A Pirate's Resources


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!)


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.


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!