Narrative writing is just another word for storytelling. The good news is students tell stories all the time—they just don’t write them down. Ironically, the moment we ask students to put those stories into writing, they freeze. Suddenly, they don’t know what to write about or where the heck to start.
Knowing how to teach narrative writing is the key to avoiding “brain freezes” and blank pages.
But, before we can dive into the how, we need to understand the what.
What is Narrative Writing?
Narrative writing tells a real or fictional story using a logical sequence of events, establishing a beginning, middle, and end. In most pieces of narrative writing, a story develops as a character faces a conflict that is resolved in the end, revealing a universal lesson that has been learned. This lesson is often a major revealing point for the author’s message and the overarching story’s theme.
Unlike the academic essays students are used to writing, narrative stories rely heavily on creative elements such as vivid descriptions, figurative language, point of view, and dialogue. After all, the purpose of this style of writing is to detail experience, reveal perspective, elicit emotion, encourage reflection, or express a deeper meaning. Narrative writing can be used to entertain, educate, inspire, or connect with an audience.
While students may struggle with narrative writing at first, once they get the hang of it they are quick to embrace the opportunity to use their imagination and creativity.
What are the Five Elements of Narrative Writing?
To help students separate narrative writing from the other writing genres they’ve learned, it’s important they understand the five main elements of the genre:
These five elements work together to create a well-structured narrative story.
Why Teach Narrative Writing?
Narrative writing equips students with the power of storytelling. Teaching narrative writing is about more than sharing the tools needed to enjoy, analyze, or tell a good story. It’s more than meeting standards and following the curriculum.
When we teach students the power of a well-told story, we are teaching them how stories can bring us together or tear us apart. How they can shift perspectives, establish connections, and build relationships. That stories have the power to inspire others, elicit emotions, and spark change.
Once we help students understand the power of telling stories, we can move on to teaching them how to tell these stories through writing.
How to Teach Narrative Writing: A Step-By-Step Approach
Telling a story isn’t a new concept to students. However, doing it well and writing it down is a whole different ball game. With the right steps, mentor texts, and activities, students can master narrative writing in no time. (Okay, in some cases, it might take a little bit of time and practice, but they’ll get there.)
Want to guide your students toward storytelling success? Follow my step-by-step approach to planning your next narrative writing unit:
1. Get Students Talking (or Thinking)
Don’t jump into asking students to write a full-blown narrative story. Instead, get them to talk about stories first. Start by giving them simple prompts to help pull out stories from their own lives. For example, ask them to think about a time when they were embarrassed or had the best birthday ever. Ask them about a time they overcame a fear or stood up for something they believed in. While not all narrative writing is personal, it’s always useful to start with something students know.
Bell ringer activities like a question of the day or quick writes are a great way to get students thinking about the bones of narrative writing without even realizing it.
2. Focus on Story Structure
Any narrative writing unit should include a formal study of story structure. Students must understand the essential elements of a plot and basic story elements— and how they all work together to tell a compelling and cohesive story.
However, understanding story structure goes beyond identifying a classic story arc, including exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. Before students attempt to plan and write their own piece of narrative writing, they must also understand the following:
- Stories should have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
- Writers manipulate time (and pacing) to control a story.
- Point of view impacts the reader’s experience.
- Setting provides readers with context regarding the time and place.
- Conflict and characters drive a plot forward—and make the story interesting.
- Conflict is an opportunity for a character to learn a lesson or undergo transformation.
- A theme or message reveals what a narrative story is really about.
3. Read Strong Mentor Texts
Now it’s time to take some time to read and unpack strong mentor texts. Short stories and even picture books make for perfect narrative writing mentor texts. Spend time analyzing and discussing the story structures of each text to give students more context of the elements you’ve been teaching up to this point.
Have students fill out a classic plot diagram as they identify and analyze a story’s narrative arc. And don’t stop at the plot. Guide students through activities and discussions to unpack and understand the other essential elements of a mentor text’s story structure, like theme, conflict, and character, too.
4. Brainstorm ideas
Whether you’re asking students to write personal narratives or create fictional stories, getting started is always the hardest part.Sentence starters and writing prompts are great ways to get students thinking. Having students share their ideas with each other is another great way to spark inspiration throughout the classroom. Use this brainstorming stage as an opportunity to check in with students and help those who are struggling to come up with any “good” ideas.
Without a topic or idea that excites them, students will struggle through the rest of the writing process. However, students often get caught up in thinking they need to have some big elaborate story. That’s when I remind them that even small moments and simple stories can have a big impact on a reader.
5. Map It Out
Ideas are great and all, but story maps are vital to ensuring there is actually a story to tell. Before they start panicking at this phase, remind them that they do not have to have the whole story figured out just yet. Instead, this step acts more as an outline of their general plot points and overarching ideas. Have them map out the elements of their story including the conflict, main sequence of events, climax, and resolution.
Story maps are super useful because students can refer back to them throughout the writing process to keep their stories on track. However, I like to remind students that they may decide to adjust their plan as they write—and that’s okay too.
6. Complete a Fast Draft
I know—first drafts can be really painful. There is a lot of staring at blank papers and claiming “I don’t know what to write.” Oftentimes, this is because students are so worried about having everything figured out before they start writing. This is where fast drafts come in handy.
Rather than asking students to flesh out a traditional first draft of their narrative piece, have them write their story down as quickly as possible. However, they do want to touch upon all major elements from their story map. The draft can be messy or some details may be missing, and that’s totally okay at this stage. This step is all about progress, not perfection. This fast draft will serve as a starting point that students can build upon.
7. Start the Narrative Writing Workshop
After students complete a fast draft, it’s time to move into the writer’s workshop. A narrative writing workshop includes writing, check-ins, feedback, and mini-lessons. These workshop days are some of the most essential days of the unit. Start each workshop day with a mini-lesson focusing on a specific element of narrative writing craft. Then, give students time to implant what they’ve learned with their draft, checking in and providing feedback as they work. Over time, that fast draft will start to turn into a well-developed story.
Wondering what to teach during a narrative writing unit? The following topics make for great narrative writing mini-lessons or workshop stations:
- Descriptive writing (Show vs. Tell)
- Figurative language
- Word choice
- Tone and mood
- Strong endings
- Engaging hooks
8. Review, Revise, Edit. (Repeat.)
Students love to take the one-and-done approach to writing. That’s why I like to include time for in-class revisions during a narrative writing unit. Guide students through both self and peer revisions. Giving students clear guidelines and expectations for revisions is vital to avoid wasting time.
I like to work through revisions in stages, focusing on one element of revision at a time. This makes it easier for students to provide valuable and pointed feedback to each other or note areas for improvement in their own writing. For example, I may have students circle any weak verbs or descriptions before having them add more vivid verbs or details. Only then can they move on to the next revision task focusing on dialogue tags or transitions. Additionally, I always save general writing mechanics for last. This allows students to focus on bettering their overall story before honing in on more technical edits.
9. Celebrate Student Stories
Yay! Your students have completed their pieces of narrative writing. Students worked too hard to have their work go right into a “waiting to be graded” pile. Give them an opportunity to share their stories with each other by hosting an author reading where they read excerpts of their stories to the class. Alternatively, students can design a “story poster” or complete a one-pager project to display around the classroom.
The Bottom Line?
No one likes reading a boring story. However, it’s even worse having to grade one.
Luckily, when students are engaged in a well-planned narrative writing unit, it can be a lot of fun for everyone. However, if your students aren’t buying in or simply aren’t following along, you’ll likely spend a lot of time reading really bad stories. I hope this post helps you achieve the former (and avoid the latter) by giving you a clear and well-structured plan for how to teach narrative writing.
I encourage you to take my approach to teaching narrative writing and make it your own, making adjustments to best meet the needs of your students. And if this isn’t your first narrative writing rodeo and you have any fun ideas for mini-lessons or narrative writing activities, I’d love to hear them! Share them in the comments below.