I have an obsession. One that drives my teaching and learning. One that caught your attention just now. Go on – admit it. A short sentence which begins ‘I have an obsession’ probably makes you think I am going to reveal bones in the caretaker’s cupboard, a hoard of football stickers in the desk, or a desperate need to wear luminous trainers in inappropriate places.
The fact that it is introducing a relatively ordinary blog about GCSE English is part of the trick: the ability to use the power of story-telling to turn the everyday into the epic, or at the very least, into the engaging, the reflective, the curious. In almost all forms of writing, the first sentence of a text, whether it is an article on the pernicious influence of pesticides (see George Monbiot’s article on p170 of Collins AQA GCSE English Language and English Literature Advanced Student Book), or a frightening tale about a wild horse (see Ted Hughes’s opening to ‘The Rain Horse’ on p153 of the same book), the first sentence can set the tone, and steal your heart.
Recently, I attended a travel writing workshop. The trainer, a veteran of travel writing of many years, asked us all to read a variety of openings to travel articles. In all cases, what they did was to establish a sort of rapport with the reader – a mutual understanding of the relationship between reader and writer which was set in motion by the opening sentence. So, one travelogue began with the simple word ‘Cannibals!’ In fact, the article was about a trip along a river in Fiji where cannibalism had been practised long ago. The opening paragraph ended with a nice metaphor about tourists ‘roasting’ on the beach. But, the point is this – the writer had established a connection with us, as readers, in which we recognised pretty quickly that this was not about cannibalism today, but a hook to drag us into an account of Fiji, its history and current attractions.
You could work with your students to develop non-fiction writing which uses story-telling both as a way of engaging with texts as a reader, and exploring their own choices as writers. Take these two examples of travel writing, both written by me. One was composed in advance of the workshop I attended, the other at the end of it:
The Normandy beaches where the Americans landed, remind me of a sad and tragic time. The machine-guns are silent now but the memorials are visited regularly by school-children, veterans of the war, and visitors like me, who have come for the first time to Omaha Beach.
They machine-gunned them for ten hours from this spot. Now, in the twilight of an autumn day, French school-children make notes in sodden exercise books and a single horse-rider trots gently along the beach. The stone monument, a spike against the grey sky above Omaha Beach, remembers the soldiers of the Engineer regiment.
You could ask students to comment on:
- Which text creates particular images in my mind?
- Which engages me by raising questions?
You could give them similar paragraphs (to the first example) of fairly neutral travel writing of local places, people, experiences and get them to ‘storify’ them in the way I was taught. Set them structures to follow: a short sentence of no more than 10 words, followed by a long one; or vice versa. Add the constraint that they should begin with either a startling or interesting fact or a powerful, simple image. Or, if capable, both.
More potent still, is to go back to the two examples I wrote, and elicit from them the idea that the message in each text is not the same. It isn’t enough to say that each example tells the same story but in different ways. I think for students to be pushed and challenged to think at a deeper, more insightful level about the texts they read and write, they need to understand how some texts expose new layers of meaning. In the second example, the conflation of the message of bloody murder with the school-children who make notes in the dying light of autumn (itself a key detail) is of memory which fades, but also of a sense of rebirth – this is a bleak picture I have painted, and one that conveys something of the solemnity of ritual – the lone rider on the beach is almost symbolic, mythic (rather like the horse in Ted Hughes’s story). The message is, we pay deferential duty to the past but we cannot, really, understand the brutality of the guns. So, like the actors in Godot, we go on. All we have are words on a monument.
Or, lest we forget – an opening sentence.
Written by Mike Gould, co-author of Collins AQA GCSE English Language and English Literature