Monday, February 1, 2016

6 No-Fail Lessons to Teach Students How to Write Fantasy

Kids love fantasy! So do I! I'm a big urban myth fan myself. But if you ask those same kids to write a fantasy story, they don't know where to begin. Oh yea, it all starts with excitement, but goes quickly downhill into the land of  frustration.  If there isn't an intervention, that student (who could be the next Jim Butcher or J.K. Rowling) never gets the courage to tackle fantasy again. So, my strategy is to take the genre students love, and use the writing process as a scaffold to teach them how to build a good fantacy story. Writing a good fantasy story is like writing any good story. It must have good characters, a plot that makes sense and be entertaining. But fantasy takes even more thought and planning. That really puts an emphasis on the prewriting stage. In my experience, that's the stage most kids want to skip over, or give very little thought to. That's not possible with fantasy!

My favorite way to teach fantasy is in a series of high interest lessons. After 6 short pre-writing  lessons, students are not only proficient in fantasy, but have everything they need to write their own fantasy story!

Over the six days of lessons, students should keep each assignment in a writing notebook, folder, or some other way to keep them handy. Students will be referring back to previous lessons often and building upon them.

Hook: Show this clip from Harry Potter: Harry's First Quidditch Match
Discuss how Harry's world is different from our world. Is there magic? How would you describe the world of Harry Potter? Does the magic have limits? How would you describe the characters in this clip? End by telling students that the Harry Potter books and movies are examples of fantasy. Like all genres, fantasy has certain elements. That's what they are going to learn about over the next few days, and even get the opportunity to write their own fantasy story.

Lesson One: Create a Magical World

1. First we brainstorm elements of magical worlds that the students have seen on TV, movies or read about.
2. List on the board what the world looked like, who lived there and how it was different from the real world.
3. Discuss the rules of magic found, what the limits of that magic was. All magic has limits! Without limits, the story ends before it starts.  An all-powerful wizard fixes all problems. Story over.
4. Next, students write three paragraphs about their own magical word. One paragraph is what it looks like, the second is about the characters that live there, the third is about the magic found there, or how it is different from the real world.
5. Students might enjoy drawing a map of their world if time allows.

Lesson Two: Describing the Magical World

1. Explain that the reason people love reading fantasy is that the writer gives details that help the reader feel like he/she is a part of the story. Fantasy is rich in details.
2. Pass out a number of fantasy books/stories (see the list below) and ask students to partner up and find one really good description of the magical world. Share each description with the class and discuss what makes the descriptions work in the story.
3. Individually, ask students to write one paragraph to describe a small aspect of the magical world from lesson one. Remind students that there should be enough detail in their paragraph  to make the reader feel like he/she can see, hear, and feel what it is like to be there. Note: this paragraph should focus on one particular aspect in the magical world, for example the trees, the clouds, the buildings etc. This will help students write about a small idea well, rather than a big idea badly. It is only one paragraph.

Lesson Three: The Characters

1. Choose a story/book or movie (Harry Potter, Frozen, Alice in Wonderland etc.)
As a class, write a list of the main characters from one or more stories/books/movies. Then list characteristics of each one. What is their strength, weakness, etc. Is this character the hero, villian, sidekick?
2. Next ask students to list three characters that would appear in their magical world from lesson one and two. Under each name, draw a picture and give at least three characteristics. Note: Students often enjoy being creative with names. For example Harold O. Gar might be the name of an ogre.

Lesson Four: The Hero's Quest

1. As a group, list all of the fantasy books/stories/movies the class can brainstorm on the board.
2. Under each write what the hero was required to do. (Lord of the Rings, destroy the ring,  Harry Potter, defeat Voldemort, Alice in Wonderland, get back to her own land etc.)
3. Ask students to go back to the sheet from yesterday with the three characters, and under the hero write his quest.

Lesson Five: Magic

1. The magic in a fantasy story needs to be believable. This is done by giving magic limits. Without limits, the story is over before it begins. Will there be magical objects, animals, people? As a group, think about the stories discussed in earlier lessons, What was the magic? Were there magical objects? Could people or animals do magic?
2. Ask students to decide the magic in their magical land. What are the limits of that magic? Ask students to write a paragraph or two about the magic in their land.

Lesson Six: The Hook

1. Grabbing a reader is the number one task of any writer. Read the first paragaph of a number of fantasy stories.
2. Discuss with the class what makes that first paragraph a great hook (or not). Did that first paragraph throw the reader into the action? Is it a set-up for strange things to come? etc.
3. Next ask students to write the first paragraph of a fantasy story using the magical world that they have created in the last five lessons.

Time to Write!

Prewriting and planning are finsihed at this point. The next step is to set students loose to create their own fantasy stories using the sections they have already created and thought through. When the story is finished, ask students to get with a buddy and read the story aloud. Discuss revisions and changes needed to make the story more clear and flow better. Next ask students to edit their own work, then get with a buddy and edit each other's work.

My favorite part of writing is the publishing process. Kids love the opportunity to draw pictures and turn their work into a real book. There are many ways for kids to make their own books. Check out the site below for a great idea.

1. The most simple idea is to ask students to draw and color a cover, and important pictures that will help their reader understand the text better. Staple when finished. Simple, but it works.

2. This is a good Youtube video: Making a Writing Book for Primary Kids

If you have a great site for book making please note in in the comments section below. There's a lot of good ones out there!

Fantasy books for upper elementary:

Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
A wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
James and the Giant Peach by Rohald Dalh
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer
Septimus Heap by Angie Sage and Mark Zugy
Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
So you want to be a wizard? by Diane Duane
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Rohald Dalh
Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
The Neverending Story by Michael Ende

Fantasy Story Starters

Fantasy story starters really ignite the imagination. They are great to use during the days you are teaching the six lessons, maybe as morning work, or homework. 

Write an email to a dragon
Write a help wanted sign for a village that needs a hero to rid them of the Ogre.
Write a story about how your fairy godmother became the queen of the fairies.
You find an egg at the beach. It looks like a dragon egg.
Write a journal entry from a fairy who can't learn to fly.
Harriet receives a shinny stone in the mail with a note that says, "polish me".
Cathy looked carefully at the snowglobe, She was sure the people were moving.
Pete touched the mirror carefully, but his hand went through, and seemed to disappear.
The egg I found started to hatch. Why does it look so much like a dragon?
The man at the door smiled at me. "Do you know you are a wizard?" he said.

If you would like to read my other post that focuses on using magic in writing, check out:  

If you are looking for just the right resource to help you test and evaluate your students' writing using Common Core Standards, check out: 

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