Sunday, 26 April 2020

Where have all the spotty pants gone?

At the moment, I am working with lots of students remotely to create a story and, along the way, I have seen a common trend. A trend that we don’t, I think, successful address in the classroom.

I asked students to describe a setting. It just so happened that the setting at the point in the story was a kitchen. The majority of the students decided to use the setting as an opportunity to symbolise the neglect the boy had suffered at the hands of his parents. The uncared for kitchen reflected how uncared for he was. I have hundreds of descriptions like this. The default description, it seemed, was child neglect and cruel parents.

Now, I would like to think this event was an isolated event, but it isn’t. I remember once how depressed I was at class’s response to a Paper 1 Question 5 response: a picture of a person on the edge of a lake. The class had to create a piece of narrative inspired by the picture. I was given the following narratives:

·         A man contemplating suicide.

·         A man had killed somebody.

·         A man was thinking about killing someone.

·         A man was on the run.

·         A teenager who wants to escape from bullies.

·         A man had just discovered that his girlfriend is pregnant. 

The class seemed to have written the plot of a week’s worth of Hollyoaks episodes. It did, however, depress me. Not because I am cheesy grinning moron who coats life with optimism, but because death and unpleasantness is so common in their storytelling. We know that films and TV are the key sources for their inspiration. That’s why we get cheap copies of The Walking Dead when we ask students to write a horror story.  Like Catherine Moreland in ‘Northanger Abbey’, our obsession with one type of story warps our view of things. I think young people are tainted by these stories. In fact, they are the dominant narratives in their life. Everyone is a possible murder. Everyone is a victim of something.

Reading is the key to combatting this. That’s why the best writers are always the best readers. They know that in a situation death, murder, abuse or suicide are not the sole options or solutions. Going back to the writing task, there was one little bit I loved. This line:

The rain sank deeper into Sam’s thin spotty pants, his dad’s grey work trousers and his mum’s pastel yellow cardigan that were all on the wet washing line.  

One student decided to use a washing line to introduce the family. There was no blood, death or violence and just, simply, a pair of spotty pants. But, those pants were more creative than any Marvel film or Eastenders knock-off. And, the problem is, we don’t see Captain America’s boxer shorts. We need more pants. Why? Pants are mundane, normal and funny. The student made something normal into something deeper.

The problem with students is that they take something normal and make it something dramatic. It is the shift between these two elements that builds creativity and imagination. It is so easily to turn a pair of knickers into a drama. Let’s put a pair of knickers on the washing line and it becomes a case of the father having an affair and the mother might not be aware of it. Or, maybe the mother is aware and that the marriage is on the rocks. Then, why is she washing the kecks of another woman? That’s a whole week of Eastenders episodes there.

We need to shift from the dramatic pants to the deep pants. That’s why we need to work on mundane events in storytelling. If you take the majority of the AQA Paper 1 exam papers, there’s a lot of mundane events.

Rosabel farts on a bus.

Mr Fisher sneezes.

Mr Hartop drives a van.

They are not very dramatic, but they are quite meaningful and this is what some students struggle with. Of course, they are not dramatic, but that’s what students struggle with. What has the writer done to interest the reader? For most students, nothing has been done to interest the reader. There’s no death. There’s no murder. But, that’s because they are stuck on the dramatic mode rather than the deep mode.  Like Catherine Moreland, they living a in fantasy world expecting things to be bad, when in reality they are fine and happy.

So, how can we help students move to mundane deep rather than spectacle and drama? Well, I suggest pants. No, not really. We need to bring the mundane to lessons. None of this crazy talk of structuring stories. Build stories instead from mundane events. I have created a table for the creation of stories and I expect to see one of them in a future exam.

Mundane experience
Profound and deep experience
A mother not valued by her family
a telephone call
Things in life aren’t always clear
A man who doesn’t want to age
opening a letter
Happiness is more important than money
A boy who wants to be like his dad
a bus journey
The world isn’t fair
A woman who wants a different life
washing the dishes
Love takes various forms
A man who is tired of life
Brushing teeth
Loss creates something new

A girl who wants to make a friend
wrapping a present
You have to be cruel to be kind sometimes
A father struggling to connect with his child
opening the curtains
Only you can make things change

A mother could have a telephone call from a school and from that she learns that he child was punished for standing up to another insulting her.

This allows for a change in perspective and type of conflict. It would be so easy for a student to describe a fight. This way we can see the impact the conflict has. The mother learns she is valued.

I think moving away from spectacle and moving towards mundane is key. If only the makers of 'Game of Thrones' did this in their last series? I am a big fan of Ibsen and this is a style of storytelling we have lost from the majority of film and TV. Small events with big emotional resonance. Instead, we have big spectacle with little or no emotional resonance. In fact, we have the music to tell us how to feel. Maybe, we need to be a bit more grownup with storytelling.

When we pick stories for class readers, we tend to select according to the taste of students. What if that taste or preference of books is limiting their imagination? What if we are reinforcing that domineering power of one type of narrative? What if we are promoting the ‘dramatic storytelling mode’ over the ‘deep storytelling mode’ through our choice of books? We pick books to be engaging rather than the quality of depth of meaning.

Thank for reading,



  1. This looks fabulous - it's something I worry about often.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. This is great. Spot on! Came across The Open Window by Saki recently. Loved it!


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