Why can’t my students write good stories?

You’d think teaching the creative writing component of the GCSE English exam would be the most rewarding aspect of the specification. It’s the chance to delight in the beauty of language and get students to let their imaginations run wild.

It’s really not, though. 

In all the different incarnations of the syllabus I’ve taught, I’ve always been left utterly deflated by what my students end up producing. It’s often boring, cliché-ridden, derivative and almost always utterly preposterous. I’m left scratching my head, thinking – is it me?

I don’t think it’s just my students, though.  I see the same sort of thing in other classes too. I also remember when I did some GCSE exam marking a few years back. The task was along the lines of ‘describe a perfect world’. Paper after paper detailed a chocolate world, with chocolate trees and fountains with characters spending their days at absurdly named theme parks on rides that paid no heed to the laws of physics or even human possibility. It was so babyish.

Exam marking is tedious enough, without having to wade through all that.

It’s not as if our students have a bad literary diet. They can count the likes of The Odyssey, Great Expectations and Animal Farm amongst the texts they study in the build up to GCSE. They also read a wealth of contemporary stories during form time from diverse writers like Jamaica Kincaid, John Steinbeck, Kazou Ishiguro and Chinua Achebe. That’s not a bad introduction to great storytelling.

So, what am I doing wrong? I suspect a lot. I know I could probably inject more enthusiasm into how I approach the task. I could also spend more time searching for inspirational examples or put more effort into creating better resources, like this set of literary introductions from Sarah Barker. I definitely accept some of the blame here.

But I don’t think it’s all me. I think it’s also partly a product of our society, where everything is an ‘issue’ and everyone is ‘stressed’. My students seem only to write about these extremes. Either I get a saccharine description of mindless hedonism (see above), or a nightmare world where everyone is one step away from some kind of terrible personal or collective disaster.

There are never any subtleties; nuance is nowhere to be found!

Obviously, the problem is also one of maturity. It’s fair to say that as you get older, you appreciate there are real stories all around. You experience them and so learn to see them. In most good short stories – see Munro, Carver, Chekhov – nothing much really happens. These stories are often about missed opportunities, hope punctured, regret resurfaced, moments of realisation, tenderness and, of course, loss. Very little tragedy (in the real sense of the word); no dramatic set pieces; no emotional outpouring. They’re more about the gaps and the silences and what lies in between. 

But even if I put the effort in and managed to get my students to write with more subtlety and less drama, would they gain as many marks in the exam? Would the unadorned style of say a Munro, a Carver or even a Hemingway be recognised? 

Take Raymond Carver, for example, one of the finest exponents of the art of the short story. I often read his stories to my students to help them better understand how less can sometimes be more – that profound things exist in the seemingly trivial.

Fat is very good at conveying this, a deceptively simple story about a waitress in a diner called Rita who serves an exceptionally fat man during her night shift. The man is extraordinarily large and eats an extraordinary amount of food. Despite his size and apparent greed, there is something beautiful and pure about the man; something that leads Rita to an epiphany – that she herself is ‘fat’ with the child of a lover she doesn’t really love.

Here is Rita first describing the fat man:

‘This fat man is the fattest person I have ever seen, though he is neat-appearing and well dressed enough. Everything about him is big. But it is the fingers I remember best. When I stop at the table near his to see to the old couple, I first notice the fingers. They look three times the size of a normal person’s fingers—long, thick, creamy fingers.’

Would this cut it at GCSE? I’d like to think so, but I’m not sure. The repetition of fat – deliberate by Carver throughout the story to challenge our understanding of beauty – and the simple adjectives (fat, big, old, long, thick) would probably be seen as the sign of competent, but ultimately unambitious writing. 

Mark schemes actively encourage flamboyance over restraint, hyperbole over understatement. If I were marking Caver’s work, I’d be able to say that ‘sentence demarcation is consistently secure and consistently accurate’ but not that he uses ‘extensive and ambitious vocabulary with sustained crafting of linguistic devices’. One of America’s greatest writers would be placed firmly in band three!

I’m not saying we should do away with creative writing at GCSE. It’s already side-lined enough in many schools that if you strip it back any further, you risk sending the wrong message about the importance of the imaginative act. There may well be a wider argument about the language exam itself, but as long as it stays, there should be a place for original writing, however flawed.

I guess I’m arguing for mark schemes to show greater understanding of what makes a good story – that it shouldn’t only be about bells and whistles. Understatement, subtlety and writing that doesn’t announce itself through the loading of unnecessary adjectives or overwrought comparisons should be encouraged and rewarded..

I guess I’m also recognising that I need to up my game too. If the world we live in is becoming increasingly hyperbolic, and the messages my students are getting through things like social media and rolling news, are becoming increasingly dramatised, then as an English teacher, I need to be using my time with my students as an opportunity to push back on all this – to show that there is meaning in the everyday and that often less is more.

After all, some things are better left unsaid.

Published by Phil Stock

Deputy Headteacher, Teaching, learning and assessment. Interested in education, spending time with my family and running - all views are my own. @joeybagstock

One thought on “Why can’t my students write good stories?

  1. I am so with you on this. I had a student’s brilliant short piece about recognising the sense of physical emotion tying him to his fellow supporters as his football team scrambled a win. It was all the things you said: simple, nuanced, language devices used sparingly but effectively. I awarded it A* it was downgraded to C, not only because of the lack of ambitious vocabulary but because “ it had less than six paragraphs with at least seven sentences in each,” hence not sustained. I despaired, and got myself a reputation as an inadequate marker! Another over written typical description of a football match got the A star. It couldn’t light a candle to the other.

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