Analyzing How Elements of a Story Interact: The What If… Strategy

One year I spent several planning periods making this great lesson on plot. The Keynote presentation was on point with its fancy graphics and super exciting transitions. The notes correlating notes sheets were Pinterest worthy with the elaborate plot diagram spread out over several papers. The application stations were sure to engage and cause students to whisper in wonder, “this class is so amazing!”

I was ready to teach.

To amaze.

To help students fall in love with exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution.

My first class walked in, set up their notebooks, completed their bellringer, and settled in for our notes.

“Today, class, we are going to learn ALLLL about the plot diagram!” I said with great enthusiasm, hand waving, and awkward Carlton style dancing.


To be fair, it was not exactly crickets. It was more like groans accompanied with extreme eye rolling that only 8th grade girls are capable of doing.

One of my favorite students (if we were allowed to have those) said, “Ugh, like, Mrs. Kepley, we’ve been doing this FOOOOREVER. I feel like I do this same thing every year!”

Whhhhhat? You mean I’m not the only language arts teacher you’ve ever had? The Men in Black thing doesn’t really exist, and erase your minds from grade level to grade level? That’s crazy talk. Besides, I’m the only one who can teach it the right way.

I pushed on with my lesson. Even though it essentially wasted all of our time, and I’m not sure if anyone learned anything.

Well, I take that back. I definitely learned something in that moment. I learned to value pretests, and to actually plan based off their results. I hate to admit it, but in the past I did pretests like I’m supposed to. Then, I filed them and taught whatever I wanted. #teacherconfessions

Since The Great Lesson of ‘12, I have found most of my students can read, comprehend, and identify the elements of the plot without a problem.

By the time they walk through room 22 on the 8th grade hall, I would say 85% of them know all about story elements. They understand the basics of plot, characters, setting, etc since they have been working with these since the 3rd grade.

The challenge comes in when we stop looking at the concepts in isolation, and start analyzing how they are connected, interact, and influence each other. Now, my whole goal when teaching RL 3 is to get my students to understand the author purposefully designed and created these elements to play off of each other.

Over the years, I have came up with three steps that really seem to help my students grasp how elements interact and work together.

1st Area of Focus: Setting

Story Elements: Setting

I have students brainstorm a list of their favorite movies (mine is Clueless, but that’s how they act when I mention it, so I have to pick something they connect with like one of the newest super hero action movies.)

I tell them to circle one where the setting really stands out to them.

Next, I give them the What If…brainstorming paper. The first prompt asks them to brainstorm all the ways the movie would be different if the setting was changed. (how different would Clueless be if Cher lived in a tiny town in Minnesota?! It makes me laugh just thinking about it!)

Next, they pick one of ways it would be different and they write a 5 minute power write about how the story would change if this one story element (setting) changed.

2nd Area of Focus: POV

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For the next part, we go back to our list of favorite movies. They can stay with the one they already have. or they can pick another one. This time I want them to focus on a movie where main character really stands out to them.

The next prompt on the brainstorming paper asks them to think about all of the ways the movie would change if it was told from a different character’s view point. (the movie, Hoodwinked, actually does this. It tells the same story from all of the character’s viewpoints so you can see how events and perceptions change the plot.)

Then we follow the same process. They pick one way it would change, and they do a 5 minute power write.


3rd Area of Focus: Plot

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Finally, we look at what we have read as a class. The last prompt on their brainstorming paper asks them to think about how the story would be different if we change major plot points. For example, how would the Hunger Games change if Katniss did not volunteer as tribute. Or, what if Peeta was not there to help Katniss?

After the brainstorm, we follow the same format as before: pick one and complete a power write.

This activity has proven to be a great introduction to how story elements interact and work together. I use the What If.. Plot brainstorming with everything we read. It is fun for them to think about how the story would change if just one small (or big) thing was different. Give it a shot! Let me know if you try it! I would love to know if it helps your students as much as it did mine.

Happy Teaching!


Below is a What If Activity we did with the novel, Chains.