Cornerstone Analyzing Word Choice in Stage Directions
Lesson 6 of 10
Objective: Students will be able to analyze how the author uses vocabulary to create a setting that impacts the mood and characters by close reading, discussing, and writing.
One of my students told me that when I leave a big space in the bellwork, it's a giveaway that it's a run-on sentence. I agreed with her, so for the past couple of weeks, I've been throwing in extra random spaces. It gives us an opportunity to discuss how you know if something is a run-on sentence, fragment, or complete sentence. In today's case, in the third line, if you put a period between man and named, you'd end up with with a complete sentence and a sentence fragment. 'Named for the comic book hero' is a dependent clause (it's a clause because there's a verb) and can't stand on it own. Therefore, no period, despite the extra spaces.
In the last week or so, I've introduced the concept of a proper adjective to students. Proper adjectives are adjectives that come from proper nouns. Typically, they describe where someone is from. France is a proper noun, French is a proper adjective.
Students have already read "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" once. They know the basic plot--something flies overhead, electrical things stop working, the characters freak out, and they turn on each other. The end? Chaos. Some students aren't sure what happened at the end. Now that they've got that first reading under their belt, we're going back to the beginning to immerse ourselves in the character's world to see how the setting impacts the characters and helps drive the plot along.
We start with the stage directions, because that's where the setting is described, and right off the bat, the author starts creating a particular mood.
I give students the big, overriding question that I want them to consider: How does the author’s choice of words help create mood and effect the characters? With a bit more detail to let the students know where we're going with this, the question reads: According to the stage directions in Act 1, what kind of a place is Maple Street? How does the setting change in Act 2? How does the author develop the mood in both acts? How does the setting affect the characters actions and speech?
In Act 1, the characters are
- sitting and swinging
- talking from house to house
- polishing cars
- selling ice cream/buying ice cream
- watering lawn
In Act 2, the characters are
- talking in low voices
- looking toward Les Goodman's house
- whispered voices
- staring at the Goodman's house
- standing like sentries
In Act 1, they are friendly neighbors. They are socializing, gossiping, watching each other polish cars, and buying ice cream. In Act 2, they are whispering, talking in low voices, staring at one house, and standing like sentries. In Act 1, it is late afternoon. In Act 2, it is nighttime. The electricity is still out, so houses are lit by candlelight. All of these things combine to create a relaxed, comforting, peaceful mood in Act 1 that changes to a suspicious, eerie, mood in Act 2.
In the first read, we've isolated the setting as well as what the characters are doing and saying. Now it's time to make meaning out of those pieces.
What does it mean that in Act 1 they're sitting and swinging, gossiping from house to house? What does it mean that Don Martin is leaning against a fender watching Steve Brand wax his car? What does it mean that an ice cream vendor stops so a couple of kids can buy ice cream? What does the character's actions tell us about the type of place that Maple Street is?
What does it mean that in Act 2 they are standing in small knots of groups? Talking in low, almost whispered voices? Staring at one house? Standing like sentries?
It means that in Act 1, they are friendly neighbors on a typical afternoon. They are socializing, gossiping, watching each other polish cars, and buying ice cream. They trust each other, which is why Don Martin is leaning against a fender. They are comfortable. In Act 2, they no longer trust each other. They isolate themselves in groups, groups that are knotted together. They are afraid, so they talk in low voices, in almost whispers. They don't trust each other, and they especially don't trust Les Goodman, so they stand, staring at his house. Some are even guarding him. Maple Street has changed. Maple Street is no longer the friendly place in the exposition.
Once students have analyzed the setting and drawn conclusions about the setting based on character interactions, it's time for them to apply their knowledge. They're applying their knowledge by writing a short set of stage directions that takes place in between Act 1 and Act 2. Act 1.5, if you will.
In Act 1.5, the sun is setting. It's twilight. This is where students write a set of stage directions that show the middle ground--how the characters act after the sun starts going down, but before darkness descends on Maple Street.