Introducing students to basic narrative elements can help move them toward more sophisticated reading comprehension skills.
Asking students to define and describe the basic narrative elements of a story, film or play can be an important first step toward more sophisticated reading comprehension and complex analysis. The basic elements of a narrative are its themes, characters, plot and structure, setting and point of view. There are also subtopics, including style, voice, tone and symbolism to consider, but the basic elements are a good place to start, especially when introducing a new narrative type or style to your classroom.
The plot of is the arrangement of events in a story that gives the story its structure and forward momentum. However, teacher Lisa Storm Fink points out that “students are sometimes confused between a series of events that happen in a story and the plot elements, or the events that are significant to a story.” To make this distinction clear, Fink suggests that students develop their own personal narratives and uses a comic-strip-based prewriting activity, in which each panel represents an important plot point.
It’s easy to list the characters in a story, but it can also be rewarding to explore each character’s role in the larger frame of the narrative. Which traits or values does each represent, and how do they push the plot forward? Form small student groups, and assign each a significant character. Pass around a handout with the outline of a body, and ask the group members to fill in the inner and outer traits that correspond to each part of the body. For instance, the head might correspond to a list of physical descriptors and key thoughts or decisions that the character has made.
Setting refers to the time and place in which a story is set. But you don’t have to stop with the expression of that time and place explicitly described in the story. Invite students to conduct research into the broader setting of the story — historical events of the day, fashions, traditions, customs and weather — and develop art projects based on these aspects. Then hold a fair in class one day to display all projects and present them to the rest of the class to serve as an immersion into the setting and time period of the story under discussion.
Point of View
The point of view of a story deals with who is telling a story and how it is being told. Once students understand how point of view works, it will be easier for them to identify it in the story you’re working on. Ask your students to take the narrative plot they developed in the Plot exercise, as described above, and write the story itself, from two or three different points of view. One should be an omniscient narrator and at least one should be a first person narrative from at least one of the characters. Develop questions for discussion after the stories are complete.
The themes are the more abstract, guiding principles of a story. Which ideas or values are represented in the story, and how are these ideas and values challenged by the events of the story? Typical themes include love, birth, death, forgiveness, ambition, jealousy, duty and fear. Themes can be more complex, as well; for instance, the tension when jealousy and loyalty coexist in a single relationship. Ask small student groups to choose a theme or pair of themes and develop a presentation to show the class how that theme manifests in the story they’re studying.