Using Books to Improve Narrative Writing Skills

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Books, especially children’s books, can be an effective tool for alerting students to the different techniques that make writing effective and memorable. Choose books that you enjoy reading and that contain the specific technique(s) you would like your students to develop.

Fletcher (2011) suggests the following steps:

  1. Initially read the chosen book for pleasure.
  2. Reread the book with a specific focus on the different writing technique(s) used by the author. Students can make a note of words, phrases or sentences they like and of special techniques used by the author that they found particularly effective. The starting point might be to use sticky notes to locate these sections and to annotate the effect it had on the student as a reader.
  3. Students now create their own piece of writing using similar techniques.
  4. I suggest taking this process one step further, and as a teacher or parent model the technique first before expecting students to create their own piece.

Shubitz (2012) suggests using picture books because they are:

  • Short – you can read and analyse them quickly.
  • Visual – help support comprehension.
  • Engaging – especially important for reluctant readers and writers.
  • Concept builders – provide an accessible medium for discussing difficult or sensitive topics.

In addition, picture books often have layers of meaning and complexity, allowing you to return to them with a different focus or to ‘dig deeper’ depending on the age of the students.

Students don’t need to write a full story every time.  Starting and ending a story can be a very difficult skills. You can teach strategies for starting and ending stories as individual skills and practise these skills in isolation.  Compare the different technique used by different authors for starting their story – it might be speech, a description of a setting or a character, etc.  Have your students write the same starting story-line, but each time using a different technique. Then do the same with concluding a story.

Other Techniques to Investigate

  • Using dialogue to advance the story
  • Surprise endings – making a twist
  • Taking readers into the past
  • Using punctuation to create voice, suspense, surprise, emotion
  • Using repetition to emphasises a point or build tension
  • Create a picture for the reader
  • Develop characters – consider appearance, attitudes, values, speech, how they are perceived by others
  • Development of the structure of the story – beginning, middle, end
  • Movement of time – passing of time during the day, week, month, year
  • Varied sentence length – creates interest
  • Code switching – using words from another language (real or imaginary)
  • Exploring accomplishment or discovery – story ends by saying how character has changed/what they have learnt, etc
  • Using sensory imagery – smell, touch, taste, sight – helps images  come alive
  • Pivot point – a key element that changes character, sequence of events, etc
  • Circular story – story ends where it began
  • Compare and contrast – characters or settings – highlights differences
  • Power of three – repeating word, phrase or sentence three times to emphasise and draw attention to this element of the story
  • Change to fonts – darker, italics, different font – emphasis, emotion, create tension
  • Setting – vivid and detailed description – time period, weather, location, buildings, flora and fauna, etc.
  • Leading with action (+ing) – results in a sentence with two verbs – creates a sense of movement
  • Sharing a secret – insider information – hooks in reader – sense of being a part of the story
  • Including rhyme – rhyming couplets
  • Finish with action – key characters goes and does something
  • Internal thinking – sharing character’s thoughts helps reader understand their actions and choices
  • Similes, personification, metaphors
  • Vivid and powerful verbs
  • Emotional adjectives

More Ideas

  • Build stamina for writing – begin with 10 minutes and gradually increase.
  • Give strategies to overcome excuses like ‘writer’s block’.
  • Have spare pencils, pens and rubbers – sharpening pencils shouldn’t be an excuse for stopping writing.

Click here for more narrative writing resources.


Anderson, C. (2000). How’s it Going? A Practical Guide to Conferring with Student Writers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Fletcher, R. (2011). Mentor, Author, Mentor Texts: Short Texts, Craft Notes, and Practical Classroom Uses. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Shubitz, S. (2012). Craft Moves Lesson Sets for Teaching Writing with Mentor Texts. Portsmouth, NH: Stenhouse Publisher