An over-explainer’s preamble
Literature is all about being human. I've been teaching a lot of narrative writing recently, and this is what I always come back to. Given that I've posted a couple of times about how I've been teaching narrative writing – and given that I'm on a bit of a modelling kick right now – I thought I'd share the stimulus, plan and model response I've used with my students recently.
Following it is a brief commentary on some of the things I've attempted to model in the response: I've included this to aid any teachers who might like to use this in their own classrooms. If you want to skip all that, and just want a model response to use with your classes, you can download it as a Word Document from the resources page.
Before I begin, I'd like to acknowledge that this response would not have existed without having been inspired by Jennifer Webb's (@funkypedagogy) excellent narrative writing CPD. Inspiration for post this today came from Andy (@__codexterous) on Twitter, who posted a fantastic model descriptive response yesterday.
Character idea (from J.W.):
- Former British army corporal.
- Served in Afghanistan.
- Struggled with PTSD since coming back home.
- Currently homeless. Struggling to find long term work.
- Comes from a loving Caribbean family in Brixton, but both parents have died. No siblings.
Title: Blue, Brilliant Blue
The fist to the face was as hard and fast as the landscape. It hit James with the full force of Brixton.
"Get up. Get UP."
He'd been on his way home. Every day, he had to make his way under this bridge. The bridge was a scar on the landscape, a laceration, a reminder that the city still had the old ways in its bones. And now, knees and palms and face in the city's dirt, he was being taught the old ways.
James didn't move. Now that it was happening, right now, for real, he wasn't able to move. He felt a tear slide down his nose and darken the gravel. He could not get up. He waited.
"Hey! Leave him!"
Gravel crunched underfoot. James turned his head, saw a gleaming pair of trainers kicking up dust. They stopped, right by him. He felt himself being pulled up. He faced the boy who hit him. He was wiry in that taut, streetwise way, like a loaded crossbow.
Whoever had just arrived was standing at James' side, but James couldn't look at him. The wiry boy's eyes flicked from James, then back. Then, without words, the boy backed away, before breaking into a run.
Now, another face appeared in James' vision. It was a full, pale face, with big blue eyes, topped with a thick dark cloud of hair. The eyes were pale blue and didn't seem to stay still.
This new boy stuck out his hand. "I'm Ryan." James took it.
His mother had told him that he'd grow into his uniform, and she had been right. Now he'd grown out of it again. The shirt pinched his arms and big shoulders. A scrawny kid, he was now big for his age.
"You're a gentle giant, James," Mr Foster was saying. "I dread to think what could have happened to that boy if it weren't for you."
Later, Ryan clapped him on the back. "Don't be letting this hero thing go to your head, now."
"Mum, I've got them."
"Who is this, calling here?"
"Mum, it's ... You know it's me."
"James, mum, it's ... Look, I've got them."
"Results, mum, results. Exam results. Mum?"
"Go on, then, I'm listening."
"Alright, look – it's a bit unexpected, okay?"
"Come on now, out with it."
"Yeah, I know ... it's just ..."
"If it's bad news, you just need to get it out."
"They're all A stars, mum. All of them. Mum? Mum. Are you crying?"
Throughout the whole passing-out parade, he hadn't been able to look at his mother. He knows where she's sitting. He knows what he'll see when he looks there. But he can't. Not yet. Because if he does the world will swim in his eyes and the image of her will blur and distort and he'll lose her sooner than he is.
He focusses on the steps. Left, right. He feels the weight of Ryan, next to him.
He thinks about how most of that thick hair has gone, the remainder fought under a beret.
He thinks about desert sands.
He thinks of home. Smells curling up from the kitchen. Bare feet slapping the stairs. Everyone's here. Sit. Pray. Eat.
And then he sees her. She is dabbing a handkerchief to her eyes. Her mouth his tight and set. The world contracts for a moment, a spotlight on just the two of them. Just the two of them, in the July sun, and the rest of the world in unknowable dark.
When it's all over, all he can think about is Ryan's eyes.
Five minutes before: two rockets spiral out of nowhere and take the first three humvees out. James and Ryan, at the rear, swerve off the track. Bullets patter the side of the vehicle. Ryan lets off a few rounds from the mounted gun, but soon ducks down. There is a beat, then more gunfire.
Four minutes before: a thunk, then a hiss. Yards away, the carcass of one of the humvees is hit again. James watches it burn, its heat rippling the desert sky. Ryan is screaming into the radio. They scramble out of the humvee and squat behind it. James leans out, returns fire.
Three minutes before: Ryan, trying to get a better angle to return fire. James has acid in his throat and gut. Pulls Ryan back. Looks into his eyes. It's too dangerous. Wait for the air support. Ryan shakes his head. It isn't coming.
Two minutes before: Ryan leans out from behind the humvee. Then there is warmth on James' face. A different warmth, a human warmth. James wipes blood from his face as Ryan falls backwards.
One minute before: He holds Ryan in his lap like a baby. The boy's lips judder, blanched. His eyes move, brilliant blue. There is a moment - a lightening - and he know that this is the point at which he must kiss Ryan's forehead, so he does.
And then the lips stop moving.
And then the eyes are still.
And Ryan exhales the world to silence.
Ryan's eyes. Blue, then white. Then melting in his skull.
A hand claws out of the earth.
His mother calls, like a misery of birdsong, from a yawning deep.
He gnashes awake, freezing and wet.
The alarm clock winks its mockery.
Next to him, Carli stirs and cradles her swollen belly, her brown legs hooked around a pillow.
He pads to the kitchen, goes to the cabinet. Some things, we keep them to ourselves. Keep the poison in. Keep them safe. Don't bring this to be bedroom. Keep it locked up tight.
When he drinks, it tastes of blood.
“And how did that make you feel, James?”
Sitting in this office. Everything pure-white, clean. But not him – no. He is filth, now. Touched by the dead, diseased hand of war.
No way back now.
“Do you hear me, James?” She won’t be able to help. Not with her plastic smile and her expensive shoes and her tasteful wall-art. She doesn’t know what he’s seen. She doesn’t know who he’s held.
“James? Are you okay?”
But don’t think about that. Don’t.
“James? I’m …”
She is standing in the kitchen, a sponge in her slack hand, dripping. “We have to talk about this.” She is brandishing a letter. "When were you planning to tell me about the job?"
He stands there, in the doorway, looking at her. Her hair is long, thick, dark. It coils about her throat.
"Well? You weren't going to tell me that you lost your temper. Again. And that this was the last straw. No? James? Can we talk about this, please?"
He coughs, the cough of frustration and avoidance. He shakes his head. “Nah. Not here. Not now. I’m not ready.”
She tosses the sponge into the sink. “Then when? You’re never ready. But after last night, don’t you …”
He comes further in. His arms are moving with a fragile defensive wildness. “Look, Carli, I told you …”
“But you have to …”
“Carli, seriously, I’m warning you …”
This hits home and she stops and stares at him.
He looks down at himself. His hands are on her throat, and he doesn’t know how they got there.
“James.” Her eyes shine. “Please don’t.”
He cannot move his hands.
“Not again. Please.”
He awakes to a scream of torchlight.
"Come on, now. Move along. You can't stay here." The face is shrouded in dark under the peak of its cap. "You'll have to go somewhere else."
He gropes around in the dark of the doorway for his things.
And some pictures he can't look at.
This morning, a woman spat in his face.
“Change. Spare some change. Spare some. Spare.”
The crackling cold of winter. Ice in bones. Bones ice now. All ice. All the time. Hardening and cracking. Face tight, raw. No voices in return. From here, the world is a rush of feet, flipped sideways. The hard stamp and stomp of shoes. The glittering of ice. Christmas lights, refracted.
Yes. Warmer now.
A face, half-remembered, comes into a view. The eyes are full and a deep, deep brown. It is warm. “James,” the face says. “Come home.”
Home. He can smell it. All the smells of home. The stew, bubbling in the kitchen. The happy yelp of voices on the stairs. Everyone rushing to the table.
“Everyone’s here, James. Look.” Your mother, James. And it is warmer now. The warmth of home. Your mother’s face. She smiles. She stretches out her hand. “Come home, come home, my boy. My boy. Come home.”
And then, from behind her: a flash of blue eyes.
Something shifts. You leave something behind.
And you go.
The chief inspiration for this was an image from Jennifer Webb's 'Think Like a Writer' CPD, a biographical sketch based on the image, and the time-hopping structure. In this structure, one considers the chief events of the character's life; by placing them in sequence, a story is told. When discussing this structure with my students, I asked them to consider what sort of moments from a life might make the cut. In short, the best moments are those that are the making of the character: triumphs or tribulations. Where do they learn and grow? Where do they struggle? In sketching out my initial plan – which I modelled to the students – this is what I was looking out for. You'll notice that I have changed the narrative since planning – this is natural, and to be encouraged. I realised that the episodes I changed would have clogged and cluttered the narrative in its original form, and I wanted to keep things pithy and pure.
In regard to other aspects of construction, I wanted a visual that could tie things together. This is key when writing using the time-hopping structure – one has to take care not to simply state events; one must elevate the life to the realms of the abstract if one is to say bigger things about humanity. This, I'd argue, is what the essence of fiction is about – exploring what it means to be a human being. So I picked a simple, visual motif: a pair of blue eyes. This is partly because the image universally evocative, blue has pleasing connotations, and it also allows me to give a little tip of the hat to Toni Morrison. As you'll see – the motif comes to represent James's greatest loss, and allows the story to become a meditation on the nature of loss, among other things. That, at least, was the intention, as far as I'm aware. I'm only the writer and cannot be held responsible for everything!
What else? The decision to subtitle the episodes came late in the process. I can't pin down exactly why I chose to do it save to create a sense of – paradoxically – unification between the episodes, but also a jarring disconnect between the two. Why? Short answer is that it felt right. I wanted to introduce some percussive discomfort, because it would serve the story. Everything has to, or we're done for. There was also something quite sad about being able to summarise a life in eleven words, but that is what happens. That is how we experience the lives of others: we slide down the surface of things. Fiction is our best chance of breaking through.
Stylistically speaking, I wanted to experiment a bit with the delivery of each episode. Each one has a different 'trick', which I suppose is why I think this is a useful model. Consider the intimacy of the unattributed, raw dialogue in 'Results' compared to the terse declarative stab of 'Spit'. The form serves the function. The most obvious trick comes in 'Exhale', which uses a countdown to create tension in reverse order.
Finally, I wanted this to be sad. Sad is a rubbish word, but I'm sticking with it. I mean, though, that I wanted it to feel poignant. I wrestle, as David Foster Wallace pointed out about himself when writing, with my own 'inner sap' – I am a sentimental writer, and I worry awfully about edging ever closer to cliché and melodrama. This used to result in me stripping the work of any overt emotion until I was left with blank, postmodern, Ellis-like irony – to quote the Manic Street Preachers, it was "all surface and no feeling." A big step for me has been allowing the emotion back in. It increases the likelihood I'll look silly, but I need only remind myself that that ship sailed a lifetime ago, on the first day of my NQT year.
A final twist
I hope that the response is useful in your classrooms, and that the commentary might help you to discuss this with your students. If not, I enjoyed writing it, so there's meaning enough for me. If you do use it in the classroom, a fun thing to do might be to give students the story in its original form and told backwards, and get them to evaluate which way is better. I've included both versions as word documents on the Resources page.
Enjoy what's left of the holiday – and get in touch with me on Twitter: @curtaindsleep.
Thank you for reading,