IGCSE English Courses

for home educators by Catherine Mooney

 
 
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Chapter 1

An Introduction to Writing : Some Key Terms and Ideas.
Writing to Explore, Imagine and Entertain[1]

 

In this section we'll look at some of the techniques writers use to create their effects and you'll start to practise them in your own writing. Learning how to write creatively will help you with your reading, too.  You'll be introduced to some key terms and ideas in this chapter which will help you throughout the course.

 


Do you enjoy a good story? I know I do. There's nothing I like more than getting lost in a book or listening to a story tape. I love to imagine the lives of the characters, getting absorbed in their adventures, stepping through the wardrobe into a magical and imaginary world. I can feel an enormous sense of loss when I reach the end of a book. I remember putting off reading the last few pages of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials because I didn't want the story to end and the characters to leave my life. It had taken me a year to read the trilogy (out loud to my son), and as we turned the last page it was like saying farewell to an old friend.

Good writing can have this effect and If you've ever had this experience, you might have wondered how writers work their magic. How can they create characters that are so believable, they can feel like friends? Or summon up monsters that make us afraid to turn off the light? How can they make Narnias and Wonderlands appear in our imaginations just by covering a page with words?

Well, in this part of the course you'll begin to learn to do what professional writers do. You'll find out how to make stories really interesting and believable so that readers won't be able to put down what you have written. But, before we start, let's look at what goes into making a story. There are actually only a few key things you have to remember, but they all have to be there, so let's look at them one at a time.

Key fact: You probably already know this, but the word fiction refers to made-up stories. Harry Potter is an example of fiction. Non-fiction means any form of writing that is based on fact, or something that has actually happened (newspaper articles are an example of non-fiction).

 

 

 

[1] Exam note: This chapter underpins the whole course but will prepare you specifically for Paper 3, Question 2 and Paper 1F/2H Section B (ii) where you will be asked to show you can write to explore, imagine, entertain.

Characters.

 I know this is probably stating the obvious, but it's important to remember that stories are always about people (or characters, as writers call the people who inhabit their books). Well duh! I can hear you say, but can you imagine how boring a book would be if it just went on and on describing a scene and there wasn't anyone in it? If you've ever read a book that was really boring, chances are it spent too long going on about the landscape and scenery in the opening pages.

If a writer really wants to grab your attention they'll introduce a character in the opening sentence. So a writer's first job is to create interesting characters and to find out how to do this, look at this sentence.

 

Mrs Brown walked towards me.

 

Well, I don't know about you, but I don't feel this sentence tells me very much about Mrs Brown. I can just about picture her, but I don't know how old she is, or why she's heading in my direction. Maybe she's a neighbour. Or a traffic warden. Maybe she's brandishing a deadly weapon. I haven't a clue. Besides, Brown is a boring sort of a name, too, so I can't get very excited about that either (hope it isn't your name...). All in all, I find myself falling asleep...But what about if I read...

 

 

If Mavis Brown had been a pudding, she would have been a trifle. She was fat, in a bobbly sort of way, with big bosoms and a wobbly bum. Her cheeks were like two red cherries, and her hair was a topping of whipped cream. She could easily have been ninety, but her sparkling blue eyes belonged to someone half her age. Large though she was, her legs were white and spindly, like a pair of giant tooth picks, so when she hobbled towards me I found myself holding out my arms, in case she should over-topple and fall
 

 

We certainly learn a lot more about Mrs Brown from this version. Both pieces give me the same facts - that Mrs Brown is heading in my direction - but in the second version I can picture Mrs Brown much more clearly. What makes the second piece more interesting is that it is more descriptive. This means it uses plenty of describing words (or adjectives, to give them their proper name). Describing words or adjectives are words that tell us what something or someone is like. So, for example, fat, red, big, large tell us what her face and body look like, and twinkly and blue tell us what her eyes are like. Adjectives tell us what something looks like, smells like, sounds like, feels like and so on. As long as you don't overuse them, they can make it easy for a reader to imagine what you are writing about.

There are also some original and imaginative ways of describing things, such as If Mavis Brown had been a pudding, she would have been a trifle. Writers try to think of original and imaginative ways of describing something to make a picture of what they are describing appear in your mind. We'll talk more about original ways of describing in a minute, but it helps to remember that when words are used to make a word picture like this, we say writers are using images. In the second piece of writing we also get a sense of another character - the person who is telling the story (or the narrator). We are told I found myself holding out my arms, in case she should over-topple and fall.

So, the first thing to remember is that writers make characters interesting by using adjectives, original words and phrases and strong images. As you can see, these help a picture of Mavis Brown to appear in your mind.  Writers hope this picture will be a memorable one.

Try it yourself!

Can you think of a memorable character you've come across in a book? Take a few minutes to flip through a book you've read and find a paragraph which describes this character. What's his or her name? What words does the writer use to describe him or her (or it!)? 

 

 

 

 

Setting

 

It's all well and good creating an interesting character, but characters don't just appear in a book with a blank space around them (see Fig. 1a). Characters exist in an imaginary place and we call this place a setting. Writers go to just as much trouble creating a setting as they do creating a character.

 

Setting is like scenery in a film or video, with the obvious difference that in a film the setting can be seen. But writing doesn't have this scenery. It exists in the writer's imagination, and though they'll be able to imagine it clearly enough, their job is to create the same setting in the readers' minds using words. So - you've guessed it - they use images and adjectives again.

If you want to understand how to create a setting with words, look at the pictures of Ewan again. I've used a photo to show him in two different settings and pasted some words and phrases on the photo to show how words create a setting. Can you see the adjectives I've used? And can you see how I've tried to use interesting words and phrases? I've left some blank spaces. You might want to put your own words and phrases in here.

 

Original and imaginative words and phrases.

We've already talked about adjectives. We've talked, too, about how it helps to use images (word pictures) to make characters and settings interesting.  Here are a few other things you can do to make your character and setting interesting.

        Do you remember that word hobbled  I used when I was describing Mrs Brown's movement? Do you remember how it told us more about how she moved than the ordinary word walked? Well, words that describe someone or something doing something (hobbled, walked, ran, eat) or being something (hoping, loving, remembering) are called verbs. You can try to make verbs interesting too. They will tell us more about what the character is feeling or doing.

So instead of writing Ewan looked out to sea (boring) you could write Ewan gazed over the ocean (a bit less boring).  If you wrote Ewan scoured the horizon, searching for clues it would have been even less boring, because I would have given you a bit of story (Ewan is feeling tense. He's looking for something - is someone lost at sea?).  In the picture of the city I have written The traffic blared past. Blared is an interesting word because it gives a sense not just of the traffic moving, but also of the noise it makes.

 

Key fact: In ordinary conversation when we want to refer to someone's speech  we don't need to use anything other than 'he said' or 'she said'. But there are many different ways of describing someone speaking. You might say for example, he muttered, he whispered, he yelled, he shouted, he cried, he snarled. All these words convey different sorts of ways of speaking. So when you write your story, try to vary your words in this way. You get more marks in the exam for this!
 

 

 

 

        Another way of making verbs interesting is by using adverbs. An adverb is a word that tells us a bit more about the verb and gives it a more precise meaning. So words like hungrily, lazily, helplessly are all adverbs and can all be added onto verbs to make them more specific. (Adverbs usually end in ly). I'll give you an example.

Ewan gazed helplessly out to sea.

This tells us that Ewan is upset about something, possibly that lost vessel again! However look at this sentence...

Ewan gazed eagerly out to sea.

This tells us something a bit different, doesn't it? In the first sentence we get a sense of Ewan being upset about the lost vessel, while in the second sentence we get a sense that Ewan is eagerly awaiting someone's return. And the only difference between the two sentences is that they have different adverbs, helplessly and eagerly. This shows how useful adverbs can be.

 

Try it yourself!

Which adverbs go with which sentences? (I've done the first for you.)

 

quietly, quickly, hopefully, defensively, greedily.

 

'I didn't do it!' he said defensively.

She ate the cake ________

He sneaked into the house ____________

'Will you be saving an extra piece of cake for me?' he said __________.

He grabbed his football _________ and ran into the garden.

 

 A word of warning: don't over-use adverbs. They can make your writing more interesting but too many of them make your writing sound a bit forced.

 

Tone, mood and atmosphere.

We've talked about how to create a setting, but just as important as setting are tone, mood and atmosphere. I call these the invisible setting, because it is just as important as what you are able to visualise in the actual setting; in fact it's probably even more important, because tone, mood and atmosphere affect the emotions of the reader and this is what grips them and keeps them reading.

Key fact: Get into the habit of reading consciously. Be on the lookout for adjectives, adverbs, images and original turns of phrase in books.  Watch how writers create characters.  Notice how they develop atmosphere and mood.

 

Again, it's useful to compare tone, mood and atmosphere in books with what happens in films. Film directors have several tools at their disposal to help them create a particular mood, such as lighting, music and camera angles. This means that when a film character walks up to a rickety old house, we can just tell from the music and lighting (or lack of it) that something spooky is about to happen.

Writers also need to create a sense of tone, mood and atmosphere in their writing. They might not be trying to create a spooky atmosphere. They might want something exciting or relaxing or dramatic, but they create tone, mood and atmosphere by using similar tricks to those they use to create interesting characters and settings. In other words they use those adjectives, adverbs and original turns of phrase again.

 

Sensory language.

As you can probably guess, sensory language is language that appeals to your senses. Our senses, as I am sure you know, are sight, touch, taste, smell and hearing. Sensory language is very effective because human beings experience life through the senses and any words which directly appeal to the senses tend to instantly evoke a picture of what the writer wants us to experience. 

 

Try it Yourself!

 

If you want to know how sensory language works and why it is so effective, try closing your eyes when certain food ads are on the TV, and just listen to the words (I am thinking particularly of the Marks and Spencer ads). Thick, delicious, warm, crunchy.... These words are calculated to have you running to the kitchen for something to eat, even before you can see that chocolate sauce, much less smell or taste it!

 

 

Sensory language creates a much more vivid picture than language which refers to thinking about something (we call this abstract language). Sensory language really animates a scene and makes the character, setting and atmosphere seem real.  To show you what I mean and demonstrate the difference between sensory and abstract language, compare the following two paragraphs. The first describes what a character is thinking about a situation whereas the second describes his sensory responses.

 

As I walked through the front door, I wondered how long the house had been empty. The estate agent told me that the previous occupants had just left the place, but it seemed to me that they had been away for years. Everything seemed untouched and the house had an empty unloved feel to it.

 

This isn't bad writing, but compare this with the piece written as though the writer is really EXPERIENCING going into an empty house. Note the use of sensory language.

As the door creaked open, the first thing I noticed was the smell. A fusty, musty odour, like old curtains. And it was so quiet, like walking into a tomb. Only the shaft of light moved, or seemed to be moving, the dust motes dancing in the luminous pyramid, like billions of glow worms.

 

I've highlighted the words that appeal to the senses, but even without this highlighting can you see how the second version gives a stronger sense of the character as well as of his surroundings?

 

Any questions? Email me at info@catherinemooneytutoring.co.uk