Teaching Kids To Vary The Pace In Their Story Writing

It is important for  every young writer to understand that not all the events within a story are treated equally. Inexperienced student writers often assign equal attention to each aspect of the written piece. This results in the following type of writing -I woke up, got dressed and had breakfast. The kitchen caught on fire and then I went to school.

From our knowledge of stories we know there are parts through which a writer moves quickly, and more important parts where the writer slows down and lingers a while. This is where the writer might intensify the action or reveal the character’s reactions in greater detail. Young writers need to know that this is a deliberate strategy on the part of the author. The author consciously zooms in. The writer uses a magnifying glass to view a part of the story more closely; to focus on a moment and to slow down time. When an important part of the story is enlarged upon, it is a signal to the reader, that this part of the story is important. Both readers and writers need to be able to recognise this important craft move.

The strategy of ‘zooming in’ goes by many names: ‘exploding a moment’ ‘magnifying a moment’, ‘hotspot’ ‘snapshot’, ‘adding detail’ or ‘slowing the action.’  Whatever the name, the idea is basically the same. The author writes in a way that expands a significant part of the story with the intention of drawing the reader’s attention to the words and the events.

In introducing this strategy to students, it is important to use authentic examples from children’s literature, your own writing, and writing by students. Such examples will prove powerful in illustrating how this strategy takes the reader closer to the subject and the action of the piece.   It is also important to provide opportunities for students to learn in different modes — by drawing, talking to peers, moving their bodies, etc .to better appreciate the concept of zooming in.

When sharing passages where the author has clearly zoomed in ask the students to visualize what the characters are doing and then discuss with their writing partners what they are visualizing. Ask them to think beyond any illustrations that may accompany the relevant text. Encourage students to discuss in groups their visual observations. Following this, ask students to share what their group saw in their minds while reading the passages.  I frequently refer to this wonderfully evocative piece by Tim Winton to reinforce this message regarding visualization and the use of show, don’t tell to expand the moment. Winton writes most clearly about a small moment in his childhood.

You might ask questions about how much action could be seen from the beginning of the passage to the point where the passage ends.
Repeat this with other passages, reinforcing what the students are describing. Hopefully they will notice that the authors keep moving closer and closer to what is being described.

‘A still summer night, a world away in a house that smells of cactus, and dust and musty kapok. I am six years old and almost asleep in the hollow of the clapped out mattress. Outside in the Tuesday dark a high tide cracks against the bar at the river-mouth. My skin is pleasantly tight with sunburn and smelling of vinegar. A stubbed toe throbs under the lightness of the sheet. The fridge kicks in and whirrs across the sleeping sounds of my mother, my father, my sister and brother. I am drifting, rising and falling in the early current of sleep when suddenly above me, there is a snap and a scream that lasts less than a second. Somewhere in the dark a terrible struggle is taking place. I lie there transfixed, totally awake now, and something warm dabs onto my forehead. 

I hear my mother murmur sleepily and my father scrambling for his torch. The beam comes on and strays drunkenly around the long room of iron bedsteads and cast off furniture before finding the shuddering pendulum above me. My mother gasps but does not scream. Snug in its trap, a great dying rat swings from a few metres of cord tied to the rafters, and as it passes in its horrible arc with its hairy whip of a tail a few centimetres above my face, the creature offers up another glob of blood that hits the sheet with the tiniest sound imaginable. 
Tim Winton, ‘Land’s Edge’ 

Zooming In Strategy
Have students divide a blank piece of paper into three sections.
Display an illustration from a familiar book and ask students write a description in the first section. Then cover half of the illustration, and the students write a description of what they see. Finally, covers all but one small aspect of the illustration, ask students write their descriptions.

Share student descriptions –with a partner, in small groups, whole class etc.
Ask students to go to a story in their writer’s notebooks and find a place where they now believe they can ‘zoom in.’ It might prove useful to have students talk to a partner about where they might “zoom in” before they start writing. After the students have tried the strategy, ask some of them to read their revised work. Then have the class discuss how the writer “zoomed in” on the action.

Key Features Of Zooming In
• Focuses on a brief, yet important moment in the text
• Enlarges images in the same way a camera lens works. The scene is crisper!
• Provides a specific use of the strategy, ‘Show, Don’t Tell’
• Involves the use of precise words, the senses, characters feelings/emotions
• Builds the tension in the story.
• Makes it easier for the reader to ‘visualize’ the scene or events.

Writing Like Writers: Guiding Elementary Children Through a Writer's Workshop
 By Kay Johnson, Kathryn L. Johnson, Pamela V. Westkott, Pamela Westcott.
Inside Writing Communities, Grades 3-5, Teaching A Revision Strategy: Zooming In, Silvia Edgerton.
Crafting Writers K-6, Elizabeth Hale, Stenhouse Publishers
Mentor Texts, Teaching Writing Through Children’s Literature, K-6, Lynne R Dorfman & Rose Capelli , Stenhouse Publishers


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