The Plot’s Not the Lot | 5 Ways to Help Pupils Improve Their Stories

Next month, we are publishing a fantastic new course book for National 5 English. In this blog post, Dr Christopher Nicol, one of our bestselling authors, suggests some ways of improving your pupils’ prose fiction.

Talking to exam markers about the creative fiction that turns up in folio pieces can be a real eye-opener. There is, they tell you, no doubting the raw creativity on offer, but much of this is often pitched at plot. Characterisation and setting seem something of a poor relation in many cases. Here are 5 activities that may form the basis of lessons to help add depth to both.

1. Profile your characters

Pen and paper

If characterisation of any depth is to emerge, short stories need very limited cast-lists. Two characters alone can be fine; two contrasting characters can be even better, since contrast often leads to tension – and tension is grand for moving on the narrative.

Profiling such a pair is a productive way to start. First, get a discussion going on the contrasting characters to be observed on any high street: old/young; homeless/prosperous; trendy/staid; fit/unfit; extrovert/withdrawn. Once these possibilities are identified, who amongst them might appeal as characters in a short story they might like to write? When pairs are established, draw up a double column grid, a column for each character. Under each name, sub-divide your column and give outward details such as age, appearance. Then tackle possible internal features: happy, tense, shy, conceited. How about interests? Music/film tastes, computer games, sporting abilities: all are worth exploring.

Maybe not all will come into the story, but writers should know their characters thoroughly – and should they get ‘stuck’, they can consult their grid and ‘unstick’ the narrative with a comment stemming from one of the points in the grid. (‘Turn that techno off now, please!’)

2. Listen for a voice

Woman listening

A useful way for pupils to discover how to differentiate characters is to get them to examine the way in which an invented character might speak. A discussion on how various character-types might sound in conversation is a practical method of establishing character. What kind of sentences, phrases and vocabulary would be used by, say, a hesitant person, a bossy type, one who is long-winded or maybe one who is just a bit vague? Get each of these types to perform a simple task in the voice of each ‘persona’ e.g. instructions on how to make a cup of coffee or what to pack for a summer holiday.

After they’ve done this, pupils can repeat the exercise for the characters in the grid mentioned above in tip 1. This might be a good practice activity before embarking on the short story itself.

3. Say it in Scots!

Thistle in front of sunset

Anne Donovan is a writer who, in her short story anthology Hieroglyphics, exploits brilliantly the contrasts of Scots/English speech patterns. Get your pupils to experiment with either the interplay of Scots/English in their characters’ dialogue or try having the narrative play out in alternating paragraphs of Scots/English, according to which character is addressing the reader. This can be an effective way to add both richness to the language texture and an additional angle to characterisation.

4. Setting is not just for paragraph 1


Young writers are usually happy to furnish you with a setting for the opening paragraph and that, dear teacher, is often your lot! Job done, now on with the story! Two things need to be suggested politely but firmly: setting needs to be revisited regularly and setting covers more than location.

Let’s take the first point first. To show the advantages of a regularly re-visited setting, get pupils to write a rough 50 word outline of the story. Now ask them where each key moment is happening. Reintroducing setting at critical points in the character’s narrative can underline graphically inner feelings or moods being experienced by characters: that room that was once so cosy at the start of the story when things were going well is now cold and unwelcoming now life has turned grim. That once trim garden is a mass of weeds now the gardener is gone…

5. Setting is about more than location

Autumn leaves and trees

When asking your pupils to mark in locations for key moments in their narrative outline, ask them also about the time of day this incident is happening: dawn, afternoon, dusk, night? Don’t each of these times of day embody their own mood? Dawn, hope of a new day? Dusk, the sense of things coming to an end? Night, sometimes rather gloomy and frightening?  How about the moods implied by the seasons: winter, spring, summer, autumn? And the weather? How might a downpour match a character’s mood? Marked-in at an early draft, such setting details can greatly enrich both the mood of the finished piece and the reader’s understanding of the character’s journey.

About the author

Christopher Nicol is a Chartered Teacher with over 30 years experience in secondary and tertiary education. He holds Masters degrees in English Language and Literature, the Teaching of English for Specific Purposes and a PhD in academic writing practices. 

His interests lie in the analysis of published text formats and their application to successful and effective classroom reading and writing.

He has published 5 study and writing guides for Bright Red Publishing, including National 5 English Study Guide, National 5 English Course Book, Higher English, Advanced Higher English and Learn to Write.


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