April 14, 2014

Narrative Art and Story Elements Part 4: Plot

This is part four of How to Use Narrative Art to Teach Elements of a story. Part one discussed setting, and part two discussed conflict, part three discussed point of view, and this part discusses plot.

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

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.

Narrative Art is particularly useful in teaching plot.  Students must look carefully at all of the details and interpret them in context.  By using art to understand plot, students must make inferences from the image, and look at it from different perspectives.

In part one of this series, we looked at how the narrative art of Thomas Hart Benton helped us to understand setting, and in part two we looked at how Winslow Homer’s images can teach about conflict.  Today we will look at the amazing illustrations of Shaun Tan and analyze how they can help students understand the sequence of events in a story.

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

Story Element= Plot

Basically, plot is how the story unfolds: what and when things happen.  It includes cause and effect- first something happens, and that causes other things to happen, etc.  Events are inextricably linked.  In a more complicated story it may be the interweaving of story lines including conflict, resolution, climax, action, and ending.

Let’s look at Shaun Tan’s images and write a story based on the inferences we make.  Use the questions below to help guide your writing.

Images from Shaun Tan’s picture book The Arrival


Shaun Tan’s book, The Arrival, follows the theme of ‘belonging’.  It has ambiguous images and is perfect for any age level as it can be interpreted on many levels.  Images from The Arrival are sequential and are meant to be seen in order as a whole.  However, his art is so detailed and semi-surreal that you may show single images or a series with great success.  Your students will develop different stories, because the details are ambiguous.  Each child will bring their own history and perspective to their interpretation.  Based on the child’s background and experience, not to mention grasp of vocabulary, he or she will have differing stories.  Themes of change and family are explored in his art.

Use these questions to guide the conversation.  Don’t be afraid of unusual answers- you will probably get them.

  • Most of the images are monochromatic- (tints and shades of one color). How does this impact your interpretation of the image?
  • What is the mood of each image?
  • Make a list- what does each image have in common? How are they different?
  • List all of the things you recognize. List what is real and what is unusual or fantasy.
  • What specific details are in each image to tell you what is happening?
  • Can you spot anything that is causing an action or a reaction? What happened just before this scene? What happens in the next five minutes?

Shaun Tan discusses what it is like to be different on his website. Think about that theme and ask your students the following questions:

  • What does it mean to be different?
  • Did you ever feel like you didn’t fit in?
  • Write about a time where you were different than everyone around you.  What happened? How did you feel? How did you handle it?

Analyzing visual art is a wonderful way to get students to think critically.   Find my detailed illustrations as writing prompts here, as well as sign up for free story starter videos! Have fun writing your story and let me know how it goes in the comments section below.


Narrative Art Part 5

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