Before the summer, a colleague surprised me with a gift copy of ‘In the Woods’ by John Yorke, an academic exploitation of stories, narrative, and the intrinsic human motivation behind narrative structure. A cursory glance soon turned into a full-blown highlight fest, and many an excited conversation as I regaled friends and family with my esoteric new knowledge.
Having always been fascinated by the shape of stories, it’s no surprise that Yorke’s book resonated so with my academic sensibilities. Cut to a new term at school, and some creative writing sessions to kick off the academic term.
The year 7s and 8s are studying the themes of ‘conflict’ and ‘survival’ respectively. I decided to start both off with personal stories of conflict and survival that they would draft into bigger works to dissect later.
It didn’t take long for the Woods to grip me. As we wrote, I found myself finding the need to explore the finer details of protagonist and antagonist with the students, complete with choice quotes from the book.
The results were illuminating. Kids started to realise the shape of their stories and a new awareness of narrative control blossomed. They started to interrogate their protagonists with subtlety and insight, realising that motivation is a building block of narrative action.
There was even a note of well-being as some students started to interrogate their own psyches, seeing that in many cases, the protagonists were indeed themselves.
What does your protagonist need to learn?
What do they want?
What is their basic motivation?
What is their flaw?
What is getting in their way?
Profound questions to consider.
Thereafter, a quick audit revealed an exciting ranges of antagonists, including a broken pen, a room, rival schools, great itself, an oyster card, the notion of irresponsibility, and, of course, a pigeon. In the words of John Yorke himself, the antagonist is ‘the thing or person the protagonist must vanquish in order to achieve their goal’. Understanding and exploring this gave my students a subtle and sophisticated appreciation of their own narratives.
Soon enough, we wrote first draft of our stories. And I couldn’t help but go further with our advanced study. Enter Inciting Incidents and Crisis Points.
It was a simple task; go through your story and identify the Inciting Incident (near the start) and the Crisis Point (near the middle). The kids could do this fairly easily and what was remarkable was the realisation that all the stories had a recognisable shape. I saw eyes light up when I guessed, simply by the powers of symmetry, where the most exciting point of the story would be, and was right. For the first time in my teaching career, I could see the innate power of structure and the ease with which it invites engagement with literary craft.
Next, it was a simple case of taking the Inciting Incident and amplifying it into a more dramatic piece of writing, ramping up the tension using whatever figurative techniques they could muster.
And so begins a whole new outlook on creative writing in my classroom. It feels good to be discussing the finer details of narrative structure with kids who have a handle on their creativity, but don’t really appreciate the whys behind the hows. More on how this progresses, in due course.
Yours, in teaching,