Narrative Writing : How to Teach a Story Arc That’s as Exciting as a Roller Coaster is part of the Narrative Writing How To Series on the TeacherWriter.co blog. Imagine if you could teach your students how to build a story arc that would transform their narrative writing from blah to wow! Over the next seven blog posts, you’ll discover strategies, techniques, and ideas to do just that. These mini doses of lesson ideas are teacher tested, tried, and true.
How Story Arc is Like a Roller Coaster
You’ll find story arc diagrams all over the internet and in many writing workbooks. Some teachers liken story arc to climbing a mountain, a car ride up a hill, or something similar.
That doesn’t sound very exciting. Put yourself in your students’ heads for a moment. Which is more interesting and exciting?
- Climbing a mountain
- A car ride up a hill
- A roller coaster ride
If your students are like the ones in my classes, you chose the roller coaster ride.
We want students to understand that a story needs to grab a person’s interest and keep them enthralled in the story until the very end. To illustrate this, take your students on a roller coaster ride.
You can find some good virtual roller coaster rides online. This is perfect if you teach elementary grades in which many of the students still haven’t met the height requirement for a ride. They’re still too short to ride a roller coaster, so a virtual ride can show them how exciting one can be. They might even have butterflies in their stomachs as they fly around the virtual bends.
Ride that virtual roller coaster one or two times. Ride it again, but this time, pause the video at critical points to teach the parts of a story arc.
[click_to_tweet tweet=”We want students to understand that narrative writing needs to grab a person’s interest and keep them enthralled in the story until the very end. To illustrate this, take your students on a roller coaster ride.” quote=”To illustrate how engaging a story should be, take your students on a virtual roller coaster ride.” theme=”style3″]
Teaching the Parts of a Story Arc
So you’ve gone on a roller coaster ride with your class, and now your students are probably laughing and chatting about how much fun it was. Explain to them that’s how a well paced story should make a reader feel. I’ve created a short video highlighting some of the steps in the roller coaster story arc that you can watch here.
You can also scroll to the end of this blog post to watch it.
Character and Setting
First, show the part of the video where the riders are getting on board. Where are they? Who are they? Who is around them? How many riders are in each car? These are the characters and the setting.
Have a class discussion or group discussions in which the students describe the setting and the characters in the roller coaster. If the video doesn’t show the people, have your students create characters.
Introduce the Rising Action
This is the beginning section of the ride. Here is where the characters are setting off on a journey (the ride.) They’re anticipating a fun time. Slowly, they begin to climb up to the top of the first hill on the roller coaster.
How does it feel? Is the climb bumpy and noisy, as on an old wooden roller coaster? Is it smooth and quiet as on one of the more modern roller coasters? What do they see? What sensaciones do they experience?
Ideally, students should volunteer that they feel anticipation, perhaps even a little bit of nervousness as they look around and realize how high the roller coaster car is going.
One thing to note is that on most roller coasters, when you’re ascending the first hill, you can’t see what’s ahead. When you get to the top, it’s a surprise. This is where some of the newbies start to scream. 🙂
Add More Story Problems
Now is when the roller coaster ride gets interesting. You’ve climbed the first hurdle, and now you’re looking down. After a pause, down you go. Just when you think you’ve survived the drop,
Another hurdle appears.
On some of the better roller coaster rides, each hurdle seems bigger or faster than the last. It’s the same with a well written narrative.
Narrative Writing : Dark Moment of No Return
Now you’re at the top of the highest hurdle. You look down and decide, “Maybe this roller coaster ride wasn’t such a good idea.” But you can’t back out now. There’s nowhere to go, nothing else to do, but hang on and finish the ride.
This moment should happen at the 75% to 80% mark of the story. Roald Dahl books are perfectly aligned with this. You can point to the exact page numbers at this percentage point where the climax of his novels occur.
Narrative Writing : Resolution, Solution, or Denouement
Finally, students need to write a satisfying resolution to the story. It can’t just end.
You can illustrate this with your students by reading aloud a story. [click_to_tweet tweet=”Show your students how important a satisfying resolution is to a narrative. In a read aloud, stop right at the part when the hero is finally going to solve the ultimate problem. Close the book, and say, “The end.” Then listen to the howls of dismay. :-)” quote=”Stop right at the part when the hero is finally going to solve the ultimate problem. Close the book, and say, “The end.”” theme=”style3″]
Sit back and smile when you hear their howls of outrage. 🙂
They won’t forget how important a satisfying denouement is after that.
How to Assign Interesting Story Ideas
One common piece of advice is to have students keep a story ideas journal. Or perhaps a teacher will give a prompt such as, “Write a narrative story. It can be about anything you want.”
I recommend avoiding this strategy.
If you have students choose the prompt, you’re going to make yourself crazy. You’ll make more work for yourself in editing and grading. Many students won’t even be able to get started, because they’ll get stuck in the “I Don’t Know What To Write” quicksand.
You choose the story idea. Tell them how many characters they should have. For short stories it should be no more than three. I advise two.
Imagine how much easier a writer’s workshop would be if you gave your students a specific prompt each week. You’d see similar themes, but totally different stories. Since the themes are similar, it will be easier to grade. Also, when you meet in small writing groups, it will go more smoothly, because all the students are working on the same prompt.
You and your students will be amazed at how different all the stories can be. Don’t worry about stifling creativity. You’ll actually see how much more creative they can be as they write stories that can stand out from each other.
For example, you can give them a narrative prompt to write about a first day at school on Mars. The characters can be the student, a teacher, and one other person. Obviously the setting is a school, but on Mars instead of Earth.
Every student will have different ideas to share. You’ll be free to teach each student at their own level, whether it be descriptive writing, paragraphing, using active verbs, or anything else they need at their own level.
For a list of ideas for writing prompts, I’d love to share this blog post from Vibrant Teaching, 20 Narrative Writing Prompts That Spark Creativity.
Keep the Narrative Writing “How To” Lessons Simple
You definitely want to keep the lessons simple. Each week, give a deep dive lesson on a part of the story arc. Inform your students what specific thing you’ll be looking for in their writing.
If you do a lesson on a story hook, you can tell the students you’ll be looking for openings to the story that grab the reader’s attention. I used to jokingly tell my students that if I yawned during the opening of their story, they automatically would be marked down a grade. 🙂
Focus on one particular piece of the narrative at a time. Build on each skill. By the end of your narrative writing unit, students will be responsible for using what they’ve learned in each area.
In the next blog post in this series, we’ll dive into how to teach character and setting. Since these are set out in the beginning of the narrative, we’ll also look at how to teach writing a story hook.
See you then!
P.S. Before you go, don’t forget to pick up your free story arc roller coaster graphic to use with your class. It’s available in the Member Vault.