What My Students Taught Me About Fiction Writing

Each year, I save my fiction writing unit for the very end of the year. I dangle it in front of my students like some sort of reward for slugging through all of the other types of writing I make them do. I say things like, “We have to work on persuasive writing because otherwise we won’t have time for fiction writing.” I inadvertently make all other forms of writing seem like punishment or like the painful truths that we must get through in order to get to the good stuff.

But this year has not been every other year. This year my students came to me with an extremely bad taste in their mouths when it came to writing. This year, my students let me know on day one that they were not that interested in seeing themselves as writers.

Though I spent much of this past summer rethinking how to teach narrative writing. Though I found what I thought was an incredibly powerful way to look at learning how to tell your own story and seeing the power of sharing your own stories with the world, my students let me know that they just weren’t that interested.

What I did hear from them, over and over again, was the same one question, “When do we get to write fiction?” And in past years, I would have let them know that they needed to do all the other kinds of writing and then they would get to do the writing that they really wanted to do. In other years I would complain about the lack of enthusiasm for writing while consistently ignoring the very enthusiasm that I said did not exist. In other years I would have forced my priorities to be their priorities.  In other years I would have plowed through my curriculum and my sequence without listening to what my students wanted and thinking about what they needed.  In other years I would have known that I would run out of time and have to squeeze our fiction writing unit into the last few days of the school year. In other years I would have been just fine with all of that.

But this year, I needed to change. This year I refused to continue complaining about how my students didn’t see themselves as writers without actually changing anything about the way that I was instructing them to see themselves as writers.  This year I refused to let myself believe that I was not a part of the problem.

You see, I do believe that kids need to learn lots of different ways of writing. I believe that they need to see the many purposes that exist for writing and the many genres that go about meeting the needs of the writers in our world. I believe that children need practice in many forms of writing and I believe that if they aren’t actively engaged in writing pieces that span several different purposes and several different genres then they might miss out on the skills that they will need in their lives as writers beyond the classroom.

However. I do not believe that I need to continue teaching these purposes of writing and genres of writing in the same order every year. I believe that I need to be willing to adjust what I teach so that it meets the needs of the kids sitting right in front of me. It is part of the problem that I have with prewritten curriculums and also with only focusing on specific standards at set times during the school year. What should really guide the instructional choices that we make are the kids we are teaching at any moment in time and the things that they are telling us that they need.

And this year. My students were loudly and clearly telling me that they needed some fiction. They needed me to breathe some life into our writing workshop and that breath, this year, needed to come in the form of fiction writing. So while I had never actually taught a full fiction unit before (because, remember, it was always squeezed into the final days of the school year) I decided to move up my fiction unit and make it our second writing unit of the year.

So as our memoir unit came to a close, I began to think about what I wanted to accomplish through our fiction writing unit. I looked at our writing standards, I looked at the objectives for the fiction writing unit we are supposed to teach in fifth grade, I thought about what I knew about fiction in the world outside of school and I looked at what I knew about the fifth grade fiction-writing that I normally see and what I wanted to help my students to do. And I set out, with my students, to learn how to help them become better fiction writers.

And here is the biggest thing that I learned, while it may make us cringe to sometimes read the fiction that our students write (you all know that is true!), it doesn’t mean that we can’t help them to be better fiction writers. What my students helped me to learn this year is that their enthusiasm for writing fiction and their desire to write fiction are incredibly important in helping them to develop their writing identities. Their love of writing fiction and the work that they are engaged in as they write fiction are unbelievably important in helping them to see themselves as writers. Their final products may or may not still be cringe-worthy, but the excitement that they develop for writing is something that can not be captured with many other forms of writing.

So from the beginning, I knew that their final fiction stories would still not be perfect works of art, I knew that we could look at many mentor texts together, analyze what good fiction writers do, learn to use those strategies ourselves and then make our fiction writing better in some small way.

And that is what we did.

Mostly for my own benefit, and also for anyone else that might be at all interested, here is a list of our mini-lessons and mentor texts for our six-week fiction writing unit. Please note that some of these mini-lessons were spread over two or more days of writing workshop:

Mini-lesson #1: Knowing your characters on the inside and the outside

Mentor text: Pages 7 – 11 of the novel The League of Beastly Dreadfuls Book 1 by Holly Grant


Mini-lesson #2: Creating characters that are real and flawed, but that your readers will root for

Mentor text: The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat


Mini-lesson #3: Creating conflict for your characters (also incorporating the four major types of conflict found in fiction writing)

Mentor text: The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat


Mini-lesson #4: Resolution versus solution: The importance of pushing beyond a “happily-ever-after” kind of ending while still finding some peace for your characters by the end of the story

Mentor text: Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson and E. B. Lewis


Mini-lesson #5: Creating story mountains: Looking at typical story arcs and elements found in fiction

Mentor texts: The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat  and  Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson and E. B. Lewis


Mini-lesson #6: The importance of setting: Creating images for your readers of where your story is taking place

Mentor text: The Last Stop on Market Street by Matt De La Pena


Mini-lesson #7: Choosing to use details that reveal something important about your characters to your readers

Mentor text: The Relatives Came by Cynthia Rylant. The excerpts that we used can be found HERE.


Mini-lesson #8: Choosing to use details that reveal something important about your settings to your readers

Mentor texts: The Last Stop on Market Street by Matt De La Pena and several other excerpts from picture books that we have read this year. These excerpts can be found HERE.


Mini-lesson #9: Showing both the internal and external journey that your character has gone on: Making sure that there is growth and change in your character

Mentor text: The Last Stop on Market Street by Matt De La Pena


Mini-lesson #10: Graphing the changes in your characters (This is a lesson straight out of the incredible book After the End by Barry Lane. Many of my mini-lessons throughout the year come right from this book!)

Mentor texts: Scaredy Squirrel by Melanie Watt


Mini-lesson #11: Creating mood to enhance our stories

Mentor texts: The Seashore Book by Charlotte Zolotow and Lenny and Lucy by Philip C. Stead


Mini-lesson #12: Tinting setting details to reveal mood and emotion (Another lesson from After the End by Barry Lane)

Mentor texts: The Seashore Book by Charlotte Zolotow and Lenny and Lucy by Philip C. Stead


Mini-lesson #13: Writing better dialogue by inserting character actions, character descriptions, thoughtshots (thoughts or feelings of characters), or setting descriptions (This is another After the End lesson).

Mentor text: Bully by Patricia Polacco


Mini-lesson #14: Writing better dialogue by using correct punctuation

Mentor text: Bully by Patricia Polacco


Mini-lesson #15: Revising our writing

Resource: Our fiction revision checklist can be found HERE. Students were asked to use at least THREE types of revision. Everything on this checklist is something that we learned how to do in this unit or in our previous unit on memoir writing. The number three was decided on together. I modeled this with my own writing.


Mini-lesson #16: Editing our writing

Resource: Our fiction writing checklist can be found HERE. The students must check for everything on this checklist. This list has been growing as we have learned new grammatical skills throughout the year.


Mini-lesson #17: Preparing our writing to submit to publications

Resources: This year, I showed my students three places where they could submit their writing if they wanted to. We looked at the requirements for each place and talked about how to prepare our writing to submit. I then took their submissions to the post office for them.  The websites that I used can be found on my class website HERE under where it says, “Places to Publish Student Writing.”


Mini-lesson #18: Sharing and celebrating our writing with each other


In addition to these mini-lessons, students met in their writing groups each week in order to celebrate successes, share struggles, ask for feedback or ask for advice. Each time before meeting with their writing groups, my students filled out THIS FORM to prepare. Their writing groups were the same throughout the entire unit so that the writing groups became familiar with each other’s stories.

In the end, I walked away with a stack of fiction writing to read over winter break. I also ended up with a classroom full of more enthusiastic writers. As our unit came to a close, some students had written three separate stories. Some students had not even finished one story. All that I asked was that by the end of our unit, each student turned in one piece of revised and edited writing. This writing didn’t have to be finished, they just needed to stop where they were and revise and edit before the unit ended. For some kids, I believe that these pieces of writing will be works in progress for some time.  I didn’t want anyone to rush the end of their story just because our unit was ending.

What mattered most to me was that each of my students learned the strategies they needed in order to write better fiction stories. They started writing after our second mini-lesson, even before they had created a full plan for their writing. This meant that much of their writing needed to be changed as they learned new skills. For some students that meant that their first story was pretty awful, but that their second and third stories got much better. For other students, I saw their writing improve throughout the course of their one long piece of writing.

And all of that was okay. Because what mattered most is that they were learning as they wrote. They were able to apply new skills and strategies every day as writers. I never forced them to use a specific strategy on a specific day, rather I trusted that they would use the strategies that they needed as writers, when they needed them.

And so, as I sit here with my stack of writing, I am fully aware that some of it may still be painful to read. And still. I know that I made the exact right choice for the writers who were right in front of me.



4 thoughts on “What My Students Taught Me About Fiction Writing

  1. Pingback: Inquiry Circles: My One New Thing for the New Year | Crawling Out of the Classroom

  2. Your lessons and ideas are so inspiring – I really look forward to trying something like this – I think my students will really enjoy it!

  3. Pingback: Sources of Information versus Sources of Inspiration | Crawling Out of the Classroom

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