character development · elaboration · fiction · writing workshop

Where to Begin: Developing Fiction Writers

Over the winter break, I was thinking about my upcoming unit of study–realistic fiction. I began thinking about ways students could unbox their ideas and what would be the best starting point. Writing believable fiction as a third grader can be challenging and at the same time very exciting. Sometimes it is the first time students are writing fiction on purpose. Helping writers get started can offer a challenge and often students go far in their reach–sometimes past reality.

One way to pull students back in without limiting their creativity is checking their expertise in two of the three. The three being–character, setting, problem/goal. If they know their setting and have a good grasp on the problem or goal (i.e., a lost dog, a broken bike pedal, learning to do a cartwheel), their character can grow alongside this expertise. It is simply an equation of 2+1. Two things I know well and one I’m learning as I go. When students try to develop a character unlike anyone they have ever met, a problem or situation unlike anything they have ever experienced, and a place they have never been to this can prove to be too much all at once.

This past week I decided to focus on characters as our starting point and had my students do some brainstorming exercises. Each student created a representation of a potential main character. For some students, this character was based on them, and for others, it was someone very different from them.

Following some conversations with partners, my writers attempted to capture some basic information about their character. Below is a planning tool with prompts. Students did not need to know all these bits of information, but for some, it spurred new thinking.

Brainstorming Exercise. Click the image for a printable copy.

From there, students began to create more elaborate descriptions from their brainstorming work. Students attempted to draft short bursts describing where the character lives, who is in the character’s family, and something the character might say or do. I gave my writers the following templates to draft these little bits of dialogue and elaboration for a story later.

Click any of the templates to view a printable copy.

Students were then able to engage in richer conversations about what situations the character might encounter and how they might respond.

I asked partnerships to think about:

How would your character respond if they were late for school?

Your character’s best friend is moving away. What will they do?

Your character just got covered in mud. How will your character respond?

This encouraged interesting ideas for dialogue, potential problems, as well as verbal development of their ideas. Students revised their drafted bursts from their character development exercise and got to work on illustrating for a finished product. Now our whole school can meet our characters.

Students held onto their drafts as these will be valuable resources when delving deeper in the drafting and revision phases of this unit. It will also offer a reminder of the types of information they may include as they compose and draft throughout the unit, creating new characters, settings, and problems to solve.

Note: Here are some brainstorming prompts and ideas for setting and problem/goal. You can click the image for a printable copy depending on the needs of your writers.

3 thoughts on “Where to Begin: Developing Fiction Writers

  1. My class starts with developing a character or thinking of a problem. Then they use post-its to make a sequence brain frame on the back of their writing booklets. They can move each post-it to the picture box to help them write across the booklet and down each page. It is less scaffolding, but it seems to work for my second graders.

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  2. You are having your students do such smart work, Betsy. I am certain that your 2+1 equation will lead to some high-quality, third grade realistic fiction writing. Keep us posted (after you finish the unit)!


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