I have been listening and watching quite a bit of Philip Pullman – I think he has a book out or something. Anyway, he got me thinking about storytelling and how we teach it. The more I teach the current GCSE for English Language the more I realise the mechanistic approach we have been using is ineffective and reductive.
Take ‘Freytag’s Pyramid’. I device used to teach the structure of a story. Personally, it is the dullest thing I have encountered when looking at story structure. It is basic. It is rudimentary. It is simplistic. Let’s plot ‘War and Peace’ on it, shall we? Look how a complex narrative can be simply pegged to a pretty pyramid. The pyramids are still around because they are heavy and robust and not something delicate and ephemeral. If ‘Freytag’s Pyramid’ is so special, then why don’t writers, and famous writers at that, go on about it all the time. J.K. Rowling boasting how the pyramid helped her achieve success with Harry Potter.
The problem with ‘Freytag’s Pyramid, and similar devices we use to teach storytelling, is that they are simplistic. Storytelling is subtle, nuanced and complex. That’s why students who read lots are able to pick up the subtleties, the nuances and the complexities of text. A lot of this comes with experience.
I have reassessed how I teach fiction across the whole of KS3 and KS4. That doesn’t mean that I talk about GCSE questions in Year 7. It means that I am places a stronger emphasis on narrative and, in particular, the construction of a story. Rather than just plonk a story in a class and hope for natural osmosis, I am directing my comments and teaching around storytelling. It isn’t pretty. It isn’t ‘terminology’ driven. It isn’t neat and tidy. But, it is about the art of storytelling. If we read like storytellers, then our writing will reflect this level of understanding.
The following are some of the things that I have brought to the forefront of my teaching in light of the new GCSEs.
The subtext or, as I like to call it, ‘what is really really really going on’, is a key milestone for students to grasp. Getting students to see that the story isn’t just a teacher marking exam papers or just a woman in a hat shop is key for understanding. Yes, on the surface it is about a sad woman, but underneath it is about a class struggle or a loss of hope. What is this really teaching us about?
When a student understands the subtext of an extract, all the words, techniques or structural devices have a layer of understanding and an anchor to latch ideas on.
If struggling, I ask the students: What wouldn’t a seven year old get from this that I do?
Throughout my current reading of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ I was a bit silly whenever Capulet was in a scene. I’d say: good dad? Or, bad dad? The students would appropriately respond with good or bad dad depending on where it happens in the play. Recently, we went through the Hartop paper and ‘good dad/ bad dad’ reared its head. The connectivity to a character is key in storytelling. Yet, do we spend much time on looking at how a writer builds a connection subtly?
The whole opening of the Mr Fisher extract is designed to make us feel empathy towards the character. We need to keep going back to the connection with the text. Am I supposed to like or dislike this character at the moment? Look at the Hartop extract and you can see how at the start we are fooled into liking, but then that suddenly shifts to disliking the character.
Of course, we can build up the level of explanation when we get beyond like and like, but that way we avoid the ‘reader wants to read on’ or ‘hooks the reader’. We empathise with the character and so we want to see their situation change. We need to get students connecting with characters. Like or dislike?
I find this phrase much better than exposition. ‘Exposition’ is a dull, bland word. ‘World building’ is so much better. This is what writers do in the opening of any story and it is what we forget when exploring stories. How does the writer create a world? How does the writer build up the world around our protagonist?
Take the Hartop extract and you see the world build up through the van. From that van, we see poverty, family dynamics and power struggles from the description of the van and the people sat in it. He builds the world through the weather and the symbolism of the van and how people are sat in it. Compare this to the bus in the Rosabel extract. We see the world build through a bus, hat shop and a meal.
Recently, my Year 8s have been studying ‘Great Expectations’ and it is interesting that Dickens builds the world through a graveyard in the opening. A visceral image but one that says death, loss, family and faith.
How does the writer build the world? A simple question, but far more effective than ‘what’s interesting about the structure?’
Setting / People / Objects
Most openings and stories start with these. In fact, it is often setting or people. Occasionally, you’d get an object. Understanding why writers start with these is key. Setting is about context and atmosphere. People is about understanding and connecting to a character’s experience. Both are key when talking about stories. The relationship between the two is interesting and helping students to see the choice to be made.
When looking at ‘Great Expectations’ the opening starts with people and then moves to setting. This is because Dickens wants us to connect with Pip first so that when the setting is introduced we are concerned about for him and worry.
Juxtaposition of characters
Adding characters is key to understanding a story. Fred is introduced in ‘A Christmas Carol’ after a length introduction of Scrooge to prove that Marley isn’t the only person in Scrooge’s life. We are expected to believe this from Dickens’ opening of the book. Fred proves to us that there are people in Scrooge’s life who care from him and that he isn’t alone. Then, Dickens adds the men from the charities to the story and Dickens heightens how mercenary Scrooge is. Each character added to a story adds meaning to the protagonist.
Rosabel is an interesting extract as it deals with a clear foil. A character that makes our protagonist seem dull and boring. Less glamorous. We don’t see that until the woman with red hair appears. Then, we understand why. The egg and the flowers. We see the plain and the interesting. The two characters show an extreme contrast, which heightens how far apart they are and how Rosabel will never achieve success, in her eyes. Like the colour of her hair, success is determined from birth.
Students need to see that writers add character to help us understand the protagonist. They are a bit more subtle than goodies and badies.
If you understand the relationships, then you understand the subtext. The recent Hartop extract demonstrated this. It was all about the relationships between the characters. The squeezing out of the wife and daughter was key to understanding the relationship. This is made worse by the fact that Hartop makes his daughter go out in the rain and walk a considerable distance to get back in the van. We see how the women try to make everything fine. Clearly, they worry about ‘rocking the cart’. Alice’s ‘ironed’ stance reflects her fear and determination to not disrupt the status quo. She dare not put a foot wrong. The blood on Hartop’s hands indicates that he could commit violence.
If you look at how the Hartop extract works, we can see how the relationship is key to the extract. We empathise with Alice’s plight and as the text goes on we want her to escape and that’s what is engaging.
Inside / Outside Conflict
All characters have an inner turmoil. Understanding the inner conflict of a character is key. Alice’s conflict between family and freedom. Maybe she is ‘ironed’ and ‘clay’ because she fears how Hartop is going to react if she left. What would he do to the mother? Hartop’s conflict is between the money and family. Maybe he is a man that is losing in life and the business is struggling. He views success in terms of money and he clearly hasn’t got the money. Hartop has dependents and maybe they are the problem for him. They are a drain. Therefore, he is metaphorically pushing them out of his life.
The characters on the exam papers so far have all had an inner conflict. They are quite subtle in the case of the Labyrinth extract and in some cases they are quite explicit, Mr Fisher. Looking at what point we are in the inner conflict is interesting. Both Hartop and Rosabel are stories introducing the inner conflict. They are never resolved and that’s why they end quite bleak. There’s a bit missing from the story. The next bit is the ‘action stage’. They do something to break the cycle. They do something life transforming or they are rescued. Mr Fisher is different because we see the conflict resolved. His unhappiness and conflict is partly solved by one student’s work.
We need to teach students about character’s having inner conflicts and how those inner conflicts affect relationships and how they can be externalised or internalised in the story. The structure of the story is always wrapped around the character’s inner conflict.
Everything is an opportunity for a symbol. I joked in the summer that I am going to town with flower symbolism as almost all the exams have featured flowers in some way. They are a relatively easy symbol. They represent beauty, nature or weakness. A lot of the time they link to the character. In Rosabel, the flowers are a symbol of how she wants to make her life better. She buys boring food, yet she purchases flowers. Something that doesn’t add much to her life but looks beautiful, highlighting the emphasis in the story on appearance and making a person better through their appearance (hats, hair, jewellery).
Students forget about the end point. Where does the story end? That is the point that the previous paragraphs have been building up to. When we look at structure, we need students to think of the end feeling. What does the writer want us to feel at the end of the extract? Happy. Sad. Then, everything before it was leading up to that point. Everything. Every time detail. Everything is a crumb leading us down this path.
That’s why the writer in the Hartop extract describes the isolated landscape and the bad
weather.There’s no prince in shining armour ready to save Alice. She is on her own. It is up
to her to change the situation.We need to see this isolation from the start. The weather
attacking the van is just a metaphor for Alice. Match that with Rosabel.The egg and the
violets are discussed in the opening because at the end we see the contrast between Rosabel
and the lady with red hair. Rosabel is the egg and the other woman is the violets.
That’s why I think the ending is key. Look at the end point and look to rest of the story to see
how it links together. When making a jigsaw, you look at a picture of the finished image to
help you construct it. Look at the end point and work back.
Note none of these things are about how to answer the question on the exam paper. This, for me, is the knowledge we should be working on in KS3 to help students understand texts better in KS4. This is what we should be looking at more and more. Instead, we have been looking at the questions but not focusing on the learning. What sort of things do students need to learn about stories? What would help them to understand stories better? I think the above would be a start. There are so many things I could mention and I haven’t. Maybe, I will do at one stage, but we’ll leave that for another story.
How does one get better at teaching storytelling and fiction? Simple: just read more. Read things you’d normally read. Read things you wouldn’t normally read. Read anything and everything.
Alice, Mr Fisher, Rosabel and Hartop walk into a pub and started to read a book. They all agreed that the book helped them. Hartop learnt that there’s more to life than money. Rosabel learnt that the beautiful people lack personality and integrity. Mr Fisher learnt that he wasn’t alone. Alice learnt that archaeology isn’t the job for her.
Thanks for reading,