The Writing Corner: How to Move Students Beyond Plot Summary

I guess I have some strong opinions when it comes to teaching.  I hate it when teachers only expect students to identify literary elements without explaining how they work, I think that smartphones are ruining teenagers, and I despise plot summaries.

I know that it is natural for students to write plot summary.  It’s something that they are trained to do early on, and it feels wrong for them to jump right into analysis without writing about what happens to whom.  But once they reach high school, we need to get them beyond simple plot summaries.  They need to be writing about meaning and how it is creatednot who goes where and what happens when they get there.

It’s important to teach students to avoid plot summary because if they do write summaries—on state exams or the SAT or AP—they will receive a failing or “needs improvement” grade.  But it is also important because we need to teach them to find their own voice and their own ideas.  If they think that writing what happens story is what they should be doing, then they believe that their purpose in writing is to retell what someone else has said.  

So how do we get students to move beyond plot summary?  Here are my best tips.

Don’t ask questions about the plot.  If every handout you give students on a novel or play focuses on what happens, you can hardly be surprised when they write solely about the plot on their summative essays.  Beyond a quick check to see if they understood the reading, you shouldn’t be asking them questions on plot.  Instead give them questions that really help them dig into a text.  They need to focus on what the author says and how that message is conveyed to a reader.

Give them prompts that ask about meaning.  I am not really one for great sports analogies, but I really like the expression “We play how we practice.”  If students are constantly writing summaries of what happened, we can’t really be surprised that they think that is what they should be writing on other essays.  Give them prompts that get them thinking about meaning, and let them know that plot summaries are not acceptable.

Read more poetry.  I love poetry for many reasons, but one of them is that plot is almost irrelevant.  Some poems barely even have a plot at all.  We can get right to a discussion of structure or setting or theme—all the good stuff that makes literature literature.  No one needs to remember the best friend’s mom’s name from 37 pages ago.

Give students steps or scaffolding for close reading.  I have a basic process that I follow to get students through a close reading of a text.  I don’t expect them to just figure this out on their own.  And we practice a lot—until they are used to looking for meaning when they read, we keep working on their skills.

Get them experimenting with writing.  Until students struggle to use literary elements to create meaning in their own writing, they will never truly understand the way that literature works.  So I always incorporate creative writing exercises into my lesson plans.  It’s like that great old quote from Benjamin Franklin: “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”  

There’s nothing wrong with plot.  I love a good story as much as anyone.  But if we are to teach our students to truly think for themselves, we need to teach them to do more than recite the details of someone else’s story.  They have to talk back to the text with their own voice.

Christina Gil was a high-school English teacher for sixteen years, but she recently left the classroom to follow a dream and move with her family to an ecovillage in rural Missouri. She believes that teaching creative writing helps students excel on standardized tests, that deeply analyzing and unpacking a poem is a fabulous way to spend an hour or so, and that Shakespeare is always better with sound effects. When she is not hauling water to her tiny home, she can be found homeschooling her two kids or meeting with her neighbors about the best way to run their village.