What is narrative writing? A better question is, what is effective narrative writing and reading comprehension?
Alice McTyer

Alice McTyer

What is narrative writing? A better question might be, what is effective narrative?  How can adding the word effective make it easier and more engaging for your K-12 students to both compose and comprehend great stories?

Narrative Writing vs Effective Narrative Writing and Reading Comprehension: The short answer

Narratives are stories. Effective narratives are stories that work.  By this I mean effective narratives are engaging, cohesive, logical and satisfying. People attend to them,  and comprehend, recall and share them. 

What is effective narrative writing and reading comprehension?

Did you know that effective  narratives – regardless of genre, length or form – are almost always built on the same simple narrative rules? That means students only need the one effective narrative strategy for comprehending and composing good fiction.  One method, that is, to learn to write and analyse short stories, movie or play scripts, comics, and even many oral traditions and folk tales from around the world. This is true whether your students are kindergarteners or senior school students, keen or reluctant creative writers, talented or less-able writers.

What is plain old narrative writing?

Plain old narrative writing, on the other hand, is a different beast altogether. It’s usually taught using abstract story form concepts you might be more familiar with.  These abstract concepts include hook sentences, consolidation, rising tension, climaxes and the like.  The problem is, these concepts can be difficult to learn, remember and apply. Worse, they disconnect the writer from the story they want to tell.  More on this later.

How children are taught to write narratives is not how authors are taught to write effective stories

The plain old narrative writing method is more commonly taught in schools,  On the other hand, effective narrative is a story recipe that authors use to create the stories they want to tell, yet structure them in a way that authentically engages audiences.

This article explores these differences in detail. If you are interested in learning a single, intuitive and meaningful teaching strategy that can make both effective creative writing and fiction reading comprehension easy and authentically engaging, read on. Or, if you’d prefer to see how the effective narrative teaching strategy works in the classroom, start here.

Effective Narrative is a single fiction reading comprehension and writing recipe built on a precise and proven set of story rules. It's how authors are taught to write and analyse fiction. Yet considerable research shows that school children as young as five find effective narrative intuitive and engaging to write and comprehend.

Effective narrative can make both writing and reading comprehension easier and genuinely engaging

Let’s start with a quick overview of the benefits for teaching effective narrative. Almost 60 years of learning science has proven a number of key benefits:

  1. It helps school children of all ages mentally organise, comprehend and recall the point, purpose, structure and themes of stories they read.
  2. Children better enjoy the stories they read if they know how good stories really work.
  3.  Even 5-year-olds can apply effective narrative rules to reading comprehension and story creation.
  4.  Explicit instruction in effective narrative boosts creative writing  outcomes. This is proven in young, unengaged and non-confident school-age writers, and those with learning difficulties and English-as-a-second language. 
  5. It also boosts writing engagement. Specifically, effective narrative gives children the tools to identify and control the point. purpose and meaning of the stories they plan and write. This allows them to compellingly write  about the themes, topics and characters that are important to them.
You can review the science in Kendall Haven’s book Story Proof, or visit writemagic.co‘s FAQs to learn more.

Let’s dive into the differences between narrative and effective narrative.   

What is a narrative?

First, here’s a definition of plain old narrative. The Oxford Dictionary says a narrative is:

” A spoken or written account of connected events; a story.”

That definition is probably not news to you. I bet it doesn’t give you any insight into how to teach narrative writing and reading effectively in your classroom, either.

Let’s compare this definition with one for effective narrative.

Effective Narrative Writing and Comprehension: a precise scientific recipe

To introduce you to a  new way to understanding (and teach) effective narrative, let’s start with Kendall Haven’s definition from his book Story Proof. Why?

First, his definition draws from both a mountain of literacy and learning science.  Second, it maps beautifully with how authors are taught to write and analyse fiction.

Here’s his definition:

“A detailed, character-based narration of a character’s struggles to overcome obstacles and reach an important goal.”

Kendall Haven in Story Proof: The Science behind the Startling Power of Story, p.79

Unlocking the crucial - and surprisingly simple - elements of great stories.

As you can see, Haven’s definition gives us a far more detailed and precise definition of narrative than the Oxford Dictionary did. 

Indeed, buried within this definition of effective narrative are the the concrete story elements – or rules – that combine to make great stories that audiences want to read, hear or view. (Hint: This has nothing to do with hook sentences). 

How do we know these elements make great stories? Because many effective stories across genre and form are built on these exact elements.  This includes novels, short stories, movies, plays, and even oral traditions and folk tales.

Why? Because story writers and tellers know these elements allow them to create the stories they want to tell, while also authentically engaging audiences. That means these elements authentically engage writers and readers alike.

Great, but what makes using these elements to write and read easier for school-age students? The answer is, each effective narrative element can be unlocked with a simple question. Research shows this single set of questions helps school students:

1. Unlock the point, purpose and primary theme of stories they read.

2. Compose compelling, meaning and logical stories about topics and themes that are important to them.

Start learning how to teach effective narrative writing and reading comprehension to K-12. You might be surprised how simple it is.

So what makes effective narrative ... effective? And can it really be easier and more engaging to compose and comprehend?

To answer this question in more detail, let’s explore these differences between effective narrative and narrative. 

"Why do we have to use hook sentences when you never see them in real stories?"

A rather insightful 5th grader once asked me that question. He has a great point.

In schools, we often teach children to write using story form. At its simplest, story form means a beginning, middle and end. A more in-depth – and popular version, at least in school writing – teaches abstract concepts. These might include hook sentences, consolidation, character development, rising tension, problems, climaxes and conclusions.

The three problems with teaching "story form".

Problem 1: As most teachers know, such abstract concepts can be difficult to learn, remember and apply. Don’t worry, adult writers find story form difficult to wield  too, and for the same reasons. 

Problem 2: A learning focus on story form disconnects writers from the stories they want to write. So writing becomes a complex chore instead of what it should be. That is, a great tool for your students to explore their interests, passions, problems,  and creativity.

Researcher Shelley K Jones highlights this disconnect in her peer-reviewed study on elementary students’ writing engagement. A study participant, student Madison, told the researchers why she disliked writing when she had to remember and apply form:

“…My teacher thinks we need a hook, a topic sentence, a beginning, middle and end…and a closing sentence in a body…I just don’t like it for some reason…like you HAVE to put them in a certain order.”

The researcher described Madison as “an otherwise avid and prolific writer”.

Problem 3: Perhaps even worse, concepts like hooks, etc., have nothing to do with creating meaningful, logical and compelling stories.  Researchers like Nancy Stein have found that school children intuitively and almost automatically create logical and cohesive stories if they are taught the effective narrative rules.   

Put another way, we are teaching children to write what we think a story should look like, not what a story truly is. 

What is the solution?  It has to do with learning how to write and read with meaning, not story form.

What do readers and writers want?

Good writers in all forms and genres know that audiences connect to meaning. Literary devices like hooks, elegant analogies or well-structured sentences won’t keep most readers turning the pages long into the night.  Readers want stories that dig the claws in, and shake them by the teeth. They want purposeful characters who fight for what they want, and have good reason to do it. 

 At it’s simplest, effective narrative is based on meaning, not story form. However, we are talking about a very precise type of meaning.  Here it is:

Effective narrative is built on the type of meaning proven to engage the audience and the writer alike. In other words, it's how authors write stories they want to tell, in a way that authentically engages audiences.

What makes a story "good"?

Cognitive development researchers proved that adults and children rated stories as “good” stories if they adhere to the effective narrative rules. This was true even when these adults and children had no training in the effective narrative rules. 

However, that isn’t surprising when you think about it. We all know whether we enjoyed a story or not, even if we don’t analyse why.  And of course, good authors and story creators don’t need cognitive scientists telling them what makes a good story. They have known for millennia how to hook audiences into the drama – and keep them hooked. 

What’s fascinating though, is that the story experts and cognitive scientists came to the exactly the same conclusion about what elements are needed to make stories work. You could say the Effective Narrative reading comprehension and writing method is a love story between story industry expertise and quality scientific research.

What do Shakespeare, Hollywood and cavepeople have in common?

People across most cultures have used these narrative elements – or rules – for thousands of years to create great stories. These rules are still used today to drive children’s and adult fiction, movies, TV shows, comics and plays.

You could say a mastery of these rules is the one thing that cavepeople, Shakespeare and Hollywood scriptwriters have in common.

This fact is great news if you are a teacher. Why? Because it means one proven method – effective narrative – is all you need to teach creative writing and fiction comprehension, regardless of your task, test, topic or curriculum requirements.

Let’s move on to another key difference between narrative and effective narrative.

Effective narrative is a complete story reading comprehension and writing method.

Perhaps surprisingly, the learning sciences consistently prove these enduring effective narrative rules are intuitive, easy and engaging for children to master.  As an added bonus, if children know these rules, they are also more likely to comprehend the fiction they read, and enjoy reading more, too. 

Teaching narrative writing and story reading comprehension independently seems like a wasted opportunity. After all, good stories are often structured on the effective narrative rules, whether you are reading or writing them. In fact, teaching effective narrative reading and writing together has enormous benefits for your students’ enjoyment and outcomes in both writing and reading comprehension. 

As literacy researcher Joyce Caplan Fine says, “the child must read like a writer” to truly become skilled at reading comprehension.

How to teach effective narrative reading and writing in the classroom using a few simple questions.

“Why do we have to use hook sentences at school when you never see them in real books?”

5th grader and Write Magic graduate Tweet

The explicit teaching Effective Narrative strategy i s surprisingly simple.  The rules are proven to be so intuitive that even pre-school children know them.  They don’t have to learn them, just recognise them.  Here’s the learning process.

Easy and intuitive writing and reading comprehension teaching strategy

 When learning effective narrative, students analyse short excerpts from good published children’s fiction. They do this by asking simple questions that identify the effective narrative rules. These rules help children comprehend the point, purpose, theme, structure and character of the fiction they read. Then they use these same questions to plan and write themed, cohesive and logical stories that are structured to authentically engage the audience.   

In practice, this process is surprisingly simple to teach and learn. You can see the first, and most important effective narrative rule in action – and precisely how to teach it – in a free NESA-accredited professional development lesson. It’s designed for busy teachers, and will only take 10-minutes of your time:

See how young and unengaged students easily created themed, logical and compelling story plans.

Options for learning and teaching Effective Narrative

Study how authors write and analyse fiction

Many great writing books explain the effective narrative rules. Try Dwight V Swain’s seminal Techniques of the Selling Writer – it’s old, but still relevant because the effective story rules don’t change. If, that is, you are willing to look past the outdated attitudes towards women.

John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story is also a great place to start. If you are interested in the research side of things, try Kendall Haven’s Story Proof.

Do a course explicitly designed to show K-12 educators how to teach effective narrative writing and fiction reading comprehension

Write Magic’s NESA-accredited  True Story Training for K-12 Teachers is designed to do just that. 

It will help you teach your students the effective narrative rules, so they can plan and write compelling, meaningful and logical stories – just like real authors do.  

And it uses the same effective narrative method to show you how to teach your students  to unlock the deeper purpose and meaning of books they read. Research shows this type of approach boosts students’ ability to mentally-organise, comprehend and recall stories.

This online, on-demand courses come with everything you need. It cludes age/ability lesson plans, student worksheets, certificate and ongoing, highly individualised support of the friendly kind.

You can start learning for free.

Teachers: would you give 10 minutes to make narrative writing and fiction reading comprehension easier and more engaging?

See the single most powerful narrative rule in action – and how to harness it.  Discover how young and unengaged writers easily created compelling and logical story plans. Register now.

Know other innovative teachers who might be interested in an easy way to teach effective narrative writing and fiction reading comprehension?

Share this post

Contact Alice

Contact Alice

Alice is an awarded author and journalist with a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology. She is passionate about engaging children in literacy - and in the amazing power of story.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.