This post may contain affiliate links. You pay the same, but I make a small commission. Please, see my full disclosure for further information.
I love teaching fiction! I find that my students are always so engaged in the reading and excited to participate during our mini-lessons. However, just because they are engaged and excited, it doesn’t mean that they instantly “get” it. Plot can be one of those skills that seems so simple, but then an assessment comes, and you are not sure why your students failed it. I have found that the best way to teach about plot is to use the plot mountain.
I have included free interactive notebook pages and printable anchor charts to teach plot in English and Spanish in this blog post. Click here to get them! You can also read more about how I use anchor charts in my classroom by clicking here.
What is a plot mountain?
A plot mountain is a visual model that helps students understand how a fictional story unfolds. All fictional stories follow a predictable pattern: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and conclusion. This pattern can be easily demonstrated to students through a plot mountain diagram.
Parts of the plot mountain
During the exposition, the author is introducing the reader to the characters and setting. This lays the foundation for the story that is about to unfold.
It is like being at the base of a mountain. You are looking around and assessing where you are and who is with you. You are asking yourself, “What is the terrain like? How long will be climb be? Do we need any special equipment?” You are gathering all the information you need as you get ready to begin your climb.
During the rising action, the author introduces the problem or conflict. The conflict is what drives the story. There is no story without a conflict – at least not a good one! And once that problem is introduced, the characters must push through until they find a way to solve it.
Now let’s compare this to climbing a mountain. As you go up the mountain, you begin to encounter problems: you are tired, your legs hurt, you are thirsty… you don’t yet see the other side (i.e. the solution.) But you must push through in order to reach your destination.
The climax of a story is the turning point! I like to tell my students that the climax is when the character has reached his “breaking point.” He has lost all hope – nothing seems to work! And then, suddenly, something happens in the story that changes its trajectory. The character can begin to see a way to solve his problem.
Using our mountain analogy, this would be the peak. Although your problem is not yet solved (your legs still hurt, you are still tired and thirsty), you now have hope. You can begin to see the end of the journey (i.e. the solution to your problems!)
The falling action is the journey towards solving the problem. It is when the character takes the actions that will bring an end to the conflict. Maybe the character apologizes for what he did. Maybe he changes his attitude about something. Maybe he confronts his greatest fear. Whatever it is, the character is finally able to solve his problem.
In our mountain plot, this would be the descent. As we move down the mountain, we are walking towards the solution (reaching the bottom of the mountain.) We are taking the necessary steps to bring our problem to an end.
The conclusion is what happens after the problem is solved. It is the “and they lived happily ever after” of the story. The author will often go beyond the solution to show how the problem has impacted and changed the characters.
Going back to our mountain analogy, the conclusion is when we reach the bottom of the mountain. We are now on the other side. We can look back at all we went through and everything we learned along the way. More often than not, we will be able to identify lessons that were learned throughout the journey.
Why should you teach students to use the plot mountain?
The plot mountain is, in my opinion, the best visual model to use with your students. The analogies I mentioned earlier in the blog post are the same analogies I use with my own students. This visual model makes it easy for students to see how each part of the text fits together to create one cohesive storyline.
I know many teachers use the model of a rollercoaster to teach their students about plot. I have used that model many times in the past, and don’t get me wrong, it is a great one. However, I find it easier to make connections between the plot of a story and climbing a mountain than plot and riding a rollercoaster.
Riding a rollercoaster implies that the character is just “along for the ride.” But the reality is that characters make choices throughout the story. Those choices lead to the development of the story. Choosing to climb a mountain and what you do in the process is much more in line with that development.
I know this may seem silly but think about it. Using the plot mountain visual model gives you more opportunities to discuss characters and their choices. More importantly, you get to talk about how those choices affect the story. This is why we study plot! We want students to understand how the story elements interact with one another. I especially want my students to see how character interactions and choices impact what happens next. And the plot mountain is just perfect for that!
Story elements and the plot mountain
I have been talking about story elements throughout this blog post. Story elements are the important pieces that make up a fictional story. These parts include characters, setting, problem, and solution. So how do these two things go together? Here is how I teach and reinforce story elements using the plot mountain model.
Teach each story element in isolation first
In order to use a plot mountain diagram, students must know what characters, setting, problem, and solution are. I take one week to teach each of these story elements. (I teach problem and solution together in the same week.)
Use the plot mountain to show students how the elements fit together
Once students have learned about these elements in isolation, we begin to talk about plot. Plot is when all of these elements come together to form a story. Using the plot mountain mental model, we dive deep into the text. We talk about the importance of the setting, and how it affects the story. We discuss the characters, and how they interact. We look at how a character’s actions and motivations drive the problem and the solution. Without knowing what these elements are in isolation, it would be nearly impossible for students to put this all together.
Diving deep into the story and understanding why the story unfolds as it does is the ultimate goal. Therefore, it is important to take the time to bring the elements together using the plot mountain model. We want students to see how each one of these parts fits together to create a great story.
My five-step plan to teach plot using the plot mountain
What I am about to share with you is a five-step plan to teach plot. Please, keep in mind that this does not mean the plan can be done in five days. I often spend more than five days in my own classroom. Depending on your students, how much time you have, and even your grade level, you may need to break these down into smaller steps or spend more than one day in each step. Some steps can even be combined and done on the same day. These are just five things I want you to consider as you prepare your lessons.
Step 1: Introduce the mental model
The first thing I do when teaching plot is to introduce the mental model: the plot mountain. This is the star of the show! I explain the model and how it relates to a story using the analogies I mentioned earlier in this blog post.
As I introduce the model, we create a plot mountain anchor chart together. My students also take notes in their interactive notebooks. I always use anchor charts and interactive notebooks when teaching a new reading skill. (Click here for FREE printable anchor charts and interactive notebook pages to teach plot in English and Spanish.) I think it is crucial to create anchor charts with your students and teach them about notetaking.
When I first introduce the mental model, we do not look at any stories. At this point, I am explicitly teaching them about the parts of a story, how they go together, and how they relate to the plot mountain.
Step 2: Plot a story together
Once my students know what the plot mountain is and how it relates to fictional stories, we begin plotting a story together. For this lesson, you have many options. You can use a picture book, a short passage, or even a PIXAR short film. The key word is short! When I first introduce plot, I look for simple, short stories with one problem and solution. We will talk about more complicated stories in the future, but right now I want to keep it short and simple.
We use the plot mountain anchor chart to plot our story together. I use sticky notes to write down each part of the story and sticky it onto the anchor chart in the appropriate place. This is a whole group collaboration, so I give students lots of opportunities to turn and talk to a partner.
Step 3: Hand it over to your students
Try it out with a group
Once we have plotted a story (or two) together, it is time for my students to take the wheel. I like to start by putting students in groups of three. Each group gets a copy of a short story. You can give the same story to every single group, or you can give different stories for differentiation. I have done it both ways depending on the needs of my students.
I like to give each student in the group a specific job. One is the reader, one is the writer, and one is the captain. Assigning jobs helps me make sure that everyone is actively engaged in the activity.
To make things a little more fun, I give each student a large piece of bulletin board paper or an anchor chart paper. They draw a plot mountain and label each part. If they are not sure how to label it, they can look at their notes or the plot mountain anchor chart we created together. The students then read the story and identify each part by writing it onto the plot mountain graphic organizer they created.
Pair it up!
To give my students another chance to practice plotting a story using the plot mountain, I like to give them another day to work with a partner. This time, I give each student a printable plot mountain graphic organizer. Students take turns reading the story and filling out the graphic organizer. At this point, I like to have each student fill out their own graphic organizer even though they are working with a friend. Sometimes, I will even add a couple of questions about the story for students to answer.
Step 4: Dig deeper – How does each individual event in the story impact the next?
This is my favorite step when teaching plot using the plot mountain model! As I mentioned earlier, the main goal is for students to understand how each story element interacts within the story. This is really tricky! Students are not used to thinking about the “what ifs” of a story.
- What if the character didn’t behave this way?
- What if the problem was different?
- Why is it important to the story that __________ behaved this way?
- How does __________’s actions affect the story?
However, this is the type of deep thinking we want our students to achieve when they read. When our students begin to interact with the text in this way… that’s when the magic happens!!!
But how can we make this happen in our classroom? How do we teach our students to think about the “what ifs?”
Movies to the rescue!
My secret weapon to guide my students to this type of deep, focused thinking is to use a movie they are familiar with. At this point, I want to remove the obstacle of reading. I am asking students to think very hard right now, so I want to level the playing field. When I choose a movie they have all watched multiple times, there is familiarity. And with familiarity comes comfort and automaticity.
In the past, I have always used the movie Frozen. I only use a section of the movie – from the beginning until the point when Elsa runs away to the North Mountain after revealing her magical powers. I print out still shots from key events in the story. Then, I randomly tape each picture to the board.
How did it happen?
I choose one volunteer to come to the board. With the help of the class, this student moves the pictures around to sequence the story correctly. Once the student is done, we review it. Chances are, the story is perfect. If it is not, go ahead and make changes. Now, get ready for the magic.
What would happen if…?
Now that the story is sequenced, I go to the board and remove one of the pictures. I explain to students that by removing one key event, the rest of the story will change. Depending on the class, I may model this entire process the first time with a think-aloud. I can see my students’ eyes open wide as I do this. They immediately get it!
I repeat this process with them at least five times. Turn-and-talks are a must during this process. As my students are talking to their partners, I am walking around and listen in. If I hear any misconceptions, I address them immediately. By the time we are done with this activity, my students have a solid understanding of how events in a story are interconnected.
Step 5: Give it a new twist!
Now that my students understand how events in a story are interconnected, it is time to practice with some writing. Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives places “creating” at the highest point in the hierarchy. When students create, they are employing higher-order thinking skills. For this reason, I like to end any unit of study with an activity that gives my students the opportunity to create something new, often through writing.
To solidify students’ understanding of the plot mountain, I like to give them a final activity in which students will be required to reimagine the problem in a story they have recently read.
How does it work?
We begin this lesson by choosing a story students want to work on. I allow my students to work with a partner for this activity. That means they must agree on the same story. Then, students use a plot mountain graphic organizer to identify the different parts of the story.
Once students are done plotting the story, I ask them to brainstorm ideas for a new problem. After choosing their best idea, students work on rewriting the rest of the story. I remind students that the events must line up in a way that makes sense and moves the story towards a resolution. Once students are done, they share their stories with the class.
Connect it to writing
This activity is a great opportunity to teach students about fiction writing. After all, reading and writing go together. In fact, students could continue working on these stories during your writing block even after you are done teaching them about plot in reading. They could work on revising, editing, and publishing their reimagined stories. There are so many opportunities for learning with this simple but effective activity.
To sum up…
Teaching students to use the plot mountain visual model is a highly effective way to help your students master story elements. More importantly, the plot mountain will help students understand the pattern of fictional stories and its predictability. But best of all, students will be able to gain a greater understanding of the story if they can see how each event is interconnected. I just can’t say enough good things about it!
Will you be trying the plot mountain mental model in your classroom? Let me know in the comments. And don’t forget to grab your FREE plot mountain anchor charts and interactive notebook pages in English and Spanish.