Writing Good Compositions – Part 9

There was suddenly a tap on my shoulder.

– A Strange Experience, N

At The Brain Dojo, students receive a letter for every first draft of compositions they write. Each letter is a personal response to their story. Every letter is different and there is no standard template or specific areas which are covered. What a student receives would depend on the contents of the story and student’s thought process revealed therein. Techniques, language and life lessons in relation to the relevant theme are surfaced. The letters train critical thinking and develop language ability.

The following is a letter written to a Primary 6 student who does not rest on her laurels.


The protagonist accepts a challenge from a classmate to venture past the forbidding gates of a dilapidated house. There are rumours the house is haunted. The protagonist however is not given to superstition. As he enters the house, he does come face to face with a grisly apparition. Scared out of his wits, he attempts to flee only to be held back by a vice-like grip. He hears a voice commanding him and offers little resistance. Thankfully for him, his captor very much still belongs in the world of the living. This though, is meaningful only to him. It would not have made a difference one way or the other to any other of the world’s members. He feeds him and leaves him to float about in the dark, cavernous void for the forsaken.

Dear N,

As I read your story, I found myself wondering what exactly it was you wanted to improve. Your first line is an effective hook as first lines should be. You did not waste words or time on mundane details which have no bearing on the story. Your story is very cleverly written. Clever because it offers the best of two worlds.

We tell students not to delve into the supernatural, though there might be a part, however small, in many people, including your teachers, which does beg for an explanation for the experience of those among us who avow having encountered something that defies what the textbooks say.

Your story crafted in the way it is, allows us to indulge that small part if only for a while. There is also a deeper, symbolic meaning. The homeless are a pitiful lot whose plight poses searching questions for the rest of society. They do appear to float around from one dilapidated location to the next, just like how ghosts have been described to, in the stories about them.

By having the protagonist mistake the old man for a ghost, you lead your readers to wonder how he ended up like the living dead. You communicate a deep and important message to your readers; that somehow, these people appear to have been driven to the edge of the world to hide in some forsaken corner, out of the sight of the other more fortunate members. Your readers might ask how they could alleviate his suffering or at the very least how to ensure they themselves don’t end up rootless or anchorless, like a ghost.

Your description of the old man was on point and you cast him to perfection with, “long, straggling beard”, “entangled mess of grey” and “pockmarked face”. Among others, one line I like very much is, “When he scratched his head furiously, tiny, white flakes filtered like dust on his shoulders and shirt”. Your selection of words and arrangement of them, makes the old man seem alive in the mind’s eye.

Your excellent descriptions, of course, do not stop with just the old man. Among other things, you developed the protagonist’s character expertly too. He is someone who “never” believed ghosts exist and yet found dark gates “alluring”. He is someone who is able to “stare at the interior of the living room in awe” even as “goosebumps sprang over my arm” and “A chill of fear swept over me”. So, your readers would be able to understand perfectly why he decided to “gingerly” creep “up the staircase” “to find out the source of the noise” even as he was “Paralysed by terror” just moments before.

As you should be able to tell by now, this story has been quite skilfully crafted.

Apart from the very descriptive language used consistently, your story is also realistic and sombre even though when you first introduced the “ghost”, the reader is led to believe the story might turn out predictably comic. I for one, expected the “ghost” to be John playing a prank. The twist therefore has also been executed skilfully. One other thing which deserves recognition of skill is your use of the flashback technique. This is the right way to do flashback. You chose to feature this in paragraph 5 and to do this, you used the very same lines from paragraph 1 – “Millions of thoughts…” Again, very expertly done!

You allow your readers to experience a roller coaster of emotions – a sense of daring and adventure, spine-tingling fear mixed with curiosity, terror, relief, revelation, the satisfaction of a mystery solved, compassion and finally disappointment for not being “able to show the photographs of my adventure to John”. You should aim to achieve this roller coaster of emotions in every story you write because this is what makes readers hooked and feel immersed in the world you created.

Before I recommend suggestions to make this even better, I do wish to ask how long it took you to finish 813 words. You would have under an hour in an exam. If you can pull this off under exam conditions, your marks would most definitely be in the elusive regions of 35 and above.

I will suggest two areas. First, your reader would have wanted to know how it felt when the “ghost” had the protagonist in a death grip. Yes, he “nodded my head in obedience” but what was going through his mind? Was he still harbouring any hope of survival? Many people might have in that moment, lost consciousness in fright.

The other area is the conclusion. You ended with, “That strange encounter left an indelible mark on my memory”. You did say, “Never in my wildest dreams would I imagine a “haunted” house would become an old man’s roof”. Were you referring to the encounter with the old man as strange because he looked like a ghost or because he chose to live in such surroundings in such a sorry manner? Given how you seem to be quite an artist with words, you could have aimed higher with your conclusion by making it more philosophical. For example, you could have written you could not decide if it was stranger that an old man could choose to live like a ghost or that despite there being billions of people in the world, he ended up all alone.

On the whole, this was a delectable read and I thank you for it. I look forward to more mature and masterful pieces from you.

The Brain Dojo

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