If you’re unsure of what narrative writing techniques your middle school students should know and be able to use, read on to see my top seven techniques for middle school writers!

narrative techniques

For many teachers, myself included, teaching writing can be one of those gray areas where we’re not always sure we’re nailing it. It’s not like math or science where there is one definitive answer we are working toward. This gray area can sometimes be uncomfortable. Let me tell you about one of those gray areas for me.

For the past seven years, I’ve known that my students should be able to “…use narrative techniques, such as dialogue, pacing, and description, to develop experiences, events, and/or characters.” I’ve had no problem grasping onto the concrete words in that standard: dialogue and description. Cool, we can do those things! But the way the standard is written, “such as,” has left me wondering – what else is considered a narrative technique?

If you’ve also felt a bit perplexed with what narrative writing techniques you should be teaching your middle school writers, then this post is for you! I’ve worked hard to research all the narrative writing techniques and narrow my findings down into seven manageable techniques all middle school students should master!

Technique #1: Mastering The Narrative Hook

narrative writing techniques and the narrative hook

The narrative hook is the first narrative writing technique middle school students should study. The narrative hook is the opening of a short story or a novel that “hooks” the reader’s attention and makes them want to keep reading. Students need help starting their stories in an engaging way, and it can be beneficial if we give them concrete strategies and examples to imitate. 

I like to introduce my students to the following ten narrative hook strategies and provide examples of each one:

  1. Ask a Puzzling Question
  2. Drop a Hint
  3. Create an Atmosphere
  4. Paint a Picture
  5. Crack a Joke
  6. Interrupt a Conversation
  7. Jump into Action
  8. Establish a Mysterious Setting (More on this later)
  9. Introduce Engaging Characters
  10. Learn a Lesson

I encourage students to try to use each narrative hook strategy one time in their writer’s notebooks. They essentially end up with 10+ different story starts – and that’s okay! 

Teaching students different ways to begin a story helps to drive home the importance of an engaging beginning and helps curb the “Hi, my name is _____, and I’m going to tell you about ____,” starts introductions.

You can view my narrative hook writing prompts here.

Technique #2: Establishing Rich Backdrops

narrative writing techniques and settings

Students understand how important setting is to fiction. We have to help them make that connection in their writing. Building rich and vivid settings that allow readers to visualize the time and place is a narrative writing technique students will enjoy working on! 

I like to give students various opportunities to show, not tell, when a story is taking place. This might be the time of day, year (season), era, or a point in a person’s life.

Next, we try writing scenes that occur in different locations. We focus on building various settings through our descriptions (show, don’t tell).

Finally, we try to create different moods through our words. We want our readers to know where and when the story takes place, but we also want them to feel a certain way. So we discuss the impact of word choice and how it affects the atmosphere of a story.

You can view my setting writing prompts here.

Technique #3: Developing Characters

narrative writing techniques and characters

Real talk: this narrative writing technique is challenging. Middle school students are still working hard to describe characters they read about (who are developed by expert writers), so getting them to write about characters without making direct statements is difficult. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try!

To develop this narrative writing technique, I take students through a variety of short exercises. We might:

  • Describe the stranger on the sidewalk
  • List a character’s pet peeves
  • Write about the character’s bad habit

Or, my favorite, use visual prompts to:

  • Describe the person these shoes belong to
  • Describe the person this lunch belongs to
  • Describe the person who lives here

And so on.

Through our writing, we work hard to reveal various characters directly and indirectly. Working on this narrative writing technique will help students focus on character development instead of just jumping right into the action. 

You can view my character writing prompts here.

Technique #4: Using Dialogue {Authentically & Purposefully}

using dialogue in narrative writing

Middle school students LOVE using dialogue in their writing. What they don’t love is using dialogue authentically and purposefully. This narrative writing technique requires students to reign it in just a bit. Scenes that benefit from the use of dialogue are those that:

  • Establish a character’s voice
  • Reveal conflict
  • Move the story forward
  • Present different perspectives
  • Provide background information
  • Convey character traits
  • Show character intentions/motivations
  • Reveal a character’s understandings

That’s a lot of scenes! But if students are writing personal narratives or short stories, they won’t need to use dialogue for all of these scenes. 

With this technique, I think it’s helpful to look at various mentor texts and estimate how often authors use dialogue. Usually, it’s less than 20% of the time! I caution students to show everything they can through detailed descriptions and only use dialogue when necessary.

You can view my authentic, and purposeful dialogue writing prompts here.

Technique #5: Incorporating Imagery & Sensory Language

using imagery and figurative language in your writing

Another powerful narrative writing technique that gets students to show, not tell, is through imagery and sensory language. Taking students through writing exercises that bring them to engage their sense of sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell creates rich writing that is enjoyable to read!

I like to show my students excellent examples of authors who use sensory language well.  Take, for example, this scene from The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman:

“I took the orange and turned it around. It glowed like a small, pale sun. I felt its weight, its perfect ripeness—not too soft, not too firm. I breathed in its citrus scent. I started to peel it, noticing things I’ve never noticed before: how the leathery peel isn’t colored the same all the way through, how the papery sections inside feel like leafy veins, how the pulp is shaped like raindrops. When, at last, I placed a section in my mouth, I could hear it burst as my teeth my the flesh, squeezing the juice out onto my tongue, tart at first and then sweet.”

An entire paragraph about an orange that engages all five senses – incredible!

Pairing mentor texts with powerful writing prompts that intentionally evoke the senses is a great way to get students writing with imagery. Here are a few examples of sensory-provoking prompts:

  • You ate it soggy…
  • The sounds that make your ears ache
  • In the palms of your hands, you hold a handful of ripe raspberries…
  • It washed up onshore…

You can view more of my imagery writing prompts here.

Technique #6: Finding a Place for Figurative Language

using figurative language in narrative writing

Figurative language doesn’t just belong in poetry. That’s one of the biggest misconceptions to overcome when teaching narrative writing techniques! Using figurative language in other writing genres can be a great way to convey emotions, experiences, and more. 

I like to quickly review literary devices such as similes, metaphors, personification, hyperbole, and oxymorons and then jump into a few different examples of authors using them in a narrative. Then comes the fun part of trying to imitate that craft in our writing!

Here are a few different examples of authors using figurative language in narratives:

“Wes stared at the phone in his hand, put it back to his ear, held it there until the noise was gone, and he finally heard the call end. Then Wes turned it off, stuck it in the top drawer of his nightstand, turned off the lights, and got into bed.

The whole day had been money, he thought.

Until it wasn’t.” Mike Lupica, No Slam Dunk

Another example:

“I listen to the ice. It speaks to me of scouring winds, of cloudless nights, of endless cold. It measures its loneliness by the weight of its layers, the years and years of snow falling unobserved. I’ve been told its lament is loudest at the beginning of winter and the coming summer, as if it knows that is the closest it will ever come to warmth and thaw. As if it yearns for its own demise.” Matthew J. Kirby, Icefall

It’s also fun to challenge students to use figurative language with sentence starters, such as:

  • Finish the sentence “Because she lied…” with hyperbole. 
  • Write about what the two-way mirror saw using personification. 

You can view more of my figurative language writing prompts here.

Technique #7: Playing with Perspective and Point of View

playing with perspective and point of view in narrative writing

This last narrative writing technique middle school students should experiment with is perspective and point of view. 

Students must understand the difference between perspective and point of view and their purposes.

Point of view is how a narrator tells a story. The types of narration are first person, second person, and third person, and each type can either bring the reader closer to the character and story or create distance. I like to encourage students to try to write from all three types.

Perspective is who the narrator is and how they understand and experience what’s happening in the story. We experiment with taking on different perspectives and finding our voice as that character. 

Here is an example:

“All day, I watch humans scurry from store to store. They pass their green paper, dry as old leaves and smelling of a thousand hands, back and forth and back again. They hunt frantically, stalking, pushing, grumbling. Then they leave, clutching bags filled with things – bright things, soft things, big things – but no matter how full the bags, they always come back for more.

Humans are clever indeed. They spin pink clouds you can eat. They build domains with flat waterfalls. But they are lousy hunters.” Katherine Applegate, The One and Only Ivan

After reading this mentor text, we try writing from the first-person perspective of an animal. 

Playing with perspective and point of view is quite entertaining. Students have a hoot shifting from telling a story as an 80-year-old man to telling a story from the perspective of a frightened little girl. 

You can view more of my point of view and perspective writing prompts here.

Give These Narrative Writing Techniques A Try

I hope you feel some clarity towards teaching your students a variety of narrative writing techniques. Students respond well when a strategy is given a name, and they are shown examples of how to execute it. If you’d like to download a sample of the quick write writing prompts I use in my classroom to teach these narrative techniques (and many others), you can subscribe to my email newsletter below and receive a free copy.

free narrative writing techniques sample

If you like what you find in the free download, you can save planning time and purchase additional quick writes here.

What other narrative writing techniques do you teach to your middle school students? Drop a line below, share your thoughts, or continue the conversation and find me on FB or IG! I’d love to hear your thoughts or any questions you might have.