Creative Writing - The Five Step Story Process

Using "The Five Step Process," and picture prompts, is a wonderful way to get your students excited about creative writing.

By Greg Harrison


creative writing

How many times have you given your students a writing prompt, only to see a sea of blank, uninspired faces looking back at you? This happened to me so many times, that I finally set up a time to observe a teacher who was well-known at my school for having an ability to get her students to write amazing stories. Once I had seen her technique, I was hooked. In this article, I'd like to share the ideas I got from this wonderful teacher.

First, you need to introduce your students to the creative writing process. There is a classic "Five Step Process" that has been used by writers for a long time. On the board, write the numbers 1 - 5. Tell students that you are going to take a close look at one of the most beloved stories of all time in order to come up with the five steps used in a creative story. That story is The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum!

Lead a discussion in which students can suggest each of the steps. Ask them leading questions, such as, "In the beginning of the story, where is Dorothy? Who else does she meet?" Students should know that she is on a farm in Kansas, and besides Dorothy, there is Toto, the farmhands, Auntie Em and Uncle Henry. Ask your students, "What two things have been introduced within the first five minutes of the story?" They will be able to answer, "Where the story takes place, and who is in the story." Ask them, "Do you know what words writers use to identify the place and the people in a story?" They are the setting and the characters! Next to #1, write Setting.  Next to #2, write Characters.

Next, ask students, "What problems do the characters encounter?" Students will talk about Miss Gulch coming to the farm and taking Toto away. But, the bigger problem is the tornado that hits the farm and sends the house (with Dorothy and Toto in it) up into the sky, and into a land that is far away from home. Ask the students, "Do you know what word writers use to identify the problems, or troubles in a story?" It is the plot! Write the word Plot next to #3. Make sure and point out to your students that a story without troubles, or a plot, is a BORING story! Every good story ever written is filled with a rich, trouble-filled plot!

Ask students, "When Dorothy is in Oz, all she wants to do is find her way back to Kansas. Who assists her in her quest to find her way home?" The students will talk about Glinda, the Munchkins, and of course, the Scarecrow, the Tinman, the Lion, and the Wizard of Oz. Ask students, "What is another word for assistance?" It is help! Next to #4, write the word Help.

Finally, Dorothy finds her way back to Kansas. As the story is coming to a close, Dorothy comes to an important realization. In fact, the final five words of the movie are . . . "There's no place like home." Ask students, "What should we call this realization of Dorothy's?" It is the "moral" of the story, or the "lesson learned." Next to #5, write the words Moral/Lesson Learned.

Just to drive the point home even further, point out that this five-step creative writing process has been used by writers all over the world for centuries. You can extend the discussion to include fables and folktales from a variety of cultures. Talk about how the writers of the Disney stories have perfected this process, and used it over and over again. In fact, pick any one of the Disney movies and ask students to identify the setting, characters, plot, trouble, help and moral/lesson learned. They will be able to do it easily!

Now that your students have the creative writing process fresh in their minds, it is time to set them loose to write a story. This is where the picture prompts come in. On the board, draw a simple scene . . . a house with a person looking out of the window. A full moon and stars in the sky. A spaceship next to the house with an "alien blob" walking down the ramp and coming straight toward the house! Now tell your students, "Using the five-step process that we just talked about, I want you to create a story that is based on the picture I've drawn on the board. I want you to assume that this is your house, and the person who is looking out of the window is you." Those are the only directions you give.

You will be utterly astonished at what will happen next!  All sorts of animated chatter will take place. Your students will be coming up with ideas in a matter of seconds, and will be eager to share them with their classmates. Allow this chatter to go on for a few minutes, then ask for quiet. Tell your students, "For the next 10 minutes, I want you to establish the setting, and the characters in your story. That's all. Don't get into the plot just yet." Again, you will be amazed! Even your most stubborn writers will begin to enthusiastically write! As the students are writing, choose a few to read to the class. "Ah! Listen to what Alicia has written........It was late at night.  Everyone was asleep in my house, except for me. A loud noise woke me from a deep sleep. I looked out of my window and couldn't believe my eyes. A spaceship had landed in our yard, and a huge alien was walking down the ramp of the spaceship. It was looking right at me! Ask the class, "Has Alicia established the setting and characters?" Absolutely! 

In the next writing session, allow your students to go as far as they want to in their story. The great thing about this technique is that, in using a picture rather than a written prompt, you are allowing the students to use their imaginations to come up with a story. Anything goes! I guarantee that, even if you have 30 students, you will get 30 completely different stories that are based on the same picture. My students LOVE this activity. They literally beg me to give them another picture to write about!

Once all of the stories have finally been written, edited, and published, you can make them into a class book that will take a place of honor in your class library. This class book could be entitled, "The Night an Alien Came to My House." The students will delight in reading this book over and over again during SSR time, and will love sharing it with parents and other students who come into the room.  It is very easy to find books that have black-line masters of pictures which are designed to promote creative writing. You can make an overhead of the picture, put it up on the screen, and let the students go to town. Here are some other creative writing lesson plans for you to peruse.

Creative Writing Lesson Plans:

Combination Creature

This charming lesson combines artwork, imagination, Internet research, and writing all into one dynamic experience! Young students perform Internet research on a variety of animals, and create their own "combination creature." Once they have their creature set, they write a story about it.

Writing a Sequel to The BFG

The BFG has been a favorite read aloud of mine for years. This lesson has elementary students compose a sequel to the original story. They utilize the same characters, but come up with an extension of the story. A terrific way to allow your students' imagination to shine through.

Writing Through the Ecosystem

This clever lesson is designed for middle school students. Students create an imaginative journey, in writing, through an ecosystem of their choosing. This is a classic example of how to weave the different curricular areas together.

Telling a Painting's Story

This innovative lesson is designed for high school students. They choose a painting, and (based on the scene/characters present in the painting), construct a creative story. This concept is very similar to the picture prompts that I described above. Again, this is a terrific way to combine the study of art history with language arts. Delightful!