on the index cards or Post-it® Note-sized templates. If groups finish earlier than others, have the group put their cards into three piles face down, shuffle them, and randomly draw one from each pile. The goal is to see if their three random (serendipitous) cards happen to work together as an idea for an original storyline.

When all the groups have their eighteen cards completed, separate them into three piles, then put them in three different coffee cans (or some sort of holding device). And voila! You have re-created the button-pressing game from above. If you have students (in the future) ever in need of a story idea, they can draw three cards from these coffee cans for instant plot ideas.

Have students come up and each draw three cards. You can play "trading cards for a while," having students swap setting cards for setting cards, if they like someone else's setting idea better. Of course, students are allowed to come up to the coffee cans if they have one card that doesn't work for them and swap it that way too.

Every student should end up with three cards (setting, character, conflict) that they believe they could turn into an interesting storyline.

Creating the Writer's Notebook Page:

Now the goal of all this random card-making is to actually give students ideas for original story plots. Explain that you would like them to devote a page in their notebooks to the three types of conflict they have learned about. Stress that they are only allowed to record conflict ideas for stories that actually would be interested in writing during a future writer's workshop idea; this page is supposed to be useful for reviewing plot and useful for inspiring an original piece of writing on a future date.

Our webmaster, Corbett Harrison, who always creates/shares a page from his own writer's notebook to accompany our writing lessons of the month, shares his page here. Corbett teaches his students to use Mr. Stick as their notebooks' margin mascot. You could certainly set-up the page so that it doesn't include visuals, but when students flip back through their notebooks for ideas for writing, it's the pages with visuals that make them stop more often and re-read their ideas carefully.

The notebook page might include the following:

  • labels for the three types of story plots and labels that identify the character, setting and conflict for each of the three stories;
  • 2 or 3 sentences that would immediately introduce the character, setting, and conflict to a reader, if these sentences served as a story introduction;
  • an illustration to represent each plot/conflict;
  • this quote from Ralph Fletcher: "Trouble is a necessary ingredient to writing."

Writing the two or three sentences that introduce character, setting, and conflict is a challenge that normally won't be accomplished in a single try. We suggest you have students draft and revise the two or three sentences introducing each plot on a piece of scratch paper. Then students can carefully copy their best version of the sentences into the notebook. You'll have a livelier workshop if you have students share their ideas for introductory sentences out loud before they start writing down on scratch paper!

Crafting a Follow-up Piece of Writing:

Following Fletcher's explanation of Internal Conflict in this lesson's cited chapter of Live Writing, he offers four good pieces of advice about planning/explaining plots and conflicts in writing. The following follow-up writing activity, which you can do a few days after students finish their notebook pages, is designed to have them begin practicing the first two pieces of advice Fletcher shares:

  • Don't expect the reader to wait too long before finding out what the problem is; and
  • Slow down crucial moments.

The other two pieces of advice from the author in this chapter focus on how to end a story that has a conflict in it. Since this follow-up writing task focuses on simply starting a story, we'll leave it up to you to eventually discuss those other two pieces of advice with your students. If you can inspire them to write a really great story beginning here, they can be easily convinced to complete the story they begin this day during an upcoming writer's workshop session, and those two latter pieces of advice will make more contextual sense to your writers.

Today, students are going to take one of their three favorite plot/conflict introductions from their notebook page, and they are going to create an opening paragraph (or two or three) that follows the two bulleted pieces of advice above.

Before choosing which plot idea to do this with, you might explore and discuss Ralph's first bullet-point advice (from above) by sharing the two pieces of student writing Ralph Fletcher includes in this lesson's cited chapter. Both "Which Life for Me?" and "My Dad" jump right in and explain their conflicts within the first few sentences. Tell students when they write their opening paragraph(s) for their fictional stories today, you need them to jump right in and let the reader know what the conflict is; if they have set-up their writer's notebook page using the suggestions of our webmaster, this step is practically complete already, and students simply need to decide what other details would need to be shared in a more complete, thorough paragraph that launches the story.

The second thing you want them to work on is a showing skill: slowing down important moments that you are writing about. Ask students to think of a favorite movie of theirs that uses slow motion techniques; with action/adventure movies, slow motion moments have become a pretty common trait of the genre. "Why do they slow the movie down?" is a great question to pose. Discuss this, then make the transition to applying the idea to writing (instead of directing a film).

When time simply passes much slower than normal while writing about a conflict, the reader sees more precise details, and he takes more interest in the suspense and action. Adding a bit of dialogue and/or explanations of what the character is thinking are other ways to slow down a moment in writing.

A few chapters ahead in Live Writing (chapter 9: "It's About Time"), there is a writing sample called Member of the Family that Ralph shares from his own portfolio. It's a great sample that shows writing in slow motion. You might have Have students discuss this slowed-down tale about the first time a family sees a new family member emerge from an airplane.

For further information on slowing down time to show writing better, you might consult Barry Lane's Reviser's Toolbox. The author calls the technique Slow-Motion Moments in this book, and the book has some great resources for additional mini-lessons on slowing down moments while writing.

Now it's time for your students to write an introductory paragraph (or two or three) about one of their serendipitous plots/conflicts from their writer's notebook. They can write this on the adjacent page in their writer's notebook, or they can write it on scratch paper. Their goal in writing should be to follow the two bulleted pieces of advice from the author in one or two paragraphs that would introduce a reader to their best plot/conflict.

Give students ten or fifteen minutes to draft a paragraph or two (or three). When they have a written story introduction that shows their conflicts, have students analyze their own use of techniques in the following way:

  1. Have students re-read their own writing quietly
  2. Have students rank the following three skills in their own writing against each other; ask them to award themselves one Gold (G) Medal, one Silver (S) Medal, and one Bronze (B) Medal based on the following three skills. When "ranking," they can only award one of each type of medal to themselves, which requires them to analyze their use of the three skills and evaluate their own success with them.
    • ______ I jumped quickly enough into the action/conflict
    • ______ I focused on precise details to slow down time
    • ______ I included dialogue/character thoughts to slow down time
  3. Have students work with a partner, explaining their rankings to each other; you'll most likely have students who simply rank without re-reading carefully and honestly thinking about the skills, and listening in on the conversations will help you determine who really can justify their rankings, and who might need to think about them a bit deeper.
  4. Have partners switch papers, asking them to read and re-read their partner's drafts carefully, determining if they agree or disagree with the author's own rankings.
  5. Based on the final rankings, have each partner give one piece of advice for making the draft a little better when revising it.

Put the draft away for a few days; continue to look for writers who use the "slowed down moment" showing skill in the readings your students do during the next week or so.

Challenging Students to Create a Longer Story:

The notebook page and the follow-up writing tasks above are designed to teach the three types of conflict and to practice the "slowed down time" showing skill. For the rest of the year, students can be asked during reading time, "What type of conflict is that? What showing skills has the author used here?"

Now...If you have a writer's workshop in place, you can easily challenge your students to choose the rough draft they created here and turn it into a longer piece of writing they can take through the whole writing process. A writer's workshop environment is based on students being allowed to choose practice writing tasks (like that done in this lesson) and develop into a longer piece of writing for their writing portfolios.

If you have students who successfully take all the way through the process the storyline they started here, we invite you to share them online at our Ning Posting Page dedicated to this lesson. At our Ning, a teacher is allowed to publish up to three of their students' best stories; doing this is great motivator to challenge your students to work hard enough on their revision and editing so that they might be selected to have their work be put online where tens-of-thousands of teachers and their students could view it and discuss why it's a solid example of showing a conflict/plot to a reader.

An Invitation to Share Students' Finished Stories:

WritingFix Safely Publishes Students from Around the World! In 2008, we first began accepting students samples from teachers anywhere who use WritingFix lessons and prompts. Hundreds of new published students now go up at our site annually!

We're currently seeking student samples for all grade levels for this writing lesson!  Help us obtain some from your students, and we'll make them a little bit more "famous" to the thousands and thousand of teachers and students using our site!  It's pretty great motivation to see your writing posted at WritingFix!

You can post your students' finished stories (as well as photographs of the notebook pages that inspired them) at this posting page set-up for this on-line lesson.


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