Sunday, 21 June 2020

I love the smell of red herrings in creative writing

I make no bones about it but I cannot stand ‘Freytag’s Pyramid’ for story writing. In fact, I loathe its very existence. It warps stories beyond all recognition. Makes storytelling a simple box ticking exercise and it is one that would put me off writing a story. For life.

Recently, I have been marking a set of Year 10 Question 5 responses. In the same week, I was looking at rewriting parts of our horror / gothic horror unit in Year 8. And, a simple case of happenstance made me join some cognitive dots. The Year 10s Question 5 responses were reasonable but they were not wowing me. Students had a picture of a beach and they were describing the sea and an island in the distance. There were some lovely bits of description and ideas, but they were flat and monotonous. They were full of bits of description and nice bits of description at that, but they were largely one tone. Flat. Now, it is easy to blame structure and a lack of ‘Freytag’s Pyramid’ but something was missing. And, for me, that was a puppeteer. Story writing is akin to being a puppeteer. You have a number of strings to pull with an impact on the overall story. Students need to have an idea of the strings and when and how to pull them. A large number of strings are not used, but one or two are. But it is the knowing when and how to pull a string that is key.

Anyway, I was planning some work for Year 8s. We spend a term looking at gothic fiction and within that I have wanted to explore how horror directors employ a number devices when filming. Here’s some of the things we are looking at.

Techniques employed by film directors and writers in horror films   

A false sense of security – the writer makes everything seem safe when in reality it is not
Anticipating the worst – the reader is expecting something terrible and they don’t know when it will happen
Dramatic irony – when the audience knows something the characters don’t
Empty space – the writer makes the setting empty so that we think nothing can affect our main character 
Jump scares – this is when –  BANG -you get a shock suddenly without any build up
Mise-en-scène – everything that is in the scene / setting –how things are placed
Nonlinear sounds – these are sound effects that don’t fit in with the story – they seem odd
Red herring – a false clue designed to put us on the wrong path of what is really happening
Slow reveal – this is when the writer reveals a key piece of information slowly and one bit at a time
Stock character – an easily recognised, and predictable, character for the genre – we can easily tell who they are from their clothes and behaviour
Subverting expectations – when the writer breaks the rules of what we expect to happen in the story
Suspense – a feeling of being anxious or excited, but unsure of the reasons why
Twist – this is a reveal and it changes everything we know about a character or story
Underexposure – where the writer using lighting / darkness to hide things
Unreliable narrator – the reader thinks they can trust the narrator but they cannot and they mislead them

We need students to be puppeteers in the writing process. Directors are puppeteers. They control the story. They help direct the story and how the story is told. That’s why I think it is important for us to develop story telling rather than, solely, story writing.  ‘Freytag’s Pyramid’ is about story writing but not about telling. Directors are focused on story telling.
Take our descriptive writing for Question 5. Here’s the picture we used:

How could you structure a piece of writing around subverting expectations?

Example 1:

Paragraph 1 – A beach is calm and quiet.
Paragraph 2 – A person steps their toe in the water.
Paragraph 3 – The reality is that they are stepping a toe in their bath at home. In a dull, tiny flat.

Example 2:  

Paragraph 1 – A beach is calm and quiet.
Paragraph 2 – A person is calm and quiet.
Paragraph 3 – Beneath the water several sharks are hunting and waiting for life.

Example 3:

Paragraph 1 – A beach is calm and quiet.
Paragraph 2 – A person steps their toe in the water.
Paragraph 3 – A person removes their headset to reveal that they are in the future – a world without light and nature.

Each of these structures would include complication, crisis and exposition but the story telling is key. How you structure the story hangs not on endless crises but around a structural device and how you use the device. That’s why I think, we as teachers, need to be thinking about how writers use a technique. Thought about how to use a device / techniques is imperative with helping students to use something effectively. The danger is that we give these devices to students and then expect them to use them without insight, understanding, knowledge, experience.

Let’s take another one of the devices employed by directors. How could you structure a piece of writing around a red herring?

Example 1:

Paragraph 1 – A beach is calm. Slowly a fin pops up.
Paragraph 2 – Something is moving in the sea while a person moves towards the sea.
Paragraph 3 – The person enters the water and the thing heads to them and dives between their legs. A herring. A waves sweeps the person out to sea.

Example 2:

Paragraph 1 – A quiet beach.  A person takes off their clothes and pile them up. They place a letter next to the pile and rest a stone on top of it.
Paragraph 2 – The person goes out into the sea and swim out to the deep.
Paragraph 3 – The person and returns. The letter has blown away.

I feel that we need to get better at talking about the structuring and creation of stories. We, often, through a lack of experience and knowledge paint story writing with big large brushstrokes. We need a more succinct and precise approach to discussing story telling. ‘Freytag’s Pyramid’ represents this exact problem. That are four billion ways to create a complication. That richness is neglected when reduced to a pretty picture.

There is an art to puppeteering. We want students to be sophisticated puppeteers when they write, but we teach them as if they have a sock puppet. They needs strings and lots of them. But, they need guidance on what the different strings do and how to manipulate the string to create a variety of effects.

We need to teach students how to use each string. In fact, we, ourselves, need to be clear about how to use each string. It is not enough to spot a string. You have to know about the length, the connection, the amount of pressure, the position of a string. 

Thanks for reading,



  1. This is so true. It's all in the crafting. I've begun to make notes when I'm writing short stories myself, keeping the drafts and listing what changes I decide to make to structure the story more satisfyingly and convincingly. I'm hoping to use these a lot more in my teaching. Also, I've been using mini-sagas lately to demonstrate the key story elements that matter.

  2. I would like to say that this blog really convinced me to do it! Thanks, very good post.

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