Writing Engaging Leads for Narrative Writing
Writing Engaging Leads: Moving beyond the question
As I grab a glass of wine and sit down to read my students’ narrative writing, I cross my fingers that I will find some entertaining gems. The worst thing ever is when I read the tenth paper in a row that starts with, “Have you ever been to Disneyland? I have. Let me tell you about it.”
Worse yet: “My name is Tommy and here is my story about going to Disneyland.”
AHHHHHH!!! Boring! Let me guess, your story is going to be about Disneyland? Duh. No engagement. Nothing to pique my interest. If your lead is this dull, why should I keep reading?
That’s when I know it’s time for a narrative writing mini-lesson: Writing Engaging Leads.
Grabbing and holding the reader's’ attention is what makes or breaks a story. I don’t know any teachers who get excited to read 30 narratives that begin with the same boring opener. I have taught 2nd - 6th grade and I expect more from my students. The lead is an important element of the story and should take effort and thought.
Let me share some ideas with you about how you can get your kids to write a better hook than, “Do you like dogs? I do. Let me tell you about my dog, Frank.”
Last summer I went to…
I’m going to tell you about…
Once upon a time…
Hi! My name is...
Do you like…
Have you ever been to...
Let’s help kids spice up that intro by introducing them to some other types of leads.
Different Kinds of Leads
First of all, it is important to be familiar with some of the different kinds of leads for narrative writing. All these types are great for elementary students to explore when writing narratives (either personal or fictional). We all know “The Question” lead, but there are many other types of leads your students should try.
- Thought: gives insight into what the character is thinking about. Are they excited? Nervous? Lonely?
- Emma thought to herself, “How will I ever get out of this mess?”
- I felt nervous as I walked through the door, but I knew it was going to be an adventure.
- Action: Place the character in the middle of the action. Starts off talking about something exciting.
- My heart raced with excitement as I stepped onto the roller coaster.
- The salty water crashed over Sara’s shoulders and sent her tumbling in a twisted spiral.
- Dialogue/Exclamation: A character is talking about something that will pique the reader’s interest. The dialogue should evoke a feeling (excitement, worry, frustration). The students should also be sure to explain who is talking and not just have a random exclamation like, “Jump!”
- “Look out!” Quinn shouted as a parrot darted past my head.
- “I don’t know about this.” I whispered to Jeffrey, as I opened the creaky door.
- Description: Use 5-sense description paint a picture for your reader. Set the scene, describe an object, situation, or character.
- Thin palm trees lined the cool, white sandy beaches. Their wispy fronds swayed gently in the breeze and the crisp ocean water glistened an aquamarine blue that invited me to dive in.
- I felt my face turn to a deep shade of crimson red. My stomach filled with butterflies and I could barely look him in the eye.
Overdone, but easier for struggling writers
With some students, writing even a few sentences can be a struggle. It is important to scaffold writing instruction. So even though these two opening styles are often overdone, it is still a good idea to introduce them to your students. Sometimes these make great leads, but not EVERY time. These should be used sparingly.
- Question: Write a question to the audience about a feeling or share a fact - probably the most overdone lead in student writing. I get that it is okay for first graders to explore this one, but I like to encourage my students to branch out
- Have you ever felt the thrill of jumping off 10 foot diving board?
- Did you know that the San Diego Zoo has over 4,000 rare and endangered animals?
- Sound: Use an onomatopoeia to create a sound that grabs your reader’s attention. This type of hook can also be overdone, so be careful. This should only be used if the sound is something specific to the story. They shouldn’t just write “Kaboom!” if nothing in their story explodes.
- Crack! The starter pistol sounded and we took off running!
- Creek. Creek. Slam! The old, rusty door slammed causing Sami to jump in the air.
How do I get my students to write engaging leads?
It can be hard to know where to begin to help students write engaging leads. These are a few strategies to help your students get acquainted with different types of leads.
I am a strong believer that students do better with guided, modeled instruction first. This allows them to get inspired and have ideas about what they are going to write. Giving the students the confidence to write is half the writing battle. When students think they can write...they can!
Use mentor texts and show students engaging hooks in stories. You can find great leads in most children’s fictional books. Grab a few books out of your class library and read some leads to your students.
Give students books and narrative resources and have them find strong examples of the different types of leads. Have your students work in groups and give them some books to flip through.
Hook scavenger hunt (find engaging hooks of each type).
Provide your students with lots of opportunities to practice writing their own hooks.
Sometimes you want students to practice writing engaging leads without actually writing the whole story. I like to give them sample story snippets and have them write engaging leads for the stories.
Whole Group/Small Group
At first we practice writing leads as a whole group and we brainstorm lots of leads. Next, I give students story snippets and have them write engaging leads as a small group.
Once you have practiced writing hooks in groups, they are ready to practice independently. This is a fun activity and let’s kids get creative.
After trying these activities, just sit back and watch your students create some pretty entertaining and engaging leads!
No more boring question hooks, please!
I’m Whitney Ebert, founder of ElementaryWritingCoach.com. As you may have guessed, teaching young authors to develop their craft and feel confident in their writing skills is kind of my thing.
I have 10+ years teaching experience in elementary education, and I've taught every grade level from kindergarten to sixth grade (except first). My teaching passions include interest-based learning, creative technology, project based learning, and building confident writers. Additionally, I have my M.S. in Instructional Media, so I frequently incorporate digital flare into projects and writing assignments.
I live in a sunny beach town with my husband, preschooler and baby. When I'm not teaching, blogging, or designing new lesson plans, you can find me at the beach with the family.
Find out more about The Elementary Writing Coach at www.elementarywritingcoach.com.