Last week I posted about a young friend I’d met in a high school book club. This put me into a sentimental mood and made me think about my volunteer years, and what I learned from them.
My school visits were sometimes as the book club leader, sometimes as a speaker discussing a writer’s life, and sometimes as a helper in a crazy little thing called Writers Workshop.
Writers Workshop was the brainchild of a fourth grade teacher named Mrs. Zarroli. Every Wednesday, Mrs. Z devoted the Language Arts hour to creative writing. I appeared as helper because I was a published writer; because I had a child in her class; and because the word “sucker” magically appeared on my forehead any time a teacher asked me to help in class.
This time, though, the sucker was Mrs. Z. I learned more in Writers Workshop than the children ever learned from me. It wasn’t that the information was new--just the opposite. Fourth grade Language Arts focused on story building, so the lessons were like a (free) review of the basics for me, stripped down to simple, accessible presentations.
Teaching fourth graders can be challenging, the primary challenge being keeping them awake. Had Mrs. Z launched into a dry recitation of the Three Act Structure or listed essential story elements, the kids would have yawned non-stop. If she’d drawn a diagram of Freytag’s pyramid, the yawning might have stopped long enough for the ubiquitous “Will that be on the test?”
Instead, being a wise and experienced teacher, Mrs. Z provided a visual. She unfurled a long piece of paper across the blackboard and introduced the class (and me) to the Story Train.
The Story Train was brilliant in its simplicity. At the head was a very big, very black Engine. The Engine was the story starter, and it was powerful because that’s what it takes to get a story going. A small, timid engine can’t pull a load of cars, so a writer must make the story engine strong. That strength comes from interesting characters, intriguing settings, good grammar and action verbs.
At the opposite end of the Story Train was a very shiny, very sleek, very red Caboose. The Caboose was the exciting end to the story, so it had to be eye catching. It had to be powerful, but in a different way than the Engine. The Caboose had to show the scars and lessons of the journey, and the characters in it had to be changed by the ride. The Caboose was sleek and shiny because it earned that through the action and events in the story.
The Engine’s job was to entice the reader to take a ride on the Story Train. The Caboose’s job was to end that ride in an exciting but satisfying way.
And in the middle of the train were the Cars, which on the big visual across the blackboard were empty and uncolored.
The Cars represented Act II of a story, that great expanse where the meat of the plot occurs. It follows the fun of the set-up in Act I, and ends before the payoff of Act III. Act II is where the writer has to hunker down and work—and where the most danger lies in losing the reader.
An author’s job, Mrs. Zarroli told the class, was to make the Cars as colorful and powerful as the Engine and Caboose. How to do this? By making something exciting or important happen in each Car; by filling each Car with riders who are funny or scary or touching; by making some Cars dark inside so the riders can’t yet see what’s going to be in the next Car; by shining a bright light in other Cars. Each Car had to be colored and filled before the rider could move onto the next Car.
Each Car was different but they were all being pulled by the same Engine, in order, and they all ended with the same Caboose. The writer’s job was to give a Story Train rider a colorful and powerful experience full of action, adventure, wisdom, sadness or fun. The Engine was always black and the Caboose was always red, but the writer had all the colors of the rainbow in which to draw the Cars.
Simplistic? Yes. Effective? Also yes.
Mrs. Z ended the Writers Workshop with a handout, an 8.5x11 version of the Story Train. Mine is in a drawer, with other important papers, but I think about that Story Train when I create a story. Is my Engine strong enough to make the journey? Did everyone and everything make it safely (and sensibly) to the Caboose? Are my Cars colorful and full enough?
Most of all, will this train trip be memorable for the readers who climb aboard it?
Thank you, Mrs. Zarroli, wherever you are, for reminding me of these questions.