Creative writing is an integral section of the GCSE English Language exam, but it is an area where many students develop blocks. Just as some students decide early on they are “rubbish” at Maths, so some students feel that they have to be either scientific or creative, they cannot possibly be both. I come across a lot of students who excel in Maths and the Sciences, but somewhere along the way have decided they are not creative. However, with the right guidance, all students have the potential to write a compelling story. The examiners know that they are marking the work of sixteen year olds, and they do not expect perfection. They do however want to see a sense of development and ambition in the writing, and this is where students may benefit from some pointers in how to do this.
The Initial Idea - Using Others for Inspiration
A lot of students do not realise that they are able to use the ideas of others in their creative writing pieces. Whilst plagiarism is considered very serious, it is highly unlikely that they are going to recite another person’s writing word for word. If there is a story that inspires them, they are welcome to use that in their work. For example, I had a student who wanted to use the concept of Narnia, and had their character walk through a doorway into another world. This little bit of borrowed inspiration was enough to develop their confidence, and get them started with their writing piece.
If your student is not a great reader, or shuts down when you mention books, then film is another great stimulus for creative writing. Using a sequence from a film means that he/she has something to visualise in their mind as they are writing, which can help protect them against panicking and going blank. Similarly, some students respond really well to images, and this is why the exam boards sometimes actually use these in the exam questions.
Ask the Right Questions
Many students skip over the planning stages of creative writing, and try to start their piece too soon, before they have actually thought the story through in enough detail. Asking questions is an important step to help them shape and develop their story. Students can be a bit resistant in this stage, but it is important to help them change their mindset and persevere.
For example, a lot of students go straight in with a first person narrative, but they have not actually thought through who that first person narrator is or where the story takes place. For example, a student may say that the story is set in Scotland, but that the narrator is them. Is it a teenage boy living in Bexley? Does that match up with the story? Why is a teenage boy from Bexley exploring a haunted house in Scotland? They may then answer that this student is on a school trip that has gone wrong, and they have wandered off from the rest of the group. Just by taking a few minutes to ask the question, they have come up with the interesting basis for a story. It is important to know the exposition (the background information), even if the story is not necessarily going to start there. For example, in the story just mentioned, the action may not begin with the student getting on the coach in Bexley. It could begin in Scotland, or even the moment the student enters the house. However, the writer needs to know that the narrator does not live in Scotland, and is a long way away from home, as this will inform the events in the rest of the story.
Make the Key Decisions
The two big decisions that your child needs to make when they are producing a piece of creative writing are perspective and tense. The majority of writing is either in first or third person (second is rare and best avoided). It does not matter which one is chosen, but each perspective will have a different effect. First-person means we are going to see the world through the eyes of one person. It is likely that we are also going to be connected emotionally to this one character, and the writer may even take advantage of our complete dependence on this character’s perspective. First-person narrators can be unreliable, perhaps leading to us to form incorrect or biased assumptions about other characters and events. Third-person can give us a much wider overview of what is happening in the story, and means we can jump between different characters and be in several different people’s heads throughout the narrative. Both have advantages and disadvantages, but the important thing is to make a considered choice and then stick to it.
Similarly, your child needs to decide if they are writing in the past or the present tense. Like perspective, you will get different effects, and when practising, your child should play about with both tenses. However, when he/she is writing an examination piece, or an assessment for school, they must make sure they do not switch the tenses around. It can be very frustrating for an examiner to have to keep up with a text where the tense is constantly changing all the time, and it has a highly negative effect on the fluency of a piece of writing.
Avoid the Clichés
For some students who struggle to get started with ideas, they should go with whatever lights them up and makes them feel inspired. However, if your child is pushing for a top grade, then they need to move beyond cliché. This means ideas that have already been used many times in writing. So a horror story where the characters are chased through the woods, or a romance story where the boy and girl hate each other but are secretly in love. Reading widely will actually help with this, as they will see how writers constantly reinvent ideas and come up with fresh perspectives in order to avoid hashing out the same tired stories all the time.
Practice Set Pieces
Practice is absolutely vital for writing success. The most able students should be regularly writing new stories, experimenting with different ideas and techniques. Grade Nine students are constantly trying out new ideas, always striving to make their writing better. But for students who struggle and tend to find themselves overwhelmed by the writing process, it may help to have set pieces of writing learnt off by heart, that they are able to draw upon when needed. These can be tweaked in the exam in order to match the question, but it means students always know that they have something to write. Examiners are not too worried about whether a story matches the specific demands of the question, and students often get unnecessarily stressed about this. They will reward the content a student has produced in the timed conditions, and it is far better to produce a piece of writing that slightly deviates from the brief, than to produce nothing at all.
The writing sections of the examinations are over-looked, but it is an area where all students can pick up a significant amount of marks. Story-telling is an innate ability that is within all of us. Many students shut off, and believe this is something they cannot learn to become better at. In fact with just a few confidence-boosting techniques, they can find their inner creativity and produce a compelling narrative that can really boost their English results.
If you are looking for further support for your child, Bright Sky Tutoring offers a range of one to one sessions, small group classes and workshops that can help. To find out more, get in touch at email@example.com.