The mystery of teaching narrative writing

06 Oct 2017


“If you don’t turn your life into a story, you just become part of someone else’s story”

Terry Pratchett

Despite various posts grappling with the mystery of teaching narrative writing last year, I still feel that I haven’t quite grasped the best way to approach it. The issue confounds itself with the fact I am teaching two very different GCSE groups this year: a low set Year 10 group and a top set Year 11 group. There is also further confusion with the hammering that narrative writing has taken in both the AQA report on the exam and the WJEC eduqas report. Cast your eyes on this delightfully positive conclusion reached from WJEC:

“It has been several years since candidates in England have been asked to write creative prose in examinations and, although there were some who showed control and imagination in their narrative technique, the overall standard of narrative writing was disappointing.”

The purpose of this post is to share some of the best strategies that others have employed to take on the narrative challenge. Time to join forces to make sure students can conquer their narrative demons!


Making sure students are aware of the no-go areas of narrative writing will help them to avoid the numerous narrative pit falls. Some approaches to avoid (unless, of course, there is some fascinating twist to them:)

  1. Pre-planned narratives: tenuous links to a title are not going to be marked positively.
  2. Obsessions with wood based narratives.
  3. Exam hall based writing.
  4. Guns, explosions and horror chasing.
  5. Football narratives. If I read another narrative about visiting St James Park I will be the one exploding!


Clearly a significant amount of students have no conception of how to plan for writing a narrative piece of writing. Ensuing that they slow down and look at writing a plan to help give their writing coherence and direction is vital. It is so obvious when reading a narrative that hasn’t been planned, with arbitrary conclusions usually the give away sign. This post from Nick Wells is an excellent place to start to develop a structure to helping students gain direction in their writing.

Writing using personal experience 

The exam question for Edquas last year was ‘Write a narrative called ‘A Memorable Weekend’.  This week I asked my Year 10 to complete this for homework, and told them I would also spend forty five minutes writing my own. The only rules were it had to be past tense and based on their own experience.

I used my experience last weekend running the Glasgow half marathon, in typically Scottish weather conditions, for my own response: Great Scottish half. The purpose was to show them how to approach a first person past tense narrative using personal experience. The exam board highlight:

“It seems a fairly obvious thing to say but those who are not lucky enough to)be naturally imaginative storytellers might be better advised to write from personal experience and give their narratives some authenticity.”

I wanted to show them how you can use personal experience and add some artistic licence to build more reader engagement and interest. I think I may have taken a step too far, however, when I showed them the images of me in the running gear and the video you are sent showing your finish. The thought of me in anything but a suit was clearly rather nauseating!

I used for this the slow modelling approach that I employed with this narrative on a journey to Oxford Street:  A-walk-through-Oxford-Street-model-answer.The idea is that at different points students become agents of the narrative and continue it in the same style. This encourages them to develop an authentic voice and to consider how to structure the plot in a way that can interest readers.

We then looked through the various elements of the writing, unpicking the aspects that were true and what was exaggerated (ie the fictional Mr Fluffy, the buck fast incident on the train and the exaggeration of the weather conditions). This all helps in getting them to think like writers, tracking them through my own thought process of writing a narrative. I also built in a range of techniques and punctuation, in order to begin to get them thinking about how they can build this into their writing.

They then looked at improving aspects of their own memorable narratives by adding some more detail to develop the imaginative engagement. We discussed how you can use your own experience, keep it realistic and still build in some fictional points in order to engage readers.

For this group, who are not natural writers, for the most part we will be experimenting with using personal experience to base their writing on. Next week we will be forming a bank of experiences they have had and looking at how we can turn them into interesting narratives.

The benefits of modelling narrative writing are huge: it shows students how to approach characterisation, coherence and a clear direction. It removes some of the mystery of how to structure a piece of writing. I will be using lots of models with my low set this year to show them how to maintain tenses, another significant issue in narrative writing.

Model answers are also, as I highlight in this post on a swimming pool locker incident gone wrong, rather enjoyable for us teachers to write (they win the wrestle with marking for me every time!) Students also, despite their cringing, love gaining that glimpse into our wildly exciting lives beyond the classroom. While a pre-prepared model answer has its advantage, writing alongside students, as this post from Susan Strachan highlights, can also be very powerful.

Guided Writing

Elements of this excellent idea from Eleanor Mears are similar to David Didau’s slow writing concept: which breaks down writing for students to follow. As he highlights:

“Over the past few years I’ve been experimenting with what, for want of a better idea, I’m calling Slow Writing. The idea is to get students to slow the hell down and approach each word, sentence and paragraph with love and attention. Obviously they’ll write less but what they do write will be beautifully wrought and finely honed.”

In a similar approach, Eleanor uses this idea: “Provide students with a guided tour of a chosen place or character (resource below) with particular details omitted and questions in their place.” This post has some great examples that I will be experimenting with next week, an approach that will work best with lower band groups. Again this helps them in building coherent ideas and is a useful way to build their confidence. Dave Grimmett also has this excellent post on how to help students to write a convincing story in the forty five minutes, with some very useful tips from his experience examining the Eduqas paper.

Using stimulus

In supporting training students for the challenge that comes with writing a narrative based on a title in the examination, using images and other stimulus can help them to structure a story initially. There are some brilliant resources out there:

Rebecca Foster explores the narrative arc with students through using ‘John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat’ and some cracking short films to explore narrative direction in this post.

My own post on using Hopper’s paintings and short films to generate ideas for a narrative and create characters.

An excellent post with great examples from Sarah Barker on using images to springboard creative writing.

Tacking the cliches 

Reading the first narratives my Year 10 have written for me has been rather bleak: they are littered with cliches. The solution lies in this post from Mark Roberts: We need to talk about cliches part one and part two. 

Not constraining able pupils 

My issue is now to balance this more constrictive approach with my Year 10 group, which encourages them to focus on first person retrospective posts based on personal experience, with allowing my top set Year 11 group to fly and use their imagination. Some excellent reading out there:

Teaching allusion: from Matt Pinkett. An excellent post on how to teach students to use allusions (‘an expression designed to call something to mind without mentioning it explicitly’), resulting in quirky and interesting writing.

Art of Making Strange – Creative writing done differently:  Another Mark Roberts post that looks at defamiliarisation: “If employed skillfully, defamiliarization allows for a shift in perspective, a way of reframing the dull expectations of everyday objects.” Lots of great examples in this post and a way in to exploring it with students.

Building in techniques subtly and skilfully will also be a focus for more able students, Douglas Wise has an indispensable guide to a range of techniques in his literacy shorts collection of posts. This one on pathetic fallacy is very useful.

Tom Briars (@tombriars) shares some excellent ideas with his top set pupils for developing interesting structures in their writing: analepsis (flashback), cyclical structures, single sentence paragraphs; multi perspective narration. All are elements in will be exploring with my top set group this year.

Regular Writing 

When I asked on Twitter for some strategies for teaching narrative, a particularly sage response was about how students need the opportunity to regularly practise from Year 7 the art of writing in different styles. Chris Curtis’ brilliant two hundred word challenges are surely the bread and butter of this, encouraging students to write on a weekly basis will grow their confidence and enjoyment with writing. This post from Louisa Enstone on encouraging daily writing is also another means to get students writing more.

Thanks for reading, any more ideas about how to approach the narrative would be much appreciated.






Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

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