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Emotion in Narrative

At the beginning of the school year, I teach Personal Narrative. Students who are reluctant writers always do well in this unit because Everyone Has a Story. They learn how to take a memory with impact and turn it into a story that can impact a reader.

To begin, I ask students to remember an incident with a person close to them. Usually they choose a parent or a sibling, and the event is always a special time: fishing with Dad, snorkeling in Hawaii with family, getting lost in a mall. Wait! Getting lost isn’t a special time! The events students remember always center around great emotion: excitement, anticipation, joy, grief, or fear.

Every story has emotion, but the event they remember is really the climax of the story. For example, when we use Think of a First Time as a story prompt, many students write about the first time they rode a scary ride at Great America. They were terrified, and the terror is what they remember. Without the buildup of growing fear, the realization they can’t change their mind, the thrill of the ride itself, and getting back in line to ride it again, you don’t have a story.

So starting with the memory, I take the writer back in time to when they first heard someone suggest the ride. I never allow them to write, “I was scared.” They must convey the emotion by Showing How They Feel, what they did and how they looked, or use metaphors/similes. That’s how I get a paragraph with wide eyes, dry mouth, swallowing, nervous toe tapping, or knees knocking like trick-or-treaters at neighborhood doors on Halloween.

From that first suggestion, events move forward as the group of family or friends agrees to go on the ride, gets in line, discusses previous rides and their anticipation, gets buckled into the seat, hears the ride rev up, chugs up the first big hill, zooms down into the swirls and dives of the ride, screams, laughs, gets off the ride, and gets back in line to go again. I never allow a simple recitation of events because that results in a diary entry, not a story. Each step of the process, as listed, has emotion. The fear heightens, then there’s resignation, then delighted terror, then joy, finally eagerness to do it again. Showing the emotion of the narrator, set against the obvious confidence and eagerness of the rest of the group, is the most important part of the story.

Once students master the story arc of the emotion and can weave that into the story arc of the plot events, they begin to see themselves as real authors. They enjoy writing narratives, and they enjoy reading each others’ narratives. More importantly, I look forward to collecting a class set of narratives and sitting down to read them!

♥ On my Kindle: Walking the Dog by Linda Benson

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