Narrative writing is one of the three major types of written work we ask students do in the classroom. But what exactly do we mean by narrative writing, and what are the most effective strategies for teaching students how to do it? WeAreTeachers is here with everything you need to know.
What is narrative writing?
Narrative writing is, well, writing narrative. Officially described as: writing that is characterized by a main character in a setting who engages with a problem or event in a significant way. As writing instruction goes, narrative writing encompasses a lot: author’s purpose, tone, voice, structure, in addition to teaching sentence structure, organization, and word choice.
Yes, that’s a lot, so what exactly do I need to teach?
In many ways, teaching students to write narrative involves teaching them to think like the authors that they like to read. Kevin Henkes, Roald Dahl, Beverly Cleary—all of the narrative writing skills students will use are the ones that their favorite authors employ. You can find lots of narrative writing lessons online, but, specifically, you’ll need to teach:
Students must understand the basics of story structure to create their own. In narrative, stories are often organized in a certain way, with the characters and setting introduced before the problem. Then, the plot progresses chronologically.
Here’s a third grade narrative lesson that focuses on organization and transition words.
Characters are the people, animals, or other beings that move the story forward. They are whom the story is about. Creating characters by describing the character and planning how they will act in the story is an important prewriting step.
Read more about bringing characters to life in students’ writing.
It’s important for narratives to catch the reader’s attention. Help students figure out how to set up an interesting beginning by showing them examples of different ways to begin.
The plot of the story involves a problem that the character must address or a main event that they need to navigate. Outlining the events and how they unfold will help students craft out the body of their story.
Narrative writing incorporates a lot of detail—adding details about the character, explaining a setting, describing an important object. Teach students when and how to add detail.
Narrative writers often engage readers with cliffhangers or suspenseful situations that leave the reader wondering: What happens next? One way to teach students about cliffhangers is to read books that have great ones and talk about what the author did to create the suspense.
After the problem is resolved, and the climax of the story has concluded, students need to wrap up the story in a satisfying way. This means bringing the memories, feelings, thoughts, hopes, wishes, and decisions of the main character to a close.
Here’s how one teacher teaches students about endings.
The theme of the story is what it’s all about. Incorporate these ideas on teaching theme to improve your students’ knowledge of theme in reading and writing.
How does teaching narrative writing look different across the grade levels?
Your students engage with narrative as readers from the first day of school (and probably before), but they’ll start writing narrative in early elementary school.
In early elementary school (K–2), students are learning about the writing process. Teach them about narrative through read alouds, both fiction and nonfiction. Reading aloud and talking about the elements of narrative in what they read, teaches students about what components go into any narrative. Students can also start crafting their own basic narrative stories.
In third and fourth grade, students will have an idea of what narrative writing is all about, and they can write their own stories. Help students organize their narratives with timelines and outlines of important events. Also, teach mini-lessons on strong introductions, endings, and adding details in the story.
In upper elementary school and beyond, students should know how to write a narrative. Now, they are learning how to strengthen their narratives with evidence and are learning advanced narrative skills, like how to tell stories from different points of view.
What about personal narrative?
When a narrative is fiction it’s, well, made up. Nonfiction stories (or personal narratives) are stories that are from real life. The same writing techniques used in fiction are used in personal narrative, the main difference is that students can only pull from what actually happened.
- This second grade lesson plan takes students through writing a personal narrative.
- This overview of personal narrative writing has ideas and assignments for middle and high school students.
- Here is a list of personal narrative topics that one middle school teacher banned.
My students struggle with narrative writing, how can I help?
- Prewriting and organization: Students may need help organizing their ideas. Graphic organizers can provide the structure that students need to organize their narratives before they write.
- Transition words: Narratives are often told in chronological order, so a list of transition words, like “as soon as,” “during,” or “finally,” can help students connect events.
- Ideas for helping when narrative writing reduces a student to tears.
I have students who are great at narrative writing, how do I push them?
- Have them think about how they want the reader to feel at each point in their story. Do they want the reader to cry? Laugh? Gasp? Then, challenge them to write a story that engages those emotions.
- Add minor characters. Once students are good at writing main characters, add minor characters. How do the minor characters impact the thinking and actions of the main character(s)? How do they change the plot?
Get more help teaching narrative writing:
- Videos that you can use during instruction and as reminders for students who need a refresher.
- Five narrative writing mini-lessons that are must-plans.
- Ideas for introducing narrative writing to students in elementary school.
- Mentor texts for narrative writing for grades K–2.
Come share your tips and questions for teaching narrative writing in our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE group on Facebook.