Young Writers Course

Lesson 3: RIBBITS Your Way to Writing Success

Whatever kind of story you decide to write, you’ll want to follow some basic guidelines. That’s where thinking about frogs can help!

Introducing the RIBBITS Writing Formula

You don’t have to be a frog to use this cool story writing system. Let’s go through it and then put it into practice.

Each letter stands for an important part of a good story. You’ll use them in the order they appear. Here we go!


R = RETAIN the reader with the very first line. 

Do you wear a retainer on your teeth, or have you seen someone who does? The device retains, or “keeps,” the teeth in one place. It’s sort of the same thing here. Your goal is to retain, or keep, the reader interested in reading more of your story. You do this by making the very first line of your story so interesting a person can’t resist reading on!


Which of the following first lines immediately makes you want to read more?

  • The date was August 14, 1941.
  • “Incoming!” cried the rear gunner.

Some opening lines are more interesting than others! Do your best to give the reader a reason to keep reading. Retain them with a great opening line.


I = INTRODUCE the main characters and setting. 

Unlike a book, writing a short story means you’ll need to get readers into your story more quickly. You do this by introducing the main characters, where the story is taking place (setting), and any other important factors closer to the beginning of your story than toward the end. Here are some ways that can happen:

  • Include names and/or relationships when speaking. “How do you like my school project on mushrooms?” Kendra asked her cousin, Latasha.
  • Give peoples’ ages. Juan glanced around the room and spotted his brother, Michael. At 14, Michael was two years older than Juan.
  • Let readers know what grade kids are in. Sara shivered at the thought of leading her seventh-grade classmates against the eighth-graders.

Give a physical description. Ron’s jaw dropped when he saw the new computer.


B = BUILD the story line. 

So how do you write a story that others will actually find interesting? Here are three crucial tips to help your story stand out.

Tip 1: Show, Don’t Tell

Did your school have Show ‘n’ Tell? What made more impact, showing or telling? For most kids, seeing the real thing is much more exciting than just hearing about it. The same is true when writing a story. “Showing” means helping the reader see in their mind what’s happening rather than just hearing about it. Which of these examples is more interesting?

  1. Kris and his friend, Landon, walked down the road. They were going on an adventure.
  1. “Ouch!” Landon cried, stumbling over a rock in the dirt roadway. An owl hooted in the distance. “Man, we should’ve planned to sneak up on them during daytime instead of midnight!”

Kris wiped the sweat from his forehead. “Yeah, but we can’t turn on our flashlights or they might spot us. It’s just over that ridge.” 

Hopefully you see the difference! There’s a lot more to interest the reader in the second example.

Tip 2: Use Lots of  Dialogue (Talking)

Similar to Tip 1, look for chances to show people in conversation or thinking rather than just telling the reader about it. Use quotation marks for talking (“Sure, I can come to the clubhouse today!”) and italics when someone is thinking (I’ll bet Jacob knows how to solve this problem! thought Carly.)

Tip 3: Try Using “Foreshadowing”

Foreshadowing means placing clues, or “teasers,” that suggest something may happen later in the story.This can help to heighten the sense of mystery, drama, or another element of surprise. Here are two examples of foreshadowing.

Luisa bent over and picked up the unique writing instrument. Didn’t I see someone using this during the meeting? she thought. Somehow it had to fit into the whole scheme of things.

Twice now Kyra had made up an excuse for not going to the beach. What was going on?

Tip 4: Use Strong Action Verbs

You probably know that a verb shows action. But carefully choosing which verbs to use can make a big difference in your stories. If you’re writing about a field and track day, words such as “run” and “jump” immediately come to mind. But could using another word such as “dashed,” “sailed,” “rocketed,” “darted,” “sprinted,” or “rushed” make your story better? (Correct answer: yes.) You can expand your writing vocabulary by using a print or online thesaurus. 

Tip 5: Avoid the Passive Voice 

So, what exactly is the “passive voice”? The passive voice tends to clutter up sentences with forms of “to be,” such as “is” “was” “were” “been” “being,” etc. What you want to strive for is the “active voice” in your writing. Here is a good example of the difference between the two:

Passive voice: All the party decorations will be made by Rosa and Amber.

Rosa and Amber will make all the party decorations.

Don’t worry! You can follow this scary-simple tip that writer Rebecca Johnson shared at




Passive voice: Every afternoon the detention hall is filled [by zombies] with students. 

Active voice: Students fill the detention hall every afternoon. 

Passive voice: All the party decorations will be made [by zombies] by Rosa and Amber. (Passive)

Active voice: Rosa and Amber will make all the party decorations. 

Apply the zombie test to your writing and keep readers more a part of the story!

Tip 5: Include the Right Amount of Action

The key here is “right amount.” If you’re writing a story about a friendship between two girls, there might be more conversation involving emotions than vivid descriptions of alligator wrestling. But even the most relational of stories needs a little action. Maybe the girls hatch a plot to get a classmate to clean out his stench-filled locker. More often than not, readers will appreciate at least a little action. 

Randy Fishell

About your instructor

Randy Fishell is the editor of Guide, a magazine that has been publishing a weekly magazine full of stories for 70 years. No, he hasn’t been on staff the whole time! He has, however, been on the job long enough to have a pretty clear idea of the difference between stories that make it into print and those that don’t.

Randy has also had his own books and lots of magazine articles accepted for publication. One of his first stories to be published was “Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow,” which later became the title of one of his books. “It turns out that believing I could keep every hair on my head intact for the rest of my life was a bald-faced lie,” Randy observes.

His very first book was a collection of church skits, including a silly one about a surgeon who tries to operate on a patient with a bad case of “criticulosis”—the habit of criticizing others.

Randy’s latest book is The Good Humor Guy, a collection of wacky stories from his long-running Guide column of the same name. The book includes such life-changing stories as “Lover Boy Meets His Doom” and “Oh, That Hurts Good!”

“Anybody can be a better writer if they just keep in mind a few simple tips,” says Randy. In this course he covers the writing principles that he feels are most important and suggests the sound a frog makes as a way to remember those principles.

Randy lives in Smithsburg, Maryland, where he is often out exploring with his metal detector. (He has found a good number of Civil War bullets and a ridiculous number of worthless bottle caps.) He is a cartoonist and author of the book, Tucker Barnes Digs In.
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Guide magazine only prints true stories. However, we do publish some imaginative stories on the Guide website. If you want to share your story with our online readers, click below.

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