GCSE Secondary English

The Power of the Motif: How to Ace Descriptive Writing

After reading many torturous stories (‘and then… and then… and then…), I think that most of us have been steering our students towards the Descriptive rather than the Narrative task in the GCSE English Language Paper. The focus on one place or situation frees up many students to concentrate on crafting their language, rather then trying to begin, unleash and tie up a plot in 45 minutes. However, although students seem to be able to sprinkle adjectives and figurative language liberally over their descriptions, they often lose marks through the lack of structural shape and cohesion.

In order for writing to become ‘highly structured and developed’, and therefore gain top marks in the mark-scheme, there needs to be a concept which sticks the whole piece together in an ‘inventive’ way. Enter the ‘motif’: a recurring symbol which is used to create atmosphere.

I ask my students to do the following:

1.  Think about what atmosphere you want to create in the opening and at the ending. Do you want it to be the same or to change (contrast is good)?

2.  Choose an object or person which you can use as your motif.

3.  Mention your motif in the first paragraph, in the middle section of your writing, and then again in your final paragraph.

4.  Ensure that you vary the presentation of the motif each time to show the change in time, person, place and therefore in the atmosphere.

Showing the plastic bag clips from the film American Beauty can be a good way into motifs. I also get students who are stuck to begin with using the rising sun at the beginning and setting sun at the end of their writing. Moreover, birds can be a rich source for motifs: pigeons in the city, seagulls on the coast, and hawks in the countryside.

And voila! Your students’ writing is now not only ‘structured’ but ‘developed’ with a literary device used to create structural cohesion and atmosphere. If you haven’t already, then give it a try. You can be amazed at how this simple technique lifts the writing of all sorts of students out of the ordinary into the stylish.

By Naomi Hursthouse


Naomi Hursthouse is currently the Head of English at Ormiston Six Villages Academy. She has worked as an examiner for AQA, and has been writing articles and blogs about teaching for Collins Freedom to Teach since 2009.


Collins publishes AQA GCSE resources in English Language and Literature to help students to develop the key skills they need at GCSE. Find out more.

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