Category Archives: focal character

How to write narrative essays

Narrative essays are short stories, real or imagined.  Like novels, they follow a pattern of beginning, middle, and end, or in academic terms, inciting event, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution.

But how do you begin?  This is the question I am asked more than any other by my students.  My answer is the same as for an expository or persuasive essay.  You begin with a written plan.

I have students write the word “beginning” near the top of the page, “middle” about a third of the way down, and “end” a bit up from the bottom (on notebook paper or on a blank page on the computer—it doesn’t matter).

Next to “beginning” I have students write “setting” and draw a sideways V like this:  <.  Extending from the top arm of the <, I ask students to write the place where the story takes place.  Next to the bottom arm of the <, I ask students to write the time of day/season or some other words to indicate when the story is taking place.  For example, these words could be “the first day of middle school,” or “when I broke five ribs.”  I ask students to start by identifying the setting because this is what readers look for when they start to read a narrative.  They want to know if they are reading about the French Revolution or life on Mars one thousand years into the future.  Knowing the setting orients readers.  It should be noted in the first paragraph or two of a narrative.

Continuing under “beginning,” I ask students to identify in a column the characters who will be in the story.  Sometimes this means names and sometimes this means positions or relationships such as “the doctor” or “the hit-and-run driver.”  Next to each character, name the character’s role such as protagonist, antagonist, foil, mentor, sage, trouble-maker or any roles that make sense.  Also list character traits and emotions to emphasize for each important character.

Readers want to identify and get in the head of the most important character, the focal character.  They want to emotionally feel what that character feels.  So decide who that character is.  Usually, it is the protagonist.

Identify the theme you want to show.  In other kinds of essays, the “theme” is called the main idea or the thesis.  In narratives you should be able to state the theme in a sentence such as “Doing something hard in public takes courage” or “Dogs can be exasperating.”  The theme is what you want to emphasize in your narrative.

In a column under “middle,” list the events or incidents that will happen in the story in the sequence in which they will happen.  Usually, this sequence is chronological order.  Any other kind of sequence such as jumping back and forth in time will make your narrative difficult to follow.  I find using bullets is a good way to list, especially if you are using a computer that allows you to cut and paste to reorder information.

You want the “middle” to be long enough so you can identify details to use—maybe 15 lines.  If the “middle” is too short, you haven’t thought your plot through enough.  If it is longer than 15 lines, you need to cut back.  A good finished narrative length is about three pages of text, double spaced, in 12-point type (1000 words).  Many teachers won’t read more unless your writing is exceptional.

Under “end,” write “climax.”  Identify what happens at the climax.  This is where the theme is most evident, where you do that thing in public that is so hard or where that exasperating dog forces you to take action.  At the climax, readers should feel strong emotion.  So should you as you write and reread your climax.

If you have introduced details left unexplained, do that quickly.  Then write your ending.  What is most important is that the ending is satisfying to the reader.  Satisfying is not the same as positive.  Not all endings are happy.  Even when the ending doesn’t turn out as the protagonist hopes, that character still comes away a different person, someone who has grown through the experience.  Make sure your protagonist shows growth and that growth is connected to your theme.

How to describe a story in a sentence or two

Professional writers  learn how to describe their novels in just a few words.  Sometimes this is called an “elevator” version meaning short enough to be said by a writer on  an elevator ride.

Learning such an approach before writing a story is also useful for children writing narratives.  In a sentence or two they should be able to name the important parts of their story, such as

  • the main character
  • what happens to make the story start
  • the goal of the main character
  • the opponent of the main character
  • and the climax the main character must face to reach his goal.

If the child writer cannot name all of those parts, his story is probably flawed.  It is  missing an important element which readers want.

Two books meant for adults which explain this well are Techniques of the Selling Writer by D. V. Swain and The Anatomy of Story by John Truby.

Swain suggests a two-sentence pattern.  The first sentence is written as a statement.  It should include the situation, main character and objective of that main character.  In the second sentence, a question, the opponent should be identified and the climax or disaster near the end of the story should be named.

Here is an example for Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White.  Wilbur, a piglet on a farm, must devise a plan to protect himself from being slaughtered for bacon.  Can he and his friend, Charlotte, figure out how to keep the farmer from killing him now that he is plump?

Or, in The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss, two bored children are entertained at home by a playful cat.  But can the children put the  house back to order before their mother sees the mess?

Truby suggests a one sentence pattern which he calls a premise.  In it should be the event which starts the action, the identity of the main character, and the final outcome of the story.

For example, in Charlotte’s Web, Wilbur, a farm piglet, escapes death as a runt but later faces slaughter until his friend Charlotte figures out how to make him too famous to kill.

Or, in The Cat in the Hat, a playful cat arrives to end the boredom of two children who find ways to hide his antics and mess from their mother.

To use this approach to story writing with children, you might start with some familiar stories and analyze them.  In Junie B. Jones and the Stupid, Smelly School Bus by Barbara Park,

  • Main character:  Junie B.
  • What happens to make the story start:  Junie B. hides when the bus comes
  • the goal of the main character:  Not to take the school bus home
  • the opponent:  Mrs., Junie B.’s mother
  • the  terrible problem at the end:  Junie B. needs to use the toilet but the girls room is locked

After the children get the idea, with you, the adult, leading, think up some scenarios.  It’s Halloween.  A child wants to go trick-or-treating.  Mom says no because it’s raining.  How can the child convince Mom?  Get Dad’s help?  Promise to carry an umbrella?  What crisis could almost ruin everything?  Tthunder and lightning?  What happens at the end?  The child wears boots and a raincoat and Mom holds an umbrella and flashlight?  A text message from the mayor postpones Halloween until the next evening?

Students need modeling to become comfortable with this approach to story writing.  The elements could be written on a bulletin board or on a permanent poster in the classroom for reference.  A five-minute mini-lesson on the elements could precede writing time each time students need to write a narrative.

And some writing time could include just identifying the elements in order to imprint this pattern.  If the students can identify the elements for several stories, then let them choose one to write.  Children need to learn that planning is just as important as sentence writing.

Is a focal character the same thing as a point of view character?

Sometimes yes, sometimes no.  A focal character is the central character in a narrative. A point of view character is the character through whose eyes or mind we are learning about the story and the central character. Usually they are the same, but not always.

original cover of Sherlock HolmesIn the stories of Sherlock Holmes, Holmes is the focal character. We learn about his habits, such as his violin playing, his drug taking, and his disdain for people whom he considers his intellectual inferiors. More importantly we learn how his mind works—how he identifies subtle clues that others miss and how he uses them to solve difficult crimes.

But how do we learn all this? It’s though the eyes and ears of Dr. Watson. As Watson learns about Holmes, we learn about Holmes. As Watson is awed and appalled by Holmes’ behavior, we are awed and appalled. Dr. Watson is the point of view character.

Original cover of Huckleberry FinnIf a story is written in the first person, then the person telling the story is the point of view character. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout tells the story of her father’s legal defense of an innocent man. In that part of the story, Scout is the narrator but her father, Atticus, is the focal character. In Huckleberry Finn, Huck is both the focal character and the point of view character for the whole novel.

If a story is written in the third person, then the focal character can still be the point of view character. Hatchet is the story of teenager Brian Robeson who becomes stranded in the Canadian woods for a summer. It is written in the third person, but we hear the thoughts of Brian. “I have to get motivated, he thought, remembering Perpich. Right now I’m all I’ve got. I have to do something.”  Brian is both the focal character and the point of view character.

A few novels switch back and forth between point of view characters, both of whom are the focal characters. The first chapter focuses on Character One, giving the reader his emotions, thoughts and behavior, while the second chapter focuses on Character Two, giving the reader that character’s emotions, thoughts, and behavior. That there exist few books like this indicates that most authors—and maybe most readers—prefer a single point of view. Why? Perhaps two points of view are confusing. Or perhaps two points of view water down the impact of a story.

I recommend that if you are teaching children how to write narratives, that you explain the difference between focal characters and point of view characters by comparing versions of fairy tales. Read a traditional version of a fairy tale and then compare it to a “fractured” fairy tale. Use picture books to entice the students. Even high school kids will love this kind of lesson, but more importantly, they will remember the difference between focal character and point of view character.

Cover of "The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs!"Read a traditional version of “The Three Little Pigs,” for example. Ask who the focal characters are. (Who is the story about? Often in fairy tales, the title gives it away.) From whose point of view is the story told? Usually in fairy tales it is from an unknown, god-like narrator. Then read a “fractured” fairy tale about the same story, such as Jon Scieszka’s The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs. This version is told from the point of view of the Wolf, who of course, is the focal character.

sleeping_beautyAnother good example is reading a traditional version of “Sleeping Beauty.” The focal character is the princess and usually the point of view is the “god-like” third person narrator. Then read Leah Wilcox’s Waking Beauty, which focuses on a prince who will do almost anything not to kiss the snoring Beauty—hollering, jumping on her bed, throwing water at her, even shooting her from a canon. The focal character and the point of view are the prince, certainly not Sleeping Beauty.

(The Common Core State Standards include a writing standard—ELAW1—which requires students to use an appropriate point of view. Also, a literature standard—ELARI6—requires students to understand an author’s point of view.)