Saturday, 21 November 2015

What’s you motif when writing the story?

In my time, as a teacher, I have seen numerous lesson plans for schemes of work on story writing; and, if I am honest, they have bored me. Creative writing, sometimes, is boiled down to the following structure: 





Now, I am not a published author, nor am I a renowned critic, nor am I an expert on stories, but, this typical structure for stories, we often teach our students, has no relation to real stories. I think of the last five books I have read and none of them can be squeezed (with the flabby bits hanging over the trousers) into this framework. Yet, again and again on TES and other teacher sites I see this structure enforced on students. It just doesn’t work for me. I never see myself comment on a student’s resolution and I never criticise a student’s crisis in their crafted story. In fact, in exam reports I have never seen the following comment:
‘Students are commonly producing over-the-top complications and their resolutions never tie up any previous plot threads. Please avoid sub-plots. There seems to be a growing trend of students ending their stories with a cliffhanger, which is honestly disappointing for the reader.’

In fact, I find, all too often, that the way we teach creative writing tends to be from a lobotomy point of view. I, and many others, have taught schemes of work on the basis that the students in the class haven’t a clue about how stories work. Remember to use characters in your story. Don’t forget to use a setting. It isn’t that important for students to be told this. I have yet to read a story that has been set in an empty nothing and it is populated by no characters.

Having children of my own, I see that a lot of what has happened in the past has been spelling out the basics. My daughters could tell me, at seven, what a good story needs. In fact, they intuitively know. So when they tell me a story about Stinky the Mouse and his journey on a boat, they know what will make the story better. They know if Stinky loses his cheese, the tension will be raised. They know that Stinky must find his cheese, friends or home at the end of the story. You can see that, unlike me, my daughters have a better chance of starting a writing career than me.

I feel partly annoyed with myself that I taught creative writing in this way. I feel as though I have been teaching in such a basic way. I can’t take all the responsibility, because the National Curriculum enforced this structured way of teaching story writing on me, you, us.
This term, I have been working with Year 9s to write dystopian stories. You’ll be pleased to know that I haven’t even muttered the words ‘crisis’, ‘complication’ or ‘resolution’. I did use the word ‘opening’ and that’s only because they are writing their opening to their dystopian story. So, what did I use to help them structure their stories? Motifs.

When reading the opening of ‘Divergent’ I noticed how hair was mentioned. This hair motif is a constant pattern in the books. In fact, it is a constant motif used in dystopian fiction. We were able to make connections with ‘Hunger Games’ and how all the stories featured a scene where a character has their hair cut or style. Occasionally, this is through their choice or, as typically, in dystopian worlds the new hairstyle is forced on them. Of course, the symbolism of the motif is clear, but the message of the motif is far more profound. Do we fit in? Or, do we rebel?

To get the idea of motifs, I used the short film, Alma. Here is the link on YouTube:

We had to watch it twice to get the idea of the window motif.

The boy looks though a window.

The doll look through the window at the boy.

The boy looks at the glass eyes of the doll.

The boy as a doll looks out of the doll’s glass eyes.  

Another child looks through the window.

Clearly, the phases ‘the eyes are a window to the soul’ springs to mind. However, the idea was clear for the students.

We then, as a class, looked at possible motifs we could use to reflect the idea of a dystopian society:
Shattered glass
Reflections in mirrors

The class then formed a visual plan around the motif. I picked up on the ‘crack’ motif. No sniggers, please.

[1] A small crack in a wine glass

[2] A crack in a tile on the floor

[3] Two characters are splitting up – a crack in their relationship

[4] A news report on an earthquake

We were planning visually, creatively and symbolical and there wasn’t even a ‘crisis’ in sight. I had one lovely example of a student looking at ‘observer’ motif.

[1] A man watches another person

[2] A CCTV camera

[3] A bird

[4] An object

I noticed when the students started writing that the motifs told the story for the students. I didn’t need to worry about the overall structure.  As long as they knew that their motif had to be subtle and they had to avoid the same adjectives and verbs with each motif, then they would produce some great writing.

I know that if I focused on the opening, complication, crisis and resolution, I would have a typical Hollywood Summer Blockbuster, including 20 billion scenes involving CGI explosions and seven two-dimensional character, written on four sides of A4.    
So, when I am going to get students to write a piece of creative writing now, I am going to ask them one, simple question: What is you motif?

Thanks for reading,


P.S. ‘Stinky the Mouse and the hunt for the lost chunk of cheese’ will be available from all good retailers in December.  

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