Teaching how to write a narrative, or story writing? It’s a year-long process. To build strong structure, use these four steps. 1) Begin with a simple story line. 2) Help them focus on the compelling part. 3) Use the story arc. 4) Add dialogue that shows characters’ traits and motivations.
When Teaching Story Writing, Begin Simply
Every story begins with a good idea. As the year progresses, kids can develop lists of stories they’d like to write.
At the beginning of the year, however, they need some guidance. Make the first writing project in your ELA block something familiar, like fables. Their clear character traits, simple settings, short plots, and obvious themes make them the perfect starting point.
- Characters – Most fables use animals with human traits. Spend some time listing characteristics associated with certain animals. For example, dogs may represent loyalty; foxes, cunning; and owls, intelligence.
- Setting – Fables are generally set in the countryside – or not mentioned at all. Therefore, you won’t have to spend much time developing a sense of place or time.
- Plot – Like other stories, the plot revolves around a character’s goal or problem. As the action rises, the character strives to meet the goal or solve the problem. At the most intense part of the story, the plot is resolved. Then the action quickly falls, and the narrative ends.
- Theme – In a fable, the moral is the theme. Kids can think of their own lessons or choose a favorite proverb. As with other stories, characters’ responses to adversity – and how those responses affect the outcome – provide the lesson, or theme.
For this writing project, the theme is selected first. Then kids think of a story line and characters to illustrate it. Not only do students come up with great stories this way, they also gain a firm grasp on theme.
Focus on the Exciting Part
As students begin writing their own stories (especially personal narratives), they tend to go on and on. For example, a student writing about a trip to Disney World might write pages on getting up in the morning, eating breakfast, and traveling in the car. Then they might include even more narrative about the hotel room and the pool. Unfortunately, they really wanted to write about a day at the theme park.
When teaching how to write a narrative, help them focus on the compelling part.
A simple craft can help. First, cut construction paper in half horizontally. Give a strip to each child. Ask them to fold it into fourths. Tell them to close their eyes and let the story play through their minds. Then they should sketch the four main parts of their story.
The next day, provide each child with a “frame.” Ask them to find the most exciting part of their narratives. Then they should glue the frame onto it. Provide strips of paper (or sticky notes), and ask them to write what the characters are saying and doing.
This activity helps kids focus on a story’s climax. Now they’re ready to explain how the characters got to that point.
Organize the Structure
When you’re teaching kids to write stories, use a story arc, which is different than other genres of writing. These simple steps help them develop great narratives:
- At the beginning, introduce characters and setting.
- Let the audience know the character’s goal or motivation. (It’s best to use dialogue to achieve this.)
- Now explain the character’s struggle to reach the goal.
- Finally, at the climax, tell how the character reaches the goal (or not).
- Since the plot has been resolved, wrap up the story with a conclusion.
As kids study the story arc, they can see that only a short amount of text introduces the characters, setting, and situation. This is called the exposition.
The longest part of the story includes rising action and the climax. For example, a child writing about a trip to Disney World might include brief anecdotes about what they did as they made their way toward their favorite ride. But that fabulous and exciting ride should be the centerpiece, or climax of the story.
The falling action simply wraps things up.
When teaching how to write a narrative, use a story arc. Why? It’s all about the audience. First, without the arc, a story has no tension. Sadly, it is boring. The story arc also provides a predictable structure that the audience understands. The reader needs some background information before diving into the story. And when it is over, the audience needs resolution.
Good stories mix narrative writing with dialogue. At the beginning of the year, students need to know how to write dialogue. As time goes by, they can develop finesse. Their characters’ words and actions bely their traits – and motivations.
Teaching students to write dialogue is easier than you may think:
- Make a new paragraph every time a new character speaks (or the setting/event changes).
- Place quotation marks around spoken words.
- Keep all punctuation in a direct quote the same, but replace periods with commas when they come before a dialogue tag.
- Use commas to set off dialogue tags.
- Helpful hint: The comma comes before the quotation mark.
If you’re looking for a fun and easy way to practice writing dialogue, try using comic strips. Kids love it!
Teaching Story Writing – The Next Step
Today we’ve explored the first step in teaching how to write a narrative: the structure. The next step is to bump up the quality with strategies to improve narrative writing. Remember, writing is a process. It’s constantly evolving.