Could playing creatively with narrative perspective help our students to grow in confidence as writers, cultivating more confidence, control and awareness of voice when they write?
Almost definitely, as playing creatively has a tendency to boost confidence and foster a sense of discovery. During our ‘Writing From The Outside’ scheme of learning – which forms part of a wider, thematic focus on ‘outsiders’ along with novels that explore the experiences of marginalised people – we look at photographs, moving image and poems and attempt a kind of ‘text transformation’ with the stories that emerge, thinking about protagonist, antagonist and point of view.
I’d been interested for a while in the idea of working on narrative perspective with students. Members of my Year Nine class commented that their experiences of creative writing have been largely in first-person modes of address. They seem to veer toward first-person narrators in their reading preferences too. I wanted the students to abandon their default first-person narrative perspective and to push themselves, with guidance and scaffolding, to pull off the feat of successful third-person narrative in fiction. At first, this meant dealing with some misconceptions about third-person narrative perspective and dealing with the problem of the omniscient narrator, which, to most fledgling writers, can be bewildering and even problematic if you’re working hard to find an authentic sense of voice.
The teaching and learning sequence below is an approximation of how I approached this particular part of the scheme…
Suggested teaching and learning activities (in an approximate sequence but which would also work in other contexts)
The teacher reads some of Hemingway’s third-person short stories to the class and they play around with highlighting sentences from the perspective of different characters and sentences in which Hemingway chooses an objective narrative style. The intention here is to show how third-person narrative can still remain closely tied to one or two key characters and can develop the reader’s growing sense of protagonist and antagonist, whilst employing description more precisely and objectively.
The teacher asks students to consider still images (slides 1-3) that depict analogous narrative perspectives from moving image. Whole class discussion: what are the advantages of each of these perspectives? What do we learn? What is the intended impact? Are there any drawbacks?
Students are given textual extracts from The Hunger Games, The Fellowship of the Ring, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and The Snow Child. In pairs, students consider the same questions as before: what are the advantages of each of these perspectives? What do we learn? What is the intended impact? Are there any drawbacks?
Whole-class discussion of extracts with suggested annotations. Further questions to elucidate the idea of how point of view might affect our perceptions of who is protagonist and who is antagonist. Teacher elicits the idea that events can be constructed into a ‘narrative’ with the notion of being ‘right’ as subjective.
Class watches clip from Forrest Gump, depicting the Vietnam War. Whole-class discussion: how does the film depict the events of the war? How does it construct it into a cohesive narrative? Who are the heroes and villains? Why are the Vietnamese notably absent from the film? Is there a message or ‘moral’ in this moving image story?
Students look at pictures of Vietnam and annotate with descriptive words and phrases. Whole-class discussion: What can they infer from the pictures of Vietnam? Do the pictures suggest a ‘narrative’ about how we understand the war? Is this narrative different from that suggested by the Forrest Gump clip?
Students watch clip from Apocalypse Now. Whole-class discussion: how is this narrative different from that suggested by the Forrest Gump clip?
Using ICT, students make screen grabs of either only shots from the American perspective or only shots from the Vietnamese perspective. They import the screen shots into PowerPoint and describe (from the American perspective or the Vietnamese perspective) what happened during this military offensive. Alternatively, screen grabs from the American perspective can be given to pairs of students to annotate descriptively and grabs from the Vietnamese perspective can be given to others pairs to annotate descriptively.
Students select a character – or choose a composite character – from one of the screen grabs and give them a name and discuss a back story, for example, solider; pilot; school-teacher; child. ‘Off-screen’ events and incidences can be explored.
Students write the experience of the attack from the narrative point of view of the character they have chosen. Here, care must be taken to model carefully the planning, structuring and writing in the way we usually do. I also found that ‘live marking’ was very helpful during the extended writing, as I was able to put students ‘back on track’ and deal with any early misconceptions.
Students found the teaching and learning sequence and its final piece of extended writing enjoyable. They took care to ensure the narrative voice was ‘limited’ to the narrator they had chosen and didn’t lapse into omniscience. As usual, students edited and redrafted their work in Google Docs, which helped them to experiment and make changes.
Examples of some of the writing can be read over at The Writing Blog.