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Inspiring ideas to help students with narrative writing

Dawn McMillan is an internationally recognised writer of picture books and educational texts. Her background is primary school teaching, with a special interest in writing and reading processes. She offers an insider’s guide to narrative writing.
Narrative Writing

Narrative writing: Telling a story

As an author of narrative writing, I have enjoyed many years ‘on the road’ as part of the Writers in Schools programme. I take with me my memories of wonderful classroom experiences including our ‘Reading Shows’. These were weekly presentations to families and friends of plays, poems, children’s own writing read by the authors, and a song or two. The Reading Shows were all presented from our classroom stage – a space complete with stage curtains. 

In response, I heard so many worries about narrative writing. “How do you feel about your writing?” I asked.   Back came the “I can’t” answers, such as:

  • I can’t spell
  • I can’t stop making mistakes 
  • I can’t write very well 
  • I can’t get started
  • I can’t think of what happens next
  • I can’t plan 
  • I can’t finish my stories 
  • I can’t think of an idea or a topic
  • I just get stuck!

Goodness, where to go with all that? This is what I told my worried friends. 

How do you start a narrative?

Spelling

Don’t worry too much if you make spelling mistakes in your first draft. You can fix the mistakes when you write your good copy. And, if you’re writing a card to someone in your whānau to tell them how much you love them, that lucky person isn’t going to worry about your spelling. They’ll love your writing as it is. 

Mistakes

Authors make mistakes all the time. You might have to erase your mistakes but keep the ideas in your head. You might want to use them another time – as a start for a new story.

Handwriting

Try your best to write neatly but if it’s not perfect, just remember – this is your first draft. It’s nice to have neat writing as it is easier for the reader to read but it doesn’t make the story any better.  

Stuck?

Most, if not all writers, think that way from time to time. It’s okay to feel bogged down and stuck. We just have to find the best way to get on with the job.

I can’t plan!

I have no answers for this because sometimes I can’t plan either. My stories just seem to roll out. A plan doesn’t always make for a good story.  

I can’t finish my stories!

It doesn’t matter if you have some unfinished stories because later you can go back and finish a few. You can always put ‘To be continued…’ at the bottom of your page.  Another idea is to put some unfinished works together to make a new story. That’s fun! I have heaps of unfinished stories! 

I can’t think of what happens next!

Don’t try to think too much. You’ll struggle to get a story if you sit there thinking. In my workshops, I use a fun activity to sort ‘thinking’ out. It’s the 5-minute-write. Find a space on your own. Paper, pen or pencil, and someone with a timer. And just write SO FAST and see what happens.

No time to think about what to write!

What can happen next is magic! When I am in this situation, I walk the floor calling out the time, “two minutes to go”. The most marvellous stories can happen in five minutes. 

Narrative writing: What shall I write about?

To do this activity everyone needs a ‘story starter’. Story starters are just words or phrases such as WOW! …, I’ve never seen …, It’s so dark in here …, Stop! …, At last! …, Do you know who I am?… to name a few.

There are endless possibilities. Story starters can be a collection of cards, a list in the back of your writing book, or a whiteboard display for everyone to use.

I always get asked the question, “Where do you get your ideas from?”

Our wonderful computer brains are amazing narrative writing prompts. They come from what we see, hear, smell, taste, touch – all the things in our lives. All the happy times, the sad times, the times when we’ve felt angry or frightened. We have places and times and people all ready to come out in a story. 

Narrative writing is about watching your world and collecting story ideas. And, of course, we get ideas from things other people have written, or television programmes and films.

But it’s not about copying other people’s work. It’s just getting an idea as a narrative writing prompt for something of our own.

It is fine to retell a story you know or a film you’ve seen. You can have a lot of fun telling a whole new Goldilocks story.  

Some stories are a retelling of something that has happened in our lives. Most stories, though, are like jigsaws – our many experiences pieced together.

How to write a short story

One of the easiest ways to write is to think of your story as a play on a stage. You need: 

  • a setting – a place and a time where it all happens with a backdrop and props 
  • storytellers, characters, and scenes 
  • A plot where we find out what happens 
  • actions and dialogue, eg, what are the characters saying or how are they behaving?
  • an imaginery audience – and when your ‘play’ is finished, you will have a real audience
  • your play story needs a problem and a solution.

Closing thoughts for my young narrative writers

Don’t forget the storyteller. Too much dialogue without the storyteller can slow your story down. 

Read your work aloud to hear if it make sense, to check your punctuation, and to hear the voices. Is that how the characters would really speak?

And remember the magic story writing words. Where? When? Who? What? Why? How?’ 

There is so much more to share with my young friends, but I have to leave time to write my own story, right?

About the author

Dawn McMillan is a Story Seekers author. If you are eager to see her narrative writing examples, check out Story Seekers. You might get some ideas of your own!

Dawn works from a little studio in her back garden, with a view of the beach and the bush close by. You will see the beach and the bush in many of her stories. Dawn writes serious and silly stories but most of her stories come from her own experience. Dawn writes lots of readers for schools. The readers go all over the world, with some of them translated into other languages.

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