Make a Mental Movie

When students are learning to write narratives, either personal or fictional, a common mistake they make is to simply list events in the order that they happened. This may sound organized, but it’s not much of a story.  The most important part of the story is missing: the emotion, the sensory details that put a reader right there into the tale, flesh out the story and make it an interesting read.

To accomplish a narrative with good details, one of the strategies we teach students is to make a movie in your mind.  Close your eyes and imagine you are watching your story on the big screen.  Can you see the background details?  What do you hear?  Is it cold or hot?  Who else is there?  Most critically, what are the body language and actions of the characters telling you about how they feel?

A personal narrative that I use in class is a story about my son, Tim, and the time he learned about the circle of life–no, it wasn’t at the Lion King movie.  Here is the bare bones story:

After dinner in Santa Cruz, we walked along the pier.  Tim saw a fish flopping around on the ground.  He asked if he could save its life.  I, of course, agreed.  Scooping it into his hands, he took it to the railing and dropped it back in the water.  Unfortunately, a pelican sat on a railing below and caught the fish as it fell from the sky!  Tim recoiled in shock.  I wanted to laugh.

You may notice that the best part of this story is when the pelican grabs the fish.  It has the most, although not a lot, of emotion.  This is the very heart of the story!  So let’s make a movie in my head about this memory.

On Fridays in the summer, my family and I often drive over the hill from San Jose to Santa Cruz for dinner.  We eat on the wharf and have coffee at Marini’s afterwards because they put a chunk of fudge on the lip of the cup.  The rich dark chocolate and hot coffee are just perfect after a good meal.  When the boys were younger, Tim especially loved walking to the end of the pier and peeking at the sea lions who lay on the support beams below the pier.  The sea lions’ barking echoed for quite a distance, seeming to answer the crying of the gulls in the air.  The rough weathered wood of the pier and railings is covered with gull poop, and the birds swoop down on any bit of garbage left unattended.

On the evening of the fish incident, it wasn’t dark yet, but the sunlight was softening toward dusk.  A cool breeze came off the ocean, but it wasn’t cold. I was full of good seafood, coffee and chocolate, and happy to be with my family, building this tradition with them.  Tim spotted a small fish, maybe five inches long, flopping on the pier and ran ahead of us.  Fishermen ringed the end of the wharf, their backs turned toward the fish, their lines in the water.  Maybe a pelican had dropped the fish in the middle of the pier?  Tim looked stricken and begged to save the fish’s life.  My heart melted.  My son, the sensitive one, wanted to help this suffering creature.  I watched with pride as he carefully lifted the fish and raced to the railing.  He had to go up on tiptoes to be able to drop it into the water below.  I was right there next to him, watchful, making sure he didn’t somehow slip and plunge into the water himself.  Therefore, I was in a good place to see the gaping maw of the surprised pelican as it snatched this gift from my son’s hand.  The fisherman closest to Tim saw it, too.  He hid his face with his hand, but I could see his shoulders shake with laughter.  I smiled, but controlled my own laugh as I casually tossed off the comment, “It’s the circle of life, Tim.” I prayed that he would understand, and not be devastated that he had killed the little fish.  His brother was quick to tell him it was okay, reinforcing my comment by adding, “yeah, like the Lion King.”  Tim was smiling in an instant, but I am still laughing.

Okay, so that has a LOT more internal feelings, sensory details, and even some dialogue.  Now we are getting somewhere.  This is still not the polished version of the story, however.  There’s some unnecessary detail, and it could still use more details.  At this point, I encourage students to tell the story to three people.  In the retelling, more details are recalled.  Listeners ask questions, and that helps a writer know what needs more explanation.  So now it’s up to you.  What part of the story would you like to learn more about?  Ask me some questions!

On my Kindle:  Linger by Maggie Stiefvater

58 responses to “Make a Mental Movie”

  1. …so Tim ended up saving the pelican in stead of the fish.

    1. Yes, he did and I like that ending better, Tarryn!

  2. Thanks! I was wondering if you could make some more posts about persuasive writing…

    1. This is the kind of thing to put under ‘requests’ Tarryn. I’ll do LOTS more on persuasive stuff after January. Until then, pretty much all narrative.

  3. Hi people of the world! I loved writing the first story. Well anyway, somebody tell me what their story is about because I’m very curious and bored so tell me.

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed the first story, Aleena! Now I have to go home, settle down with a BIG cup of coffee, and read all 27 stories. I can hardly wait!

    2. MY story is about a monster attacking me at the bus stop so its a mystery story

      1. There are NO monsters at the bus stop!

      2. Is your monster related to the Desk Monster, Eashant? 😀

      3. Really Eashant! Well anyway, Tarryn what’s your story about? Sooo….

  4. Hi Mrs. Ulleseit! After I finish typing this comment, I am going to read the stories that your class wrote last year for NaNoWriMo.

    1. I hope you enjoy them, Lan!

    2. Yes, please read!
      (From last year’s class)

  5. I can’t wait till NaNoWriMo starts! I also loved writing our first story.Some parts were a challenge but that’s okay,it was fun! What’s our next story we’re going to write about? Just curious! I love your writing Mrs. Ulleseit!

    1. Our next story is ……. a surprise! haha You’ll find out on Monday. 😀 I’m glad you love my writing, Prachi. I can hardly wait to read yours!

  6. Yaaay!Thank you! I can’t wait till you read my story Mrs.Ulleseit! I also can’t wait until we start our second story!

    1. So do you have an idea for a second story? I don’t.

  7. I don’t either. Mrs.Ulleseit hasn’t given us a topic yet. But I hope it’s something exciting!

    1. It’s probably going to be lots of fun.

  8. Ya,true. I think that our second story should be more of a challenge,don’t you?

    1. probably… maybe a fictional narrative! 🙂

  9. What kind of writing do you think we’ll be doing on Monday?

  10. It’s possible Tarryn!It would be exciting! Maybe expository writing…….

  11. If you had to chose which type of writing to do, which one would you chose?

  12. I would choose to do any type of narrative or expository, how about you?

  13. I would chose a fictional narrative or a persuasive essay. 😀

  14. Cool! I would definitely choose to do a fictional narrative but I’m not sure about a persuasive essay.Are you working on the “Not Giving Homework” persuasive essay?

  15. You two are so cute. Another personal narrative, with lots of new challenges. Then….in October…..getting ready for NaNoWriMo!

  16. Really? Yaay! Are we going to have a topic or something?

    1. A topic? For NaNoWriMo or the second story? I don’t believe in giving topics. I will give you lots of ways to generate your own ideas.

    2. I don’t know about you guys but I love fictional narrative. Oh! I also have an awesome idea for NaNoWriMo. Do you guys have any good idea for a story?

  17. maybe………………. it’s a secret…….;)

  18. Oh really, I didn’t know that.

  19. maybe I do…………..maybe I don’t:)

  20. Sooo……..why are you guys so secretive =)

    1. They must be afraid I am going to steal their idea, write a novel, and become a bestselling author! mru hahahhha (evil laugh)

  21. What if all of your personal narrative ideas you can think of don’t have a problem?

    1. Then you don’t have a story. Remember a ‘problem’ can be an internal conflict, like when you were really scared or nervous about something and got up enough courage to do it.

  22. Mrs.Ulleseit is exactly right. She might end up writing a best selling novel:)

  23. Maybe. So……..I can’t wait till NaNoWriMo because I have an awesome idea.

  24. I think I have an idea, too. I might do a murder mystery. 🙂

  25. I’m so glad you guys have ideas! Mine this year is going to be historical fiction.

    1. Historical fiction? No more winged horses? 🙁

      1. I’m working on an edit of the one I did last year for NaNo, Stephen. It’s really coming along nicely. I have a half-formed idea for a new flying horse novel, then I have to redo the first one. I won’t forget about my flying horses!

  26. awsome i love it 🙂

  27. Can’t wait to be ready to finish the cover, title page, dedication page, and the author page on

  28. I agree that people should make a movie in their mind so that their story shows emotion. Show what you were feeling.

  29. Your writing inspired me to try harder on all of my writing assignments. 🙂

  30. Making a movie ind your mind reminds you of the emotions are. You can see if you are sad, my eyes were tearing up my face turned red i knew i wasn’t happy anymore. You have to show those emotions not tell and making a mental movie of that moment can really help.

    1. Just to let you know in is spelled wrong. Also, if you can’t make a mental movie then pick another story you can remember.

  31. i LOVE the part about how the pelican ate the fish mrs Ulleseit! instead of Tim saving the fish he saved the pelican. he saved an animal either way, right? it was a wonderful story Mrs. U.

    i also cant wait till NaNoWriMo! i think i have a couple of ideas for the month. what are you writing about for NaNo mrs Ulleseit?? Just curious.

  32. I agree with many, how making a movie help . Also it may help jog your memory about the event. And help with detail.

    1. Totally. Making a movie helps you get all of the details and emotion into a story.

  33. Making a mental movie in your mind will help you right stories, i agree. i use it almost all the time in my stories! by the way i really enjoyed the fish story you wrote!

    1. it will also show body language, detail, and emotion or action.

      1. ()_()

  34. I like the story Mrs. Ulleseit, but I still can’t imagine what the fish looked like. Was it bleeding or just furiously flopping around? And maybe you could add some more dialogue too. Otherwise the story is great.

    1. i agree with you! everything is great, but what about the fish???

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