Use a modified time line as a prewriting organizer for narratives

Narratives tell stories, either fiction (a detective story, for example) or nonfiction (the life of a butterfly, a biography, or a trip, for example). For students, those stories are clearest if they are written in chronological order. So I recommend a modified time line to plan those stories.

The kinds of time lines used in history classes are detailed with dozens of dates. That is not what I mean by a modified time line. I mean a beginning, middle and end.

  • At the top of a page of notebook paper, I ask students to write the word “beginning.” If the story is fiction, just under the word “beginning” I instruct them to write “setting—place and time, characters, opening scene, and problem to be solved.” The student writes down that information, not in sentences, but just in phrases or snippets that he can go back to later to develop his story.
  • If the story is nonfiction, the student might label the beginning, middle and ending differently. The labels might be “childhood, school years, adulthood” or “before the war, during the war, while president” or “foal, colt, stallion.”
An example of a modified timeline organizer on Babe Ruth's life--childhood, school years, and baseball career.

Click on the graphic to enlarge it.

  • For a fiction story, most of the detail will happen in the middle part. Here the student will add more phrases, snippets, arrows, cartoons or whatever helps him organize the action of his narrative.
  • For nonfiction, the three or more parts might all be about the same size. Or there might be more than three parts, but for beginning writers, I recommend three parts. Three seems doable.
  • A few lines up from the bottom, I ask the student to write the word “End” if the story is fiction. Next to it the student writes “Resolution.” Here the student writes down how his story will end and any ideas that need to be explained.
  • If the story is nonfiction, again there should be a clear ending to the story.

Easy? You bet. Does it work? Yes, if there is enough detail. I don’t let the students begin writing unless there are about ten or more ideas or steps in the beginning and middle parts. For new students, I ask them to explain one or two of these steps to be sure they are thinking the narrative through. When they discuss it with me, I suggest more ideas for them to write down, so that they see the degree of detail I hope they will include in their stories.

Completed Babe Ruth essay using the timeline example.

Babe Ruth essay from the modified timeline organizer example. Click on the essay picture to enlarge it.

Since many students enjoy writing detective stories, the “resolution” becomes how to solve the case. For students traveling in space, the problem is to get home or to the new planet or to save someone. But the problem can be simpler: how did Abraham Lincoln die, or where does the mother bear go in the winter to have new cubs. The ending of the narrative should satisfy both the reader and author.

Comparison essays are another type students are often asked to write. In the next blog, we’ll talk about an easy prewriting organizer for them.

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