On John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat: An introduction to Narrative Writing

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You may not have read this beautiful little story before (I urge you to get your hands on a copy if you haven’t). I hadn’t come across it before Sue Brindley chose to read it to us, her final cohort of PGCE students, about a decade ago as part of a session on encouraging students to offer up their interpretations of a text. It has stuck with me ever since and it’s a book that I’ve enjoyed reading with both my boys.

Today I had a double lesson with year 10 to introduce narrative writing and I chose to begin by reading ‘John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat’ to them. If you don’t know the story, John Brown (the big sheep dog) and Rose have been on their own for a long time when the Midnight Cat appears. Whilst Rose is keen to invite the Midnight Cat into their home, John Brown refuses to let it in. Rose, disappointed, takes to her bed and finally John Brown realises that to make Rose happy he needs to let the Midnight Cat join them. The story ends with all three sat around the fire and the Midnight Cat purring contentedly. Whilst the students and I enjoyed the novelty of a bit of story time, it proved a really useful starting point for introducing narrative writing. I outline our double lesson for you below in case you fancy a bit of storybook time with your GCSE class…

Discussion: Exploring what makes a story

After reading the book, I began our discussion by asking the class to share ideas about what they thought it was a story about. Interpretations ranged from it being about not being selfish to the idea that the midnight cat represented death and that John Brown needed to accept it. Following what proved to be an interesting little conversation about interpretation, I challenged students to tell me what made ‘John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat’ a story and what ingredients needed to be included to make something a story.

When sharing their ideas, I wasn’t surprised that the class already have a very good understanding of narrative. After all, we’re natural born story tellers and we’ve been told stories ever since we’ve been born (and even before – I read Dr Seuss to both my bumps…). Our teenagers, even if they don’t write fiction, are telling the story of their life all the time through the medium of Instagram or Snapchat or Facebook. It’s in our blood.

Introducing the Narrative Arc

My next step was to draw a crude Narrative Arc on the board and walk through an explanation of each of the key terms: Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action and Denouement. I think it’s essential that students have this foundational knowledge (though they know it implicitly through experience) to enable them to understand the integral purpose of each part of a narrative. Without it, students may write stories that are all exposition and no rising action or, more likely, all rising action and climax.

Students created their own versions of this in their book and we applied examples from ‘John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat’ to each part of the Narrative Arc.

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I love this moment of rising action in ‘John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat’ when John Brown confronts the Midnight Cat.

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And the denouement when they’re sat around the fire and the Midnight Cat is suitably satisfied with how things have been resolved…

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Identifying the Narrative Arc in Short Films

Unintentionally carrying on the pet dog theme, I then showed students The Present which is a graduation short from the Institute of Animation, Visual Effects and Digital Postproduction at the Filmakademie Baden-Wuerttemberg in Ludwigsburg, Germany (I got the idea of showing it, as part of teaching narrative, from Lindsay Skinner at the PiXL Conference at the beginning of the year). It’s a gorgeous little film and only 3 minutes long.

After watching, students drew a Narrative Arc in their books and identified the bits of the film that matched up e.g. one part of the rising action comes when he throws the dog to the floor in frustration (cue gasps of horror from my year 10s!).  What’s really interesting is the depth of discussion that can be had when students feed back what they think constitutes the exposition or where they think the climax is.

We repeated this process with another three very short films:

Alma (recommended to me by Lyndsey Dyer @RealGingerella – thank you) A jaunty 5 minute short with a great climax. 5 minutes.

Virus Although somewhat dated now, it won the Best International Short Film Award in 2003 and has a great twist and tension despite the lack of dialogue. 5 minutes.

Gravity Use this with caution because of the gun violence and use of language (though the BFI included it in a collection of short films to use with 12-14 year olds which is where I first came across it). Surprising and horrifying resolution. 5 minutes.

Here’s an example of one student’s notes for Alma (excuse the Elma):

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With each short film, students’ confidence grew with their understanding of the Narrative Arc and being able to identify the key parts in each film. There was a little bit of lively debate too, which is always good, and a developing awareness of the ways in which storytellers make different decisions about the length of each part of the Narrative Arc e.g. a really short or a really long exposition.

Using the Narrative Arc to plan a response

I showed students the following question from one of AQA’s Sample Assessment packs and asked them to use the Narrative Arc to plan a whole narrative.

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Although the question only demands an opening, I think it’s important that students spend a couple of minutes planning where the narrative would go. We don’t want students to simply keep writing until the time runs out (especially if we want them to meet the requirements of a ‘consciously crafted’ structure). We want students to write a developed exposition followed by rising action but withhold the climax. Critically, if students know what the climax would be it will enable them to write a far better opening because the narrative is actually going somewhere. The rising action is arguably the most important part of any story because it sets up the climax – if students have no idea where the story is going that’s going to be obvious to the examiner and the rising action will be flawed (what is it rising towards?).

After sharing some plans and discussing ideas, I gave students this question which does demand of them an entire story.

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Again, they planned a full response and I talked through my guidance that each paragraph of their response would constitute a part of the Narrative Arc e.g.

Paragraph 1 – Exposition

Paragraph 2 – Rising Action

Paragraph 3 – Rising Action

Paragraph 4 – Climax

Paragraph 5 – Falling Action and Resolution

The beauty of this planning, is that not only do they know where to go (and they have something ‘consciously crafted’) but, if they run out of time, they could skip a part of the rising action or have a very short resolution – the examiner would be able to see what was intended – and this would be easier to manage because they would know the structure they were working with.

Here’s some example planning from one student:

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There’s clearly more work to be done (this was an introduction) in follow up lessons about making details matter and unity of time/action/place. Some of the plans indicate a tendency to over extend the reach of a short story and an obsession with tsunamis (I must ask Geography what they’ve been teaching recently…) but I’m confident they left the lesson with a more grounded understanding of the key elements of a narrative of any length; even one that lasts just 3 minutes.

A bit of writing to end

To wrap things up, I asked the class to write the exposition for one of the short films we had watched. I wanted them to demonstrate their understanding of what should be included in the exposition of one of these narratives but also show the skills we’ve been developing this year of writing something compelling with a variety of sentence structures, punctuation and ambitious vocabulary etc. I was pretty impressed.

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