Help Students Make Progress on their Stories

We at Insights love stories, and we often encourage teachers to use stories to teach or practice English, whether the students are taking a closer look at a story they already know, are creating a story of their own, or anything in between. You check out some of our writing prompts to help students get started, but this post is about what to do once your students are in the middle of writing a story and need help making progress.

We’re writing this post in November, aka NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). You might want to consider having your class participate in the next NaNoWriMo with short stories/novellas or by getting every student in your class to write one or two chapters for your class novel.

If your students are stuck because they’re not sure how to form a good story or because they’ve got classic writers’ block, here are some things you can share with them.

Work Backward

When you don’t know what to do next, or you don’t know how to get closer to your climax and resolution, try working backward. If you don’t already know your ending, try figuring that out.

Your main character should end in a different state that they began in. If they started out as a loner, they should end in a strong community. If they started out with selfish motives, they should be more considerate by the end. If they were unsatisfied with their life at the beginning they should either be satisfied with their new life (based on whatever has changed during the story) or learn to be satisfied with their old life by the end. The climax should do one of two things: serve as the final catalyst for that change to occur in the character; or demonstrate the change that the character has undergone up to that point.

Once you know how you want the story to end, figure out what needs to be in place in order for the climax to happen. Who needs to be there? Where and when does it take place? Do any characters need any objects with them? In working backward, you can figure out how the characters get where they’re going, how they acquire all the things they need, how they recruit more people to help them (or spur others to challenge them), etc.

 

Follow a Story Structure

Using structures that professionals have shared and filling in your own story’s details is a great way to outline your story. One popular method is Dan Harmon’s Story Circle. I’m partial to Dan Well’s Seven Point Story Structure, which looks something like this:

  1. Hook – an interesting starting point

  2. Plot Turn 1 aka ‘Inciting Incident’ – heroes begin to experience something new

  3. Pinch 1 – heroes start taking action

  4. Midpoint – shift from reactive to proactive behavior

  5. Pinch 2 – things get worse for the heroes

  6. Plot Turn 2 – heroes get the final thing they need for the climax

  7. Resolution – hero succeeds, or maybe fails

I use this to outline my own novels. Then I place any cool scenes I’ve thought of where they would fit best. The rest is just connecting the dots – how to the characters get from one thing to the next?

Make Things Worse

It may sound cruel, but usually the best thing you can do for a story, especially in the middle part, is to make things worse for your characters. Give them more challenges to overcome. Don’t make things easy on them. The hard they work in the middle and the more they have to endure, the sweeter the victory at the end. Plus, giving your characters more problems also creates more opportunities for scenes in which they try to solve them! And just like that, you’re writing again!

You might want to consider the “Yes, but…”/”No, and…” technique. Whenever your hero attempts something, ask “Did they succeed?” If the answer is yes, then throw in a but. (e.g. Yes, they succeeded in slaying the monster, but now it’s mother is angry and coming for them!) If the answer is no, throw in an and. (e.g. No, they didn’t reach the stadium in time, and now their car is almost out of gas!)

Stories are based in conflict. Embrace it.

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