Narrative Writing: Expand the Possibilities of Genres You Teach
“To deny the centrality of narrative is to deny our own nature. We seek companionship of a narrator who maintains our attention, and perhaps affection. We are not made for objectivity and pure abstraction—for timelessness. We have ‘literary minds” that respond to plot, character, and details in all kinds of writing. As humans, we must tell stories.”
Minds Made For Stories
When I read my first Malcolm Gladwell book, I was struck by his new ways of thinking about patterns and trends, and I remember his points about outliers and the tracks they get on at early ages. He hooked me with the stories he wove throughout his arguments. As Tom Newkirk writes about narrative in Minds Made For Stories, “It is the ‘mother of all modes,’ a powerful and innate form of understanding” (Newkirk 6). Since I admire Gladwell and appreciate Newkirk’s claims about story, I work diligently to teach students the power of story regardless of the genre of writing we are teaching.
For example, opinion/argument writing lends itself to story and many teachers explicitly teach weaving in anecdotes in order to strengthen a point. While strong narrative writers embrace this technique, writers who are learning to relay a clear story with a beginning, middle, and end benefit from the practice of distilling an event into its clearest possible structure. Sometimes, I will tell these writers that they have no more than five lines — maybe even less– to tell a quick story. There are several versions of the idea that short stories are harder to write than long ones. Just recently, I heard someone quote Mark Twain as having said, “If I’d had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” For this post, I looked up who to credit for this line, and, in addition to Twain, there are several people who could be responsible for the statement. Henry David Thoreau wrote to a friend, “Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.” Regardless of who gets ultimate credit, it’s a great concept to share with students when they are developing purposeful anecdotes.
There’s a quick chart I make for students when I am teaching them to include anecdotes into their essays with a couple of choices for adding the story and a couple of options for explaining its relevance.
While I love stories in opinion/argument writing, one of my favorite things to teach students involves the power of story when they are writing information texts. Just the other day, a third-grade student wanted to write an informational book about softball, and we showed her Karen Wallace’s book, Giant Gentle Octopus. That book is written almost as a short story with intermittent facts. With very little additional instruction, Kyla wrote a small moment story about being up at bat, but figured out how to embed facts throughout her piece.
What are some other ways to teach into keeping narrative alive as we write informational texts? Here are a few ideas:
- Begin and end an informational piece with a story.
What’s especially great about this idea is it reinforces the idea that informational texts need to have a beginning and an end. When I teach students a repertoire of ways to begin their pieces, I include starting with a story. If a student takes me up on this, I love teaching into how they can weave the story throughout the information text, especially with the story’s ending showing up in the conclusion. As a couple of examples:
|If a student is writing about:||There could be this story that begins and ends the piece:|
|A famous explorer|
Beginning- Setting off on the ship
Ending- Arriving at a new place
|A specific country or city|
Beginning- Arriving at a specific place in that country or city
Ending- Leaving that place
Beginning- Standing at the free throw line wondering if you’re going to make the shot
Ending- Sinking the shot to tie (or win) the game
- Include a story as a separate section. Examples could include:
|If you’re writing about:||Then consider including a story about:|
|Baking||The time you burned the cookies you forgot in the oven (That’s never happened to me — this is just a suggestion.)|
|Soccer||Scoring your first goal|
|Basketball||Making the all-important free throw. (Or not making it…)|
|Horses||The time you fed a horse a carrot for the first time|
- Teach students about personification and then how they can bring whatever they’re writing about to life.
One student once wrote her information assessment that was about the Connecticut River from the point of view of the river, and I love using that as an example. Other ideas for considering this technique include:
|If you’re writing about:||Then consider personifying:|
|Dogs||A dog. This seems so obvious, but adds SO much voice. Instead of writing “Dogs eat dry dog food, although some dogs have special diets” we could write, “I eat dry food, but some of my canine friends get special food known as raw diets.”|
|Original Text form an All About Dogs Piece||Personifying the Dog|
|Dogs eat dog food. They also like cookies, bones, and many kinds of table scraps. Some dogs have special diets that include raw food that owners buy at specialty pet stores. Raw food helps dogs who have skin problems, allergies, or other health issues since they contain no fillers or hidden ingredients. They just cost a little more.||One of my favorite things to do in life is…eat. Mostly, I eat the dry dog food that my owner, Melanie, gives me from the bin. When I’ve done something good, though, she gives me cookies, and I love them. I try not to beg, but I love the treats I get when Melanie finishes her dinner. She usually gives me that sort of food after she leaves the table so I don’t get the idea that if I beg and bother I’ll get any sort of reward. One of the dogs I hang out with eats raw food that his owner gets from a specialty shop. Smoky has allergies and skin problems, so this food helps him feel better. I think his owner spends a fortune on it, though!|
- Weave facts into a longer story.
Kyla’s story is a strong example of this, and Giant Gentle Octopus by Karen Wallace is a great mentor text to show students how it can be done. Not every student is ready for this sort of narrative nonfiction, but many are able to give it a try!
Many of us begin our school year with narrative writing units so we can nurture those skills throughout the year in other genres. As human beings, we relate to stories. Stories add believability, and they bring life to facts and information. Through stories, we share experiences, and we remember… regardless of whether we are writing purely for entertainment or to convince or inform. No matter the genre, narrative writing has a place of importance, and it’s our responsibility to point that out to our students.
So many stories, so many possibilities for weaving narrative writing into other genres– and so much fun we can have doing it! Yes to Tom Newkirk! We have literary minds that respond to plots and details– so let’s not ever forget the power of stories as we teach young people to write.
- This giveaway is for a copy of each of the following books: Craft and Process Studies: Units that Provide Writers with Choice of Genre by Matt Glover and Focus Lessons: How Photography Enhances the Teaching of Writing by Ralph Fletcher. Thanks to Heinemann for donating a copy for one reader. (You must have a U.S. mailing address to win a print copy of this book.)
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