Author Jen McVeity provides her winning formula to helping kids learn to craft a narrative structure in their storytelling.
Narratives offer limitless creative possibilities, and yet, can be so difficult to create. There are so many characters, scenarios – and no ‘formula’ to make it easy to teach or do. But there is a pattern! Most professional authors read all throughout childhood. They were the ones with the torch under the blankets, reading long after parents had called lights out. They somehow managed to pick up the pattern. Yet authors don’t deconstruct – they don’t share what they know.
The Narrative Story Graph
The simple pattern to creating a great narrative is not a ‘formula’, but rather, more like a structure.
Here’s how it goes:
The job of the first paragraph is to make your readers want to know more. Therefore you start with large impact (think James Bond where the opening scene is massive action – chasing, shooting and dying) or at a Moment of Change (the discovery of a diary, the start of a divorce).
Once the engagement of the reader is ensured, then you can afford to slow down a little and start to lay down the plot. The sunny day picnic under the dam wall that will burst. The young child struggling in sport – though they will eventually be an Olympic hero.
The more boring bits – like who, what and why can be covered in two ways:
a) In a second scene – e.g. the wonderful Judy Dench briefing scenes of James Bond. ‘James come into my office, we have a situation in Bulgaria…’
b) Or drip fed throughout the action scene.
My Dad is allergic to me. No joke. Well, no-one in our house is laughing, that’s for sure.
‘Dad, can I…’
‘Dad, about my pocket money…’
‘You said you would…’
‘Achoo! Achoo! ACHOO!’
That’s how all our conversations go lately… Some people give up smoking or peanuts for their New Year promises. My Dad gave up breathing whenever I come near.
(Achoo! by Jen McVeity. Macmillan Education.)
Now it’s time to increase the stakes. To build up great tension, use the Pebble, Rock, Boulder technique. First you set up a small problem.
Let’s take the dam breaking story. Here’s how it might go:
Two kids fight with their parents and storm off towards the dam wall.
Now to create bigger problems.
They notice a crack in the dam wall. Then it becomes a real leak. Water gushes out. More and more of the wall starts to disintegrate. The children panic and try to flee. But one of them trips and injures an ankle. Now they are really struggling.
Time to drop a boulder. This is usually the massive tension scene in a novel or movie.
The dam wall is crumbling, water is flooding the river. The parents are panicking – where are their children??? The two kids are trying to run, but one can barely walk. The water is rising, trees are being washed away, the parents are terrified, struggling to beat their way to the children. How will they all survive???
The tension scene is one of the strongest scenes in a book or movie. (It is usually 20 minutes in a 1.5 hour movie.)
The children find a massive tree – one they have played on since childhood. They start climbing and climbing, helping their parents. The waters flood down towards them, debris is flung against them. Smaller trees are swept away, then parts of houses, whole cars, they watch terrified. Yet high in the tree, in the end, they are safe.
This is the scene that gives richness to the story. This is not a ‘big’ scene, it is quiet, yet packed with emotion.
The children realise how strongly they are loved and the parents know they have been given a miracle to have their children safe.
Often humour is used as a release from massive tension.
The kids might crack a comment ‘Didn’t know you could climb so fast Dad.’ The parents might answer in kind. ‘You just staged that fight for getting out of the dishes, right?’
And then there is a quiet contact, a joining of hands, a smile and a laugh. Healing and growth and a stronger family.
This character resolution is often what students leave out. They get to the climax of the story and then want to wrap it up fast. Character resolution to many students is ‘…and they all lived happily ever after’ or ‘…and then they went home to bed’.
Showing students how to draw out the emotional end of the story is a critical way to add power.
Next time you watch a movie, read a novel or share a picture book with your kids, look out for the Sizzling Start, backfill, Pebble/Brick/Boulder and the character resolution.
Knowing the pattern behind the Story Graph is what makes writing a narrative so much simpler.
This article was originally published on Education Matters Magazine in 2016.
About Jen McVeity
Author of 20 books, creator of Seven Steps to Writing Success
To download the Narrative Story Graph from Seven Steps to Writing Success, go to:
Want to learn in one day the easy program for teaching students how to write? Learn more: https://www.sevenstepswriting.com/info-workshops/
- Teaching writing in secondary schools: a story of professional learning
- Improving a generational decline in writing skills
- Inaugural online writing festival for primary school kids