Bobble people in a line with the title in the foreground.

Narrative Writing : How to Teach Character Arc Like a Pro

Narrative Writing : How to Teach Character Arc Like a Pro will show you how to take your students’ character growth from drab and boring to sensational.

 

Bobble people in a line with the title in the foreground.

In this essay about narrative writing we’re diving into character arc. When teaching character development in narrative writing, we want to show characters grow and change. To teach character arc to elementary students in grades 3-5 you’ll need some examples that will give those light bulb moments all teachers love to see.

Examples of Narrative Writing for Teaching Character Arc

I checked out a few books from the library that I think have good examples of character arc. The first that comes to mind is any of Roald Dahl’s books. His writing shows strong character arcs. Let’s think about some of the characters in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Violet starts out a little spoiled and a little bratty. Roald Dahl does a fantastic job of creating characters we love to hate. Violet’s character complains and acts more spoiled in each scene. By the time she turns into a giant blueberry and is taken to the pressing room, readers are happy to see her go.

Charlie begins as a poor boy that gains the reader’s sympathy. By the end of the story, he’s gained confidence and is triumphant. He’ll never have anyone feeling sorry for him again.

Of course, Harry Potter has the same type of story arc. From abandoned and orphaned and living in a closet under the stairs, he changes into a powerful young wizard. 

Using Picture Books to Teach Character Arc

Using picture books to teach character arc on a pink background with white book pages.

Don’t be afraid to use picture books to teach elements of fiction, even if you’re teaching upper elementary students. This can be especially effective if you use some of their favorite books they enjoyed when they were younger. When they examine the picture book as a writer, and they learn the author’s techniques, they can go deep into the learning. They’ll see that what they’re learning is something their favorite authors do, and it will make them want to do it too. This is also used in mentor text routines.

I’ve used books by Chris van Allsburg, Tomie de Paola, Patricia Polacco, and others to teach character developmetn.

In the Strega Nona books by Tomie de Paola, the character Big Anthony is always a bit of a lovable, bumbling helper. He doesn’t grow out of that persona, but he does grow into a way of solving the problems he creates in each story. This is also a type of character growth.

It’s important to let the students know that character arc often involves having the characters learn from their mistakes. Whether Big Anthony is losing control of a magic pasta pot, or growing a jungle of vegetables, he is the one who solves his own problems. That’s the character growth.

No one else can solve the main character’s problem but the character themself. If someone else solves the problem, the character can’t grow. What if Dumbledore had been the one to solve all of Harry’s problems in the Harry Potter books? Then Harry would never have grown into a powerful wizard.

[click_to_tweet tweet=”Don’t be afraid to use picture books to teach elements of fiction, even if you’re teaching upper elementary students. When they examine the picture book as a writer, and they learn the author’s techniques, they can go deep into the learning.” quote=”Don’t be afraid to use picture books to teach elements of fiction, even if you’re teaching upper elementary students. When they examine the picture book as a writer, and they learn the author’s techniques, they can go deep into the learning.” theme=”style3″]

Using the Roller Coaster to Show Character Arc

Just like we used the roller coaster graphic to teach story arc in last week’s blog post, you can do the same thing for your character arc.

Students should write a description of their character before they start the roller coaster ride of rising action, ultimate problem, moment of no return, and finally the resolution. The moment of no return and the resolution are the two strongest parts of the story arc in which to show character growth. 

This can only take place if the student has time to do prewriting. If you’re not sure how to use prewriting in your class, check out this post from The Problem Solving Teacher about 13 Strategies for Prewriting to Help Your Students Efficiently Produce Writing.

Image of a roller coaster with a character arc comment.

Give your students a page with an arc on it. Have them describe their character at the beginning. Then have them add some notes at the top of the arc showing how the character reacts to the ultimate problem. What is he thinking? Describe the feelings he’s having. What are his reactions to the only path forward? 

Take a Ride on the Character Arc Roller Coaster 

Let’s think about this with a character who is afraid to ride a wooden roller coaster. He’s nervous and scared. Maybe his friends have dared him to ride on this rickety old ride.

Going up the first and largest hill, he’s feeling the gravity making his head fall back against the seat. He’s feeling some wind and he worries that the wind might blow the car off the track. He looks down, (NO! Don’t look down!) and feels the bottom of his stomach drop out.

Now he reaches the top of the hill. Usually it seems like time slows down here, doesn’t it? So he’s terrified, but there’s no way out but down. Does he close his eyes and scream? Does he white-knuckle the safety bar and watch as they fly down the other side of the hill? What does he do? This will give a clue to how his character is changing.

When he reaches the end of the roller coaster, how does he react? If he decides he loved the adrenaline rush and he’s ready to ride more roller coasters, that’s the change in his character. He’s no longer afraid.

But what if he is scared beyond words? What if he decides he’s never going on a roller coaster again and no one is going to talk him into it? That’s also a character change. He’s no longer iffy about roller coasters. He’s strong enough now to say no to something he doesn’t like.

Narrative Writing Teaching Like a Pro

We’ve covered story arc and character arc. For elementary students, these are both complex topics. Take your time teaching them. This isn’t a one and done lesson. It’s an ability that grows with practice, just like any other skill.

You can hand out the Roller Coaster Story Arc to your students, and have them write out the story arc with the problems first. Then have them draw an arc on the back of one page. They should write the character description and character arc, explaining how the main character changes in the story.

You could have them do this with a few different story ideas without ever writing the narrative. The practice of looking at narrative writing in this way will help them think critically about their own writing. During small group meetings of writing workshop, you can go over these arcs with them. 

[click_to_tweet tweet=”Take your time teaching story arc and character arc. This isn’t a one and done lesson. It’s an ability that grows with practice, just like any other skill.” quote=”Take your time teaching story arc and character arc. This isn’t a one and done lesson. It’s an ability that grows with practice, just like any other skill.” theme=”style3″]

Next week the blog post will be all about how to decide on a story problem and solution. If you don’t want to miss a post, sign up for my email list so you’ll be notified when the post is published.

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Suzanne-TeacherWriter