story-structure-graph.jpgMaterials from John's Long-Ago Short Story Writing Unit

Back when I was a real teacher, I taught a short story writing unit to eighth-grade Language Arts students. At the time, Iowa was not a Common Core Standards State (it looks like they became one in 2010), so much of my focus was plucked out of thin air.

I had three main focuses -- two of which were okay (and are supported by the ELA Common Core Standards) and one of which is less supported.
  • One focus was on "sentence variety" -- the idea that "narrative prose" produces its effect through an artful combination of diverse elements. I used the "narrative keyboard" at the left to teach this.

  • Another focus was "effective story structure" -- which is also Common Core Standards related.

  • A final focus was "rules of dialogue" -- which included the keyboard stuff, butr also included a lot of "correct mechanics and punctuation" focus. My feeling is that there's a weaker justification for this focus from the Common Core Standards. While using correct conventions is certainly endorsed by the Standards, I did the mistake of over-emphasizing this and of not realizing that this expectation could be profitably differentiated for the variety of learners in my classroom. Oh well, the past is a different country; they do things different there.


One version introducing the so-called "narrative keyboard" -- a tool for helping students use an effective variety of sentences in their dialogue scenes -- to create a more "professional" feel to their writing.

This might be a later, better version of the Narrative Keyboard handout.

Writing Tricks: The Dialogue-Action Connection. This is a kind of cool exercise. Students take the same two lines of dialogue -- and add a piece of "action" to make it appropriate to four different subtexts.

Two assignments in the "six rules of dialogue" sequence.

A half-page, practicing the six rules with the "Hunny Bunny" passage I wrote.

A Six Rules of Dialogue Quiz using a passage from Roxanne Conrad's 2006 short story, "Deadman's Chest."

A dialogue rules quiz using a passage from Cecil Castellucci's Queen of Cool YA Novel

A stand-alone (non-quiz) version of the "mark the six rules" assignment

This 6X6 Dialogue Practice assignment is really intense. It requires the students to do six two-paragraph (comment-response) dialogue exercises for each of six situations. Evidently, it was a crazy carnival of creativity in my old classrooms.

Yet another dialogue practice assignment -- write dialogue and mark the features -- this one carefully defining the term "exchange." This offers the students five scenarios to write dialogue exchanges for ... with each scenario illustrating the six rules.

A beginning-of-the-unit pre-quiz to see which (if any) dialogue rules the students already knew. Two tasks: (1) identify the dialogue rules, and (2) use the rules to correct some flawed examples of dialogue.

A quiz for the dialogue rules -- featuring a passage from Jon Flanagan's YA fantasy novel, Ranger's Apprentice, as well as a correction task and a writing task.

Yet another dialogue quiz ... I think at one point, I was just making these for fun.

Another dialogue rules practice sheet -- this one using a page from a Sarah Dessen YA novel.

This is a very advanced skill -- I think I only taught it in my Creative Writing elective. It shows students how to use "indirect free styles" ("le style indirect libre") to represent a character's internal state -- their thoughts and feelings. I think the idea is that this was invented by Flaubert.

Bonus! This is a handout explaining when to start a new paragraph in narrative writing. I actually wrote it as part of a FABLE UNIT writing ... which is why it's got this weird story about a butterfly (rather than the gritty, urban teen/SF stories that I usually feature). Still ... I figured my students needed some support on the real rules about when to start new paragraphs. (PDF version)

An in-class activity to work with my Aristotelian "story structure." We work with the story framework at the top of the page. The students map out of the structure of the background and problem. Then as a group, we plan the "peripeties" -- the events that push the protagonist back and forth as he or she strives towards a resolution of the problem. (I didn't use the word peripities with my students and I'm a little embarrassed that I just used it now.)

The same activity with a different story frame -- so a follow-up activity to give the students more practice with effective story structure.

One of the problems with story writing in LA8 was that most of the examples that I pulled were either (a) too long, or (b) too sophisticated.

I found that "flash fiction" or "short shorts" tended to rely on the reader's thorough knowledge of narrative conventions to forge their shortcuts. So they could use a single line, for example, to include an entire middle business ... relying on the reader's knowledge of fiction to fill this in.

That's fine as far as it goes, but this made stories like that problematic for eighth-grade models. So I just wrote a series of short short stories that modeled everything I'd be asking for in my students' work: structure, dialogue, sentence variety -- the whole shebang. This is one of them.

This is another one of those model stories that I wrote. The kids liked it; I always found it a little overly predictable.

This is a song my students I used to sing (accompanied by me or a student on guitar) that helped them to memorize the basic story structure terminology. This one actually kind of works. I'd see kids singing the song to themselves as they took quizzes.

The same thing -- just with the guitar chords for easy playin'