11 January 2011

Have we lost the plot? Revisiting narrative structure

Since the new HSC appeared on our radar, the teaching of techniques has been explicit and comprehensive, aiding students in their recognition of the tools composers use to make meaning.  This has occurred across all textual forms. Students are adept at discussing the effects of figurative language (poetry and prose), cinematography (film), dialogue and stage directions (drama), and various elements such as visuals and layout (graphic texts and multimedia). And while this is appropriate and in line with the syllabus, the techniques mentioned are all stylistic.

Stage 6 Outcome 4 explicitly states: ‘A student describes and analyses the ways that language forms and features, and structures of texts shape meaning and influence responses.’ Outcomes 3, 5 and 6 implicitly refer to students’ ability to analyse and respond to all aspects of texts, making no distinction between style and structure. I am going to argue for a reconsideration of what we include when we teach narrative texts such as the novel, short story, film and drama. This paper will revisit structure, specifically plot as the core device of narrative texts so that students can improve their appreciation of story structure in both analysis and composition.

When I first began teaching in 1990, before the internet revolution, narrative structure was reasonably familiar to young people, even though they may not have had the labels to identify elements of plot. Although many of my students did not read for pleasure they watched a great deal of television (including ‘SBS Movies’, they would say with a smirk) and played simple narrative based video games. The first school at which I taught had a very high NESB population and used short story anthologies to engage students in reading and to assist them in their composition of short stories. We frequently spent time discussing the plot. What does the orientation tell us? What complications arise? What is the result of each complication? How did this all this lead to the resolution? We diligently taught Frietag’s triangle and helped students to map a sequence of events onto the diagram. At times, we also examined television programs for comparison and further study or for specific media modules. Students easily applied the terms of narrative structure to the fictional television programs they were watching and the early video games they were playing. And while this was fairly stock standard teaching, it enabled students to understand the important notion of cause and effect, with ramifications beyond the enjoyment of stories, a point I will return to later.

Whilst I only have anecdotal evidence for these observations, it seems that my current students spend less time engaging with well-structured narratives in their leisure time even though they are more enthusiastic readers than other students I have taught. With the explosion of online social networking sites students appear to be endlessly engaging in viewing the minutiae of the lives of the others and constructing an online avatar, an electronic version of themselves. At the 2008 AATE/ALEA conference in Adelaide, many presenters showed how online activities can assist students in developing their literacy skills and I am not contradicting their views.  I am suggesting that we need to augment students’ knowledge of narrative structure to improve their understanding of concepts such as narrative structure - cause and effect. 

I am not suggesting that we return to the simple methods I used in my first few years of teaching, nor am I suggesting that narrative structure is always fixed and can be mapped accordingly. As a fan of metafiction and postmodern playfulness in the novels I choose to read and the films I enjoy, I acknowledge the great variety which exists within narrative today. But I also know that my enjoyment of those texts comes from a strong understanding of traditional narrative structure and an appreciation of a composer’s cleverness in manipulating those features. I know that many English teachers actively teach this knowledge and these skills to their students. My aim, in the next blog post, is to enhance teachers’ explicit teaching of narrative structure as part of the repertoire of strategies they use when engaging students in the analysis and composition of texts.

No comments:

Post a Comment