Teach Short Story Writing: Removing Student Barriers

From the moment we can string words together, we can tell stories. Young learners may not realize how often they tell their own stories. When they talk about their day, recount a TV show or video they saw – even when they tattle on a sibling or classmate – they are creating stories. So why is it so hard for some students to start writing a short story introduction? How do you handle common barriers to writing when you teach short story writing to elementary and middle school students?

Read on for:

  • why some students struggle to get started
  • how others spiral out halfway through their stories
  • ways to get self-proclaimed “non-creatives” writing
  • reading passages to analyze short stories by grade-level, genre, and narrative focus
  • free story structure worksheet

Common Student Barriers: What are they and how do you handle them when you teach short story writing?

From low self-esteem to the inability to zero in on their work, there are several student barriers to learning in general. These are writing-specific ones, and how to help students overcome them.

Perfectionist students “need to get it right.” Then they never start writing.

Perfectionistic writers need: space to be wrong, low pressure, a little push when you teach short writing. Vector image of two pencils. Vector image of clock.

There are students of every age that worry about the quality of their work – some worry more than others. These child perfectionists crumple up their papers in art, feel discouraged in the subjects that don’t come naturally to them, and procrastinate due to anxiety. 

When it comes time to start writing a story, these students stare at the blank page, worried about writing something “bad” or “wrong.”

Emphasize to young writers that there are no bad story beginnings (unless they are inappropriate, of course.) Let them know that their first draft is often not their final one. Encourage them to put whatever comes to mind on the page. Help them to establish realistic expectations of their work.

It might also help to set a timer, whether that’s in the classroom or at home. If they only have so much time to write, that sense of urgency may motivate them to just get started. Again, let students know that these time-sensitive stories will not be judged or graded. This freewrite is just for practice and fun.

Note: Some young perfectionists may feel too much pressure when faced with time-sensitive assignments. This will show you which students need extra support. This is very important when you consider the fact that every student has to take time-sensitive exams and essays at some point.

Related: This is what to do if you have a perfectionist child.

Students “have no story ideas.”

Inspire "non-creative" students. Give specific prompts, read example stories, and assign personal narrative writing to help them start writing a story.

A lot of students (and adults) decide at some point that they’re “just not creative.” These individuals usually say they have no idea what to do when given a creative assignment. While other students jump at the chance to start writing a story, the “non-creative” ones blank. Then they judge themselves for blanking.

You have a few options to help students overcome this barrier:

  1. Read a lot of examples when you first teach short story writing. Instruct children to write a story like the one they just read. They can follow the format, the subject matter, “borrow” something like the characters or setting, etc.
  2. Give very specific prompts when you first teach short stories.
  3. Ask students to tell a true story, something that happened to them or someone they know. Teachers and loved ones can help with choosing a good subject.

When students have a starting point or guiding light, that initial “blank page barrier” goes away.

Their stories are all over the place.

You may notice that there are students of all grade levels who struggle to see the narrative arc. Excited or exasperated writers may add unnecessary details or leave out important details in the beginning, middle, or end of their stories. There’s a piece of missing information that readers need to understand the resolution, or they may describe characters but not put them into some sort of conflict.

There are a few explanations for this common problem:

  1. The writer does not fully grasp the entire narrative arc. They may not understand what rising action is supposed to do, or how to answer the reader’s questions in the resolution.
  2. Some story elements are more difficult for the writer, so they shy away from those ones. Some students are great at describing settings, but not so great at describing how characters talk or act.
  3. The writer did not have the full “vision” of the story before they started writing (which is totally normal.)

In the first and second scenario, students just need more exposure to narrative arcs. Show students all the parts of the narrative arc during a close reading. Have students fill out this downloadable story structure worksheet to check for comprehension.

(Preview the downloadable PDF file in a new tab.)

Not knowing the ending when you start writing a story is so common. It’s a blessing and a curse: You’re free to explore what may happen in the story. But you could hit a wall partway through writing. Or you may not actually know what the conflict is, so you end up writing descriptions without any narrative movement.

Of course, you can’t expect elementary and middle school students to write succinct stories like Lorrie Moore’s How to Become a Writer or Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find, two modern-classic short stories that have not one unnecessary word within them. 

But you can help them start to zero in on what their story will be about, and what needs to be included, at a young age.

Related: Here’s how to help your child identify and use character traits.

“Cleaning up” a story: Make use of the editing process.

When you first teach short story writing, students should just get everything on the page. Try not to question their work or limit their creativity. If they get discouraged early on, they may be unwilling to put real creative effort into future works. It doesn’t have to all “make sense” in the beginning. 

The “heavy lifting” of narrative craft happens during the editing process.

This is a great opportunity to have students question how much their sentences (even their individual word choices) add to or impact the story. Ask them to consider the functions of each individual sentence:

  • Does it tell the reader something they need to know to understand the story better?
  • Is it describing actions, settings, feelings, character traits, etc.?
  • Are there sentences that they especially like? Why those ones?

When they do this, they should (hopefully) find words and sentences that they don’t really need. Remove those, and they might be able to see the plot more clearly on the page.

Create direction before they start writing a story.

Free flowing ideas are great. But when it comes to future essay writing, and dealing with writer’s block, having students plan out a story before getting started may be the way to go.

Have them do this by creating a narrative template. Use the worksheet above, but have students apply it to their own work. Or, depending on grade level, have students draw out their narrative from beginning, to middle, to end.

Use the Story Structure worksheet for peer-editing.

Download the narrative arc worksheet above. Partner students and have them read over each others’ stories to see if the story makes sense. Instruct students to fill out the worksheet for their partner’s story.

If the student making the edits can fill out the entire worksheet relatively easily, then the writer didn’t leave out anything important. But if the editor can’t find one or more story elements, the writer will know what they’re missing immediately.

These techniques are all about building mastery.

If we had to guess, low self-confidence is the biggest reasons why many young students – and people in general – give up the chance to be creative. People judge themselves and their skills, and then give up if they don’t meet their own high expectations right away.

But every time students sit down and put pen to paper, they are building mastery. They are approaching something difficult, but not impossible, and putting in effort, even if it makes them uncomfortable. As young writers get a few stories under their belts, they start to feel more competent, which increases self-esteem.

These are crucial habit-forming years. If they get comfortable writing concise stories without fully fleshed out narrative arcs, they’ll be able to write anything. Everything’s a story, after all.