My most viewed blogs of 2016

In reverse order:

10. Comparing texts – next steps – GCSE English language – in which I offer practical strategies for comparing unseen texts in GCSE language exams

9. Boy Trouble: some questions to help close the gender gap in English – a reflection on ways I have tried to improve the performance of boys in English (although other subjects leaders apparently found this useful too)

8. How to be a Head of Faculty – my advice for all new and aspiring heads of faculty/department

7. How to compare texts – a general guide to comparison. I had about 17 followers before this was retweeted by some Twitter heavyweights, such as Geoff Barton, Tom Sherrington and Chris Curtis

6. Part 3: Some proper exemplars for the GCSE English Language Evaluation question – an initial rant inspired by a frustrating AQA training day that went on to offer my own take on what pupils will need to do to succeed with the new English GCSEs

5. Exam essay questions, and how to avoid answering them – as Andy Tharby noted wryly, this off the cuff blog wasn’t one for the purists. My cheeky take on how to manipulate exam questions to play to your strengths. It turned out Stephen Fry used the same approach at Cambridge

4. Teaching structure – a model answer – my guide to producing model answers, with a specific example for the infamous structure question

3. Etiquette, sexual repression and body snatching – A Guide to the context of Jekyll & Hyde – a bibliography of context resources for Stevenson’s classic novella. With a little help from Rob Ward and James Theobald

2. Teaching the Evaluation Question for GCSE English Language – in which I introduced the creaky mnemonic GRANDDAD to the unsuspecting world, as I way to try and slay this 20 mark beast

And by far the most popular blog:

1.  Teaching Structure for the new English GCSEs – English teachers around the country were apparently desperately searching for a way in to this topic. Like a snake oil salesman, I knocked out a structure elixir (hopefully without any dubious long-term side effects)

Thanks for all your feedback this year,

Mark

 

 

The cliché that is not a cliché

When is a cliché not a cliché? That’s a question I asked my pupils during a recent lesson. They had been reading through an article from The Guardian that appeared to be full of the little horrors. They had taken great delight in criticising the writer’s hackneyed turn of phrase. They had clearly paid attention to my recent lessons on avoiding clichés like the plague. They weren’t pulling any punches: it was no holds barred stuff. The reason they were enjoying themselves so much? They’d realised that the writer of the article was their teacher.

‘This is weird sir… the writer’s got the same name as you.’

‘I know.’

‘Did you write this?’

‘Yes.’

‘But it’s from 2005.’

At which point I always explain that many, many years ago, in the years BT (Before Teaching), I used to work as a journalist. They’re usually impressed. And then they normally say, with pity glistening in their lachrymose eyeballs, something like ‘So why on earth are you teaching?’. Then I say – in full truthfulness – something like ‘because I enjoyed writing for a living but I love teaching much more’. We then drift off into a scene made for flashback, in which I regale them with tales of perks and glitzy events, and nerve-wracking interviews with minor celebrities they’ve never heard of. I sometimes tell them about the time I interviewed the then poet laureate, Andrew Motion, who was in a very grumpy mood, for half an hour before realising I’d forgot to press record on the dictaphone. Usually, I recognise that I  have digressed away from my… ahem… lesson plan, just like I have now digressed slightly off the topic of this blog.

That didn’t matter though. It’s rare that kids get to quiz a journalist about a piece that they’re critiquing, even if it was an obscure column tucked away in an obscure (now defunct) supplement.

Anyway, during the discussion on clichés, one of them came to my defence:

‘What do you call it, sir, when the writer – you I mean – uses a cliché but sort off… knows it’s a cliché and is, well, doing it deliberately? Playing around with the words. Doing a pun with it.’

I call this a subverted cliché. Have a look at the column and see what you think:

True tales

The orange man takes his revenge

  • Mark Roberts
  • The Guardian, Monday 20 June 2005

An amiable and tolerant person, Jules was nevertheless a man with an obsession. The only thing that could get him through the long tedious days our office specialised in was an artificial stimulant. Jules was a non-smoker and was indifferent to chocolate. If offered crack he would probably say he could take it or leave it. For Jules craved only one substance: he was addicted to orange Fanta.

When I first joined the company, Jules used to buy six tins a day from the vending machine. Given our paltry salary and the prohibitive cost of the cans, it became evident that he was spending a fair chunk of his wage on his sugary vice. Like all addicts, he demanded as pure a hit as possible, so insisted that his pop was as cold as the boss’s wife. His solution was to buy a two-litre bottle each day and stick it in the communal fridge.

In it went on his arrival at 8.30am, allowing it to cool sufficiently to quench his raging thirst by exactly 10.27am. Until then he would fidget nervously and chew on a biro until his mouth was blue. When the magical time arrived he would hold aloft the frosty Fanta and make the sound of the contents of a mop bucket being poured down a drain.

Despite the torturous daily wait, things went smoothly until something mysterious happened: Jules’s Fanta began to evaporate. Initially he questioned his sanity – in his pre-Fanta haze had he somehow misjudged how much was in the bottle? Or perhaps the supermarket from which he procured his fix was selling faulty Fanta in leaky bottles? After a week of hell Jules came to a sinister conclusion. One (or more), of our esteemed colleagues was stealing his Fanta.

Jules did the sensible thing. Certain that the thief or thieves would see the error of their ways if they realised it was not a victimless crime, he put a large sticky label on his next bottle, which read: “Jules’s pop – hands off!” Alas the stealing persisted.

Suddenly Jules turned into Agent Orange and life in the office resembled a deranged hybrid of Quincy, Poirot and Murder She Wrote. A man possessed, Jules the Fanta Fiend began the kind of interrogation that would make the Stasi squeamish. Despite wild accusations – aimed at everyone from the company accountant to the 76-year-old toothless cleaning lady – the bad cop/bad cop routine failed to extract any tearful confessions. Subtler methods were employed. Anybody going to the staff room was discreetly followed to see if he could catch them orange-handed. The thorough reconnaissance stage proved equally disastrous – the Fanta vessel continued to empty, but his in-tray overflowed.

Gripped by tartrazine rage, Jules now abandoned attempts to catch the culprits and set out for old-fashioned retribution. He clearly agreed with the adage about revenge being best served ice cold. One day as I entered the gents I saw Jules leave the cubicle zipping up his flies with one hand as he screwed back on the top of his Fanta with the other. He winked at me and told me that he was officially switching to tap water from now on. He said the Fanta thief would eventually come to the conclusion that orange Fanta “tastes like piss”.

They felt the following, were examples of subverted clichés:

  • ‘the bad cop/bad cop routine’ – exaggerating the unpleasant atmosphere in the office and amplifying the intensity of the addict’s obsession
  • ‘catch them orange-handed’ – taking a clichéd metaphor and tweaking it to fit the motif of fixation on the colour orange
  • ‘revenge being best served ice cold’ – The insertion of ‘ice’ saved this by linking back to the second motif of refridgeration
  • ‘tastes like piss’ – the obvious colloquial insult was rescued by the removal of the profane simile with the substition of a more literal fact

So that’s it. Case closed. I’d proved that I was so clever that I could manipulate tired, overused langauge to humorous effect.

Except a few of them suddenly began to “piss on my bonfire”. They started to notice –  as I stood back like a proud, doting father – some genuine, bona fide clichés:

  • Suddenly – a word I had specifically banned in their writing a few weeks ago!
  • A man possessed
  • see the error of their ways
  • raging thirst

I could go on. Strangely, they didn’t pack up and walk out in protest. They’d admired my writing and were impressed that I’d been able to get published (regularly, I naturally added) in a respected national newspaper. They were reassured by the fact that the cliché is so invasive that I – an expert writer in their eyes – had succumbed. They found it interesting that I considered myself a much better writer now, as an amateur scribbler. Growth mindset and marginal gains and all that, innit. You’d never find any clichés in my writing these days, of course, I told them. Any that you did spot would be used knowingly, with a nod and a wink to my educated audience. They would be thoroughly and utterly subverted.

Thanks for reading. Have a nice Christmas,

Mark

 

‘So what?’ and ‘Tell me more’ – effect and exploration of key quotes

When I first started teaching my current mixed ability Year 11 class they were hopeless at word class. A year of “beasting” them and they are now getting very good at identifying types of word. Most of them can now separate their abstract nouns from their in definite pronouns, and distinguish between comparatives and superlatives. To begin with, they knew only the most basic of language features – rhetorical questions, similes and triples – but can now identify anthropomorphism, epizeuxis and aposiopesis, among others. Their vocabularies (none of them read for pleasure, to my knowledge) were pretty basic, but 15 months on they can now rattle off decent synonyms when put on the spot during the flow of the lesson. But an area of stubborn resistance for many is explaining precisely the effect of the writer’s choice of language and remembering to explore different interpretations of key words.

In an attempt to combat this, I’ve started to adapt my questioning style. I’ve gone from politely probing to brutally abrupt. We had a cracking lesson the other day in which they seemed to thrive upon the clarity of my impertinent questions.

We were revising a quote from the poem ‘Poppies’ by Jane Weir: ‘Sellotape bandaged around my hand, I rounded up as many white cat hairs as I could’. For memorisation purposes we’d got down to the two key words ‘sellotape bandaged’. For the next 20 minutes or so my questions to various pupils went something like this:

  • ‘Language feature? Yes, it’s a metaphor.’
  • ‘Bandaged – word class? Yes, verb. Why ‘bandaged’? What other word could Weir have chosen? Yes, wrapped would have been the obvious choice… so why ‘bandaged?’ ‘It suggests pain and injury, sir’ ‘So what?’ ‘It suggests she’s in pain’ ‘Who’s she? The poet?’ ‘No, the mother – the persona that Weir has adopted’ ‘Tell me more’ ‘She’s feeling psychological pain because her son is going to war’ ‘So what?’ ‘Well, ‘bandage’ implies her trauma is mental rather than physical.’ ‘Tell me more. Give me an alternative’ ‘It could be his pain. In the war’ ‘What does that mean? Explain‘ ”Bandaged’ conveys her feeling of anxiety and foreshadows that he’s going to be wounded in the war.’

The ‘so what?’ responses elicited far more precise writer’s effect explanations than my usual wordier questions. ‘Tell me more’ largely prompted alternative interpretations. I continued this approach for ‘sellotape’ and got the following connotations:

  1.  It’s adhesive – ‘so what?‘ It implies the bond between mother and son. She’s desperate to keep him close to her. ‘Tell me more…’
  2. It’s one-sided – ‘so what?‘ It implies that the relationship has become unbalanced; She believes she is being protective and loving but he sees her affection as suffocating. ‘Tell me more…’
  3. It’s fragile – ‘so what?‘ It implies the hold she has over her son is delicate. ‘Tell me more…’ Just like her mental state is fragile. ‘Tell me more…’
  4. It’s temporary – ‘so what?‘ Well, sellotape is sticky but only for so long. Eventually it loses its adhesiveness (is that a word Sir?). ‘Yes. So what?’ It symbolises the breakdown of the mother and son’s bond. ‘Tell me more…’ As young men reach maturity they want to have their freedom. Become independent from their mother’s protection. Prove their masculinity.‘Tell me more…’
  5. It’s transparent –  ‘so what?‘ The son can see right through her. Her desperation to cling on to him is obvious. He can tell she just wants him to stay a child so she can always mother him. ‘Tell me more…’

By now the class are all scribbling down each other’s bits of mini-analysis of effects of word choice and are building up an impressive collection of alternative interpretations as they collectively explored this noun (or, as a trade mark, proper noun if you’re being pedantic, and of course we were). One of them said ‘This is amazing, sir, but I’ll never remember all these ideas’. You probably won’t, I told her, but it only takes a couple of juicy readings of a quote, explored effectively and in detail and they are already up towards the higher mark bands. Keep doing this, I say, and  – like the opaque, flimsy, inadequately adherent product itself – you’ll find that some of it sticks.

Thanks for reading,

Mark

The Art of Making Strange – Creative writing done differently

A pallid creature walks towards me, brandishing a selection of wooden clubs.  His mouth is smeared with blood, matching his snooker ball nose.  The hair on his head is wild, unkempt and of an inadvisable brightness; his shoes are utterly impractical, representing a clear health and safety hazard. Intermittently, he honks like a demented seal as liquid erupts from the shoddy rose adorning his unspeakable blazer. 

What am I describing here?

Yes, it’s a clown. I know, teachers have had enough of bloody clowns this year. You probably worked it out with the shoes, or maybe the nose. But you had to work for it, I think. I didn’t use the word ‘clown’ for example. And I tried to avoid mentioning obvious references to clown paraphernalia. Perhaps I could have done this better. Perhaps I could have been still more obscure, removing any use of the words ‘nose’, ‘hair’, or ‘shoes’, which are all closely associated with the beloved ‘comic’ entertainer. Even so, it presented, or rather re-presented, the clown in an unusual, indirect and oblique way.  The technique I’ve used is defined by David Lodge:

Defamiliarization is the usual English translation of ostranenie (literally, “making strange”), another of those invaluable critical terms coined by the Russian Formalists. In a famous essay first published in 1917, Victor Shklovsky argued that the essential purpose of art is to overcome the deadening effects of habit by representing familiar things in unfamiliar ways.’

If employed skillfully, defamiliarization allows for a shift in perspective, a way of reframing the dull expectations of everyday objects, removing what Shklovsky terms the dreaded ‘habitualization’ of life. The purpose of art, he argued, is to find new ways of revitalising our perspectives through a magic wave of the author’s wand.

Shklovsky, naturally enough, celebrates Tolstoy as the doyen of defamiliarisers, while Lodge lauds a particularly impressive passage from Charlotte Bronte’s Villete. My own favourite example of the technique, which I shared with my Year 10s recently, is taken from the opening section of Julian Barnes’ sublime A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters:

THE STOWAWAY

They put the behemoths in the hold along with the rhinos, the hippos and the elephants. It was a sensible decision to use them as ballast; but you can imagine the stench. And there was no-one to muck out. The men were overburdened with the feeding rota, and their women, who beneath those leaping fire-tongues of scent no doubt reeked as badly as we did, were far too delicate. So if any mucking-out was to happen, we had to do it ourselves. Every few months they would winch back the thick hatch on the aft deck and let the cleanerbirds in. Well, first they had to let the smell out (and there weren’t too many volunteers for winch-work); then six or eight of the less fastidious birds would flutter cautiously around the hatch for a minute or so before diving in. I can’t remember what they were all called – indeed, one of those pairs no longer exists – but you know the sort I mean. You’ve seen hippos with their mouths open and bright little birds pecking away between their teeth like distraught dental hygienists? Picture that on a larger, messier scale. I am hardly squeamish, but even I used to shudder at the scene below decks: a row of squinting monsters being manicured in a sewer.

There was strict discipline on the Ark: that’s the first point to make. It wasn’t like those nursery versions in painted wood which you might have played with as a child – all happy couples peering merrily over the rail from the comfort of their well-scrubbed stalls. Don’t imagine some Mediterranean cruise on which we played languorous roulette and everyone dressed for dinner; on the Ark only the penguins wore tailcoats. Remember: this was a long and dangerous voyage – dangerous even though some of the rules had been fixed in advance. Remember too that we had the whole of the animal kingdom on board: would you have put the cheetahs within springing distance of the antelope? A certain level of security was inevitable, and we accepted double-peg locks, stall inspections, a nightly curfew. But regrettably there were also punishments and isolation cells. Someone at the very top became obsessed with information gathering; and certain of the travellers agreed to act as stool pigeons. I’m sorry to report that ratting to the authorities was at times widespread. It wasn’t a nature reserve, that Ark of ours; at times it was more like a prison ship.

Barnes’ genius here involves taking a story that has flooded the consciousness of every young person in Christendom (and beyond) and making it fresh. The eponymous ‘stowaway’ narrator is of course the lowly woodworm, whose woodworm’s eye view allows for a deeply ironic take on Biblical narratives.

So far, so entertaining. But what’s the point? Well, it’s my belief that defamiliarization is weapon number one (or at the very least a major weapon) in the long-running War Against Cliche. It also has the benefit of adding clarity to vague instructions about showing not telling.

Here’s a few creative writing tasks I’ve done with my Year 10s and Year 11s recently, inspired by Shklovsky’s manifesto for the newly odd:

  1. Describe the picture below. The catch being, you can’t use the following words: trunk, tree, leaves, mist, branch, forest or wood.

forest

2.  Describe an object in 50 words in a way that defamiliarizes it. You must not make what it is explicit. If you are stuck try: a piano, a pineapple, a Christmas tree, a tank, a launderette or a giraffe.

3. Write a 500 word story set in an abandoned place. Do not reveal where the place is or why it was abandoned until the final paragraph.

4. Write a description of something using a David Attenborough style narration. It cannot be an animal!

Here’s a delightful example that one of my Year 10s did for homework recently:

Attenborough description.jpg

5. Write an article for a broadsheet newspaper on a given following topic. Your first paragraph must use defamiliarization and cannot reveal which side of the argument you are coming down on.

I guarantee you, the writing produced in response to these tasks will be more interesting, enigmatic and downright bizarre than using the same tired old prompts of AFOREST and the like. And the final bonus? Pupils will start to recognise examples of defamiliarized passages in Section A of the GCSE Language papers, which could make for highly sophisticated evaluation.

Thanks for reading,

Mark

 

‘I don’t want to talk about it’ – how not to write dialogue

‘I think that pupils are rubbish at writing dialogue,’ exclaimed the teacher.

‘Do you really think so?’ Replied his colleague.

‘I honestly do,’ he responded honestly.

‘Why do you think that’s the case?’ Asked his colleague

‘Oh, it’s not just pupils. You’ll find that most people – even established writers – are quite useless at writing dialogue.’ He said, scratching his head with bemusement.

‘You don’t say.’ His colleague didn’t say.

I’m teaching creative writing at the moment. My pupils are generally good at it. They’ve taken on board my advice about avoiding cliches in their narratives and descriptions. They can do sentence variety. They understand that incongruous similes can stick out like a sore pollex. But they, like virtually every other pupil I’ve taught – including the ridiculously talented writers – are pretty bad at dialogue. My previous advice for dealing with this flaw was pretty bad as well: keep it to an absolute minimum or avoid it entirely. This is just about manageable in a 500 word controlled assessment or exam answer but isn’t really helping any aspiring novelists I teach. And on a more basic level, decent dialogue can very much enliven and enhance even short pieces of writing.

So this year I’ve been determined to talk about talk. To teach it properly. And to do this, to do dialogue justice, I’ve started off by showing bad dialogue. The type (like the opening to this blog) that has you hiding behind the sofa, waiting for it to go away. To begin with, I allow my pupils, untutored in the ways of decent dialogue, to fall into some obvious traps. Today, I set my Year 10 group a seemingly simple starter: write six lines of dialogue between two characters, one of whom is trying to hide something. They found it very difficult.Here’s some of the obvious mistakes that these smart but inexperienced writers made:

  1. ‘Ping pong’ dialogue – characters respond to dull questions or statements with equally dull responses. There is usually a repetition of words: ‘Would you like to go to the cinema?’ ‘Yes, I’d love to go to the cinema’. This backward and forward exchange becomes interminable, worthless filler.
  2. Dialogue that follows the rules of polite conversation – similarly, people interrupt, change the topic, ignore the question, stay silent. My pupils’ dialogue was far too polite to be evasive. It lacked conflict.
  3. Conversations that sound like prose – full, perfectly punctuated grammatical artifacts, rather than realistic sounding snippets (see example no.1). ‘Fancy the cinema?’ ‘Go on then’ is not the greatest dialogue ever but at least sounds like it’s come out of a human’s mouth.
  4. Telling not showing – ‘Do you still love me?’ ‘No, I don’t love you anymore…’ is the default urge when writing dialogue. It’s more difficult to ‘show’ during conversation but worth perseverance: ‘Want to go to bed now?’ ‘Let’s watch the end of the film’.
  5. Overdoing the exposition – ‘I know that you went to Oxford, and got a first in Physics, but that doesn’t mean I have to listen to your opinion on everything, John.’
  6. Tag thesaurus – Elmore Leonard, widely acknowledged as a master of dialogue is adamant that you should never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.   And that’s only if it isn’t clear who’s speaking in the first place. My pupils generally agreed that their writing improved dramatically after getting rid of the ‘cried’ and ‘shouted’ and ‘hesitated’. We worked on showing the feelings using the actual words, along with (bits of) filler and aposiopesis. Anyone who has had a lesson come to a premature sticky end after reading aloud ‘“My dear Holmes!” I ejaculated’ will surely agree with this one.
  7. Adding unnecessary adverbs –  again Leonard nails this one: ‘never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely’.
  8. Overdoing dialect – Unless you’re Irvine Welsh it’s nae wise to likesay use a pure rush of vernacular ’til yer reader cannae stand it nae more, ken.
  9. Shoddy free indirect speech – the teacher told his pupils that he was tired of the torturous summary of the conversation that went on for what seemed like pages. Yes, he informed them, he wanted then to incorporate this to avoid unnecessary chunks of dialogue but, as he pointed out once more, he wanted them to use it sparingly.
  10. Dialogue for the sake of it – I’ve written a hundred words of description. My page needs a bit of dialogue to break things up a touch. Let’s have a brief chat. William Sloane, author of The Craft of Writing, argues:

‘There is a tentative rule that pertains to all fiction dialogue. It must do more than one thing at a time or it is too inert for the purposes of fiction. This may sound harsh, but I consider it an essential discipline.’

And this is the really tricky part: you want your pupil’s dialogue to sound natural, without it ever really being natural. It’s not transcribed speech – that’s painful to read – but instead an engaging approximation.

So, we’re starting to get better at dialogue. Next (and another reason why I’d previously shied away from promoting the use of dialogue) we’ll talk about how to punctuate the bloody stuff…

‘Thanks for reading,’ said Mark.

Shakespeare in a word

Serendipity is a wonderful thing. You read a brilliant blog (@Xris32 – who else?) on memorising one word quotes in Romeo & Juliet, then later that day you’re flicking back through a book on Shakespeare and you stumble upon something significant that links back beautifully with the blog:

Lear.jpg

Shapiro’s idea, from the wonderful 1606: the Year of Lear really got me thinking. Shakespeare’s use of a single word as a motif to emphasise key themes in Lear must surely be replicated elsewhere. And if we are going to look for single word quotes to help memorisation for exams, then could we not kill two examiners with one stone and investigate the thematic and structural significance of repeated individual diction?

Today I stuck my Year 12s in a computer room. They were deeply confused: I’ve taught some of them for three years and this is probably the first time I’d taken them there. But I had a plan. A half-baked one dreamed up in the shower that morning.

The lesson went like this:

1.Gave each pupil one of the following themes from Othello

  • Relationships
  • Love/Hate
  • Betrayal
  • Jealousy
  • Ethnicity
  • Gender
  • Perception
  • Heaven/Hell
  • Warfare
  • Animals
  • Pain/Suffering

2. Got them to copy and paste the script of each scene into a word document and perform a search of words related to the topic, using the ‘find’ tool

3. Got them to notice how it throws up results like this, helpfully highlighting the quote at the same time:

find

4. Pointed out that you can do this more quickly by copying and pasting the whole play in one go but stressed that doing it this way allows you to note changes throughout the play, adding structural awareness. For example, the zoomorphic language in the first half of the play is used mainly by Iago, whereas the second half of the play see Shakespeare giving Othello most of the animal imagery. It’s as if Iago has infected Othello’s vocabulary as well as poisoned his mind.

5. Asked them to start compiling statistics and comment on the really interesting ones. ‘Look’ for example appears 35 times, a pupil tells me, which supports our hunch that ideas about perception are indeed central to the play. ‘Heaven’ appears 60 times, while ‘hell’ barely features. ‘Honest’ 42 v ‘Lie’ 14?’Sweet’ and ‘love’ – in my mind more associated with R&J appears together 24 and 76 times respectively.What are we to make of that?

Well we’re still digging and researching. And figuring out the relevance of these motifs. There’s probably a quicker way but this way, I think, offers a valuable insight into the mechanics of the play in tandem with an appreciation of Shakespeare’s deliberately selective vocabulary.

And nobody got caught playing on a bloody game all lesson.

Thanks for reading,

Mark

 

 

Losing the plot: Deus Ex Machina and why you should teach it

Knowledge of complex terminology changes the way pupils think about texts. I’ve written before about why I think introducing pupils to complex terms improves their understanding. Recently, I experienced this phenomenon again: a discussion about a wayward piece of plotting led to a lesson looking at the technical term for the writer’s attempt to rescue the situation, ultimately leading to a much deeper appreciation of the entire play:

deus ex machina (day-us eks mak-in-a) noun.

The implausible introduction of an unexpected person, thing or event that saves a seemingly hopeless  situation, especially in a play or novel. (Modern Latin, from the ancient Greek, ‘god from the machine’)

This term, coined by Aristotle, was used as a way of describing the popular method employed by classic Greek dramatists, notably Euripides, to solve the problem of a plot that appears to have reached a dead end. The ‘machine’ (usually a crane but sometimes a trapdoor) would literally propel an actor – playing the role of a god – onto the stage, to interfere with the hitherto ‘natural’ direction of the narrative. This incredible plot device would magically resolve the conflict and allow the tying up of problematic loose ends.

As you can imagine, for the modern writer, deus ex machina is best avoided. The term has naturally taken on a pejorative edge, given that it highlights a messy bit of plotting that required the remedy of drastic (or divine) intervention. Nonetheless, anyone who’s had a go at writing something with even a slightly complex plot will surely be sympathetic towards writers who’ve had to come up with something special to back themselves out of a corner. After all, as we’ll see, the greatest writer in the English language has had to pull out the odd ace from his sleeve, and modern Nobel literature prize winners have also been forced to resort to this perhaps unfairly maligned literary technique at times:

Five examples of deus ex machina – and how they can help you teach your students to think differently about structure

1. Othello

There are more famous examples of deus ex machina in Shakespeare’s oeuvre (As You Like It being an obvious one) but his use of the device in Othello is, in my opinion, the most fascinating. Unusually, it appears towards the start of the play. For the majority of pupils, Othello is a play about jealousy, betrayal, deception and race. With this in  mind, I gave my Year 12 class a list of provocative statements to try and challenge their immediate ideas:

  • ‘Othello’s downfall is not primarily caused by a jealous nature but instead is explained by his naivety and lack of self-awareness.’
  • ‘Venice was the ideal choice of setting by Shakespeare for Othello; it wouldn’t really have worked anywhere else.’
  • ‘The central theme of Othello is not so much jealousy and betrayal but is rather the depiction of animalistic lust.’
  • ‘Those who see Othello as a play about racism are missing the point; his skin colour is not the principal explanations for his tragic and untimely end.’

One pupil took the managed to tie together these ideas into an impressive take on the eponymous general’s fatal flaw, arguing that Othello’s hamartia is not the colour of his skin, but instead his military background, which renders him ill-prepared for the civilian norms of Venetian  society. I think you’re on to something, I said.  Why don’t you have another look at what happens to the Turkish invasion of Cyprus? Why do you think Shakespeare ends the war before it’s even started?

He noticed, and so did other students, that Shakespeare’s depiction of the end of the battle was somewhat unorthodox. The next lesson I turned it into a ‘big question’:

What’s the structural significance of the following announcement? How does Shakespeare use language to present the sudden end of the conflict?

THIRD GENTLEMAN

News, lads, Our wars are done!

The desperate tempest hath so banged the Turks,

That their designment halts. A noble ship of Venice

Hath seen a grievous wreck and sufferance

On most part of their fleet.

Act 2 Sc1 (20-24)

The class came up with the following points:

  • Shakespeare uses pathetic fallacy – the ‘tempest’ foreshadowing the storms that will blow Othello’s life off course
  • Is Iago the ‘desperate tempest’ personified?
  • The very surprising defeat of the Turks leaves Othello without a job to do
  • This leaves him out of his natural “comfort zone”
  • If the war had continued, Othello, as a brilliant warrior and leader of men, would have been less distracted by marital issues
  • Shakespeare had a problem – he’d created a war – Othello’s natural environment – but didn’t really want a war because he wanted Othello to be a vulnerable outsider. Therefore he had to end the war quickly to allow the main jealousy plot to get started.

At this part of the lesson, using the mechanical crane for which I’d traded my visualiser, I dropped in a dictionary definition of deus ex machina.

Since then, the quality of analysis of structural features has skyrocketed. For some, Shakespeare’s use of the device will now become a central framework for their exam essays.

2. Lord of the Flies by William Golding

We’ve been doing this classic text with Year 8; for next year, I’m going to do a lesson on the ending that introduces the concept of deus ex machina. LOTF is a brilliant novel yet it appears to require a bit of disbelief suspension from the outset. A group of schoolboys (awkward question – where are the girls?) post nuclear strike are on an aeroplane, which then crashes onto an isolated island. The adult pilot and the ‘man with the megaphone’ is dead and, , they’re left to fend for themselves. Thus Golding manages to create himself an ideal microcosm but leaves himself a problem: how is he going to end this descent into atavism? He has a few choices:

a) use aporia and leave the fate of the children unclear, which is an uncertain denouement for a book with a clear moral message?

b)  kill them all off! Pretty nihilistic and unlikely to get published?

c) Have them (or most of them) rescued. Yes that will have to do. It’s very dubious but we’ll have to have them picked up by a ‘passing’ ship. Deus ex machina to the rescue!

Through focusing on the writer’s craft and getting students to consider alternative ways of ending the novel, they will hopefully start to consider narrative choices in a more nuanced way. Another novel that offers this opportunity is H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, which uses deus ex machina to solve the problem of the invincibility of the aliens:

…the Martians -dead! -slain by the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared; slain as the red weed was being slain; slain, after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth.

Yes, the bacteria gets them in the end.  Pupils benefit from being asked about the message Wells is trying to give through this sudden ending, and also how this ending provides further contextual understanding of the 1953 and 2005 films.

3. Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

A plot hole pothole filled by eagles swooping from the sky to rescue Sam and Frodo and Tolkien himself. Clearly a incontrovertible deus ex machina? Well, yes and… possibly no. Tolkien, the university professor, obviously knows his archaic texts and the eagles falling from the sky seems a bit too obvious. Many have called this a blatant deus ex machina but, to me, it seems more of a knowing nod to the ancient Greeks (and now the modern film geeks). Why not let your pupils decide?

4. Life of Brian (1979) View Clip

The great English surrealists – with significant input from one particular American – parody deus ex machina to its logical (illogical?) endpoint. For a film set in Judea circa 1 A.D. the arrival of an alien spaceship is certainly unexpected. The unlikely rescue of the eponymous messiah and subsequent interstellar space battle prove an absurd highlight of the film. Lucky bastard.

5. Money by Martin Amis

A even more postmodernist subversion of plot sees Martin Amis introduce a character towards the end of this seminal 1980s novel called… Martin Amis. The character is a novelist, who is… the son of a famous novelist. All  very metafictional. Intriguingly though, Amis becomes his own deus ex machina, helping the hapless narrator, John Self, complete his tale after mockingly advising him that readers feel ‘tiredness at turning the pages. People read so fast – to get to the end, to be shot of you.’

So in conclusion, this hard-to-pronounce and difficult-to-spell device helps to instill a more sophisticated understanding of structure and the inspired (or lazy, depending on view) methods writers use to dig themselves out of plotting when they can’t think of a way of – hold on there’s some trick or treaters at the door