Use the camera to focus interest;English

11th June 1999 at 01:00
The literacy strategy is vague about how to teach fiction writing, but Tim Scott offers a few visual clues

The relationship between masculinity and literacy is under pressure at the moment, so I was not surprised when the subject of boys' underachievement at key stage 2 came up at a recent conference for primary English co-ordinators.

The consensus was that during silent reading, boys were most often to be seen reaching for the non-fiction shelves, and the conclusion drawn was that if boys prefer to read non-fiction, then they would prefer to write non-fiction. It was suggested that boys should be pushed towards taking the non-fiction option in their SATs writing papers because it was marked more objectively, and that the writing of non-fiction had the edge over fiction as the techniques could be taught more systematically.

This is illogical. To push non-fiction as an easy option is insulting to those who write it and those who read it. Focusing boys' attention on non-fiction because they are perceived to be weak in reading and writing fiction is the equivalent of teaching more geography to children who are weak at history.

The idea that masculinity and fiction are nervous bedfellows is ridiculous. Feminist literary critics of both sexes have been using the canonical dead white male as a punch-bag for decades.

We need to look elsewhere to explain the disparity in male and female performance. It could be that girls have a greater affinity for novels as their social and emotional development seems to out-pace that of boys, but one page of Norman Mailer or Ernest Hemingway would suggest that emotional complexity and successful fiction writing do not go hand in hand.

There are two remaining options: we must find out why boys are not always keen on the fiction which is available to them; and we must look at the ways in which we teach the reading and writing of fiction - something that the National Literacy Strategy is vague about.

The one recurring motif in my teaching of writing is not the model provided by writers, but by film directors. This genre shift is useful in filling in the gaps in the introductionbuild-upproblemsolution structure.

In their introductions, I ask the children to begin by showing the main character going about their usual business at home or a familiar setting. This can be backed up by telling them to visualise the movement of an imaginary film camera through the scene. A good example is the beginning of Forrest Gump, where the camera starts with a shot of a white feather falling through a blue sky and then follows this feather downwards until it lands in the central character's book.

One of the oldest dictums in creative writing is to "show" rather than "tell" - give a picture and let the reader infer the rest. An emphasis on visualising what they are going to write helps children move away from bland facts ("She felt sad") to more intricate description ("Her eyes were rimmed with pink and she exhaled a long sigh"). The key question is always "How are you going to show that?". In writing like this, the children are practising inference and deduction.

Getting pupils to strive for a good balance of description, action and dialogue is a struggle. While most are able to produce conversations and plots, writing descriptive passages presents difficulties. Some simple scaffolding in relation to characterisation and settings can help and, as always, the children should be encouraged to visualise what they are going to write before they do it.

Categories for detailed settings might include: weather; light; space; the senses and background characters. Ask the children to write descriptions of familiar places - supermarkets, bakeries, airports and bus stations all seem to work well. When they are confident in their use of these, they can plan stories using them. In relation to the senses, ask them to shut their eyes and open them again on the count of three, and then share the two impressions which struck them first. It is worth emphasising the importance of sight and sound. Smells, also, are intimately bound up with memory. Think of the way that you respond to the smell of hot bread or a freshly-cut orange...

Children's characters often wander about in a world populated by three people: themselves, their best friend, and their worst enemy. The quality of writing can improve considerably if this world is stretched to include background figures who are characterised in simple ways.

Dickens is the master at creating memorable, if grotesque, background characters, and pupils might emulate his tendency to choose one phrase or detail and exaggerate it. (A shop-keeper with teeth the colour of a pound coin or a nose as red as the tomatoes in her windows is a shop-keeper who gives a story added interest.) Short exchanges with such figures heighten the reality of the narrative.

The creation of more vivid central characters also seems to pose problems; even when their characters are thought out in some detail, children seem to have difficulty in using their planning within their stories. This may be because most of their stories are not driven by character development but by plot. One way around this is to acclimatise children to using characterisation as an inherent part of dialogue and events.

Ideas for the delineation of characters' speech might include the use of accents (which also provides many opportunities to use apostrophes to show dropped 'h's etc), the use of ellipses to show pauses, the recurrence of favourite phrases or words ("innit") and the use of expressive adverbs ("She growled aggressively...").

Drama is the best way to introduce these objectives as it clears away distractions such as description and spellings.

It is also worth pointing out that people move while they talk, that they react to each other as instinctively as they react to events. Invest in a cheap guide to body language and share some of the basic vocabulary - such as rubbing the back of the neck to show annoyance.

The introduction of simple moves such as backing off or scratching the head can make a real impact on the narrative. Again, this can be introduced through playscripts as stage directions provide a space which cries out to be filled with characters' reactions.

Descriptions of central characters can be difficult to insert into a narrative, and the key is to give a description whenever a new character is introduced.

Pointers here might include one or two visual details referring to anything unusual about the character's physique or facial features, the selection of names and clothes which indicate the character's personality or, even better, the selection of a name and clothes which are the opposite of the character's personality. (A jumping off point for this can be found in Ian McEwan's The Daydreamer in the chapter dealing with bullying.) There is very little in this which is new, but the point is that fictional prose can be taught as systematically as non-fiction. And this systematic approach is not the opposite of spontaneous creativity; form rarely acts as a barrier to the imagination.

Tim Scott is English co-ordinator at St Michael's primary school, Highgate, North London

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