While students who are proficient in language tend to be good at vocabulary, sentence structure and grammar, Dr Lim Yi-En from National Junior College (NJC) finds that many are not confident creating original content in creative writing classes. Presenting at a workshop during the recent Redesigning Pedagogy International Conference 2017, she shared creative writing techniques inspired by filmmaking to guide students in crafting engaging and original works.
Struggling to Pen Novel Stories
The workshop began with Yi-En sharing that her Secondary 1 students usually use predictable phrases and overused storylines in their creative writing essays. While these may have been enough to get them through primary school, reliance on old, worn out storylines and clichés is an indication of weak communicative competency and, by extension, the absence of creative thinking.
“My secondary 1 students can rattle off the different elements and components of stories, but when asked to give an example of a physical setting, they all say ‘azure blue sky’,” she shares. “The conflicts in their stories are also always either physical or verbal battles between two characters.”
These observations led her to conclude that while many students are proficient in the mechanics of sentence formation – the foundational techniques taught in primary school such as how to structure sentences – they do not know how these can become choices made in creative writing for achieving particular outcomes.
Breaking the Mould
“I want to move (students) from just knowing what grammatical structures are, to knowing how they can be used to good effect.”
– Dr Lim Yi-En, National Junior College
“I want to move them from just knowing what grammatical structures are, to knowing how they can be used to good effect,” says Yi-En. “In a way, what I’m trying to do is move them from pure linguistics to applied linguistics.”
This is why teachers at NJC concentrate on getting students to unlearn the ideas about writing that they come in with in the first half of the Secondary 1 school year.
“Many say that the exams are the reason they learn to write or use language in a certain way, but we want them to understand that it’s more than just exams. They need language for life,” says Yi-En.
Earlier efforts to help students learn to write creatively by sending them for external classes proved unproductive. “There were a lot of activities such as lying on the ground, viewing photos, listening to music and playing with objects to stimulate the imagination, even reading each other’s work, but how to use language to create was never properly taught,” says Yi-En. “I had to come up with my own programme to help them.”
Developing Writing through Camera Shots
To expose students to various writing techniques and encourage originality, Yi-En adapted techniques from movies and television shows to teach creative writing.
“The movie director, producer and cameraman work together to create effects and images in their viewers’ mind using one main tool – the camera. Similarly, as a writer, you’ve one tool to create effects and images in your reader’s mind – the pen,” she explains.
“This is a movie-watching generation, so this is something they can relate to. My students were so excited when they found out they were going to write a movie, albeit with a pen.”
By challenging students to paint a picture in their readers’ minds with words, students become more aware of how different writing techniques communicate different effects and meanings.
To demonstrate how camera techniques can aid in creative writing, workshop participants were assigned tasks that required the use of three camera techniques – zooming, panning and tracking (see box story below).
Making the Leap from Screen to Page
As participants read out their answers for each assignment, Yi-En drew attention to how language was used to derive, emphasize or play down certain aspects of a scene.
For example, in the “zooming” assignment where participants were asked to look out for certain words that kept recurring across various examples of one version as well as the differences between both versions, a comparison of the two versions revealed that the paragraphs written on the zoomed in version tended to omit mention of the whole person in favour of drawing attention to the part of the character’s body involved in the action. The microdetails were amplified.
“Your brain saw it and your words showed it, even though you may not have been able to explain why,” says Yi-En. “The conscious use of these writing techniques is what we need to highlight to students so that they know that it’s not by chance that a certain piece of writing ‘works’.”
Other useful techniques were also highlighted during the tracking assignment. To convey a sense of panic and loss of consciousness in a “running scene” where the character is escaping from his pursuer, some participants emphasized the absence of color and the “closing in” of the corridor through omission of details from the external physical environment to focus more on the inner landscape.
When one writes using these techniques, it is as if one is in the scene, says Yi-En. All the senses are activated to some extent, making it possible to conjure up vivid, evocative imagery.
Rewarding Original Content
“In creative writing, there is no wrong way of writing a story. There is also no right answer.”
– Yi-En on the importance of understanding that there is no right or wrong in creative writing
Taught in Semester 2 of Secondary 1, these creative methods build on the foundational writing skills taught in Semester 1 and primary school.
Students are graded on an analytic rubric reflecting the elements of fiction as well as on how much they experiment with their writing. They are encouraged to revise their work, and extra credit is awarded to those who make the effort to be experimental and rewrite parts of the story in many ways.
Yi-En hopes that rewarding experimentation will encourage students to focus on practising writing what they want their readers to imagine, instead of worrying about mimicking published writers and resorting to clichés.
“There needs to be a lot of affirmation,” she says, as fear of making mistakes was a major issue faced by her students during this activity. When giving feedback, she advises teachers to focus on whether the answer created the intended effects in readers’ minds rather than whether it is right or wrong.
“In creative writing, there is no wrong way of writing a story. There is also no right answer,” she says. “The question I want my students to ask instead is – is there a better way of creating a story in my reader’s head through writing?”
To Yi-En, it is a matter of developing enough confidence to try. Some students may just want affirmation that they are given the freedom to write differently, while others may need more guidance and reassurance.
“Students may not know that they have it in them to tell the story in a different way from what a previous teacher has taught them,” she says. “They need the confidence that now anything goes, as long as it serves its purpose. That is your guiding principle.”