There are many variations or subgenres under the umbrella of “narrative writing.” Folk tales, fairy tales, fables, tall tales, realistic fiction, fantasy, memoirs – to name just a few. While all of these are characterized by particular unique characteristics and patterns, they all can be grouped under broader categories that are helpful to us in preparing and empowering young readers and young authors.
The Character/Problem Solution Narrative
By far, this is the most common type of narrative. This type of narrative involves a main character or protagonist who encounters a problem or challenge. They may be thrust into a struggle accidentally, against their will, or they might pro-actively set out to solve a problem or overcome a difficulty, as in a quest. The setting, the plot, and the problem itself all become vehicles through which character is revealed – this type of story is all about character development, about growth or change in the main character. Through the course of the struggle the main character grows, changes, and, when all is said and done, emerges the hero of the story. The inherent tension churned up by the problem or struggle is what draws and holds the attention, empathy, and interest of the reader.
The late Joseph Campbell, world mythologist, teacher, and writer, in referring to this type of narrative, has gone so far as to say that there has only been one story ever told – he calls it the Hero’s Path – but that it has been told in a million ways, in every age, culture and society. In other words, this particular pattern of story seems to reflect a part of our shared humanity, and it continues to speak to the very core of who we are.
When youngsters begin to write they are often drawn to create this type of story, as they have been exposed to it so frequently in the stories they’ve heard and those they’ve read. To name just a couple of classic children’s books which clearly fall into this category:
Brave Irene by William Steig
Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton
(For a more comprehensive listing, see our publications, Getting Ready to Write, Narrative Guides or consult the Literature Connection of our website.)
An interesting note – in selecting picture books that fall into this category, look for titles that include the main character’s name, and/or a suggestion of a problem. This is also a wonderful tip for helping students make some accurate predictions about story pattern as they read or listen. In other words, if they predict, according to the title, that they will be hearing a character/problem/solution narrative, they will be listening for the problem to emerge, anticipating ways in which the main character will be solving the problem, and guessing at the solution or conclusion. In other words, not only will they will be more actively engaged in the story plot, but they’ll be asking themselves the same questions they’ll need to ask themselves when they begin to write character/problem solution stories. If they strive to recognize the characteristics of this genre as they read, the same internal dialogue will empower and guide them as they begin to craft character/problem/solution narratives of their own.
The Personal Experience Narrative
This is an often misunderstood type of narrative story. Personal experience narratives are not constructed around a story problem, rather, they are written to tell about a significant experience, activity, or setting. They lack the tension that the problem or quest presents in the character/problem/solution narrative. Unlike the character/problem/solution narrative, in this type of story, the focus is not on character. Rather, the character becomes the vehicle through which the significant experience, activity, or setting is revealed.
Contrary to what we may think, this is a more challenging kind of story to write. Once we remove the story problem or tension, the reader can easily lose interest. Therefore, what does the author do to enhance the entertainment appeal? The author adds a high degree of evocative, sensory detail, plenty of carefully crafted description that allows the reader to live the experience through the five senses of the main character. Sometimes the author is challenged to make what seems ordinary, extraordinary. For example, the author must take an everyday experience such as sharing a meal with someone, and bring it to life in such a way that it becomes special, meaningful, and revealing. Meticulously crafted description can bring this about.
A common misconception about this genre is that the personal experience or activity described in the story must belong to the author. In fact, the personal experience described in this kind of story needn’t belong to the author at all – it belongs to the main, point of view character! It is not meant to be autobiographical. There are several reasons this confusion arises.
In the kindergarten and first grade classroom teachers always talk about having their students write personal experience stories. This is very different from the more mature personal experience narrative I’ve described here. In the primary grades teachers are engaging students in writing tasks in order to gauge their understanding of basic print conventions and as evidence that they’re beginning to grasp the sound-symbol connections. Children write in order to represent their thoughts, memories, wishes, hopes, and intentions using letters and the beginnings of words. This kind of personal experience narrative might read simply:
“Yesterday I went to my Grandma’s. We baked cookies. They were so good. I love my Grandma.”
The purpose of this is clearly not to entertain an audience of others. Teachers have also heard authors and teachers of writing say, “Write what you know.” This seems to imply that we should only write about what we’ve experienced firsthand. As an author myself who has lived an interesting, well-traveled life, I shudder to think that I would be limited to writing only what I’ve experienced firsthand! How very limiting! How confining! Yes, I certainly can write with more authority and confidence about places I’ve been and experiences I’ve had – but thank goodness I can also mix this experience with second and third hand experience – I can include “what ifs” and “why nots” in my writing. I can draw upon things I’ve heard from others, what I’ve read about or watched on television and movies, what I imagine when I look at other lives. When we limit children by encouraging them to write only about their first hand experiences we do them a terrible disservice! We clip their imaginative wings and pull them away from creative thinking, artistic license, and the kind of dreaming that the written word can translate into reality at some future time.
Also, think about some of your students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. That well intentioned assignment to “write about a fun way you spent the day” becomes difficult if a fun day rarely happens, and when it does it involves only watching television. It would be a challenge for a seasoned author to parlay that into an entertaining narrative – think of how difficult and discouraging it is for the young, inexperienced author! However, if we teach children to write about the personal experiences of their main characters, anything is possible! They can include the deepest desires of their hearts, the thrill of their own imaginations. Isn’t that why we write in the first place? To bring us beyond the person and circumstances we know?
Some powerful examples of children’s books in this genre:
In selecting picture books that fall into this category, notice that titles usually include a setting or a reference to the activity or experience. (Look over the titles, above, to see this pattern). Again, teaching children to use this information about story titles to make predictions about the story is helpful as a comprehension and as a prewriting tool.
What Skills do Children Need to Know to Write Narrative Stories?
First and foremost, every reading experience becomes a prewriting experience. Making children aware of the characteristics of genre is the first step. This instruction can begin as early as kindergarten and needs reinforcing in each subsequent year. Then, as they begin to write narrative stories for the purpose of entertaining others (usually in second grade) there are a number of skills necessary to craft successful pieces.
Organization – The following basic story map outlines the basic pattern of all narrative stories and can serve as a simple prewriting tool or graphic organizer:
This is a story about _________________________________________________________. The problem, activity, experience was that _____________________________________. The problem was solved, experience concluded when ____________________________.
This story map is helpful in shaping the basic story summary. However, in order to fully elaborate this summary into an entertaining narrative, it is useful to use it in conjunction with the following Narrative Writing Diamond
The diamond represents the shape a narrative story takes and includes the specific skills authors use to fully elaborate their stories.
Entertaining Beginning – The beginning must “hook” the reader and make them feel compelled to read on. The author might use an interesting action, dialogue, the main character’s thoughts, raise story questions or even use a sound to grab the reader’s attention. The story should begin as close to the main event as possible in order to get the story off and rolling quickly. View one of our Entertaining Beginning activities.
Description of Setting/character or object – A descriptive segment which describes the setting will help draw in the reader and help the reader observe the fictional world through the main character’s eyes. If the setting is mundane or boring (an average kitchen, the school yard, etc.) this may include instead a description of a story critical character or object
Build Suspense – Here the author moves toward the main event by building suspense. This might involve raising worry, concern, doubt, a sense of anticipation, story questions, all of which build tension. This can be done through the use of “word referents”, story questions, or the “Magic of Three”. Read more about Suspense or view a video of a Suspense Modeled Lesson.
The MAIN EVENT – This is the most important part of the story – the climax. This is the event that the entire story has led up to, it is essentially what the whole story is about. This section involves the problem/struggle sequence, or the adventure or interesting peak experience. This “scene” should be told almost in slow motion, expanded upon and stretched out through a balance of action, thought, description, and dialogue. This is the largest, most important part of the story.
The Solution/Conclusion – This is the section that brings the main event to a close. The problem is solved or the adventure comes to an end.
Extended Ending – The ending summarizes the main character’s thoughts, feelings, memories, hopes, wishes, or decisions in regard to the main event. It might also include a defining action that SHOWS any of the above. It should not be abrupt, rather it should have a feeling of satisfied closure.
Why Write Narrative Pieces?
Clearly, writing narrative stories involves quite a lot of skill and practice. And, for most people, their lives in the academic world or in the world of work and career will not directly call upon these skills. So, why teach narrative writing?
Narrative writing is an art form, much like music or the visual arts. We talk about the author’s purpose being to entertain an audience of others, and, practically speaking, this is true. But what is also true is that most writers’ motivation is much deeper. They do not write to earn money, accolades, or praise. They write because their stories provide a conduit to their inner worlds, their subconscious selves. Stories touch into the humanity of the author and resonate with the humanity of the reader.
As children we all learn, in varying degrees, how to repress or deny the traumatic events, experiences, and disappointments we all face in the course of childhood. This process is usually a healthy coping mechanism, one that protects us and allows us to move forward in life. The traumatic events, however, become a part of our hidden agendas in life, and the arts are often a healthy vehicle for the release of these experiences and the feelings associated with them. This is not usually a conscious process, however.
For example, I experienced my father’s untimely illness and death at a young age. I dealt with it as well as could be expected, and proceeded on in my life, successful in every way. However, every lengthy piece of fiction I wrote was characterized by a missing father figure. This was not by design or conscious intent. It was my connection to my unknown self, my deepest wound, my unfelt feelings. Through the language of metaphor and symbolism I was able to release these hidden hurts in such a way that touches other lives.
This cathartic process is not unique to adult writers. I have seen it expressed powerfully with children as well. I will share one story of a second grader, a pawn caught in his parents’ ugly, bitter divorce. I had assigned my class the following: Write a story about an amazing egg. This little boy, whose life was out of control, wrote a story about himself as a general in charge of an army of men. They were digging a ditch beside a railroad track when they came upon a strange, glowing egg. From the egg hatched a half snake-half man that our protagonist repeatedly whacked with a shovel and saved the day.
You don’t need a degree in psychology to see the emotional symbolism here, and to appreciate how the art of the narrative empowered this young man to safely express the anger and fear he couldn’t consciously face. This is the stuff of fairytales, the power to express the inexpressible. This is why we write. This is why we read. This is why we teach. The question is, how?
Without a doubt, these skills can and should be taught in developmentally appropriate, stimulating ways. For further background information on narrative writing and related skills, or for specific methodology, lesson plans and procedures, literature connections, exemplars and samples, see Empowering Writers Comprehensive Narrative Writing Guide, or our video training series, Teaching Narrative Writing – Skills and Strategies in Action or email us for professional development opportunities.
Barbara Mariconda is the author of over 20 children’s books and numerous professional books for teachers. Her middle grade novel, “Turn the Cup Around” published by Delacorte Press was nominated for an Edgar Allan Poe Award by the Mystery Writers of America for best children’s mystery. Her latest, a picture book titled “Sort it Out,” was published bySylvan Dell Publishing in the fall of 2008. She has presented programs on writing to thousands of teachers at workshops and conferences across North America.