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All the elements of a great tale

Unpick the structures of stories to see what makes them work

Unpick the structures of stories to see what makes them work

It can be tough to teach students what makes a great story, but I have found that the following lesson reaps great rewards with my 10- and 11-year-old students.

"Who thinks they know the difference between a great story, a good story and a poor story?" I ask the class.

Hands shoot into the air.

"All right," I say. "What makes a story great?"

They start brainstorming. Groups of children huddle around large pieces of paper and scratch out ideas. Some work as harmoniously as a hive of bees; others are typical kids, socially aware of who is in their group and what that means. But the distractions are overcome in the end.

Next, we collect the ideas on the whiteboard. The same words and ideas keep popping up but they belong to two distinct groups: concepts such as character and plot; and terms such as mystery, adventure and science.

I circle each of the ideas in one of two colours - blue and red - and ask the students to tell me the difference.

"One is a type of story," says one child, a reader who eats books for breakfast.

"Yeah," agrees another child, who has not shown much engagement with reading. "The blue words are all part of the stories in the red words. A mystery book needs characters, as does a fantasy book and so does a funny book."

"So what makes a story great?" I repeat, trying to keep my influence to a minimum.

"The blue words do." We got there eventually.

"This is an impressive list of words we have in the blue category: character, plot and so on," I say. "Let's have a vote on the top five."

Each student finds a quiet place in their own mind to reflect on what makes them connect to stories. A silent poll ensues; votes are gathered and counted. The brainstorm has become something else: it has become a structure. The students have voted for character, emotions, actions, details and problems.

"That is intriguing," I say. "I once read a book about stories and the author presented his own list: character, intent, action, details and struggles. Our list is pretty much the same. So, how can we use it to make our stories better?"

A rubric is drafted. Students debate word choice and how to differentiate between using character effectively and ineffectively. We go back and forth a couple of times, play with the wording of the rubric and finally accept that it is a work in progress that will never be perfect.

Like clouds, someone says.

We start writing 100-word stories. By limiting our words, we open up paths for creativity. The stories grow and evolve. We reflect. Sometimes we decide to focus on just one of our five elements - a clearly defined struggle, for example - and at other times we try to weave all five into one narrative, which is not easy to do in 100 words.

Then again, that is exactly why we are doing it.

Craig Dwyer is a Grade 5 teacher at the International School of UlmNeu-Ulm in Germany


1 Take 10

This resource gets students to write creatively for 10 minutes. Inspiration comes from a series of pictures, including rain-drenched lakes and tunnels formed by trees.


2 Step approach

Students build a piece of creative writing across a series of lessons by incorporating literary techniques in stages.


3 Set the scene

Try this versatile collection of exercises to encourage your students to explore character, senses and setting in their writing.


4 Picture prompts

Get your class to flex their creative muscles in this lesson by dreaming up narratives for each of these engaging scenarios.


5 Image rights

Help your students to create pictures with words, using this presentation on how to use imagery in writing.


6 Starting points

A bundle of stimuli to generate writing responses, including famous art works, classic opening lines and fictional character names.


7 Character profile

These prompt cards, which include short questions and tasks for students to complete, will encourage your classes to explore character and setting.


8 Story structures

Try these templates, which provide a framework for students to organise their ideas before embarking on creative writing.


9 Cast list

In this exercise, creative writers complete a series of tasks to further their knowledge of characters, helping them to create imaginative stories.


10 Literary convention

Using examples from Jane Austen and Edgar Allen Poe, this lesson focuses on developing an awareness of the conventions of gripping writing.


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