Exploring Diverse Forms of Storytelling With Mentor Texts

Writing can be more engaging for students when they have the opportunity to consider different approaches to help them get started.

March 18, 2024
Emma Hanquist / Ikon Images

While a prose-only approach to composition and use of the page might have once been the dominant process in writing, my conversations with authors who work across forms of media, as well as the trends I notice in our wider culture, have led me to the conclusion that writing is much more flexible than we might think. It only makes sense that I invite my students to compose across forms of storytelling in the classroom.

I’ve used mentor texts to help students think about pivoting their writing and creating beyond traditional and linear approaches. I often present these avenues of writing in a choice format for students to explore the ways of storytelling that connect most deeply with their practices and interests. For example, when I’m discussing American voices in a literature-focused unit, students have the chance to explore examples of plays, comics, and video games from society and culture and then engage with rethinking or redesigning their own products in response.

The Writing Game

Video games have been part of my hobby, practice, and story navigation since I was in elementary school. James Paul Gee advocates that video games (their problem-solving nature in particular) can help students develop different skill sets. In his book Good Video Games and Good Learning, he explores the possibility of games to teach aspects of literacy. The stories that gamers encounter certainly take narrative turns, but I’m also thinking about the scripting process when I turn my attention to games.

In conversations with video game writers, I’ve learned both the precision that is required to fashion dialogue within time limits and the nonlinear nature that a video game script takes. Many of my students love to game, and taking a look behind the scenes with some mentor texts shows both the complexity and the creativity that crafting in this visual world can inspire.

The weaving and complex layout of a video game script can be surprising to look at—I delight in sharing them with students who may or may not have considered that video games have a writing stage. In addition to building literacy awareness, game writing calls for managing not only one plot, but several possible plot directions based on the decisions of the main character/player. It’s also intriguing for thinking about what first-person narration allows writers to do. As they craft game scripts, my students can think about the impact of their choices as well as how to make wise use of dialogue. 

Scripts from Plays to Comics 

While the use of plays in the classroom has been a practice for quite some time, I enjoy fostering comparisons between play formats for the stage and screen, as well as script formats for comics. The phrase “Marvel style” might not be familiar to some, but this approach is known in the comics industry. 

As a longtime comics reader who has written about and explored the medium, I’m constantly delighted by the choices an author makes on a visual and verbal page. The level of detail that writers must put into their work is impressive (a recent blog post by comic book writer Jim Zub is a helpful example). These storytelling choices find their roots in the scripting stage, as is the case with video games. Unlike writers who develop video game scripts, comics writers have to think about communicating in a descriptive style to help their artist envision the scene that is playing in their mind.

The comics format is more parsimonious than prose and yet also purposefully descriptive. Because of that, comics writers must also decide how to make use of the form based on the limitations and possibilities of a static image. I’ve had students create comics in both groups and on their own, working through a scripting phase and then collaborating to create images. Some students prefer to engage in the entire process themselves, but most enjoy the collaborative nature of making comics. Students who are less comfortable with drawing often help with the scripting phase and also add details or help craft plans for the images.

Images, Design, and More

Beyond ways of establishing a story, visual renderings and responses can help students tap into symbolic elements in stories, as well as other literary techniques and writing craft. While emphasis might be placed on the colors that authors employ in descriptive narratives, actually using shades to convey meaning and to explore mood and tone has potential across courses. Words certainly convey meaning, but many texts in daily life are what Frank Serafini might call ensembles. This idea of an ensemble reminds me of an orchestra—a text is like many instruments playing together, from word to image to design. 

Sometimes when students don’t have the words yet, an image or element of design is an ideal scaffold that opens up possibilities for communication. In addition to entire scripts, students can explore ideas in visual form and explore complexity and nuance with close analysis of mentor texts for their own creations. Mentor texts for this kind of creating can include memes and public service announcements, but any visual will do. I think of noticing design when it comes to the traditionally passive activity of viewing a film. When we intentionally pause and note, the experience of viewing becomes more important.

In the same way, crafting in a step-by-step process with students allows time for individualized conferencing and may be an opportunity to tap into experiences that are more difficult to access by writing-only methods. This leads me to think of nonverbal students I’ve had over the years, including the ways I’d attempt to make sense of their overall takeaways from my class through conversations and written exchanges. Using visuals can help show understanding for a wide range of students. By incorporating an artistic response, even one static image, or a digital text that allowed for the use of personal/family photographs, I could tap into students’ voices across multiple paths of communication.

Ultimately, I believe there is a world of creativity in the journey ahead for our students, and I believe communication can be valued even when it comes in a way that we don’t expect. Whether it’s a single image or several pages and panels, embracing multiple ways of creating can help students tap into literacy and the joy of exploring mentor texts.

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Filed Under

  • Creativity
  • Literacy
  • English Language Arts
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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