Atomic essay #16 – 6 ideas for teaching narrative writing

I love teaching narrative writing. There are some approaches I keep going back to that I feel work really well. This post presents and outlines six of them. They aren't a sequence; they're just things I do to help students practise aspects of writing craft.

Atomic essay #16 – 6 ideas for teaching narrative writing
Photo by Aaron Burden / Unsplash

I love teaching narrative writing. There are some approaches I keep going back to that I feel work really well. This post presents and outlines six of them. They aren't a sequence; they're just things I do to help students practise aspects of writing craft.

Change the atmosphere!

I give students some scenarios. They're pretty simple; they just give them a sense of character and something happening. I write them to be neutral. Here are four examples:

  • An old woman feeds the ducks.
  • A man comes out of a church. He stops to tie his shoelaces.
  • A girl calls after a dog that’s running away from her.
  • A teenage boy looks out of his classroom window.

The idea is that they write the scenarios with a particular atmosphere in mind. Sometimes I let them pick the atmosphere, other times I tell them to write any one of the them in a really eerie fashion, for example. Sometimes they'll write one scenario several times, changing the atmosphere each time. I tend to write as they do, and this approach works well with live modelling. I like it because it stops students thinking about what feature they can use (I would like to fell DAFOREST and its brethren) and more about what the writing needs if they are to achieve a given affect. The approach can be collaborative; for example a class can have a lovely time putting together a teacher-directed class model, alongside rich discussion about what the best choices are to make and why.

Tell it in dialogue

This is another scenario-based task. Once again, give the students some scenarios, like this:

  • A husband tells his wife that he’s accepted a job abroad.
  • A man is stopped by a female police officer. He’s hostile.
  • A person gets a call to say that their brother has been seriously injured.
  • Two sisters are reunited after twenty years apart.

Tell students that they need to tell the story of what happens, but they can only use dialogue. For extra fun, take away their ability to use dialogue tags. They're mostly useless anyway. I like this approach because it gets students to pay closer attention to how they craft their dialogue. Students are notorious for functional dialogue, like this:

"I'm going out," Megan said.
"Okay," said mum. "Make sure you're back by 11."
"I will," said Megan. "See you later!"
"Okay, bye!," said mum.

Nothing is really revealed here that couldn't have been delivered in the sentence Megan said goodbye to her mum, promising to be back by 11, and went out, if one even needs that much. Students don't tend to think of dialogue as a tool for subtly revealing aspects of character or introducing aspects of plot. Taking away their usual narrative and descriptive tools forces them to see dialogue in a new light.

Where do we go from here?

As you'll gather by now, I love scenarios. Here are four more:

  • A young woman is on a date and is regretting it. They’re at the fair.
  • An incident involving ice-cream.
  • A football is being retrieved from a neighbour’s garden.
  • Scared of the dark.

The task here is to give students a tight time limit and tell them to free-write. This is better done with more confident writers who can call on previous storytelling tricks and structures to help them get moving. It's great for Y11s before the exam.

Title choice

Here are some story titles:

  1. My Last Summer
  2. Her Hair Became the Ocean
  3. Table for Glasses
  4. Blood and Thunder
  5. To the Stars
  6. Lost Voices
  7. Saints and Sinners
  8. Cake
  9. Criminal Dreams
  10. A Murder of Crows

There are a number of things one can do with these. Perhaps get them to pick their favourite and explain what immediately comes to mind. It's great for getting students to start narrowing down their choices; for example, 'A Murder of Crows' can help a student quickly decide to tell a dark fantasy revenge story; 'Cake' could be about a horrible experience at a birthday party. Stripping away everything but a title gets students to think about how easy it is to imply and infer – you could ask them what is implied about what stories could be told just based on the titles.

Quick character sketching

Jennifer Webb advises us to teach students to create characters that can then be used in a variety of stories, which is an approach I love and use a lot. This can be a very time-consuming process, and students need a backup plan, especially if they've got an exam looming. I've therefore adapted Webb's character development form and condensed it to the following:

  • Basic biographical details
  • What is their background?
  • What is ordinary / relatable about them?
  • What is extraordinary / special about them?
  • What past event had the greatest impact on their life?
  • What do they want, more than anything?

I like to use a photo, too, so we've got something to work with. I'll model my sketch and ask them to create their own. Here's a photo I've used, plus a model sketch:

  • Esmerelda, 28
  • Had a child (Violetta) at 19 who is now 9. From rather elitist family. Was spurned by them as a result, especially when Violetta’s father abandoned her and Esmerelda.
  • Tries to see the best in people, but has a short temper when provoked. Deals with things emotionally.
  • Incredibly empathetic. Would do anything for her daughter - they have the closest bond. Is very intelligent. Can almost sense things before they happen.
  • Violetta’s birth, and the fallout from this.
  • She’d never admit it, but she wants a relationship with her mother again.

The key is to create a sketch bursting with potential 'ways in' to a story. This should be discussed if one wishes to complete the follow-on task:

What's the story?

Once students have sketches, get them to evaluate what story they'd like to tell using the information, and why they think it's worth telling. Using the temporal axis can be useful here (thank you, again, Jennifer Webb!):

  • Something has happened in the past that has consequences for my character in the narrative present.
  • Something is happening in the present that has consequences for my character.
  • Something is about to happen in the near future that will have consequences for my character.

Here are three possible stories I could tell for Violetta:

  • Reconciliation story: Esmerelda and her mother?
  • Manipulation story: the ex returns?
  • Adventure story: mother and daughter? I like this approach because it helps students remember that there's more than one story that can be told, and that they can play with the expectations and 'rules' of said stories. I believe that these approaches are all united by their simplicity, but how they get students to think is quite complex. It engages them with the metacognitive 'executive functions' of writing, reminding them that writing is something to be carefully crafted.