Writing to narrate can be confusing for students because some think of short stories, while others think of the traditional personal narrative.  These genres are very different, but very similar as well.  Writing a short story and a personal narrative requires that students develop their writing to tell a story.

What is a short story?

Students love to write short stories.  For many, this will be a chance to combine their imagination with their writing skills to create a true work of fiction.  A caution to note is that there will be some reluctant writers who simply try to narrate to you the contents of a favorite video game, television show, or a movie.  It is important to begin a short story unit by being direct in telling students that you desire originality and not just a summary of something that someone else has already created.

Beginning a short story unit can focus on refreshing students on the elements of narrative writing.  It is important they understand that this writing type is to entertain.  While entertaining, students will develop their short stories using plot, conflicts, theme, characters, and point of view.  All of this will hopefully translate into a story that is entertaining for the reader.

For many students, choosing what to write about is not the issue, but how to begin their short stories.  Short stories can begin in a variety of ways.  Some suggestions include:

  1. Provide an overview of the setting.
  2. Start in the middle of the conflict and then use a flashback to go back in time.
  3. Have a character begin by saying something that is meaningful and starts the story at an appropriate pace.

Once students have begun writing, it is important that they focus on answering some key questions:

  • What point of view will the story be told from?  Will a main character narrate the story using first person point of view?  Will a narrator from outside the story narrate the story?
  • What is my plot?
  • Where is the setting?
  • How will the conflicts combine to create a climax (the moment where the emotion within the story is the most intense)?
  • What is the resolution?

Authors are very unique and varied in their approaches to short story writing, but using a variety of techniques can help to develop their short story.  Some of these techniques include:

  • Dialogue – using the characters’ words to show their emotions, personality traits, and response to the situation.
  • Thoughtshots – sharing the characters’ thoughts.  This can be especially useful if you are using a first person point of view, where the narrator may have limited information about other characters.
  • Snapshots – Using strong description to create mental images that allow the reader to feel connected and visualize the story.
  • Flashbacks – Traveling back in time to a previous situation that might help to explain or clarify a current situation.

Short stories are a fun type of narrative writing that can truly motivate students, but make sure they are focused on truly telling a story that is clearly weaved together and reaches a clear resolution.  For many, this resolution may not be a happy ending and that is okay…

What is a personal narrative?

Teaching students to understand what it means to narrate is about being creative, but one cannot omit the ability to share real-life experiences.  One genre that can be used to do this is the personal narrative.  Personal narratives are similar to short stories because they too can use dialogue, thoughtshots, snapshots, and flashbacks, but these narrative pieces are nonfiction.

When students are choosing a topic for their personal narrative, they should try to steer clear of memories that are too emotional.  Additionally, students need to choose a memory to showcase in their personal narrative that is special and in some way life changing.

Topics that that are blah and overused include writing about a rollercoaster ride at an amusement park, getting a new pet, going shopping with friends, or the first day of school.  Now, having said that if something life changing happened as a result of riding that roller coaster, such as it malfunctioned and you were stranded on it for four hours, then by all means use this topic for a personal narrative.

Many people choose to write about memories that were a first time experience or things that happen rarely.  One of the most entertaining personal narratives that I ever read was about how a ten year old put out a fire in the kitchen, after his mother got sidetracked by a phone call. Do you see how this topic is not something that happens over and over again?

All in all:

Depending on your students, some will love the ability to create new characters in new worlds, while others will enjoy the ability to narrate their own memories.  Both are important lessons in allowing students to understand narrative writing and its components.  Allowing students to explore both genres invites them to truly understand how these purposes are different, yet very similar.

Writing to Narrate