Sunday, 18 September 2016

The Cliché Glass Ceiling

The following is a piece I wrote for a lesson this week:

The dark, gloomy, scary, haunted room was cold. It had a spooky and eerie atmosphere. I could smell rotting flesh. The floorboards creaked under my footsteps. I saw blood dripping from the ceiling. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck tingle and a shiver down my spine. It got colder. My teeth were chattering so hard you could hear them.

BANG. My heart stopped. My heart literally stopped. A book had fallen on the dusty floor.

I continued to walk even though my legs had turned to jelly. I was scared.

Suddenly, my hand was grabbed by something or someone. My heart skipped a beat. I saw the zombie’s face and its teeth and …

… and I woke up. It had all been a dream.

I am currently exploring horror and ghost writing with my Year 8 class. This week I placed this extract on the board. It was based on several suggestions from some helpful teachers on Twitter.

It is quite common for us to use texts to model excellence, but here lies the problem with this extract. For some of our students, this extract could represent excellence, because clichéd writing suggests a level of understanding. Clichés are the basic components of writing. We could easily accept the clichés here because they are relevant to the context. For some of our weaker students, we want them to use some of the clichés so at least some of their writing looks and sounds like the real thing. Otherwise, we might end up with hundreds of conjunctions and endless attempts to scare the reader. For other students, there is a cliché glass ceiling and it is hard to break when writing. Avid readers are able to break through it, but others struggle. It is the jump into creativity.

The problem is how we treat the clichés. We often say what we don’t want. We don’t often say why we don’t want them or it.  Yes, it is predictable and obvious, but there is often more behind it.  Instead of saying ‘it had all been a dream’ is bad for an ending, say why it is so bad. It is terrible, because it insults the reader. They have spent the whole story investing in things and you smack them in the face by saying there was no point reading the story in the first place. A dream undermines the work of the reader and writer. Plus, it is a simple resolution. It says, I don’t have to explain and resolve things for you.

Take these other examples:

Why is ‘suddenly’ not shocking for the reader?

Why doesn’t the word ‘spooky’ make a setting spooky?

Why isn’t ‘heart stopping’ heart stopping for the reader?

A discussion on these choices not only make students explore the technical choices made but explore the alternatives.     

I could smell rotting flesh.

This could be transformed into….

I could smell something unpleasant, repulsive and hard to define.

I get students to rewrite the extract and make it original. They keep the structure as much as possible, but avoid any form of cliché. But in doing so, they know what the problem is with the original phrase. The new bit of writing in some cases is not as important as the discussion and thinking that takes place. The new GCSEs need a more sophisticated understanding of how and why texts are written in the way they are. Therefore, we need a better understanding of the thought processes involved in writing. That’s why we have to spend much more time in KS3 exploring why a word, phrase, sentence or technique is used. A regular discussion of choices is needed in the classroom. Why did the writer use a cliché in that line? In fairness, we need students to talk more about the choices and the reasons behind the choices. 

There is a glass ceiling of clichés in writing and I think we have to teach awareness of it and teach how and why it should be broken.

Thanks for reading,

P.S. See Mark Roberts for more blogs on clichés.

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