Once. But. So.

Once I spent a weekend with my brother (a theatre director), to catch up and relax after a long week at work. But because we both enjoy our jobs so much, conversation soon turned to work and my brother shared a game he likes to play. So now I am sharing it in turn with my teaching colleagues, hoping that you have some success with it in your classroom.

The preceding paragraph is my off the cuff attempt at a ‘once, but, so’ story which, as the above suggests, was explained to me by my brother who occasionally works with young people to share the magic of theatre. The idea is simple: all stories can by reduced to this three stage structure.

Alex Quigley spoke eloquently about micro-writing in his recent presentation at ResearchEd, and since then I’ve been keen to make better use of these short, sharp sessions.

Here are three thoughts of how I plan to try and get my children micro writing more frequently. I think that they could be used as starters, whole lessons or even impromptu games. I’d love to know if you can think of any better applications.


Begin by showing ‘once, but, so’ on the board, and explain that children have to tell a story in three sentences, opening each sentence with these respective words. This will help to embed the structure that all narratives follow: introduce characters and settings; said character(s) encounters a problem; the problem is resolved. You could add challenge by listing features you’d like to see (first person/third person, speech, adverbs, noun phrases etc).


These stories need not remain micro-narratives, however. A lesson could be used to develop each sentence into a paragraph, or a page. The focus of (Once) could be descriptive writing and characterisation. Sentence two (But) could focus on balancing dialogue and action. Finally, you could focus on inner monologues with sentence three (So), which explores the impact of the events on the main character. Perhaps challenge could be added by asking children to swap with their partner and develop their three sentence story. I’m sure they’d be delighted to see where their initial ideas were taken by a peer, and this could help with collaboration and igniting those initial sparks of imagination.


Have the children write their three initial sentences on three different strips of paper. Then take in all of the Onces, all the Buts and all the Sos. Create a nonsense story by picking from each pile at random.

E.g. Once there was a lonely frog named Terrence. But the flamingos had made a deal with the alien overlords. So, everyone had ice-cream sandwiches.

My brother assures me that children love hearing their sentence appear, and that it encourages imaginative and well developed sentences. I’m really looking forward to using this in my literacy lessons. I’d be interested in how it goes for you if you choose to use it.


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