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Narrative Techniques

2015 October 13
by SSedro

For me, one measure of an effective writing lesson is when my students are all clamoring to share what they just wrote, and spontaneous conferences are happening all over the room.  That is finally happening in my writing workshop thanks to great resources found online and shared by colleagues.

We’ve been working on narrative writing with lots of flash drafting to increase volume and stamina. Lots of different topics were generated to give us a rich bank of ideas and options.  It was all fine, but not great.  As we worked on selecting  flash draft to flesh out into a full narrative, we revisited some earlier lessons.

I’ve been discussing with them that if you just want to tell about an event in chronological order, write a recount. A narrative is a story. It has a story arc. It has a life lesson or the character grows or changes in some way.  Students seemed willing to believe me, but they were having trouble using the techniques of narrative writing to turn their recounts into narratives.

On Monday we revisited writing strong leads.  I was fortunate to find this great presentation online: Three Types of Narrative Leads.  The mentor text examples at the start were useful, but the real power came at the end where is showed three different leads for the same narrative.  Students burst out with comments about how powerful the leads were and which one they thought was best.  During their work time, some students actually crafted multiple leads and then selected which one worked best.  Many of their leads were strongly influenced by the powerful examples from the presentation. Some students started with one type of lead but then abandoned it and tried a different type.  All were focused during the writing session.

During our closing circle, they shared which type of lead they were trying.  Many had watered the styles down by combining them, but most students now had a stronger lead than what they’d had before.  Success!

(Note: I also had this handout on narrative leads available, but none of my students ended up using it.)

Today we revisited another narrative technique: slowing down the heart of the story. I ran out of time to make a lovely presentation but even displaying this document and reading it aloud was highly effective.  Then, based on a lesson from my school’s excellent mini-literacy institute last spring, I showed this video clip.

I did not teach this part as masterfully as Scott Reilly did in the institute. Fortunately, it is such a great teaching tool that it worked anyhow.

The first time through I kept stopping it, pointing out all the details of how the perspective kept switching, of the sounds, the sights, the expressions, the postures, the word choice, the camera angle and especially the speed.  Then we watched it again straight through.  Finally, I sent them off to find the heart of their narrative and to slow it down so we could experience it with them.

Students dug into their writing and it worked. Soon students were waving me over or dashing across the room, eager to share what they had written.  Spontaneous writing conferences started breaking out around the room as students, with heads together, shared the part they had just slowed down.

By this time I had despaired of helping my low volume writer truly expand his writing. Both my instructional assistant and I were both at a loss for what else to try with him since we’d tried all the “tricks” in our bag over the past month. He was miserably discouraged and kept saying, “I don’t understand how to do that.”

For some reason, this mini-lesson clicked with him. He got right to work.  He slowed down one part of his so much (and so effectively) that the slowed section was now longer than the original piece had been. His face was alight with his success and as he walked away he said, “I just figured out how I can slow down this last sentences. I can make it better.”

In the end, all but four students had identified the heart and worked at slowing it down. In our closing circle students did not read aloud, they just verbally told us about the part they had worked on slowing down. As students shared, frequent interjections and exclamations were heard from their classmates  because they could “see” how effective the slow down would be. Examples included the slowed down portion of a water balloon or snowball fight. The slowed down moment when their friend decided to touch his tongue to the metal bar at the top of the ski lift. The slowed down moment at the funeral when they viewed their uncle’s body for the last time.

It is so rewarding to see students excited about crafting their writing and eager to share their work. I feel great gratitude to the people who took time to share the excellent resources online which inspired my students to these new heights.  Thank you.






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