Sunday, 27 September 2015

Deconstructing writing - settings

For me, one of the things that has changed the way I teach writing is the ‘deconstruction’ approach used by Alan Peat. I suppose it is quite a masculine thing, pulling things apart and putting back together. Right, let’s open the bonnet and see how things tick. My childhood was full of obsessive detail. I could tell you all the different manufacturers for monsters, locations for episodes and technical wizardry associated with each episode of Doctor Who. I would read endless articles about how an episode was made. I still do it to this day. I know how one of the sets used in Saturday’s episode was reused in another episode, but with the angle of the roof changed. Like a watchmaker, I like knowing how things tick. Pull it apart and see how each cog links and connects to another. I promise: I never did this to any of my pets.  

If you are unfamiliar with Alan Peat’s stuff, do have a look at it. The approach simply breaks down writing into a number of set structures. From the stuff I have seen, it includes sentences and frameworks. Writing is translated, for students, into concrete structures for them to use and adapt. It is very helpful in getting students to vary the content and style of writing. His approach follows the lift up the bonnet and take it apart approach. Boys, especially, in my experience find it useful as it involves learning knowledge and lists, yet developing skills at the same time.

With the new GCSEs being quite open-ended, I feel that there is some potential in this idea of deconstructing writing. At the moment, I foresee departments chucking endless extracts at students, hoping that there will be some understanding of how writers create a setting. Look at how the writer describes the setting here. How does it compare with the setting in this extract? By osmosis we expect students to pick up on the subtle differences. Here is where the problem lies: to understand how writers use settings, you need to have read lots of settings. Our most able students can do it, because they have read lots of books, but the rest struggle and will struggle, unless they read more. The more I teach the new GCSE, the more I feel that reading is the key to success. The exam is designed to make competent readers succeed. I don’t think it is easy to teach the exam. Look at the complex structure question, the effect question and the critical opinion question. These three aspects aren’t things you can teach. It is something that is learnt over time.

Worryingly, I have seen departments ramp up the reading material so student are to read difficult in lessons. But, all importantly, the amount of reading has probably decreased. Yes, give students harder texts, but also keep the class readers going. Wouldn’t it be good if there was a challenge to read as many books with a class as you can? Yes, I will teach the curriculum, but I will also, when there is some down time, look at reading several novels during the year. Not because I have to. But, because I need them to. I worry departments are getting rid of books, because they are not to be perceived to be ‘high-brow’ enough or they lack challenge.  The collective reading of a book is so important to English lessons and if we are not careful it will disappear and we will have death by extracts.

Sorry, I have digressed. Back to the deconstructing writing bit. This week, I am helping Year 8s write settings for a horror story and so far in the drafting things have not been so good. Their writing is clichéd written, and, like most students, the focus is on the plot and not on the setting. They will list endless items in a setting, but none of it hangs together. It is all a bit flat. Therefore, I have decided to deconstruct a setting for them. Look at the nuts and bolts of it.

We have already looked at structuring a setting and looked at these approaches:

  • Left to right
  • Right to left
  • Up and down
  • Down and up
  • Start in the centre and zoom out
  • Start with a panoramic view and zoom in
  • Diagonally
  • In layers
  • Follow an object or thing
  • The most noticeable items first
  • Things that are closest first

What is in their setting is up to them, but I want them to think about how they present their setting. Therefore, I have created these aspects for them to play around with and experiment.

Describe a sound and then reveal what is causing the sound.

Describe something being normal and then spot something about it that isn’t normal.

Describe something that isn’t there and is just imagined by the narrator.

Describe the feeling of the place. Don’t describe anything, but just the feeling. It feels like a day … It feels like when a …  

Describe an object but make it sound like something else. Then, reveal what it is.

Describe the movement of an object or part of the object. Give a list of verbs describing the action.

Something is blocking your view of something. Describe the object blocking the view and describe the tiny glimpse of the other object you want to see.

Describe how an object’s appearance changes the closer you get to it.

Describe the lack of something in the room. There isn’t a --- or --- or ---

Describe the texture of an object before revealing it.

Describe a nice object and then an unpleasant object.

Describe a change in the room.

Describe the main source of light and how it touches things in the room.

Describe a moment of silence.

Describe an object and then comment on how it links / reflects the owner of the room.

Describe a change in temperature and the narrator’s exploration of the source of the change.

Describe the light and how it falls. Then describe it on an object.

Describe an object through colours. Then, reveal what it is.

Describe three objectives with the same phrase.

Describe an object as if it was a person.  

Describe how an object links, or not links, to another item next to it.

Describe how an object reminds the narrator of something that happened to them.

Describe how an object reminds the narrator of a similar object in their past.  

I am going to give students these on a sheet of paper and they are going to decide how they are going to describe the setting using these. They are going use these to plan and construct their setting. They might even come up with their own. There’s more than one way to skin a cat – honestly, I haven’t ‘deconstructed’ any of my pets.

Writers make a choice when writing and without the experience of reading many texts it is hard for students to comment on the choices without having an inclination of the other twenty possible. This way, hopefully, students will see the choices they make as writers and this, in time, will pay when they see what other writers have done.

Thanks for reading,



  1. I'm not sure I believe about the pet, however much you deny it .... Still, you're forgiven, because these are cracking ideas. Thanks.

  2. Hi Xris,
    Sorry for commenting on a two year old blog post but I'm currently creating a creative writing scheme of work and managed to find my way on to it after having looked at your wonderful vocabulary lists!

    Do you have a link to the Alan Peat work you've referenced here?



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