How to Structure a Creative Narrative

Below is a diagram of the “Three-Act Structure” that is helpful to follow when writing a creative narrative. Outlined in BLUE are the steps you ought to follow, and an approximation of how long you should remain in each step. In RED are some suggestions that point out some of the more common mistakes that student writers make when they write short stories. See the bottom of this page for a glossary of helpful terms.

What To Do

Here, you need to establish your point of view, your main character, and your setting. Avoid the temptation to lift lines directly from the story/letter/poem you are responding to, but be sure to match your setting (and especially the tone) to the piece you are responding to. Was the reading prompt uplifting? Your piece should be too.

For starting points, an easier way in is to begin with a description of either the location or the main character of this piece. A short narrative really doesn’t have room for more than 2 or 3 characters, but your story might only have one. What does he or she look like? What is an action you could focus on that helps set the mood? Is your character trying to keep a bag of groceries from spilling out of his arms? Is she walking her dog, listening to her favorite song?

PLOT (Two “Problems” – acts 1 through 3)
The biggest shortcoming here on the creative response on the MCAS is when you lose sight of your target. This means either creating a plot twist that really has no relation to the reading prompt (the original story, poem, etc), or doesn’t really develop a problem/resolution cycle. It’s a REALLY good idea to map out where your piece is going before you begin it.

Another Creative Writing mistake, indicated in red above, is speeding through the second act. The MCAS isn’t looking for the next great American author, but they do want some attention to detail, some sense of character development, perhaps a second story arc that runs parallel to the first. Attached below is a screenshot of the Common Core rubric for Narrative Writing, which was largely what prompted the MCAS to adopt a Narrative Writing element. Four of the five elements describe how to organize a narrative, and the bulk of the key points land in the “Plot” section.

Finally, BEWARE THE HUGE PROBLEMS!!! Do NOT have your person get abducted by the mafia, stabbed to death in a city square, or run over by a drunk driver. In a more positive story, you don’t have to win the championship game in the final seconds. You don’t have to have your person get married.Or win the lottery. Aim for those smaller “problems,” the realistic tragedies or triumphs

Wrap it up. But don’t feel like you have to make a satisfying ending that solves EVERY problem. Create a sense of closure. An easy trick here is to revisit an image from early in the story, especially one that maybe has picked up a different meaning.


Acts = fiction is generally divided into three acts – an introductory section, the middle – which is the bulk of the story, and the conclusion.
Denouement = The winding down of the story – what can you introduce at the ending that doesn’t further the plot, but gives a sense of closure?
Exposition = The very first part of the story, where the writer introduces the characters, the setting, the mood.
Mood = The overall feel of the story
POV = Point of View – who is telling the story? From what timeline (i.e. is the story taking place now? A week ago? A lifetime ago?)
Problem = Any moment that throws the protagonist out of his or her routine. This does NOT have to be an Earth-shattering problem, or even something you might traditionally think of as a “problem” necessarily. Finding a priceless antique sword in your attic, or getting asked out on a date might be a narrative “problem.”
Protagonist = Main character
Setting = Where and when the story takes place

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