Story Signposts

By Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraigfile7071253236891

I find my daughter’s middle school English homework a lot more interesting than she does.

She had a page of notes regarding “signposts” she should be looking for as she reads through various books for school this year. I did some poking around online and found that this material comes from Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading by Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst. The notes were interesting to me, as a writer.  For one thing, they pointed out areas that could be problematic for us as we write our books.  Here’s what I read in her notes, and my thoughts in italics.

6 signposts:

Contrast and contradictions: When you’re reading and a character says or does something that’s opposite of what they normally do.  Asking why the character is doing that action may help you understand character development, internal conflict, and theme. Or—it could be a plot manipulation, if done poorly. Or it could mean a distracted/hurried writer who isn’t maintaining character consistency.

Aha moment: A character realizes, understands, or finally figures something out.  If they figured out a problem, you probably learned about the conflict, if a life lesson, then the theme.  Potential problem area for writers…when is the “aha moment” occurring?  Is it too early in the book?  If it’s a mystery, the aha moment really needs to be either a red herring or a revelation about a smaller puzzle in the story.

Words of the wiser: A character pulls over the main character and gives serious advice.  You should stop and ask yourself: “What’s the life lesson and how might it affect the character?”  It may indicate the theme or internal conflict.  Interesting.  Have to be careful with this.  If the protagonist takes a back seat during this process, this can be a problem.

Again and again: When you notice a word, phrase, object, or situation mentioned over and over.  Ask yourself, “Why does this keep showing up again and again?” It may tell you about the theme and conflict, symbolism, or might foreshadow what will happen next. Or it could be similar to Chekhov’s gun…it better mean something if it’s in there.  If we’re accidentally repeating ourselves, that needs to be taken care of during revisions. Same with overused words/crutch words.  Although I suppose no schoolchildren would think much of my overdependence on “just.”

Memory moment: The author interrupts the action to tell you about a memory.  You should ask yourself, “Why might this memory be important?” Tells you more about the theme or conflict or may foreshadow what will happen next. Memories are tricky! Maybe we should ask ourselves the same thing—“Why might this memory be important?” If it’s not essential to character development or plot, it probably needs to be axed.

Tough questions: The character asks himself a really difficult question that reveals his or her inner struggles.  Stop and ask yourself, “What does this question make me wonder?” Tells about conflict, might foreshadow what will happen next.  I’m thinking this better be in dialogue with another character or else internalized worrying expressed a bit differently.

Reading through these again, though, I’m realizing that I’ve used all of these in my mysteries from time to time.  Carefully.  A sleuth trying to elicit information from a suspect may use contradiction. The aha moment is vital for red herring discovery (and, if you’re a mystery writer and have an aha moment that points to a clue…you’d better be pretty close to the end of the book. Otherwise, the clue should slip under the radar and not be an aha at all). Insight is often given my sleuths by observant onlookers or sidekicks (sometimes accidentally). I do repeat thematic elements…over the course of a series, though, since I want the series to have a theme more than individual books. Memories involving the victim are vital to mysteries. And…sure, I’ve used the tough questions thing too, although it’s more of the “dark night of the soul” moment that we see in scriptwriting structure.

Do you recognize any of these story signposts in your own writing?  Are you more interested in your child’s English homework than they are? :)

Image: MorgueFile: Alvimann

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27 thoughts on “Story Signposts

  1. Hi Elizabeth – I can quite see where you’re coming from – and if I had child .. I’m sure I’d be as interested as you are … I don’t write – but I can appreciate that your thoughts apply to blogging too .. and our attitudes around life in general and dealing with experiences …

    I can totally relate to these … cheers Hilary

  2. Yes! Someone else who overuses ‘just.’
    Funny that as a writer, you looked at those things as potentially bad. They’re like writing rules – broken when you know what you’re doing or just an amateur mistake. (Or one of those words we use that we don’t see we’ve used over and over and over…)

  3. Elizabeth – Thanks for sharing these. This is a really interesting and productive way to think about what writers include in their stories. They show key points in the story’s development, and they give readers clues about the main themes and characters. And crime writers can use them to plant clues and red herrings as well as show, not tell.

  4. Oops, forgot to check for “just” in my MS…already checked off frown, grimace, sigh, finally, and look… *off to search*


    Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

  5. Ha! Joseph Campbell’s monomyth for kids, from a reader’s perspective. I love it.

    Ever since I read Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering Best Beloved and I have started shouting “hook! first plot point! midpoint! all is lost!” at episodes of the TV shows we watch.

    Kids who see these in the books they read are more likely to become good writers.

  6. My grandson called last night. He’s ten and reading about the crusades.

    His world is black and white right now and he’s very serious.

    He tells me I shouldn’t laugh about the crusades.

    Keep reminding me that they killed Socrates for the sort of things I know.

    1. Jack–Ten year olds can be so earnest!

      I guess he may be (way) too young for Monty Python…wasn’t there a hilarious bit involving the crusades?

      Socrates and Galileo, too. I always felt sort of sorry for Galileo.

  7. Very thoughtful post, I love your comments, well done! Of course, I suspect that the original signposts were really meant for standard literature (the kind your daughter is reading, I’m sure) rather than mysteries. Because mysteries do need red herrings, and I guess that’s really a signpost of its own that is meant to fit the genre…Nevertheless, the signposts are terribly useful, and yes, I agree with you, I’ve found myself using them too!

    1. Claude–Most definitely for lit fic! But I do try to slip in some literary elements into my mysteries, too. I had a boy write me in complete frustration several years ago, saying he had my book for some kind of project and *what* was my theme?! Felt bad telling him I wasn’t really into themes… :)

      Hope you have a happy weekend!

  8. Yes, it happens quite often that I’m more interested in language, literature and science homework that the kids are. I have always seen extending knowledge as a form of entertainment >:)

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