Last week, I described how my Year 8 class struggled with their descriptions of a setting. The approach I used in my last blog was one that stemmed from Alan Peat’s work on teaching students to write effectively. I have just marked a third draft of their settings and they are much better.
The one problem, I think, students have with descriptions in writing is the use of plot detail. It is so hard for them to put the plot on hold, which is, to be honest, what most setting descriptions do. They put the pacing and plot on pause and let you admire the view. A moment of reflection. For my group, they wanted to go guns blazing into the violence of a horror / ghost story and I had to stop them somehow. It worked. It worked like a dream. I had students describing how the light moves in a room or how the temperature of a room changed in several places. It was much better writing and the good old plot was left waiting in the wings.
I think in the past of being too blasé about writing key aspects of fiction. I would bring out examples of Dickens, and, together we would analyse what the writer did. Then, I would waft another example before their noses, and finally I’d get them to write their own setting. The most prolific readers would have lovely nuanced pieces of writing and the rest would stumble over a creepy and eerie setting that was so creepy, eerie and scary that it needed those three words repeated with glee. Nothing makes a setting scary like the word scary repeated fifty times.
Last week, I got students to pick five things from a list and then write a sentence for each one. A pretty effortless task from my point of view, but the efforts were impressive. It was so good I then, like most teachers do, repeated the task with Year 10 and then considered when I could do it again with other year groups. This tight focus on five descriptive sentences allowed for a concentrated effort and much thought when usually students rush through things like a steam train.
This time around I am looking at character. The default setting for most students is the following:
- Describe the arrival of the character.
- Describe what the character looks like.
The above can, and often will, lack imagination. The most uninspiring adjectives are chosen to produce an effect that can only be matched by listening to the shipping forecast. They lack the subtlety to produce the concise description great writers use and they lack the vocabulary of other great writers to embellish a description. They often know subconsciously that it is rare in modern fiction to spend ages describing a character. Writers give a reduced description of a character and let the events and action flavour a description of a character. The only general rule in writing is that you make sure your characters are easily distinguishable from one another. But, when introducing a character there are not many rules to follow.
So, carrying on with the settings last we, I am going to get students to select three of the following things. Then, they are going to turn them into a description of their character.
Describe the sound of their footsteps.
Describe their shoes.
Describe the way the character walks / sits / writes opens a door.
Describe the smell of the character.
Describe their voice. Focus on what makes their voice different to others.
Describe their reputation.
Describe an action. It must be something kind, cruel or odd they do.
Describe their perfume, aftershave or deodorant.
Describe their hands as they do something.
Describe the silhouette of the person.
Describe how other characters feel about him /her.
Describe how the character treats people.
Describe the character’s relationship with their family.
Describe the character through their relationship with others in the room.
Describe the temperature of the character and how that links to them as a person.
Describe what makes the character sad or happy. Tom is happiest most when he eats chips, while watching his favourite film.
Describe how other characters treat this person.
Describe their hair. Be specific about colour, texture and the way it has been cut.
Describe the clothes the character is wearing, but focus on the colours or where the items were bought from.
Describe the colour they are wearing and why they wear that particular colour.
Describe the accessories they wear. It could be a watch or an earring.
Describe how the clothes link to their hair in some way.
Describe how the character is an ugly version of someone famous.
Describe their personality.
Describe how the character looks at an object or a person. How do they look at it?
Describe their eyes. Include the colour, size of the pupil and the way they move.
Give the character’s name and they explain how the name is a good match for the character.
Describe what they are not like. He was not tall, not thin and not clever.
Describe what this person used to be like. They used to be fun, keen and friendly.
Describe the character’s reaction to something.
Describe the one thing that makes this character contrast with all the others in the room / place.
Use a line of dialogue to show the character’s personality.
Describe how the character contrasts with the room they are in.
Describe the character’s attempts to hide in the room.
It just so happens that I am looking at heroes and villain in fiction with Year 7 later in the term. A nice little thing to do will be to have this list alongside a description of Scrooge and see if students can identify what approaches Dickens has used.
Thanks for reading,