Once students have one or two pieces of reasonably polished imaginative writing, it is possible to encourage a sense of emotional distance with their work. This makes it possible to explore vocabulary, characterisation and different perspectives – essentially, to have fun with writing – that may lead to a deeper understanding of how their work could be improved.
Recently, my HSC class completed a series of activities designed to free up their ability to write. These were drawn from the Macmillan publication HSC English: Discovery Creative Writing Workbook by Anna McHugh, and from my own experience as a writer in workshops for the National Writing Project, UK.
Lesson 1 – Activity 3: A Character Discovers
From pages 23-25, students are asked to consider a character they have already developed. It makes sense to start with something, rather than continually write a new piece. Starting again means many students develop skill in creating an engaging opening yet the writing fades toward the end, or worse, a cliche conclusion becomes their only possibility. So, students are asked to consider their protagonist and respond to these questions:
- What’s the first thing we see your main character doing?
- Choose one adjective to describe them at the beginning of the narrative.
- What aspects of this character would be interesting to a reader?
- With which other characters do they interact in the narrative?
- Tell us something about the relationship between the main character and one other character.
- How is the high point or climax of your story important to your character?
- Think about what your protagonist does immediately after the discovery. Think how the discovery might seem to them and complete this sentence: It was as though …
- What’s you character’s conflict?
- Choose and adjective to describe how the main character is at the end of the narrative.
- Which types of discovery does you narrative address?
We began with ‘words’. These activities are based on my participation in writing workshops led by Simon Wrigley and Jeni Smith at the NATE Conference in the UK in 2015.
First, we wrote a list of ten words. Next, we took turns to share a word from our list – starting from the top – and challenged ourselves to actively listen. I encouraged us to write down ‘interesting’ words, or combinations. Giving structure to sharing form our lists removed the difficulty of students ‘choosing’ their best word and promotes the acceptance of sharing while acknowledging the inherent risk of this practice.
Once we had discussed and shared our words, we had ten minutes of free writing with the opening prompt of ‘I remember …’ People were asked to share their writing, either as a whole, or in part. After each sharing, the class responded with a vocal ‘thank you’.
We then chose a favourite phrase from our piece and ‘gifted’ this to the person next to us. For the next ten minutes, we wrote freely – either adding to our original writing or creating a new piece – incorporating our gift. Again, an open invitation to share meant that many were feeling more willing to read their work aloud, again receiving thanks.
During this lesson, we refocused on the concept of discovery by sharing ideas from the activities of Lesson 1. Reminding students that a single prepared narrative might not be a suitable response to Section 2 stimulus, we instead considered the benefit of knowing a character well. It would be possible to craft an imaginative response on the day that directly relates to the actual question and enhance marking opportunities.
First, each of shared our character’s name, the adjectives to describe this person from the beginning and end of our narrative, as well as aspects of this character that would be of interest to a reader. The class was then asked to consider which aspects of ‘discovery’ fit these ideas. Most contributions were correct which led to discussion on how obvious should our writing be? While some details could be ‘told’ we decided it would be best to ‘show’ a character’s actions and reactions in a situation and increase reader curiosity, or developing a sense of suspense in our narratives.
Turning then to the actual 2015 Section II question, students chose an image and began drafting. Some additional discussion occurred when I suggested that writing within a specific genre meant accessing or subverting particular conventions. For example, I chose the first image – a close up of a man’s face peering into the distance, hand to forehead: the image of this post. I explained that I originally thought of comics, then decided on a noir style narrative. This gave me a range of archetypes and ideas to draw from:
- femme fatale
- hard boiled detective
- sardonic wit
- first person narration
- dark, shadowy settings – grim alleys, mean streets and urban decay
- ironic clues
I challenged students to consider which other genres might be referenced in these images – travel, action, adventure, fantasy …
Discuss the process of drafting and how changes should be regularly made so that students can push their writing into unexpected places, improving their skill and developing confidence.
So responding to Section II of the English HSC Paper 1 can be approached by playing with words, characters and ideas so that students feel able to craft a response on the day that incorporates the requirements of the question, rather than relying on a well known and possibly worn piece of writing.
Here are the original notes I took in class for these activities:
- What’s the first thing we see your main character doing? cooking
- Choose one adjective to describe them at the beginning of the narrative. pensive
- What aspects of this character would be interesting to a reader? humour, youth, independence
- With which other characters do they interact in the narrative? partner or boyfriend, possibly neighbour
- Tell us something about the relationship between the main character and one other character. often disagreements over cooking – she can’t, he can
- How is the high point or climax of your story important to your character? she actually decides to cook a fancy meal – 3 courses – but gets flustered and feels quite a failure. She discovers that perfection is not achievable in cooking – some discussion about image manipulation in photos in recipe books
- Think about what your protagonist does immediately after the discovery. Think how the discovery might seem to them and complete this sentence: It was as though … an enormous weight was lifted off her shoulders. Even though my plated meal is less than perfect, Matt loves the taste, and I’m very happy: it looks pretty good to me
- What’s you character’s conflict? conflict is seemingly with her partner, but really within herself. She recalls the poor grades she received in Home Ec at school because of the horrible teacher. Except, when she thought about it, and realised it was the foolish mucking around with her ‘friends’ in class that made her meals slap dash and hurriedly served.
- Choose and adjective to describe how the main character is at the end of the narrative. satisfied
- Which types of discovery does you narrative address? emotional discovery, semi-planned intellectual? creative? cooking as art or science?