Category Archives: narratives

Things you can learn from a narrative

Original cover of Huckleberry FinnGreat lives can be lived anywhere.  Hogwarts School. Macomb, Alabama.  On the Orient Express.  On a raft on the Mississippi River.

Life usually works out.  Elizabeth Bennett marries Fitzwilliam Darcy.  Brian Robeson gets rescued from the wilds of Canada.  Phileas Fogg wins his bet.

If not, wait for a sequel.  ScarlettLittle House on the PrairieDouble Fudge.

Odd names won’t hold you back.  Farley Drexel Hatcher.  Hercule Poirot.  Huckleberry Finn.  Jeeves.

It’s good to be odd, to be complex, to be eccentric.  Sherlock Holmes.  Junie B. Jones.  Huck Finn.  Anna Karenina.

Secondary characters can be fascinating.  Mercutio.  Mrs. Malaprop. Severus Snape.  Grover.

original cover of Sherlock HolmesThe best characters are not perfect.  Jay Gatsby.  Tom Jones.  Ebenezer Scrooge.  Lady Brett Ashley.  Scout.

When things go wrong, hang in there.  After all, tomorrow is just another day.

How to better use prewriting organizers

Organizing writing before the first sentence is written is a sure way for students to improve their writing.  Yet many students (most students?) don’t do it.  Why?  Some kids are in a hurry and don’t want to take the time to create an organizer.  Some kids don’t know how to create useful organizers.  Some kids think skipping an organizer won’t harm their writing.

What can teachers do to encourage students to create organizers and to use them?

Teachers could insist students use a prewriting organizer before writing a single sentence, and grade it or include it as part of the writing assignment grade.  For a given assignment, the teacher could reproduce several student prewriting organizers (and the teacher’s own prewriting organizer) for the class to analyze.  What ones are effective?  Why?  The teacher could ask students to compare those to their own organizers.  Then the teacher could ask students to improve their organizers before they write their essays.

Teachers could insist that students follow their organizers, and grade the essay, in part, on whether the organizer was followed.  Teachers could ask students to exchange organizers and essays before they are turned in for grades.  Classmates could alert students who have not followed the organizer.  Teachers could give those students more time to align their essays with their organizers.

Teachers could limit the kinds of organizers students use to

  • Either mindwebs or semiformal organizers for most informational and persuasive essays,
  • Either Venn diagrams or charts for comparison or contrasting information, or
  • Modified time lines for narratives.

Teachers could spend more time teaching how to use organizers without requiring the resulting essays.  Not every organizer needs to lead to an essay.

Teachers could provide exercises using poor organizers for students to analyze.  Students would need to identify why those organizers are poor and how they could be improved.

How to end a narrative essay

One way to end a narrative is to look to the future.  When J.K. Rolling ended her final Harry Potter book, she skipped forward 20 years to show a new generation of students—Harry’s, Ron’s and Hermione’s kids—heading off to Hogwarts School.  This ending of the series reminds readers of the beginning of the series when Harry, Ron and Hermione first headed to Hogwarts.  The author takes us full circle, back to the beginning, but not the same beginning.

boy writing on a window benchEven if your story is only a few pages long, you could look to the future.  The character could wake up hours after your story seems to end and think back—with fright?  with happiness?—at what happened earlier in your story.  Or if a dramatic rescue happens near the end of the story, you could jump forward an hour or two to let the characters describe how they feel, or to show them sleeping safely.

Another way to end a narrative is to stay in the present time of the stories but have a final scenes which leave the reader with an important emotion.  That emotion could come from a single image, the last image of the story.  Maybe your babysitter has worked really hard to care for a cranky toddler.  The babysitter leaves, exhausted and thinking she will never return.  But as she looks back, she sees the toddler looking out the window, smiling and waving.

Still another way to end is with action, as if, on to the next adventure.  Superman stories often end this way, with Superman solving a problem, and then flying off.  We assume he is off to solve another problem, but his real reason for leaving is that the story is done, and the writer needs to find a way to end it.

I have had some students end their stories with cliff-hangers,  scenes where something awful  happens, and we, the readers, of course want to know how the disaster is resolved.  But all we read is “To be continued.”  This is really not an ending but a way of pausing when a student is tired or out of ideas.  Don’t use this kind of ending or your audience will be disappointed.

If you have used dialog in your narrative, then ending with dialog (or the thoughts of a character) makes sense.  But the dialog should not be preachy or try to tie up loose ends.  Instead, use dialog to create a mood.  That mood becomes the lasting impression which the reader has.

Do you need to explain everything at the end?  No.  If the details are not important, let the reader guess at them.  That’s part of the fun for the reader.

Think about what mood or question you want your audience to dwell on as they finish your narrative.   Then figure out a good way to convey that idea.  If you do, your ending will be satisfying.

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.

Use dialog to begin sentences and paragraphs in order to add variety and life to writing

Author's Quote on adding dialogueHave you ever turned the page of a novel and come to long paragraphs of description or exposition?  And then the corner of your eye sees far down the next page a section of dialog?  What do you do?  Do you read the long paragraphs or do you jump to the dialog with its short sentences and friendly white space?

If you are like most people, you beeline to the dialog.

Dialog makes writing sparkle.  Once I read a novel in which there was no dialog, none whatsoever.  Over and over I wanted to quit.  This novel taught me the power of dialog in writing.

Children read chapter books like Junie B. Jones that are full of dialog, but children rarely think of adding dialog themselves.  However, once they add dialog they keep adding it, and their writing improves tremendously.

Why?  One of the easiest ways to get personality into writing is to introduce a character—even if it is the writer herself—whose unique way of thinking and saying attracts readers.  Charles Dickens was a master of this.  But so are some of my students.

dialog example

Notice how a third grade student uses dialog to show his personality and to hook the reader.

Adding dialog is like adding powerful verbs.  It has the same effect.

Sometimes when I read a student’s writing, I suggest, “This would be a good place for dialog.”  Often the student has people talking anyway, but using indirect speech.  I show the student how to turn the speech into direct quotes, and how to start a new paragraph when a different person speaks.

Dialog can also be a great hook in the introduction of an essay, providing that the person speaking says something worth hearing.

One caveat:  Sometimes, once students learn the power of dialog, they want to write only dialog, leaving out any sense of setting or nonverbal action.  In these cases the writing is confusing.  Help the student to see that some description of place, time and the emotional reactions of the people talking and listening are important for a well-rounded essay.

Next we’ll look at sentence types and how they impact writing.

Use a prewriting organizer to write the first draft

After helping students create a good prewriting organizer, I sometimes see students begin their first drafts with no prewriting organizer in sight.  “Where is it?” I ask.  They dig through their writing binder and find it, hidden somewhere.

This is a graphic representation of a third grade student's handwritten mind web.

The best prewriting organizers for expository and persuasive essays are mind webs (click the graphic for more information).

This tells me that those students are not used to writing an essay with a prewriting organizer.  They don’t know how to use it.  I can’t assume that “If they write it, they will use it.”  They need to be taught how to use it.

I insist that the prewriting organizer be situated to the side of the notebook paper on which the student is writing his first draft.  To show me that he is using the prewriting organizer, I ask him to cross out lightly the ideas as he includes them in his essay.  By the time the essay is done, all the ideas on the prewriting organizer should be crossed out.

An example of a modified timeline organizer on Babe Ruth's life--childhood, school years, and baseball career.

Use a modified time line as a prewriting organizer for narratives (click the graphic for more information).

If a student is coming in cold after creating a prewriting organizer the day or the week before, I ask her to read the prewriting organizer to herself in the order in which she has numbered the subtopics.  This warms up her brain and reminds her of the details and the scope of her essay.

While she is writing the first draft, I usually allow the student space, looking over her shoulder occasionally.  If she is making progress, I leave her alone, but if she seems stuck, I intervene.  The most common problem is how to start body paragraphs.

Use a chart for comparison and contrast essays.

For comparison and contrast essays, use a chart or a Venn diagram as a prewriting organizer (Click on the graphic for more information).

We reread the information planned for the paragraph and see how it relates to the essay topic, and from this we write a topic sentence.  If a student has not written an essay before, I offer more help than I do for experienced writers.

Sometimes students recognize that they should change the order of their subtopics.  Before beginning the rough draft is a good time to do that.  Just cross out the numbers on the organizer and write new ones.  Sometimes students recognize that they have little to say about one subtopic, but they can think of another one with greater detail.  This is a good time to make that change.

Sometimes the student has lost interest in the topic of the essay completely and wants to change topics before he begins the first draft.  Usually I let him discard the completed organizer and start over.  You might think that creating that organizer was a waste of time, but no.  The student has practiced organizing an essay, an essential skill of a good writer.  Not every planned essay needs to be written.

In our next blog, we will talk about the conclusion, another difficult part of the essay for many students to write.