Stories in old class pictures

Hi everyone,

Looking for a writing prompt? As I toiled over my filing these last few days I uncovered some pictures of my first and second grade classes where I began school in Ajo, Arizona.

I don’t remember a single face and only a few names from either group. I wonder how many are alive and where they are and what they’re doing today. Our classes weren’t large. I must have known all the kids, played with them, gone to their parties, had them to mine. I must have given each one a Valentine and faithfully tucked away the ones they gave me. I know that because my mother dutifully placed them all in scrapbooks.
Janie Cheaney

Wondering about my old school chums made me think of Janie Cheaney’s marvelous new book, SOMEBODY ON THIS BUS IS GOING TO BE FAMOUS, set to be released in a couple of weeks. Janie fills a bus with kids and brings them to life one by one until we know them all. I’ve read the book and can tell you that it’s beautifully done. But my lips are sealed about what happens. You’ll have to get a copy and read it yourself.

And isn’t that a great exercise? Create a cast of characters and make each one distinctly different in manner, size, quirks, dreams, fears . . . Throw in a reason for them being together, add some suspense, surprise your reading with how it ends, and you might wind up writing a book. Wouldn’t that be awful?

Let’s talk dialogue

David giving brief remarks

Hi everyone,

I had two reasons for the chats I reported having with Mama G. One was to have a little fun change of pace and the other was to play with dialogue. I think I’ve only talked about dialogue once before, on September 8, 2013.

Today I’d like to dig a little deeper and use “The Mother Goose Dialogues” as examples. I’ll begin by quoting myself from WRITING STORIES, FANTASTIC FICTION FROM START TO FINISH, a Scholastic Guides book that came out in 2004.

“Characters need to sound natural. How does a writer learn to write good dialogue? Two words: Listen. Practice. Listen to conversations around you. Everyone talks differently. Dialogue is not just about how high or deep our voices are, how loud or soft. Each of us has a rhythm to the way we speak.

Some of us speak like we’re in a hurry.
Some of us go slowly and choose words with care.
Some of us use worn-out expressions.
Some of us change subjects in the middle of a sentence.
Some of us interrupt others before they finish speaking.

We overhear bits of conversation all the time — in restaurants, parks, stores, at parties.

“So I told her it was none of her . . . “
“I freaked out man like I was like so totally like you know I thought I’d like totally like lose it!”
“He won’t understand. He never under- . . . ”
“I can’t even think about that now!”
“He’s so cuuuuute!!!”

One of the first lessons that budding writers are taught is to show, not tell. It’s a hard lesson to learn, remember, and practice. Our tendency is to assume that our reader won’t get our meaning if we don’t s-p-e-l-l out our characters’ every thought. Without realizing it or meaning to we write down to our reader as though he or she is not capable of reading the situation with understanding.

We tend to tell too much.

One reason I like dialogue is that it can be used effectively to show rather than tell and it can cut through yards of narrative during moments when the story’s action needs to move along.

E. B. White’s famous opening line of CHARLOTTE’S WEB could not have captured the reader’s interest any faster or more thoroughly any other way.

“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

Those first six words are magic. The remaining thirteen words in the sentence tell us the facts necessary to put the fist six into perspective.

The second sentence provides the answer. “Some pigs were born last night.” We don’t need to know what Mrs. Arable is thinking when she tells her daughter so White keeps his opening moving without further ado.

The third sentence sets the scene for the insight that’s soon to follow. “I don’t see why he needs an ax.” We can see trouble coming and we’re still in the top half of page one.

When Fern learns that her papa is going to destroy the runt pig in the litter, she shrieks. That’s it. She doesn’t shriek loudly. She doesn’t shriek as if her heart is breaking. She doesn’t shriek from deep in her throat. She shrieks. And we understand.

Her mother’s response? “Don’t yell, Fern.” Not, “Don’t yell, Fern, sighed her mother.” Not, “Don’t yell, Fern, her mother said sternly.” Just short and un-accessorized: “Don’t yell.” We can take it from there.

So lately I’ve been talking to a goose who has pitched her camp on the landing at the bottom of the steps that lead down to the lake. I didn’t spend much time perfecting these reports but to keep them brief I found it helpful to use dialogue where narrative might have been too slow.
Here’s how I might have described part of the first chat using all narrative:

“I asked Mother Goose why she had a chip on her wing. She snorted and asked me what difference it made to me. I told her that it mattered because I cared about her.

She told me I’d just used the oldest pickup line in the world and that she wasn’t about to fall for that one again. I assumed that her would-be mate must have said something similar during their courting days.

She said he cared about her only until he had his way with her.

I guessed that she meant until he got her in a motherly way with fertilized eggs.

Her glare told me that she considered me to be an idiot.”

This is only a quick first draft. With some work I’m sure I could make it more interesting prose but I would still have to cover the same ground. This draft required 115 words.

Here’s the same passage using dialogue to carry most of the action. One nice thing about dialogue is that once you set up a conversation between two characters, you reach a point where you can often dispense with he said/she said, which reduces unnecessary verbiage.

“Hey, it’s only me,” I called. “What’s with the chip on your wing?”

“What’s it to you?” she honked.

“Because I care about you,” I said.

“That’s the oldest line in the world,” she said, bobbing her head in agreement with herself. “I’ll never fall for that one again.”

“You mean . . . “

“Yep. Until he got his way with me.”

“And made you preggers?”


In this case using dialogue rather than narrative took 64 words, and it features more showing and less telling.
If you’d like to pursue this further in my second report, there are additional examples of sticking to the action, doing without he said/she said in a number of cases, and rounding out the main character – all in fewer words than prose would require to address the same elements.

In closing, I wanted Mama G to come off being in a better mood but still with an edge.

“I can do the math,” she said. “I didn’t exactly flunk flight school.”

“Uh . . .”

“But I’m better now. I’ve been making up stories and telling them to my eggs. My goslings will pop out loving my stories!”

“Fantastic!” I said. “Do you have a name for your stories?”

“Really?” she said. “Really?”

“Not thinking,” I mumbled.

“Don’t you have work you need to be doing?” she suggested.

Four ways to keep your story interesting

Hi everyone,
David giving brief remarks
For those who like to write stories, here are some quick reminders of ways to keep things flowing.

David L. Harrison

ONE: NARRATION. You do most of the talking.
Fox was about to get the surprise of his life. Every hen in the hen house had learned kickboxing. Cackling softly among themselves, they peeked out through a crack and watched the unsuspecting thief slinking up the path toward his doom.

TWO: MONOLOGUE. Your character talks to him/herself.
“I smell chickens!” Fox told himself. “Straight ahead! A hen house is full of juicy, plump chickens! Here I come, my delicious, darling, juicy, plump chickens!”

THREE: NARRATION AND MONOLOGUE. Your character talks but you help.
“I smell chickens!” Fox told himself. “Straight ahead!” He had not eaten in three days. Not a fat mouse. Or a skinny lizard. Or even a sorry little grasshopper. He licked his lips and almost purred.
“A hen house is full of juicy, plump chickens!”
Fox’s tattered tail twitched. His hairy ears cocked forward.
“Here I come, my delicious, darling, juicy, plump chickens!”

FOUR: DIALOGUE. More than one character talks.
“I smell chickens!” Fox told himself. “Straight ahead!” He had not eaten in three days. Not a fat mouse. Or a skinny lizard. Or even a sorry little grasshopper. He licked his lips and almost purred.
“A hen house is full of juicy, plump chickens!”
The hen house leader pressed one eye against a crack in the wall.
“He’s coming!” Lily whispered.
Unaware that he was being watched, Fox crept up the path.
“Ready girls?” Lily whispered.
“Let him come!” came two dozen fierce voices.
“Where is he now?” someone asked.
“Shhh,” Lily whispered. “Just outside the door.”
Fox crouched, ready to spring.
“Here I come, my delicious, darling, juicy, plump chickens”.
On the other side stood a determined flock of warrior hens.
Someone was in for the surprise of his life!


Word of the Month for February is . . .

Hi everyone,

We had a bumper crop of poems in January. To Steven Withrow, my thanks again for providing ETERNITY as our word. It inspired an impressive array of interpretations.

Now, thanks to our friend, Mary Nida Smith, we have a new word for February. This time we’re headed off in a new direction so think Superman, think Dracula, think chains rattling in the walls, think SUPERNATURAL! Thanks, Mary Nida, for giving us this new challenge. Everyone, grab a pen. Go!


Starting a story

Good day to everyone. I know that some of you are story writers with your own ideas about what makes a story and how to get started. I’ve published a number of stories, too, for children and adults, and I love writing them. Sometimes on school visits we talk about story writing. What I tell students is much the same as what I tell adults. Today I thought I’d offer some ideas on the subject of getting started. If you disagree or have other suggestions, I hope you’ll join the conversation.

In 2004 I published a Scholastic Guide book for young writers entitled Writing Stories, Fantastic Fiction from Start to Finish. As I prepared to write the book I read what other writers had to say about writing stories. Here are a few.

“A writer’s job is to create characters and give them a place to grow. Start with a situation, introduce the characters, then begin to narrate.”
— Stephen King
Novelist, story writer

“A story consists of a sequence of actions that occur when a sympathetic character encounters a complicating situation that he confronts and solves.”
— Jon Franklin,
Pulitzer winning journalist

“The three greatest rules of dramatic writing are: Conflict! Conflict! Conflict!”
— James Frey

King is more concerned with narration, description, and dialogue than he is about plot. He believes that plot isn’t important and can even restrain the characters’ abilities to move about and grow. These successful writers tell us to take a situation, introduce characters, and start telling their stories.

In my book, I show students that situations and characters can be thought about together.

• Wooden puppet, sometimes naughty, wants to become a real boy (Pinocchio).
• Pig born runt of the litter fears for his life (Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web).
• Hero from another planet disguises himself as a mild-mannered reporter (Superman).

Start your own list of characters and situations. Here are three to help get started.

• Old dog in animal shelter fears he’s too ugly to be adopted.
• New girl in class says she can do something she can’t.
• Boy hurt in accident must learn to live without walking.

Once you have selected a situation and introduced your characters, you are ready to begin telling the story of what happens. There is more to a story, of course, than getting started. We can talk about other elements later, if you wish.

Stories are about characters and how they solve their problems. If we make the problem too easy, the reader gets bored. If we make it too hard, the reader doesn’t believe the solution.

Stories usually build toward a climax during which the leading character(s) attempts to resolve the conflict (solve the problem). Failure in initial efforts helps build suspense and engage the reader in rooting for the hero to somehow manage to pull off the seemingly impossible.

How all the elements — idea, beginning, character, situation, problem, action, dialogue, solution, ending — come together are the stuff of many how-to books on story writing. But I always remind students or adults that writing begins with a single word on a piece of paper or the screen of a computer. The mind cannot improve on nothing. Carrying around that great idea is our minds is, for many writers, a necessary incubation period, but sooner or later that story has to begin showing itself on paper.