This summer, I set up some blankets in the park and got together with a group of young artists to create fantastical stories and explore new worlds!
Stories are at the heart of all art for me. Whenever I observe art, I’m always wondering about the stories being told: the one I imagine, the one the artist was thinking of, and what someone else, sometime and some place elese, might see. Stories hold important magic; when we share and listen to stories, we’re taking part in observing the world and ourselves, we’re sharing life.
One of the best things about teaching art is the opportunity to encourage people (of all ages) to think about the stories they like to tell and listen to; to use their imaginations and speak up and give life to their creations by sharing them. I’ve developed the curriculum over a few different iterations, including online virtual classes and in-person. This class is interdisciplinary, drawing on writing skills, drawing, and theatre arts, plus practice in presentation and embodiment.
Interested in taking the class? Check out the class page and sign up for the newsletter to find out when the next Story Makers class for kids, teens or adults (in-person and virtual) will be coming around!
In this post, I’ve included my class breakdown, with some downloadable writing prompts and story charts. For any educators out there, please feel free to adapt this class outline to your students’ needs, and let me know if you have any ideas for the class!
Our 4-day class began with a land acknowledgement that the class was taking place on the seized and unceded lands of the Kalapuya. I shared with the class a Kalapuya Creation story told by Esther Stutzman, recognizing the power and importance of storytelling for all humans in all places throughout time.
And then we got to work!
Key Story Elements: Character, Place & Narrative
The use of examples is really important here; asking students what stories they like from books, games and movies and a knowledge of those stories helps to point out the elements of character, world, and narrative as they think of their own stories.
I also encouraged students to re-tell a story they know well. In our class, one student was DEEP into the Red Wall series by Brian Jacques, as so he re-told one of his favorite books from the series by going through the character crafting, world building, and narrative of that book.
Both Character Crafting and World Building were created from research of crafting comics and stories. See the resources at the bottom for attributions and links.
For character development, we used character sheets that focused on specific character details – including physical descriptions, talents, fears, desires, and conflicts.
- Character Name – you can always change this later, if you want!
- Physical Description – what does your character look/ sound/ smell like (use the physical senses)? Things to include: species (human, cat, alien…), skin/fur/ hair/ scales color, age, gender (if any), height, typical clothes…
- Role – what is the character’s job or role in their community: student, villain, hero, house pet, slice of pizza
- Talents – what is something your character does well: a good leader, magical, they’re VERY stinky…
- Fears – what is your character afraid of? Everyone is afraid of something! Maybe if your character is good at something, they’re AFRAID of the opposite thing…
- Wants – what does your character want more than anything?
- Conflicts – what keeps your character from getting what they want?
For the class, I had showed students each of the character prompts one at a time, and we wrote and discussed together.
Some of the questions that students wanted to discuss were great for talking about what makes characters compelling — any by extension, what ways we can related to the stories of others based on common experiences and empathy:
Possible response: Everyone is afraid of something! Fear is an important part of learning about life and growing, and sometimes fears tell us about the ways our characters learn to be strong, or why they have certain talents. Think about this: if your character is REALLY good at something (TALENTS/ROLE), like being a strong leader, maybe their fear is the opposite, like not being in control or not being able to protect people they care about.
After completing the written charts, the students then created portraits of their characters in their sketchbooks, using their notes to draw their characters with details.
We approached our world-building like our characters: thinking about what makes the world unique and some of the particular challenges in the world.
- Location – where is the setting of the story (can be more than one place!
- Time – when does the story take place (in the past, present, future, an alternate universe), this helps us understand what kind of technology is possible and how people might behave in context
- Description – what is this place like (use the physical senses)? What does it smell like, what kind of environment is it in? Ocean, city, space… being very descriptive helps your story-listener feel like they’re really there!
- Community – who lives in this place and how are they organized? Is there a leader? Are there secret spies or hidden monsters… think about the role your character has and how they might fit into the world.
- Problems – no place is perfect! What’s something that doesn’t quite work for everyone about this world? It might have something to do with your character’s conflicts…
The discussion about community is really interesting, it helps us as story crafters consider how each character in the story has a job for the story: the leader, the villain, the person in distress, etc. A lot of young artists can really get animated into the details of their story by talking about who populates their world.
These story beats are adapted from Jessica Brody’s Save the Cat! Writes a Novel (which is based on the books by Blake Snyder — art is sharing and adapting!)
The story beats help us keep track of the changes in the story and how one event leads to the next. For this 4-day kids class, I reduced the story beats to just 7 prompts, but they can certainly be expanded upon (check out Brody’s book for more about story beats).
I read these story beats out to the class and everyone wrote at the same time, along with some discussion about them:
- Opening and set up – what does the World and your Main Character’s life look like on a normal day, when nothing exciting is happening
- Theme – what will your character learn, how do they and their world need to change?
- Catalyst – what is a BIG thing that happens in the story that takes your character out of their normal life?
- Question – what are some of the reasons that the character might not want to change, even though the BIG THING has happened? What could they be risking?
- New World – now that the BIG THING has happened, what is different about the character’s life. What challenges are they facing?
- Fun & Games – what are all the things the character does to overcome their challenges? How do they try to get back to the old world, or how to they try to live in the New World?
- The Fix – how does the character finally fix the challenge they have been facing, what is the solution to the conflicts they’ve been experiencing, and what is the resolution to how their lives are different?
We spent the second day of class working on story beats 1 – 4, leaving us in a bit of a cliff hanger in our stories.
The OPENING was a fun exercise, to imagine what everyday life is like, how characters just spend their days: what do they do, who do they see, how are they frustrated, what do they want… Emphasizing that the story will center on a BIG THING, the OPENING is everything before the BIG THING happens.
The idea of a CATALYST was a good one to discuss; for a lot of students, this came out naturally, and it was helpful for them to have others point out what the BIG THING would be in their stories. We had people being sucked into video games, people falling into their own imaginations, character’s whose enemies suddenly disappeared, and cheese sandwiches that suddenly turned into robotic monsters…
On the third of four days of class, we talked about story beats 5 – 7. For FUN & GAMES, we emphasized that there will be challenges and failures (FAILURES are good for growing!) for our characters. They need something– to escape, to help others, to depend their people, to subdue a cheese sandwich monster — and they’re going to try different ways to get what they need, and some of those ways are going to be failures. Because, usually, when people try new things, we fail before we succeed.
The FIX is the solution/ resolution/ conclusion. Diverging from Brody’s story beats, I cut out the entire 3rd act to make two-act stories so that the class can resolve in 4 days. But, when I do this class with more time, I’d include more of Brody’s story beats, especially the false victory/ false defeat beat.
Stories with pictures
Interspersed with the writing prompts, I also gave lots of time for sketchbook drawing, including some drawing follow-alongs for characters, objects, and scenes students were interested in learning. For the comics crafting version of this class, there’s much more time spent on figure drawing, expression, and drawing 3D shapes.
I opened each class with some stretching, followed by theater, storytelling, and drawing games:
- Story Embodiment – I told a story in the 2nd-person perspective (“YOU are walking through the woods”) focused on action words and events. When I say an action word, I act it out, and encourage students to act with me. This game supports empathy with character experience. I also focus on how we move our bodies to express emotions (fear, surprise), as well as our facial expressions. This embodiment supports understanding in figure and expression illustration. It’s also a good way to get students to focus on the present and immerse themselves in the story.
- One-word story – We sit in a circle and one word at a time, we tell a story: “Once” “upon” “a” “time” “there” “was” “a” “pencil”. This got confusing REALLY fast, so I’d suggest having someone write down what folks say, and read that back when the group gets stuck.
- One-line drawing – A large sheet of paper at the front of the group. One at a time, each student can draw one line – can be curved, but no sharp angles- or color in shapes on the sheet. We see what emerges. Sometimes (usually) it’s a mess. I did this game a couple of times, once as a warm up, which yes, was a mess. The second time we got something a bit more figurative, and so then I made that drawing a prompt for a quick story write. I used Visual Thinking Strategies to point out what students saw in the drawing and encourage them to follow their imaginations on what could be depicted. It was super weird in a GOOD way!
Stories told in many ways
At the end of the class, all the students sat before the group and shared their stories. I left this very open-ended, reminding students they could write and then read their stories, they could tell their stories verbally and show pictures they illustrated, they could also act out their stories with other students helping them. Some of the students allowed me to film them so I can share their stories with you!
There’s a lot more I could have added to this class, and each time I teach a new variation of it, I make changes. If you’re an educator who uses these ideas for your own class, I’d LOVE to hear about what you did and what supported your students’ creativity and experimentation!
Handouts and notes are available here for free
Here are the resources I’ve used to craft this class