You’re listening to the Parents of Hardworking Teens Podcast, episode 64 - and if you were like me as a student and thought that writing a short story, was about the story, then stay tuned as I explain why that actually one of the last things students need to be thinking about and I’ll share with you 4 shortcuts you can use to help your teen write a stunning short story, creative writing piece or narrative.
Hi VIP’s! I hope you are doing great and you’re ready for a very tangible, super-specific and actionable episode here today because that’s exactly what I’ve got for you.
So get a pen and paper and turn off distractions, or if you’re driving come back to this again and spend 15 minutes getting this down. And of course, feel free to pass this episode on to your teen and have them take notes for themselves.
Because I’m going to share with you, not as an English specialist, because I’m not, but as an examiner, 4 shortcuts that have your teen write stunning short stories from now on.
Because 99.5% of you, like me, are also not English teachers. So I hope that this will help make it much more relatable and actionable for you. I’m not going to be trying to teach you any actual English skills, that your teen’s job to know and learn that, but I as someone who has marked for the Australian NAPLAN Writing Test which students sit up to Year 9 and for the QCS Writing Test for Year 12s, I have developed some strategies and steps that mean more marks according to what examiners - and the English teachers - are looking for and making it happen much faster than the usual story-writing process takes most students.
So, first of all, let’s get clear on the type of task or assessment we’re talking about here. By short story, that includes any kind of narrative or imaginative or creative writing, and it includes when students have to come up with any story of their choice, have to write in response to a stimulus or have to write some form or recreation of an existing novel, play or film. For example, telling it from a different perspective or writing an alternate ending. So there are lots of different ways this can be set as a task or assessment and I know that for some exam boards, this can also be a part of students’ final formal examination. For example, the HSC English imaginative writing piece for Module C.
And here’s what I know lots of students are doing. They’re spending loads of time trying to come up with an original or unique or super-interesting storyline. They feel like, to get a good mark or to stand out, they’ve got to make it the next Game of Thrones or the next Star Wars or come up with something as creative as Life of Pi.
And side-note, I’m using those examples, but I should say, that these are all stories or films or programs I know of, but I’ve got to admit, apart from watching the original Star Wars trilogy just because that’s what we all did as a kid back then, I have never actually watched any of the others. I know. I know, I’m missing out. And I’m not totally boring, I do enjoy movies, I loved the new Top Gun movie - but that’s actually a good marker of the level of my movie sophistication. And Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, anything along those lines, with gladiators, or goblins, I’m not even sure what’s in them. I’m out. I know I’m in the minority, but it’s just not my cup of tea.
So anyway, here’s what else I see so many students doing. They’re trying to come up with amazing storylines, AND they’re spending time and effort on the specifics: switching and changing settings, or characters or character names, or what type of person they are. Like, does the person get talking to the homeless person in the park, or to the lonely lady walking her dog by the river? Or is the main character called Jake or Jack, and is he 24 with brown hair or 25 with blonde hair?
Or, here’s the other thing I see - and read - SO often. They get the storyline and characters sorted, but then what happens is they start writing, get going and realise that they’re either almost out of time, or almost up to the word count and they’re not even at the main part of the story yet.
And so if they’re in the exam, they have to rush the whole seconnd half of the plot, which is likely the most important part, into about 6 sentences. And if they’re not in an exam, they spend loads of time and loads of effort on cutting or re-writing and editing.
And none of this even guarantees them a great grade!
Here’s why. Yep, you guessed it, we have to take a look at the marking criteria. Nowhere does it say, character has a great name, or the storyline is unique and interesting. Now, characterisation techniques can count towards marks, but just the actual features themselves don’t. And the THEME or MESSAGE of the story is important, but the actual events or storyline themselves aren’t.
Stick with me here and I’ll explain exactly what I mean because this is the first way you can help your teen: Find the mark scheme or success criteria and dissect it. Figure out what the marker is actually, specifically looking for in their writing. What do they need to incorporate and show?
If they don’t have any criteria to work from for their specific task, then go and download the NAPLAN writing test marking guide for narrative writing. It’s online and free for anyone to find and download. I’ll link it up in the show notes for you too.
In there, there are 10 marking criteria and the great thing about it only going up to Year 9 is that it is all laid out really clearly and simply. The language is not convoluted and ambiguous. Or at least is less so than other mark schemes I’ve seen for Year 12 Writing tests and assessments. Now, if your teen is in a higher year group than that, they won’t want to use that. They’ll think that it’s not relevant because they need to be operating at a higher level, so here’s what I want to tell you.
Seeing and using and marking against criteria and mark schemes right from Y9 up to senior years, those 10 criteria are always the same. Of course the level of skill, the quality increases from Y9 or 10 to Y12 or 13, but the actual things they’re looking for - like literary devices and language techniques and structural features are . the . same.
So let’s get into those in more detail.
The second way to help your teen write a successful short story is by getting them to use TONS of different language devices, literary skills and writing techniques.
Both in terms of the form (or structure) of their writing and their language.
So we’re talking emotive vocabulary, personification, similes, symbolism, onomatopoeia, repetition, and for the higher year groups, they also ideally need to include at least one or two of the more advanced techniques, like anaphora, extended metaphors, foreshadowing as well. Remember you don’t need to know any of this stuff. But your teen does and you can give them the nudge to make sure they’re using it all.
This is all the ‘show not tell’ stuff your teen likely gets told all the time by their teachers, but likely doesn’t actually USE enough in their own writing. I’d say they need at least 10 different ones. And I hope it goes without saying that they need to be used effectively and appropriately. Not shoe-horned in, but used selectively and accurately.
What they need to know and continuously keep in mind is that the story is basically the vehicle for your teen to showcase their storytelling skills, the way they’re going to use all the devices and techniques they’ve been learning. The story is just the method to get across to the examiner or teacher these skills.
Okay, so the third way you can help your teen write a successful short story is by making sure they have a theme or message to the story. This is one of those elements that isn’t really required in the lower year groups. In Y7 or 8 they really just want students to be able to tell a story that has a setting, rising tension, climax and resolution and be able to use some creative language technique.
But in Y9 and above, and especially in the senior years, they need to have more than just a series of events in order to get a top mark. They also need their story to have a theme or a message - something it makes the reader think or feel. Now they’re not quite writing an actual fable here, but a general theme like good overcoming evil, or revenge is never the answer or honesty is the best policy or being you is more important than fitting in, those are the sorts of things we’re talking about here. Because, when you think about it, that’s exactly what they have to identify and analyse when they’re studying other people’s stories. The theme of power or revenge or social hierarchy or gender roles in the Shakepeare play or the novel or the movie.
And of course, they are only taking one small example of that, given that they are not creating a 200 page novel. It needs to be one simple scenario.
Which leads us to the fourth shortcut to your teen writing a stunning short story. And that is to keep it simple. More specifically this means narrow and deep. I.e. narrow in terms of timeframe, number of events, number of characters. The smaller the better. And then go deep with the descriptions of them, go into detail on the emotions. Keeping it simple and going narrow and deep is what will enable them to use TONS of language devices and writing techniques and clearly show a theme or message.
And I’ll give you a real example here.
Years ago I was doing a marking contract for a school to mark their cohorts Y12 QCS writing test practice papers. They had to write in response to a stimulus which was all about ‘Gold’. Gold as a metal, or the sun as the golden orb in space, or gold as something precious or valuable. There were lots of options provided of where they could go with it and the ONE student paper out of over a hundred that stood out - and got an excellent mark - was a short story about a basketball player taking the winning shot in the olympic final.The whole timeline of the story was about 5 seconds. Not 5 hours, not 5 days. 5 seconds. And instead of spending their time and word count telling us about lots of events that happened for the player, they spent them describing in detail the feelings and emotions involved, the intricate details. Like, how the ball felt physically as the player caught it and then how they felt mentally as they realised that with only a few seconds left on the clock it was up to them to take the shot that would determine whether their team won or lost the game. And they described the how the crowd roared as the arena was filled with cheers and shouts as the ball swooshed through the ring and the net. And yes, they had a message in there and yes they were using TONS of writing techniques and devices. The theme was that hard work and determination pay off. Because they included a flash back to when this player was a kid and was spending hours and hours training and practicing and dreaming of this day, with the goal to play for his country and win gold.
That wasn’t the only story to get a really high mark, but it was the most impactful and I have to say also probably the simplest. No convoluted storyline or multiple characters to describe or account for. All the drama was in the things that would gain them marks. In the descriptive language, in the vocabulary choices, in the detailed and sophisticated use of language structures and techniques. Going narrow and deep allowed them to do this.
And so here’s what I want to make really clear here. The story - the events and characters of the story - is not the main point of the story. The story is the vehicle that allows your teen to show their teacher or the examiner their SKILLS in storytelling. How well they can use the literary techniques and devices to convey a message to the reader THROUGH a story.
So to recap, the four shortcuts you can use to help them do that are: One - to get hold of and get really clear on what’s in the marking criteria - to know what is the marker ACTUALLY going to be looking for, what’s actually going to get them marks. And then, two, to have a message or theme to the story. Three use TONS of writing features and language devices, and do it skilfully. And four, go narrow and deep, keep the actual story short and simple. Less is more. Or, more precisely, less gives more opportunity for more detail and more techniques. In fact, bonus tip here, that I use as a great way to help them do this. They can still plan out the story they want to tell, and then I ask them, if you can only tell one part of it - like one scene, which would it be? Which is the critical part in conveying the theme or message? Which is the juiciest part? And then have them just write that. They can add a little bit of context where needed, but that’s a really good way to get the story to fit a smaller time frame.
So, there you have it. Four shortcuts to help your teen write a stunning short story in years 9 to 12 or 10 to 13. Make sure to go over to the show notes for the transcript if you want to print this out as a resource to refer to and to get the exam board mark scheme links. Either on your podcast app or you can go to:www.rocksolidstudy.com/64
So, here’s to your teen’s next story assessment ending in happily ever after and not taking forever to write! Have a brilliant day and I’ll see you back here next week.