As a teacher it’s important to be astute. When I was teaching a writing class once, I had a conference with a second grade student that illustrates this perfectly. During our first conference together, as I usually do, I asked this student about her essential story elements. “Do you know who your main character is?”
“An angry bird,” she told me.
“Wow,” I said, impressed. Children don’t usually associate such a strong emotion with a main character this early on. “That’s great. You’ve already given yourself so much to work with. Already I want to know, why is this bird angry?”
I wrote the question down for her in the back of her journal so she could ponder. It would take a lot of soul-searching. This could make a great story. “What would make a little bird so upset?”
Before I could finish transcribing the question, she gave me an answer.
“She wants her eggs.”
“Wow,” I said. Stunned again. This girl had such insight into character motivation. “If I was missing my eggs, I would be mad too. This is great conflict.” This kid was a genius. What an emotionally wrought story. I could hardly wait to see what she would write. I began to transcribe so I could go on to the next student. It would surely take at least a week for her to consider this next question. I asked her,
“Why doesn’t she have her eggs? What happened to them?”
Again, she answered right away. “The pigs took them.”
I was flabbergasted. This kid was a creative genius. I stopped writing my questions at this point, caught up in her evolving story. “That’s an excellent choice because it’s such a surprise. I never would have expected pigs to take eggs from a bird. It brings up so many questions for me.”
She nodded seriously. She knew this was a problem. All good fiction has problems and surprises.
I continued, helpfully, “For instance, I want to know things like: why do the pigs want the eggs? How do the pigs even get the eggs? I can’t imagine a pig climbing. Aren’t the nests up in trees? I’m growing concerned. Do the pigs have plans for these eggs?”
“They just took the eggs.” She answered simply, shrugging.
“Hmmm,” I said. I decided not to ask how pigs carried the fragile eggs. But we would need a lesson or two on villain motivation. “You have no idea why?”
At last I was getting somewhere. Maybe we found something she could think about for a week and I could get on to my next conference. “Why do the pigs want the eggs?”
I waited for a few moments while she considered. When she volunteered nothing, I asked another question. “OK,” I tried a new approach. She could think about plot points. “How will the bird get her eggs back?”
My student had an answer for this immediately.
“Oh,” I said, disappointed. Creative genius can turn dark. “That’s too bad. Why not?”
“She just doesn’t.”
I was stymied. How could a second grader be so certain about this bleak outcome? She had barely begun to write. As a teacher, I didn’t want to guide her away from an unhappy ending. This was her story. So I asked, “So, the bird doesn’t get her eggs back, no matter what, or how hard she tries?”
I pressed her, hoping, frankly, for hope. “There is absolutely no possible way she can get her eggs back from the pigs?”
Again, she nodded seriously. “Right.”
Desperately and shamefully, I floated a possible solution. “Will they hatch?”
“Nope.” She said. I was relieved she didn’t accept my idea.
“Well,” I said, trying to be diplomatic, “Most readers like to have an ending to the story. They feel satisfied when the main character gets what she wants. But not every author writes a story that way.”
“Oh. It’s not a story,” she said. Astutely. “It’s a video game.”