Monday, November 28, 2016

Writer’s block at the starting gate

I’m starting today’s post with a, “When I was in school...” story.

When I was in school, I dreaded hearing the teacher tell the class that today was the day we were going to write a story. That we’d use our imaginations to write stories about fabulous places and interesting characters doing who knows what. No sooner were the words spoken and I was panicking because every thought I might have had was gone.

Blank. Zip. Nada.

But maybe if I’d been given an idea to start with, say an open ended scenario, a stimulating
picture, a pertinent or perplexing prompt then maybe, just maybe, I wouldn’t have felt so lost.

Once Upon a Line by Wallace Edwards is one such book to provide story starters for struggling writers. It has a clever premise that every story begins with “Once upon a line”, line referring to the first sentence of the story as well as a physical line used in illustrating this picture book. Wallace presents the reader with the challenge of finding a very particular shaped line that is found in each illustration. (See image below.) I did find this challenging. Kids might like this component more than I did.

But I can see this book being particularly useful as a classroom tool for getting students to come up with some pretty intriguing stories. The format is a one page illustration, captioned with “Once upon a line,” and then an open ended statement that connects to the illustrations and needs to be finished by the reader.

For example, “Once upon a line, there was a knight who was allergic to horses. This was not a problem because…” is paired with an illustration of a trio of medieval knights riding into battle (maybe?) but one of them is sitting on an octopus.


Once upon a line, Captain Kurd grew eager to sight land. If he didn’t find land soon, he was going to have to…” which shows a small boat with two mice holding musical instruments and the captain who happens to be a chunk of cheese searching for land using his eyeglass.

The illustrations are nicely composed with fanciful and sometimes humorous images that will help struggling writers construct their stories.  Still, lots is left for the imagination to get a work out but the pressure for creating the original idea is eliminated.

Other picture books to check out for story starters are:

Fish on a Walk by Eva Muggenthaler (lots of surreal images and only two word prompts to get a story started)

Breakfast on a Dragon’s Tail by Martin Springett (interesting illustrations with a good chuck of a story provided and a couple of questions to help spark ideas) and finally,

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg (my personal favorite, a classic picture book with a single super realistic, surreal illustration and only a single sentence to spark the reader’s curiosity.)

I’d recommend these books for upper elementary and into junior high.


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