Sunday, 20 October 2019

Jumping because of the shark – Tension

Teaching creative writing is something that constantly interests me. It is such a complex and interesting element of English lessons. This week I have been exploring tension in writing and getting students to effectively create tension. 

Students often struggle with creating tension because they rely on ‘jump shocks’ at every given moment. Therefore the writing reads like somebody is saying ‘boo’ at the end of each sentence. BOO! Or, they tend to load their first sentence with the words ‘death’, ‘blood’ and ‘murder’ so any sense of build up or atmosphere is burst like a balloon. Then, there are about fifty billion ‘suddenly’s or ‘and then’s punctuating the sentences. It is a large struggle for them. Not matter what you do they really struggle with making writing tense. They can make things sad, happy, creepy, but tense is another thing.

So this week, I was looking at tension with my Year 8s. They are writing their own horror story.  One lesson concentrated on the old staple ‘Jaws’ and the opening of ‘The Graveyard Book’ by Neil Gaiman. We compared how each one in its own way created tension or suspense.

The next lesson concentrated on the crafting of tension. We started with lines from ‘Jaws’. Students had to decide how the writer created tension through the one line. Often the problem students have is unpicking tension from the whole text. Hence why we get it makes the reader want to read on. The initial focus was on what makes tension in this one specific line. What could we imitate in our own writing?

Together, we came up with some ideas. These are just a few of them.

Then, I gave the class these sentences.

The boy walked down the path.

The man followed him.

He wanted to kill him.

The boy turned around and spotted the man.

The man walked faster.

The boy was really worried now.

The man had a knife in his hand.

It had blood on it.

The boy reached a dead-end.

He was dead.

They then had to rewrite the piece of action, but they had to build the tension. It generate discussion about the opening and how it starts, in the current form, quite tense and so they needed to reduce the tension in the opening so they could build it up.

Here’s an example:

It was a sunny afternoon. A boy was skipping down the lonely street. Distracted by his music he didn’t notice the clouds darken above him. It began to rain. He pulled out his ear plugs with a huff and heard footsteps behind him. He looked back and didn’t see anything. As he carried on, he heard footsteps again and picked up his pace. The footsteps got faster as well, like someone was following him. He looked behind and saw nothing and slipped in a puddle. He fell on the floor and saw a shadow hover over him with an object. A sharp object. Then the darkness took over.

For me, I like the subtle gradual changes in the mood and I quite like the shift from happy to tense in the second sentence:

A boy was skipping down the lonely street.

I also like the use of pathetic fallacy. The great thing is that the student was forced down an avenue by the rigid context they were writing for. They had to resolve a problem on their own rather than adapting the story to suit their needs. Instead they had to adapt their writing style. This happened quite a number of times with the group. Here’s another example:

The young, innocent boy wandered down the stone path. Little did he know, his life was going to change that day – for the worse. He had a sudden feeling that something was following him. The boy nervously turned around, to see a kind, timid old lady, minding her own business. Relieved, the boy continued to stroll down the path. However, once again, he felt someone watching him. Paranoid, he decided to quickly glance behind him, once again. Nothing. Then a cat jumped down out of the tree. His mind was set to rest. It must have been the cat.

A shadow lurked out from behind the tree about to pounce on its prey. Stealthily, the figure creeped towards the young boy. Oblivious, the boy sat down on a bench to rest. That was when it all happened. Every inch of the figure’s blade brightly reflected a large beam of light, almost blinding the young child. Every step the shadow took, the more the blade beamed. With a final scream, the blood clotted blade buried itself in the boy’s stomach. It was all over. Silence. No witnesses. No one to help him. No hope.

The great thing about the whole process was the discussion about choices. We discussed how to hide the identity of the man. We discussed how we could fool the reader. We discussed how we could gradually build up the tension… subtly.

I suppose what I liked about the whole process was the rigid approach of the writing. All too often creative writing dictates that students have so much freedom and choice, yet rarely do we put students in a situation similar to the A-team. You have a van and barn full of stuff and you have to get yourself out of the situation. The problem solving nature of writing. All writers do it. Work to solve a problem. We all know about the problems Spielberg had with the shark prop on ‘Jaws’. His creative problem was the shark, yet he solved the problem by hiding the shark as much as possible, which helped add to the tension.

Maybe there is scope to add more ‘problem-solving’ to writing. After all, the majority of analysis in English surrounds ‘writing solutions’. We are reading the writer’s solution to problem they had in the story. We are constantly asking students to explore the writer’s choices, yet do we put them in that situation enough. How would they describe this?

A teacher is fed up of marking.

He is bored of life in general.

He lives on his own.

He misses the old days. 
He thinks students have lost their creativity.  

He reads a piece of work which makes him happy.

His name is Mr Fisher.      

How would you convey Mr Fisher’s internal conflict? Maybe, putting ‘story problems’ at the centre of lessons would benefit all. It would support their creative writing, but also it would support their understanding of texts. A text is a solution to the problems a writer had in conveying ideas to the reader. When looking for a solution, the writer would have to consider what the reader would think or feel. Something that is rewarded in the top bands for the GCSE exam questions.

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 6 October 2019

Segueing descriptive writing

Currently, I am working with Year 8s creating their own ghost or gothic horror story and again it has flagged a problem students have with descriptions of settings. Here's a typical example. 

Moonlight stared down on the street.  A path stretched ahead winding its way. Amongst the houses there was an empty corner. Empty apart from one figure.  The lamppost stood frozen stiff, thin and alone. A cat walked along the path. The house stared back with eyes so red.

Typically, students list everything and a setting becomes a visual description of item and object that is in the location. Now this alone isn't a major problem, if students effectively transition between the items effectively. Yet, many don't. For ghost stories, students describe everything that could be possibly creepy in a setting. Oh, if you are unlucky they will use the adjectives 'eerie', 'creepy' and 'mysterious' next to each object in the setting. They chuck everything at the reader with the hope that readers will be creeped out. 

This week the class have been rewriting their settings because they sat in the category of chuck everything at the reader. Prior to this lesson, we had been looking at atmosphere and how atmosphere is created implicitly rather than explicitly in writing. Along the way, I have distinguished horror writing from ghost stories simply by saying 'ah' and 'ooooh'. Added to this we've distinguished the structure of ghost story writing as 'oooh', then 'ooooooh' and finally 'oooooohhh?'. Or simply put as 'strange, stranger, strangest'. A simple way to get students to see that ghost stories are not about outright scaring, but a series of odd occurrences that build up.

With the Year 8 class, I broke down the original description to starting point, middle point and end point. 

Moonlight stared down on the street. 

The lamppost stood frozen stiff, thin and alone. 

The house stared back with eyes so red.

Then as a class we spent time looking at how we could transition between moonlight and lamppost and then lamppost to house. In our discussions we talked about music and segueing between one track and another and how DJs (get me down with the kids) segue between tracks by picking a similar beat or drip feeding one track on to another and fading the other one out.  

Moonlight stared down on the street.
It was looking, gazing, focusing on one thing. 
A lamppost. 
A solitary lamppost. 
The rest of the world was hidden under a blanket of oozing and spreading ink. 
The lamppost stood frozen stiff, thin and alone. 
Its meagre light battled against the majestic power of the moon, yet the oozing darkness held it back. 
Soft rays of light sheepishly slithered away from the post, defeated. 
Amongst blades of wet, cold grass the rays snaked and twisted until it hit something large and unmoveable. 
The house stared back with eyes so red.

The group and I attempted to polish it and look at paragraphing it. 

Moonlight silently stared down on the street. It was looking, gazing, focusing on one thing.

A lamppost.

A solitary lamppost. Like a lost child. Like an abandoned toy. Like a forgotten bag.

The rest of the world was hidden under a blanket of oozing and spreading ink.  
Empty blackness.

The lamppost stood frozen stiff, thin and alone. Its meagre light battled against the majestic power of the moon, yet the oozing darkness held it back. Soft rays of light sheepishly slithered away from the post, defeated. Amongst blades of wet, cold grass the rays snaked and twisted until it hit something large and unmoveable.
The house stared back with eyes so red. 

The group noticed that the transitioning between objects generated the most interesting writing for them. It was where the sparks of creativity came. The problem solving element of writing. How do we connect moonlight and a lamppost? How do we connect a lamppost to a house? As you can imagine, it sparked quite a bit of discussion and exploration. Some jumped the gun and tried to get a monster in at each stage, which we had them to rethink. We want 'ooh' not 'ahh', Tom.

Then, the group had a go at one of their own using the following points: 

The candle flickered in the wind. 

A pale bedsheet covered a sleeping form. 

The darkness under the bed opened its mouth. 

Here's one that the class created: 

The candle flickered in the wind.
Light danced across the room, like a graceful and slight young girl. 
It pirouetted across the floor amongst the unrecognisable objects
Often it skipped  and jumped over the larger objects and cast a shadow instead.
As the light dance in the wind, it briefly decided to use the bed, in the middle of the room, as it’s dancefloor.
A pale bedsheet covered a sleeping form.
Unaware of the flickering light.
Snuggled away from the light, the figure created their own cave of darkness.
Briefly, ever so briefly, the light tickled the figure’s face as it danced.
Still the figure slept. Still. Unaware.
The darkness under the bed opened its mouth.

The great thing about this approach, for me, was that it forced the students to be imaginative in filling the gaps and segueing from one object to another. The segueing created most of the atmosphere and automatically interesting choices of words and technqiues. The start, middle and end were just tentpoles for the larger thing. This is certainly something I am going to use with Year 11 for Question 5. 

Now it is your turn. How would you transistion between these three things? What would you put in the gaps? Answers on a postcard or Tweet. 

The trees swayed in the breeze.

The path snaked amongst the trees.

Amongst the natural sounds of the forest, I heard a branch snap. 

Thanks for reading,