Friday, October 23, 2015

Fish cheeks and other conflicts

True or false: You can't have a story if you don't have a conflict.
Before you answer that, think about a story you know well. It could be a movie, it could be a great book you read, it could even be the sitcom you watched last night on TV. Whatever the story, it probably started with a conflict, some problem the protagonist had to face. That conflict is what drove all of the main action throughout the story. The story ended when the conflict was resolved.

Here's an example from Amy Tan's "Fish Cheeks."
Conflict: The narrator is embarrassed about how her crush, an American boy named Robert, will respond to her "shabby Chinese Christmas" when his family visits on Christmas Eve. This conflict drives every piece of action in the narrative.
The conflict develops (rising action): Amy anticipates the visit with dread, describing all of her favorite foods in the most unfavorable terms. She watches her mother prepare "appalling mounds of raw food" including "a slimy rock cod with bulging eyes" and "a bowl of soaking dried fungus." During dinner, she watches, horrified, as her relatives and Robert's respond to the meal in ways that are completely opposite. At one point, Robert even "grimaced."
Climax: The clash of cultures culminates with a mortifying belch, her father's way of showing his satisfaction with the meal.
Falling action: Her mother responds to Amy's humiliation about not fitting into American culture with these wise words: "You must be proud you are different. Your only shame is to have shame."
Resolution: Only later does Amy realize the value of this lesson.

Students analyze conflict development in a picture book.
This week my seventh-graders read "Fish Cheeks," "The Day the Sun Came Out," picture books, and they also viewed a short film. The goals were to identify conflict; identify the techniques authors use to introduce the conflict; and trace the conflict as it develops through the story. With "Fish Cheeks," they worked in small teams, pulling one section at a time out of an envelope, reading it closely, and answering questions that helped them analyze the conflict.

Next week, students will be taking what they learned by analyzing conflict in literature and applying it to their own narrative writing. I want to see that they can introduce clear conflicts in the stories that they write and that they can develop the conflicts throughout their stories.

OK, so if you're still thinking about that book you read, movie you watched, or sitcom you caught on TV, consider the exposition, the beginning. Who was the protagonist? Did the protagonist set out to accomplish some goal or need to deal with or come to terms with a particular situation? If so, that was likely the main conflict. Now consider what the story would be without that conflict.

Without a conflict, there is no story.

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