A Pirate's Resources

Seeing friends in a new light

I recently heard from a mother, sharing her child’s experience with Pirate’s Guide. Overall, they enjoyed the material, but one exercise in particular had been difficult: within the “connections” chapter, there is an exercise asking them to list 5 friends. Her child did not have five friends, and so it was an understandably sore topic to work on. It broke my heart.

I immediately went my husband, and shared it with him, and since, when he isn’t being a notorious storytelling pirate captain, he is incredibly insightful, he had a few thoughts that I think are valuable.

It boils down to taking a step back, and redefining what we mean by “friends.” In the context of the connections' lesson, we are trying to point out how we have connections with people, and then what creates or is a result of those connections. We generally define a friend as someone with whom we have a mutual affection. But my husband remembered when our son was 2. He didn’t have many “real” friends at that age, but had a best friend: Goofy. We lived in southern California, and had seasons passes to Disneyland, and so went regularly. His favorite activity there was a dancing stage show starring Goofy. We went every single visit, and my son would sit in rapt attention before Goofy and his friends, and dance along, and then wait in line, EVERY TIME, so that he could get a hug or give a high five. At home, he would wear his Goofy jacket, talk about Goofy, and dance like Goof. He CONNECTED with Goofy, deeply. Goofy was a friend.

We also pondered how much our world, particularly right now with Covid isolation, has become increasingly online and “connected” via social media. We “friend” someone (a verb now) on social media, not because we have a mutual affection, but because we feel and want to be connected with either who they are or what they are doing. Often we don’t know these people we feel a kinship with. Like a character in a book whom we relate to, there are folks with youtube channels or instagram feeds who we respond to and want to “connect with” - even though it is one sided. I take weekly online art classes, and after a year of those, feel like the teacher is a “friend,” that I know her well, even though she has no idea I exist. While this isn’t a traditional “mutual affection” based friend, it does provide a genuine point of connection, something of a modern friend. I think too of all those kids who are playing video games and have “friends” out there in cyberspace that they play with.

So, in the context of the specific lessons on friends, what if friends was redefined in a way that each of us could relate to? Are there characters in a book or show that we connect with or feel close to? Special people who aren’t peers but that connect with us? Any of these might be considered friends, and looking at it in this light, might really turn it on its head - where we once struggled to find five friends, we might now have 20!

I don’t want in anyway to minimize the importance, value, or necessity of having in person, mutual friendships. But there are circumstances, seasons, and realities that may make that something rare in our lives, or in the lives of our children. Being open to viewing friend connections in a broader sense can open us up to receiving the gift that these “friends” can be.


Making Creative Writing Accessible to All Learners

A few years back, Chris (the author of A Pirate’s Guide) gave a wonderful talk for the SEA Homeschoolers online conference, Homeschooling Children Across the Learning Spectrum. His talk, “Making Creative Writing Accessible to All Learners” was born out of several families’ responses to A Pirate’s Guide. If you’ve got 40 minutes, join us as he encourages parents in the journey to help their neuro-diverse students become more creative and expressive through creative writing. And if you are short on time, or want to take it in slowly, check out our series of articles under the category Across the Learning Spectrum.

Watch, or read, and be encouraged!


Overcoming the BLANK page

Chris created this because I (a homeschooling mom of 3) saw a great need for a truly helpful creative writing curriculum. It needed to be easy to use, not require too much of the parent, and let the kids have fun. So many workbooks and texts that I previewed simply didn’t give the foundation for what is needed to tell/write/film a good story. They jumped straight into write a story, and skipped the careful process of laying a foundation of everything that must go into a story. Since Chris had worked for years with storytelling professionals, and had already developed a very successful method of guiding them through the storytelling process, it was simply a matter of making it accessible for a middle schooler. Chris created it and we published it back in 2016, and since then, we’ve had hundreds of conversations with homeschoolers and educators about how this creative writing curriculum is actually meeting a real need in the homeschool community.

One of the biggest surprises was this: the problems that a professional writer is faced with when writing a story are the same problems that a junior high kid has in writing a story as well -
the same thing.

The heart of that thing - the thing that all of us struggle with in creative writing - is the
blank page. Imagine someone sits you down, say, a teacher in a classroom, and gives you a blank piece of paper, and says, “write a story. Write anything you want.” Now, on the one hand, this seems generous: you are free to write whatever you want. But in fact, for most people, this is terrifying! It’s utterly overwhelming, even for most full time writers. What are you going to write about? There are a million possibilities, and you’ve got to decide: what is the one thing I’m going to write about?

Creativity actually works the exact opposite way. Instead of being given utter freedom, creativity flourishes when you are given constrictions and boundaries.

Even though they seem very simple when you listen to a story, or watch a movie, or read a book, stories are actually very complex things. Doesn’t it feel like it just came out of the author that way? But when you understand that it can take a writer years or even decades to write a novel, or make a movie, you can start to see that there are so many moving parts going on below the surface.

This is one of the challenges of writing in general. When we have our kids sit down to write, it can be very intimidating to them - it can be overwhelming, daunting, and many kids just shut down and don’t function any more. All too often, this is how writing it taught. It’s a tragedy, because it doesn’t have to be this way. We have a solution.

From Overwhelmed to I CAN do This!

The approach that Chris found, after years of working with professional storytellers, is actually pretty simple and straightforward. It’s as simple as giving someone a very narrow and specific thing, and asking them a question. For example, you could ask your child: “if you are a sea creature, what sort of sea creature would you be?” You could even limit their options further by suggesting: “would you be a dolphin, a shark, a whale, a salmon, or a sea monster?” In doing this, we ask a specific question, and then give a limited list of options to choose from. So much easier than saying, here’s a blank sheet of paper, write! It’s something they can do, a question they can easily answer.

Once they’ve chosen a sea creature, you can ask deeper questions about it. For example, “where does the dolphin like to swim? Does it swim in waves in the ocean? Does it live in the Pacific or the Atlantic Ocean?” Keep asking questions, building on the answers they’ve already given. “What kind of food does the dolphin like to eat in the Pacific Ocean, after it swims it the waves? Does it have any friends? Does it swim alone or with a group of other dolphins?”

In this way, you are giving your child very specific things to answer. The questions are very limited, and it is within their ability to be creative, instead of giving them a blank slate and telling them to write whatever they want to write.

This is our general philosophy around teaching creativity and specifically creative writing. Therefore, the curriculum that Chris designed is structured somewhat in this way. He took the writing of a story, and broke it down into its pieces. These pieces are what we call the
Grammar of Story.

The Grammar of Story

In keeping with our general philosophy that creativity flourishes when there are limitations, A Pirate’s Guide t’ th’ Grammar of Story takes the complexity of a Story, and breaks it down into the pieces, or elements, that create it. These are things you are certainly familiar with: setting, rules, symbols, characters, villains. There are other things that you might have heard before: beginning/middle/end, mystery, act of villainy, ticking clocks, and so on. All told, the workbook consists of 33 elements of story, with exercises for each one.

At the same time, we’ve got a pirate story that is woven in and throughout these exercises. The story is about a notorious pirate named Captain Yogger LeFossa, who captures your child and brings them aboard his ship and invites them to go on a treasure hunt, where x marks the spot. The story weaves in and out of the exercises, and the exercises themselves are involving your child in this larger pirate quest. It was done simply to make creative writing fun and interesting, and also to demonstrate these elements of story through the fictional story of these pirates, its crew of talking monkeys, and their adventures.

For a quick overview of how this workbook works, you can watch our 2 minute video flip through
As you can see, the exercises are directive - asking the student for specific responses, something they can easily do. Then the exercises build on each other, adding to what they’ve done before, and in the end, creating a lot of raw material for stories that you student would want to tell.

As Chris designed the curriculum, he drew not only on our experiences as homeschooling parents, but on those of the parents we interacted with in our coop groups. We didn’t want this book to be teacher intensive, but something a parent could hand to their child and have their child do. It does not intimidate, or require a lot of background or explanation, and there isn’t even a big teacher’s guide (though, after many requests for one, we’ve published one
here). Instead, he designed it to be easy to use, very intuitive, and a workbook you could simply open up and start to work within. As a result, it’s something that parents and their kids can do along side each other (time permitting) - you don’t have to be teaching this. It can be a journey that the two of you can go on together. Ultimately, the goal was for this subject to be FUN. Because we believe that if you can get kids to enjoy writing, and engage with it, then they will continue to want to write.

Homeschooling Across the Learning Spectrum

We wrote this curriculum for homeschoolers, and learners of all ages. It didn’t occur to us to think about it in terms of anything other than :: what do they need to know so they can become better at expressing themselves, at telling stories? And how can we do it in a way that is fun, easy, and actually does the job without any fluff? So it was a surprise to us when some of our biggest fans were homeschoolers that are on the learning spectrum. Parents of kids with learning disabilities and kids on the autism spectrum and other kids that are not your traditional student are regularly finding this workbook to be very valuable.

In having lots of conversations with these parents, we found three reasons why:

  1. This workbook is doable. It is something that the student can do without being overwhelmed or overstimulated.
  2. This workbook takes incremental steps. Gaps that can cause frustration are minimized and bridged.
  3. This workbook is an opportunity for them to succeed and feel good about themselves and their work.

First of all :: Keep the Work DOable

As we talked with many moms of children on the spectrum or with learning challenges, they all said: This workbook isn’t overwhelming to their kids. At first this felt strange, because I find the curriculum quite rigorous - it takes quite awhile to work through, and it does require a lot of the student. This disconnect for me was really because I didn’t understand what being the parent of a child on the spectrum was like. To quote one parent, “our world is one PTSD episode after another, it’s very stressful all the time. Sometimes homeschooling a special needs child, even though it is the best thing for them, is very hard. It’s like being in a battle. And educating our child. And being a therapist. And being a mom. What’s helpful to us is simplicity. I also find it helpful when things are not timed, with no deadlines.”

What she was describing is that this workbook allows kids to take small bite size pieces. Even though the workbook has exercises, there are not real beginnings or endings. Your student can start an exercise and keep going through it, but when they are tired, or done, or have a meltdown, or someone interrupts, they can simply stop. The next time, they will just begin wherever they left off. It’s not like writing an essay, or a large task you need to do, where you just have to press through with it. One parent described how her son struggles with self-esteem and confidence, and being able to finish an exercise in his own time builds his confidence. Because this curriculum allows him to decide how much he can do, he gets to decide, and he can be successful. When her son can’t finish something, he feels defeated, and can act like he’s losing a limb; there can be a total meltdown over something as simple as not finishing a lesson. But with
A Pirate’s Guide, these aren’t “lessons” - they are just exercises. It allows the student to decide to stop after two or three things, or push through and do more of them to get through to the story.

Moving Slowly in the Right Direction :: It is Possible

As I’ve talked with parents, it seems like all of them - no matter where their kid is at, how many needs they have or don’t have, they want to see their kids progress, and sometimes it feels like they are not moving or developing at all. And I just want to encourage you - it is possible. And I’ve seen it happen in this area of creativity.

The mom who shared with me that her son couldn’t work with play dough, and only did legos exactly as the instructions dictated, shared this most wonderful story with us, after having spent a season doing
A Pirate’s Guide. It was encouraging for them, and for us as well.

Their autistic middle school aged son was very literal. At the beginning of the process of doing creative writing, his muscles just weren’t very strong. And when he was asked to answer a question - he would just give a single word and be done with it. She said it was literally like pulling teeth to get him to answer, but now that he’s gone through the workbook, it’s not. She described how even her husband had noticed the progression, had seen that his writing had developed and become easier for him. Her son has gotten to the point of saying, if I do this, and this, and this, and put it all together, it actually sounds good.

That’s the key: their son was the one recognizing that
he was doing this - he understood his muscles were weak, he understood that he hadn’t been able to do it, then when he saw himself being able to do it, he was encouraged. Now, don’t get me wrong, the progress here is small, but for them and their family, any movement at all was very significant, and it really came home to them this past Thanksgiving.

The mom described how every Thanksgiving everyone puts the things they are thankful for on what they call a Thankful Tree. In the past, her son’s items on the thankful tree were just simple foods (potatoes, turkey). But this year, she shared how he wrote down non food items, and things with descriptions, and in that, they could really tell that he had come a long way. Hearing this, I cheered.
Her son was expressing himself, and expressing something he hadn’t been able to express before. He hadn’t been strong enough, but now, his muscles were growing, and his ability to share who he is with his family is growing.

So to summarize the point here - I don’t think this has anything particular to do with my curriculum or anything other than it is just using a tool of small, incremental baby steps that gradually get harder and enables them to win, to keep going, to not get lost, to not get stuck at the edge of this cliff with a gap that’s too big for them and they just give up.

When the Work is its Own Reward

Another unique aspect of A Pirate’s Guide is that there is a story woven through out the workbook. There’s the story, and then exercise, and then more story. For some kids, the story acts like a reward.

And while we are on the subject of rewards … One parent shared how, as a 42 year old, she had grown up without rewards , but today she feels that all things need rewards. Every activity and book, every app, is about earning something - stars, points, leveling up. She’s found that it is too much for her autistic son. (It’s too much for me, too.) He gets focused, but the focus is solely based on getting the prize, not the work itself - he’ll work just enough to get to the prize. Then this parent described how, in
Pirate’s Guide, because the prize in this curriculum is the story woven in and out of the exercises - the rewards are integrated into the very work itself.

And the other unique thing about this reward is that it is in their mind - for other than the cover of the book, there are no illustrations or drawings inside the book at all. Most curriculum has characters and stars and doodles and drawings … and as a parent told me - their kids are overstimulated as it is. Our kids are inundated with stuff on their phones, computers, and television screens; it can be a challenge just going into a store, because there is just so much stimulation for them. So in a curriculum, anything extra can be too much. So many moms have found it valuable that their students are able to visualize the characters in the story out of the written words (not through images) and the whole process is streamlined and simple.

Parents need curriculum that is something that their kids can do that is not overlong, or overwhelming, or overly taxing them. They need something that their student can accomplish, finish bite size pieces and build their confidence, and that doesn’t resort to bribes or rewards or meaningless things like stars or points. The reward should be the thing itself - and one of the rewards of stories is being transported to a different world, meeting new characters, going and experiencing things that you yourself would never do in your own real life. We get to experience this when we watch a movie or read a book. And we can connect this for our kids when they are writing a story. We want them, as they are creating a story, to have the same experience of traveling to a different world, but this time, it is a world they are interacting with, they are creating. This is one thing that makes video games so attractive to kids, and why so many boys, particularly on the autistic scale, gravitate towards them. There is a huge desire to be creative, to act and function in a world, without the limitations that they experience in this world. Writing stories can be the same thing, but it is much more work. It’s easier to pick up a game console and play within an existing world. It’s more difficult to do this with pen and paper and something they get to create. Hopefully, this pirate story and the exercises help bridge that gap between passive (playing a video game) and proactive (writing their own story from scratch), by making it easier for kids to enter into a world, and begin to enjoy creative writing.

Second :: Bridging the Gaps

One of the moms we spent time getting to know is a curriculum reviewer for a publication, and she is inundated with new curricula and has reviewed lots over the years. Most of us homeschooling moms can go through a fair number of texts and workbooks and study packs trying to find the right one that fits our family. This is only heightened for moms whose kids have learning challenges. They so long for something that will enhance the learning experience for their kids and encourages them to want to learn - for that learning experience to be a good, positive experience that their kids will want to do.

A common barrier is what this mom called “gaps.” This is where you are working on something, and the next step that they ask your student to take is too big a leap for them to comprehend or succeed at. They can’t do it. For example, incremental learning in math would be something like: 1+1=2, 1+2=3, 1+3=4, 1+4=5, and so on. Working in this way allows the student to take the previous step, see how it applies, and move on to the next step. It’s small enough that they can bridge from the first to the next example. But many teachings tend to take a leap. They show the student that sequence, and then ask “what’s 7+9?” That is too big of a leap. Gaps like this aren’t just a problem for special needs kids, it’s a problem for us all.

Whenever we come to a barrier or a chasm that’s too big to cross, we shut down, we give up, we don’t know what to do. It’s the level of scale that determines if we can push through, or if we shut down; it’s a matter of how big the gaps are. For some kids you can have fairly big steps and they can navigate that fairly well. Others need the steps to be close and tight for them to keep walking the path. So the challenge for all parents is to find a curriculum/program that does not have gaps that are bigger than their child can handle. And this is something that has been stated again and again by parents who have used
Pirate’s Guide: it makes use of very small, incremental baby steps, and leading by example. It’s very directive, and removes the gaps, so that the student can keep walking forward confidently. No flying leaps!

Second :: more gaps

And here’s a unique kind of gap - totally different from just taking too big a step between 1+1 and xy+52. It’s a gap in strength and ability.

I’ve been told by numerous parents with kids on the spectrum, is that their kids can have a very black and white nature. They are the kind of kids who, when they ask the time, don’t want to know that it’s 3 o’clock, but that it’s 3:
01. Oftentimes, this can be the biggest block to these kids being creative. They can be very literal, so factual and focused on the actual, that, as a parent, you don’t have any idea of how to help them to be creative. Our hope, when Chris set out to write this workbook, wasn’t to present kids with a proper course of study, but to help them actually develop creativity. Creativity is like a muscle, and the more you use it, the more you work it out, the stronger it can become.

This becomes an issue in area of the arts especially. For example, you might sit down with your child, and say,
let’s draw something together. They don’t know what to draw (blank page!), and you suggest a tree. They sit down to draw the tree, and they try but can’t, because it doesn’t fit what they expect a tree to look like. So they give up. This gap is to big for them. What is happening here? The creativity muscle isn’t very strong. If they practice drawing trees - start with simple trees, and then add a line here, a little shading there, all by following a clear example, and focusing on only one part at a time, they can step back and see, wow, I drew a tree!

To return to the idea of handing a student a blank piece of paper and saying, go write … the reason that is so intimidating to us is that that creativity muscle isn’t strong enough to do something like that. The gap with our creative muscle strength is too much. Simplifying the process by giving them a focus (“choose what kind of sea monster you would be”), leading them into creativity,
that is a muscle they do have, and so they can answer the question and build up a little strength. A Pirate’s Guide can be seen as a training program for our creative muscles. Each step is small, explained, modeled, and then, as the student successfully completes a portion of the exercise, the muscle grows, and they can do harder and harder things.

Creativity CAN Grow

I spoke with a parent that was sad because her autistic son could just not play with things like play dough. Even with legos, she described that her son could only create what the instructions outlined, and once he put that puzzle together, he’d be done. For her, it felt like pulling creativity out of him was impossible. But I think the real challenge here, what’s really happening, is a description of the strength of a muscle, and giving that muscle a chance to lift the weights that it is capable of lifting. And that’s why incremental learning is so important, and why we created Pirate’s Guide to be so incremental. To think of it like exercise - you start with the arm weight that your arm can carry, and you slowly over time build that up until that muscle gets stronger and you can lift heavier and heavier weights. The same is true with creativity. For her son, he could only “lift weights” of following detailed instructions.

The goal isn’t to pull creativity out of our kids, but to help them build them muscles so that it can come out naturally.

So now here is something that I find really interesting. Professional storytellers struggle with these exact same things. They feel that their muscles are not strong enough either. I asked Chris about it, and he reminded me that story is one of the most complicated things that we as humans can do. In a sense, it’s harder than rocket science. So he spent years (literally, years) trying to find a way to break down story into smaller parts, that would make it more manageable. This made sense to me. When you have something that is complicated, you break it down into the most simple, basic things, and then focus on those one at a time. That is essentially what we are doing when we teach kids English grammar - things like nouns and predicates and subjects and adjectives and clauses; all those really scary words that we come across in English grammar are just these small, simple things that make up sentences. Taken one at a time, we can master them, and in turn, master sentences, and the paragraphs, and then pages. So Chris’s goal was to make story as simple and as straightforward and gentle as possible for everyone.

And in doing this, he inadvertently made it accessible to kids with learning needs. Kids on the autistic spectrum. Kids that have attention disorder, kids that are not professionals. And that’s the great irony - the problem that professionals have is the exact same problem
all of us have. Your kids aren’t any different than kids who are academically gifted and excelling in their school. We all need a gentle, slow, straightforward path to the destination to which we want to go.

Third :: Overcoming Self-Criticism

Finally, we have heard, over and over from parents with kids with learning disabilities, that their children can be very negative and critical towards themselves. Many described it as self-hate. Their kids knew that they had problems, that they sometimes didn’t fit in, they knew that they had disabilities, they knew they had limitations. They feel bad about themselves, and their schoolwork and some curriculums just reinforced that feeling that they are broken and they don’t have the ability to do these things.

This is why self-pacing can be so helpful. And why we want to provide material that is presented in steps that can be taken, in their own time, and without fear of judgment. One mom described their days to Chris: “so many things in our lives are just rush rush rush, it’s so rare and so valuable to be able to open up a book and just go through it slowly, for as long as he is able, and to close it at any time. The net effect of this is that it reassures us that this is not going to be one more thing that my son is going to have to feel bad about as well. It’s depressing when I can’t get my kid to do his work because I’ve had a late night with him, or any of the other things that happen in our day to day life. Chris, you have to understand that they are going through meltdowns all day long and that the thing that you’ve created isn’t overwhelming. It doesn’t have sensory overload - colored pictures, graphs and charts - all the other grammar books have lists, memorize these rules, do this, do that, here’s this, and all of it is overwhelming. Your program is easier, simpler, and stress free.”

Almost every kid on the autistic spectrum has sensory issues, and they get overwhelmed. They can’t take too many words at a time, or too much to do at any one time. Or too much to understand at any one time. There is so much information thrown at them all the time. There are tests and quizzes and reviews, and grades, and scores and assessments - none of the which we do in
A Pirate’s Guide. All you have them do is practice what you are learning by doing the exercises themselves.

When the mom described this to us, both Chris and I thought, wow. We feel this way a lot of the time. Many things are pulling on us, we are rushed, feeling graded and assessed and tested. If I’m honest, I would have meltdowns a lot of the time (if I’m really honest, I’ll confess that sometimes I do). There is so much to do and not enough time to do it, I feel like I am not doing a good enough job. I long for things that are simple and quiet and stress free. I can’t promise that, in using this curriculum, your student will have a stress free experience, suddenly express themselves with ease, and feel great about themselves. I can’t promise that, but the evidence is showing that it will be more stress free. It does help them express themselves with greater ease. And the ones we are hearing from are feeling better about themselves in this area.

The point I can make is this - we all want to communicate to our kids that they aren’t broken. They are not a problem. All the self hate and criticism is something I think we all wish we could magically pull out of our kids and throw a billion miles away under the sea in a galaxy super far away so it never comes back.

Overcoming the Negative :: Have Hope!

The unfortunate reality is that it seems like self-criticism, self-judgement, self-loathing are getting worse in our culture, in general. So what do we do as parents? How do we help our kids, how do we help ourselves, in this? I think one way is simply being together. I think this is one reason that homeschooling can be such a gift to our kids and ourselves. We get to spend a lot of time with each other. And this has some good and some bad. There’s going to be the times of fights and meltdowns, when you have to leave the grocery store with a lot of items left in the art. But there are also the sweet, tender, wonderful, magical times, whatever that looks like for you and your kids. It may be singing a song together or dancing a silly dance around the house, it might be bedtime stories or going on a roller coaster and screaming your lungs out together. Whatever it is for you and your family and your kids, I encourage you to do that more. To focus on it more. In doing these things, we are saying to our kids: I want to be with you, I like you, you are not broken, you are not a problem.

I hope your homeschool, your actual schoolwork time can be the same. And all too often it’s not, it’s a fight, the battle of wills. Too much stimulation and over focus on prizes and rewards that don’t really affirm who your kid really is at the heart. But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are many examples of wonderful experiences that parents and kids share in homeschooling together.

When Chris set out to write this curriculum, he created it to be an independently used workbook, but his hope is that it could be something parents and kids do side by side, and it could become one of those special moments that you and your child share together. It doesn’t need to be something that a parent just gives their student and then goes off, leaving the child alone and separate to do it. When parents
do this with their student, and answer the questions themselves, you can share your answers with each other, share your character, and all the things these exercises will draw out of you. So if you do try it out -have fun with it, just enjoy it, together with your kids and your family. I know this isn’t always practical - especially if you have several kids (though getting everyone in the family doing it can be very, very fun). So it can be used independently, and then we encourage you, busy mom or dad, to take a few moments. Read through the story and their exercises. Ask them questions, show them that you are interested. (You can check out these articles for encouragement on doing just that). Make it something that, even if they are able and willing to work on it independently, you come together and encourage the growing creativity muscles they are building.

These are the three things that I’ve learned in talking with numerous parents about their kids and their problems and their needs, and how, in some small way, this creative writing curriculum has helped them.
first is to do something that they can do - be it just a small exercise. Just bite sized pieces that they can finish and accomplish. Make it something that isn’t overwhelming or overtaxing or over long or over stimulating. Make it something they can start and finish and feel good about.
second is to do something that utilizes incremental steps that don’t create gaps or bridges or walls that block their progress, or stop them from getting to the goal or end or across this chasm they think they can never get across. We need to build bridges for them, make things that they are able to accomplish, so they can continue, and don’t give up or lose hope.
third, do things that say that they are valuable, that you care about them. Do things that counteract this poison of negativity and criticism and self doubt and self hatred. Things that say YOU did this, here’s what you’ve done, what you’ve made, what we’ve done together. Here’s who you are, and this is how I view you.

It’s possible. Have hope!


The Challenge for us all in approaching creative writing ::

You don’t feel that you are a good writer.
What if you aren’t naturally “creative” yourself? What if your student isn’t?
You don’t really know what curriculum to use.
Why do so many of them assume you already know things?
Why do they jump through the material so quickly you end up missing things?
Why do they ask you to master a whole new subject in order to teach your student an elective?
Your kids have a difficult time with writing.
What if they don’t like writing, at all, much less creative writing?
What if they love to write, but don’t know where to begin?
What if expressing themselves, at all, is a challenge?

The Challenge for those on the Spectrum ::
All of the above … AND …
Your student struggles with being easily over-stimulated, over-whelmed.
Your student cannot make big leaps through material.
Your student sees things in black and white and doesn’t express themselves easily, in general.

I have good news. It is
possible. Teaching creative writing - wherever your student is at - is possible. And it yields good fruit. One thing I’ve seen again and again, is that when parents are given the right tools to teach this subject, and have the right attitude, it can be a really positive and rewarding experience. There is hope. I encourage you to hold on to hope as you go on homeschooling, specifically in getting your child to open up to write, to share words, to speak their thoughts, and share what’s going on inside them, to you and others. It’s a worthwhile thing to do, and while it can be difficult, I do believe the rewards are more than worth it.

Though we didn’t start out to create an accessible writing program, the evidence from those families who have tested it with their neuro-diverse students is that it works.
And it is worth it. Read on for more encouragement.

Encouragement or Expectation

Recently the mom of a middle school aged son wrote to share that, while her son had initially engaged well with Pirate’s Guide, he was struggling, every day, to put pen to paper and write anything more than the fewest words possible in his workbook exercises. She was very discouraged, and, I think may have felt that her son wasn’t succeeding - or that the workbook wasn’t helping him grow in imagination.

I hear this a lot. So many of us worry that we or our kids are not “creative.” Many of those on the Spectrum struggle with accessing their imagination and playing or creating creatively. And many neurotypical and neurodiverse students alike struggle with writing their whole lives. As a parent, we want to encourage our kids to grow and develop, but sometimes they seem to resent our encouragement!

One sure fire way to squelch imagination is to place premature expectations on them. I wonder if this mom’s enthusiasm and desire to
encourage her son was felt as expectation by him. I wonder if he felt the expectation (spoken or unspoken, from the workbook, from the mom, from himself) that he had to suddenly become creative and use his imagination? This can be very scary for many kids (and adults too). Writing and sharing our imagination/creativity is a vulnerable thing, and that’s one of the main reasons a lot of people (of all ages) shy away from it, esp. from sharing it.

With something like creativity as we are “teaching” it in this workbook, you can take a very laid-back, relaxed approach. Your students can use as few words as they want. There should only be the expectation that they are giving the work some effort - NOT that there will be “success” (at least not in the short term). My own son, who is a Pure Math major in college right now, is not a traditionally “creative” kid. For him, doing
Pirate’s Guide (he and his sisters were our first test audience) was purely obedience to mom (the teacher) and respect for dad (the writer). He put the time in, chose not to write the stories in the “Raise the Anchor” sections, and basically did the assignments to get them done. He was given full credit for the character building of obedience to the assignment. He never really got interested or excited about imagining different options (though, when he did portions of it again in a coop group, his answers were much more interesting because they were shared out loud, and his friends inspired him a bit. Gentle peer pressure can be encouraging). He can, however, have a meaningful conversation now (6 years later) with us about story, and when he finds an unexpected villain in a movie he’s watching, or he finds connections or values that he might have otherwise not been aware of.

I share that to say that our kids may not be ready to be “imaginative” in the way that we define or hope. But if they are willing to put in the time and, however sparingly, complete the exercises (and you as the teacher might choose to minimize those - have them fill out half of each list instead of all, etc), you might find that, over time and without any pressure to meet any expectation, they naturally becomes more adept at it. And honestly, even if that happens primarily within their own head, it will have increased and strengthened that creative muscle, which will help them be able to work out a bit more in other areas of life.

How to :: A Guide to using the Guide :: Heave Ho!

Ready for a challenge?

Thirteen times throughout the workbook, your student will come across a section called Heave Ho! Whenever we yell “Heave Ho!” they should be prepared to do some more difficult exercises. These exercises were designed to challenge your student by taking what they’ve just learned, and going a bit deeper and farther. They can be difficult, and your student might be discouraged.

If this happens, take a deep breath, and help them to relax. These are not required lessons. If the Heave Ho! is hard for them to understand, spend some time with them, listening to what they know, paying attention to what part they are struggling with. Depending on their age and understanding, you may decide to have them skip a specific Heave Ho! Or you may choose to go back, read through the previous exercises so you understand, and then gently walk them through the material.

Whatever you choose, remember that being creative is a vulnerable thing. Our goal is for this workbook to help your child open up and enjoy the process of being creative. The Heave Ho! sections should stretch them but not break them, or your relationship. Only you can assess your student’s difficulty with a section, so use discernment to encourage and support them.


How to :: A Guide to using the Guide :: Scratch Yer Noggin’

It’s time for a review. Creativity is hard work. Learning grammar is hard work. And though we’ve done our best to have this be as fun and easy as possible, we also want to make sure that our students don’t forget what they have been learning as each new element and exercise comes along. So we created the Scratch Yer Noggin’ sections to test their memory of past sections.

There are ten of these review pages throughout the workbook. Each one includes some defining, some brainstorming, and some demonstrating that the material is also being understood. While we don’t provide an answer key for these (definitions can be checked against the glossary terms on page 1), this is the one place in the workbook where you could, if you need or want to, grade their work. It’s your choice if you have your student spend some time reviewing in preparation, or do the
Scratch Yer Noggin’ as an open book review.

The final
Scratch Yer Noggin’ (page 311) is a comprehensive review of the entire book. We encourage your student to see how much they know - they might review before hand, take the “final” without looking back to see how far they’ve come, and then go back and find the answers to any material they may have forgotten.


How to :: A Guide to using the Guide :: Raise the Anchor and Set Sail

Throughout PGGS, you’ll find 8 sections called “Raise the Anchor and Set Sail.”

This means it’s time for your student to write a story of their own! In the first of these, we walk your student through it from start to finish, even providing an example of a short story that we created based on the work we did in the previous exercises. So we encourage your student to go back to their mindstorming work from the previous exercises, asking themselves some easy questions - does anything stand out? Is something interesting? What are the things you liked? They should flip back through their exercises (as far back as they want to go), and could even highlight or circle those things that interested them most. Then they should start to put those together. Encourage their curiosity. As the workbook demonstrates in our example, our curiosity can take a simple mindstorming exercise and take it to a brand new place, like this:

In the exercise, I did a mindstorm about “things monkeys throw.” I said: bananas, bean bags, water balloons, bagels, barbecues, Bunsen burners, bowling balls, and broccoli. Then I asked myself the question, “I wonder who they are throwing these things at?” The first thing that came to mind “other monkeys in a parade.” Then I thought of a character, Monkey Mary. Then I wondered what she wanted. …

As you can see, WONDERing is a big part of storytelling. I wonder who’s doing this? I wonder why? I wonder who else is there? I wonder what would happen if? Encourage your student to wonder about some of the things they mindstormed. You can model this for them as they are getting started, but let them make it their own.

Now, if they are feeling hesitant to write, that’s perfectly normal. As we encourage them in the exercise, there is no right or wrong way to tell their story, especially not at this stage. They shouldn’t worry about whether or not it is good or bad (whoever thought sticking “good” and “bad” stickers on stories ought to be eaten by a kraken, so be careful that you as a parent/teacher don’t do this!). They should simply write whatever comes out of them, as it happens. They are learning and growing and trying things out. Encourage them to give a good effort, without judgement or grading. If you must assess the work, focus on their attitude and willingness, and respond with interest and encouragement, not praise.

That’s all there is to it. As the workbook progresses, they will have more and more material to draw from, and their openness to telling their stories will hopefully grow and flourish.


How to :: A Guide to using the Guide :: Where's the Teacher's Guide?

As your student begins the workbook, you’ll notice right away that there is NO teacher’s guide. None is needed, as all the teaching is done by First Mate Manfred within each exercise. There is a short teaching portion (sometimes just a few sentences and a definition), and then the learning really takes places as your student follows the examples and works through the incremental steps of the exercises. Seriously, when Chris sat down to teach this complex thing called storytelling, he broke it down into the smallest possible steps, so there would be no gap in learning, no moment when a student would just throw up their hands to say “how did they get to that?”

That said, some sections are harder than others. Some concepts (like Values, or Light and Dark) are just more complex than others (like Setting or Plot). And some parents want a teacher’s guide. So, here you are! Click on
Specific Elements to get a series of posts which go through, exercise by exercise, a bit more on each element. As much as possible, in each post you’ll find ::

  • An explanation of the element in greater detail and examples both in real life and in the story world.

  • “In Real Life” :: I’ll offer suggestions for how to challenge your student to dig deeper into the element (in life and in story).

  • “Finding it in the Story” :: when possible, I’ll give specific examples for your student to find within the story chapters.

There are two things I’d like to highlight. First, if you and your student want to dig deeper, every one of these concepts can be found “
In Real Life.” Finding examples of it in the “story” of our daily lives, in the story that Grandpa tells, in the story that we watch in a movie is the best way to really understand and own these concepts. When that happens, you and your student will begin to realize that story is everywhere, and story is important in many places that are not traditionally “story” settings. For example, my daughter was in a Mock Trial recently. The team that won? Well, according to the judge (and I quote him): “Story vs argument is a no brainer - the story will win. So when you are thinking through your opening statement and your closing argument, you’ve got to be thinking about what story you want to tell.” But to tell a compelling story requires understanding what makes a story compelling - the elements. These very same story elements are also part of our own daily lives - we operate very much like characters in our own story, and understanding what makes a story character tick is often a clue to what makes us tick as well.

Second, once your student has read through the story and the teaching, and done the exercises, they will be able to define and identify story elements. Putting them directly into a story is the next step. To get there, have your student go through the
Pirate’s Guide story itself (I would suggest after each exercise or two, and again perhaps at the very end), and identify the elements they’ve been learning. To help guide you as they find these (on their own), I created “Finding it in the Story,” a master list of each element and a few of the places (though by no means all. If your child really wants a challenge, have them write up what they find that I “miss” and send them to me - I’ll add them to the page!) where they can find those elements in the chapters preceding it. I’ve added a few from other parts of the story, as well, in the hopes that they will start to be on the lookout for these things! Of course they will have already read it, but in reading it again, with this new understanding of setting, or mystery, or hero, they will be able to see it in context and that will help bridge the gap between definition/identification, and putting it into practice. I’ll post these “Finding it in the Story” helps at the end of each element, and here in a master list.

As always, if these resources don’t answer your question, don’t hesitate to write and ask! We love to hear from parents and students, and could talk about story all day.


How to :: A Guide to using the Guide :: Getting Started

Welcome to the pirate ship! It’s time to get started! The first steps are simple!

Parent, please start by pre-reading the Letter from Yogger LeFossa (pg. 6-7) and the corresponding Note from the Publisher (pg. 322-3), as these will give you a sense of the workbook and our hopes for your time in it. Hopefully you will laugh a bit!

We recommend then sharing the book with your student, going over the Table of Contents and format for the book. Generally, they will enjoy a portion of a pirate story, then do an exercise, and then more pirate story as a prize (or carrot for beginning the next day). Take note - the “teaching section” of each exercise (that brief portion before they begin putting pencil to paper) is told from the point of view of the Monkey First Mate. Scurvy Spat is your student (some kids love this, some would like a new name!). And the story, whether it is its own chapter or integrated into the exercise, is always italicized.

Plan for your student to spend some time in the workbook each school day - we generally recommend starting at around 20 minutes a day, and slowly increasing the time until it fits both your schedule and your students energy/ability. If that’s the wrong amount of time, scale up or down to meet your students' needs. Each lesson moves in small incremental steps, building slowly into more creativity and expressive thoughts. It’s okay if an entire lesson isn’t completed in a single sitting - just pick up where you left off each day. Some exercises are longer than others, some are harder, so there is no right or wrong in how much to complete. You are the best gauge for your students effort and energy.

Every now and then there are sections where they can choose to dive deeper (
Heave Ho), review (Scratch Yer Noggin’), or write their own story (Set Sail) - do these only as they work well for your student - they are entirely extra. Click the links for more specific information on each of those sections. Always remember, there is no right or wrong in these creative exercises!

The first week, I recommend looking at the Table of Contents, the Glossary, and the general format. Spend a few minutes reading the first chapters of the story, and do exercise one - it is the perfect, simple introduction to mindstorming (our pirate’s word for brainstorming), and will give you both an idea of what to expect in the coming days. Check out the first Raise the Anchor and Set Sail, and then take a break. Get ready to start fresh the next day, and set sail for some creative writing adventure!

Please feel free to contact us at any time if you have questions, concerns, or just to share how it’s going!


How to :: A Guide to using the Guide :: In the Midst

Hopefully you’ve gotten a good taste of how A Pirate’s Guide works, and the seas are calm and your student is having fun. But what if you hit some rough waters?

This happens. It happens in real life, and it happens in stories. It’s what makes for rising tension and dramatic moments. So don’t be surprised, and don’t threaten to walk the plank. If your student hits a difficult patch (and it is likely to be a unique place and reason for each student), take a deep breath, look over the material with them, and walk slowly through it. Plan to take more time, and plan to be more present than you may have been.

When I’ve hit a mental block during my own time working through
A Pirate’s Guide, I try to assess what’s going on - am I hungry? Do I need to eat or drink? Am I tired? Do I need to take a break for the day? Am I just being willful, and need encouragement to push through? Or have I hit a concept that feels beyond me (for me it was values, for another of my kids, it was the Light and Dark section)? When this happens, I will take a break. I’ll go back and re-read the story chapter before the exercise that I struggle with, and see if I can find examples of what they are teaching me in the text itself. At that point, I have to decide (for myself - or for my student) - is this a section to breeze through, and come back to at a later date, or is it one we will work through very slowly until the understanding forms? Only you and your student can assess that. Once you decide, stand tall, work on, and then enjoy a breather before heading back into the waters again.

You can do it, be gentle with your self, gentle with your student, and keep growing together as you build these creative muscles.


Exercise 1 :: Mindstorming :: where it all begins

Brainstorming (or mindstorming, as our pirates call it) is one of the most important things story-tellers need to do. Because of this, we have a whole exercise devoted to walking the students through it, step by step. A blank page can be a scary thing for a storyteller, even seasoned professionals. Mindstorming is a key way to move past the fear of the blank page, the fear of getting it right, or the trap of going with our first idea (when it is often idea #5 or #55 that is much better). Mindstorming, as we’ll be doing throughout A Pirate’s Guide will build their creative muscles, slowly and gently, and at the end, provide them with a resource that can act as a sourcebook for future stories.

In Real Life :: at the start of this, I said that mindstorming is one of the most important things story-tellers need to do. Yes, NEED to do.
And it is HARD. So how can you help kickstart the brainstorming session? The first thing is to turn off the internal critic. There is NO stupid idea in brainstorming! This is not only true for your child, as they brainstorm, but for you as you listen to them brainstorming. Turn of the critic, and be open to just seeing what pops up. (It’s amazing how our children sense our inner thoughts. So turn off your internal critic - of yourself and them - and watch them create).

Finding it in the Story :: not in a specific chapter, this “element” is less part of the grammar of story, and more a skill you’ll need in developing the other elements!


Exercise 2 :: Being Specific :: Communicating Clearly

One of the greatest skills, in general, that A Pirate’s Guide teaches - something useful across the board of their education and life - is being specific. It’s so important, in fact, that is the second exercise in the book, and actually lays a foundation for all the remaining exercises. Why is this? And how do we help our children become more specific?

To illustrate, let’s imagine a character together. Let’s say that the character is a boy. If you asked a group of 10 people to draw a picture of that character, you’d get 10 totally different boys. Some might be 3, others 10. Some might be tall, others short. Some might be… you get the idea. So let’s be more specific. Let’s say the character is a 10 year old boy, 5 feet tall, with brown hair and blue eyes. If we ask everyone to draw him again, the pictures will be closer, but we’ll still have 10 different versions of that boy.

But I want my reader to be thinking of the same boy that I am - seeing the same boy that I see in my mind. So I need to become very
specific indeed. I need to describe his clothing, his hair style, how he smiles, which backpack he wears (and how he wears it), etc. If there was a room full of 10 year old boys, 5 feet tall, how can I describe MY boy so that you can pick him out of the crowd? That’s specificity. It’s helping the reader to see what’s in the author’s mind.

Being specific is a way of setting limits and creating a focus. Being specific communicates an idea more clearly to the reader. And clear communication is a worthy goal not only in story-telling, but in life. The more specific the writer is about ANY aspect of their story, the more the reader will understand what the writer means.

In Real Life :: Being specific in real life is just as important as in story. Actually, it’s more important. If I write a vague character and you imagine it differently that I anticipated, it’s not great, but oh well. But if I ask you to grab the spice from the cabinet, and I’m not specific, my cinnamon pancakes might taste like pepper! So much frustration in life comes about because our communication lacks specificity. Take a moment today, and have your child pay attention for a time when being specific helped them get what they wanted, or conversely, when being vague resulted in something they didn’t want at all.

Finding it in the Story :: again, not an “element” of story per se, this is another skill you’ll need to have to be a great communicator! (But you can easily find examples of being specific throughout the entire story. You’ll find specific examples in the story portions that are embedded in the exercise itself.)


Exercise 3 :: Setting :: where to begin?

Simply put, setting is a location where a group of characters live and act and where their stories take place. It includes both time and place - though in some stories, each aspect may be more or less important. A story about space cowboys is generally set in space, and likely in the future - both time and place matter to the focus of the story. But another story might be more thematic - about love, for example, and it could be set in any time or place and still have, essentially, the same story line.

One way to help you student think about setting is to ask them to name a favorite story (one they know very well). Ask - what are some of the physical places in this story? Then - in what time does this story take place? Their answers should not only help them understand what setting means, but how/when it is important to the story. For example,
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe takes place in England, in the Professor’s house, in the wardrobe, in Narnia… and it takes place during two time periods - WWII, and during the rather timeless time of Narnia (where time is passing, but doesn’t seem to have a direct relationship with our time). These are important details. Having talking animals in the professor’s house wouldn’t make sense - the setting of that part of the story needs to be somewhere like Narnia, where that is normal (this is an aspect of story you’ll learn about in rules). You can ask them what would happen if they moved the story from England to Africa? Would the story change? How? Why? What if instead of during war time it took place during a peaceful summer? Would the story change? As they grapple with these thoughts, they will begin to see how changes, big and small, make a difference to the story.

Once time and place, and how they are used in a story, are understood, then your student can brainstorm what time/places will give their story meaning. Based on their story, it might be just a context for the greater story, or it might be central to the understanding and meaning of the story. Asking open questions can help them think through these larger issues and will strengthen their story overall - but remember, thinking through these things is hard work, and won’t necessarily come easily or be “fun.” They may want to keep the first place that comes to their head, and that’s okay. Keep it light, make suggestions, and then step back and allow them to be creative in their own way.

In Real Life :: while there are some important real life applications for many of the story elements, setting isn’t a very big one. It is an easy one to start with, though, as you can simply help your student be aware of how time, location, and events affect their daily lives. They can rely upon groceries to the in the grocery store, and animals to be in cages at the zoo. They likely expect cake at a birthday party, but not at the dentist. And if their dentist were at the birthday party, they might be very confused! All of these are simple ways to help them see the value and importance of establishing setting in stories.

Finding it in the Story :: check out the first chapters again - there are lots of obvious examples of location. (The ocean, the pirate ship itself, the bunks). Note that there are not many general time examples (we don’t know “when” this is happening), but you’ll find the descriptions of night to be the most obvious example. As for events, this isn’t happening in a specific event, but challenge your student to pay attention in coming chapters, as there will be many “events” that occur to ground the story in a specific time/event.


Exercise 4 :: Values :: So, What's Valuable to Your Student?

When your student writes a story, there are all kinds of hidden elements that lurk beneath the surface. Part of the purpose of A Pirate’s Guide is to bring those out into the light so they can be developed and strengthen the story. Here’s an example of something that, at first glance, might not seem like an essential story element. Values. Such a little word for a rather simple concept that can be a real challenge to explain and work through with your student. Values are things that are valuable. Stories are full of things that have perceived value - are believed to be important, worthwhile, or useful. Though it might seem tangential, it is critical to the story. Stories come out of values - that is, stories rise up out of the things that are deemed valuable in the story world.

Values come in many shapes and forms - they are often things that are not necessarily tangible or touchable. Patriotism, love, strong work ethic, science, etc., are all different kinds of values. And these intangible values often have tangible representations of them - like the flag, hearts, muscles, text books. There can even be “values” that we don’t consider valuable in the positive sense (like cheating), but which might be valuable to a character (like a card shark). There are also tangible things that can be useful for the value - like the Constitution, flowers, tools, beakers.

Help your storytellers see that these intangible things that give a story some basis can be demonstrated in the story through very concrete things.

A more detailed explanation and the exercise that digs into the idea of
Values is in exercise #4 in A Pirate’s Guide. Remember, as you go through this exercise, if you are struggling, go back to the story chapter before it, and see if you and your student can find some examples of values in that story itself. Then go through the exercise just one step at a time. If it is taxing, scale back a bit, or do half the brainstorming, and come back another time to finish. And there are no right or wrong answers, we are looking for good effort and a willingness to work hard to both understand and to create these values!

In Real Life :: As a parent, you can get a peek into what your child values by keeping your eyes open in what they are mind storming about, and what goes into their own stories. The values that are important to them will naturally come up in the story. Recognizing them as valuable things, you can subtly ask them more questions, show interest, and hopefully get to know your child better. And they can then add elements that draw that out and give the story depth. Recognizing values (and the things that represent them) in real life also help us to understand the people in our life. Imagine Grandma has a very special vase that she uses on special occasions. This is a significant object, and when you ask her about it, she’ll tell you that it was brought to the United States by her mother when she fled Russia. Her mother had to hide it and keep it from breaking, and it is one of the only things your Grandma has from the old country. Knowing this, you can recognize one of her values - having a tie to her heritage.

Finding it in the Story :: pg 33 :: we can find several values (a tight ship, being on time, no fighting, and being fit, to name a few) that have distinct actions/things that demonstrate them (getting up for routine, doing exercises, etc).


Exercise 5 :: Significance :: Attention! Attention! This is important

In any story, there are ordinary things that have extraordinary meaning. In Lord of the Rings, the ring - a pretty ordinary object in our world - has incredible significance. It means something very specific, very important. The wardrobe - an ordinary piece of furniture - in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe has great significance and importance too. Names are important too - not just any paper, but the Declaration of Independence. Places, as we learned about in settings, can ground your story and give context for who your character are and how they talk and what they do. Even the things that populate your story - wizards, monkeys, or aliens - will help narrow down what you write about. All of these different details are significant in the telling of the story.

Being able to identify and recognize significant things, and give them the attention they deserve in the story, will make it stronger.

When writing about significant things, details matter.
A Pirate’s Guide is big on details - because they make all the difference between compelling writing (of any kind) and blah. So, for example, we aren’t just talking about a ring, but one that lights up with elvish words when exposed to heat, and turns the wearer invisible, and has been lost for a long time. Those details take it from ordinary to significant, and make it a valuable part of the story. The details can be about the thing, or in the name, or in the place, or in what A Pirate’s Guide calls worldlings. My computer gets upset with the spelling of that, but it’s correct - world-lings. These are types of characters that populate the story world. In most stories, the worldlings are humans. But there are other stories that have talking animals, or wizards, or living stuffed animals. Sometimes a story is populated by particular types of humans, like pirates, or children, or dancers. Being able to identify these will give your child some boundaries in the telling of their story. Because having boundaries helps us to tell the best stories, each significant thing in a story, with its details and meaning, helps the storyteller make decisions about all the other details that make up the story.

In Real Life :: In diving more deeply into this, you can ask your child to think of their favorite story, and there is bound to be some ordinary object that has extraordinary meaning in that particular story. Try finding significant objects in the stories your family tells, real family stories (like Grandpa telling about the huge fish he caught, or Aunt Rose telling the story of how she and Uncle Frank met) - there are bound to be certain things that are important to their story that might be insignificant elsewhere. As we shared in the values section, significant objects often reflect the values the story teller (or someone in the story) has, and this, in turn, helps us to understand them better.

Finding it in the Story :: you’ll quickly realize there is not a story right before this exercise, so encourage your student to think back through the story that they’ve read so far - some significant items would include significant objects :: jelly beans, bananas, treasure map, story grammar; significant names :: ‘scurvy spat’ and each of the monkey names (particularly Norman Nopants, whose name does not fit the pattern), not to mention the silly names for places (Canmerica is one example - this is also an example of rules, which is the next chapter); and significant worldlings :: talking monkeys, pirates, and kraken. As the story continues, you’ll find even more examples of each of these.


Exercise 6 :: Rules :: The Dos and Don'ts in a Story World

“Take your shoes off in the house.” “No shoes, no shirts, no service.” “Walk, don’t run.” “Shhh. This is a library.” “Remember your manners.” (In a whisper) “don’t do that, you know it’ll upset mom.”

Rules. They are everywhere. Whether they are spoken, posted, or simply understood, rules govern the way that we as people interact with each other and our world. Rules define what is allowed and what isn’t allowed. In a story world, it governs what can and cannot happen. Some rules are explicit - they are regulations that tell us how to behave. Other rules might be more of a cultural norm - something that you just pick up when you are in a certain culture (we moved to Canada for a few years, and even though nothing really changed - signs were in English, people looked just like the people on the other side of the border, stores were even the same - there was a discernible difference, and we quickly picked up on the cultural “rules” that made us realize we were in a different place).

Our definition of rules - “rules govern behavior within the story world” - contains an important word - governs. Rules provide the framework and boundaries of behavior. So, for example, if you set a story in space, there should be certain things that govern behavior - lack of gravity will “govern” how objects are handled and people move around. If your story is set in the wild west, there are definitely other rules that will govern behavior. If your story has a fantasy element, like the CS Lewis stories about Narnia, then there are very specific rules - the animals that are in Narnia can talk. Time is different in Narnia than in England. If you eat enchanted Turkish delight in Narnia, certain things will happen. Each of these rules must be followed (if one of the animals in England started talking, it would pull the reader out of the story and no longer feel like a real story) or the story world isn’t as complete or whole. If the rule isn’t followed (I recall some animals in Narnia who
couldn’t talk), it should prompt the reader to ask why and look for the meaning behind that. Ask your student to think of their favorite story (book, movie, even video game). Ask a few questions about the story world - what is allowed and what isn’t? What about its setting (location/time/event) or values dictates that certain things can or can’t happen? What behaviors that happen in this world cannot happen in ours?

So, why are rules so important to story? They keep it real and unified. Think of a young child. In your home, they are not allowed to jump on the beds. But they go to a friend’s house, and everyone is jumping on the bed and they feel uncomfortable - “rules” are being broken. There is discord for them. When this happens in story, for example someone in a story about the gold rush era pulls out a cell phone to make a call, there is discord, and the story is broken for the reader. Creating and abiding by the rules of a story world is particularly important in fantasy, where anything could happen, but not everything should happen! More on this in another article. For now, help your child see rules in their own world, and help them to define the rules when they create their own story world.

In Real Life :: I encourage you to ask these kinds of questions throughout your week. When you are at the grocery store, what “rules” are there that you as a family follow? When you are watching a movie, what rules can you detect, and how do they affect the actions of the characters? When your kids are playing together, what rules do they naturally develop between them? When they run too quickly in the hallway and slip and fall, what rules have they broken? Don’t be afraid to point these things out to your child, and help them see that rules are everywhere, even when they are not explicitly rules.

Finding it in the Story :: One boring one is that the story is always italicized, while the exercises are not. This “rule” allows the student to know when they are in the story and when they are, technically, learning. (In a fiction book, this might look like the characters thoughts being italicized, while what’s spoken or understood by all to be regular type). Another obvious one is that you don’t disobey the Captain. But here’s one that’s more subtle, and can help them see how rules govern the story world - Captain LeFossa has TWO wooden legs. How can he walk? The book doesn’t ever address this (though Scurvy Spat mentions his wonder about it on page 66), but it is a “rule” in this story that the Captain can walk, jump, run, and defeat kraken with two wooden legs. It’s a silly rule, but allows the story to function and governs how the Captain can behave. Another subtle “rule” to the story is that all the locations are weird variations of normal places (Gran Brintian instead of Great Britain).


Exercise 7 :: Symbols :: What's that supposed to mean?

The exercise on symbols should be a fun and hopefully easy one for your child. Symbols are everywhere - they can be words, physical objects, a visual sign. Looking at the world for symbols can be interesting, because we take so many things for granted that are actually very powerful symbols. A stop sign, for example, isn’t something we think about - we simply stop when we see one. But without its power, there would be car accidents all over the place.

In Real Life :: We talked earlier about significance, and the role it plays in story. Many significant objects in a story are actually symbols of something else (often values, or other characters, or memories). I have a friend who has 5 children. When they were younger, she developed the symbol of 2 fingers in the air. They knew, when they saw that, that it was time to go, and they should clean up and get ready. It was subtle, and effective, without drawing a whole lot of attention to them. Carol Burnett, on her TV show years ago, used to tug her ear at the end of the show - a little symbol to her Nanny that she loved her. What symbols occur in your every day world? Help your student to see them, or create them. Sometimes, they need help understanding that, when you bring them a cup of water before they even ask for it, it’s because you love them. It’s a symbol. A red star on their homework means they did a good job. Dad’s thumbs up when they cleared the dishes without being asked mean “I’m proud of you.” Look for them, or create some, decide what they mean, and use them to share something special together.

Finding it in the Story :: clearly, the flags are symbolic of places, as well as intent (the jolly roger shows the intention of the pirates to pirate-y behavior). The white flag symbolizes surrender. Other very subtle symbols that will show up in coming chapters include the jelly beans (which symbolize the Captain’s desire to have good breath and be accepted by others), the bananas (which symbolize our desire to have something we want, even when it’s bad for us), and even the kraken (which symbolizes those things in life that we have to battle and win over, or have a good captain who will battle and win for us).


Exercise 8 :: Backstory :: Let me tell you about Why or When ...

How often does something happen to your student, and they get upset, and the way you help diffuse the situation is to explain what happened before that helps give a reason for what is happening now. I know that this feels like a surprise, but when you didn’t get your work done earlier, it meant that we couldn’t go to the movies tonight. Or you use what is happening right now to explain why something good is going to happen in the future. Because you are doing a good job getting your work done right now, we are going to be able to go to the movies tonight.

These are instances of the power of backstory. Backstory is the string of events that happened
before, that lead to what is happening now, either in a character or in the story world itself. Everything has a reason why it is the way it is, and backstory provides that reason. FYI, it is closely related to plot (which is still 15 exercises away, so you’ll want to refer back to this), in that it is a series of actions. These are just actions that happen before the thing that is currently happening. It might happen before the story takes place, or it might just have happened before the part of the story the reader is currently in. It’s a fun game to see the string of events that led to this moment. Knowing a backstory can help us understand why what is happening now is happening. As an author, backstory gives our characters and the story world depth and meaning. It can explain why our character is doing what they are doing, behaving the way they are behaving.

In Real Life :: This is a powerful tool in the writers tool belt, and in real life as well. Just as it explains a characters behavior, we can help our children understand why a real someone behaves the way they do by explaining their backstory. It can give us a context for giving grace, or understanding how and why something extraordinary happened. Next time your child is hurt by something, once they are calm and recovered, encourage them to ask “what happened before that happened?” (It’s not a bad parenting technique too. I remember reading an article once that encouraged mother to ask, when her two kids came yelling about how one hit the other, “and what happened right before he hit you?” This was not to excuse hitting, but to help both sides understand what motivated the behavior on both parts.) When they get a bad grade, they can look to the backstory to understand why, and hopefully not repeat those actions. Conversely, when they do something very well, they can look back to see what steps led to a positive outcome, and seek to repeat that. Backstory, in real life, is full of life lessons!

Finding it in the story :: First Mate does a good job of demonstrating a backstory on pg 81, but you can also find backstories throughout the chapter on pg 76 - for the monkey slaves, and even for the captain. Norman Nopants’ story will be coming up soon!


Exercise 9 :: Connections :: HELP My mother's brother's uncle's dog's previous owner

The whole idea of “six degrees of separation” is grounded in the idea of connections. We are only six people away from anyone, it says. Well, that may or may not be true, but the story world is FULL of connections. There are connections between people (relationships), to objects, to places, to activities or hobbies.

Why is this important? Because in a well written story, everything has a connection in some way. Or, as we define it,
connections are all the ways different parts of the story come together. And this is important because all the parts of the story need to connect, relate, and come together. There shouldn’t be characters who don’t have a connection or function to play (needless to say, there are always background characters, but no main character, or identifiable character, should be superfluous). Anything that is not actually connected to the story should be eliminated, as it will be a distraction from the story.

In Real Life :: connections help us link things together, different relationships between characters, actions, objects, and places. We, ourselves, are connected to millions of things, in so many different ways. Understanding these connections is valuable because, like a well-written story, we want to live lives that are whole, cohesive, and meaningful. Knowing what our connections are gives us boundaries and can help us make decisions. If my connection with my friend is love of British literature, then I will not expect to go to a soccer game with her. That could be forcing a connection that might “break” the story. When we do something with someone, it creates a connection, even if we don’t intent it to. And if there are consequences to that, we have to abide by that. We choose things to be in our lives because we have (or want to have) a connection to them, and can eliminate those things that have no connection, or bad connections. We can use this idea to help our children make choices too.

Finding it in the Story :: in this chapter, you’ll see not only connections between characters (Monkey Mo Mo, Mini Mate, and their sister, Monkey Maya), but also connections (and backstory) as to why/how the monkeys relate to Scurvy Spat. In the previous backstory of First Mate, pg 81, you saw the connection between First Mate Manfred and the Captain. A subtle connection was made between Scurvy Spat and the monkeys when they disobeyed the Captain on pg 56. An even more subtle connection (subtle in that your student might not think of this as a connection, yet it is), would be the connection between their actions and the consequences. Challenge your student to keep a sharp eye out for connections and how they bring the story world together, causing characters to relate or things to happen.


Exercise 10 :: Problems and the Act of Villainy

Now, you have probably heard of setting, and rules, and even significant objects. But the phrase “Act of Villainy” is unique in the story world, and you probably haven’t heard of it before. (For those who like to know word origins, this originally came from a Russian story genius named Propp, but we’ve never seen it used outside his works, until now). We abbreviate this AoV. This element in story is VITAL. Without it, a story cannot exist.

Act of Villainy is a problem that causes one or more characters to respond to try to solve it. The story starts with the AoV, and ends when it is resolved. This AoV can be huge (an asteroid is going to hit the earth) or it can be very small (my cat is stuck in a tree). It can be a tangible, real event, or it can be something emotional or intangible. A person might cause it (usually the villain). An accident might cause it, nature might cause it, you might cause it. I think all of this is fairly accessible, and your student won’t have any problem with this idea. A problem = start of story.

But, there is a catch. Anything that causes one or more characters to respond to try to solve it can be labeled a “problem.” We think of problems as negative or unpleasant, but something good can be a problem of AoV, according to our definition. Something that we want to happen, even if it causes us to have to work to solve it, isn’t bad, but can be a good problem. Getting a brand new puppy for your birthday is a
good thing, but it creates a “problem” that you will have to solve for a long time to come (raising, walking, feeding, picking up after, basically caring for it). But because you want a dog, it’s a “good problem.”

Another seemingly contradictory idea is that of embracing problems. Many of us want to run away from problems. But there is a whole class of people who want to head straight into them - who see going after and solving a problem as a great thing. These are the
heroes. Like a doctor looks forward to a broken leg, not because he’s glad it’s broken, but because he has the ability to fix it, and that’s what he loves to do. Or a teacher who loves to teach, and therefore solve the “problem” of ignorance.

Finally, there is one more important aspect to an AoV. There are some problems that no one cares about. No one is bothered by it, no one is trying to solve it. When this is the case, there is no AoV. It is only an Act of Villainy when a character(s) responds to try to solve it. So, the problem of there being no telegram system on Antarctica isn’t an AoV. It might be a problem, but there is (best as I can tell) no one trying to solve this problem, and so it is not an AoV. There is no story coming out of it.

In Real Life :: our lives are full of problems, both good and bad. Some of these are A0V’s, and we (or others) actively seek to solve them. Everyone being hungry for dinner is a problem that people want solved, and often mom is the hero who solves it. But a sock fell behind the washer might be a problem that no one even recognizes! A key part of life is learning to identify the problems, and their solutions, and whether or not we are the one who is meant to solve them, whether we need to ask for help in solving them, or whether we are simply to let them go, because they are, in fact, someone else’s problem. Helping our students to see this can free them to be heroes, or to get the help they need, or simply to stay focused on the problems that are theirs, instead of taking on problems they can’t or shouldn’t solve. I encourage you to read the story portion on page 112. Captain Yogger entering the room in such a manner that Scurvy Spat is scared creates a problem for Spat. When the Captain leaves, the problem is over. But without thinking about it, there were other things that seemed like they could have been the problem. Sometimes we don’t know what the problem is, and so we don’t know what we need to solve. Spending time with your child identifying real problems and their real solutions (this is almost always easier done in hindsight) can help them mature and grow and become more adept at being a hero, in the “story” of their own lives, and in the lives of others.

Finding it in the Story :: reread the story section on pages 111-112. This is the best (most straightforward) example of an AoV in the entire book - but it is not what the AoV for the entire story is. Can your student find it as they read? Several smaller AoV’s are :: Scurvy Spat wakes up in the ocean and onto a pirate ship; Yogger has such bad breath; the monkeys have been taken as slaves. Have your student think back to the story they’ve already read, and find as many “problems” that the story then solves as they can. And as they continue reading, figure out what new problems arise. But when they get to the last page - then you can ask them what the AoV for the entire story is. They’ll know!


Exercise 11 & 12 :: Characterizations :: Show, don't tell

Characterizations describe things. These descriptions give details that define who or what a character is.

Your student has already learned how to describe things, in detail, in the being specific, setting, and significance exercises (among others). They should be getting stronger at being descriptive when they are telling about something. We are simply taking those skills and muscles and applying them to the characters in the story. As always, the exercises are designed to slowly build towards the student having lots of different aspects of a character with which to identify them - physical traits, details, activities they like, their personality, skills and experiences they’ve had, relationships, clothing style, even voice.

One way that you can help your child in this section is to make sure they understand the concept of “show, don’t tell.” On page 131, we
tell them that a character “loves school.” Then we list 7 characterizations that show by description that they love school. This is such an important concept that we give them lots of opportunities to practice as the exercise finishes. Take a moment to glance over their shoulders and make sure they understand. (Remember, these don’t have to be realistic characterizations - if your student wants to be silly or bizarre, that’s okay - but they should be specific descriptions that demonstrate the given characteristic. For example, if one of the characterizations that we “tell” is dances - showing it might include “hops up on a bus and does the Macarena” - that’s nuts, but it does, in fact show the thing we want to show. Even if we don’t recommend actually trying this at home.)

In Real Life :: This one is fun to do around the dinner table or when you are driving in the car. We all, when we are talking, do a lot of “telling.” So try to catch each other “telling” and then rework it to “show” what you want to say. For example, say your son says, “sister was in a bad mood today.” Oh - caught you - show me! “Sister slammed the door today every time I yelled down to the kitchen today. She also took my socks and threw them at me because she said they stunk up the hallway.” Doing this, even just a few times, really helps them solidify what they are learning. It also can help teach us to read the clues that people/situations are giving us. Try to find subtle examples of this. One way is to look for the “shows” and then do a “tell,” like this: you are at a fast food restaurant, and it is crazy busy. The manager is clearly at the front counter, asking how the order is going of a customer, patting the back of the employee, and telling the guy making the burgers that they are doing a good job. That’s the show. The tell? “Boy, that manager really cares about his people.” While we don’t want to be reading into things all the time, the ability to see how actions are characterizations of a person helps us to get to know others (and maybe see something about ourselves too).

Finding it in the Story :: pg 121 :: there are numerous descriptions of each individual monkey - how they look, how they act, and how they interact. (You can easily see more in the section about Yogger in the opening chapters, and in the sections that describe Mini Mate, Monkey Mo Mo, and Norman Nopants, to name a few). Each of these very specific descriptions about the monkeys are a result of careful Character Design.


Exercise 13 :: Character Values :: What ye be Valuin'?

You might think that this is very similar to Exercise #4 on values, and you’d be right. Character values are things that are valuable to characters, things a particular character believes to be important, worthwhile, or useful. If your student went through the values exercise without trouble, or if the persevered and got it in the end, then this chapter will be no problem. If they struggled, consider going back, now, and reviewing it again, as it does form the basis for this chapter. A key point is that there are not right or wrong values - character values are simply the things a particular character does indeed value. They might value honesty, or money, or even cheating, depending on who they are, what they want, and how they go about getting it.

Values are another aspect of story where it is best to show, and not tell. Saying, “Bilbo valued food” is rather boring, and actually doesn’t tell us much, but showing his expansive pantry and the feasts he holds tells the reader in a way that demonstrates the value vividly. Another way to show a
character value is to have the character make choices, because those choices will reveal their values. These choices are the actions that a character takes. Because the story hinges on there being a plot (the series of events and actions that occur during the story), you can help your student see that values are important because they prompt the characters to take actions, which move the story forward.

When there are opposing values in a story, this creates conflict. You can easily see this in your family. When one child values quiet for study, while another values studying to loud rock music, there is conflict. Since conflict is essential for story, having characters with opposing values provides for the problems and actions that are the essence of story. In general, a story is more interesting when there are characters who are different from one another, and one way to do this is to have differences on a single value. The interactions and conflicts that occur when our characters have unique and strong values make for great storytelling.

In Real Life :: This is one of those important concepts that has real value in real life. Understanding this concept of values - not only that each person has them, but that we can have them in different degrees and in different ways, can help each of us, but especially children, realize why there is conflict (or peace), why someone behaves or reacts they way that they do. In the instance above, I mentioned two students who both value studying, but one values studying in quiet, and the other studying with loud music. This will, of course, create conflict. Understanding that they are each trying to study, each one wants to get their work done in the way that best helps them do that, can encourage them to find a solution together - both might need to wear headphones, or choose different rooms to study in. As with so many different elements of story, identifying what they are and how they operate in the “story” of life can bring so much understanding to each of us. So have your student spend some time this week looking at the choices people are making, and see if they can discern the values that underlie those choices. Of course, this is best when we apply it to ourselves, and can see more clearly what we really value (which is, sometimes, different from what we say we value). As Captain Yogger asks, “What ye be valuin’, Spat?” so we can help our children begin to answer that question for themselves.

Finding it in the Story :: This is another chapter where Yogger makes the concept of Character Values obvious - they value bananas over the captain, bananas over the treasure. A more subtle value is shown by Mini Mate, who adds wooden planks to his legs to walk more like Yogger. It can’t be comfortable or fun, but he values the Captain so much that he wants to be like him and takes actions to do so (albeit somewhat foolish actions). Similarly, the chapter where the monkeys eat Yogger’s jelly bean and are so stinky, but don’t care how that affects the other monkeys, is a demonstration of their own values being in conflict with others.


Exercise 14 :: The Line Between Light and Dark :: Things aren't always what they seem

Just as the characters in a story can have different takes on a specific value, each one responding in a different way, they will also all have different responses to the Act of Villainy. For all characters, the AoV becomes a dividing line that separates them into two different sides. We call this the Line between Light and Dark. On the Light side are the group of characters who consider the AoV as a problem to be liquidated (resolved). On the Dark side are the group of characters who consider the AoV to be a good thing, something they will support and promote (maybe even cause).

One thing to help your student understand is that while many times it is the “good” characters that are on the side of Light, and “bad” characters who are on the side of Dark, the real way to determine whether they are on the light or dark side is what their perspective is on the the AoV. A good example of this is Shrek - he is an ogre (traditionally a “bad” character) who is against the AoV (Farquad’s putting all the fairytale characters into his swamp) (disclaimer: that was just one simple AoV in this story - there are bigger and more significant ones, but that one made my point). Another good example of this “confusion” of a bad character being on the side of
light is Professor Snape in the Harry Potter series. Throughout the series, he appears to be a bad character with evil intent. It is only in hindsight that he is revealed to have been on the side of Light, seeking to actively liquidate the AoV. Here’s a generic example: the AoV is that someone stole a huge and costly diamond ring. The detectives want to find it (they are clearly good, clearly on the side of light). There is also a petty thief (a “bad” character) who swears and drinks and is known to steal whenever he can. But he hears that there is a reward for whoever returns the ring. So he manages to find it and steal lit back, and bring it to the detectives, and collects his reward. Though he was a “bad” character, and acting purely out of selfish motives, he is on the side of light because he wanted to resolve the AoV.

Of course, he’s the perfect example of how a character isn’t just pure
light or dark, but can be in the shadows. This petty thief if really in the light shadows, close to the diving line, but he is on the side of light. The one who stole the diamond in the first place would be pure dark. Make sure you student recognizes these distinctions, because a good story has characters that fall in different places on the line, bringing balance and interest to the story.

In Real Life :: this is so very true in our real lives, in our real selves. Sometimes, we want and actively pursue liquidating the AoVs in our life and the lives of those around us. Sometimes we cause the AoV, and are on the side of dark. Most often, we are somewhere in the shadows. Being able to understand and recognize this gives us eyes to see ourselves and others more clearly - and sometimes, it’s the impetus to both seeking to change and to giving grace.

Finding it in the Story :: Where last chapter the element was pretty obvious, in this one, it is more subtle, until you get to page 158. But think about the Gran Brintish vs the Captain - how does each side view monkey slavery? Or think about how the different monkeys view eating bananas vs going after the treasure. Or obeying the captain vs doing what they want (this was in the chapter about swabbing the deck). Challenge your student to look back and then to pay attention moving forward, and keep looking for areas of light and dark. Also pay close attention to the variations of light and dark - how most monkeys are not pure dark or pure light. Ask your student how Scurvy Spat (both as the written character and as themselves) feels about certain things that happen in the story - they will be on the scale between light, light shadows, the dark shadows, and dark.


Exercise 15 :: Mystery :: A Whodunnit isn't the only Mystery

We all know that when we read a Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christy, and PD James novel, the question will be: Whodunnit? These novels are mysteries from the moment we pick up the cover. But did you know that mystery is a valuable element of any story? It is not an essential component; you can write a very compelling story without mystery, but it will make any story more gripping by capturing our attention and keeping us engaged.

As your child continues to learn about the different elements of story, there are some that are essential (you must have an Act of Villainy, for example), while others are purely optional.
Mystery is one of these non-essentials. And mystery doesn’t have to mean that the aim of the plot it to answer whodunnit? Mystery is that intangible (hence, mysterious) something that starts the author wondering and thinking, and then keeps the reader reading on and on, until everything is made clear.

Anything in a story - any of the elements we have learned - can be a source of mystery. Think unexpected. As your student works through this section of the workbook, be especially open to the unexplainable, unexpected, unbelievable ideas with which they come up. This is to be expected, and let them find the crazy mysteries that are inside them as they mindstorm their way through the exercise. Encourage them to think outside the box. It’s okay if they “know” that it wouldn’t work within a real story. They might be right AND they can do that here. This is a space for trying out the mysterious and seeing what sticks and what doesn’t. Give them space, and help them give themselves space to be unexpected here.

Finally, the end of the exercise focuses on revealing the answers and foreshadowing. These are key elements to mystery. Note that in the story chapter prior to this exercise, none of the answers are revealed, but you might sense some foreshadowing. Have your student go back and note what might be foreshadowing (they could even take a stab at guessing
what if foreshadows). Then come back in a few chapters and see if they were right.

In Real Life :: These key elements are also valuable in other areas of storytelling and life, where you might least expect it. My daughter was in a Mock Trial this year, and the ability to take something mysterious (did she do it? Is the witness trustworthy? How did it happen?), find the answers, and present them in a way that is most compelling to the jury (by careful foreshadowing in the opening statement and through questions and the dramatic reveal during questioning, and closing argument) was THE key to the team who won the trial. Story is marvelous this way, something that isn’t just for “creative writing” class or writers, but for many different career paths!

Finding it in the Story :: This is another obvious one in the chapter - who is this mysterious Monkey M? Where are they from? Why are they there? But there are other, slighter mysteries - why does Yogger allow him aboard? Why does he take him on as a Monkey Mate as he does? Is it a good decision?


Exercise 16 :: Character Contradictions :: I want it! No I don't!

My daughter has a friend in her class who LOVES basketball. He watches it on TV, plays pick up games with his dad and brothers at the local park, and plays for the local rec league. This friend is also the shortest person in her class by a good half foot. He isn’t likely to ever play basketball on a high school team, much less professionally. But he loves basketball. THIS, parents, is a character contradiction. Many of us have things about us that suggest one thing, but we feel another. We may write pages and pages of stories, but never show them to anyone. Or love ice cream but be allergic to dairy. Or be a strong teenage boy who cries at kleenex commercials. Or your super sweet art teacher who likes to drive race cars on the weekend.

Contradictions are part of what make characters interesting. You’ll note that this comes right after the story element of
mystery, and that’s no surprise. It’s a little mysterious to think about how certain character contradictions can exist, or where they came from. We might need to learn more about a character’s backstory to understand how certain contradictions came to be. Contradictions may come about because we value two different things at the same time. Which side of me comes out will depend on what I want most at any given time, and this is true of my characters in a story, too. So this element of character contradictions will lead right into character desires (what do we want?), which in turn leads into the story engine as you will quickly see.

In Real Life :: To make this section come alive, have your student not only go through the previous chapters of the story and search for areas where a single character displays contradictions (in behavior, in desires, in actions - you can check out the “Finding it in the Story” section for more details). But even better is to spend a day or two looking for this reality in ourselves and the people around us, or the stories around us. Take your favorite movie, and look for these character contradictions (think of Bilbo Baggins - he was a ground dwelling hobbit who also wanted to go on an adventure - which desire won out?). It’s a marvelous thing - much of what is “taught” in a creative subject is just growing our awareness muscles, and then putting what we see to use. Knowing these contradictions exist can help each of us, but especially middle schoolers become aware and understand the internal conflicts they feel and wrestle with. This, in turn, can help them make decisions about how to respond to those feelings and wrestlings, which is a very good thing.

Finding it in the Story :: pg 178 :: the biggest contradiction in this section is the naughty monkeys’ desire for the jelly bean versus their desire to be on LeFossa’s crew. They also desire to sleep in the room, but do not want to risk First Mate’s (or Yogger’s) punishment. Earlier in the book we witnessed Monkey Maya who feared Scurvy Spat but desired the food (pg 86-7).


Exercise 17 :: Character Desire :: What do we really want?

Desires should be simple. What do we want? But have you ever asked a child what they want to eat at a restaurant? Or spent an hour with a group of friends trying to decide which movie to rent? What do we want? Really want? Desires are simple as a concept, but more complex as you dive in.

When a baby is little, the mother has to continually use clues to understand what the baby wants - are they hungry? Wet? Tired? Needing a snuggle? As the baby grows and becomes more communicative, the mothers still has to use her knowledge of her child to know what they really want. They may be saying “I want to stay up later,” but their yawns or meltdowns tell differently. Or they may say, “I want to learn to ride a bike,” but their unwillingness to go outside and get the bike out of the garage shows that to be a weak desire. Or they may say, “I’m not hungry” and then eat the entire pizza …

Desires are important in story, and in life. There are often things about us - our
characterizations - that lead to desires. Being an only child might lead to the desire to have time with friends. That same reality might lead another character to desire to live alone in a lighthouse. Based on these desires, the two characters will DO drastically different things. This takes us to another key characteristic of desires - they lead to actions. Real desires lead to real actions. Expressed desires do not necessarily lead to real actions. Does that make sense?

Taking an example from my own life - a few months ago I said that I want to get better at drawing. This led me to buy a “how to draw” book. My
desire led to an action, but not the actual fulfillment of my desire. And here we are, months later, and I have only done 2 lessons. How can this be? How can desire that leads to action still not fulfill the desire? Take a peek back at character contradictions - I had opposing desires. One was to get better at drawing, and I did want this enough to get the book. But when my time was at stake, other things became more pressing/important, and those pushed out my actions towards fulfilling the desire to draw. I have to look honestly at those other things, and determine if I want them to be stronger desires (even if they are hidden), and if not, to set them aside and return to my drawing book.

In Real Life :: Why do I share all this? Because just like story characters, we all struggle with this in real life, particularly middle schoolers. There are all kinds of desires they have, and each one pushes and shoves to have its way. Knowing this, seeing it in action in stories and in life, can help us make choices that expose our truest desires and give us the courage to either change them or walk more boldly toward them. This is true for our story characters. Bilbo Baggins desired both the comforts of his little hobbit home AND to go on an adventure. In the end, his desire for adventure was stronger and that produced the action of The Hobbit. This is true for our personal stories too. I desired to be better at drawing AND to read a book at the end of the day when I was tired from work. In the end, my desire to read a book won out. Being able to see that, I can now assess if that was the choice I really want, or if I will prioritize my desires differently, and get back to drawing. Who knows? That’s the next part of my own story, and it’s still being written.

As a parent, you are in a unique position to see all these different desires in your children, and help them to make choices and move forward in action. And their actions will help you see what their real desires are, and that will help you know and parent your children better. Story is a powerful thing!

Finding it in the Story :: pg 191 :: the monkeys’ desires are seen through the golden telescope (a good example of a significant object), and then the following story chapter continues to demonstrate (pg 211-13) what they are willing to DO because of that desire.


Exercise 17 :: Dramatic Desires :: Specific Character Desires

Partway through the section on character desires we come to a very, very important concept in A Pirate’s Guide. We have already seen how characters (people!) all have desires. These desires lead us to actions. I shared how I had a desire to get better at drawing, and so I purchased a how to draw book. The next action would be to do the lessons and get better at drawing. But how would I know when I had “gotten better” at drawing? When would I have achieved the object of my desire? At the end of the lessons? At the end of several books? After filling a sketchpad? When my dad said I was an artist? When I sold a sketch? How will I know when I’ve done it?

dramatic desires. These are desires that are specific, very specific. A dramatic desire is a desire that can be achieved because it has a fixed finish line. You know when a dramatic desire has been accomplished.

So in my example, I need to know what my
dramatic desire is. My general desire is to get better at drawing. But that has no end, one can always improve. I cannot accomplish that. But if I become very specific, my dramatic desire is to get better at drawing until I can hang a sketch at the local art gallery, I know that I am not done until my sketch is on the wall. Or if my dramatic desire is a bit easier (dramatic doesn’t mean hard, it just means specific and completable), and it is to finish the how to draw book, then I know that I have accomplished my desire the day I finish the last lesson. Knowing what the specific, dramatic desire is allows me to know when I’ve crossed the finish line, because I have defined the finish line.

In story, this means giving characters desires that are specific, and the reader will know when they’ve been achieved. It gives the writer (your student) an understanding of what will need to happen (the actions, or plot) for the desire to be fulfilled. Desires give the characters motivation to act in ways that “drive” the story, much like the engine in a car enables the car to move. As you will soon see, these
character desires are part of what we call the story engine - what drives the story forward.

In Real Life :: In real life, dramatic desires are vital for helping us achieve our goals. If your student is stuck, they may need help defining their desires (dreams, wishes, hopes) more specifically, and then seeing the steps that it will take to cross the finish line. Having a very concrete desire (“I want to run a 10K at the end of the summer”) gives very clear direction to the steps and timing it will take to get there. “I want to be more physically fit” is vague enough that, day by day, you can put it off and by the end of summer, wonder why you didn’t get anywhere. To make this real to your student, ask them to set a goal for this week (any goal, though if that is too big for them, ask them to set a goal about cleaning their room, or getting some exercise, relating to friends, or working on A Pirate’s Guide). Then ask them how they will know that it has been accomplished - work with them to create a dramatic desire and establish what defines its completion. Of course, depending on your child, they may then need help setting specific steps to get there, or need to be gently reminded, or incentivized to see it through. Encourage your children (and take courage yourself!) to set dramatic desires, and then take the steps to cross that finish line! (Hint: you might need some stakes or a ticking clock to help you get there, because you are human … and so are story characters. Read on.)

Finding it in the Story :: Look for dramatic desires. Sometimes they are hard to know until the story is complete, but one would be Yogger’s desire to find the magical jelly bean grove (that’s a clear desire with an obvious finishing point). The stinky monkeys have a dramatic desire to be allowed to sleep inside again.


Exercise 17 :: Stakes in a story :: Do I have to?

Your student is writing their story - or living their life - and they’ve identified a dramatic desire. They want to run a 10K by the end of summer. That gives them a dramatic desire and a finish line (see what I did there? Total accident, but it works). But to write this story, or live this out in real life, we need to know what the stakes are for the character. What happens if they fail? What will happen if they don’t run a 10K by the end of summer?

stakes are what is at risk if the character doesn’t achieve their desire. In the 10K example, they are probably not big stakes, though they could be. Maybe not running the 10K by the end of summer just means they will be lazier and not as fit. Maybe it means they will miss running a race with their friends. Maybe they put a $100 bet with a friend that they would, and they’d lose out on $100. Or maybe they have been contacted by a talking beast, and if they don’t run the race, the talking beasts will take over the world. Different stakes, different stories.

Knowing the
stakes in the story will direct how the story is told, what the story is about.

In Real Life :: As an aside, as a parent, knowing the stakes that are motivating your child will help you know how best to help them. If they made a $100 bet, you might need to have a conversation about betting, or wasting money. If their stake was “my older brother ran a 10K at my age and won the race, and if I don’t at least run the race, I will be made fun of or feel terrible,” then you might have some emotional work to do to help them be their own person, or deal with sibling rivalry. If their stake is “I want to do this because I am planning on joining cross country and it’s a lot of work and this will get me in shape” then you know how to encourage and support them. Knowing the stakes in reality and in our children’s minds helps us to love and care for them the best ways we can.

Finding it in the Story :: the stakes are not immediately apparent in the chapter right before this - if the monkeys don’t see it the island, it means they don’t want it and potentially won’t reach the island/treasure. But you can see the stakes in other sections of the story - for Yogger, the stakes are that he won’t find the beans and his breath will continue to be bad (or so it would seem). If the monkeys don’t want to do the work Yogger has for them, they will have to leave the ship (and not learn story). Encourage your student to keep their eyes peeled for more evidence of “stakes” in the coming chapters (and when they find them, they can send them in to me!).


Exercise 17 :: Ticking Clock :: Why isn't my story moving forward?

You are in your story world, telling your story, (or reading your child’s story ideas) when suddenly, you are starting to feel a bit bored by it. Or it feels like it’s taking forever to get on with it. What’s going on? Why isn’t the story moving forward? Your student’s story has characters, those characters have desires (hopefully dramatic desires), and the plot is moving forward. Slowly. And not really getting there. Why?

It sounds like the story might be missing a valuable element - the
ticking clock. Take a moment, and sit still, and listen. Can you hear a clock ticking? Not so much anymore (though I do have a really loud clicking decorative clock in my library, which I either find comforting, tick-tock-tick-tock, or totally annoying, Tick-TOck-TICk-TOCK!), but when you do, a sense of timeliness pervades. A happy ticking clock is the countdown to New Year’s, or a scary one could be a ticking countdown on a bomb. Whatever it is, knowing that the time is short and when it’s up, it’s UP, develops a sense of movement and the need to press on.

In a story, a
ticking clock is very specifically the pressure that is on a character to accomplish their desire before time runs out. This means that the character NEEDS to act before the time runs out. This pressure gives the character motivation to act and generally drives a story forward. Sometimes, as your student is working on a story, they might need a bit of help seeing the need for a ticking clock, and finding what it is that gives their character motivation to move forward. Of course, this is where you’d want to help them make sure that their characters have a dramatic desire (exercise #17 in A Pirate’s Guide), and once they do, that there is some kind of ticking clock to help them achieve it.

In Real Life :: And, to be honest, we all need a little ticking clock in our lives. “You can’t eat your ice cream until your dinner is done” is one simple example. “I can’t check my social media until the kids are in bed” is another. “I want to run a 10K at the end of the summer” gives you a time frame for doing that couch to 10K routine. So what motivates you? Your student? Maybe a little ticking clock can help everyone move forward!

Finding it in the Story :: the clock in this chapter is simply that they need to see it before they get to the island.


Exercise 18 :: Story Engine :: What makes this story go?

This exercise, to me, is kind of a sum up of the previous few. In a nutshell, the story engine, like a car engine, is the thing that makes the story go. We define the story engine as the characters: character are the engine of every story. And we have seen this in the previous exercises and story chapters. Without the characters, nothing will happen. Without a character, there is no Act of Villainy, because the AoV requires someone to see it as such. And characters have character desires, and those desires lead the characters to act, and those actions create the plot, which allows the characters to solve the AoV and finish the story. Without the characters, the story doesn’t go anywhere. The choices a character makes (based on who they are and what they want and what they do) provide fuel for the story engine.

I won’t spend long on this. First Mate Manfred will lead your student through various mindstorming exercises to drive home the point - what a character wants leads them to act; a character’s actions reveal their desires; conflicting desires (within or among characters) leads to conflict; and conflict is a great fuel for the story engine.

Look back at the previous chapter. Certain monkeys haven’t seen the island through the golden telescope, and they don’t care (there is no AoV for them), and they just carry on. Others are straining to see the island, because that is their desire. Others have seen the island, desire to get there, and so are down in the hold, rowing to get there faster. Each of these characters is moving the story forward in a different way - without these characters, there is no movement (no engine) for the story.

Because characters (and their choices) are the
story engine, knowing more about the different characters and the roles they play, the functions they fill, is the next thing.

In Real Life :: consider the story engine in real life to be the accumulation of our own characterizations, desires, choices, and actions. Its what is in us that makes us act and move forward in our own stories. Without us, our story doesn’t happen. Using these different elements of us, and how they are revealed in our actions, allows us to see what story we are really telling, and make choices as to where the story will go next.

Finding it in the Story :: view this less in terms of the previous chapter (though your student can point to the monkeys who can see the island, and how that prompts them to certain responses, versus those who cannot), and more in terms of life and story in general. What are the choices that characters in the story are making (to obey the captain, to swab the deck, to eat the banana) that cause the story to move forward in some way?


Exercise 19-22 :: Character Functions

Very briefly, since there are no exercises with this, and it’s pretty self-explanatory, character functions describe the role (or function) a character plays in a story. It is determined by whom they are (their characterizations), what they want (their desires), the choices they make (story engine), and the actions they take (plot). A character’s function may change throughout the story, but understanding the role they play either in the story as a whole, or in a specific part of a story, MORE HERE.

There are 8 main character roles in any given story. Not every story will have all of them, stories may have several characters that fill a certain function, and characters may fill more than one function within the story, or at different parts of the story. Here are the different roles :: Villain, Princess, Hero, Dispatcher, Donor, Magical Agent, Helper, and King. Encourage your student to keep an open mind as they learn about each role - a princess isn’t necessarily a “princess,” and a hero isn’t necessarily just the main character. These are new terms with very specific definitions, so have them read on, and really gain an understanding of their function, their purpose in the story, as it will help them develop characters that are rich not only because they have done a good job giving them characteristics and desires that are specific, but also because they fulfill something essential in the story.

In Real Life :: we fill these same functions in life, so, as you learn about each function, think about times when you have operated in that role, and help your student to find examples of this in real life. It can be in simple things, like making dinner (if the AoV is “everyone is hungry and its past dinnertime,” think of all the “characters” in your family story, and how they responded.) Their actions will determine which functions they took. This will make much more sense as you learn the functions and put them into practice.

Finding it in the Story :: read on into the next exercises!


Exercise 19 :: Villain :: Who's the bad guy?

Devious music, a long handled mustache, a black cape. All these are classic symbols of a story villain. But in A Pirate’s Guide, princesses, heroes, and villains aren’t simply the pretty girl, the young strong knight, and the evil step-mother. They have specific functions in the story - which means that the handsome knight who is coming to rescue the princess, only to sell her to the evil step-mother looks like a hero (until the end), but is actually a villain. Going through the exercises and teaching will quickly help your student see how these different roles work.

villain is the character (or thing) that is on the side of the Act of Villainy. Remember, the AoV is what starts the story, and solving the AoV ends the story. The villain may (or may not) be the cause of the AoV. If the AoV is the stealing of the princess, the villain may be the one who stole her, or he may simply be another character that is on the side of her being stolen.

villain sees the AoV as a good thing. This is often a matter of perspective. And here we run into how these concepts can apply in real life. The student is asked to identify the villain in the exercise. Here is one example: “Because we didn’t have the proper permits to camp in the national park, the police officer forced my family to leave.” Who is the villain? Is it the police officer, who forced my family to leave? Is it the family, who, by not having a permit, forced the police officer to force them to leave? Is it the parent who neglected to get the permit? Is it the park service for creating a park that required permits? Your perspective will determine who you perceive the villain to be.

Remember, the key is that the
villain is the one who supports the AoV. They either made it happen, or want it to continue. They are NOT trying to solve the problem, or resolve the story. (True in story, true in life).

In Real Life :: When you require your children to finish their homework before going out to play, who is the villain? The problem is that the homework isn’t done, and it must be done before play. (AoV = unfinished homework). To you, the student may be the villain, since they aren’t finishing their homework as required. To the student, they may see you as the villain, the one who has a requirement they don’t want to meet. Or they may see the homework as the villain. Or the teacher that assigned it. Understanding their perspective, and helping them to understand yours, will help determine what actions you both take, and this in turn will determine how this story ends. I find this somewhat of a convicting function, because you don’t have to be a “bad guy” to be a villain. You can, in one sense, simply not choose to do something about an AoV that you see - this plays into the “dark shadows” portion of light and dark. Or you might be perpetuating a problem because you aren’t aware it is a problem for someone, and inadvertently you become a villain in their story. Being aware of these functions, and what your response is, can make you more aware of who you are in the story of life around you.

Finding it in the Story :: pg 225 :: the villain is the kraken. You might ask your student to think back to some other parts of the story and makes some guesses as to who else has acted, even in just one short scene, as a villain. As they come to understand the other characters more, they will be able to see if they were right or not.


Exercise 19 :: Princess :: Does the Princess have to wear a tiara?

Ah, the fairy tale princess. Now, before your student gags quietly in the corner over this stereotype, this is NOT what we are talking about. The princess may be, but often isn’t, an actual princess. She doesn’t have to be female. And she might not even be a character. Really?

Really. The
princess is the character or thing that is being fought over. It is something that is desired - it performs the function of being the thing in the story that is desired or needs to be saved. It could be magic jelly beans. It could be sea turtles. It could be a monkey slave. It could be the shire or Middle Earth. It could be the Ark of the Covenant. It might be a princess. Truly, the princess can be anything that someone in the story wants, or needs saving in some way. This opens it wide up!

How does this character or thing become the princess? They might be stolen or lost, or under threat of harm. This might be from the
villain, or it may have happened before the story even starts. Whenever the danger occurs to the princess, it causes other characters to desire to take actions to rescue or protect her.

In Real Life :: Sometimes in a story, as in life, something happens. A virus strikes the world. When this act of villainy occurs, any number of people might become the princess :: the elderly, the immune-compromised, small businesses, first responders, friendships, political position, airlines. All of these are possible princesses, and the author’s job is to make the choices necessary to move the story forward. Each of those potential princesses would have different characters who would desire to protect or save her.

Throughout these exercises on character, your student will be asked to identify who different characters might be, based on how they view what AoV is presented. It is a marvelous lesson in perspective, and I encourage you to help your student see this very aspect of it. Because as valuable as it is to be able to identify the
villain or the princess, being able to see the same AoV from different perspectives, to understand why one character reacts they way that they do, is of incredible value in life. So take some time and investigate the problems, big and small, that you see around you. Talk through how one person might see it as a problem, and another might not, and why. Ask who or what needs saving. Ask who might want to solve the problem and how they might go about doing it, and you are on your way to creating a storyteller who lives a compassionate life.

Finding it in the Story :: pg 225 :: the princess is the Kanadien ship and all the people on it. (The really astute student might even recognize that Meataloaf becomes the princess when the kraken swallows him - at that moment, there is a new AoV, and Meataloaf needs rescuing).


Exercise 20 :: Hero :: To the Rescue!

The hero! Bold and true, ready to rescue the princess! But, as with the princess, the hero isn’t necessarily the stereotype that we imagine, though they certainly might be. The hero is a character/thing that liquidates the Act of Villainy. Think of liquidating as solving, removing, fixing … whatever it takes to take resolve the AoV. In most stories, this will be the main character, and the story itself is all about the main character being the hero who eliminates the AoV. But, and this is important, the hero is whichever character, big or small, likely or not, who fulfills the function of liquidating the AoV.

There are several types of heroes. The
Seeker Hero is one who resolves the AoV for someone else. The Victim Hero resolves the AoV that affects themselves. And the False Hero is the one who appears to be the hero - through the story we think that they are going to solve the problem, and they may act like a hero, and they may desire and try to resolve the AoV - but if they are not the one who liquidates the AoV, then they aren’t actually the hero, even if they are the main character. (Just a reminder, these terms all refer to the actual function a character has in a story, not the stereotypical view we have of these character in fairytales).

Help your student understand these various types of heroes by thinking through their favorite stories (books, tv shows, movies, songs, video games) or any problem that they already know how it was solved, and asking first what the problem (AoV) was, and then who solved it, and, based on whether it was for themselves or another, they were a
seeker or victim hero. And spend some time searching for the false hero. These can be harder to find (let them read through the next chapter of the story to see on their own that we’ve already introduced them to a false hero).

In Real Life :: This concept of what a true hero does, and the difference between someone who wants to help but fails, wants to help others, or wants to help themselves, is important in life as well as in story. This will help a student look at those around them, those who claim to be a hero in some way, and assess, are they actually a hero? Who are they rescuing? What problem are they solving? Are they actually solving a problem? These are important questions to ask about others, and also about ourselves. So often the things we do have the appearance of being for others (seeker hero), but actually are there to solve a problem for ourselves. Or we think we are solving the problem but aren’t able to (take courage! We may be a helper and not realize it). These aren’t necessarily bad things, but it is a good thing to be aware and understand what really is.

Finding it in Real Life :: pg 225 :: the hero appears to be Meataloaf. Then on pg. 232, we see that it appears that the Captain is about to become the hero - he desires to rescue the princess of the ship. Ask your student, which characters are a seeker or victim hero, and which is a false hero? (Yogger is a seeker hero, Meataloaf ends up being a false hero).


Exercise 20 :: Dispatcher :: Let the Hero know

The dispatcher is the character/thing that informs the hero that there is a problem to be solved. I think this is very straightforward, and the exercise leads the student through the concept very nicely.

In Real Life :: If you are reading this, you are by definition a parent or teacher or a parent-teacher, and that means that you have the desire to be the hero for someone. You want to help your student overcome the obstacles to learning, and prepare and educate them. But what happens if you don’t know there is a problem? When I was homeschooling 3 at once, it was fairly common for kiddo number one to come running in to where I was with number two, to tell me that the third was struggling with math. Without them telling me, I might have just gone on reading to #2, and #3 might have gotten more and more in the weeds with arithmetic. Not a super exciting A0V, but a real one to that #3, who was, in this case, the princess who needed a hero to rescue them from the (in their eyes) villain of math (or perhaps, ironically, me for assigning it). Child #1 played the very important role of dispatcher.

Who acts as the
dispatcher in your child’s story or life? Have them think of a specific problem they have, and who helped solve it. How did that person know to help solve it? The dispatcher could be many different people, and could even be the hero themselves (say, a friend who saw they were sad and themselves did something about it). But often it is a third person or thing that sees or finds out about an AoV, and lets someone know who then decides to solve the problem, and becomes the hero. Help them also see the moments when they were a dispatcher (and feel free to dispel any sense that tattling is, in fact dispatching, which it is, in fact, not). This is a valuable role in a story, a valuable role for those who are in need of a hero, and for those who want to be a hero, but don’t know where the problem is.

Finding it in the Story :: pg 232 :: this is an easy one. Scurvy Spat acts as the dispatcher in alerting the Captain, soon to be the hero of the princess of the Kanadien ship. Again, keep checking throughout the story for these kinds of mini-stories, and you’ll find lots of these character function/roles being played out (and help your student note that individual characters might have different functions in different mini-stories).


Exercise 21 :: Donor and Magical Agent :: What the World Needs Now

This is one of my favorite sections, because there is so much creativity that can happen here! Simply put, the donor is the character/thing that connects the hero to the magical agent. The magical agent is the character/thing that is needed to liquidate (resolve) the Act of Villainy. So the AoV happens in the story, causing a problem, involving a princess. The villain either caused the problem and/or wants to keep it that way. The dispatcher alerts the hero to the AoV, and the hero decides to do something about it. But how? He needs a donor to provide him with the magical agent which is the very thing he needs to defeat the villain and/or solve the AoV. Simple enough, right? The magical agent is something the hero must have in order to stop the villain/AoV. If they try without it, they will lose. The donor is the character or thing that connects the hero and the magical agent.

The exercises do not dwell long on this section, because it tends to be something that happens pretty naturally in a story. Make sure your student is aware that these functions -
donor and magical agent - may be embedded in characters or things already in their story. Or it may be something totally unexpected, such as the donor being “three pizzas” that give the hero “fire in her belly” (pg 245) which she uses to burp and defeat the knight. The hero might have some knowledge they need, given to them by a donor long ago in school. This book is a donor, of sorts, giving your student the magical agent of storytelling grammar, which they may hopefully use to defeat some villain someday.

In Real Life :: Again, help them think outside the box, and help them spend some time talking about these functions in their favorite stories or in their real life. Truly, this is one of the best ways to really get to know and identify and utilize these story elements!

Finding it in the Story :: pg 247 :: the exercise itself leads the student through this one. The donor is the volume that First Mate Manfred reads from, and the magical agent is the knowledge in the volume that tells LeFossa which kind of kraken it is, and how to defeat it.


Exercise 22 :: Helper and King :: A little Help from my Friends/All Hail the King

The helper is a simple function that appears often in stories. This is the character/thing that contributes to the liquidation of the Act of Villainy - their function is to help the other characters defeat the villain and liquidate the AoV. There are often many helpers in any given story. And these helpers might be mini-heroes, someone who defeats a mini-AoV within the story itself.

I imagine this role it pretty easy to understand. Many times the
false hero is, in fact, a helper. They are on the side of light, they want to resolve the AoV, but they are not the hero. Stories are filled with helpers. The Fellowship of the Ring, for example, the actual fellowship (the 8 who accompany our hero on his quest), is made up of helpers. Each one has scenes in the larger story where they are a hero, but none is the hero of the whole story, yet without them, the real hero wouldn’t succeed.

Now here is a tough one. From the start I’ll say - it’s tough. Encourage your child that they aren’t expected to find this simple or easy to do, and they may find it nearly impossible. Have them give it their best shot, and then move on!

king in a story is the sovereign over the thing being fought over (the princess). A king, in real life, has power and authority over their subjects. A teacher in a classroom is something of a king over her students. The fireman is a king over the fire hose and fire. Parents are kinglike over their children. Anything or anyone that has power or authority over something else is, in this sense, king over it. In a story, the king is father to the princess.

Now, just as few stories have actual princesses that are fulfilling the function of
princess, few stories have an actual king or father. They are, as First Mate Manfred assures your child on page 252, often hidden, and difficult to find. It is NOT necessary that your student can find or create them to tell a good story. Just make sure they understand the idea of sovereignty, and something having authority over something else. It can often be a motivating factor in a character’s life. Love may rule them, like a king, and cause them to act in certain ways. They may have some special power, or have a person in their lives that influences them.

Because this is difficult, and often not talked about much in storytelling, we’ve merely introduced it here. Your student can be reassured that they are not going to have to identify kings in their exercises beyond this one, but that this introduction is just that, an introduction. They can say hello to it, do their best during this one exercise, and then move on!

In Real Life :: our lives are filled with helpers, and we ourselves are often helpers. Again, take a look at some problems that were solved in your students day, and have them identify who the helpers were. Have them search out a time when they were a helper (did they set the table at dinner, and help you be the hero who provided a meal?). As a little extra, one thing that discerning these different roles people play in our lives can do is create a sense of gratitude, thankfulness that someone was a helper, or alerted someone that we needed help, or came along side and helped us. As you and your student identify these people and their functions in your life, take a moment to let them know you are thankful. You might find that you are being a helper or hero in their story!

Finding it in the Story :: pg 248 :: First Mate Manfred is the helper. The king is the Kanadien captain, who is the “father” or “sovereign” of the princess, the Kanadien ship/crew/cargo.


Exercise 23 :: Plot :: There's Something Happening Here

And now the heart of the story: plot. This is the series of events that occur one after another and make up all the actions of the story.

This is a pretty straightforward element. Throughout the exercises, the students have been working through different aspects of plot. In
backstory, they were, essentially, telling the plot of what happens outside of this story (the plot of a different, previous story, as it were). Even the exercises on character desire, where your student learned about how desires lead to actions, and more actions … each of those actions are steps in the plot.

I doubt they will need much help in understanding what the
plot it. There is one aspect that I’ll focus on here, and you can share as your child is open and able to take it in. Many times a writer creates a forced plot. They have an outcome in mind, and, working backwards, write the actions that will get to that end in the way that seems best, or easiest, or most interesting. This is a plot, but, as you’ll know from different stories and movies you’ve experienced, it can also feel unsatisfying, or cause the audience to discount it. “That was so predictable” is one response, but so is “where did that come from? They just made the character do this so they could get from A to B. It doesn’t make sense.” Contrived action like this is not satisfying to the reader (or the writer, really). In real life, our actions come out of our actual motivations, desires, and choices. While we, as people, do think “how can I get from A to B?” and act accordingly, the desire to get from A to B is born out of something real, and the things we choose in getting from A to B come from who we are, and what we want, or don’t want. Plot in a story should happen the same way - come out of the way a character would really respond. This takes knowing our characters well, developing who they are and what they want, so we, as the author, can have them respond in realistic ways.

This is hard even for seasoned writers, because our own desire (say, to finish the chapter) can sometimes cause us to choose to take the easy route, rather than the harder but more rewarding route of taking the time and effort to develop full and robust characters. So don’t press this on your child, but help them to recognize, in the stories they read, when a contrived plot has happened, and help them see what would have been more realistic to the actual characters. In time, this will come out in the stories they write!

In Real Life :: every day is part of the plot of our lives. Just as in stories, the actions we take come out of the desires we (and those around us) have. And like an author, we can know the characters in our story (including ourselves), and also make choices as to how this story will end. We might have to choose our reactions to the actions of other characters, we may have to set up and be a hero, we may have to admit when we’ve been a villain. Then we choose our reactions to go towards the resolution we desire most. Be brave and encourage your children to think about living a good story!

Finding it in the Story :: honestly, this one would be so detailed, I would simply make sure your student understands - the plot is that series of actions that moves the story forward. Have them open up to any chapter of this story, and tell you the plot (action) points. Bonus if they can look to which characters actions cause it, and what their motivations are.


Exercise 24 :: Gaps and Expectations :: When you least expect it

The opening line to this exercise says it all. “Things don’t always go the way we expect them to.” True in life, true in story. Especially true in a good story, one that really grabs your interest and keeps it all the way through.

gap occurs when a character expects things will go one way and then discovers they’re going another. Anytime something happens that isn’t expected, it is a gap. A good story is full of them, because it keeps the reader on the edge of their seat. A gap can be a wonderful surprise or a horrible shock. It can be dramatic, like Harry Potter running straight into the railway station wall, and coming out on Platform 9 3/4. It can be very minor, like when you get to the grocery store to buy toilet paper and somehow, they are out. It can also be subtle, like when you compliment someone and they don’t have a reaction. Anytime our expectations aren’t met, there is a gap.

The exercises will lead your student through the creation of gaps within little mini stories. Encourage them to take a favorite story or scene, and look for the gaps in it. Ask them to share how it makes them, as the reader/viewer, feel when those gaps occur. If they are writing a story, encourage them to see where gaps might take place, surprising the reader (and characters?) and making them want to keep reading.

In Real Life :: For some people, gaps and expectations are a big deal, personally. Some are extremely flexible, and can go with the flow, so when they arrive at the ice cream store on a summer day and the sign reads ‘closed,’ they shrug their shoulders and decide to go for a pretzel next door. Others come upon a gap, and it throws them for a loop. Knowing this about your child, and helping your child to understand what expectations are, and what a gap is, gives you a vocabulary for talking about what they are experiencing, and why it may be hard for them or others. It might help them to see some of these gaps as something to look forward to, that all gaps are not negative. As always, we at Wondertale Press want these exercises and storytelling elements to be something that enriches the every day lives of you and your student.

Finding it in the Story :: pg 271-274 :: these chapters are full of gaps and expectations that aren’t met, including :: first sentence, the physical “gap” that leads out into the sea; they didn’t find the island; the island is invisible; some monkeys don’t want to look again; Monkey Mackenzie is brave and looks, and sees; Monkey Monica refuses; the first mate has to stay behind; the captain’s boat vanishes; Monkey Mo Mo gives up.


Exercise 25 :: Beginning, Middle, and End

Your student is nearing the end of their time in our workbook. AND they are just beginning their time in storytelling (we hope!). They are in the middle of their schooling. Everything in life and in story falls somewhere in the midst of beginning, middle, and end. And, as First Mate Manfred makes sure to tell your student, we often don’t know what part of the story we are in, until the story is over and we can look back and identify, oh, that was only the beginning! Or the end came sooner than we thought. This is one section that fits nicely with most other writing curricula. Where you’ll only find the phrase “Act of Villainy” here (other texts use other terms), most everyone agrees that stories have beginnings, middles, and ends.

In Real Life :: This may seem like such a basic part of storytelling that it doesn’t need to be taught or dwelt on. But learning about beginning, middle, and end allows you to help your student make decisions, not only about their story, but in life as well. Understanding that each story (book, chapter, season, experience) has these 3 parts, and choosing how long to spend in each part, produces the shape of a story. It can be divided into 3 equal parts, or be heavier in on or another. A typical workday has a shape: get up at 6, work from 8-6, bed at 10. 2 hours, 10 hours, 4 hours. That is the shape of a day. Your child might learn to see things in terms of shape; depending on how much time they want to spend in different parts of their story, they can be efficient or linger longer. If a certain part of the story is more stressful than others, they may want to shorten it. If a certain part is more pleasurable, they may want to linger (and thus shorten another part).

These aspects of
beginning, middle, and end can also be seen as building blocks, and this, to me, really is helpful in life. If each thing we do, each mini-story we participate in, has these 3 time periods, we’ll want to get them in the right order, and if we are eager to get to the end, we will be willing to go through the beginning and middle. I tend to jump right into the middle of things. I’ll be knee deep in a recipe when I realize I’m missing an ingredient. That means I didn’t go through the beginning of my baking story well - I didn’t assemble all the parts before starting to build. Or if I don’t bake the cookies long enough (I try to skip something in the middle), the ending isn’t going to work out the way I want. True in story, true in life.

Help your student see
beginning, middle, and end in the stories they encounter, and throughout their days. When they are “stuck” in a part, remind them that there is another part coming, and to keep working towards it. If they are in the midst of story, help them break it down into its three parts, and make sure all those parts are in place at the right times.

(Helpful in parenting too - we are just in the middle, but now is a good time to look back - did I get all the right parts in the beginning? Are we missing things? It’s not too late to go back and make sure the building has a good foundation).

Finding it in the Story :: or this section, have your student think back through the entire story, and simply make a good guess as to what the beginning of the story is, and what the middle is. Make a guess: are you at the end? What makes you think so? Keep doing exercises and reading. If they need more work in this section, go ahead and have them pick any of the chapters that have ‘mini-story’ in them - the kraken chapters, or the one where Yogger frees the slave monkeys, among them - and separate it out, beginning, middle, and end. Remember that this is not an exact science, but creative work, so there is a great deal of flexibility in what the answers to this will be.


Exercise 26 :: Transformation and Character Arc :: My, how you've Grown!

Oh, the heart of a great story. Transformation - everything that changes because of the actions of the characters in the story. So simple, yet it’s the reason behind the story. If nothing changes - no princesses are rescued, no character learns to be brave, no dragons are defeated - there really isn’t any story. And as the story itself changes because of the actions of the characters, so too the characters themselves are transformed. This character arc is one of the key points in story, and in our lives. Encourage your child to look at the characters they love and see how they changed over the course of the story. Think on the joy when the character transforms from a shy, weak boy and into a brave, wise young man. Or the awkward pre-teen girl finds real friends and blossoms. And think of the sadness when a character you want to love grows more wicked, or succumbs to meanness. Seeing these aspects in the characters they care about will help them to begin to see these very same arcs in themselves and those around them.

At one point in the story, the Captain urges them through the archipelago of islands, and Scurvy Spat asks why they don’t just sail around them. He replies, “What kind of story would that be?”

In Real Life :: Our lives are a story. Every day involves hundreds of transformations. Every day involves hundreds of choices, when we, as we write our own life story, can decide which of our desires we will sail after. Every day we can stay the same, or be transformed.

Every day we can be the
seeker heroes in our families and lives, and we can encourage our children to be the same. Learning these different story elements will surely help your child (and you!) become better storytellers. It will help in all their writing. Knowing how to craft a compelling story is useful in all walks of life. But it is nowhere so useful as in our own lives. Keep your eyes on your child. See when they are the princess you might need to rescue, or when they may need you to be their dispatcher, or the donor for the magical agent they can use to defeat the dragons in their lives. Help them to see that they are in the middle of something that will end, when the end seems so far away. Encourage them to be creative, to express themselves through story (or painting, or dancing, or singing, or playing soccer). Let those inner thoughts and feelings that teens so long to hide away find a voice in your home and heart, listen carefully, and live this adventure with them. Help them see where they have already experienced a character arc, and have been transformed. And look to yourself, too. We all long to be transformed into the us we imagine ourselves to be. Don’t be afraid to tell a few stories, yourself, and definitely don’t be afraid to live the best story you can.

Finding it in the Story :: This story is full of them, so you can focus on the last two chapters, or go through the story as a whole. If your student needs some hints, have them look at Norman Nopants and how he changes. Think back to Monkey Mackenzie (pg 271), who becomes brave enough to look through the glass, and see the island (and how, on pg 297, he has developed such faith in the Captain). Note that there are transformations that aren’t emotional - like the end of pg 301 - the monkeys don’t smell as much. Ask your student to find a negative transformation (the monkeys who steal the beans - they change for the worse).

And now that the story is nearly done, one good exercise would be to go back and review the different characters. What function did they play in the story (it might change in different parts)? What was their character arc (could be positive, negative, or neutral)? What changed in the story itself, and what caused (actions) those changes? Remember that Scurvy Spat (your student) is one of the characters; these are questions they can ask of themselves - what role(s) did they play as it was written in the story? What role did they play as they were the actual student, going through the exercises? How have they changed through the process of learning this Grammar of Story? This is the end of this particular story - but the end of one story is nearly always the beginning of another. What story are they going into now? (Here’s a link to an actual PDF exercise for this very purpose.)


The Captain of My Own Story :: Benefits of creativity and storytelling.

I’m writing this during the 2020 Covid-19 “lockdown.” Today, I watched a video of John Krasinski and “SGN” - Some Good News. Ironically, at minute 20:20, guest Jon Stewart is giving advice to a 2020 graduate.

“You have no idea what is about to come at you … Embrace that … This is a world filled with possibility, and I am steeled and ready for the challenge that lay before me. Now what? I am the captain of my own ship, and
I will write this story.”

I share this because this is at the heart of why
A Pirate’s Guide (and Wondertale Press) exists - to help people write their own stories. This is your life! This is your student’s life! Write your story. Get the tools you need to tell it with confidence. And then go live life and write your story, both in how you live, and in how you tell it. It’s a miraculous thing.


How to :: A Guide to using the Guide :: Conclusion - What’s next?

By the time your student has worked their way through the entire workbook, they will have learned all the essential story elements, the Grammar of Story. But more importantly, they will have the tools they need to be able to go out and create stories of their own. The workbook ends with a final Scratch Yer Noggin’ review, the last chapter of the pirate story, and an opportunity to write their own story.

And now the workbook is done and you might be wondering, what’s next?

Keep creating and telling stories! Their workbook is now so much more than a consumable curriculum for creative writing. What they have created is a truly impressive collection of their creativity and ideas. It can now be a sourcebook for them. As one published author said of PGGS, when she gets stuck in her first drafts, she’ll return to the principles and elements taught in this workbook to spark ideas and get her moving. This can be true for your student, too. Encourage them to flip through their mindstorming exercises, find something that interests them, spend some time wondering, and start writing!

As a parent, your role next is crucial. Continue to listen to the creativity - in whatever form it comes - that is giving you a little peek into your child’s soul. Be interested. Ask questions. Find out more about them. Encourage their attempts and guide their steps. As always, if you have questions or what specific next steps in terms of curricula or writing, just leave a comment or use the contact form to get in touch with us. We here at Wondertale Press are always glad to correspond with our students and their parents!


The GRAMMAR of Story

So what on earth is the Grammar of Story?

In case you haven’t noticed yet,
A Pirate’s Guide t’ th’ Grammar of Story is not about grammar as you probably think of it. While we may reference nouns, verbs, and adjectives from time to time, this is not about learning the parts of speech, or diagramming sentences, or anything that make us think of “English class.” Instead, the grammar in A Pirate’s Guide is the first of the classical stages of learning: Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric. In the Grammar stage, students learn the tools of the subject. Complex material is reduced to its basic elements and the goal is both exposure, understanding, and recall. In the Logic stage, students develop a deeper understanding of the basic elements they learned in the Grammar stage. This is when they begin to play with the tools, to see how they work, what they do. In the Rhetoric stage, students analyze what they’ve already learned, and begin to make it their own.

This means that before we write a full story (the logic and especially rhetoric stages), we need to know the basics (or grammar) of Story. The grammar of piano is scales. The grammar of baseball are the rules and regulations. The grammar of a doctor is basic anatomy and biology. And the Grammar of Story includes all the elements that make up a story. Just as a song is made up of various musical notes, a story is made up of various story elements. Learning what the elements are and how they function allows a storyteller (of any age!) to use the tools they need to more easily tell the stories they have to tell.

A Pirate’s Guide t’ th’ Grammar of Story gives your student a primer to these essential elements, and helps them play around with those elements until they are natural. Then, when they go to write a story, they are writing from their strengths!


The Path of Creative Living

“Because creative living is a path for the brave.” (Author Elizabeth Gilbert).

I saw this today on the Facebook feed of one of my favorite creative spots,
Let’s Make Art. This incredible company creates kits and provides tutorials (FREE!) for watercolor, art journaling, and lettering. They were sharing this quote from their company book club read by Elizabeth Gilbert. And it struck me, because I’ve been thinking a lot about our students, those who dive into writing projects because they LOVE to write and can’t help putting the stories in their heads onto paper, and also those who loathe writing, because it’s scary, hard, or just feels like too much. Sharing our stories requires bravery, and bravery is made stronger in creative living. Today I encourage you to be brave, build bravery, and be creative. Encourage your children to walk that path of creative living, not only in storytelling, but in whatever way they find to express themselves. Get to know them better through their creativity, and watch you all flourish!


Exercising Your Creativity

I read an article today about the importance of exercising the creativity each of us has. Paul David Tripp makes a compelling argument that the “bulk of humanity never realizes their creative potential.” He attributes that to fear - something we can all related to. Is it good enough? Will someone make fun of me? Will someone make fun of my art (which feels an awful lot like someone making fun of me)? Do I even have creativity in me? What if someone sees my creative product? What if no one sees it?

Tripp provides several meditations on allowing the creativity within us to be expressed, and to find grace in the making. I’ll leave you to read the article, if you choose, but thought I’d share here, because it got me thinking.

What’s stopping our children from expressing their creativity? We are a storytelling enterprise, so of course, I often think in those terms, but we could just as easily be creative with paint, music, sport, our bodies, our voices … you get the idea. Yet so often, our children immerse themselves not in their own creativity, but in the creativity of others. They consume the results of others creativity - movies, books, youtube or tiktok videos, music, board games, and video games - yet rarely take the time or effort (or risk) to create for themselves.

Much of this is caused by the ease with which we can consume versus the effort it takes to create. And yet the results of that effort, over time, are so rewarding, and fill us with life that mere consumption just offers a glimpse of. I encourage you to find what gets in the way of your child from being creative - of yourself being creative! - and work to take a step towards creativity. Maybe it’s just the arrangement of dinner on the table, tonight, or the way they make their bed. Find the ways that you and your children ARE expressing creativity, and celebrate that. Then work towards creating even more. Every act of creativity is a way to express something that is uniquely you. Don’t be afraid.


Creativity - True Play for all of us

I read this quote from a Dr. Gordon Neufeld recently: “Remember…children at play are insulated from the alarming world around them. Play is a sanctuary of safety. … In true play, the engagement is in the activity, not the outcome.”

I love this, as it speaks to the essence of our goals for
A Pirate’s Guide - engagement, not outcome. And it reminds us that, during these potential stressful times (I’m writing this 4 weeks into the US quarantine resulting from the Covid-19 virus), creativity provides all of us with a level of play and safety that we deeply need. Whether you are 3 and building a block tower, 10 and creating chalk art on the front driveway, 14 and art journaling your experience, 47 and taking a moment to tell a story, paint a picture, or create a lovely meal - creativity can be true play for us all. Take a moment, and slip into the “sanctuary of safety” that playing creatively allows. Whether that’s doing an exercise in A Pirate’s Guide, arranging some flowers in a vase, making up a story alongside your child, or even just plating dinner in a beautiful way, being creative is important for each one of us, parents included. Encourage your children to play today, in some way, and then join in yourself.

Rest in the engagement, and don’t worry about the outcome.


Dealing with Heightened Emotions

As we begin our third week of Lockdown, I’m beginning to see signs in my online communities of heightened emotions. This is obviously true of the adults who are feeling the expected stress of uncertainty, but even more so of our children, who may be overhearing things that confuse, scare, or anger them.

When I find that it's hard for my children to express their frustration/anger/fear/emotions in a healthy way, our family chooses to channel those pent up emotions into something creative. Creating is one means we humans have for expressing things we don't have words for. For one of my children, that means lots of paintings (and we are very aware that they are her emotions on paper, even if she isn't, so we comment little and just encourage her to keep painting). For my older child, it was in photography. For another, it was doodling and displaying her precious things creatively. For my husband, it’s writing (no surprise there), and for me, it is usually watercolor or nature journaling.

Most children need some direction in order to be creative, so we have also used creative writing to help those deeper emotions get channeled out in a healthy way. To be sure, the kids have no idea this is happening (and often we don't see it either), but even benign creative tasks, like brainstorming, lets our inner stuff find a venue to be expressed. When we created 
A Pirate's Guide t' th' Grammar of Story as a creative writing curriculum, we had no idea it would end up being a very easy and fun way for kids to get their inner life out, but, amazingly, it does. And sometimes, that's all that's needed!

So we encourage you to take those discipline issues, and give your child somewhere creative to channel it. If you think they might be interested in writing, try
A Pirate’s Guide t’ th’ Grammar of Story - it’s an easy to use (read: parents who are already stretched thin don’t have to teach) and fun to do (read: it’s a pirate story with engaging brainstorming and story-related exercises) workbook that can help fill some time and grow some creativity. Kids can do it on their own, or as a family (each would want their own workbook, since they write in them), or even do it with a virtual group. You can find out more about the workbook itself on our main page, or read through the reviews on Amazon. This is a fun and easy book - and the benefits are far more than just occupying their attention for some time each day. 


Stuck at Home? Time to Get Creative!

If your state is like ours, you may be experiencing an extended school closure - or you may know a public school family who suddenly has their kids at home. All day. Seven days a week. Unexpectedly. While they are still working. And some of these kids are going to get bored!

Of course, this is the perfect time to engage in more creativity and activities we normally don’t have time for. Read a book aloud, visit a virtual museum, make a painting, learn to play guitar, write a story.

A Pirate’s Guide t’ th’ Grammar of Story - here’s an easy to use (read: parents who are already stretched thin don’t have to teach) and fun to do (read: it’s a pirate story with engaging brainstorming and story-related exercises) workbook that can help fill some time and grow some creativity. Kids can do it on their own, or as a family (each would want their own workbook, since they write in them), or even do it with a virtual group. You can find out more about the workbook itself on our main page, or read through the reviews on Amazon. This is a fun and easy book - and the benefits are more than just occupying their attention for some time each day.

This is a great opportunity to engage more with our children - and this workbook gives a context for growing as a family. How does a creative writing workbook do this? When we are creative, a little bit of us comes out. The colors we choose when we paint, the notes we make when we play piano, the words and images that we create as we write - all of these are little snapshots of something inside of us. So when your children brainstorm the five worst ice cream flavors they can think of, it tells you a little about them. It gives you something to talk about - “what made you think of booger flavored ice cream?” Or “have you ever tried that?” Simple questions that show you are interested and care about your child. Though very simple, it opens them up to more. So, take some time this week. Ask some questions. Maybe buy the kids some paint, or this workbook, and then over dinner, show you are interested - and see how your family can grow in these weeks together.

For the next few weeks, we are running a special - buy a copy of
A Pirate’s Guide t’ th’ Grammar of Story directly from us, and get a free copy of Volume One of The Magician’s Workshop - a young adult fantasy novel that will leave you eager for Volume Two!


At Home Together :: Getting Crafty

While we are all isolating this month, let’s make the most of it!

One fan of
A Pirate’s Guide sent in this suggestion - grab a workbook, start reading the story with your kids. Then use this extra time we have together to get them started on a project, one which they can continue while you get back to the many things you already have to do!

  • Get some cardboard boxes (cereal, or Amazon, or …) and let them recreate Captain Yogger LeFossa’s pirate ship.

  • Give them some paper (or an old pillowcase) to create their own pirate flag.

  • Grab some “treasure” and have them hide it and create a treasure map. X marks the spot! When dad or siblings get home, have them go on a treasure hunt.

  • Spend the day speaking in pirate.

  • Google “pirate word search” and let them spend some time searching for piratey words. Argh.

  • Create a pirate character and then sketch out what they look like (this goes great with the character exercises in A Pirate’s Guide).

  • Spend some time on youtube and learn how to make sailing knots.

Have more fun pirate ideas? Share them in the comments below!


At Home Together :: Storytelling Improv Style

While we are all isolating this month, let’s make the most of it!

Take a tip from improv groups across the country - here’s a very simple way to create a spontaneous story to pass the time. You could even make a contest to choose the best story at the end of the night - or just pop some popcorn, make some hot cocoa, sit back, and enjoy the stories.

Choose one person to be the story-teller. They should ask someone to shout out a character (superman, a cowboy, the dentist, a little boy), a place (the golf course, a bathroom, planet Mars), a time (yesterday, the week before the apocalypse, today at 2 pm), and a problem (a meteor is hurtling towards earth, there is no more ice cream, it’s raining).

From there, the story-teller will make up a story on the spot. At any point they can call on the “audience” to give them another detail, which they have to work into the story. It can be as short or long as their creativity leads them. Tomorrow I’ll share a variation for telling the story in the round, and getting everyone involved.


At Home Together :: Storytelling Improv in the Round

While we are all isolating this month, let’s make the most of it!

This week we are shared a basic
improv technique for spontaneous storytelling. Here’s an easy way to spend some time together and hopefully have a few laughs: create a shared story. It’s very simple. One by one, go around the room and gather some basic information, allowing each person to be as creative and specific as they want. The first person should name a type of person (cowboy, artist, businessman, circus leader, teacher, etc). The second person should name a place (the US, a laundromat, the underside of a swing). The next person should name a time (early morning, the second Christmas after the stock market crashed, in the distant future). The next person should name a problem (they are hungry, reptiles are crawling out of the storm drain, it’s raining). Now, continuing in a circle, each person will tell one sentence of a story. There are no rules, except that you should continue where the person before you leaves off, even if you take it in an entirely new direction.

Make this fun! Some families strive to tell a coherent story, where all the parts make sense, and they are really working together. Great stories can emerge, and you’ll learn something about teamwork and how to anticipate and respond to one another. Other families work to make the story as crazy as possible, shifting and turning with each sentence. No one can plan ahead because you simply don’t know where it’s going! You’ll all learn something about thinking on your feet and you will certainly laugh a lot.

Doesn’t matter how you tell it, storytelling can help bring you together as a family.


At Home Together :: Storytelling Family History

While we are all isolating this month, let’s make the most of it!

This week we shared about a basic improv pattern for telling a story as an
individual or in the round as a group. Today I want to share another storytelling idea - telling the story of your family.

Here’s a few ways that can get you started:

  • Pull out a photo album (or your camera roll on your phone, if it goes back far enough), turn to a page, and share with your family what was happening.

  • Have your children pick a favorite memory from their earlier childhood to share.

  • Take slips of paper and have everyone write down specific stories they’d like to hear about. Give them some examples to get their curiosity piqued: someone’s birth story, how Grandma and Grandpa met, what it was like to be a child in 1985, the story of your first dance or first kiss, how you listened to music as a kid. The options are endless.

Enjoy this time you have together - use it as an opportunity to learn more about each other, and what makes you a family!


How to Understand Creative Writing

It’s difficult to teach something we don’t really understand. Creative writing can be one of those things.

After years of reading books, attending lectures, working with story-telling professionals, Chris (the author) realized that writing actually isn’t any different than most things in the world. It’s a very complex thing, like a car, that is made up of many smaller parts.

A car has a frame, an engine, gas, wheels, tires, and so on. If you put them together in the right way you have a functioning car. But if you are missing one the essential parts, like the wheels, then it doesn’t go. If you have everything but the gasoline, it doesn’t go. If it doesn’t have a driver, it doesn’t go. Many times stories don’t come together because they are missing an essential part.

So Chris spent years finding the foundational elements of what stories are made of and began to organize them. This is what we call the grammar of story. The back of
A Pirate’s Guide t’ th’ Grammar of Story lists more than 30 different elements of story.

Back cover elements

Just like someone building a car needs to know what all the parts are, how they go together, what is necessary and where it goes, before they can build a meaningful car and then add fun extras like cup holders and heated seats, the creative writer needs to know what the basic parts of a story are, how they work, where they go, and how they interact before they can create a functional story.

In the grammar stage of learning, a student focuses on learning how to identify and define the parts of something. If it’s latin, they might memorize the declensions and the parts of speech. If it’s math, they might memorize the times table or simple formulas. If it’s piano, they might memorize and practice scales. For creative writing, learning the foundational parts of a story, what they are, what they represent, and how they interact, gives the writer all the tools and parts they need to make a story that can, like a car, go.

For this reason, we recommend that a parent read ahead or follow along with their students. Even though all of the teaching and exercises are contained in the workbook, and the parent doesn’t need to teach anything (at least for the independent learner), spending some time in the workbook will give you an understanding of creative writing that will give you more confidence, and help you support your student as they learn more about story.


How to Teach Creative Writing when you aren’t a Creative Writer

I recently shared about how to understand creative writing. Lots of parents want to add Creative Writing into their child’s education, but for many reasons, don’t feel qualified to teach it. But even understanding creative writing - learning the grammar of story - doesn’t make you an expert or ready to be a teacher.

That’s why we created
A Pirate’s Guide t’ th’ Grammar of Story. This curriculum is unique in the creative writing field. Many resources are, honestly, boring. Many resources assume a foundational knowledge that isn’t there, and so frustrate both child and parent. This curriculum is grounded in the idea that the best way to learn creative writing is to understand the essential parts. And the best way to learn about them is not academically, in a dry, sterile way.

So this curriculum/workbook consists of two parts. One is a funny pirate story. The second is workbook style exercises. And the two overlap. We’ve taken this grammar of story, the 30+ story elements, and put it in an order, expressing each part first through the pirate story, and then through exercises. So, for example, the pirate story demonstrates what setting is, and then there are exercises that teach about setting. Setting is not taught in an academic way - it’s taught by having the student do it.

Because we don’t expect the parent/teacher to be or become an instant expert in creative writing, we made sure that all the teaching is contained within the material. Each teaching is just a short portion which contains the definition of what, for example, setting is. Then it goes into questions and exercises. It’s very straightforward. The exercises become more complex incrementally. You don’t need any kind of teaching lesson for how to do each new step, because you’ve done the step before and it’s very easy to add the next incremental step afterwards. Curious what this looks like? Check out our flip through video

Between each element is another portion of the story demonstrating the new element, followed by more exercises, each one building upon the last. Periodically there are reviews and challenges. Though the goal of the workbook is not a completed story, there are opportunities for the student to take all the creativity they are brainstorming and use them to write short stories throughout the book.

It’s incredibly simple for you as a parent, and approachable for your student.


What’s stopping you?

There are many reasons creative writing is rarely taught, but we’ve found that two main reasons dominate. The first is that the student is a reluctant writer - either they don’t enjoy writing (at all!), or they think they aren’t creative and don’t want to write a story. The second is that the parent is reluctant to teach creative writing. They don’t have the right tools. It’s not a core subject, and so there are few resources out there. The parent believes that they aren’t creative, and so can’t teach creativity. They feel ill-equipped, and no one wants to start to build something without the right tools and knowledge. Creative writing, for both student and teacher, can be intimidating. It can be embarrassing to share your attempts - there is a great deal of vulnerability in sharing a story you’ve written. All of these reasons make it easy to say, I don’t have time or I don’t want to, and then the opportunity seems gone.

Wondertale Press has created a curriculum that solves these two problems in one easy to use workbook.

For the reluctant writer who simply doesn’t enjoy writing at all,
A Pirate’s Guide t’ th’ Grammar of Story breaks the process down into something so simple and fun and non-threatening that most students find themselves looking forward to doing creative writing each day. We’ve had several reviews from homeschooling moms who say that their reluctant writer loves A Pirate’s Guide, and it’s the first thing they pull out in the morning. Because we start with small and easy to do exercises which build incrementally and with the help of pirates and monkeys, students shed their fear of “having to write a whole story” and just enjoy the process of being creative. For the writer who is reluctant because they are think they aren’t creative, we’ve created exercises that draw the creativity out naturally, because, honestly, it’s in there.

For the parent who is reluctant because they lack the creativity or tools, we’ve removed those barriers by creating a curriculum that is self-taught to the independent learner (younger students, or those with learning issues, may require guidance). And since we believe strongly that ALL people are creative, we encourage you to read along and (at least mentally) go through the exercises with your student; your creativity will surprise you!

Nothing need stop you from teaching creative writing, because actually, it’s pretty simple. Unlike most subjects, which require knowledge, or a teacher’s manual, or lots of hands on teaching, our creative writing curriculum requires you to do one thing: to listen. Really listen. Encourage your child as they dive in. Guide them to press on, or take a break. Review their exercises and ask questions that show you care (more on that
here). Be present to them as their creativity emerges, and you’ll both find that creative writing isn’t so hard after all. You might even love it.

So what’s stopping you?


How to :: A Guide to using the Guide :: Grading and Assessment

This brings up a big parent question - how do I grade something without an answer key? This is creative writing. Creativity is the key and it is not something you can grade in a traditional way. There are few right and wrong answers when you are brainstorming - imagine us trying to tell you the “right answers” to the exercise that asks them to “list 5 awful ice cream flavors”? This is why we don’t provide a way to grade these exercises. But that doesn’t mean you as a parent can’t assess their progress.

Assessment is about less objective things, and you’ll want to focus on how willing or engaged your student is. Are they writing the first thing that comes to their mind and plowing through to just get it done, or are they thinking about it, letting their ideas come to the surface? If they are prone to plowing through, are they slowly growing more inventive and more thoughtful? Certain things aren’t about the end product, but about the attitude of what you are doing. The questions you ask and the way you assess is meant to validate their openness to the process of developing their creativity and moving towards their strengths as a writer.

We have provided challenge exercises (we call them “
Heave Ho!”) for those who are ready to dig in deeper. And we have another set of review work called “Scratch Yer Noggin.” These pages test your memory of past sections. I recommend using these pages (you can require your student to review and study before filling them out, or allow them to flip back as an open book review) to assess how much your student is grasping, and they certainly could be graded if you require graded work. Better still, let the do these sections in fun, and base your assessment more on their willingness and ability to put into practice the “In Real Life” suggestions, and their ability to “Find it in the Story” as they go along through each exercise. These sections can be found, exercise by exercise in the Teacher’s Guide.

The goal of our workbook is to help your student open up and allow this muscle of creativity to grow and develop through the learning of basic story elements. Your encouragement and interest is all that you both need to have a successful class!


Overheard: A Conversation

Sometimes we don’t know what it looks like to be an engaged listener and encourager of our young writers.

This winter I had the opportunity to listen in on some conversations between a middle schooler who is writing a short story and Chris, the author of
A Pirate’s Guide t’ th’ Grammar of Story. I thought a series on what a conversation between a student and parent can look like would help all of us engage with our students better.

If you click on the
category link (also above), you’ll find all the Overheard posts that we’ve got.


Overheard: Is My Story Ready?

Sometimes we don’t know what it looks like to be an engaged listener and encourager of our young writers. This winter I had the opportunity to listen in on some conversations between a middle schooler who is writing a short story and Chris, the author of PGGS. I thought a series on what a conversation between a student and parent looks like would help all of us engage with our students better. Here’s the first installment:

Background: at this point, the student had come up with her story idea, the main characters, and the basic setting. She was on the fence with two ending options. This was the first time she’d shared the entire idea with someone outside her peers, and she was a bit nervous (especially knowing that Chris was an expert). Her main question -
is my story ready to write?

As she shared, Chris listened. Where I might have interjected with ideas or encouragement, he simply listened, nodding to say he understood, but allowing her to share from start to finish all she had in mind. They hit a point where she wasn’t sure what the main character should do, and Chris merely asked a question. “What is the character’s problem?” In other words, defining the Act of Villainy - the conflict or problem that the character is trying to solve. As the student shared several things the main character might be trying to solve, he suggested that she try to define one meaningful thing, rather than having multiple things the character wants to do.

Together they brainstormed the different things the character could do, and what each one would be solving. Chris continued to ask her questions: “it sounds like the character is worried about x, or is it something else?” Each question allowed her to make choices and imagine other options, until she came to a place where she felt she could say, “yes, this is what my character’s problem is, and how they can solve it.”

Once she had that in place, she can write the story and create tension around the problem and its solution. Throughout the conversation, I heard Chris say things like “here’s how I see what you’ve described to me. You can always change this, but it is what I see.” This allowed her to hear what she’d been sharing from another’s perspective, while maintaining her right and ability to make changes, always keeping it her project.

When they reached the point of knowing what the problem was, and what the solution would likely be, the student is ready to move to the next step - writing a first draft. More on that in
another “Overheard” post.


Overheard: Writing A First Draft

Chris is encouraging a student as she writes her first big short story assignment. They’ve talked through the basic idea of her story, choosing a main story problem and brainstorming ways to solve the problem, and it’s time to write a first draft.

Here is Chris’s advice to her as she sits down to write a first draft:

“Write as fast as you can - don’t worry about it, just write. It’ll most likely be completely thrown away, so write quickly, as long or short as you need to get the story down and done.”

And then?
“Put it away for a few days, then come back and ask yourself a few questions:
What did I learn from this?
What did I like about this?
How is this different from what I thought originally?

“As you answer the questions, you’ll see what was most interesting to you. You can ask, what is the real problem in the story? Is it what I thought, or is there something different? What is true for my story?”

Then you take all that information - the first draft, and what worked and what didn’t, and then you can put it into an outline, and begin writing again.

As you go through this process of drafts, revisions, and more drafts, you’ll find a process that works for you.”

So there you go. Advice for your student writers: Get your basic details in order, and then write your story quickly. Take a break from it, and then go back to it with fresh eyes, being open to seeing what works, what doesn’t, and what you find interesting. Reorder and plan your story, and then write again. You can do it!


How do you “Practice” Creative Writing?

If your child wanted to learn how to play the piano, and you gave them a keyboard, saying, “there you go, now you can make music!” what would happen? Most kids might play around for a few minutes, but quickly get discouraged, and walk away, believing they “can’t” play and should just give up. Learning to make music takes learning the basics, being trained, and lots of practice. If your child wanted to become a baseball player, you wouldn’t hand them a glove, ball, and bat, and expect them to become a major league player. They would need to learn the rules of the game, how to wear the glove, hold the bat, run the bases, and then it would take practice to become a real player. If they wanted to become a doctor… well, I think you get the idea.

Though no one hands a student a guitar and paper and says, “here, write a song,” students are regularly given a piece of paper and the assignment to “write a story.” No wonder they may be overwhelmed or frustrated! They need tools and practice to help them on their way.

This is particularly true because as our children get older, as their idea of being “successful” changes. As a small child, they think their scribbles on paper are masterpieces. Only they can know what it represents, but they don’t care. They created! They feel wonderful! But as they grow up, something changes. They begin to see that their dinosaur looks like scribbles on the paper compared to the picture in the book that inspired it. Many children get discouraged at this point. They want to give up, because they aren’t able to create what’s in their head. If they took some time to take some drawing lessons, learn a few basic rules, and practiced, they would (most likely) get to the point where their dinosaur looks like a dinosaur.

Stories are the same way. The babbling stories of a toddler give way to more thoughtful stories of a pre-schooler, and gradually dry up, as the desire to tell a story gets outstripped by the realization that they don’t know how to make all the parts fit, or the fear that someone doesn’t like their story. The fantastic story inside a vivid imagination doesn’t naturally come out onto paper in just the right way the first time. It takes practice. It takes learning some tips. It takes having the tools in your tool belt to build it just as you imagine. And then it takes more practice.

Becoming good at something takes time and practice. Not just any practice, but meaningful practice. And that means knowing the basics (or grammar) of something. For stories, that means learning the grammar, or basic elements of story. Here at Wondertale Press, we’ve identified over 30 basic elements that make up stories.
A Pirate’s Guide t’ th’ Grammar of Story is a primer for those essential elements, not only teaching what they are, but giving the student lots of opportunity to play around with them (like practicing scales, playing catch, or memorizing body parts) until they become natural. Once they are natural, putting them together becomes easier.


Overheard: Point of View

Here’s a brief Overheard on choosing point of view:

As Chris and our student continued to talk about her first story, she wanted to know if writing her story in the first person was okay. How should she choose which point of view?

Writing in first person is generally easier than in third person. Most fiction is written in third person limited - it’s only describing what that character knows and sees. So even though it’s written in the third person, it’s limited, as though it were written in the first person.

Writing in the first person is easier because it forces you to stay consistent in the limited point of view. If you are in the third person, you’ll be tempted to break those limits and share more than you should. In first person, you are writing only what that character sees and feels and experiences, and this helps you stay focused.


Isn’t this creative writing? Where’s the story?

As we speak with parents and students, we are often asked if the end result of A Pirate’s Guide t’ th’ Grammar of Story is, in fact, a story. Well, the short answer is … no. This curriculum is preparing and priming them to write a story from their strengths. This workbook as a whole is not focused on creating an actual final product in terms of a story or novel or screenplay. However, every few chapters there is a section where they are given the opportunity to write a story themselves. They can use the things that they came up with in their workbook exercises - looking at what they brainstormed, finding what interests them, connecting it with some character they brainstormed in another exercise, grabbing another detail from another exercise, and then write a short story.

The goal of
A Pirate’s Guide is, in one sense, to simply teach students the elements of a story so that they are primed for writing. But another purpose is to open them up - so storytelling is not intimidating. So sharing their ideas is not intimidating. It’s also giving them a foundation so they are able to write stories from strengths.

If you just give a child a blank page to write a story, they can do that, but once they begin, it becomes difficult. Often they can start, but their story will fall apart because it’s overwhelming, or they are missing an element and the story doesn’t seem to progress. This is really frustrating to them. In teaching
A Pirate’s Guide, I’ve found that there are certain pieces that are incomplete or missing and then stories don’t function and aren’t whole. It’s different for different people - one student’s strengths might be another’s weakness. The point of A Pirate’s Guide is to lay that foundation so that you student has all these elements without it feeling like work at all.

Then, with their knowledge of the various elements in place, their practice with how to create and connect these elements, and their experience that creativity can be fun, they can sit down and write a story with strong creativity muscles. If they get stuck, they can go back to their workbook like its a sourcebook, full of ideas and connections and ways to move their story forward.
A Pirate’s Guide is a powerful tool in developing creative writing muscles!


Interest Vs. Praise

So, you’ve got a creative child, who’s churning out story after story, or piece of art after piece of art. Or maybe you have the opposite - your child painstakingly creates something once in a blue moon. And then they show it to you. What do you do??

Most of us dive right into PRAISE. Oh, you did such a good job. I love it. It’s beautiful. You are so creative.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? We want to encourage our kids to keep creating, so we praise them and tell them they are wonderful, and their art is wonderful. But growing research demonstrates that this kind of praise actually backfires. I’ll leave you to google all of that, and focus here on what we can and should do to actually encourage our children and their creativity.

It’s simple really. We want to engage and connect with them. The art becomes the context for that. When it comes to interacting with our child about their creation, we want to have an openness with them. If what we say shuts them down, we want to avoid that. We want to open them up, and get to know THEM better, have a conversation with them. Typically, the creator - of a short story, a painting, or a model car - is interested in their own creation. Something sustained them through the entire creative process. In sharing it with you, they are hoping that YOU will now be interested in their creation.

Does praise (“you did a great job”) pronounce interest or judgment? Interest isn’t expressed in statements, but through questions and dialogue. Asking questions is, generally, what we do when we are interested in something. “How did you think of that?” “The colors you chose are interesting, what inspired you?” “This is an unusual word, what made you think of it?” Note that we are not asking leading questions - we do not want to have a yes or no answer, as those don’t lead to conversation. So, using the interest we have in their work and their process and, ultimately, THEM, we talk with them. We ask about their process, their experience, their creation. And hopefully, they want to talk about it.

Just because we ask a good, conversation starting question doesn’t mean our child will answer. They may feel shy with their work, or have been burned when someone criticized it, or just feel, well, moody. Don’t give up. Don’t press them, but demonstrate your interest with real questions, and let those seeds fall where they will. When they answer, gently keep going. When they don’t, gently back away, and hope to do more in the future. Don’t give up!


How to Become More Specific

I recently shared how being specific was a way to set limits and create focus, and, generally, to communicate clearly. With limits and a focus, the reader doesn’t have to work very hard to visualize and engage with the story.

Want to help your student learn to be more specific?

Here are three specific ways (there are many more in exercise 2 and beyond in
A Pirate’s Guide): Have them choose a noun (a character, a place, an object). Ask them to describe the noun with adjectives. Then ask them to add details about location - where is that object? Finally, you can add an activity. How’s that for simple? For example - let’s say the thing our student wants to make more specific is the town the story takes place in. They can add adjectives - festive, rural, run-down. They can add location - in the middle of America, or on the brink of a mountain peak, or hidden inside a glass bottle. They can add an activity - a town that is celebrating its centennial, or hosting a marathon, or being buried in an avalanche. This kind of brainstorming can lead to all kinds of interesting combinations. We might end up with a run-down town, located on the brink of a mountain peak, that is being buried in an avalanche. Or a festive town that is located in the middle of American and is hosting a marathon. Or a rural town that is celebrating its centennial, all inside a little glass bottle. Each of those would lead to a very different story, a very different image in the mind of the reader, and a very specific focus for the writer.

Being specific in this way - about ANY and EVERY thing in our stories - will help the writer to have limits and focus, and give the reader a vivid picture in their minds. And as they practice this skill (in writing, or in the exercises), you might find that it spills over into other areas, bringing greater clarity and description to their lives.

(These are just a few ideas to get you started.
A Pirate’s Guide has more questions and brainstorming space to really dig into what it means to be specific in exercise #2, and pretty much every exercise after that!)


Expressing Interest through the Right Questions

I wanted to write a quick follow up to my post on praise versus interest. Hopefully you were encouraged to look for new ways to communicate your interest and care in both your child and their creativity/creation. My own daughter is in the process of writing a short story for her homeschool class, and so I had opportunity to put into practice my own advice, and I was so surprised by the results.

I stink at it.

I learned that asking truly interested questions requires not only interest (though without it, it’s nearly impossible - more on that in a later post), but also a retraining of my way of asking questions. Even when I was most interested - I truly cared not only about the piece of work she was creating, but also her - I struggled with asking questions that opened up conversation. Too often, I ask leading questions. A leading question, in case you don’t know, is a question that is leading towards a certain response. In a court room, a leading question is a question asked to get a specific answer, often a yes or no answer. “That short story took you a long time to write, didn’t it?” is a leading question - it is likely to only get a yes or no answer, and then, well, the conversation stops. “How long did it take you to write?” isn’t much better, though it will get an answer that is hopefully more than one word.

The weird thing about leading questions is what they are really doing. Open ended questions allow the person answering to tell their story - to share something they want to share. Leading questions, on the other hand, allow the one asking questions to direct the story. It gives a subtle control of the conversation to the question-er, rather than opening up conversation. Since I want to know others better, I want to open up that conversation, not shut it down . . . Even if it means that I am not “in control” of where the conversation is going to go.

So I’ve begun to listen to my questions before I ask them, and make sure that they are opening the way to more conversation, not leading my daughter (or anyone) to follow my lead. It sounds silly, but it’s proving to be surprising effective (despite my awkwardness in doing it). Take a look at the questions you are asking, and hopefully your own conversations will be richer for it!


Characters - Who are they?

Describing our main characters should be a fun aspect of building a story. A Pirate’s Guide has exercises to help brainstorm the different ways we can create well-developed characters, using characterization. Characterizations describe things, defining who or what a character is through specific details. You want your characterizations to give a fuller picture of who the character is. This might seem obvious at first, but make sure your child gets this - the specific details about a character teach the reader about who that character is and begins to tell us what they want and how they will act. It makes the character believable.

Before actually brainstorming about their specific characters, ask them to think of a favorite character. Let’s say, Luke Skywalker, just for fun. Have them describe their character: he’s young, good looking, not very strong physically, energetic, sad about his parents and angry at the stormtroopers. He talks very fast. He wears simple peasant clothing at the beginning, but at the end is in a Jedi suit. That’s a simple start. Then ask them to imagine, for a moment, that one of those features changed. Let’s make Luke be really old and blind. How does that change who he is and how he interacts in the story? Quite a lot! Some changes might not matter, some might totally change the nature of the character. That is the importance of characterizations.

As always, we begin this process of characterization by brainstorming. And we can most easily brainstorm by asking ourselves questions and giving ourselves permission to have fun coming up with all kinds of possible answers! Some questions for a writer to ask: what does my character look like (eyes, hair, height, weight, … )? How does my character walk and talk (do they limp? Are they always running? Do they have an accent?) What does my character wear?

Once you’ve got these more physical/outward characteristics of your character, you can ask other questions about who they are inside. What are some activities my character loves to do? What kind of personality is my character (friendly, funny, mean…)? Does my character have special skills or experiences? Who would my character want to spend time with?

Try brainstorming lots of different possibilities - don’t stop with the first one you think of. Many times creativity takes awhile to get flowing, and after we try a few things on, we find something that is really perfect, not just “yeah, that works.” Think about how different choices make your character a slightly different person, and how that might affect your story.

(These are just a few questions to get you started.
A Pirate’s Guide has more questions and brainstorming space to really dig into who and what your character is in exercises #11, 12, and 13).


Characters - What do they want?

Once we know who the characters are by describing their characterizations, we’ll want to ask the next big Character question: What do they want? Identifying a character’s desires helps the author know who their characters are and what they will do.

What is a desire? Anything the character wants. They could be hungry and want food. They could be lonely and want a friend. They could be angry and want to fix a problem. They could be mean and want to steal some candy. There are all kinds of desires - and brainstorming can help you find out what your character wants.

To begin brainstorming Character Desires, we can always ask questions and let our imagination and ideas run wild. Another really effective way to brainstorm Character Desires is to take the characterizations that you have created for your character - describing who they are through specific details (see
this post for more on that) - and use those to find desires that grow out of their characterization. As always, you can use your child’s favorite character as a way to help explain this. Luke Skywalker is an orphan - that is a characterization. What might being an orphan cause him to want? He might want parents. He might desire to grow up and have a family of his own. It might make him want to join the Jedi’s so he can have the big family he never had. For each characterization, an author can brainstorm many different things the character might then desire.

Another way to brainstorm is to take those same characterizations, and ask “what might she desire in opposition to that characterization?” Leia is a princess, and her desire might be to just be an ordinary girl that no one notices. Or Chewbacca is a hairy Wookiee, and he desires to play at the beach and not spend a month cleaning sand out of his hair.

As your child begins to figure out what their characters might want, they will find it important to be as specific as possible. What does this look like? Suzy is an only child. She wants to play with friends. That’s a desire that comes out of her characterization. But which friends, what kind of friends, when? Becoming specific looks like “Suzy wants to go to summer camp and live in a cabin with a group of friends for a whole week” Or “Suzy wants to have a friend she can rely on and get to know really well, and who will come play at her house every Thursday afternoon.” Those are two different very different Specific Desires that come out of the simple desire (to play with friends) that comes out of her specific characterization (only child).

Using Characterizations to brainstorm Character Desires - things they want because of their characterizations, and things they want despite their characterizations, will give an author lots of different desires to play with as they get ready to have their character take ACTION.

(These are just a few questions to get you started.
A Pirate’s Guide has more questions and brainstorming space to really dig into what your character wants in exercise #17).


Getting to the Heart of your Character

You can help your student get to know their character just like they get to know a real person. We’ve already given you some advice for helping your child develop their characters’ physical appearance and characterizations - but just as seeing a person from across the room isn’t an effective way to actually get to know someone, developing their physical appearance is only a superficial way to develop a character. To get to the heart of your character, the author has to find out what that character wants - or what we at Pirate’s Guide call “Character Desire.” So I also shared about finding out what your character wants and desires, with some easy tips to begin brainstorming those. So far, so good.

But why is this so important? Why does our character have to want something anyway? Yes, knowing these character wants and desires help set the author up for creating action in their story. And it’s so much more than even that. Because we aren’t talking about the simplest wants, though those will drive action too (a hungry character WANTS to eat, and that prompts them to take ACTION and sneak a cookie from the cookie jar).

What the character wants - as it relates to the story and the Act of Villainy (or conflict in the story - more on that in another post) - will define who the character is in the story, and it will determine the actions that they take within the story. The heart of the character - as it relates to the Act of Villainy - might make your character a hero, or a villain, or perhaps a princess. Let’s say that the Act of Villainy in our story is that a princess was stolen and locked into a tower. The character who desires to set the princess free is the Hero, even if he wears a black cape and hat, and twirls on his mustache. The character who is locked up in a tower is the Princess, even if they are a short dwarf who has bad breath. And the character that wants to keep that princess locked up is the Villain, even if he is tall, handsome, and rides a white steed. It is the desire of their heart - again, as it relates to the Act of Villainy - that determines
who your character is. And that will determine what they do. And what they do will determine, in part, how they relate to other characters.

Finding out what a character desires and why will help your student get to the heart of their character, and that will help them find their character’s place in the story.

(These are just a few thoughts to get you started as your child continues to develop their characters.
A Pirate’s Guide has more detailed explanation and exercises to really dig into the Act of Villainy in exercise #10, and what your character wants in exercise #17).


Finding Your Focus

This week in my daughter’s short story class, they are to choose a story focus. In the case of her curriculum, I understand “story focus” to mean what the author focused on in order to make this a short story, and not a long one. But what does that really mean?

It’s a great question, because regardless of the length of the story, an author has to have a focus, which gives them guidelines (and boundaries) for making decisions about what is included and what it is not. This is important if one wants to write a good story. This is particularly necessary if one is writing a good short story.

In one sense, this is related to theme. If the theme of your (short) story is love, then you will choose to focus the attention of the reader onto those details and moments that illuminate that theme, and you will (sadly) have to let go of other ideas that would distract from it. Choosing a story focus requires that she decide how the author make a conscious choice to define what their story is about, and stick to it. It’s not easy.

As always, helping our child find their story focus will require helping them brainstorm and make decisions based on what they care about. Asking questions can help them think of different ways this can happen, without imposing our own thoughts onto their story. Our student needs to choose how she is going to express the story focus - what she will focus on in order to tell the story. Will it be a single character? Or group of friends? A family or a town? Will it be the setting? Will it be a single event? A moment in time? Or all the little events that led up to a single, important moment? Once we ask these questions, the next task is making the decisions - which of these will help the story stay in focus and not go down a rabbit hole?

As they make these choices, their story will become more focused and have more meaning and value.


Getting to the Heart of your Character

You can help your student get to know their character just like they get to know a real person. We’ve already given you some advice for helping your child develop their characters’ physical appearance and characterizations - but just as seeing a person from across the room isn’t an effective way to actually get to know someone, developing their physical appearance is only a superficial way to develop a character. To get to the heart of your character, the author has to find out what that character wants - or what we at A Pirate’s Guide call “Character Desire.” So I also shared about finding out what your character wants and desires, with some easy tips to begin brainstorming those. So far, so good.

But why is this so important? Why does our character have to want something anyway? Yes, knowing these character wants and desires help set the author up for creating action in their story. And it’s so much more than even that. Because we aren’t talking about the simplest wants, though those will drive action too (a hungry character WANTS to eat, and that prompts them to take ACTION and sneak a cookie from the cookie jar).

What the character wants - as it relates to the story and the Act of Villainy (or conflict in the story - more on that in another post) - will define who the character is in the story, and it will determine the actions that they take within the story. The heart of the character - as it relates to the Act of Villainy - might make your character a hero, or a villain, or perhaps a princess. Let’s say that the Act of Villainy in our story is that a princess was stolen and locked into a tower. The character who desires to set the princess free is the Hero, even if he wears a black cape and hat, and twirls on his mustache. The character who is locked up in a tower is the Princess, even if they are a short dwarf who has bad breath. And the character that wants to keep that princess locked up is the Villain, even if he is tall, handsome, and rides a white steed. It is the desire of their heart - again, as it relates to the Act of Villainy - that determines
who your character is. And that will determine what they do. And what they do will determine, in part, how they relate to other characters.

Finding out what a character desires and why will help your student get to the heart of their character, and that will help them find their character’s place in the story.

(These are just a few thoughts to get you started as your child continues to develop their characters.
A Pirate’s Guide has more detailed explanation and exercises to really dig into the Act of Villainy in exercise #10, and what your character wants in exercise #17).


How to Choose

Let’s say your child needs to write a short story for class. They’ve brainstormed a bit, and now they have to choose ONE story from their brainstorming sessions. For some kids, this is simple - they only managed to brainstorm one or two stories, and one made sense, they pick, and voila, they are off. For others, this produces an entirely new set of anxieties!

So, how do you pick ONE story idea to write about? You (well, your student) should choose the story idea that interests them the most. There isn’t a right or wrong answer. Your student will be living with this story for however many weeks it takes to write the story, so the most valuable thing is that they care about their story.

Yup, that’s it. They pick a story idea they care about - that interests them, that they want to think more about, find out more about, play around in. It doesn’t matter if, at this stage, it doesn’t make sense, or isn’t a “complete” idea, or anything. Have them look at their story ideas, and find one that they want to spend the next ten weeks with. And go with it!

As an aside, this method of “choosing” by interest and what they care about, works for many other decisions they will have to make over the coming weeks. How do they choose which characters to put into their story? Think about who they’d want to spend time with - because they’ll be spending a lot of time with them. Focus/theme - what’s something THEY care about? Want to think more about? Location - where would they like to go? Of course, this is by no means the only way to make choices, and in lots of instances, it isn’t the best way, but for these starting points, finding what interests your students, something they care about, will help all the future moments of diving into this story again and again something they are interested in and excited about doing.


Coming up with a story idea

Remember back in the day, sitting in English class, and the teacher says, “this week, you are going to write a story. It needs to be two pages long, and you have to have an illustration. Go.” How did you react to that? Maybe you were on the of the few who jumped up and down, got out a new notebook and a box of #2 pencils, and went. to town. More likely, you were one of the kids who panicked. Write a story? What about? How do I do that?

Too often, our students are asked to do something that is too big. “Come up with story ideas!” Too big. I’m sure the intention is that having no restraints means greater freedom, but reality is that boundaries are freeing! So if your student is panicking at the idea of “coming up with a story idea,” help them out. Give them some boundaries.

Start smaller. Ask for 5 locations. 5 genres. 5 character types. 5 problems. Make it just 5 of whatever (and honestly, if 5 still overwhelms them, ask for 3). Use A Pirate’s Guide for ideas of different elements about which they can mindstorm 5 ideas. Then use that raw material - put them together in different ways, and start brainstorming these into story ideas.

The whole idea is to help your student find what’s already inside of them. What the specific ideas are matters less than helping them open up and be creative.


Brainstorming - when you've got to write a story

Brainstorming (or mindstorming, as our pirates call it) is one of the most important things story-tellers need to do. Yes, NEED to do.
And it is HARD. So how can you help kickstart the brainstorming session? The first thing is to turn off the internal critic. There is NO stupid idea in brainstorming! This is not only true for your child, as they brainstorm, but for you as you listen to them brainstorming. Turn of the critic, and be open to just seeing what pops up. (It’s amazing how our children sense our inner thoughts. So turn off your internal critic - of yourself and them - and watch them create).

Asking questions is often the easiest way to get started. (Put yourself in the writer’s shoes: imagine someone asked you to just “come up with a story”? Without any parameters, there are just too many options!) If your child is struggling, ask open ended questions: Think of a character (anything - an animal, a person, a robot). Then ask - what problem do they have? How could they solve it? Who might help them? Keep it simple at this stage. Come up with a handful of characters and a handful of different problems. Come up with a variety of settings (time and place). What is happening in those times/places? Who is there? What are they doing? Remember, at this point, there are no bad ideas. Steal from other books/movies/stories.

The more ideas you generate (while keeping it fun and positive), the more likely you will get to a point of finding THE idea that you can't wait to write about. Don’t give up. And then take a day off and let it sit. Come back to it tomorrow, and see what strikes you. You are off to a great start!