Saturday, 5 October 2013

Sexy Sprouts Turn Evil

Several months ago I shared my ideas about ‘Sexy Sprouts’. In a nutshell, it was about how we tend to focus on the purpose and neglect the effect, when getting students to write non-fiction. The approach changed a lot of how I teach things in the classroom and the results were great, in my opinion. This change in perspective meant I had interesting and engaging writing rather than a collection of loosely linked techniques, hoping to be effective.

Now, I thought that was it. Well, that was until I was faced with teaching a low set off Year 8s and a creative writing assessment. They had to write a horror story. The class is great but their writing tends to be a bit like this:

The scary monster with blood dripping down its face attacked the man. There was blood everywhere. The monster who was a zombie was hungry for flesh. Suddenly, its teeth ate at the flesh.  The man screamed.

I resisted the urge to use the font Chiller to add extra scary points, but this is typical of the sort of writing you see from students working at a level 3 or 4. It is scary, but the problem is that every sentence is trying to be scary. The typical lad will write every sentence like it is going to be in the film trailer. It is written to scare, but very little else.

This week, I tried to break this problem down and get students to produce something more effective. I want horror, but horror that truly scares and shocks people. Students often know the characteristics of the genre, yet it is their mixing of these ingredients where they fall down. Look at the example above. It does have all the ingredients, but they are not mixed well. Enter: Sexy Sprouts.

When teaching students about ‘Sexy Sprouts’ the whole idea was to teach students about effect and write with the effect in mind. Now, with creative writing this isn’t as straightforward as I had hoped it would be.  Writing a horror story is about making writing having a scary effect. Yet, writing is far more complex than that, and that complexity, was the downfall for students. They were making scary writing, but with every sentence designed to scare the general impact was lost. How do you teach students that not every sentence needs to be scary?

This is a hard thing for students to realise. I am forever moaning about modern films, but they do prefer to punctuate a narrative with action every five seconds. I watched an instalment of the famous ‘Transformer’ films and I had to stop it halfway through as I was developing a number of ailments, including seasickness. Is it any wonder that students write like a condensed version of an action film? Action tends to dominate narrative and our memory of a narrative. Small quiet character moments are lost in the memory fug, because two minutes of robots fighting robots was so cool.

To model some of these ideas, I used the fantastic animated film ‘The Sandman’. It features a boy travelling up a flight of stairs to go to bed. As a narrative it is great because it is so simple: the act of going to bed. Obviously, there is more to it. But, this became my starting point. The stairs became my framework for our narrative. It looked something like this:

Paragraph 1: Why are you there?  

Paragraph 2: The setting (the stairs)

Paragraph 3: Walking up the stairs

Paragraph 4: The door at the top

Paragraph 5: The door opens

Paragraph 6: The Monster

By simplifying the context and the format of the story, I was able to get them to concentrate on their writing, which often is the case with level 4s: nice ideas but not written effectively.  Then, we watched a clip from ‘Jaws’. It was the bit where the shark attacks the beach. An excellent example of tension building in a film. We explored what the director did and one student piped up and said that the director used ‘tricks’. That then became an epiphany for me. The scene was structured around several tricks played on the viewer.

We then returned to our stairs. We explored how we could trick our readers purposefully to change the mood of the extract. I called it our six steps of tension. This is what they came up with:

Step 1: Footsteps behind you.

Step 2: Feel something breathing in your neck.

Step 3: You see a big shadow moving at the top of the stairs.

Step 4: You hear footsteps ahead of you.  

Step 5: A cat appears at the top of the stair and it passes you.

Step 6: A door slams shut.

Strangely, this little process or these steps really helped students, as they produced some really clever ideas. I had students changing step 6 so that a figure appeared, a voice was heard, a hand grabbed or a painting smiled back. The staggering of tension helped these students to develop the writing. Before they would have mentioned bloody footsteps in the first step and then tried to outdo the last step in each subsequent one.  Getting them to understand that they can trick me, the reader, was key. Also, they were very creative with the ways to trick me. A friend appeared and the voice realises it is a painting or a doll.

The content was certainly there, but what about the writing? We always have a constant battle in English between the content and the style. On a good day both style and content work together, but all too often one works against the other. I then brought in ‘Sexy Sprouts’ to the writing. This time I had to be more precise with things. I couldn’t ask them to write one paragraph as comical and then another as scary. Instead, I made students write a paragraph using the step approach.

Sentence 1: Mystery

Sentence 2: Scare

Sentence 3: Terror

Sentence 4: Relax

Sentence 5: Shock

And, here’s one a student made earlier:

I started walking up the stairs and the more I went up the closer the strange sound came. I felt cold and the blood was running up to my brain. I opened the broken, oak door where the noise was coming from. It was a black and white cat jumping around wildly. Suddenly, I turned around to see my friend. ‘Hi,’ I said. He ran towards me screaming. Then, I realised it was a doll rocking forwards and not my friend. The darkness made it difficult to see.  A voice behind me said, ‘Your death will bring me so much pleasure’. I turned around…

The enjoyable thing was students got the difference between terror and scare.  In fact, so much that I had one student complaining that he had forget his relaxing sentence and putting two terror sentences in instead. Now, obviously, this is a very formulaic approach to writing and it is one I wouldn’t insist on using every day for every piece of work; but, for these students it worked. It worked better than me teaching lots of techniques. It worked better than me giving them some sentence stems. It worked better than all those things because it is something quite obvious and something that we, as writers, have internalised. This for them isn’t an internalised process. It isn’t even a process we explicitly teach to students. Nonetheless, it made their writing ten times better. Those other aspects I will go onto when they redraft their work, but the foundations now are solid.

As I have commented on before, we seem to spend endless time in lessons analysing extract after extract to see what a writer has done and what the reader is supposed to feel, yet we rarely say to students: ‘ I want you to start this writing with a romantic mood and then I want it to turn into something dark and finally end in a comic way.’ I always want students to vary the length of sentences, types of punctuation, starts of sentence and vocabulary, yet I never ask them to vary the feelings created.
Thanks for reading, 


  1. I used those two films when doing how do films create tension with my year 8s - I love the idea of using them for scary story writing too! Sounds like a great response - thanks for sharing : )

  2. My pleasure. Thanks for the comment ; )

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