9th February 2001 at 00:00
Sandy Norris looks at how pupils can work in groups to produce stories with two or three narrative viewpoints

What makes an ideal post-SATs activity for Year 9 students who are tired, in a state of anticlimax and have had enough of exam practice work, yet have to fill their time constructively? Last year I experimented with collaborative story writing, with pupils working in pairs or threes. The students excelled themselves as well as gaining a great deal of pleasure; it also produced an excellent display for our October open day. The project was tightly constructed, provided a totally different style of work compared with the serious study for SATs, was imaginative and encouraged the students to be proactive, and in our case had the natural deadline of half-term. It also involved writing skills identified within the requirements in the new national curriculum The idea was to advance students' conscious handling of ideas, vocabulary and syntax. It was definitely an essential ingredient that they should enjoy the writing, but they should also become more aware of how a story is structured and be actively involved in the planning of their work. By sharing the construction of a story, they would see the need to communicate - and even more importantly - to plan; without planning, the story would not happen.

As the students were sets 1 and 2 in Year 9, the task was made challenging as well as exciting, but there is scope for teachers catering for less able sets. Ground rules had to be met within the space of the two weeks, although our students were allowed to finish off during half-term.

Each person would be author to two chapters, so a three-person group would produce a story of six chapters, a two-person group would produce a story of four chapters. Each chapter should be approximately 400 words. This would help to focus two types of pupil: the reluctant writer and the prolific writer. The whole story would be planned out chapter by chapter and the character descriptions agreed on before anyone could start writing their own piece.

Writers would need to know what each character looked like and what each character's temperament was to be like, otherwise we might find dark-haired sulky Samantha slamming out of the sitting room in chapter two and blonde-haired, blue-eyed, gentle, never-lose-her-rag Samantha helping her Mum in chapter four.

Each member of the group had to write in the first person as one of the characters, so in a two-person group there would be two viewpoint characters and in a three-person group there would be three viewpoints on offer. Lower ability students would not have to be involved in viewpoint writing; their stories could be restricted to third-person narrative, but each person would still tell two chapters.

A crucial decision students had to make was whether to write their stories in the present or the past tense, building either immediacy or reflection into their style of writing. Quite a lot of discussion was necessary at this point to ensure that they understood the implications. Another consideration was how to structure the progress of their stories. Should these be created in a linear style, where each successive chapter continued the story from the point where the previous chapter left off, or should characters each tell their side of the action from their own viewpoint. So if, for instance, the story involved a bank robbery, in a linear style chapter one might be told through the eyes of the potential robber as he or she plans and executes the crime. This chapter might end with the robber firing a shot at the cashier. Chapter two could then be written by the cashier, who takes up the story as she or he hears the shot fired. They would provide the details of how the robber escaped or was detained.

This same story written in a non-linear mode might entail chapter one: the robber enters the bank, threatens customers, judges the right moment to make his move to the safe and fires a shot to stop the cashier pressing the help button. In this mode, chapter two would then tell (covering the same time span) how the cashier sees a strange man enter the bank and move tentatively until he has his back to the wall. The cashier realises with a shock that the stranger has produced a gun and is threatening the customers. The cashier reaches across to press the help button, but suddenly a shot is fired... end of chapter. The first option would allow the students to travel further in their action, but the second style would give greater involvement in the characters' thoughts and feelings. Our own groups opted for a fairly even mix.

A last decision to be made was the choice of genre to emulate: mystery, fantasy, science fiction, adventure or even romance. Students need to be shown the tools for this clearly. With my Year 9s I led class discussions on some of the structuring devices they should try out. Ranging from the style of television's Home and Away to Charles Dickens's work, we tried to define the tradition of "cliff-hanger" writing, where watchers or readers are kept "on the edge of their chairs". We talked about the way a writer will feed in enough details, but not too many, and where the writer sows the seeds for what is coming next without resolving the denouement too soon.

This naturally led on to how and where to start your story. The students were to start the action of the story "when the kettle begins to boil", in other words, once the action has already started and the tension is beginning to build. Many groups coped amazingly well with this technique. One group of three boys opened their first chapter with their characters in the middle of the ocean in their small fishing boat, lost, engine-less and with a radio that would only let them hear the onshore radio operator. Some error in their equipment prevented them from sending out any messages. What made this even more full of tension was the fact that they could hear the person on shore calling out for any information on a lost boat: their boat. Two people were on the boat while the third viewpoint character was the radio operator on shore and unable to make contact.

Groups also tried to "show" detail rather than to "tell" it. This is sophisticated, but helps avoid half-page descriptions of what a character looks like while the pace of the story drops away. Instead, the idea was that they should slip small amounts of detail in alongside the action, for example:

"Fiona flicked her silky blonde hair out of her face as she pounded down the cliff path. With the benefit of her long legs she easily beat Sean to the beach."

Rather than: "Fiona had silky, blonde hair, she was very tall and her legs were long. She and Sean decided to run down to the beach and Fiona got there first."

Some of the weaker writers in set 2 had problems combining descriptive writing with dialogue. They seemed to become so involved in living their stories that the whole unit became an extended conversation. This is perhaps a sign of their unconscious use of the cartoon style they enjoy. In comics there is no narrative, only dialogue. These students see the action in their minds, yet find no need to translate it into words. One way of tackling this limitation was to read someone else's chapter, then their own, and think about the difference.

Students with smiling and triumphant faces finally presented their finished "books", some wordprocessed, some handwritten, but all remarkably organised with effective cover, "blurb" and quotations from reviewers of their work.

Sandy Norris teaches English and is head of Year 10 at Brentwood County High School, Essex


En3 Writing Composition. Writing to imagine, explore, entertain:

* 1a Pupils should draw on their experience of good fiction

* 1b Use imaginative vocabulary

* 1c Exploit choice of language and structure to achieve particular effects and appeal to the reader

Planning and drafting. Pupils are taught to:

* 2a Plan, draft, redraft and proof read their work on paper and on screen

* 2b Judge the extent to which any of these processes are needed in pieces of writing

* 2c Analyse critically their own and others' writing

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