How to avoid “retelling the story”

Lisa Tran

August 20, 2013

English & EAL

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Many students receive feedback from teachers to ‘avoid retelling the story’ along with red scribbles across their essay that state, ‘paragraph needs further development’ or ‘develop your contention further’. It’s a common issue across the VCE cohort and fixing it does take some time and practice. However, keep in mind that it is definitely possible, you just have to understand what exactly what ‘retelling the story’ means!

So, ‘retelling the story’ – it’s pretty much stated right there the phrase – it’s when you are re-describing or repeating the plot based on whichever text you’re writing on. The reason why it is so cringe-worthy is because: 1. you should assume that your teacher or examiner has already read the book before so they don’t need a summary of the events occurring in the text, and 2. you are wasting time by writing something probably a year 8 student could when instead, you should focus your time on providing a comprehensive analysis of the text when responding to your essay topic.

Here is an example of a student who ‘retells the story’ (using Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men – “Twelve Angry Men explores the importance of moral responsibility. Discuss.”):

“The importance of moral responsibility is shown through those who fail to possess any sense of decency or righteousness. The 3rd juror has had an estranged relationship with his son for 2 years. He does not get along with his son since the son is disrespectful to his father. This is unlike the 3rd juror, who used to show respect to his elders by calling his father ‘sir’ going up. He is ashamed of his son since his son once ran away from a fight which made the 3rd juror ‘almost thr[o]w up’. As a result of his personal problems with his child, he sees the defendant as another young kid that needs punishment for his wrongdoings. He believes that ‘we’d be better off if we took these tough kids and slapped ’em down before they make trouble, you know?’. Since he is blinded by his own experience, he lacks the moral responsibility required to be a juror on the trial.”As you can see, the student above has provided a lengthy explanation of the plot, rather than focusing on the keywords. ‘moral responsibility’, ‘decency’ and ‘righteousness’. The student could easily have cut down on the plot details and used the essential events in the play to act as the basis of his/her analysis. So what are the things you can do in order to provide an insightful passage without falling into the trap of this major English student faux pas? Let’s have a look.

Remember that an essay is based on your interpretation of the prompt – that is, whether or not you agree or disagree with the essay topic. Since you are putting forth a contention, it is important that you try to convince the reader of your own point of view. Unfortunately, this is not possible through merely summarising the plot. Try to break down themes, characters, views and values and language construction when elaborating on your contention. By using your own words to explain an idea, you can then successfully use the book as support for your reasoning. Remember that repeating the plot is not the same as analysing a plot. Some students rely heavily on quotes, but this in itself can become a repetition of what occurs in the novel. Never simply rely on quotes to tell the reader what you want to say; quotes are there again for support and so, use quotes as a basis of interpreting your own opinions and views.Keep this in mind, don’t tell me what I already know, tell me something I’d like to learn. This will force you to write about your own ideas, rather than repeating the author’s words.Concentrate on a specific section of a plot, or a small passage in the novel. Avoid talking about too much at once. If you are able to achieve this, it will prevent you from falling into the path of wanting to write about an overall event of the book, which is inevitably summarising the plot.If you believe that it is absolutely necessary to write about some of the plot in your essay body paragraphs, try to keep it to a minimum. Practice expressing the vital plot points in one phrase, rather than using 2 or 3 sentences to explain what occurs in the book.

Now let’s have a look at the example below. The discussion is based on the same topic sentence as that above however this time, the student has focused on developing their ideas into an insightful exploration:

“The importance of moral responsibility is shown through those who fail to possess any sense of decency or righteousness. The 3rd juror is shown to be someone who is arrogant and narrow-minded as a direct result of a troubled relationship with his own son. Although he is personally unacquainted with the defendant, he draws a parallel between the youngster with his own young son, stating that ‘we’d be better off if we took these tough kids and slapped ’em down before they make trouble, you know?’. It is ironic when he asserts that ‘everybody deserves a fair trial’ since he is the juror that adopts the most prejudice towards the case, thus demonstrating his failure to possess righteousness. His shortcomings are further highlighted through the stage directions whereby he ‘shouts’ and ‘leap(s) into the breach’, displaying his lack of interest in other jurors’ opinions as he is adamant that his view that the defendant is guilty is indeed, correct. Therefore, it is clear through his narrow-mindedness that he has little sense of moral responsibility.”

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