Narrative Writing for GCSE English

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A-level English By: Please log in to see tutor details
Subject: English » A-level English
Last updated: 06/02/2017
Tags: gcse english language, gcse essay writing, story planning, writing effectively in the exam, writing narrative

Approaching the narrative writing question for GCSE English Language

Write the opening part of a story about a place that is severely affected by the weather.

You’re sitting in a school hall, behind a desk which is probably too small for you, alongside, in front of, and behind several hundred other students. You have 45 minutes, at most, to plan, write and check your answer. And you are not feeling inspired by this dry-as-dust title.

Mission impossible?

No, because you have prepared yourself thoroughly for this moment. You have a range of techniques at your disposal, and you are confident that you know how to use them; and, what’s more, you are a person who has ideas.

First, you remember to read the question carefully. You always plan the structure of your narrative as well as its content, and you notice that this question asks you to write just the opening part of a story, so you plan to leave your reader on a cliff-hanger. You will start your story with a carefully-chosen narrative hook – which is one reason why you always allow time to plan before you start to write.

You remember also that you always have choices about how you tell your story, even if the title appears to point to “straightforward” third-person narration, and that the more individual the choices you make, the better your writing is likely to be, and the higher the mark it is likely to earn.

You may already know exactly what you are going to write about: a place that is severely affected by the weather. Or you may not. What sort of place, exactly? What sort of weather? What does severely affected mean? Remember that this is an English examination, and there are no correct or incorrect answers. You are free to use your imagination.

You break the title down into its constituent parts and make some rapid notes, jotting down everything that comes to mind, in no particular order, and without censoring yourself. So, a place: town, village, school, factory, airport, hospital, nursery, army base, island? The weather: heatwave, blizzard, flooding, storms, tsunami, drought, fog …? Severely affected: what could this mean? (You might choose to leave this question until you are planning the outline of your story.) Then you make a choice: what do you find most interesting? Or, what do you feel most confident you can describe? Is there something you have experienced in real life, or in books or films, that might help you?

If you still have no idea where you are going to set your story at this stage, choose any place and any inclement weather from your list, more-or-less at random, and move on.

For this title, you know that you are going to end with a crisis – a cliff-hanger – so it makes sense to start your planning by thinking how you are going to end your story, then you can work out how you are going to get there.

Are you going to narrate in third person, or will this be a first person account of dramatic events? What is going to happen in your story?

Although the title does not mention people, any narrative will require at least one character to engage and sustain your readers’ interest. Who are your characters going to be?

Let’s assume your chosen place is a hospital, serving an island community. You have chosen to narrate the story in the first person. You are a teenage girl visiting her grandmother in hospital. You arrive safely on the bus, but this is a small island and the weather can change rapidly. Outside, fog has descended, freezing fog, making driving conditions especially hazardous. As you sit with your grandmother, there is a great commotion, and you learn that there has been a major traffic accident. The hospital is already overwhelmed, major casualties are expected, some of whom will need the facilities offered by the hospital on the mainland - but how can the air ambulance land or take off in these conditions? Without the air ambulance to take him to the big hospital on the mainland, your father (who has just been stretchered in) is likely to die…. This is your cliff-hanger. Oh, and don’t forget it’s your paternal grandmother you’re visiting. Yes, that’s her son that’s just been brought in. Bit of a coincidence, but it’s a small island. So much for the cliff-hanger. Now what are we going to do for the narrative hook, the story opening? Let’s open our story with a minor accident or a near-miss that you witness on your way to the hospital - a bit of foreshadowing, as it turns out, so that the reader sees how dangerous these island roads can be…. Nice structural device! You’ve planned the beginning of your story after planning how it’s going to end, but that’s fine – that’s one reason why you make a plan.

This may all sound a bit flippant, but you have five to ten minutes maximum to plan this story, so your outline is likely to be a little rough around the edges. You’ll have to tame the melodrama as you write.

On the other hand … you might not want to assume any of the above … because this narrative you are planning should be yours, not mine. What choices would you make, faced with this same title – remember what it was?

Write the opening part of a story about a place that is severely affected by the weather.

Whatever your choices might be, rest assured that there are no penalty points in English: you will always be marked entirely positively, given credit for what you do well, rather than being penalised for what you do not do.

Remember also that there is no one thing that you must do in order to get the marks on offer for this exam question. Although there are some specifics in the mark scheme, such as ‘extensive and ambitious vocabulary’, ‘wide range of punctuation’ and ‘high level of accuracy in spelling’, the words that matter most are those that appear in bold type in the left-hand column, the ones that describe your finished product: is it ‘compelling, convincing’? You need to start with these big words in mind, and ask yourself, “What will make my readers believe in my story and want more of it?” Your answer to this question will be different from every other candidate’s, and that is a strength, not a weakness.

Mission impossible?

Mission accomplished!

John E. Robinson GCSE English Tutor (Portsmouth)

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