Wednesday, February 4, 2009

A Review of StoryBuilders by Writeshop

My two children have vastly different writing styles. My daughter never has a shortage of ideas. Her writing is fast and furious, though taking a story to completion doesn't always happen. However, her half-written novels flow on paper with ease. Giving my daughter an assignment deadline is usually motivation to finish her already started independent work. My son, however, is often troubled when asked to select a writing topic. Giving him a blank piece of paper with no topic creates a panicked look across his face. A deadline for a completed project will produce nothing but writer's block. Ideas come slowly and he may dwell on a story idea for months, formulating a plot in his head. This fall he asked me to help him type out a story that he had been composing mentally since June! My son carefully develops his story over time and struggles to get those wonderful thoughts on paper. My daughter writes with ease, composing and typing simultaneously.

While different styles usually call for different resources, I was pleased to find a versatile writing tool in Writeshop's StoryBuilders.

I received the World of People and the Christmas Mini-Builder card sets from WriteShop for review. Each card set, in the form of an ebook, includes printable cards of story elements in the categories of character, character trait/emotion, setting and plot. While I typically don't care for digital products, this format was well-suited in this case. The product consists of a few pages of instructions accompanied by a set of 192 cards (96 for Mini-Builder sets), printable in either in black or colored text. Forty-eight blank cards are also provided for adding to the categories. It is recommended that printing be done on cardstock for durability. If you don't have colored cardstock available, a different color for each category, the cards can be printed with colored text on white cardstock or regular paper. I highly recommended purchasing a multi-colored pack of cardstock, available for around $3.50 a pack at discount stores. One pack of card stock can be used for more than one StoryBuilder card set.

Several ideas are provided with each set, but there is no right or wrong way to use the cards. One card from each story element category should be selected. Selections can be random, decided by the student, or picked by chance with a roll of a die (e.i. rolling a number 4 means you get the forth card in the pile). Independent students can simply use the cards to start formulating a story surrounding their selections. For the more reluctant writer, a timer could be set for just a few minutes, adding to the story each day. The cards could also be used Round Robin style in a group setting, giving each student a set of cards to start a story and then pass the story to others to add on. By drawing more cards from the piles, more characters and events can be introduced into the story line.

I decided to first try these out with my reluctant writer. To be honest, my son was more than a little suspicious. I took six cards from each category, gave him a die, and had him roll for each category. He reluctantly took his cards, strung them together and composed one sentence, “The clever burglar was on a raft with his feet and hands tied.” I started asking him questions.

How do you suppose the burglar got there?”
Who put him there?”
What was he doing before he ended up on the raft?”
Where was the raft?”
When did he get on the raft and how long has he been there?”

Blank looks.

I then took four more cards, one from each pile, and added to his one-sentence story.

“Along came a fearless postal worker who was lost in the jungle and saw the burglar floating on the river..."

At that point, my son started jumping in with his additions and before you knew it our burglar had met some interesting characters and events, including having his head stuck in the mud by a baby. My daughter soon jumped in and both kids were roaring with laughter at their silly story.

Now that the intimidation was gone, I had my son go through the cards and select one card from each pile for a story development. He chose the following cards: detective, clever, a strange telephone call and secret room. Interesting. Once the potential of his choices started to develop, he decided to select several other cards for twists and turns in the story. He happily trotted to the computer with his pile of cards to create his story. A title was pecked out, followed by "Chapter 1: The Mysterious Phone Call". The ideas were flowing. My reluctant writer was formulating a story that didn't take months of mental composing. You can read the beginnings of his story here.

I don't often give assigned topics for my daughter, but they are a great exercise to occasionally use in preparation to quickly formulate a written response based on given parameters. The writing portion of the ACT and SAT and essay questions on exams, for example, would require this skill. However, receptiveness from my daughter to being told what to write about is non-existent. Her approach to her writing is like that of an artist, and rightly so. She's a talented and creative writer. Even though she wasn't thrilled about an assigned writing topic using the cards, the results made it worthwhile. I had her randomly select one card from each category and asked her to write for 15 minutes only. Given she often doesn't finish stories, the assignment was to write a story that explained the events that led up to the situation in the cards, which would act as her concluding event. Her selected cards were: explorer, fearless, a strange disease and mansion. You can read what she came up with here. I suspect she may sneak a peek at these cards again later, as long as it is on her own terms. On occasion she does have writer's block, and she mentioned the cards might help with character development.

Anything that both inspires a non-writer to write and serves as a tool for talented writers is a winner to me. StoryBuilder card decks are a wonderful creative writing tool that provide a jumpstart to the imagination and inject a little fun and variety in writing exercises. Students of all ages, either independently or in groups, will be inspired, and even humored, by the sparks of ideas resulting from use of StoryBuilders. Aside from writing assignments, these simple little card decks have lots of potential. Parents can use them to come up with bedtime stories, families can build stories together during long car rides, and groups can utilize them for team writing exercises. The endless card combinations will create new story ideas each time you use a StoryBuilders set.

Four StoryBuilder sets, World of People, World of Sports, World of Animals and Christmas Mini-Builder, are currently available for immediate download. A new title, World of Imagination, will be released soon. Prices range from $3.95-$7.95. Be sure to visit the WriteShop website and browse the other products available.

Read how other TOS Crew members used StoryBuilders in their homes here.

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