February 16, 2014

Narrative Art and Story Elements Part 2: Conflict

This is part two of How to Use Narrative Art to Teach Elements of a story. Part one discussed setting.

Analyzing narrative art teaches students how to observe and think critically about the world around them.

After the Hurricane Story Starter

Winslow Homer, After the Hurricane

Narrative Art is particularly useful in teaching conflict.  It allows students to visualize the problem the characters are having. Narrative art is art that tells a story– it may be a particular moment, or a series of events over time. Powerful images can be analyzed for their storytelling qualities.  By analyzing how artists approach issues like setting, theme, and point of view, we can help kids be critical of their own writing.

In part one of this series, we looked at how the narrative art of Thomas Hart Benton helped us to understand setting.  Today we will look at Winslow Homer’s Gulf Stream and how it can teach conflict.


Let’s see how elements of narrative art can be used to teach elements of a story.

Story Element= Conflict

Conflict is a problem in a story.  It is the opposition of two forces that allows the story to move forward.  It may be internal (within one’s self) or external (a struggle with a force outside of one’s self). There are four basic types of conflict:

  • It may be person versus person
  • person versus circumstance
  • person versus society
  • person versus himself or herself

Winslow Homer painted numerous images of troubled ships, sharks, and perilous weather. Possible inspiration for Homer’s series may have been his trips to the Caribbean, Nassau and Florida. Gulf Stream, painted in 1889, was received with criticism after its exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.   Homer did indeed change some details- he made the name of the boat clearer and added a ship far in the distance in the upper left corner.  Some speculate this was to assuage people’s anxiety as to the man’s fate.   This is the impact art has on the viewer. To determine the conflict in an image, you need to look at all of the details in context. Look carefully at Gulf Stream and answer the questions below:


Gulf Stream Writing Prompt

Winslow Homer, Gulf Stream

Part II: Story Element= Conflict

Winslow Homer, Gulf Stream

Observe details closely, interpret a meaning and create a written response.  Use the questions below to discuss the art in class.  Generate lists of answers which children can draw from when writing their stories.  Think about the various types of conflict that are represented and make sure to include at least one of them in your story.

  • What are the characters doing? Are they in a dangerous situation? What details are in the image to tell you?   
  • How did they get into this situation? How do they get out of danger?
  • Is there anything in the background that may change the fate of the man? How do you know?
  • Are the characters on the same side of an issue? Are they fighting, is there something they are fighting over?
  • What type of conflict is in the image:
    • person versus person
    • person versus circumstance
    • person versus society
    • person versus him or herself
  • Look for inconsistencies- something that does not make sense. Is there something off camera that could cause the main character a problem or help the main character? What’s missing from the image?
  • What happens next and how do you know?

Looking at narrative art can help children understand elements of a story by showing them the elements graphically.  Analyzing narrative art teaches students how to observe and think critically about the world around them.  By using art we can give students opportunities to think critically and engage in higher order thinking skills.  These experiences are particularly helpful with reluctant students- I’ve seen it happen.  Let me know how you use art in your classroom in the comments section below.

Narrative Art Part 3- it continues!

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