Lifelong Learning · teaching writing & storytelling

Story Core: Analysis & Application for Education

At the heart of all storytelling and writing is a story core, but how can the concept of a story core improve the quality of education? 


Ohler (2008) introduces the concept of a story core as a “vastly simplified version of the hero’s journey” (p. 72). He identifies the three major components of a story’s core, which can be briefly summarized as the central challenge, the character’s transformation, and the response and resolution (p 72).

In the Williams and Cantina story, both men face the challenge of adapting to life with each other. For Williams, this challenge presents itself as facing the unknown: “’I didn’t know what kind of food you were going to eat’” is the first in a list of “unknowns” that Williams lists in the beginning of the story. For Cantina, this challenge presents as an adjustment from living as a single person to living as someone who must share his life and space with another person. Both men are transformed by the experience when Williams discovers that he will become a father. To Williams, the transformation is clear: he transitions into parenthood – ready or not. For Cantina, on the other hand, the transformation is subtle: he describes a realization that Williams is a responsible, committed young parent. He says, “’I think the thing that impressed me the most was your comment that my son is going to know who his father is.’” In the end, each man expresses gratitude to the other. Thus, the initial challenge of adapting to life with each other is resolved: Williams has found comfort, guidance, and support from Cantina, claiming that all the good in him has been “put there” by Cantina; meanwhile, Cantina claims the feelings of a proud parent when he thinks of Williams and all he has achieved.

In “Harry the Dirty Dog,” a dog is challenged at the beginning of the story because he will have to take a bath. He runs away and has a fantastic time becoming as dirty as can be, only to find that he misses his family and wants to return home. He so much desires to return to his family that his revulsion to bath is transformed: he must beg for a bath in order to be recognized. In the end, Harry’s problem is resolved because he takes a bath and is immediately recognized by his family as their beloved pet. Furthermore, he lives “happily ever after” with the bathing brush stored neatly under his bed.

My favorite of the three pieces is the animated short “Kiwi!”. In the video, a kiwi bird wants to fly, which is a challenge for this small, flightless bird. In order to overcome his physical detriments, kiwi transforms not himself but his world so that he can experience a simulation of flight. Kiwi’s response is taking a leap off a cliff, and, through this “flight,” he learns what it is to fly, but his flight ends in certain doom as he crashes to the ground.

Any analysis would not be complete without addressing the challenges of the different mediums. I found the audio story to be the most difficult to analyze, and I am unsure as to whether my difficulty results from the lack of visual components or my own discomfort with personal narratives. I never thought of myself as a visual person; however, I felt as though this story was lacking something that I needed in order to understand the characters. On the other hand, the challenge could be that literary analysis is part of my professional context, and I am more comfortable with traditional “stories” like “Harry the Dirty Dog,” which I found to be the easiest to analyze as it adhered to a traditional story structure.

The medium of delivery for “Kiwi!” created an opportunity for audience transformation. When clicking play on this video, a viewer naturally expects a funny, light-hearted cartoon about a silly bird doing something silly. After all, what kind of “bird” has useless wings and cannot fly? And, this particular kiwi is nailing trees to the side of a cliff. How odd. Then, when the kiwi places the flight goggles on its head, we realize what is happening – we are shocked at the unexpected turn of events. The story is not silly or funny. This story is sweet and sad, and speaks to us about achieving a dream and reaching beyond our limitations — something one might expect to be presented in a different medium, such as a fable with colorful hand-drawn illustrations or a personal narrative with evocative photographs, but not a wordless cartoon. There are over 32.5 million views of this video with the most recent comments written in Thai (at 8 a.m. June 25, 2012), translated the viewer states: “The dream is to fly in my life.” I must logically conclude that the transformative nature of the viewing experience is derived from the contrast of presentation with that which we expect, and that viewers across the globe are sharing this video because the story speaks to anyone because it does not speak at all. Only one word is included in this video: “Kiwi!”, introducing the bird and lamenting the bird after it has “landed”. Thus, the lack of language broadens the audience allowing for increased access to the creator’s story.


Ohler (2008) recommends studying story core as a component of media literacy education because “story core is often employed as a way to structure many forms of media” (p. 75). In my opinion, media literacy can no longer be a topic that we teach incidentally. As Ohler (2006) points out, “students need critical media skills in a world overwhelmed by story-based media “ and that we want students “to learn and think critically about media” (p. 47). By explicitly teaching story core to students, we give them the tools to “see more clearly the persuasive nature” of the various elements of a story. In other words, when students become digital creators, perhaps trying to persuade their own audiences, they will understand when they are being persuaded by another creator’s choices in digital stories. Understanding how producers use story to express information is a key characteristic of being a literate consumer of media.

The most surprising educational application of story core Ohler suggests is using story core structure as a method for designing instructional units. Although my personal education context is creative writing and relies heavily on story planning, this approach for structuring educational units is interesting. He suggests positioning the students as heroes beginning a quest characterized as the learning objective. The students-heroes are thus transformed through their research, analysis, and other learning activities. The result is their discovery – the new knowledge or understanding they have acquired.

Prior to reading about “story-form” unit planning in Ohler’s text, I had never thought of constructing an educational unit in this format; however, I have instinctively done this in the past. For instance, I regularly form project assignments as “missions” such as “your mission is to write a …”.  This form of inquiry-based instruction is similar to the webquest, which even imitates Campbell’s hero’s journey with its vocabulary (quest, task) and its structure (an initial task that begins the journey of knowledge-construction/acquisition that will lead to a clear transformation in the students completing the task, drawing conclusions, and having final evaluations) (Dodge, 2007).

Both the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (2003, p. 57) and the Common Core State Standards Initiative (2012) include explicit standards for teaching students to compare, contrast, analyze, and evaluate the impact of medium on a narrative. A teacher can guide students through this process by teaching them to use the story core as the tool for analyzing the stories. When students are able to recognize the story elements in various forms of media they will be able to meet various standards and learning objectives. For example, the “Kiwi!” video illustrates the impact of visual components on a story and how a word (kiwi) can carry significant meaning depending on the story context. Students armed with the story core as a tool would be able to analyze this video and discuss the impact of the medium on the story rather than simply summarizing the events.

In my own instructional context, I will certainly be using the story core as a method for helping my creative writing students evaluate the strength of their stories. Ohler (2008) suggests that having students create a story core prior to beginning digital production is “truly important” because “[o]nce the media production process is rolling, it’s difficult to significantly change directions” (p. 76). Ohler (2006) expresses concerns that as the students’  “technology becomes more powerful, their stories become weaker” (p. 45). He asserts that the use of the story core ensures that students are focusing on their story first so that the technology does not overpower the story and does not distract students from creating a good story first (p. 73). He even suggests that teachers can use the story core as a way to assess the quality of stories (p. 77).

In conclusion, I am surprised that I have not encountered Ohler’s simple, yet powerful, concept prior to reading his text. Certainly, I am familiar with Campbell and have applied his hero’s journey countless times in lecture and assignments in my classroom, but Ohler’s story core simplifies this concept and easily leads into the more in-depth hero’s journey that is prevalent, and necessary, for literary discussion and analysis in any English teacher’s classroom. Story core will become a regular part of my teaching practice.

UPDATE: As a writing teacher, I adapted these ideas into a lesson for teaching story structure in seventh grade. Both “Harry the Dirty Dog” and “Kiwi!” featured heavily in this lesson. Resources are available here.

Works Cited 

Common Core State Standards Initiative. (2012). English language arts standards >> Anchor standards >> College and career readiness anchor standards for reading. Common Core State Standards Initiative. Retrieved on June 25, 2012 from

Dodge, B. (2007). Creating webquests. Retrieved on June 25, 2012 from

Ohler, J. (2005). The World of Digital Storytelling. Educational Leadership, 63(4), 44-47.

Ohler, J. (2008). Digital storytelling in the classroom: New media pathways to literacy, learning, creativity. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Lyle, S. (2000). Narrative understanding: developing a theoretical context for understanding how children make meaning in classroom settings. Journal Of Curriculum Studies, 32(1), 45.

Madyeti47. (2006, June 27).  Kiwi! [Video file]. Video posted to

National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. (2003). Adolescent and Young Adulthood English Language Arts Standards, (2nd ed). Arlington, VA: National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Retrieved from

StorylineOnline. (2012, May 21). Harry the dirty dog [Video file]. Video posted to

Williams, C. & Catania, R. (Speakers). (n.d.). I didn’t have any idea as to what to expect … [Audio podcast]. StoryCorps: Every voice matters. Retrieved June 25, 2012 from







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