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Plan problems into narrative stories

december 13, 2022

Narrative writing is intended to entertain the reader. And yet, many student writers craft stories that are less than engaging. Kid-created pieces often have characters who are walking and talking inside of detailed settings. However, they lack a plot!

In order to have a plot, someTHING has to happen to someONE. This conflict is what makes a story engaging!

To ensure this necessary ingredient is part of your students’ writing, kick off a narrative unit with three pivotal points about developing a plot.

POINT #1: Account for ALL story elements.

Students have learned to analyze character, setting, plot, and theme details in the reading block. Now, bring that same academic language into the writer’s workshop.

Just like the literature we read includes all the story elements, so must the narratives we write.

Honor that students typically begin with character and setting details in their own narratives, which is good. However, these story elements alone do not make it a narrative.

Characters must face a problem that gets solved. The problem and resolution are what comprise the plot, making them essential to any narrative.

POINT #2: Plan the problem first.

It’s easy for students to get caught up in developing the introduction to their narrative, where details about the characters and setting are established. However, because the problem is the most important part of the story, it makes more sense to plan the middle of the piece first. After all, this is where the problem is revealed.

After the middle is planned, move on to the ending. Remind students that the character’s problem can’t just continue to get worse– there has to be a resolution. And while resolutions don’t have to be happy, they are necessary.

Although this approach (planning the middle and end before the beginning) may seem contradictory to what many teachers learned, an elaborate setting and detailed characters are not imperative ingredients for a story. With little more than a first name and a stated location, a writer can generate an engaging story centered on finding a solution to a major problem.

Middle-End-Beginning - Planning Problems into Narrative Stories
3-Box Organizer Downloadable Resource
5-Box Organizer Downloadable Resource
9-Box Organizer Downloadable Resource

POINT #3: Introduce the 3 problem types.

Explain to students that while there are limitless problems a character can face, they all fall under one of the three broad categories. The main character has a problem:

  1. with someone (e.g., an individual, a group/society).
  2. with something (e.g., a situation, the weather/nature, technology).
  3. with himself (e.g., his feelings, his attitude).

Problems in Literature - Downloadable ResourceGenerate a list of everyday problems that students can relate to or by recalling plots in literature. Then organize the examples into one of the three categories, demonstrating that all stories have problems that come from one of these areas.

Model how to brainstorm character problems for a new narrative

Reveal a photograph where the characters are in a particular setting. Think aloud about what could happen in that scene that would create conflict. Brainstorm several examples, reminding students of the 3 problem types.

Plan Problems into Narrative Stories - Sand Castle Scenario

In the photo, two brothers (characters) are building a sandcastle at the beach (setting). Potential problems include:

  • One character accidentally flicks sand in the eye of the other.
  • The tide comes in and washes away their sand castle.
  • They find a gold ring when they dig but don’t know how to find its owner.

After modeling this with one photo (i.e., I do), repeat this process with a second photograph, asking the students to help you (i.e., We do). Eventually release them (i.e., You do) to generate narrative-story problems using additional images or scenes.

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