By Trilby Greene, A Pass Project Manager
We are all storytellers by nature. Before the existence of written language, we preserved stories—of cultural triumphs and defeats, everyday comedic and tragic circumstances, and personal musings and reflections—through the traditions of oral history. Though we still engage in such oral storytelling practices—“You won’t believe what happened to me today!”—the written word has gained tremendous power in the art of storytelling. We write with different aims: to entertain, to express, to inform, to persuade. Perhaps the greatest challenge, in a vast landscape of truths available in this information age, is to create engaging stories with purpose and educational value.
As an M.F.A. student currently crafting and polishing my first novel, I have discovered many valuable facts of good fiction writing: individual voice, precise word choice, concise description, and powerful plot development, to name a few. As a seasoned professional in educational publishing, I have also now come to recognize the greater challenges that arise in encapsulating these elements within the space of the educational fiction passage.
1. Individual Voice
Sure, educational fiction passages should display a unique authorial voice. However, there are other elements to consider when writing for K-12 students. Is this voice appropriate for the age bracket? Will it ring true based on their current developmental abilities and considerations? In educational writing, these factors are more important than unique authorial voice. We must take care to speak to students in a context they can understand, process, and appreciate within their developmental levels.
2. Precise Word Choice
Similarly, we must consider the depth of students’ vocabulary at any given stage of their education. An elevated word choice—no matter how precise and appropriate for an adult reader—will likely be lost on a younger student reader. An excellent resource for gauging grade-level appropriate vocabulary is the EDL Core Vocabularies in Reading, Mathematics, Science, and Social Studies. This and other guides will help the educational writer discern appropriate and effective word choice in crafting the educational fiction passage.
3. Concise Description
Concision is especially important in educational writing for a couple of reasons. First, the student must read, absorb, and respond to the content within a given amount of time. Second, the educational fiction passage usually falls between 500 and 1,000 words, depending on the intended grade level. This limited space creates a challenge for the fiction writer, who often longs to wax eloquent in his or her prose. The key is to resist this urge and focus instead on the essential details. What does the student need to know in order to answer the questions dictated by the appropriate educational standards? Which essential details will convey the necessary information and keep the student engaged, so that the main points and objectives are recognized, accepted, and applied? If any details do not prove essential under this scrutiny, eliminate them, or recast them in ways that do.
4. Powerful Plot Development
Each fiction passage must display a complete story arc, a beginning, middle, and end, complete with rising action, falling action, and dénouement. It is important not to distract the student in his or her detection of missing elements in the story arc. (What happened to the heroine in the end? Why didn’t the hero complete his journey?) The aim is not to trick students into discerning some hidden meaning or outcome. All elements of the arc must exist within the text, so that students may complete their own journeys in achieving the educational objectives of the passage and questions that will follow. As educational writers, it is our duty to provide all elements of this arc, so that students may travel it and reach their individual conclusions.
We are all storytellers. As educational writers, we are also guides, leading students on their educational paths with engaging and effective storytelling elements. In keeping our audience—and our objectives of teaching and entertaining—in mind, we will inevitably continue to contribute to the development of creative minds and a rich future of storytelling to come.