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Teach Children The Basics Of Narrative Structure And You’ll Set Them Up As Storytellers For Life

The hero’s journey features trials and tribulations, friends and foes, but a child's journey from novice to accomplished storyteller can be much more straightforward

  • Teach Children The Basics Of Narrative Structure And You’ll Set Them Up As Storytellers For Life

Life and death, justice, loyalty, freedom, identity, morality, power; all stories are built on such powerful themes.

These are the ideas children explore through story-making, but which are also highly relevant in our day-to-day lives, lying as they do at the heart of much of what concerns us in society.

You can delve deeper into these concepts, as well as perhaps the most fundamental of all – good versus evil – with your class by:

• Identifying themes in books and films with which children are familiar
• Looking at topical news stories
• Making links between the themes. How is justice linked to loyalty? What might be the connections between power and freedom?

Any of these themes, alone or in combination, act as a context for the use of basic narrative elements, the building blocks of stories, which are:

The hero
Representing noble qualities such as humility, compassion, patience and selflessness as well as courage. Bearing these in mind allows more rounded and interesting characters to be created.

The villain
Representing ‘mean’ qualities such as selfishness, greed, desire for power, ruthlessness.

The problem
The villain creates a central problem or crisis that the hero and her companions need to resolve.

The journey
Resolving the central crisis takes the hero on a journey, both physically and as a transformative experience.

The partner
Both hero and villain can have one or more companions. Important functions of such characters include creating the opportunity for dialogue, acting as a sounding board for the main protagonists and enabling the use of subplots to make the story more layered and interesting.

When the main or secondary characters need help, further tension and drama are created in the story and allow us to realise that they are not invincible. When the hero helps someone, her heroic qualities are brought to the fore. If the villain helps someone, there is often an ulterior motive.

Knowledge and power
This commonly expresses itself as the gaining and losing of an advantage. Perhaps the hero loses an important object; a companion might be captured or injured; the villain escapes or learns something vital etc.

An object
Stories often feature an important object. Perhaps it needs to be recovered and returned to its rightful owner or its natural keeping place. Sometimes it is dangerous and must be destroyed.

Both themes and these basic narrative elements operate at a deeper level than genre. And you can help children to understand these ideas further by identifying them in different kinds of stories – science fiction, fantasy, historical, etc.

A narrative template

While these simple elements give us a ‘structural underpinning’ for story-making, this basic narrative template (Fig 1, below) shows us the way in which many stories progress.

The left-hand side of the ‘lazy eight’ represents the hero’s familiar day-to-day world, while the right-hand lobe represents new and often dangerous experiences, challenges and encounters that test the hero’s noble qualities. Ask children to imagine a story as a rollercoaster ride with these key events along the way.

Point 1 and 2
The hero at first is often reluctant to get involved in the crisis, sometimes finding himself caught up in events accidentally. However, for any number of reasons – not least the desire to help others – he soon becomes involved.

Point 3 and 4
Early on in the story, the hero plunges into danger and soon crosses over into unfamiliar territory and new experiences. The hero’s courage and other qualities are severely tested here.

Point 5
The point of lowest ebb. Here, escape or victory seem impossible, but summoning up courage the hero battles on.

Point 6
While things seem to be ‘on the up’, the hero is as far from home as she can be and the danger, while perhaps hidden, is still close by.

Point 7 and 8
Here, victory seems assured and the hero feels on top of things and in control, but we can see that a further plunge into danger is imminent.

Point 9 and 10
Towards the end there is often a ‘twist in the tale’, some final obstacle to overcome before the crisis is resolved and balance and harmony are restored.

It’s important to realise that while many stories are constructed around the basic elements and the narrative template explained above, these ideas are not set in stone, nor should they be used inflexibly as a formula for writing.

You can help the children to appreciate this by deliberately ringing the changes:

• What if the hero turned into the villain, or vice versa?
• What if hero and villain teamed up to defeat a greater evil?
• What if the object that the hero is seeking cannot be found?
• What if there were two heroes who were rivals?

Ask children to come up with further examples from books and comics they’ve read and films they’ve seen.

Story grid

This grid is part of a larger one that consists of 36 pictures and/or words relevant to a chosen genre (download the full version ‘Story Grid Fig 2’ here), in this case, fantasy. Use two dice rolls to choose the co-ordinates of pictures at random (one roll each of a six-sided die for the x and y axes on the full 6x6 grid).

Focus on each narrative element in turn. Say to the class, “Whichever picture the dice chooses, we will learn something about the hero,” repeating the process for the villain, the journey, the problem and so on. By the time you reach the bottom of the list, some children will have a complete storyline in mind.

The same technique can be used to learn more about the significant points on the narrative template: “We’ll roll the die twice and whichever box is chosen it will tell us something about why the hero didn’t want to get involved,” (point 1). Or “We’ll roll the die twice and whichever box is chosen it will tell us something about how the hero is tested,” (point 4).

Choosing images randomly like this takes the mind by surprise and often allows children to have more creative ideas than if they could pick images for themselves.


Take your creative writing lessons further with these extension ideas

• Use the story grid as the basis for a board game similar to snakes and ladders. Ask the children to come up with suitable dangers and rewards. Use dice rolls to zigzag up the grid.

Children do not need to have thought of a storyline at this point: playing the game will often give them enough plot ideas to begin writing.

• Turn the lazy eight template into a straight line, which serves as a visual planner for children to organise their ideas. Get them to write their thoughts on sticky notes placed along the line, emphasising that it’s fine to move these around as the story evolves.

• Cut out the pictures from a story grid and place them face down. Ask the children to turn over two of the pictures and suggest a link that will give them the basic idea for a story.

• Erase some of the pictures from a story grid and ask children to draw or write their own ideas in the blank spaces.

• Invite children to create their own story grids by cutting out pictures from comics or from images grabbed from the internet.

• Make a story grid based on a class reader. Use the techniques above to create new stories based on the characters, places and events the children have read about.

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