Can You Relate?

Mmkay. I sort of disappeared there for a bit.

Just a bit of work going on. I’m a teacher, so beginning of the school year is kind of crazy.

But I’m also a writer, so it is time to put my students on hold for just a moment so that I can spout out stuff that may or may not entertain or enlighten.

Actually, I have my students to thank for this post because it is from their discussion in our online classroom that spurred my brain into the realm of “Strong Ideas”. For my English courses, we evaluate essays and compositions using the 6+1 Traits of Writing Rubric, and the first trait covers ideas and content. As students learn more about this trait in the high school level 1 English course, one of the first things they do is analyze three different sample paragraphs and judge which one exhibits the strongest ideas, using the rubric criteria.

The discussion activity has students use these guiding questions (based upon the rubric) to help them determine which sample has the best ideas:

  1. What is the writer’s purpose?
  2. Who is the writer’s audience?
  3. How would you rank this sample – strongest, in the middle, weakest?
  4. Is the content powerful (interesting, engaging, different, exciting, intriguing)?
  5. Is the message clear (easy for me to understand)?
  6. Are supporting ideas apt and well chosen (is this the best way to develop the idea)?
  7. Does the writing show insight?
  8. Does the writing go beyond the obvious (is it unusual, unique)?

Of course, in typical fashion, when it came down to it, the student responses barely even considered these questions. (What? Follow directions? Why ever would they do that?) But, even so, they piqued my interest with their own observations, because a surprisingly high number of them had their own common criterion: the idea that they could “relate” to what the author was saying. One even said it was important that “most” people would be able to relate to one of the author’s paragraphs.

Is this a valid criterion? Does the reader have to be able to relate to the topic, the tone, or the details in order to deem it as having strong ideas?  I could dismiss this idea that my students have put forth as showing that they have misunderstood the question, but maybe they haven’t. Maybe they have put their own spin on say, question number four above, or even number seven. Maybe being able to relate to the piece means it is engaging.

And this makes sense – especially to a reluctant reader. I mean, give Shakespeare to most teens and I don’t care if you think you can convince them that Romeo and Juliet are like when their parents say they don’t want them seeing that one friend… there is just so much to distract them from that message. They cannot relate to the language, the formal tone, the time period. I’m not saying we cannot or should not help them try, but when considering Shakespeare through their eyes? The dear bard indeed, lacks strong ideas.

Is it any wonder that Twilight took the teen world (not to mention the adult one) by storm? Bella is the new girl… so many out there know how tough that can be. And then she is swept off her feet by the mysterious Edward – the vampire who is a forbidden love. (Hey, does that sound familiar?) By the end of this first book, even some of the boys are interested because they really want to hate Edward, and then by the next book, they all want to BE Jacob Black, some version of a werewolf.

The thing is, a story can have amazing details and a riveting plot full of action – or strong emotion. But in the end, I think my students are right, the reader has to be able to relate to something. My husband likes to read Tom Clancy novels, among a wealth of other things. I have read a couple of his books – and I can see the appeal. There is action. There is an intriguing plot. But for me, they lacked character development and that is what I relate to. (On that note, I’d like to add, for my husband’s sake, that apparently not ALL Clancy novels are like this and therefore he has insisted—for quite a long time now —  that I read Debt of Honor, which I still have yet to do. He’s reading my book for me, and it just occurred to me that maybe I should finally fulfill that request. One of these days soon.)

I’ve started watching an old HBO series, “The Wire”, lately and the show is full of antiheroes. There is a ton of grey area. But, in so many of them, there is something redeeming or relatable in them – even some of the primary players in the drug rings. This is the appeal that keeps me watching. The story might be compelling enough, but I need something to keep me invested. Relating to the characters is what does it for me. (On a side note, just the sheer fact that every third word is a swear word might be enough to draw a lot of my students in – ha!)

So, as I write – anything – this should be one of my major concerns, correct? Among my plotline, my setting, my details, and my characters, there needs to be enough that my readers can latch onto. Maybe it’s the Arizona setting that my mother-in-law says she’d like to see more detail about, because descriptive details are what help her relate to a story. Maybe it’s the inner thoughts of the male protagonist, because that is what my husband needs to buy into the relationship more. Or maybe it’s authentic dialogue, or at least authentic reactions to different situations because that is what my friend, Jen, needs.

Sounds like a lot to cater to, right? I suppose it could sound daunting, but it really isn’t. I’m a reader, too. I understand what it means to need these different factors to create a strong story. I may not always hit every target, but I can strive to come close. There’s the old mantra, “write what you know”, and even if your story is full of things you’ve never experienced (I mean, come on, zombies? Vampires? Lord Voldemort? Okay, maybe you’ve experienced your own version of Lord Voldemort…), this mantra still means, “include in your writing what you know”.

Circling back to my students, the other part of the discussion assignment asks students to reflect on how they can use what they saw in the samples as a guide for their own writing. Since this is the second part of the directions, none of my students ever actually even SEE that part and therefore never respond to that part. Nonetheless, in their writing, this is the suggestion that I give them to strengthen their ideas: details.

Not just any details. Specific examples. You say you like music? Tell me not only what kind of music, but give me an artist that you especially like and why. How does it make you feel? The antagonist in your novel that you are pretending to be? Give me specific situations that he/she is reacting to and what he/she is thinking.

Can you go overboard with details? Absolutely. But ones that are authentic, specific, and directly related to the topic, story, character reaction…these will keep your writing strong and relatable. Can you relate to a character that has chosen to wear comfortable jeans instead of the pencil skirt? Can you relate to the character that listens to the news instead of the pop rock radio station?

What do you consider “strong ideas” in what you read – be it fiction or nonfiction? Is it a “must” that you can relate to it? How do you write with strong ideas in mind?

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One Response to Can You Relate?

  1. Jen (@JSQ79) says:

    THE WIRE!!!!!! God, I love that show. My gushing relates to your post- I promise. I love The Wire, because it does something with it’s characters/situations that I think the very best writers know you have to do- it taps into what is universally true. I can’t relate to drug dealers in the projects, or the cops that spend their days going after them, BUT The Wire shows me who those characters are. Not as just as cops and drug dealers, heros and anti-heros, but as people. They highlight truth about human nature and the world we live in, and that draws me in. I can relate to that, even when the characters and situations are foreign to me. I’ve been thinking a lot about “writing what you know”, and I’ve come to the conclusion that you don’t necessarily need to know a place or a situation to write well about it. You can research places and situations, but you have to know people. You have to understand human nature. Just my opinion, but I hold it strongly.

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