There's something underneath the words, writer Bill Harley told a group of fifth-graders at Gardnerville Elementary School on Tuesday.
"Underneath every story, there's always a universal, what writers call subtext," he said. "Stories are all about trouble. If nothing goes wrong, then there's no story."
Harley, an acclaimed children's author and Grammy-winning musician, performed for GES students Tuesday morning then hosted a storytelling workshop for fifth-graders in the library.
Harley's visit to the school was funded by the GES parent-teacher-student organization and a $2,000 literacy grant from Target Stores, which was submitted by reading specialist Leslie Flynn and school librarian Pamela Petite.
"There's often a mismatch between the ability to read and talk," Flynn said. "Someone like Bill Harley can come in and show students how to read like they talk and how to read like they sing. He brings literacy alive."
Fifth-grade teacher Robbi Jacobsen said Harley's visit will help her students with the state writing test, which all fifth-graders must take in January. She said in preparation of the exam, students are taught different writing traits, such as idea development and originality.
"With 600 kids using the same prompt, you better come up with something original that belongs to you," Jacobsen said. "Bill Harley is a master of taking something typical and making it his own."
Harley told students to use structure in their storytelling. He described the plot reversals of Greek tragedy and drew parallels to George Lucas' "Star Wars."
"All stories are about somebody who wants something and goes to extreme lengths to get it," he said.
He said a story usually starts with the main character at home. For some reason or another, the character is compelled to leave and embark on a journey to some unknown and often dangerous world, usually accompanied by a sidekick.
"In that other world, everything is different and dangerous, and they must pass some kind of test, or find some kind of treasure, before they get home again," Harley said.
He asked students if they knew of any books or movies that followed the structure. "Journey to the Center of the Earth," "The Wizard of Oz" and "Chronicles of Narnia" were just a few stories students named.
"When people make up stories, they are using structures underneath it," Harley explained.
He said the last thing in a good narrative is the moral choice, the moment when the character is defined by their action.
"A moral choice reveals who you are and what's important to you," Harley said. "A good writer makes that choice very difficult."
Harley also urged students to show rather than tell in their writing, to use concrete examples that help readers visualize the narrative.
"A good story shows the world as never seen before," he said. "It imagines a world that didn't exist before. We desperately need that now. We need to imagine the ways we could live."
For more information about Harley, visit www.billharley.com.