Narrative, Teaching Writing

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


Story Arc

All stories have certain elements.  If they are missing, you don’t have a story.  The most obvious example is CHARACTERS–you must have characters in order to make the events in your story happen.  The good news is I have never known a student to leave characters out of a story!

Another important element is the SETTING.  Yeah, yeah, I know you’ve heard this before, but I can’t tell you how many student narratives I’ve read that seem to occur in a vacuum.  Please tell me if we are at the character’s house, or in an amusement park, or lost in the woods!  Better yet, SHOW me the setting with lots of sensory details. (I get really excited about sensory details)

This one is a little tougher.  Every story must have a problem or CONFLICT.  Your main character is your protagonist.  This character can have a conflict with another CHARACTER (the antagonist) as in the classic good-guy-beats-the-bad-guy story.  The protagonist can also have a conflict with NATURE, as in the good-guy-battles-the-terrible-storm story.  Your protagonist can also have a conflict with SELF, as in the bad-liar-loses-all-his-friends-and-learns-to-stop-lying story.

Remember when you introduce the problem to the reader you need to show why it is a problem.  For example, bringing an elephant to school is not a problem.  When it breaks down the wall coming through the door, that’s a problem.

Finally, every story must have an ARC, which you may know as a beginning, a middle, and an end.  Without an arc, the story is merely a boring listing of events.  The arc gives it a reason to be a story.  Think of the story arc as a roller coaster.

The beginning is when you are in the station loading the cars.  Here is where you introduce your protagonist and the setting, and maybe hint at the problem.  The inciting event is what starts the roller coaster moving up the hill.  This might be where your protagonist first tangles with your antagonist.

The rising action is represented by the roller coaster moving uphill toward that drop. You know the drop is coming, and the anticipation builds.  In your story, every event, every bit of dialogue, every character interaction must build tension toward the climax of your story.  (You absolutely cannot do this with internal thinking….I’ll do a separate post on that)

The top of the roller coaster hill is the climax of your story.  This is the epic battle, or the event that changes the world.  Have you ever in your life known a roller coaster to stop at the top of the hill?  No.  Please do not ever end your story  here!

The last part of the roller coaster ride is the downhill plunge into the station.  Your story must have an ending that wraps up the loose ends and reveals what changed in your protagonist.  What lesson was learned?  Plan this part of your story as completely as you plan the rising action.  Please get your characters safely home!

As with most writing, careful planning is more than half the task.  When a story is well planned, the actual writing is very rewarding!

On my Kindle:  Freckles by Gene Stratton Porter (one I loved as a child!)