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Just last weekend my husband and I watched the movie Lion and were glued to the screen the whole time, knowing it was based on a true story.James Frey’s book A Million Little Pieces sold millions of copies as a memoir but was later found to contain more than a little bit of fiction.
The most helpful parts for them to observe were the early drafting stage, where I just scratched out whatever came to me in messy, run-on sentences, and the revision stage, where I crossed things out, rearranged, and made tons of notes on my writing.
I have seen over and over again how witnessing that process can really help to unlock a student’s understanding of how writing actually gets made. So the first step in getting good narrative writing from students is to help them see that .
Use a diagram to show students a typical story arc like the one below.
Then, using a simple story—like this Coca Cola commercial—fill out the story arc with the components from that story.
Then there are unique books like Curtis Sittenfeld’s brilliant novel American Wife, based heavily on the early life of Laura Bush but written in first person, with fictional names and settings, and labeled as a work of fiction.
The line between fact and fiction has always been really, really blurry, but the common thread running through all of it is good storytelling.Here are some examples of what that kind of flexibility could allow: If we aren’t too restrictive about what we call these pieces, and we talk about different possibilities with our students, we can end up with lots of interesting outcomes.Meanwhile, we’re still teaching students the craft of narrative writing.Now give them specific instructions for what they are going to do.Share your assignment rubric so they understand the criteria that will be used to evaluate them; it should be ready and transparent right from the beginning of the unit.As always, I recommend using a single point rubric for this.Once the parameters of the assignment have been explained, have students read at least one model story, a mentor text that exemplifies the qualities you’re looking for.“Those who tell the stories rule the world.” This proverb, attributed to the Hopi Indians, is one I wish I’d known a long time ago, because I would have used it when teaching my students the craft of storytelling.With a well-told story we can help a person see things in an entirely new way.With that in mind, the process for teaching narrative writing can be exactly the same for writing personal narratives or short stories; it’s the same skill set.So if you think your students can handle the freedom, you might decide to let them choose personal narrative or fiction for a narrative writing assignment, or simply tell them that whether the story is true doesn’t matter, as long as they are telling a good one.