Guest blog featuring Jenni and Jody
Do your kids disintegrate at the mere mention of a writing assignment? That’s probably because
they feel like you’re asking them to drain the ocean with a spoon. They’re overwhelmed and
have no clue where to start, but there’s an easy fix for that.
Most plots have many of the same basic elements, and when kids understand those, writing is
much easier to tackle. We’ll go through some of them together here, but keep in mind that there
is no specific order that students have to follow when planning a story. They can start with
whichever one comes to mind first.
In any story, first, you have the world in which the story takes place. So, let’s use my favorite
example: Finding Nemo. It’s one of my most beloved Pixar movies, but it’s also a great model
for explaining story elements because almost everyone is familiar with the movie, and it has
clear examples of each element.
The world in Nemo is obviously the ocean, but there’s a lot to this setting that is not so obvious.
A setting can be a great tool for communicating subtle messages in writing. In the case of
Nemo’s ocean, there’s quite a paradox. It’s beautiful — full of bright and vibrant colors, a place
where light can dance and sparkle and perform in amazing ways. But it’s also treacherous.
Danger can arrive on the scene at a moment’s notice, transforming the beauty of the ocean into
horror and the light places into deep darkness.
The setting in Finding Nemo tells us something special about the entire story — things are not
always as they seem, and even when they are, there are still two sides to many things, and a
situation can flip from one extreme to another in a moment’s notice. For example, Dory is
disturbingly forgetful, but her ability to read (something that relies exclusively on memory) is the
key to their entire quest. A shark — one of the ocean’s greatest threats — has sworn off eating
fish. The 150-year-old turtle (ancient by most standards) has the energy and youthfulness of a
vibrant, young surfer dude. And the paradoxes go on and on and on.
More than perhaps anything else, the ocean is vast. It’s quite literally unfathomable (the word
fathom is a nautical measurement). The very world in which the movie takes place conveys the
hopelessness of Marlin’s quest. Without saying a word, the setting causes us to feel Marlin’s
sense of desperation by its inherent vastness.
When writing a story, students can start with a rough idea of the world in which the story takes
place but then go back after the other story elements have been sketched out and think about
ways that their setting can convey some of the messages and the atmosphere that they want to
The Main Character and His/Her Goal
The main character can be anyone or anything, but often, what makes the character compelling
is his or her goal. A story could be about the smallest gear in Big Ben who leaves the clock
because she feels insignificant and unworthy of Big Ben’s greatness. This was the plot of an
award-wining play my own daughter wrote in middle school.
A story could be about an egg in a refrigerator desperate to be chosen by the magical hand or a
blade of grass terrified of the approaching cow. It could be the plight of the word “orange” to find
another word in all the English language that rhymes with it (there isn’t one, by the way).
In the case of Finding Nemo, it’s the story of a father’s quest to find his lost son. After having
suffered an unthinkable tragedy, losing his wife and all but one of his 400 children, Marlin’s
primary goal in life was to keep that one remaining child — Nemo — safe. Until something
happens that changes the trajectory of his life, which brings us to the next story element.
The Inciting Incident
When Nemo gets captured by the diver, the story of Finding Nemo truly begins, and in the
process, Marlin’s goal is transformed. Instead of keeping Nemo safe, Marlin’s only objective
becomes to find Nemo, and all of his paranoid safety precautions go out the window in this
relentless pursuit. Nemo’s capture is what we would call the inciting incident of the story. It’s the
thing that sets the story in motion. It’s the reason that this particular story is being told. Had
Nemo not been captured, there would be no need to find Nemo.
The inciting incident is the moment when the main character is thrust into the action of the story.
Sometimes students begin here in their creative process. They might ask, “What would happen
if I found out that my dad was really an alien?” or “What would happen if the colors in a box of
crayon went on strike?” And then those questions become the launching pad for the rest of the
Other times, students begin with the main character or the world and then figure out the inciting
incident along the way.
Once the story is set in motion, the central problem or conflict is introduced. A conflict can either
be internal or external, and there can be multiple conflicts for the main character along the way,
often in the form of obstacles or challenges. These challenges raise questions that readers want
to be answered. This is what drives a story forward and keeps a reader invested. They want
answers to the questions, and without conflict and challenge and questions, there is no reason
to keep going.
This can often be the most challenging part of story development for students. As a homeschool
parent, you can help them flesh out their idea by challenging them to think of some obstacles
that their characters could face along the way or conflicts the characters could experience.
Some people call this the climax, but I don’t like that as much because often, there is more than
one turning point in a story. In The Lion King, Simba faces a turning point after the hyenas drive
him away, and he finds himself alone in a vast wilderness. Another turning point happens when
Pumba and Timon find him and welcome him to join their “Hakuna Matata” way of life, and yet
another one happens when he returns home to rescue his people from Scar’s oppression.
A turning point tends to happen when the main character faces an intense part of the conflict.
And most often, right after a turning point, the character faces a new world (even if for just a
brief time). When Nemo is captured, it’s a turning point in his story, and he confronts a new
world in the dentist’s fish tank. Sometimes the turning point brings about a new emotional world.
For example, a character might have a big fight with his best friends, and for a time, he’s left
feeling depressed and alone.
Once your student devises some obstacles for his characters to face, challenge him or her to
think about how they could write in a turning point or two, where everything changes (even if
only for a time) for the main character.
This is another one of those literary terms that I don’t love because falling action sounds like the
action is winding down, but very often, this is an exciting part of the story. For example, the
falling action in Toy Story 1 includes Buzz and Woody’s escape from Sid’s house and their
rocketing into Andy’s car to be reunited with their owner.
In essence, the falling action includes all the steps a character has to take to get to the
resolution, and those steps can be pretty exciting. To help your student develop the falling action
of his or her story, help them write out the steps the characters will take to reach the resolution.
The resolution of a story doesn’t necessarily mean a happy or even a neat and tidy ending, but
it should mean that, at the very least, all the questions that were raised during the story are
answered. We learn whether or not the main character has reached his or her goal. In the movie
Cars, Lightning McQueen does not win the Piston Cup, but he wins something more important,
friendship and honor.
In Finding Nemo, Marlin and Nemo are reunited, but they’re both a bit changed in the process.
Plus, they have a newly adopted member of the family, Dory. As your student develops the
resolution of his or her story, ask them to think about how the events of the story have changed
the main characters.
In the movie Cars, Lightning McQueen’s goal was to get to California and win the Piston Cup.
He’s single-minded and myopically driven to the point of apathy to anything and everyone else.
But time and experiences in Radiator Springs change all that.
Understanding the elements of a good story can transform the writing process from pure torture
to a fun adventure and help students to discover the depths of their own imaginations. Often,
kids are amazed at how creative they really are.
Help your students learn more about how to write with ease, clarity, and have fun in the process by signing up for my American English Grammar Course on Mr. D Live
More about Jenni and Jody
We co-hosted a weekly parenting radio show for more than six years.
For three years, our radio show was syndicated in different markets around the U.S. We wrote a syndicated weekly parenting newspaper column for six years. We’ve written freelance articles for a wide range of publications including The Old Schoolhouse magazine, Focus on the Family’s Clubhouse and Clubhouse Jr magazines and a wide range of regional magazines and newspapers.
We co-own a Florida-state-registered umbrella school that provides a legal covering for Florida homeschool families. We currently sit on the board of directors of our local homeschool group. We also consult with families throughout the U.S. and in Canada about wide range of parenting and homeschooling issues.
We began traveling around the U.S. and Canada speaking about homeschooling after Jody posted her son’s homeschool story on our (now closed) parenting website, and it went viral! We’ve also have written e-books and are developing a new curriculum.