There's an orientation (setting the scene), a complication and a resolution (where the complication is solved).
Then, in high school, I learnt the same thing, before moving on to maxims like "show, don't tell" (more on that later) and techniques like dialogue and metaphor. I learnt how to write good sentences, maybe even good paragraphs.
The thing that was missing - and it's an absolutely crucial thing - was how to create a plot. We moved straight from structure to technique, without much consideration of content. Students are learning how to write a story, sure. Are they learning how to write an interesting story?
Take, for example, this little tale:
It was a warm Sunday morning and I was on my way to the shops (orientation). I got there and found that I'd left my wallet at home (complication) so I had to walk all the way back to get it. Then I was able to buy my Mars Bar (conclusion).
Why would anybody waste their time reading that?
I think, in many schools, things have changed. But just in case they haven't, or your students are struggling to know whether their idea will translate to an interesting story, here's a simple 3-word process to break down the elements of plot.
Goal: What does the main character want?
Stakes: Why do they need it/what will happen if the goal is not achieved?
Obstacles: What's in their way?
Note that in my story above, there were no stakes. If I was a diabetic who needed that Mars Bar to stop hypoglycaemia and walking home was going to take too long/use up too much energy, it might be more interesting.
So, for example, in The Lord of the Rings the goal is to destroy the ring. The stakes are high: if the ring is not destroyed, Sauron will reign and the earth will be overcome by evil. The obstacles are many and varied throughout three books, but the final, most climactic obstacle, is Frodo's own imperfect willpower and greed.
Without a goal, your story has no direction. Without stakes, the reader has no reason to care. Without obstacles to overcome, it's boring and likely very short.
It's best to use concrete examples such as The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter (goal: defeat Voldemort, stakes: evil reigning over the world and the end of Harry's life, obstacles: Horcruxes) to explain the concept to students, but it does also apply to more abstract, literary works. In my short story Terezin (found on the "samples" page above) Hannah's goal is to understand her mother's experiences, the stakes are the sense of peace that is lacking from her life and her relationship with her mother, and the main obstacle is that the camp is now a museum which cannot ever accurately portray the full extent of atrocities committed there. The key difference is that she doesn't achieve her goal, and finds that she is able to find peace with not understanding instead.
I use a well-known example to explain the concept to students. Then, as a class, we identify the goal, stakes and obstacles from another book we have studied. Then, as part of the planning process for their own narratives, I have them jot down the goal, stakes and obstacles for their own story ideas. Often they are missing one - usually the stakes - and this is the impetus for them to turn an idea ("I'm going to write about a guy with anorexia who enters a cooking competition" or "I'm going to write about a green blob taking over the world") into a plot.
Right now, year 12 are doing their Area of Study: Discovery and we've found it helpful to re-frame the questions.
Goal: What needs to be discovered?
Stakes: What will happen if it is not discovered? What is the character/the world missing without it?
Obstacles: Why haven't they found it yet?
For more creative writing exercises to do with your classroom, look through the "eduction" or "writing" categories at the side of this blog. Happy writing!