21 December 2021

Using Structure to Plan a Story for GCSE English

How many times have you had a student, pen in hand, poised over a blank and unspoiled piece of paper, look up at you and plaintively say “I don’t know where to start!”? Me too.

It’s not that they don’t have the words – they plainly do as otherwise you wouldn’t spend half the lesson telling (commanding, imploring, encouraging – the verb is interchangeable) half the class to be quiet.

Joking aside, it isn’t about a lack of language or vocabulary (or writer’s block as some of them insist!)  – it’s about structure.  They are thinking too much about content and not enough about organisation.

Jeremy Bentham once said: “Stretching his hand up to reach the stars, too often man forgets the flowers at his feet”.  We must forgive the very gender-specific language used by this pre-eminent eighteenth-century British philosopher and social reformer – but he wasn’t wrong.  In the case of GCSE English, language is “the stars” and structure “the flowers”.

Before you close the tab with a tut and move on, let me explain a little further.  Language is – or at least seems to me – hugely over-represented in GCSE English.  There’s a veritable tsunami of language for students to get to grips with – whether it’s in the twenty marks specifically targeted at the way that writers use language over the two papers – or the texts that must be read and understood to respond to Section A questions - not to mention the texts that students must themselves write for the final question of each paper.

Structure, on the other hand, is gifted a paltry 8 marks over the two papers – at least in terms of it being specifically targeted in a question.

So naturally, when planning a text themselves, it is no surprise that many students start thinking about the language they will use rather than the structure on which they will depend if their creative writing is going to hold together.

What underpins and enhances any writer’s use of language is the structure that is, almost invisibly, put in place before the writing even begins.  I say “almost invisibly” because when students read a text there is no evidence presented to them of how it was originally planned – and because of that it looks to all intents and purposes that structure is something that miraculously happens as a text is written.  Most writers will thoroughly plan a short story or novel and the plan focuses rather more on structure than language.  When the planning of structure is at the forefront of a text, language often follows like a little puppy happily wagging its tail.  The same cannot be said the other way around.  Structure informs language – language rarely informs structure.

So, when my students plan a short story, I always ask them to plan the structure of their text first and foremost.  As such, in terms of the "Content and Organisation" that markers are looking for, it focuses more on the latter. We might start with something as simple as a bullet list of what will happen in the story – and that certainly gives us the bones of the story.  Yet to put flesh on the bone, students must know some of the techniques that writers use in order to put something together.  Fortunately, they have the terminology around “structural features” already in place – thanks to that question in Paper 1 worth “a paltry 8 marks”.  Thank you!

However, connecting the dots between how professional writers structure a text and how students might structure their own can be time-consuming, but it reaps many rewards.

I will give you an example – and forgive me if I am just about to present my metaphorical grandmother with an egg to suck.  To keep this post short – I will look at the beginning of a piece of creative writing. If you would like me to expand further about where to go from there (that is, the second paragraph onwards) please let me know in the comments.

Short stories can start in many ways – but this is GCSE English and I want my students to walk into the exam with a technique.  After all, they only have 45 minutes for this task. I want them to assuredly know how to start their piece of creative writing – I don’t want them sitting there for ten minutes pondering their opening. So, I first teach them what I call the “classic” way of starting a piece of creative writing of any length – and this itself can take a number of attempts to “sink in”.

I call it “Time, Place, Protagonist”. Or TPP.  OK, seriously not TPP. They already have too many acronyms and initialisms and not just in English.

I tend to show the students some examples of this – and my two “go to guys” are Orwell and Greene.  There is a chance that the students may have heard of them (although both are white, male and dead and so don’t exactly fit in with my attempts to decolonize anything).  However, they were both masters of the “classic” structured opening.

Here’s Orwell – the first lines of 1984.

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions…”

Time, place, and protagonist are all introduced within the first 16 words.

Here’s Greene – the first lines of Brighton Rock.

“Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him. With his inky fingers and his bitten nails, his manner cynical and nervous, anybody could tell he didn’t belong - belong to the early summer sun, the cool Whitsun wind off the sea, the holiday crowd.”

Green introduces us to the place and protagonist in the first 8 words. The time – “early summer” comes a little later but it’s there, nonetheless.

I always show these two short quotes to my classes – and will always say “if these two can do it, so can we.  I present the adoption of this technique as an act of theft. As such, stealing this “classic” structural device is a great way to start any piece of creative writing – but I don’t stop there.

If you notice, both writers also use a “hook” – something to catch the reader’s attention.  Orwell tells us the clocks were striking thirteen – which in our world doesn’t happen and this tells the reader that Smith is somewhere… alternative, not belonging to us.  Greens gives us Hale – and the mysterious “they” who intend to kill him.  This is a great hook because of course it makes the reader want to read on (aaaagh!).  Scrub that.  This is a great hook because the reader immediately wants to know why Hale is to be murdered and who “they” are. Phew - that’s better!

Am I straight-jacketing my learners by asking them to structure their text so that “Time, Place, Protagonist” appears in the first few sentences? Probably but I always remember the 45 minutes they have to prove to an anonymous marker that they can produce organised content in the shape of fiction.  Moreover, in one fell swoop it almost eradicates the plaintive squeals of “I don’t know where to start…” Not only that, but because the students know how to structure their opening, they get the opportunity to think about a “hook” for the reader.  As I said before, language often follows like a puppy happily wagging its tail – as does sentence structure and punctuation.

Talent borrows but genius steals.  I recently set a writing task for my students: “Write a story about a student who is going to be late for an important exam.”

This is what I got from one of them…

“Smith was aware before he got out of the shower that he was going to be late for his exam. With his wet hair but dry ankles everyone in his house could tell he woke up late: late on the most important day of his life.” 

 As you can see, it’s a pretty straightforward lift from Brighton Rock.  There is even a nod to 1984 with the protagonist being called Smith (although we have a learner with the first name of Smith in the same class as this particular student - I always tell them to use names of people they know!).

This post is probably as long as it should be.  I hope I have shown how planning structure can be a powerful ally to learners when they are asked to write a creative text.  Knowing the structure they are going to use also allows students to think more about language.

So how do I advise my students to structure the next part of their story – what other “flowers at his feet” might be used to structure a piece of creative writing for GCSE English and how does this help with language content?

Please leave a comment below if you would like me to follow up on this!  Here’s a new video which incorporates a lot of what I will say “next time”.