Give it your best shot
Teaching fiction writing at key stage 2 is difficult. Despite the advice on genre, structure and style provided by the National Literacy Strategy, many of us still feel that there is something missing from the Government material.
A look at the national curriculum order confirms this; central to the level descriptions is the need for children to produce narratives that are "lively", "thoughtful", "interesting" and "imaginative". Clearly, these terms are value judgments and are strangely out of place in a document based on the idea of objectively codifying the elements of writing. They indicate a gap in the curriculum, a gap that the strategy documents do not fill. The textual level objectives in the strategy scheme of work cover many things, but they are predominantly formal, dealing with the deployment of techniques. What is being omitted from these objectives (and what is implicit in the level descriptions) is one of the key skills of good, modern prose fiction.
When I started teaching children to write, I started writing myself and, in search of good advice, went to several bookshops. The shelves bulged with books on creative writing but none explained why certain types of writing come alive in the mind of the reader while others flounder on the page. So I started reading any book on writing that contained pieces by practising authors.
Almost every author said the same thing - that they "saw" their stories happening in their heads as they wrote. Enid Blyton even claimed that she never did a day's work in her life because all she did was sit down at her typewriter and transcribe everything that she watched her characters do. Another novelist even claimed that, as he wrote, he imagined himself sitting in a cinema, watching the action unfold on screen. These may be extreme examples, but the point they illustrate is a strong one. How can we pass this technique on to pupils? I have found a series of activities useful in introducing pupils to the idea of visualising while they write. The assumption is that learning works best when it moves from the concrete and external to the abstract and internal.
We are used to telling pupils to "hold the image in their head" as they write poetry, but tend to forget this when it comes to writing prose. Perhaps the problem is that stories require writers to produce long sequences of images as opposed to sustaining a focus on one or two. To encourage pupils to produce these chains of images I have started using film clips in class. By analysing these clips the pupils are able to see how images can be placed in series in a meaningful way. A good way into analysing how images are organised by film directors is to show pupils a short scene with the volume turned down. As they watch the clip, ask them to take careful note of the characters' body language and to try and work out the emotions from the gestures and facial expressions. Then ask them to discuss their ideas, all the time prompting them to cite evidence from the clip to support their interpretations.
The next step is to play the clip back with the volume turned up and to see how accurate the pupils' interpretations are. This second look at the clip is also a good opportunity to draw attention to the fact that dialogue can be responded to by means other than more dialogue. A good consolidation exercise is to ask pupils to work in pairs acting act out their own "conversations" without speech while the rest of the class try and guess what is going on. These tasks highlight the importance of visual detail in supporting and developing a narrative.
The natural extension of this introductory session is for pupils to storyboard a short sequence in which imaginary characters react to each other using speech, body language and facial expressions. After a recap on punctuation to support direct speech, the visualisation skills can be recontextualised by writing out the sequence as a short prose narrative. By including the body language and expressions they will be interweaving dialogue, action and description; and, by moving the emphasis from "telling" to "showing", they will be engaging the reader's interest by leaving room for interpretation. More importantly, they will also be learning how to use self-generated images to make their prose more imaginative and alive. The storyboard makes pupils create more detailed mental images and acts as a reminder that these details need to be included in their writing.
At this point, I give a lesson starting with an explanation of how every change of camera angle requires a great deal of time, thought and expense, to get across the notion that there is a good reason for every edit and change of angle in a film. Pupils watch another short scene, and then watch it again with pauses to discuss the motivation behind each shot. It might be that the director wants to highlight a character's shocked reaction by cutting away to her facial expression, or it might be that they show a close-up of a ring being twiddled to suggest hidden disquiet. In the course of these discussions, we pay close attention to details that the pupils would normally overlook. It is often interesting to see how they are more than able to relate characters' states of mind to details such as a face becoming hidden by shadow or a shot of blue wallpaper peeling away from a grey wall.
In reading the images as they would read the images in a poem, pupils are strengthening their ability to look for meanings beyond the literal; and this is the first step towards their using these skills when constructing their own stories. When they are comfortable with the idea of expressing character through metaphorical detail, I ask them to write a short scene in which a room expresses a character's emotional or physical state. Start with a recap on the techniques gleaned from the film clips, give them a character and ask them to put this character into an appropriate setting. There are to be no other people in the scene and every detail of the description is to fit with the character's condition or predicament. Again, as they write, they are to visualise each "shot". However, before starting, they might consider some structures for sequencing their images. They could start with a pan around the room (which links well to any previous work on prepositions) and then close in on the character, or with a close-up on the character's face followed by a slow pullback to reveal the setting behind. Discussing the possibilities is productive and it is surprising to see how visually literate many pupils are.
To end the session, I usually read out the author's description of the character in the original context. Pupils respond well to seeing how their settings compare with that of the original writer.
The final task is to ask pupils to take a character of their own and walk into or around a room that exemplifies their situation. By now, they should have a good repertoire of visual devices at their disposal, and the ability to sequence them in a meaningful way.
I find that by the time pupils have worked through these activities the standard of their prose has increased quite noticeably. In learning to visualise what they write about they learn to involve their readers in a dialogue. On an intellectual level they are asking the reader to complete the story by decoding information implied by visual details and, on an imaginative level, encouraging the reader to "see" the story as it happens.
This heightened sensitivity to the part played by readers in recreating texts results in writing that is lively, thoughtful, interesting and imaginative.
Tim Scott is English co-ordinator at St Michael's primary school, Highgate, north London
Toy Story 1 and Toy Story 2 (Disney) are a mine of interesting sequences, notably the different range of shots on display in the car chase at the end of Toy Story 1; and the reveal in the luggage-handling scene in the sequel.
Good establishing shots (a classic technique where the camera closes in on the setting to reveal the characters) can be found in the openings of Star Wars 1 and 4, Goodnight Mr Tom (ITV television), and Aladdin (Disney).
Mise-en-scene shots (where character is suggested by background detail) can be found in the first visit to the castle in Beauty and the Beast (Disney) and in the final sequence of Titanic.
Prince of Egypt (Dreamworks) contains an interesting scene in which Moses and Ramses are told off by Pharaoh while the Sphinx looks over Pharoah's shoulder. The animator's use of the background detail and lightshade to emphasise the king's power and the size of his empire can provoke interesting inferential work.
The animated film The Miracle Maker also uses symbolic detail during the scene where Jesus is tempted in the desert, and an interesting technique to highlight flashbacks.
Selected scenes from films for adult audiences can work very well, and also extends the approach into later key stages: The "I will sell this house today" scene in American Beauty contains nothing offensive and pupils do not need to know any background information to be able to unpack the metaphors in each shot. I would also recommend playing the commentary by director Sam Mendes on how he filmed the scene (available on the DVD version).
The ailing General Sherwood in Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep is an example of how students can write a scene where every detail fits with the character's condition or predicament, for example the sickly old man might reach out and stroke the leaves of a withering plant.
The scene in F Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon in which Monroe tells Boxley, the failing screenwriter, how to write "for the movies" sets a great tone for a writing session, but also provides a brilliant example of how to set a story in motion through the judicious placement of hooks.