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How to Write a Survival Story


Middle school and high school teachers often assign survival stories as part of their creative writing curriculum. Survival stories are similar to other creative writing assignments and include character development, intricate plot lines and well-defined settings. However, they also include disastrous situations, suspenseful cliffhangers and everyday characters who must survive on their own instincts, wit and experiences. Survival stories are about characters who face extreme challenges and beat the odds.

Real-Life Characters

Create characters, including a primary protagonist, who rely on previous experiences and intuition to survive. Survival story characters don't have supernatural abilities or extensive skill sets and must learn to depend on their own abilities to overcome obstacles. For example, in the book "Hatchet" by Gary Paulsen, 13-year-old Brian builds a shelter, finds turtle eggs to eat, battles a moose and survives monstrous storms in the Canadian wilderness after a plane crash leaves him as the only survivor. Survival story characters are courageous, creative and strong-willed, and they learn to persevere despite unfavorable odds.

Suspenseful Plots

Develop engaging and suspenseful plot lines, so readers are glued to the pages to find out how the characters will make it through their harrowing plight. Create an overriding plot, such as surviving a natural disaster or a shipwreck, but include smaller plots, also known as arcs, to add suspense and intrigue. For example, in the book "My Side of the Mountain" by Jean George, preteen Sam runs away from home and spends a year in the Catskill Mountains. Suspenseful plot lines center on Sam's ability to make fire for survival, build box traps to catch animals for food and outwit forest rangers.

Descriptive Settings

Include descriptive settings to help readers get a true sense of the difficulties characters face. Describe the surroundings, including the climate, terrain, location, time period and overriding mood. Use descriptive adjectives, such as foreboding, breezy, ghostly, picturesque and insurmountable to help readers visualize the extreme conditions. The goal is to help readers see through the main character's eyes, experiencing the struggles firsthand. In the book "Crossing the Wire" by Will Hobbs, the author clearly describes the heat, dryness and isolation of the Mexican desert as 15-year-old Victor struggles to cross the border into the United States.

Conflict Resolution

Explain the main conflicts and how central characters resolve those conflicts. Conflict resolution in a survival story centers on characters' abilities to overcome physical and emotional obstacles, such as fear, anger, loneliness, isolation, danger and the lack of basic necessities. Conflicts are resolved as characters adapt to their surroundings and step out with boldness and confidence to complete tasks and defeat their enemies. For example, in "The Hunger Games" by Suzanne Collins, 17-year-old Katniss resolves the central conflict when she outwits the corrupt and egotistical masterminds behind the deadly games. Survival stories typically end with characters finding a way out of their troublesome, and often life-threatening, situations.

About the Author

As curriculum developer and educator, Kristine Tucker has enjoyed the plethora of English assignments she's read (and graded!) over the years. Her experiences as vice-president of an energy consulting firm have given her the opportunity to explore business writing and HR. Tucker has a BA and holds Ohio teaching credentials.

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