English teacher, Alan Gillespie, shares his advice and resources on how to teach creative writing.
1. The rules of writing
I always tell students that there are no set rules for writing and they can write whatever they like. I don't subscribe to the notion that all good stories must have, for example, an attention-grabbing opening, a turning point, a twist at the end and an extended metaphor. Incorporating these into writing doesn't automatically mean a story works, and you will read wonderful writing follows none of these rules. Pupils should be aware of what they are, of course, and why and where they might choose to use them, but it shouldn't be prescriptive.
That said, there are two rules of writing that I encourage them to follow. These rules are: "show, don't tell" and "all adverbs must die". Not the most original rules, perhaps, but if kids can master them their writing becomes much more powerful.
For "show, don't tell", I display a selection of sentences that tell the reader something and ask the pupils to rewrite them in a way that shows the same information. For example, "the man was angry" could become, "the man clenched his fists and hissed beneath his breath". It's about unpacking the emotions and finding ways to let the reader see the story for themselves.
When teaching "all adverbs must die", I concentrate on the importance of giving the power to the verb. "I ran quickly" becomes "I sprinted". "I shouted loudly" becomes "I screamed". Once pupils realise the potential in this, they quickly kill adverbs and load the power of the action onto the verb.
Not the most original method I'll wager, but this is tried and tested. Pupils divide a page in their jotter and give each quarter the headings likes, dislikes, motivations and flaws. These need to be explained and discussed; I use Homer Simpson and Edward Cullen as models. What makes these complex and rich characters? What makes them get out of bed every morning? What stops them from achieving their ultimate goals in life? How would they react in various situations?
Once pupils have thought about these characters, I ask them to complete the page in their jotter with as many pieces of detail as they can for their own character. They swap with a partner and, using another person's character notes, write a monologue beginning with the line, "I lay away, unable to sleep, and all because…" What is this new character excited about, or scared of? What have they done or what will they have to do? This exercise is always busy, exciting and produces promising and complex pieces of writing.
3. Video clips
There's something a bit weird about the idea of being a writer; it's a vague, wishy-washy concept for students. They don't yet understand the hours of admin, self-promotion, editing, graft, grief and rejection that writers go through. Many pupls seem to think writers have great lives, are fabulously wealthy and sit around all day making up stories, all of which go on to be published without much bother at all. So I always like to find video clips of writers talking about writing, sharing the pain they've gone through, their thought processes and daily routines. If you can find video clips of a writer whose work you're using as a model or studying in class, then this can really help pupils to engage with their work.
YouTube is full of interviews with writers, recordings of book festival appearances and spoken-word performances. Being a Scottish teacher working in Scotland, I use of a suite of videos filmed and hosted by Education Scotland, which features a number of writers discussing their inspirations and motivations, how to create characters, how to write in genre and how to redraft. The videos are all around five minutes long which makes them excellent starter activities; you can find them here.
4. Narrative distance
This can be modelled in class by the teacher projecting their work onto the whiteboard. Most pupils assume that once they've chosen a narrative perspective and tense, their narrative voice will take care of itself. But with a little coaching and training, maybe we can hone their skills and abilities that much more.
Narrative distance is the proximity of a reader's experience to the character's thoughts. How close will we get? A close-up narrative would allow us to share the character's complete thought process, hear their heartbeat, feel their discomfort. A mid-distance narrative would give us key insights into pertinent thoughts the character has, but not bother us with every detail; we would see the character going into a coffee shop and have to surmise their mood and personality by observing how they react and interact. This is more of a film director's vantage point. And for a long-distance narrative, we only see the character from a distance – in the midst of other people, operating in a vast and complex society. We would come to understand them from the way they move through the world and the opinions that other characters have of them. It's a bird's eye view.
There is a lot in here, and mastering these narrative distances would take considerable effort and time. But if pupils could get to grips with them and become comfortable in zooming in and out on a story, then they will have developed some intricate and powerful writing abilities.
5. Story prompts
The oldest trick in the book, perhaps, but still a good one. Writing Prompts is an excellent website full of creative writing resources to use in class. I get pupils to choose one at random, and as they write, I write. It's important to set attainable goals for this – agree that by the end of five minutes everyone will have written 50 words, say, including the teacher.
Plug away at this and I always check the class for any strugglers at the end of regular intervals; if someone is stumped, I'll ask them what the problem is, what they tried to start writing at the beginning, what their last sentence is, and give them a couple of options for where to go next. By writing together it's possible to get a whole class writing happily, and at some stage they'll be content and confident enough with their stories to want to be let free to write without being asked for regular progress reports.