Take the Reader by the Hand and ...

Did you ever want to write a story?

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One day a fourth grader, whose name was Jeff, did something he probably shouldn't have - a thing any kid might do.

A GOOD start to a story? If you said yes, chances are you'd like to know more, because as fun as this might be to read, it's far from the whole story. It's missing all the specifics: the how and the whys and the whos and the whats. You don't know anything about the plot yet (what happens in the story); there's not much humor or suspense. It's a skeleton - all bones and no meat.

As readers, we want the meat.

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As writers, we have to oblige.

Writing a story is easier than you may think; anyone can do it - certainly you. All you need is some paper, a pencil (or, if you like, a computer), and your imagination. A quiet room also helps.

Good stories start with good ideas. "What should I write about?" kids ask me. It's a good question. I'd like to help you write a story that's based on something "true" that happened to you. Or something you saw happen.

Maybe you're saying, "But nothing exciting ever happened to me." Surely that's not true, but if you're stuck for an idea, let me give you a few things to think about that'll get your memory going. (After all, many stories come at least partly from a memory - a recent one, or one from long ago.)

So here's an "Ideas for Ideas" list. Think about: (1) a time you learned a lesson: "Don't sled down that steep hill," my mother warned me when I was a kid. I did anyway and crashed into a tree; (2) a day that turned out to be a catastrophe for you: Like the sixth-grade boy who wrote about accidentally locking himself inside a jail cell on a field trip to the local police station; (3) the "best" time of your life, such as winning a big game, or dancing in the "Nutcracker" ballet; (4) an event you were an eyewitness to: "The Day I Saw an Elephant Play the Piano;" (5) your most embarrassing moment - we've all had those!

There. Five ideas among many to think about. You don't have to use any of them. Probably you've already come up with one or two on your own (the more unusual the better), but if you haven't, feel free to use one of mine.

"How do you start a story?" is another question I'm often asked. I want to answer, "Anywhere, just dive in," but that wouldn't be helpful to everyone. So here are a few tips to catch the reader's eye, because that's what a good start (or "lead") should do:

* You could set the scene - tell where the story takes place, and in doing so, add some key information, such as: "One night I was down in my basement with the lights off watching `Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man' on TV." What does the reader know right away? It's night. The lights are off. Someone's watching a movie by himself in the basement. And the movie is scary. Probably the story's going to be scary, too. Maybe funny-scary. Would you keep reading? I would.

* Or you could start by asking the reader an unusual question that has to do with your story. "Do you believe in flying saucers?" introduces a story about alien beings. "Have you ever been in trouble with the principal?" concerns trouble. "Don't you just love liver?" is about gross food.

* You could start your story with some exciting action. You like action and so does the reader. "I was running as fast as I could" makes the reader want to find out why. So do "The snowball smashed through the window," and "The tree began to tip over and fall."

* It's very easy to start your story with an exclamation, such as "HELLLLP!!" or "GADZOOKS!", or with a command: "Stay still and be quiet!" or "Don't do that!" or even a sound. And a second-grader I know wrote, "PLLLLSCH!" As it turned out, her story was about stepping on a worm with her bare feet.

* Finally, you could start by telling what one of the characters was thinking or feeling, as I did above. "One day a fourth grader, whose name was Jeff...."

Take some time with this. Good stories start with good leads. But if you can't think of one right away, that's okay, too. A good lead may come to you later. For now, just dive in ("One day...") Write your story exactly as you remember it happening, in the order that it happened. First this, then this. Try not to get too bogged down with details. They can also come later. (Mom and Dad can help.) Ready? I'll write a rough draft of my story while you write yours.

One day a fourth grader, whose name was Jeff, did something he probably shouldn't have - a thing any kid might do.

His class was on a nature walk outside the school. His teacher liked to take walks, even in winter. And even though the school was in the big city, there was still plenty of nature to see.

Down the sidewalk and up a steep hill they went, with the teacher up front and all the kids trailing behind. Jeff was way in back.

Suddenly he saw something on the ground that he wanted - a bird's nest. And he didn't want to have to share it. Jeff collected bird's nests (ones that the birds had finished with), and this one was a beauty.

He bent down to pick it up, but it was stuck in the snow and ice. Quickly, he found a stick, and then he chopped it loose. That took some time.

So no one would know, Jeff hid the nest inside his coat, and ran to catch up with his class. But they were out of sight - gone, so far ahead that he'd lost them.

Only one thing to do: go back to school. Which he did, fast. Fast enough to get there first. He ran down the hall and into his classroom. When he unzipped his coat, the bird's nest fell out. He knew he was in trouble. But he thought of a plan that just might work....

How's your own story coming? Pretty well? Do you like mine? Want to find out what happens in the end? If you do, it's because of the suspense, which is what makes the reader want to know what happens next. Is your own story suspenseful? If your idea was a good one, it probably is. Save the best part, the climax of the story, the "big moment," for last. It'll be the most exciting, funniest, scariest, or the most surprising part - the one the reader can't wait to get to.

Another thing. When you finish your rough draft, look it over and, like an artist does with a painting, put in any little details the reader might need to help him or her follow along. Anything that might add to the story, such as a description or two - sights, sounds, smells, tastes. Good things to describe are people, places, and things. Give your characters names. Put in some talk, which is known as dialogue. Dialogue adds drama to your story. (Telling the reader, "My mom got mad at me and sent me to my room" isn't as good as, " `How could you do that!' Mom yelled. `Get up to your room!' ") In other words, show the reader, just don't tell. This is called "taking the reader by the hand." It sounds harder than it is. Watch, I'll do it with my own story - and I'll add the climax.

One day a fourth grader, whose name was Jeff, did something he probably shouldn't have - a thing any kid might do.

His class was on a nature walk outside the school. His teacher, Mrs. Rice (whom the kids called "Pudding,"), liked to take walks, even in winter. And even though the school was in the big city, there was still plenty of nature to see: cold-weather birds, bark, bushes, squirrels, and mice.

Down the sidewalk and up a steep hill they went. Cars and trucks rumbled by. Horns honked. People were rushing to and fro. Smoke fumes filled the air. The class was walking single-file, with Mrs. Rice up front and all the kids trailing behind. Way in back was Jeff.

Suddenly he saw something on the frozen ground that he wanted - a dark-brown bird's nest, about the size of a plate. A nest that big would belong to a crow or something. "Wow!" he exclaimed. "I can add this to my collection." When it came to nests, Jeff could be selfish. He didn't want to share it with his class.

But when he bent down to pick it up, he discovered that it was stuck in the snow and ice. "Oh, no!" he said. Quickly he found a stick, and then he chopped it loose. That took a few minutes.

To carry it more easily, Jeff hid the nest inside his coat, then ran to catch up with his class. They were out of sight, but he was sure he'd see them from the top of the hill.

He was wrong. They were so far ahead that he'd lost them.

Jeff knew that he'd better go back to school, which he did, fast. So fast that he got there first, ran down the hall and into his classroom, and unzipped his jacket. Out fell the bird's nest. Dumb. Dumb. Dumb. "Boy, am I in big trouble," he said to himself. He was breathing hard. "What can I do?"

He had a plan: to give Mrs. Rice the bird's nest as a present. Then maybe she wouldn't be mad at him for being so selfish and leaving the group. There'd be other bird's nests.

No problem.

He put the bird's nest on her desk, hid behind some shelves, and waited. A minute later the class came in. Jeff took his seat with the others. Mrs. Rice hadn't even noticed he was gone. Whew!

Then all at once he heard her say "Class, who put this bird's nest on my desk?" She didn't sound happy. Jeff didn't say anything. "Class?" She asked a second time. Everyone got up to see the mysterious nest, so Jeff did, too.

There it was - smack in the middle of Mrs. Rice's desk - floating in a pool of water. All the ice that'd been stuck to the bottom had melted. Uh, oh!

"Class... ," Mrs. Rice began to ask again, when one of Jeff's classmates said in a loud voice, "Hey, Jeff! How come all those leave and sticks are stuck to your sweater?"

Jeff felt his face go hot.

Mrs. Rice looked at him - hard. "Jeff," she asked, "is this your doing?" He nodded yes. His teacher thought for a minute. When had he had the time to rescue such a nest? On their walk? And how had the ice on it melted so fast - hadn't they just returned?

A smile softened her face. Jeff could tell that she knew, or at least could guess. But when she spoke she didn't sound angry. "Jeff, go get some paper towels to wipe this up. And, Jeff, when we're through with the nest you may take it home. Okay?"

Oh, happy day!

Did you like my story? It certainly was fun to write. And it's a truthful story: As a fourth grader I did find a bird's nest on a nature walk; I did run back to school, and I did put the nest on Mrs. Rice's desk. It did melt, but I never got in trouble. Lucky me! I don't remember if I ever got to take the nest home, but I probably did, because Mrs. Rice was always true to her word.

Some things I did make up. Lots of the little details I don't remember. (Was the nest really dark brown? Was Mrs. Rice's nickname really "Pudding?" Did cars and trucks really rumble by? Did I really say all those things?) In other words, I used my imagination. I exaggerated. I made believe. I stretched the truth. That's fun to do, even when you start out telling a true story. If you want, turn your story into a tall tale. Who remembers everything? No one.

So, use your memory and come up with a good idea. Think up a strong beginning or "lead." Write a rough draft. Put in any details you may remember, and by doing so, take the reader by the hand.

Then write your story over, using your imagination to add anything else you think would be helpful or fun. Simple.

Happy writing! `Kidspace' is a place on the Home Forum pages where kids can find stories that will spark imaginations, entertain with a tall tale, explain how things work, or describe a real-life event. These articles appear twice a month, always on a Tuesday.

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