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Lessons from Story Contests

By David Marks
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #45, 2002.

Lessons your children can learn while writing for story contests.
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David Marks

Young writers need an audience other than their parents. They need their efforts published. For most homeschoolers this means posting their creations on the refrigerator door, sending copies to grandparents ,and sharing with other homeschoolers. Entering creative writing contests is another great way to encourage young people to exercise their developing skills.

The Story Starter

Contest "story starters" usually come in one of two flavors: a topic or scenario, or the actual beginning of a story. The difference is that a topic or scenario will give the children a situation or the skeleton of a story. It won't give descriptions of place, dialogue, or establishment of character and it may not give a clear definition of the conflict.

A topic or scenario starter may read like this: "A little girl meets a wolf in the woods."

A story beginning might read as follows: "Little Red Riding Hood was walking through the woods on the way to her grandmother's house one day and met a wolf leaning against a tree. The wolf asked her where she was going and she said . . ." Now your children have to write the rest of the story.

This writing experience will become a training experience if you encourage your children to include in their entries evidence of their understanding of the following: character continuity, point of view, identification of the nature of the problem, clear elements in conflict, and a recognizable resolution.

Characters First!

Tell your children to start by listing the major traits of the main characters. In our example, they might list the following: the protagonist's age, intelligence, courage, dedication to family, understanding of the dangers of wild animals, sense of curiosity, and degree of gullibility. For the antagonist (the character that opposes the protagonist) they should list purpose, dedication to purpose, motivation, major abilities and handicaps, and intelligence.

The characters' dialogues must be consistent with the characteristics of each character. If the girl is a slow thinker, this must be evident in the way she speaks throughout the story. Her vocabulary and sentence structure must reflect her intelligence. Her ability to talk and act must demonstrate the way her mind works. If you talk to your children about this point and use our example of Little Red Riding Hood, they should begin to see that in the traditional story she seems to have a great deal of trouble thinking through problems. What girl would mistake a wolf's face for that of her grandmother's and say something like, "What big teeth you have, Grandmother"? Your children should immediately recognize that this little girl does not see life as complicated.

Younger children should recognize the tense suggested or used in the story starter and be encouraged to maintain it throughout their stories. Teenagers should be able to handle tense, person, number, and attitude - whether the narrative voice is objective (does not care what happens to the characters), or is subjective (he does care and lets the reader know this). These elements should be discussed and the children should be encouraged to list the elements they plan on using if they are given a scenario, or they should list the elements presented in the story starter and continue to use the same ones.


Both a scenario and a story starter usually establish a conflict. Discuss with your children the nature of conflict. Older children can work with interior and exterior conflicts. You might explain that interior conflicts are within the character. Forces such as guilt, anxiety, regret, and ambition present the conflict for that character. Exterior conflicts are forces outside of the character, such as laws, money, and other people. Younger children should be able to discuss with you the main character and the problem the scenario or story starter presents to that character. In either case, any story is about characters faced with a problem they must solve. Your children should see every story as an examination of problem and solution.

All children entering story writing contests must understand the nature of conflict and that the elements of the conflict must be understood by the readers. The characters don't always understand what the problems are, but the readers must.

Check to make sure your children understand what it means to "resolve" a story before they begin writing their entries. If they have created a clearly defined conflict, the story's resolution will be much simpler. The protagonist or hero of any story must either win or lose the established conflict. If this doesn't happen, the story cannot be complete. In our example, the girl as the protagonist has to recognize that the wolf has taken her grandmother's place in the bed and in some way she must save her grandmother.

If you teach these techniques to your children and then encourage them to enter story writing contests, that experience can be both educational and fun.

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