4.2 – What Is a Story?

There are many types of stories.

For example, you can have a hero do one thing and another and then another. We call those stories tales. They can have action, but we don’t know much about the hero. 

In the best stories, the hero must solve a problem. We call those stories fiction.

 In fiction the hero has problems just like you do. You root for the hero because you care about them as people.

 Let’s look at the difference between a tale and a fiction.



Wannabe Silly

I woke up.

I fed my cat, Pickles.

I took Pickles for a walk.

An alien jumped out.

It wanted Pickles.

But I’m an alien too.
I changed into my alien form, and the other alien ran away.

Pickles and I went back home.

Now let’s look at what fiction is:

Fiction is about solving a problem. The main character (MC) must figure out a way to do that.

Listeners or readers like having a main character think of an interesting way out of a difficult situation.

It makes the story exciting because the readers or listeners start thinking.  


In our three-part box, the story looks like this:





had a problem with

a troublemaker

Let’s look at a fiction. Notice that the main character has two problems to solve: One inside her (an emotion), and one from the outside (what happens to her). Try to think of what they are.



Dr. Yukon Trustus

I have long dreamed of having a cat. I would daydream about it, and I would have dreams at night.

But whenever I asked my mother if I could have a cat, she would hiss at me and say, “No dogs, no frogs, no pollywogs. No bats, no gnats, no rats, no tats. Above all, no cats.”  

“But Mom—” I would say.

“No buts about it. Speaking of which, move your butt into the kitchen and wash the dishes. This is the third time this week you have forgotten.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” I would sadly say and trudge toward the sink.

Yanika was my best friend.  She and I were in the fourth grade, but in different classrooms. She lived outside of town.

She and I were more than BFF. We were BAAFF. We would say it like a sheep, and giggle. “Baaaafff!”

BAAFF stood for Best African-American Friends Forever.

One night we had a sleepover at her house. It was a creepy old place out of town. Mrs. Kingman couldn’t afford to fix it up.

I realized Mrs. Kingman wasn’t there. 

I got worried.

“Your mom’s not home?” I asked.

If my mother found that out that Yanika’s mom wasn’t home, she would get angry.

“She gets home from work at a little after nine,” Yanika said.

Every night?” I asked.

“Welcome to my world,” Yanika said.

We made popcorn and watched a scary movie.

“This isn’t very scary,” Yanika said. “Want to see something really scary?”

I pretended the movie hadn’t scared me. “You can’t scare me,” I said.

“Want to bet?” she asked.

She took me in the basement.

It was like a dungeon down there.   

“There are ghosts here,” she said.

“Yeah, right,” I said.

“And zombies, werewolves, and vampires,” she said.

“I like vampires best.” I tried to stay upbeat, but secretly I was looking around, my mouth dry with fear. “They get to sleep all day.”

“Well, then you will like White Death,” Yanika said. “She sleeps all day and hunts at night.”

I already was scared because of the movie we had watched. With the White Death, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up from fear.

Yanika ran up the stairs. She stood in the doorway, the light from the upstairs behind her.

She snapped off the light.

The basement went black. My mouth felt like it had cotton balls in it. I hurried after Yanika, taking the stairs two at a time, stumbling in the dark.

The door was locked.

I rattled it as hard as I could and beat on it with my fists.

Yanika cackled on the other side.

I felt around for the light switch.

My fingers finally found it.


I cried out as electricity zapped my arm.

The lights didn’t go on.

I tried the switch again, more carefully this time.


The basement was black except for a slice of light from the streetlamp seeping through little air vents.


“Let me out!” I yelled.

Yanika rattled the knob, then began shaking it. “It’s locked!” she yelled.

“Unlock it!” I screamed back.

“I can’t! I don’t know where the key is. I don’t even remember locking it.  It just sort of locked itself.”

“Are you telling me the truth?” I asked.


“Call your mom,” I said.

“I can’t. She’s a surgical nurse. No phone calls. But she’ll be home by nine.”

Yanika’s mom didn’t get home at nine.

She arrived back after midnight.

There had been an emergency surgery.

I sat for hours. My eyes slowly adjusted. A weak light from underneath the door cast

the room in a spooky soft haze. A circle of light from where a dryer vent used to be looked like a

spotlight waiting for an actor on a stage. I huddled there whimpering.

Something scurried below me, in newspapers underneath the stairs.

I looked down. I shouldn’t have done it, but I did.

I screamed and bolted from the stairs. This wasn’t Mickey Mouse. This wasn’t Jerry of Tom and Jerry cartoons. It wasn’t the cute rat who cooked in the Ratatouille cartoon movie. This was a disease-spreading rat that would love to dine on human flesh and human blood. I desperately felt my way to the workbench and crawled on top. Something padded from the rafters, above me. Then a scratching, like something in the insulation. I hit at it with a thin board I found on the workbench. An animal fell into my lap. I shrieked and leaped to the floor. The rat disappeared from the circle of light. A hissing came from there, and a scuffling. Something screamed. An animal appeared in the circle of light.

I climbed back onto the workbench. The cat jumped up and nuzzled me, wanting to be petted. While I waited for Mrs. Kingman to arrive home were some of the happiest hours in my life. I now knew who White Death was. She didn’t attack humans. She brought death to the rats who sneaked in. “White Death,” I whispered as I stroked her fine, soft fur. “W. D.” I thought for a long time. “Wild and Delightful,” I told her. She purred. After Mrs. Kingman got back and found the basement key, I emerged blinking into the first floor’s harsh light, White Death in my arms. Mrs. Kingman phoned my mom, who rushed over. Mrs. Kingman apologized many times. She grounded Yanika for a month. “Can I keep the cat?” I asked my mom. “Can I keep White Death?” I held her up for my mom to pet. My mom backed away. “She helped me not be afraid of the dark. And she killed a rat “Get that filthy animal away from me,” she said. She glared at Mrs. Kingman. “This will be the last time my daughter will be doing a sleepover here. Your daughter scared Hyacinth half to death!” * I did not want to talk to Yanika about White Death. I did not want to talk to her about anything. In fact, I didn’t talk to Yanika for a month. “Want to be friends again?” she asked me one day after school. I didn’t say anything. “I have a gift for you, if that will make things better,” she said. “Come over this afternoon, and I’ll give it to you.” “No way,” I said. “You’ll lock me in the basement again.” “I’ll bring it to your house,” she said. She and her mother arrived at supper time. “We’re moving to the city,” Mrs. Kingman said. I realized I might never see Yanika again. Before her horrible prank, we had shared many good times together. I stepped forward. Yanika and I hugged. “BAAAFF!” we said at the same time, and burst into laughter.

Yanika went out to their car and returned with White Death in her arms.

My heart leaped.

“Can I hold her?” I asked.

Yanika gave her to me. I held her against my cheek.

“Can I keep her, Mom?” I begged.

“Absolutely not,” Mom said.

She put her fingers in her ears when I pleaded.

Yanika and Mrs. Kingman took White Death back home. I waited a couple of days and then asked Mom again. More than asked. I promised to do my homework every night, promised to change White Death’s litter box, promised not to forget to do the dishes ever again. Whatever I needed to get Mom to let me have the cat.

Yanika went out to their car and returned with White Death in her arms.

My heart leaped.

“Can I hold her?” I asked.

Yanika gave her to me. I held her against my cheek.

“Can I keep her, Mom?” I begged.

“Absolutely not,” Mom said.

She put her fingers in her ears when I pleaded.

Yanika and Mrs. Kingman took White Death back home. I waited a couple of days and then asked Mom again. More than asked. I promised to do my homework every night, promised to change White Death’s litter box, promised not to forget to do the dishes ever again. Whatever I needed to get Mom to let me have the cat.

I was supposed to be old enough not to worry about monsters under my bed.   

I looked outside. All the street lights were dark. I tried the light switch.  No power. The storm had knocked out the electricity. The only power was a long ways away.

I reached for W.D. to comfort me.

She was gone!

Meowing came from under the bed.


I found a flashlight and, trembling, looked under it.

There was a hole under my bed. A light glowed from the bottom. The light revealed a ladder.

I’d better tell Mom! But she would just say it was a nightmare.  And maybe it was.

Then a meow echoed up the hole, and I saw a familiar shape in the light down below.

Wash Dishes!

I carefully climbed down the ladder. I found myself in a cave.

I was shaking all over. I didn’t want to go further.

But then W.D.’s meowing sounded from deeper in the cave.
I journeyed onward.
I turned a corner, There on a ledge was White Death, staring at me.

I’m glad you could make it down here, she said.

“You’re speaking inside my head!” I exclaimed.

Of course, she said. That’s how I got your mother to change her mind.

“You did that?” I asked her.

I hypnotized her, Wash Dishes said. It took a few days for the hypnosis to take effect.

“I don’t believe you,” I said. “A cat can’t do that.”

Who do you think locked the door after Yanika shut it?

“You?” I asked. “But why?”

I wanted some time with you. So you would want to take me home. I knew the Kingmans would me moving. I needed new slaves.

“Slaves!” I said. “Now see here!”

You humans are so stupid, she said.  You think you own us cats. But we own you. We train you to feed us, pet us, and play with us. Even take out our precious poop. She batted her eyes. Do you make it into soup? Do you proudly display it out on the stoop?

She turned and padded away.

Then she turned back. She was in the shadows. I couldn’t see her face.  

Who do you think gives you the idea to do those things? She said. We’ve been controlling you humans for thousands of years. Ever since our spaceship crash-landed on Earth.

“You’re an alien?”

She stepped out where I could see her.


Activity 1

  1. Did you like the second story more than the first? Why or why not?
  2. What was the main character’s inner problem? (Hint: What was Hyacinth’s problem before the sleepover?)
  3. What was the main character’s outer problem? (Hint: what was Hyacinth’s problem after the sleepover?)


Activity 2

We are always going to start our stories the same way:

            I had a problem with (the troublemaker).

What a Prompt Is

A “prompt” is a question or command that on an assignment or test. It tells you to do something.


In this website, you should always start a story the same way.  This is called a “What Statement.”  It tells what the story will be about. Always write:


            I + had a problem wit + what was in the prompt.


For instance: You are at the mall with your mother. Outside, you see a homeless man at a dumpster. He isn’t taking things from it. He is carefully putting pink boxes with pink bows inside it. You sneak a peek into one of the boxes.  Inside is a steaming meal of potatoes, a salad, and a steak. Even a knife and fork with a pink napkin rolled around them!  Write a story about the man.

Write the What Statement:


I   +     had a problem with  +  whatever was in the prompt.

I   had a problem with  a homeless man putting food in a dumpster.

Leave all extra information and commands alone

Notice that you don’t use anything extra that may be in the prompt.  No matter what is asked, just write: I had a problem with + a simple statement.[1]

For example, you may be asked to write a story, and the prompt will have a lot of information.  Keep that for later in the story.

A prompt may give you a story structure, such as “Write a story with a beginning, middle, and end.” Or it may ask for solutions to a situation: “You are lost in a desert. How do you survive?”

Ignore all information. Identify the troublemaker. Then add had a problem as the verb phrase (VP). For example:

Prompt: One morning you awoke and found you had turned into a giant bug. Write a story about what happened next. (Note: Sometimes you must change with to when.)





had a problem when

I became a giant bug

Example:    You find a weeping dragon in the woods. Write a story about what happened.

Start the story:          I had a problem with a dragon weeping in the woods.

Example:                    You found a moose that thought it was a dog.

Start the story:          I had a problem with a moose that thought it was a dog.

Now you try some.  Don’t write anything down. Tell your teacher or parent what goes in the empty boxes.

  1. You met a monster who loved playing baseball.






 had a problem with    



  1. You became friends with a man whose head was invisible.






a man whose head was invisible.


  1. You are haunted by bubble gum that told you to chew it.





had a problem with     

bubble gum that told me to chew it.


  1. Your parents bought a table that followed you wherever you went.






a table that followed me wherever it went.


  1. You found a rabbit that kept belching.





had a problem with



  1. You were given a fish that did not know how to swim.






a fish that did not know how to swim.


  1. Your baby sister was good at math.





had a problem with



  1. Your dog can rap.








  1. You brought home a whale that kept growing.








  1. Your king bought invisible clothes.







Activity 3: Create a What Statement for the Following:


  1. You find a weeping dragon in the woods. Write a story about what happened.


  1. You discover an elf living in your refrigerator. Tell how you get rid of him.


  1. You are captured by a tribe of cross-eyed cannibals on the South Pacific island of Borneo. Write a story with a beginning, middle, and end about what happens.


  1. At a Halloween party you discover that the cute girl dressed as a vampire really is a vampire. Write a story about what you did.


  1. You are on vacation in Indonesia. A man in a remote village sells you an orangutan that thinks it is a movie star. Tell what happens next.


  1. You stay overnight at your aunt’s house. There is a huge flat-screen TV in your bedroom. But the TV turns out to be an alien! Write a story about what happens.


  1. You are very poor. Your grandmother has given you a sack of quarters to pay the rent. You go to the bank but encounter a pistol-toting spider. Write a story with a beginning, middle, and end about what happens next.


  1. You have just purchased your first car. You worked hard to fix it up, and it’s perfect. You drive to the airport to pick up your brother who is coming home from the army. But on the way you run into a mind-reading tornado! Write a story about how you save your car.


  1. The world’s magnetic field has reversed itself. As a result, the Arctic Ocean has become tropical. You are one of Santa’s elves. Write a story about how the change affects you and your fellow elves.


  1. You are an apprentice witch in fifteen-century Germany. A wizard’s spell has locked you inside your broomstick. Write a story telling how you got out of the situation and what you did about the wizard.

[1]Parents and Teachers: Help the children get rid of extra information and do the assignment correctly. 

Activity 4: Write a What Statement for the Following:

One sunny day, you decide to take a shortcut on your way home from school. You go through the woods. You come across a dog. He starts talking to you.  Write a story with a beginning, middle, and end. 

The Chinese shar-pei is an extremely wrinkled dog that is instantly recognizable to anyone who has seen one before. This breed can weigh up to 60 pounds and can be standoffish with strangers but are loyal and serene with family members.

Activity 5: Pick which of the above what statements you like best.

Activity 6: As a group, vote on which one you like best.

Activity 7: What is the main difference between a tale and a fiction?

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