As unlikely as it seems, this can be a fun task for teachers and students, provided it is guided well and offers students an insight into the multiple possibilities of this creative task.
Getting students to take ownership of ideas should be your focus; but this won’t happen if the task is narrowed. In addition, the task should encourage the movement away from ideas that will likely bring mere reportage. I’ve tutored students whose SAC question was the following:
You are a reporter investigating the death of Mrs Thorwald. Write a newspaper article about the murder. Include interviews from the neighbours.
Although this may offer the impression of choice, flexibility and exploration; it will too often bring the student back to the reportage of the film’s events. In this respect, the entire premise of the prompt is problematic for a creative response because it is this kind of literalism that needs to be discouraged.
Importantly, this is not an arbitrary choice; no more than writing a prologue or an additional chapter is an arbitrary choice: all choices must offer an incisive rationale, so that form, content, language and style become integrated. Your statement of intention is essentially a cross-examination of these points. Students must ‘get into the weeds’ on the question of why they have made the choices they’ve made. Examiners are looking for students who have a sense of control on these elements of writing and creativity, and who can make intelligent linkages and justifications for their explorations.
Writing Tips for the Thriller Genre (tip # 1: all good writing is thrilling!)
Consider that suspense is often created by withholding information. Consider the scream and how the camera is unable (or unwilling) to locate the source. Not only does the source of the scream remain a mystery to the viewer; the camera reveals the stillness of an apartment block asleep at night. Consider how contrast/antithesis can heighten dramatic tension. The pan, as if searching for a suspect, cannot find one; nor can it find the source of the scream, thereby alienating the audience.
Under the new English course design at VCE level, creative writing is mandatory; yet many students are unprepared for this SAC. Let’s address this before it’s too late!
If you want students to write creatively, it is important to communicate what you mean. Better still: link the idea of creativity to other areas of study. The personal anecdote, for example, although closely aligned to argument analysis, is often a deeply creative idea. Let’s, therefore, release the student brain from its limited understanding of creativity before we proceed, and begin a brief study into what makes dramatic writing and why it is so important to move students away from the presentation of rambling information.
They do this because they haven’t been taught any better.
- What makes dramatic writing?
- Why is it important to be able to identify the elements of dramatic writing and to participate in it?
We often hear the line: ‘It was so dramatic’. But what does this mean?
READ: Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tell Tale Heart (it is a four to five-page short story)
TASK 1: Class brainstorm – what makes dramatic writing?
Lead the class towards the idea of objectives and obstacles: that drama is created when a character is in pursuit of her/his objectives and these objectives are not met. Acknowledge that young writing is so often based on a series of unrelated or disconnected and implausible events. We want to improve that…
Talk about motivation: that actions are motivated to achieve an objective or goal…
Students will respond to the above question by saying: it has suspense. But what is suspense? Talk about imminence and consequence, and that situations are often dramatic because audience and reader know that a consequence is imminent, but do not know when the consequence will take place… imminence, consequence, withholding…
Above all, talk about situation:
Students usually struggle with their writing because they have a limited grasp of situation. Situation might be viewed as a series of arrows coming from different directions and intersecting at the same point. Imagine that each arrow is a character with a credible motivation, a reason to exist in a space. Equally, imagine that each arrow is a force that is actively pushing to exist or to have itself heard. Imagine that each arrow thinks that it is the main character. The best drama exists as a consequence of this force. Students have difficulty understanding the nature of force, and their writing lacks energy as a result. Again, conflict is when a character cannot achieve her/his goals due to a range of obstacles. In short, the perfect dramatic situation is when a person cannot leave, yet cannot successfully remain. I think L.B. Jefferies fits this definition perfectly.
Consider the following scenario:
A famous concert pianist is returning to Australia to premiere at the Melbourne Recital Centre. It is a massive event for the city and for the artist. However, a person sneezes throughout the performance. What is the potential here? It is the potential of vested interest. The venue, the pianist, the crowd, the sneezer – even friends of the sneezer – have a vested interest in the performance: they have paid $127.50 for the right to participate, and presumably enjoy the piano. Do they act? If they act, the performance may stop. ‘Surely the sneezer will stop soon,’ they rationalise. What will the venue do? It will be embarrassing if it is forced to halt the show. All parties have a vested interest in the recital continuing. And so the situation is sustained...
Sustaining tension in a piece of writing and pushing beyond the juvenile inclination to resolve/finish is a sign of maturity. Think about this: great drama is the ability to create situations in which a character cannot leave and is tortured by remaining. The dramatic situation here, as with all dramatic situations, is created through the collision of hope and dread: hope that the sneezer will stop; dread when s/he doesn’t. Tension rises and falls with this oscillation, and eventually the scene is moved beyond its dramatic stasis.
TASK 2: Write an ending to the scenario above, with a consideration of what has been learned and discussed.
Strong dramatic writing is efficient with language and action. Revisit Tell Tale Heart, as it constantly moves through the senses. Unpack this a little bit through examples. Discuss the importance of sound. In short, if you are not including the sensory experience in your writing, you are not really communicating.
We cannot see a person ‘being sad’ or one who is ‘unhappy’ or ‘angry’; we can see a person who is crying and one who is frowning in a corner. We can see somebody hurling their trainers at the wall after a loss at basketball. Discuss the importance of the sensory on effective writing. Label it ‘visual language’. To an actor, this is language that can actually be performed. An actor can’t perform ‘suspicion’; she can perform actions that suggest suspicion.
We cannot see a person ‘being sad’ or one who is ‘unhappy’ or ‘angry’; we can see a person who is crying and one who is frowning in a corner. We can see somebody hurling their trainers at the wall after a loss at basketball. In other words, if we are to become better writers, we need to provide actions that convey the emotional state, rather than settling on ‘I was so angry’.
TASK 3: Provide actions for the following emotions (you may add to this list):
TASK 4: Write a 50-word short story that is suspenseful, applying the above learning about drama and the senses. Note: it must be exactly 50-words (this doubles as an effective editing task for students).
And why is this important? To the second bullet-point above:
All the study that you conduct in text and media contains examples of effective dramatic writing and writing that understands the importance of the situation and the sensory. The sooner you identify this to students, and communicate the importance of language and how it can be used, the more competent your students will be in every aspect of the English language.
When teachers urge students to ‘show not tell’, what do they mean? Students often don’t know. Do teachers know? What they are attempting to say is that students need to include the sensory experience in their writing.
Extracts from Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien:
TASK 5: Read the extracts below and provide as much analysis as you can about the way language is used to convey the sensory experience: sight, sound, touch, taste and smell.
On either side and in front wide fens and mires now lay, stretching away southward and eastward into the dim half-light. Mists curled and smoked from dark and noisome pools. The reek of them hung stifling in the still air. Far away, now almost due south, the mountain-walls of Mordor loomed, like a black bar of rugged clouds floating above a dangerous fog-bound sea… p. 650.
As the day wore on the light increased a little, and the mists lifted, growing thinner and more transparent. Far above the rot and vapours of the world the Sun was riding high and golden now in a serene country with floors of dazzling foam, but only a passing ghost of her could they see below, bleared, pale, giving no colour and no warmth. But even at this faint reminder of her presence Gollum scowled and flinched. He halted their journey, and they rested, squatting like little hunted animals, in the borders of a great brown reed-thicket. There was a deep silence, only scraped on its surfaces by the faint quiver of empty seed plumes, and broken grass-blades trembling in small air-movements that they could not feel… p.651-652.
15 Sample Ideas for the Rear Window Creative SAC:
Now that you’ve introduced the prospect of creative writing and linked your investigation to suspense and the sensory, you as a teacher, are in a better position to inspire students on the Creative SAC.
The following ideas may be developed further and might be considered motivations or inspirations for exploration.
- Explore the point of view of Thorwald looking out upon Jefferies’ apartment, or the photographer on the top-floor who takes the photograph in the opening seconds of the film. Explore and challenge the notion of the observer/participant relationship and relate to the theme of power.
- What is the point of view of the sculptress? What inspires her work? Always consider the underexplored or under-represented point of view, thus allowing for an examination of gaps in the narrative. How is her artwork ‘Hunger’ a symbol for all participants of this story?
- Perhaps the composer uses his observations of Jefferies as motivation for his compositions. What does he see? Does he see a happy person? Relate to one of the following prompts: ‘Expectations make people unhappy’ / ‘Perspective is shaped by our own fears and biases.’ Always be prepared to flip the observer/participant dynamic.
- The film, understandably, demonises Thorwald, largely through the power of point of view; but what are the gaps in the narrative? This is not to advocate murder or violence against women; it is simply to ask a question about character and to encourage students to investigate multiple perspectives. Imagine that Thorwald pleads ‘Not guilty’ in court. What will the court records reveal about his testimony?
- Explore form. Remember: this is a film. To emulate the form, students need grounding in visual language techniques that film-makers deploy. Although a challenging idea, students should be encouraged to draft a screen-play. This is an excellent idea to improve the action-potential and clarity within student creative writing (through its focus on the construction of visual language) but does require preparation and expertise. Imagine that you are Hitchcock showing a privileged view of deleted scenes. By extension, the justification to cut these scenes would from a central part of the written statement, representing a dynamic way for students to show their knowledge about the film.
- Explore voyeurism and privacy by re-contextualising the film. Despite its vintage, Rear Window is surprisingly contemporary. We live in an age of public privacy, where the ethics of voyeurism present a grey and mutable area. Discuss the following: ‘I can give the public performance of my own privacy; but that doesn’t mean you have the right to invade it./
- As an extension of the above idea, consider: ‘Privacy is an illusion. Discuss.’ This topic bears an obvious correlation to contemporary society; so, a persuasive and contrarian speech debunking many of our fears on the subject, might be quite a productive idea. In short, the paranoia that we often feel about privacy can easily be rebutted through an examination of how little privacy we’ve ever had and how freely we have often deliberately dispensed with it. Use the lives and experiences of the characters in the film to make your case. You might, for example, contextualise, through the use of personal anecdote and hypothetical scenarios that reimagine the events in the film. You might argue from the point of view of Miss Torso, the likes of whom, if she was so concerned about privacy, might have shut her blinds more often. Challenge the male point of view that so limits our perspective of her…
- What does Lisa achieve in high heels and a skirt? Make a case, though a persuasive essay, that Hitchcock was not a sexist director and the film is, in many ways, progressive. This topic enables teachers to fuse the principles of argument analysis and the oral-presentation to a creative idea, and to show the creative spirit behind numerous metalanguage techniques.
- Write a creative piece that explores how recursion can reinforce life. Use the example of the couple acquiring a new dog, the repainted walls of the Thorwald apartment and the return of Stanley as inspiration.
- Write the contents of Miss Lonely Hearts’ suicide note and link this creative personal narrative to the theme of alienation, relationships and vulnerability. The contents of her flat reveal a great deal about her; so the task very much encourages astute observation. What does she see? What is her perspective on the events that have taken place? What is her perspective on life? Remember: the observer / participant dynamic can be challenged by all participants in this film.
- In a complex and highly specialised piece, explore Lisa’s perspective on costume and what this says about a character. This is an opportunity to delve into colour, style and symbolism. The exploration might hinge on the idea that every character in Rear Window is deeply human and, by definition, flawed. The clothes maketh the person!
- In another deeply specialised piece, imagine that you are the lighting designer for the film and are interviewed for a documentary. What do you say about your choices and what they say about the film’s characters, conflict, themes and ideas? This piece would be in the form of a dialogue transcript, perhaps in a screenplay version.
- Similarly, imagine that you’re Robert Burks, Director of Photography on this famous film. You are filmed for an important documentary for the HBO network in which you attempt to justify Hitchcock’s intentions through the camera work for which you, too, became famous. This piece would be in the form of a dialogue transcript, perhaps in a screenplay version.
- Under the banner of ‘Expectations make people unhappy’ – write a dialogue for a scene between the newly-wed couple. Take into account what they might have witnessed or observed within the film that informs their frustration concerning expectations. There are many narrative gaps that invite opportunities for students. What forces magnify expectations? To challenge the ‘telegraphing’ of the dialogue, perhaps contextualise the discussion by placing the pair in a grocery store. After all, arguments between couples are common in supermarkets…
- In an enterprising debate that is remarkably similar to the essay question: ‘By the end of Rear Window, nothing really changes’, develop a case for and against the proposition. This is an excellent topic for students who are yet to decide on whether to take the text to the exam. This creative hybrid response is very similar to a SAC or exam response, except in form; and encourages students to examine and develop supportive and contrary arguments. This piece could easily take the form of a dialogue transcript.