a simple guide to teaching the elements of fiction

Over the years, I’ve found that the best unit to start the school year with is a fun one that students can find success with relatively easily. For me, that seems to be the short story or elements of fiction unit. There are so many engaging ways to teach the various concepts, and it truly is a great way to welcome students back.

Whether you’re teaching the elements of fiction in August or January, I’ve packed this guide with ideas and activities that will wow your middle school students any time of the year!

Elements of Fiction: The Basics

I teach 6th-grade ELA in a middle school setting, and it’s basically students’ first formal Language Arts course. My primary goal with our elements of fiction unit is to lay a solid framework for understanding literature in an engaging, hands-on, and interactive way. I use the same framework for this first unit as I do for my later units on nonfiction, arguments, and poetry!

We start with a quick mini-lesson that provides an overview of the five key elements of short stories or the elements of fiction.

  • Setting
  • Conflict
  • Characters
  • Plot
  • Theme

Students record definitions for the different elements of fiction on a doodle note one-pager that they will refer to for the next few weeks! I also include point of view with the five key elements because it is one of our standards and it makes the most sense within the unit.

the basic elements of fiction for middle school

It usually takes a full period to go over the different elements and complete our notetakers. The key to helping students be successful with doodle notes is to model the process and set boundaries. Always add the essential content first. Adding color, bubble letters, doodles, etc., can only come once the content is down.

I also set a timer and work alongside the kids. 3-5 minutes per section of notes is plenty of time! This also helps break up the lecture portion because it keeps students involved.

Dig Deeper into Each Story Element

After the initial introduction, I have students dig a little deeper into each element of fiction through four station rotations over the next several days. They aren’t doing a lot of heavy literary work yet, but they are building familiarity with the essential vocab and key concepts of each element which will set them up for success later.

Station 1: The Components of a Setting
the components of setting

At this station, I provide three cups containing strips of paper.

  • The first cup of strips has a list of places in which a story might take place, like a dark foggy forest or the busy kitchen of a popular restaurant.
  • The second cup of strips contains a list of times in which a story might take place, like in 1968, the third inning of a baseball game, or the stroke of midnight on Halloween.
  • The third cup of strips has a list of moods a reader might feel when reading a story, like frightened, exhilarated, or calm.

I instruct students to draw a random slip from each cup, and then write a scene that establishes that particular setting.

This activity is a hoot! If you want to see 6th-grade boys squirm, watch them draw the “romantic” mood strip. My students actually added a “PG” requirement on this slip. So many students loved what they started during this station and later chose it as their story seed they wanted to turn into a complete narrative later in the year.

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Station 2: The Types of Conflict

When teaching the types of conflict in literature to 6th graders, I initially introduce them to two different categories: internal conflict vs. external. Then, we create a subcategory of external conflicts. These are what I expect students to know early in the unit:

  • Character vs. Character
  • Character vs. Society
  • Character vs. Nature
  • Character vs. Self
types of conflict in literature

At this station, students review the quick conflict mini-lesson and then they put their knowledge to practice. I put a series of task cards on a binder ring, and students read the short excerpt, determine the main type of conflict, and record their answers. Alternatively, if you want to do this activity whole group, you can hang the task cards around the room. For more ideas on teaching conflict, check out this post.

Station 3: Character Analysis & Character Development

Elementary students have a lot of practice describing a character’s traits. (Do they still need a refresher? Yes.) However, in middle school we add another layer to that element of fiction: analyzing a character’s development. First and foremost, students look at the two ways that an author develops characters: directly and indirectly. Other new terms at this level include:

  • Static Characters
  • Dynamic Characters
  • Flat Characters
  • Round Characters
character development

After reviewing a quick mini-lesson on character development, I have students get familiar with direct and indirect characterization first. On one worksheet, students must turn direct characterization statements (i.e. she was very sensitive) into indirect characterization examples using STEAL.

  • Speech
  • Thoughts
  • Effect on Others
  • Actions
  • Looks

Next, students read a few examples of indirect characterization from popular novels. Then, they describe what the excerpt reveals about the character.

In later lessons, students dive into static vs. dynamic and flat vs. round. You can read more about teaching characterization here.

Station 4: Point of View Scavenger Hunt

Wait, where did point of view come from? When teaching the elements of fiction, I sneak in a station on point of view because it’s an essential part of story development.

For this station, students get a quick mini-lesson refresher on:

  • 1st Person Limited
  • 1st Person Omniscient
  • 2nd Person
  • 3rd Person Limited
  • 3rd Person Omniscient
teaching point of view along with the elements of fiction

This station is fun & requires little prep (my favorite). Students are challenged to go on a scavenger hunt through the class library and find books narrated from three different points of view. Finding a book written in 1st Person or 3rd Person Limited is the easy part. Finding a book written in 3rd Person Limited is a little more difficult, and finding a book written in 2nd Person is the hardest, but it’s not impossible. I offered my kids a candy jar reward if they found one, and I could tell they’d done it when the whispers started! I ran out of candy after that, ha!

I have students record the title, the author’s, and the point of view it is written in along with evidence to support their answer. This activity usually goes quickly, so I follow up with an extension task in which students have to rewrite a scene from a different point of view.

My advanced class needs a bit more of a challenge with point of view, so I have them watch a short clip (“The Ridge” featuring Danny Macaskill is my FAVORITE), describe the point of view the clip is told from, what is revealed through that point of view, and why the author might have chosen it.

Finishing with the Plot Structure

I usually take a moment to regroup after students have made it through those first four stations & mini-lessons.

We learn about the plot structure as a whole class, and we complete a couple of diagrams together (I do, we do, you do). To start, we watch a Pixar short like “For the Birds.” I model how I watch the whole thing through the first time to get the gist, then I rewatch it a second time (if needed) to pinpoint the different events on the plot diagram:

  • Exposition
  • Inciting Incident
  • Rising Action
  • Climax
  • Falling Action
  • Resolution
teaching plot structure with the elements of fiction

I do not use a diagram like the one in the image when I teach, but that’s the only graphic I could find, haha! I prefer a diagram with the climax closer to the end.

Once we feel confident with the plot structure of digital media, we add another layer: audiobooks. We LOVE these Greeking Out podcasts by NatGeo, and they make the perfect “next-level” challenge for students.

At this point, I allow students to practice diagramming another plot either with a partner or on their own. They can choose a Pixar short, a Greeking Out podcast, or a Greek Myth. I love using Greek myths because they have clear inciting incidents, and they don’t always end happily ever after, so students have to think carefully about the resolution.

Reviewing Theme

The final piece of the pie is one that 6th-grade students have worked on so many times before that I almost feel bad reviewing: theme.

However, it is completely necessary.

Elementary kiddos work really hard learning about themes through morals and lessons. But taking those concepts a step further and thinking about the author’s message can be tough. It’s not so cut and dry (nor, dare I say… canned).

In order to make this lesson both fun & powerful, I’ve incorporated skits – something most quirky middle schoolers love.

After a quick theme refresher, I place students in groups of 3-4. I create a dozen or more theme statements and I print them out on strips of paper. Each group selects a theme statement, such as, “It’s okay to make mistakes as long as you learn from them.” They are given 20 minutes (give or take) to work backward and create a brief skit that conveys the theme statement.

I’ve seen the most incredible, gut-busting work with this activity!

Putting the Elements of Fiction into Practice

Once we’ve finished examining all of the elements of fiction individually, the real work begins! We spend several weeks reading short stories, discussing the literary elements and how they are developed, how they impact one another, and so on.

We usually finish our unit at the end of September or Early October. It ends up being perfect timing for a culminating activity and escape room using Roald Dahl’s ‘The Landlady.’

After that, we dive in to write our own narrative stories that incorporate all the same elements of fiction. 🙂

I hope you have found several new and helpful ideas for teaching the elements of fiction in your classroom this year.

Have any tips and tricks you’d like to share? Drop them in the comments below!