Advice and Guidance for planning GCSE English Paper 1 Question 5: Narrative writing

Last time I was looking at Paper 1 Question 5 – descriptive writing – and today it’s the turn of narrative writing.

You can find information about Section A Questions 1 – 4 here:

You can find information on Section A here:

And some general guidance about question 5 here.

Personally, I prefer the narrative response, and my students generally tend to get better responses and marks with it, but that’s not to say you should always choose the narrative, should it be available to you. Don’t forget, there will be times when you will have a choice of TWO narratives or TWO descriptions, and that the description may not always be based on the photograph. You could easily get a narrative based on the photograph given too. The moral is to be prepared for all eventualities.

Whilst I prefer the narrative, it is easy to do a simple descriptive piece and cram a lot in, whereas a narrative can get a little unwieldy. Sometimes, you’re just stuck for a storyline. Description tends to be based on things most students are familiar with, and so it’s not as challenging if you are stuck for an idea.

If you prefer to avoid the fragrant romps with purple prose, narrative may well be the option for you.

Narrative in itself has a sense of chronology or time progression. The moving on of time gives you an innate structure. That’s something that descriptive writing doesn’t always have.

You can use this innate structure to help you plan.

Beginning – Middle – End.

It can be that simple.

You can make it more complicated if you think of

Situation – Complication – Resolution.

But again, it’s the same as Beginning – Middle – End, it just sounds more fancy.

And really, for a 50-minute narrative, you really do not want to be more detailed than that.

Things to avoid:

  • Casts of thousands. One or two characters, maybe three. That’s it. The November 2018 paper had a narrative based on a photo that had one person in it. If you write a story with one person in it, or one main character, you’ll be less likely to end up overcomplicating things. If you think simple stories with a limited number of characters can’t be developed, you need to have a look at Z for Zachariah, The Road or I am Legend. But you’ll rarely (ever?) find a short story with an enormous cast.
  • Starting the story way before the action. I don’t care that you woke up and ate your cornflakes if it has nothing to do with what later happens. Why do people think that stories must start at the very beginning of the day? Start in the moments before the action.
  • Feeling like you need to give an explained ending. Many of the stories I’ve read would have been much better without the last couple of paragraphs. If you write yourself into a corner, stop. Stop right where you are. I’ve seen too many good stories ruined by some kind of attempt to finish it off. If you get to the point where you can’t find a solution to your story, just leave it on a cliffhanger. I’d prefer a cliffhanger than a ‘and then I woke up’ or ‘it was all a dream’, I promise.

Start your plan with the solution. A simple twist in the tale is always nice.

Like… what if a school bully turns out not to be a school bully? What if the mild-mannered janitor turns out to be a spy? What if the dog saves the day?

And then work back.

Why would someone think the bully was a bully? Why would someone think the janitor wasn’t a spy? Why would a dog need to save the day?

That’s then the ‘complication’ or problem.

And then put them in a scene in which that problem can happen.

A scene where someone thinks the school bully will hurt them – turns out the bully isn’t a bully.

A set of spies have a meeting – a janitor clears up – he’s the spy

A school picnic – a boy gets lost – a dog finds him

Now I know they don’t sound like the most scintillating of plots. But they are the basis for so many stories. See how we all thought Snape was going to be the bad guy in Harry Potter? Story two is essentially Hong Kong Phoey-meets-Scooby Doo, and the last is every plot of Lassie or the Littlest Hobo. Simple plots are the stuff of our lives. It’s how you write them that counts.

And you’ll find another list of three to help you with that, too.

Narration (action) – Description – Dialogue.

I like to kind of portion it out. Start with a bit of action. Then add some description. Then some dialogue. Then some action.

I loosely plan three or four lines of conversation, then a bit of description using the same method as I used in the previous post.

Here’s an example short story that I wrote in the time. I typed it, which gave me a bit of a handicap. It runs in at about 600 words.

Although the safe haven and familiarity of school was only minutes behind him, the darkness made easy work of its last remnants of light and security. It cut him off from everything that was comfortable, everything that was known, and cast him out like a hesitant explorer. The inky darkness spilled through the cracks, forcing its way into forgotten corners, slipping through the streets, eating up the vestigial remains of the day. Beyond the distant gates, you could just see the faint lights of the estate; one by one, they were all turning off for the night, until he was left standing in the darkness. Staring at the darkness. He stood completely alone, between the isolated street lights, his only connection with the rest of the universe. 

Everything was silent, except for the flicker and hum of the lights above.

Daniel hated the walk home. He hated the darkness. He hated the long passageway that cut under the railway tracks. Most of all, he hated the boys who hung around at the tunnel, waiting for boys like him. Maybe tonight, they’d all have gone home. He’d been so long at the club in school that they were sure to have gone home by now, weren’t they? He hoped so. The silence seemed to confirm his thoughts.

As he reached the edge of the tunnel, the last street light seemed to flicker and fade, fizzing and buzzing, then dying. It seemed to find life once more, spluttered into life, and then died one final time.

He took a deep breath. The tunnel seemed darker than ever, with only the faintest pinprick of amber light from the other side. Daniel picked up speed and decided to run for it. The mouth of the tunnel opened cavernously. It was far from reassuring. He took a breath. Then another. Then he ran.

Panting hard, his coat billowing, his rucksack marking out each pace thumping at his back, his legs pounding, arms pumping, he made it a quarter way. Fifty yards. Then a hundred.

“Oi you!”

Daniel pulled up to a stop, only metres before the end of the tunnel and the relative security of the street lights. He turned around, the dread surging up from the pit of his stomach and he choked a little. Behind him, he could see nothing. The tunnel swallowed up the light. He took a breath and tried to reason with himself. Maybe he’d imagined the voice. Maybe it wasn’t meant for him. 

It was then that the streetlight chose to flicker back to life. 

For one horrible second, Marvin McGoran was lit up in an amber spotlight before the light faded for good. 

Marvin McGoran. Known for his enormous bulk and his love of violence. Marvin, who was every cartoon villain rolled into one. Marvin, the terror of the tunnel. 

It couldn’t have been worse. 

Through the darkness, Daniel heard the sound of footsteps. Not the usual heavy, singular, staccato footfall of Marvin at rest. No. The fast thudding of Marvin on the rampage. A thudding growing ever closer, punctuated by huge exhalations of breath as Marvin steamed towards him. 

Nothing for it. He had to run. Daniel turned on his heels and started into an immediate sprint, hoping that he could find the energy to outrun the certain terror that lay behind him. He picked up speed, finding a motivation from within that he didn’t know he had. Twenty yards left. Then five. 

Behind him, Daniel heard a huge crash as Marvin came tumbling to the ground. An advantage for sure. He smiled and slowed his pace. He’d live another day. There were grunts and groans as Marvin struggled to regain his feet. 

“Stop will yer?!”

Something in the panic of that voice brought Daniel to a halt. He stopped and turned to take a look. Marvin lay belly down on the concrete, like a conquered bull. 

“Can you give me a hand?”

Daniel would never understand what drove him to go back and help Marvin to his feet. Stupidity perhaps. Bravado brought on by lack of oxygen? Camaraderie for a fallen comrade? He took tentative steps towards the boy on the ground and put out his hand, before pulling him with some effort to his feet. 

“Alright? Sorry… I don’t know yer name. I’m Marvin… D’yer mind if I walk home with yer? I hate the dark.”

And that, my readers, is where I would leave that story. No point explaining how they got home. No point labouring it and dragging it out. I know there are faults in this simple narrative. Of course they are. I am a humble English teacher, not a novelist used to churning out short stories without the benefit of a good editor and a proofreader. Nevertheless, it serves as a simple example of the kind of story that combines those triple elements of dialogue, description and action. I’m going to use it again to dissect in terms of punctuation and sentence structures.

You can see I’ve made decisions about where to slow down the pace and add a little description, trying to create a little atmosphere and intrigue. You can also see how I’ve used dialogue to interrupt the action and speed it up. I’ve got a simple two-character story that I’ve fleshed out, a simple situation – a walk home from school – and a simple twist in the tale. We’re not talking Booker Prize winning, but then this is GCSE.

 

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