It’s easy to get caught up in the search for fresh ideas to teach narrative writing, I get it. Each year you can’t help but wonder if there’s a better way to teach students how to write a compelling narrative.
But the reality is that students don’t need the world’s greatest prompt to write a good story. They just need to write a story that contains the same elements found in what they read: setting, characters, conflict, plot, and theme.
I believe most teachers overthink how to teach narrative writing, and though it comes from a place of great intention, it only muddies the waters for students.
In this blog post, I’m going to show you how I’ve simplified the process of teaching narrative writing by piggyback off of my Elements of Fiction Reading unit!
Reading & Understanding the Elements of Literature
My first unit of the school year is on reading and understanding the elements of literature. My sixth graders and I have such a blast reading short stories and zooming in on the importance of each element. We love to identify connections between the setting and conflict, or the conflict and the theme. These connections make us feel like we’ve uncovered something secretive, something the author didn’t think we would notice, which makes them all the more interesting.
But the point is – all of these elements that we spend time looking at closely when reading literature should be the same elements we spend time developing when writing.
A Plan For Narrative Writing: Step One
The heart of a good story is the message it sends. For the first step in planning a narrative, I encourage my students to think first of the theme of their story. Is it about friendship? Survival? Learning from your mistakes? Once they have a theme in mind, I ask them to think about what they want to say about that theme. Another way of phrasing this is what lesson do I want my characters (and thus my readers) to learn?
By beginning with the end in mind, my students have a purpose for their story, or a destination. Step two is all about how we’re going to get there.
Step Two: From Theme to Conflict
After students have identified the central message of their narrative, I make them backtrack and create a problem or conflict that will teach the character said lesson. Another way of phrasing this is ‘how will my character learn this lesson?’
Step Three: Plugging in Names and Faces
At this point, students usually already have an idea of who their characters are. I want them to do a quick character sketch here and identify who the main character is. What are they like – beyond looks? How old? What kind of traits do they possess? They may not include any of these details in their story, but it will help them bring their character to life in a more authentic way in the days to come.
Step Four: Putting it Together with a Plot Diagram
It’s time to put it all together in a plot diagram! However, when teaching narrative writing, I don’t have my students fill out the plot diagram in order from exposition to resolution. I have them plug in the theme in the Falling Action and the conflict under the Inciting Incident.
Next, I want them to connect the dots between when the problem is introduced and when the lesson is learned. How do things progressively get worse (rising action)? What’s the final tipping point – or event – that happens before the character learns their lesson (climax)?
If these plot points are planned out, the rest is gravy. All students need to do now is plan out the opening scene & setting of their story and how everything will wrap up in the end.
Providing Clarity to Make Room for Creativity
Teaching narrative writing this way – by piggybacking off your story elements unit – increases students’ background knowledge toward the task and allows them to direct their energies towards their writing. It also saves loads of time and energy on your part because you don’t have to design a completely separate unit!
Narrative Technique Mini-Lessons
Now that your students have a solid plan for their narrative, it’s time to get out of their way and let them write. Just kidding! Kind of.
Throughout my narrative units, I introduce students to various narrative writing techniques through quick write minilessons. With just 5-10 minutes each day, we try to improve our writing craft with characterization, rich settings, authentic and purposeful dialogue, imagery, and so on. In a low-pressure way, students try out different craft moves. Then I encourage them to try and transfer the skills into their narrative pieces.
If you’d like to know more about using narrative technique quick writes, you can read my recent blog post here.
What are your thoughts on teaching narrative writing in this way? I’d love to hear your thoughts! Drop a line in the comments below, or continue the conversation and find me on FB or IG!