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READ LIKE A WRITER, a teaching blog


by Christine Kohler

Writers are storytellers. But not all storytellers—even the most gifted who captivate listeners— can write publishable stories. I realized this truth as an instructor for the Institute of Children’s Literature (ICL), and had to analyze why and how to move storytellers from orality to writing publishable fiction and narrative nonfiction.

Besides the differences between facing an audience and telling the story as opposed to everything needs to be written on a page with no explanations or facial expressions or voice inflections, I found many storytellers were missing structure when writing their stories. A realistic story without structure is a slice of life, or vignette. Rarely are these publishable.


Once you know what your main character (MC) wants or doesn’t want, what his goal is, and what the conflict is, begin your story there.

Then set up obstacles (in short stories three is a good number), have the MC fail at overcoming the obstacles. Escalate each obstacle. This is the middle.

The resolution is the point at which the MC overcomes the last obstacle and solves her own problem (conflict) and reaches her goal.

After the resolution, tie it up quickly with an ending that gives a satisfying conclusion, or a surprise twist.

Of course, I’m being simplistic in explaining the elements of a story here.


If you are an oral storyteller, write the story down as you normally tell it to an audience. This is your first draft.

Even if you are not an oral storyteller, in first drafts it's not unusual for our minds to wander, and so will the story. However, at some point the writer needs to take control and make calculated decisions regarding the structure of the story. Some writers prefer not to struggle through such a "sloppy copy." These writers plan, even outline, in advance.

So, whether you are an advance planner, or one who dumps words first on the page and then restructures in a story arc in revision, here's help to get a solid story structure, or arc.

Make a 1-2-3 check-list and post it in a place where you write:

1. lead (point of impact)
2. problem/goal
3. obstacles (conflicts)
4. resolution
5. ending

This plot structure as the skeleton of a story. How you flesh it out is what makes your story different from all others.

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