The classical way to ace your writing

There are many schools of thought on how to write a great story. Indeed, it is hard to pinpoint what makes some books become classics or best sellers while some books end up out of print and forgotten.

Despite what I just wrote, there are certainly some elements that are critical to what is considered good writing. In this post, I am going to focus on classical Greek theatre and discuss how Greek classics can help modern writers, like our children, improve on their plots and storytelling.

Classical Greek Theatre Genres

To simplify matters, I will divide Greek classical theatre into a few broad categories. Two of these are comedy and tragedy. In addition, these two can be combined into what is known as tragicomedy. There are, of course, other genres. But for our purpose, we do not need to discuss them. Throughout ages, these genres have influenced future writers, including one of the most famous English playwright, William Shakespeare. Even nowadays, you can see many modern novels and even movies, broadly categorised into these genres. Let me explain and give examples about these genres.

A comedy is at its most basic, a story with a happy ending. Over the generations, it has also included any stories that make people laugh. The authors that write in this genre include Terry Pratchett (Discworld) and Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe). If you want a local example, the most famous now would be Neil Humphrys and his humourous books about Singapore.

A tragedy, on the other hand, is about how the main characters suffer misfortune due to human weakness or unfortunate events. Though many modern stories do not fit the classical Greek tragedy model anymore, it is clear from the main characters in tragedies tend to fail in the end. Perhaps the movies Black Swan and The Wrestler can serve as modern examples of tragedies as both main characters slowly deteriorate throughout the movie.

Tragicomedy in classical Greek theatre is about plays that have elements of both comedy and tragedy. One clear example closer to our time is Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice which ends with joy for one pair who marry, but a loss of wealth for the one of the other main characters. For the sake of simplicity, I describe the tragicomedy stories in which hero succeeds but meets with a minor failure (usually personal) or when the hero fails but succeeds in his task due to external circumstances. It is not accurate in the technical terms of literature, but it will suffice.

How to help our children in writing

Once we understand these elements, it is clear children tend to write comedies. Our children, if left to their own devices, will write about how their main character (usually themselves) succeed in solving the ‘problem’ as given in the question. There is nothing wrong. But think about it, if the entire class writes about a happy ending, how can your child stand out? In other words, I usually get my students to think about other genres before thinking about the comedy genre. This will be the backup plot if the student cannot find any other possible genre.

The tragedy genre is one type that your children must learn to avoid. Markers tend not to like stories in which the main character fails and the entire situation becomes akin to describing a disaster zone instead of the main characters solving the problem.

To make your child’s writing stand out, I would suggest thinking about it in terms of the tragicomedy genre. For example, in an essay about forgetting to do something, instead of eventually solving the problem, my student wrote a tragicomedy story. In his story, he wrote that he forgot to get his parents to sign and acknowledge a test. Despite his best efforts to salvage the situation, he failed in the end. In the end, he got away scot free because the teacher had an emergency and needed to leave the school just before subject period started. This is an example of the second type of tragicomedy where the hero ‘fails’ but succeeds because of external factors.

Let me give you an example of the other type of tragicomedy. In a story about a fire, many students will write about how the main character managed to save the day. That is a comedy. But how about a story in which the same ending happens, making the main character’s head swell with pride due to the accolades. He then trips and falls in front of a live interview, greatly embarrassing himself. He then reflects that heroes need a dose of humility as well. Such an ending is different enough for the teacher to take note off. The main character clearly succeeds, yet fails in a personal matter.

Writing tales like what I describe is not going to help children score great results if their essay is riddled with grammar and spelling errors. However, if two compositions are of the same quality (few grammar errors, shows good vocabulary), then the story with the unique plot will stand out. That might be the difference between scoring an A and A*.