Stranded on a Desert Island
Survival and the bones of narrative structure
When I was a middle schooler, I daydreamed a lot about natural disasters. There would be a snow storm while I was walking to the bus tunnel after school, and I’d be stuck in a bus shelter with nothing but what was in my school bag and maybe a boy I liked would be stuck there too, with nothing but his school bag (which was his dad’s old leather work satchel held together with duct tape, which was only one of the reasons I thought he was immensely adorable). Or I’d be stranded somehow in the Alaskan wilderness and have to live off the land with just a knife and a bar of Grandpa’s Pine Tar soap. Or there would be an avalanche and I’d be stuck in a remote cabin, or I’d be in a kayak and get carried off by an unexpected current and live in the wilds of, I guess, the San Juans.
The satisfaction of all these stories was the clarity and restriction of them. If you only have what is in your kayak, you have to be clever. If you’re in a bus shelter in six feet of snow together, the cute boy has to talk to you.1 Creativity thrives on restrictions.
So anyhow, when I ran into a writing prompt idea about writing desert island stories, I knew I wanted to try it out with my teen students. A castaway story consists of three basic parts: getting your character into the situation, throwing some adventures their way, and getting them out again. Most stories consist in their simplest bones of these parts, which makes this project a concrete way to play with narrative structure. How’s that for a way to make it sound boring?
First, we brainstormed how a person could have gotten stuck somewhere. My students minds went way wider than just a shipwreck on an island. We had people on skydiving trips gone wrong, in backyard bomb shelters, in about-to-erupt volcanoes, in deep sea mining submarines, and in other dimensions. So their answers to how their character got there were wide-ranging as well.
Next, we did an exercise called What Could Go Wrong that I learned from my friend Will Taylor (whose The Language of Seabirds, a middle grade summer love story between two boys on the Oregon Coast is phenomenal: go find it now). It’s very simple:
put a character in a place, say a desert island.
make a list of everything that could possibly go wrong: big, small, internal, external, semi-impossible. For instance, our character could run out of water, get chased by sharks, starve, break a shoelace, lose their knife, sleep on an ants’ nest, start a fire, get harassed by monkeys, have a visit from aliens, lose their football, get Baby Shark stuck in their head, miss their dog, realize they loved that girl in their geometry class, be scared of the dark, break their leg, eat the wrong kind of coconuts, realize the island is actually the back of a giant turtle, etc. Now we have some possibilities for a story!
bonus: set some ticking clocks. Maybe they have to get off the island in time to be the best man in their brother’s wedding, or escape the volcano before it explodes, or find water before their canteen gets empty.
We also worked on getting sensory details and vivid description into the stories, and thinking about what was happening inside our characters.
We’ve been working on the stories for a couple of weeks, and all told it’s going to be about a month-long project. Like most projects, it’s clicked more with some kids than others, but that’s OK. It feels like a contained way to try story-writing, and part of that is wrestling with the hard parts of writing fiction, including writer’s block. And then soon we’ll be on to something else, and the island and all its delights and horrors will shrink away and slide over the horizon.
Credit where credit is due
This prompt came from a great book I’ve just discovered.