The Schoolgirl with the Octopus in her Bag: Teaching GCSE Narrative Writing

It’s the start of May and Year 11 aren’t having any fun.

The Schoolgirl with the Octopus in her Bag: Teaching GCSE Narrative Writing
Photo by Masaaki Komori / Unsplash

It’s the start of May and Year 11 aren’t having any fun.

Not that they’re supposed to be having any fun. We are knee deep in the very serious business of preparing them for assessments, and they wouldn’t be having any fun were exams going ahead as normal. That said, there’s a resigned fatalism in the air like flatulent fog. Let’s sit here and see what we absorb.

Thing is, you can’t absorb when what you’ve got to do is write. That’s right, Year 11, I say, after bounding in, you’re telling stories today. One of them looks at me as though I’ve mistaken him for a Year 7. Year 11s don’t write stories.

But they do. And we did. And this is how I taught writing to my Year 11s today.

Before I started, I told my students these universal truths:

  1. You will think your writing is bloody rubbish.
  2. It might be, but the fact that you know it is means you know at least in part what good writing is, even if you can’t do it yet.
  3. The real problem is thinking that terrible work is good. There’s no saving those people.
  4. We all have a voice in our head that tells us that we suck. Mine likes to play me embarrassing moments from my life (and there are legion) when I’m just trying to get some bloody sleep, please. They need to know that the voice is there and ignore it. This is half the battle. Or maybe more.

And then: Good writing must make the reader:

  • Laugh: we must be entertained. Be clever, funny or thrilling, but make me entertained!
  • Cry: I need to care about your character; if I don’t, I’m going to stop reading.
  • Wait: there’s going to be a secret that the character dreads you finding out. Let us know that it exists, but don’t tell us what it is until the last moment. Or whip out Chekhov’s gun.

All story writing includes the following modes, which are all important for their own reasons:

  • Narrative: the telling of the story. Forget ‘show, don’t tell.’ Sometimes you need to tell. This isn’t poetry, and even poetry tells sometimes.
  • Descriptive: the trick to this is to tag it in. Don’t have big lumps of it; this isn’t 1840. Also, a rule I have is that if something is really big, like someone getting shot, I under-describe, because the reader’s imagination is more vivid and interesting than my writing. But we should stop and describe the way sunlight hits the dewdrop as the sun rises. That’s awe. The writer’s job is, as Patrick Kavanagh wrote in ‘The Hospital’, to ‘snatch out of time the passionate transitory.’ Blink and you’ll miss it. Writers don’t miss it.
  • Dialogue: this isn’t just what is said, but how, when and to whom. It needs to either reveal character or advance the plot. It’s hyper-stylised and needs a lesson all to itself. It’s hard. Less is more.

After all that, we worked through this process:

It all starts with character

Straight away, I reminded them / tell them that there’s no story without character. Does this need saying? Maybe. A lot of their experience of character is from blockbuster films and, while this post is in no way a screed decrying such films, what’s in those films — or, at least, what we perceive to be in those films, isn’t character, it’s an actor. Or, if it’s not the actor we notice, it is a character, but it’s a character so ubiquitous and bigger than the movie that they aren’t a helpful analogue for students when they have to write a short story in an hour. No: what we’re talking about are literary characters, and students don’t have much experience with them. Literary characters are intricate little intimacies, and here’s how I told the students to think about them:

They have to be ordinary, but also extraordinary.

This is crucial. A character has to be somewhat ordinary or we can’t connect with them. But they can’t be completely ordinary or they’re just us, and we’re already us. We want a character who is us, but who reaches for the stars. I hate myself for it, but the example I gave for this paradox was Harry Potter. It’s a good example: he’s a pretty ordinary boy in appearance, temperament and ability, but he’s got a whacking great scar shaped like a lightning bolt on his head. And in the mine of this scar is the diamond of story: the story of a boy who should have been destroyed, and wasn’t. The ordinary connects us; the extraordinary makes us follow.

You need to be able to see them in your head.

Maybe this is just me, but when I write fiction, I see what I want to write down as a film in my head. The writing is my attempt to get the film out of my head and into someone else’s. If I can’t see my character, I can’t do that. So I told the students to profile their character (basic biographical details will do) and then give the character a distinguishing physical feature. We’re not talking peg legs; it can be a mole on the upper lip, or a whitened scar. It doesn’t really matter; it’s the act of imagining that matters. Once you’ve got the feature, you’ve placed it on a face. Now you can see your character.

They are because of who they were.

If we’re not careful we can spend ages on this bit. Students need to understand that people are made by their pasts. So are characters. There will be something in that character’s past that has shaped who they are now. It will almost definitely be traumatic. This helps the students shape who the character is in the present. This comes into play more later in the process; for now, limit it to one event.

Names.

David Lodge said that names always signify something, even if it’s ordinariness. He’s right. Arthur Birling sounds rich in the same way that Eva Smith sounds poor; Magwitch sounds furtive in the same way that Pip sounds tiny. Pick a name that fits a character. Or don’t. There’s no need to name them if you don’t need to. Anonymity can imply universality: look at the Man and the Boy from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road — it’s about fathers and sons, plural. Get all Paul Auster about it and name your character after a colour. Write a sad domestic and call the couple He and She. Just don’t spend ages picking a name.

Find their story.

Once you’ve got a decent sense of who your character is, you can work out what their story is. I got the students to write down the 7 major events in their character’s life: the only other requirement was that they had to span the whole life, childhood to senescence and death. Once they had a life, they had to decide what part of it was worth telling. Was it the whole life: would they tell it in fragments? Or was it just one episode? Or something in-between? Whatever the answer, they’ve got to commit.

A story is a body.

Here’s an approach to planning a story I’ve had some success with: I use the human body, thus:

  1. Head: the themes / ideas / message of your story
  2. Heart: the emotions we want to evoke from our readers (this will link to the themes above)
  3. Skeleton: how’s it all held together? You can get all Todorov or whatever with this if you like, but I like BEGINNING, MIDDLE and END. Too simple? Tell students that we need to see the character in their comfort zone, then we need to take them out of it, they need to struggle, fail, then succeed. (Or fail, if you’re a sadist, like me and Tennessee Williams.) Dan Harmon’s story circles also work here, but sometimes it’s best just to quote Vonnegut: “Every character should want something, even if it’s a glass of water.”
  4. Muscle: the action. What are the exciting bits? What is going to thrill the reader? Remind them that good writing can make two children playing snap feel like a car chase. Conversely, bad writing can make a car chase feel like tooth decay.
  5. The skin. This is about making the writing pretty and showing off the skills. Perspective? Style? Are we going florid and grandiose or spare and terse? What suits the story you’re going to tell? Get subversive: tell the Hobbit like Raymond Chandler or the Kama Sutra like Julia Child.

Make yourself start.Get that first sentence on the page. “But sir …” On the page. How do we start?

  1. Describe an object and get a character to interact with it. Maybe it’s a tattered book that your character won’t let go of. Or maybe a football sails through the air, over everyone else’s heads, but when it lands at your character’s feet he does some magic. Think about film and what the camera does: it takes us to to the main character.
  2. Dialogue. Two people are having an argument. There are no dialogue tags. We feel like we’re eavesdropping and because we’re human (and possibly British) we love it. Then, after a few lines, fill the reader in with some good old fashioned telling.
  3. Place: describe where we are and then put the character in it. The place should relate to the character in a fun symbolic way. Lonely? Have them wandering through a forest. Depressed? Storm clouds are brewing overhead.

There are loads of ways. I was doing all of this alongside them: making my own character and planning. Along the way, I talked about what was in my head. The most important part of modelling is them hearing how an expert thinks. And I’m the closest thing to an expert they’ve got.

I’m going to shoot you through the head.

We have to get a move on, Y11. Imagine there’s a gun to your head. Now WRITE or DIE. I might have shouted this a few times. Our classroom doors are open. One of the cleaners stifled a yelp. Undeterred, I urged them on.
The problem is, the more you’re stuck, the more the stuck-ness begets more stuck-ness: it grows exponentially. So getting on with it is the only way. You only get good at doing the thing by doing the thing. So do the thing. Y11 duly got to work, biros waggling.

If you’re stuck, put an octopus in your bag.

One biro wasn’t waggling. She’d done nothing and was so far into the “I don’t know what to write” doldrums that she thought there was no saving her.
I told her to write about a girl, sitting in an English exam, who couldn’t think of what to write. I had to start each sentence for her. It went something like this:

  • The girl was sitting in the classroom. It was cold and still. She couldn’t write anything. She wanted to, but she had bigger problems. The biggest one was the octopus in her bag.

That last sentence did it. Now we had a story. We had a story because we had questions. Why is there an octopus in her bag? Who put it there? Will it escape?

None of this is groundbreaking or original. But it got Year 11 moving and thinking. It felt joyful, to think about writing and to do it. It felt freeing. My perspective is biased, naturally, but some of these things seemed to work. So I’m going to keep doing them, refining them each time. Maybe someone reading this will find them useful.

If in doubt, put an octopus in a bag.

And write its way out.