Every time I tell my middle schoolers that we are going to analyze the elements of a story, I get a big groan from about half the room. Somehow, it’s gotten into their heads that writing stories is fun, while breaking down other people’s stories is the most boring thing in the world. To combat this pre-teen ennui, I’ve changed my approach to teaching story elements.
I start with a creative writing piece and get them to experiment with different story elements. Then, we move into looking at someone else’s work. In this way, I trick them into learning all the parts of a story and even having a little fun. Here are some creative ways I’ve managed to teach story elements to my students successfully—and without the groan.
1. The Story Arc and a Music Video
All my students love music and yet say they don’t understand poetry. Little do they know, it’s pretty much the same thing without drums.
I put students into groups of 4-6 depending on class size. Each group picks one popular song that the group likes. Their task is to create a music video for that song.
The video must be as long as the song, and it must tell the story of the song, which is completely up to the group. They can take it directly from the story of the lyrics; they can invent characters, situations, and a setting that reflects the idea behind the lyrics; they can create a story that the song perfectly soundtracks but has nothing to do with the lyrics.
Even though they have total control over the story, they must tell a well-structured story. Their video must meet these objectives:
- Introduce a character or characters (Exposition)
- Set up a conflict (Conflict)
- Show the character(s) trying to solve the conflict (Rising Action)
- Bring the conflict to a climax (Climax)
- Show how the character(s) reacted to the climax (Falling Action)
After they create their videos and we watch them, I have them reflect on how the steps they took to create their video match the parts of a story. In this way, they’ve learned the parts of a story because they had to create them. And, it gives me something to reference when we begin talking about a novel.
2. Point of View and the Villain
The point of view is incredibly important to how a story unfolds and the moral that story communicates. Students often underestimate the power of perspective! So, in this activity, we use point of view to retell popular stories.
For instance, I use the Three Little Pigs fairy tale as an example:
- First, we read the story of the three little pigs and determine the main message. Then, we read The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs! by Jon Scieszka and have a discussion about how the narrator changed the plot and the moral of the story. (There are some great readings of this story on YouTube!)
- Finally, students choose their favorite picture book, movie, or fairy tale from their early childhood. Their job is to assume the perspective of the villain and rewrite the story. This can take the form of a picture book, a letter, or a speech—depending on what you’d like to do with your class.
This activity helps show students the importance of narrative point of view!
3. Settings Around the Universe
The setting of a story helps shape how the narrative can unfold. This is pretty obvious when you are looking at a sci fi book or a fairy tale. But the importance of setting can be overlooked when it’s not central to the story.
For this activity, I create 8 different “setting stations” around the classroom. These stations generally consist of a picture of the setting and a description plaque that describes the setting’s characteristics. Some settings that I have used in the past include Mars in the year 3056, Warsaw in 1944, an undersea villain’s lair, a New York City classroom in 1976, and a Pontiac stuck in traffic on the 405 freeway in Los Angeles.
I then prepare 8-15 simple story prompts that consist of a character and a conflict. These conflicts and characters are very basic.
For the activity, all students get a story prompt. I ask them to read the prompt and brainstorm how they think the story would end. Then, they are instructed to go to at least four stations. At each station, they write how the setting might affect the way their stories play out.
4. Tone and a Poem
I have found that tone is one of the hardest concepts to explain to students. I like to tell my students that tone is attitude. It is the feeling you get when you read, watch, or hear something. To help illustrate this, I choose one or two of the following abstract poems, which don’t have a story so much as they communicate a feeling.
- “A Hagging Match” by Seamus Heaney
- “In the Station at the Metro” by Ezra Pound
- “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams
- “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden
- “When Somebody Telephones” by Elizabeth Bishop
We read the poem together, and then the students write for one minute about all the things they felt while hearing the poem and all of the images that popped into their heads while listening. Then, they write a brief 1-2 page story that mimics the tone of the poem. For example, if the poem made them sad, they will write a melancholic story. If the poem made them laugh, they will write an upbeat comedy.
Finally, when students share their stories, I pair them with another student who highlights all of the words in the story that communicate its feeling. The partner gets to guess which tone the storywriter was going for.
5. Character Traits and Thing Theory
Characters can be determined by their dialogue, physical description, word choice, and behavior. One way to look at all the ways authors create characters is looking at the things associated with the character.
**For this one, you will either need props or a slide deck with pictures of the items.**
I project 5 images of objects and ask students to describe the person who owns each object. The list of items can be random or follow a theme, such as things found in a wallet/purse, things found in a closet, things found in a refrigerator.
For each set of items, students must create a name for the person, determine where they live, give five adjectives that describe them, and describe how they talk (informal, formal, slang, accented, etc).
Some of my item lists include:
- Living Room: A rotary telephone, a record player, a smart phone, a yellow raincoat, an old fortune cookie on the carpet
- Desk: A stack of loose papers, an old macbook, a pair of wire-rimmed glasses, a copy of The Odyssey, a sweater with a hole in the collar
- Refrigerator: Expired milk, takeout boxes, an uncovered half of avocado, half and half, Sriracha sauce
I have found all of these activities very useful in my classroom! My students love tapping into their creativity while they learn. And, I find it helps them remember the concepts better as well. I hope you try these too!