The narrative problem and solution are critical elements of the story arc. Teaching how to write a gripping problem and solution that’s satisfying can be a fun adventure with your students.</small?


Home » Blog and News » Teaching Writing » Narrative Writing : How to Teach a Gripping Problem and a Satisfying Solution


Have you ever read a book blurb or review that revealed a problem that wasn’t really that much of a problem? It depends on your point of view, but in my opinion, if it’s something easily fixed, it’s not a real problem. It’s not gripping.  Where’s the heart-pounding suspense? Does it make you want to dive into a bucket of ice cream to assuage your anxiousness?


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Sometimes students think that any small problem is fine to use in their story. They might introduce a problem as the main character didn’t have the money to buy a candy bar. As a solution, he walked his dog so his mom gave him some money.

Sure, this is a problem and solution, but the problem is not gripping and the solution is blah.

So how do you teach your students what it means to have a gripping problem? Something well worth that tub of ice cream?

Using Mentor Texts to Teach Problem and Solution

One thing I always turn to are the works of well known authors with books the students love. One mentor text I like to use is The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate. If you’ve read this with your class, you’ll know that it’s based on the true story of a silverback gorilla that lived in a shopping mall for many years. 

The conditions, as you can imagine, were less than ideal. The problems piled up, one after the other, until finally it came to the point where the characters in the story knew they had to rescue him from the mall. 

This is a great example of a gripping problem. It’s not something that could be easily solved. The key point here is that the problem cannot be easily solved.

Another example you could use is the first Harry Potter book by J. K. Rowling. Most students are familiar with this story line. They know Harry starts out with the odds stacked against him. His problems get bigger as the story goes on, until he finally has to face off against Voldemort. There’s no way this can be solved quickly or easily.

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You can grab some free mentor sentences worksheets from my Member Vault when you sign up for my newsletter. Learn more about how to spot a mentor text in this blog post.

Creating a Story Resolution That Satisfies

The golden rule of denouement in writing is you may never, ever, use Deus ex Machina. If you haven’t heard of this, it means that the main character must solve the problem on his own.

It’s not fair to the reader to have a solution that falls from the heavens. Their guardian angel may not step in and solve the problem for him. His mom may not just hand him the money to buy a candy bar. Harry Potter’s mom and dad could not rise from the dead and protect him from Voldemort. 

You want to make this perfectly clear to your students. No one may solve the problem the character faces except for the character himself. If he has friends along with him, perhaps the friends can help, but ultimately the solution rests on the main character’s shoulders.

Help Your Students Decide on a Problem and Solution

After looking at one or two or more mentor texts, have your students decide on their story problems. It helps to have the setting and main characters set up. The blog post Narrative Writing : How to Teach Character Arc describes some of the essentials for creating memorable characters that grow and change through the story events.

Next, after they think of one problem, have them think of another problem. Then have them think of a third problem. If that’s not enough, have them find more. Continue until they have a problem that will make the reader’s eyes stay glued to the page.

Young girl thinking about writing a problem and solution.
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Let’s say you’ve assigned narratives about a 5th grade science camping trip. The main character is a shy, quiet girl, and the setting is the campground. Problems ideas could be:

  1. She gets assigned to a cabin with a girl who’s a bully.
  2. She’s terrified to go on the zipline because she’s afraid of heights. Even better, she thinks the zipline is fraying.
  3. She gets lost during a trail hike. Are there bears in the area?
  4. She encounters a bobcat or mountain lion.
  5. The teacher in charge has an accident and sprains her foot when the students are hiking with her.

Build these problems with incidents that occurring before the moment of no return. Which one is the most interesting or gripping? That’s the one they should choose.

The solution should be handled in the same way the decision for a problem; . writing at least three different solutions. Reinforce the solution must come from the main character. Waking up and discovering it was all a bad dream is not allowed!

Using a Writing Journal to Brainstorm Problem and Solution

A writer’s journal or digital writing notebook is a valuable tool to have when students are coming up with story ideas. When they’re working on problems and solutions, it becomes a resource for future reference, too.

Your students can write or type their lists of problems in their journal. During the narrative writing unit, they can return to these problem lists for more ideas. Have them leave room on the problem and solution pages to expand their ideas. When they think of other points to add, they can jot them on the page.

Another idea is to use picture prompts for stories. The setting is defined by the pictures, and your students can create problems dependent on the pictures.

Once your students have decided on the setting, characters, problem, and solution, the fun begins. Now they can start writing and adding all the rising action and details that will bring their narrative to life.

That’s the way to have readers running to the freezer for tubs of ice cream.

If you’re wondering how to find the time to put all this into action, you can check out my course Building Strong Writers with Simple Systems. Using simple systems and strategies, you’ll find that it’s easy to fit writing into your teaching day.

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If you’re wondering how to find and use mentor texts to teach writing, you might want to consider my course Building Strong Writers with Mentor Texts.  See what’s included in this mini course by clicking on the link or the image.

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Find more information about this mini course here.

Also, you can download the free e-booklet, Building Strong Writers with Simple Systems and start using some of those strategies in your classroom today!


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