Teach descriptive writing with this sure-fire lesson
For some reason, young writers seem to want to write as little as possible when describing a scene. I read descriptions as sparse as this example: I shot the ball and it went in and everybody freaked out. However, when kids see the effectiveness of exploding a moment, they’ll surprise themselves with how much description they can generate.
About a year ago, I wrote this post about a mini-lesson where my students watched a slow-motion video clip from writer and author Barry Lane’s YouTube channel. We watched the clip in five- to ten-second second segments. Following each segment, I would pause the video and the kids would write down what they saw. In effect, they were exploding a moment. The video was of a boy who looks about ten years old hitting a baseball. The idea is that the boy hits a home run, which causes the crowd to go wild.
If you’re unfamiliar with “exploding a moment”…
Exploding a moment is one of Lane’s signature revision strategies. When writers explode moments, they do what movie directors do to indicate a film’s pivotal moment: they show the moment in slow motion to indicate its importance. When a moment in a narrative holds the same importance, exploding that moment across a page or two can do the same thing. If students take an important moment from their narratives and envision it happening in slow motion, and then write what they see, they’ll inevitably “paint” a much more detailed rendering of the moment than they would otherwise.
This year, I wanted to try this same Barry Lane idea with high school students.
This year, I wanted to try this same Barry Lane idea with my students at the high school where I now teach; however, I thought the ten-year-old’s baseball video might seem too much like middle school material.
So, I tried to remember movies that I’ve seen that include slow-motion moments. One of those I remembered also just happened to be baseball-themed: The Natural.
If you watch this YouTube video clip and watch it from :40 to 1:20 in eight- to ten-second chunks, you’ll provide your students a similar moment to explode that is a little more “grown up.”
Here’s that clip from The Natural, which only a couple of my students (out of about 90) had seen.
Before playing The Natural clip, I asked students to imagine that they were Roy Hobbs, the player at bat (played by Robert Redford), and I also suggested that they write their explosion in first-person point-of-view. I thought this would make their writing more immediate. Also, when it came time to share, it might be helpful if we all focused on the same character’s perspective in the video.
Playing the movie clip, pausing, asking students to write what they saw, and then also having a few of them share their “explosions” took about thirty minutes or so. (With some classes it took less time because —at least at my school— many of these older students are reluctant to share their writing. Right now, many of my high school students don’t care to share their writing, which is a real change from middle school where kids can’t share enough!)
Here’s one student’s exploded moment:
Here’s another example from one of my high school students:
Finally, here’s a copy of my handwritten explosion that I shared here and there during my classes to either encourage sharing or just to help students see what exploding a moment might look like.
Here’s that free slow-mo video site…
I’ve also thought about finding more short video or movie clips to play during the year so kids can continue to practice this technique more. Videvo.net has a huge supply of short, slow-motion video clips of everything from runners in a marathon to a candle flame.
Many are free to view and some are only available for purchase with an account. Here’s a link to a free clip of that candle flame.
I haven’t used any of these yet, but I think an occasional one might make a good bell-ringer activity while also keeping the explode a moment technique fresh in students’ minds.
And no, it might not seem that a candle flame would be a pivotal moment in a narrative… but it could be.
Imagine if you had a character making an important life decision while watching a candle flicker. For example, I can picture the character watching the flame, pondering her choice of whether to marry her boyfriend. As she examines the flame, she might see connections to their relationship. For instance, she might see that the flame bends and sways in the breeze, much like their relationship has had to bend and sway to accommodate their individual needs and goals. Anyway, you get the idea.
This is literally one of my favorite writing activities ever! It demonstrates to students that they CAN elaborate and that they CAN write descriptively.
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