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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Signal Your Intentions

turn signalIt wasn’t so unusual that my teenage nephews were sending me signals that translated to: “Will you take us to the store right now so we can spend these Christmas gift cards from Grandma?”

What was new this year was that they also wanted to do the driving. Brand-new permits in their pockets, I agreed to let one twin drive us there, and the other drive us home. And one of the things that most struck me was how careful they were to use their turn signals, even with no other cars for seemingly miles around.

It made me realize that as a seasoned driver I am sometimes a little lax about using my blinker—but that signaling one’s intentions is a really good habit to develop in student writers as well as in student drivers.

When kicking off a story, or titling it, sending the reader a signal about what to expect promises them a payoff. For example: “Hey, reader, do you love fantasy? Do you see how in Chapter One I’ve snuck in this bizarre detail? It’s a little hint that the world of this book is going to hold a lot more surprises than the everyday ‘real’ world that you’re used to.”

Foreshadowing is another effective use of signaling: a shadow (metaphorical or not) falling across the character’s sunny day can send a li‚ttle shiver down the spine of a reader as they anticipate that as-yet-unidentified trouble is coming.

And when I review the work of writers at all stages and ages, one of the most common things I see is that there are obvious holes in the information presented to the reader. Not intentional holes, meant to build tension. But unintentional holes, because the writer has things clear in their own head and doesn’t see that the reader isn’t being told enough. This is why peer review can be so valuable a part of your classroom’s writing process. You don’t even need to ask students to offer each other full-fledged critiques; simply encourage them to ask each other questions about their stories, and to point out where they are confused in their reading. These are great signals to the writer about where they might have unintentionally left holes in their story.

Flipping that blinker on is so easy—I find myself doing it much more often now that I’ve seen the student drivers in action.

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