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9 Tips for Teaching Narrative Writing in Secondary ELA

    tips for teaching narrative writing

    Narrative writing can be a struggle for many secondary students, making it a challenging genre to teach. After reading this post, you can say goodbye to hearing moans and groans and grading disjointed stories! Steal my favorite tips, strategies, and activities to make your next narrative writing unit more enjoyable for all.

    While most people associate secondary ELA with writing essays, they often forget one of the vital writing genres—narrative writing.

    With expository and persuasive writing often taking center stage in the secondary classroom, narrative writing can be a bit of a bumpy ride for students. Students might have the classic five-paragraph essay structure memorized, but crafting a compelling narrative is another story (pun 100% intended).

    Successful narrative writing requires creativity, organization, and a deep understanding of storytelling elements. Many students find this challenging as they need help structuring their ideas, developing characters, and maintaining a cohesive plot.

    But don’t fret; this post is all about equipping you with tried and true tips and engaging activities to help you guide students through this process with more ease and enjoyment for all.

    Why Is Narrative Writing Challenging for Students?

    Before delving into strategies, it’s essential to understand the common roadblocks students face with narrative writing. Often, students struggle with:


    They struggle to get started and brainstorm any “good” ideas worth writing about. As a result, they feel overwhelmed by the task.


    Crafting a well-structured narrative requires a clear beginning, middle, and end. Students may grapple with sequencing events logically.

    Character Development

    Bringing characters to life is a skill students often witness others do while reading. Students might find it challenging to create realistic and dynamic characters.

    Plot Development

    Maintaining a cohesive and captivating plot can be tricky for developing writers. Students might face difficulties effectively introducing conflict, building tension, and resolving the story.

    Descriptive Language

    Painting a vivid picture with words is a vital component of narrative writing. Some students may struggle with using figurative and descriptive language to create a compelling story.

    The Writing Process

    Many students view the writing process as a one-and-done task, especially when writing the same type of essay again and again. They may be reluctant to the revision and editing process.

    Understanding what aspect(s) of narrative writing your students struggle with will help you tailor the rest of your narrative writing unit to their needs. Consider the tips and activities below to help you teach narrative writing with more ease, effectiveness, and enjoyment.

    9 Tips for Teaching Narrative Writing

    Follow these practical tips and teaching strategies to make narrative writing an engaging and rewarding classroom experience.

    1. Ask the Right Questions

    Encourage students to develop well-rounded narratives by guiding them through a series of thoughtful questions, such as:

    • Who are the main characters?
    • What is the central conflict or problem?
    • When does the story take place?
    • Where is the setting of the narrative?
    • Why are these events happening?
    • How do the characters navigate through challenges?

    This “5ws + 1H” questioning technique not only helps students organize their thoughts and articulate their ideas more clearly. Additionally, it inspires critical thinking while guiding students through creating a well-rounded and comprehensive narrative.

    2. Scaffold with Picture Books

    Read picture books with your students to reinforce narrative elements in a fun and engaging way. After reading, engage students in discussions about how the author effectively used these elements and encourage them to apply similar techniques in their own writing. Take it one step further by having students complete a plot diagram for the narrative arc. This visual and interactive approach helps make the more abstract concepts of narrative writing, like character and conflict, feel more tangible.

    3. Showcase Strong Mentor Texts

    Selecting powerful mentor texts exposes students to the successful implementation of the narrative techniques you want them to emulate in their own writing. Therefore, strive to choose mentor texts where narrative elements are clear and accessible for your students. By studying these texts, students can learn firsthand from accomplished authors, honing their skills and gaining inspiration for their own narratives.

    4. Utilize Short Stories

    Speaking of strong mentor texts, I highly recommend utilizing short stories during your narrative writing unit. These condensed narratives provide students with examples of compelling narratives while giving them the opportunity to analyze structure, character development, and plot dynamics in a more digestible format. Students will benefit from this exposure before attempting to go off and write their own narrative piece.

    5. Incorporate Pop Culture

    Don’t be afraid to stray from written stories when looking for strong examples of narrative elements. Turn to pop culture and look for popular movie trailers, video clips, or TV episodes that can make these elements more relatable and engaging for students. This approach connects the writing process to their interests, sparking creativity and making the learning experience more enjoyable.

    6. Teach Writing Skills

    Sure, your students may have written plenty of essays in the past, but those writing foundations don’t necessarily translate over to narrative writing. Ensure a strong foundation by explicitly teaching writing skills relevant to narrative writing, including dialogue construction, figurative language, strong verbs, narrative hooks, and descriptive writing. While there are several skills you can cover, don’t feel the need to overload students with everything at once. Indeed, focus on a key element or two in each lesson and give them time to practice with a low-stakes activity.

    7. Start with Story Mapping

    Many students need help with two main components of narrative writing: developing a cohesive story and getting started writing it out. Story mapping kills both of those birds with one stone. Encourage students to map out their narratives before diving into writing. Use graphic organizers or storyboards to help them visualize the structure, characters, and key events, providing a narrative roadmap throughout the writing process. 

    8. Save Time for Revisions

    Don’t forget to allocate dedicated class time for the crucial revision and editing process. While students may be used to taking a one-and-done approach with their essays, emphasize the importance of refining their narratives, checking for flow, and refining language to craft compelling plots that captivate readers. When you emphasize the importance of revision throughout the unit, students will learn that crafting an exceptional narrative often involves multiple iterations and improvements.

    9. Have Fun!

    Lastly, let’s not forget that storytelling can be fun! Use this as an opportunity to encourage creativity and alleviate the potential stress (and dread) associated with writing. When students find joy in the process, they are more likely to invest themselves fully in crafting compelling narratives, and that, my friend, is a win for you and them.

    Give These 5 Engaging Activities a Try

    The following activities are perfect for tackling the aspects of narrative writing students struggle with most in an effective way. Not only will they make narrative writing more engaging but will also deepen students’ understanding of vital storytelling elements.

    1. Writing Stations

    Set up different interactive writing stations with specific tasks related to narrative elements such as character development, setting description, dialogue construction, and conflict resolution. Students can rotate through these stations, working on each aspect of their narrative at a time. This approach not only breaks down the writing process into manageable chunks but also caters to diverse learning styles, keeping students actively engaged in the creative process.

    2. Classroom Conflict Brainstorm

    After reviewing the different types of conflict, work as a class to create one-line story summaries of potential plots for each conflict type. Save this list and allow students to pull from it when they write a narrative! This activity not only sparks creativity and initiates brainstorming but also emphasizes the importance of conflict as a driving force in storytelling. Classic conflict types include:

    • Good vs evil
    • Individual vs society
    • Self vs others
    • Man vs self
    • Man vs nature
    • Man vs man
    • Man vs technology
    • Individual vs fate

    3. The Story Behind the Photo

    They say a picture is worth a thousand words and this activity asks your students to physically write them down. The best part? It requires very little prep on your part. Simply distribute random photographs around the room (Google images will work just fine). Then, challenge students to craft a narrative inspired by the image. Ask them to think about the story behind the photograph. What happened right before the picture was taken? Right after? What is occurring outside of the frame? This activity engages students in creative narrative expiration by providing a visual cue to initiate the brainstorming.

    4. Can You Feel It? Writing Challenge

    Challenge students to focus on conveying a specific emotion within a short scene. Give students an emotion or tone, such as happiness, sorrow, fear, or suspense. Then, give them a setting, such as a train station, birthday party, or park. Challenge students to take those two pieces of information and craft a scene to evoke an emotional response from the reader. Give them the opportunity to share their pieces aloud to gauge audience response!

    5. Rewrite an Existing Scene in Dialogue

    Writing purposeful and engaging dialogue doesn’t always come naturally to students. That’s where this activity comes into play. Select a scene from a well-known story or have students bring in their favorite passages. Then, challenge them to rewrite the scene entirely (or at least, mostly) in dialogue form, focusing on maintaining the essence of the narrative prose. Remind them of the importance of strong verbs and engaging and descriptive dialogue tags. This activity sharpens dialogue-writing skills and encourages students to consider how characters express themselves through speech and how dialogue influences the pacing of a narrative.

    Looking for strong examples of dialogue? Check out these short stories.

    It’s Teaching Time!

    If you’ve struggled to get your students to engage in the narrative writing process and produce strong stories in the past, I promise you are not alone. Navigating the challenges of narrative writing in secondary ELA is not easy to do on the fly. Instead, it requires a combination of strategic teaching and engaging activities. Once you nail that combo down, you will be on your way to unlocking next-level storytelling skills for your students.

    Once you understand what areas your students struggle with in narrative writing, you can plan effective and engaging lessons that bring this genre to life. And who knows, you may be on your way to inspiring one of this generation’s next greatest storytellers! At the very least, you will provide a foundational understanding and foster an appreciation of what makes a story one worth telling.

    For a step-by-step guide to teaching narrative writing, read this.

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