How can moving image help us to teach narrative structure?

The introduction of ‘structure’ as a focus of assessment in GCSE in AQA’s GCSE English Language Paper One, Question Three has been a welcome shift toward thinking about the ‘bigger picture’ of how stories and creative writing are ‘built’ to be compelling.


“Explain, comment on and analyse how writers use structure to achieve effects and influence readers, using relevant subject terminology to support their views.”


Guidance from AQA suggests that structure can be considered at whole text level, at paragraph level or at sentence level. We know anecdotally that students are finding this part of the exam challenging. They may not have spent time at Key Stage Three necessarily studying structure and therefore don’t have the ‘tools’ or vocabulary to be able to articulate their thinking. However, responses to questions in class usually reveal that when it comes to articulating the intended impact of how a film-maker uses structure, the students have a fairly sophisticated understanding of these codes and conventions – they just don’t know they do!

At Boroughbridge, we’re keen to make ‘structure’ an embedded part of Key Stage Three. How, we have asked ourselves, can we find creative and exciting ways of encouraging students to think about structure as a way of building stories? Yes, we talk about ‘narrative structure’ in Year Seven and throughout the Key Stage in ‘whole text’ terms, but what about at ‘paragraph level’?

The analogous approach we’ve found to be most successful has been drawing on the students’ prior experience of moving image. We begin by discussing the purposes of structure in various forms – a castle, for example, has a defensive structure, whereas a supermarket has a persuasive structure. We explore the purposes of narrative structure – which is, essentially, to make fiction compelling.

Getting the students working with moving image makes for an immersive and exciting lesson. For example, a YouTube downloading tool can be used to save an excerpt of moving image as an ‘wmv’ file, then the clip can be imported into Windows Movie Maker, which handily splices the clip at various points. Each clip can be dragged onto the timeline and saved as a new movie file with an arbitrary name into a folder on a shared network drive accessible by students. Students can then be tasked with editing the clips into a cohesive sequence and then explaining their editorial choices using film structure terminology.

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As Key Stage Four begins, we use film shorts to teach structure as a key part of understanding texts.

Big Buck Bunny – a 2008 short computer-animated comedy film by the Blender Institute – works really well as a way of exploring structure at different levels. Screen grabs can be given to students to annotate with key vocabulary – and most importantly – intended impact.

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When confident in considering how a film-maker has structured a piece of moving image to make it compelling, students enjoy applying a similar process to written texts. Finding extract pairings – such as Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love on screen and in print – or Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men – again on screen and in print both work well, as does Stephen King’s Iton screen and in print. Their thinking can be supported with resources to help them become familiar with some of the new terminology they’re encountering.

I’d love to know about other possible extract pairings of moving image and text. I’m also keen to build much more thinking about narrative structure into our Key Stage Three curriculum – not just because students will encounter it as part of their GCSE studies, but because it makes them more confident, empowered writers. And this can’t be a bad thing!


Featured image: Photo by Mathew Schwartz on Unsplash