Narrative Writing: Using the Description of the Character as a “Hook”

In my classroom, we are in the midst of a narrative writing unit right now, and we’re talking about narrative beginnings. The beginning of a narrative essay is so important as it sets the tone for the whole paper. I compare it to running–if you start out a run strong, you will probably continue and finish strong. If you start out sluggish, it’s REALLY hard to turn things around mid-run and finish strong.

Don’t you think writing is the same way? I tell my students if they take the time to create a good beginning, then the rest of the paper will just fly out of their pen. If their beginning is weak, then they will have to struggle through the whole rest of the paper. I have no scientific data to back this up, but my anecdotal evidence is pretty convincing. Thus, we spend a good deal of time on writing beginnings. Plus, writing beginnings is fun and the students don’t balk at a five-minute writing assignment.

I thought I’d share one of my lessons. In this lesson, I show the students how to use a description of the character as a “hook” or interesting beginning. This is part of a series of lessons–we do a different “hook” strategy every day until they’ve tried several.

I start off by sharing an example of a narrative piece that has a description of the character at the beginning. A great example to use is Shrek by William Steig. You don’t need to read the whole book–just the first page or two (The book is full of great writing and much better than the movie, by the way).

Then, we talk about what makes it interesting, and why it makes you want to read more about Shrek. Next I give the students about five minutes to write a description of a character. Not a STORY about a character, but a description of one. The story part will come later if we ever decide to finish the essay.

I went to a workshop last week and the presenter suggested that the teacher write along with the students. Since then, every time I’ve asked the students to write something, I’ve done it too. I make a sacrifice to do this–I am not walking around monitoring the students, and I am not able to do work at my desk (I do one or the other or both depending on the time they have to write and what the assignment is). However, it’s been great fun for both the students and me. The nice thing about it is I can whip out a quick piece of writing, as it only has to be at 8th grade level. For this lesson, I wrote the following beginning. It’s loosely based on a true story, but the name has been changed:

Dawson was mean. His classmates were afraid of him. His teachers were afraid of him. His parents were probably even afraid of him. If the class had held an election, he would have been voted “most likely to go to jail”. Dawson went through the day terrorizing his teachers and classmates left and right until one day karma gave him a swift kick in the butt.

After we’re finished writing, the students leave their writing on their desk and take a piece of scratch paper and a pencil with them. We all walk around reading each others’ beginnings (including mine). On the scratch paper, we write down the names of several people’s papers we liked, and also why we liked them. We don’t write something down about every paper we read–just the one that we like for one reason or another. It could be as simple as an interesting word or phrase, it could be that it was funny, scary, sad…anything! After I’ve recorded about 10, we go back to their seats. The students usually work about half as fast as I do, so this works out about right for them to get around five critiques written.

I ask for volunteers to share one beginning they liked and why. Once a student’s beginning has been discussed, it cannot be brought up again. This way, a variety of students’ egos are boosted by us talking about their work. After the students have had their turn, I share things I liked about beginnings that haven’t been mentioned yet.

There you go, an easy narrative writing lesson. We do lots of beginnings (like 8 or 10) before ever writing a full essay. As I said, once you master the beginning, the rest falls more easily into place!