The iconic railway bridge scene is a great stimulus for creative writing. I’ve developed some teaching resources to make the most of it…
‘I was twelve going on thirteen the first time I saw a dead human being. It happened in the summer of 1960, a long time ago, although sometimes, it doesn’t seem that long to me.’ Stephen King.
‘…one of my all-time favourite films: Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me…’
In previous blog posts, I’ve discussed how moving image can act as a great way of teaching narrative structure and how the exploration of point of view shots and montage effect can be a brilliant stimulus for experimenting with writing from different narrative perspectives.
At the centre of good English teaching is a text which can engage and provoke, and which offers much to learn about form, structure, and the language of the medium. Using film texts alongside the written word is a great way to capitalise on students’ prior knowledge and understanding, as young people often have a very strong sense of media literacy. A well-chosen film clip can provide a great opportunity to model how we ‘read’ a text critically. It can also provide a great stimulus for creative, narrative writing. It offers up a package that includes plot, narrative perspective, character, structure and ‘mise-en-scene‘. It also allows us to explore more conceptual ideas, such as symbolism, theme and context.
At Boroughbridge High School, we transition our Year Seven students into Year Eight by studying writing that explores the theme of coming of age as part of our thematic curriculum. I wanted to explore the visual and textual elements of coming-of-age narratives and so I chose a clip from one of my all-time favourite films: Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me (1986) which is, of course, based on Stephen King’s novella The Body, which was first published in his 1982 collection Different Seasons.
In the story, twelve year old Gordie Lachance and his friends Chris, Teddy and Vern make a journey of discovery, searching for the body of Ray Brower, a local boy who has been missing for several days. One of the film’s most memorable scenes is a completely gripping sequence in which the boys walk across an exposed railroad bridge that spans a river valley. Inevitably, a train appears at speed and they are forced to run for their lives. I thought this clip might work really well as it comes fully ‘loaded’ with everything a great piece of writing needs to be compelling.
The film Stand By Me in its entirety would make challenging viewing for twelve year olds, hence it’s BBFC rating of ’15’. I’ve experimented with using the clip with GCSE students, in which case the clip itself can be contextualised by screening other parts of the film that precede it. With younger students, however, the initial steer for the creative writing task – ‘My friends and I were walking along the railroad tracks. We were walking a long way, all with the intention of finding a missing kid named Ray Brower. We loved the idea of getting our photos in the local newspaper…’ – can sidestep the more challenging idea of Ray Brower’s death, and the search for ‘the body’ that gives the novella its name. The focus of this sequence in any case is the dramatic crossing of the railroad bridge, so there is a lot to be gained for younger students in exploring the theme of coming-of-age, overcoming challenge and the importance of friendship.
I recently taught a teaching and learning sequence which I’ve approximated below. The sequence, which could be taught in part or as a whole depending on what we want to achieve, reflects an attempt to establish some good protocols for students to be able to talk analytically about a text, to write creatively with a sense of purpose and confidence and to work critically and evaluatively within the process of refining their own writing.
Engaging the students and ‘priming’ the ‘reading’
James Durran has written about the importance of the pre-reading activity: ‘…entering the intellectual and imaginative territory of the text and of the lesson – priming pupils to think figuratively and to think about the connections between apparently disparate ideas.’
I attempt this ‘priming’ process by showing students a screenshot from the film. At this point, Gordie, Chris, Teddy and Vern are standing on the Castle Rock side of the Royal River, debating whether or not to cross the bridge. I ask students what’s going to happen to these boys. Students invariably respond with a variety of possibilities: ‘They fall!’ ‘They get killed by a train!’ ‘They only just make it!’ These responses reflect the students’ understanding of the impulse of compelling narrative: the idea that narrative often creates a need for climax and closure, then fulfils a reader’s expectations.
We discuss what the ‘moral’ or ‘message’ of a story of this sort might be. I ask students to think about the symbolism of the bridge. The students respond by commenting on the idea of danger, overcoming challenge or the idea of transformation and passage.
I explain that we’re going to use a film clip as the basis for a short story from the point of view of one of the characters, which will explore the themes we’ve discussed.
Exploring form, genre and narrative point of view
We watch the clip. I field a whole-class discussion in which emphasis is placed on questions the students generate:
‘Why is there no adult present?’ ‘Why are the children in the film doing something so dangerous?’ ‘Are they allowed to do something so dangerous?’
We watch the clip again. This time, I pose some questions:
‘If the children in the film are prepared to do something so dangerous, what might this tell us about why they’re making this journey?’ ‘What other texts can we think of that this might remind them of?’
This helps me elucidate the idea of the quest narrative and its role in story-telling.
‘What is the significance of the characters in the film?’ ‘What if they’re not allowed to do something so dangerous?’ ‘What might they learn from doing it?’ ‘How might we expect the characters to change, having done something so dangerous?’
This helps us to explore the idea of the coming-of-age story and what the crossing of the bridge might symbolise.
My next step is to explore with students the idea of how film approximates narrative perspective. Stephen King’s novella is written in first-person from the perspective of Gordie Lachance. Students are often familiar with the notion of first-person and third-person gameplay. But narrative perspective in film is rather more polymorphic. Most films combine shots that suggest omniscience, objectivity and subjectivity alongside first-person point of view shots. This particular film approximates a third-person subjective perspective which privileges Gordie’s experiences and responses, with some objective, wide-angle shots that suggest scale and relativity.
In pairs, students sort a series of screenshots into sequence and discuss which ones are viably from Gordie’s point of view (POV), which are subjective (in other words, offering Gordie’s perspective if not his POV) and which are objective. The intention here is to explore how third-person narrative can still remain closely tied to one or two key characters and how it can develop the viewer’s growing sense of the protagonist.
I follow this up by asking students to experiment with different modes of writing. The wide-angle shots work well in prompting writing from an third-person objective perspective, whereas those shots from Gordie’s POV work well as a way of prompting first-person narrative or third-person subjective narrative. Some of the ideas I’ve blogged about previously can work well in elucidating students’ understanding of different narrative modes.
A shared discussion of the experimental writing the students produce creates opportunities for some productive scrutiny of which mode of writing works best for a time-limited story such as the one we’re going to write. My feeling is that first-person narrative works really well here, as it feels like an important part of the coming-of-age genre and an integral part of Stephen King’s creative vision.
Examine narrative and textual structures
Having established narrative perspective, I explain that the clip is a set-piece within a larger film narrative. As a set-piece in a film, however, the sequence itself arguably follows a fairly conventional narrative structure of ‘equilibrium‘, ‘disruption‘, ‘quest‘, ‘climax‘, ‘resolution‘. This, I explain, provides a helpful struture for the writing we’re going to do.
I ask some questions.
‘Which of the screenshots best represent each ‘stage’ of the structure?’ ‘If students could choose only one, which would it be?’ ‘What is momentous, or pivotal, about each stage of the narrative sequence?’
Within the clip, there are also deliberate textual structural choices made by the director which signpost the sequence and effectively build suspense and which are intended to have a clear impact on the audience. In whole-class discussion, I model the use of terms to define which structural choices have been made, perhaps providing students with a ‘toolkit’ of ideas from which to draw.
I model this process first, using a series of slides and whole-class discussion as an opportunity to take feedback and deepen the students’ thinking through my questioning.
This is followed up with distributing the screenshots from the sequence to pairs of students and directing to consider them in terms of structural features. Most crucially, of course, is the discussion around the impact of these structural choices on the audience.
We begin to explore how we might approximate these structural devices in our writing. Again, in pairs or small groups, students talk about the effect of the structural device as part of the whole text and also the structure of the sentences within the extracts they’re working with. Matching the screen shots which students sequenced earlier with excerpts from Stephen King’s text provides students with an opportunity think about the structural features which lead the viewer and reader through the architecture of the writing. Pearson publish an abridged verison of Stephen King’s text as part of their Pearson English Graded Readers series which I have read, and which would work well as part of the teaching and learning sequence. I have, for the purposes of teaching, slightly abridged the chapter myself.
‘What’s the effect of the high-angle shot that offers a close-up of Gordie’s feet as he walks across the trestles?’ I ask a student.
‘It shows how far up he is. There’s a sense of danger as he can see all the way down to the water,’ they reply.
‘Why shift from past tense verbs like “squatted” and “thrummed” to past progressive verbs such as “was thrumming” and “was like gripping”?’
‘An increasing sense of urgency?’
Considering the language of film
This part of the teaching and learning sequence allows the students to consider the effects of the aesthetic choices made by Rob Reiner in his composition of this sequence.
Again, I start with whole-class discussion during which I model the use of terminology as a way of talking about the language of film texts and in the ensuing discussion, I expect the students to use terminology as well. The first step involves examining screenshots, like we did when we looked at structure, and considering the effects of some of these ‘film language’ choices. Again, students respond to prompt questions that stimulate thinking about effects and impact.
The creative writing task itself
Having looked carefully at these key aspects of the film text, the final phase of the sequence involves taking the assets we’ve gained in terms of studying genre, narrative perspective, structure and film language, plus those early experimental writings, and working creatively with the images and perhaps further excerpts from Stephen King’s novella.
As with any creative writing teaching sequence, there are some axioms of great teaching we cannot forget: a sense of shared purpose; immersive, collaborative planning; developing a structure; live modelling of writing at each stage and critical reading, editing and re-drafting.
Our earlier discussion around narrative structure provides a great starting point for thinking about how we might structure the creative writing. I ask students to use the screenshots as part of the planning process, thinking in pairs about which key aspects they’d like to include in their writing.
Through live modelling, the provision of a ‘steer‘ for the beginning of the story works well. I offer up the following: ‘My friends and I were walking along the railroad tracks. Our parents thought we were camping out for the night. We were walking a long way, all with the intention of finding a missing kid from our school named Ray Brower. We loved the idea of getting our photos in the local newspaper.’ I then model how this fairly mediocre opening could be improved.
I think that with a structure in mind, the process of modelling writing and the process of modelling critical thinking and redrafting is the way forward. This gives students the freedom to write creatively and for discussion to take place around what’s been written, rather than providing students with a list of ‘features’ to include from the outset. Similarly, we can begin to look closely at the effects of grammar in the writing produced by the teacher and the students, allowing discussion and ideas to flow from the text, insisting that students talk about their own writing using a vocabulary that empowers them to think with precision.
Moving image has so much potential as a prompt for creative writing, as there is a profound relationship between cinematic story-telling and the compositional elements of fiction, especially when reading fictional prose from the twentieth century which has been shaped and influenced by the visual representation of cinema. The sequence I’ve approximated here is by no means intended as an instructional machination, but rather as a series of possibilities which highlight some useful approaches for reading texts and prompting creative writing. I’m certain the methods here could be applied to other film clips.
It’s also a great way to expose the younger generation to a classic of 1980s cinema – and this can never be a bad thing.