Sunday, 17 April 2016

The One about Structure - Part 2 SPOILERS!



Warning: This blog contains spoilers for ‘The Walking Dead’.

Writers lie, steal, trick and surprise you. If there is one thing, my many years of reading has taught me is this little sentence. Over the last decade I feel that the way television programmes have been structured to reflect the novel’s approach to narrative. And, at the heart of a novel’s journey is the little, evil writing deciding when to lie or trick or surprise the reader with his or her tiny little puppeteer hands. They pull the strings.

Look at the programmes popular today, ‘The Walking Dead’, ‘Game of Thrones’, ‘Broadchurch’ and ‘Happy Valley’. Yes, they have some interesting things about them, but what is more interesting is the structure of such shows. They playfully exploit the structure of their narratives. Several years ago I switched off television because the shows became so formulaic. A glut of American shows followed such a rigid formula. Take ‘C.S.I.’. It had a structure. A crime has been committed. The crime is investigated. The crime is resolved. Times that by twenty and you have one season of the show. Move the setting to a sunny place and you can make more of the show and just give it another name. The problem, if we are honest, is that the crime drama is easy, safe and ‘comfortable’ as a formula. Things can be wrapped up and solved quickly and you only need to retain the main investigator’s name for the next show. There is no intellectual baggage. The actors draw people in and the routine and familiarity keeps people coming back for more.

Shows after a while realised that audiences sometimes dropped off. So, ‘plot-arcs’ were introduced. A mystery was threaded across the series and you had to watch to resolve the mystery. Then, in the finale, the mystery would be resolved and then a writer would hint another mystery. For me, television shows are waking up to formula apathy. I stopped watching medical dramas when I met the third young rookie doctor who knew best and my fourth kind-hearted nurse with a problem at home. Look at some of the dramas mentioned above:

The Walking Dead / Game of Thrones – The story doesn’t follow our moral expectations. Characters good, and bad, die in the most horrible way. There’s no Eastender’s moral justice.  Any character can be suddenly taken away, eaten alive or die a long, drawn out, Dickensian death. You know the characters have all got a chance of being food for the zombie-eyed worms. You just don’t know when or how.    

 Broadchurch / Happy Valley – The story is the subplot and the character’s feelings is the main plot. We watch how these people deal and react to events. We know, in part, what is going to happen. We place ourselves into the drama. 

So why am I talking about television when I looking at Q3 of the new GCSE English Language GCSE?  Well, for one, I think our students are far savvier about structure than we like to think. We just don’t make it explicit it enough. They are consumers of stories daily, yet that consumption isn’t analysed and discussed, and I think it needs to be. I also think structure is neglected in the classroom, because we have so few resources. But, and that’s a large but, students know vast amounts about structure already – they have absorbed it. Take the following plot point:

A character in a story is the happiest they have ever been and they have just married the man of their dreams. 

Ask a student what happens next and you’ll see. They know and, importantly, they know why this happens in drama. Now you could spend a few lessons teaching students about Fortuna or Dame Fortune, or you could look at the text closer. I have changed my view of text structure considerably over the last few terms, and I haven’t gone on to make students learn obscure terminology, because, I don’t think it is needed – look at the AQA examples.



I have found that short films are particularly helpful when getting students in the structure mood. I particularly like a short film called ‘A man afraid of falling’. I spent quite a bit of time getting students to summarise what the focus is on. Sometimes, I used single paragraphs to do this. The following is from H.G. Wells’ ‘The War of the World’. 



  1. The end of the cylinder was being screwed out from within.
  2. Nearly two feet of shining screw projected.
  3. Somebody blundered against me, and I narrowly missed being pitched onto the top of the screw.
  4. I turned, and as I did so the screw must have come out, for the lid of the cylinder fell upon the gravel with a ringing concussion.
  5. I stuck my elbow into the person behind me, and turned my head towards the Thing again.
  6. For a moment that circular cavity seemed perfectly black.
  7. I had the sunset in my eyes.



Turn them into one or two word summaries:

1.       Cylinder

2.       Screw

3.       Knocked

4.       Screw drops

5.       Elbowed

6.       Hole

7.       Blinded 



The great thing of doing it like this is it simplified things, but it helped to engage with the content of the text. Students noticed it:

·         Keeps referring to the screw

·         Zooming in – getting closer to the creature

·         Repeats physical action

·         Keeps referring to the vision getting blocked



Once we had explored this, we able to explore the effect of these particular choices of focus.

Why does the writer keep referring to the screw?

Why does the writer describe the cylinder first and then zoom in on the hole?

Why does the writer repeat the physical action?

Why does the writer keep making the narrator’s vision blocked?



Now, there is a problem with this aspect, because there are simply two parts to the effect thing. One part is the meaning. The other is the drama. Often these, I think, are fudged together as the effect and marked as one and the same thing. 



Why does the writer keep referring to the screw?

M: Shows the narrator’s obsession and concentration on what inside the cylinder

D: Heightens the tension as the screw is moving by an unseen figure. The use of the screw reflects that there is something inside, but the focus on a screw hides any clues about the figure identity.  

Why does the writer describe the cylinder first and then zoom in on the hole?

M: Shows the movement of narrator – they are gazing in to the machine

D:  Creates a sense of size and gravity of the situation. All the characters are looking at the cylinder, yet all they are focused on is a simple screw.

Why does the writer repeat the physical action?

M: Shows the how the other people watching the events are keen to see what is inside.

D: Takes the reader’s focus away from the main event. We want to see what is inside, but other events are taking place that distract the narrator and the reader.

Why does the writer keep making the narrator’s vision blocked?

M: Shows the narrator’s impatience at what is happening.

D: Makes the reader experience things like the narrator and builds up the tension. We are awaiting the reveal, but the writer keeps pulling back from the reveal. When we expect to see something, something gets in the way.

This might look like this:

       The opening two sentences focus on the cylinder, because all the people’s attention, including our narrator’s, is focused on the cylinder. The repetition of ‘screw’ four times in the opening paragraph gives a sense of the obsession these people have, which might be as a result of their fear for their lives, or just curiosity. The two sentences closely followed one after the other shows how there is nothing else they are bothered about.



       The writer toys with the reader’s and the narrator’s emotions. Both want to find out what is inside. Yet, the writer misdirects the reader. After obsessing about the screw, the narrator is ‘blundered against’ and turns away breaking his attention away from the discovery. Then, to make things worse, after the screw has been removed, the narrator can’t quite see because the sun is in his eyes. Vision is important here as the reader wants to see the creature but the writer is constantly blocking his sight to hinder his view of thing. This creates an overwhelming sense of frustration and holding back of key information.   



       The length of the sentences reflects the sense of pace of things. The sentences get progressively longer as the anticipation builds. This reflects the narrator as he is metaphorically holding his breath, waiting for something to happen. Again the writer, fools us with one sentence at the end, which most writers would use to create drama and describe a dramatic event like a hand poking out. Instead the writer describes: ‘I had the sunset in my eyes’. This is an anti-climax as all the previous sentences have built up to a reveal and the writer fails to deliver that and subsequent tension is deflated.





When planning for teaching this aspect, I went through lots of stuff and some of it was provided by AQA. What has alarmed me is the incessant focus on narrative perspective. It, I think, is dangerous when talking about structure. It takes a sophisticated reader to comment effectively on narrative perspective directly. It is told from a first-person perspective to make us experience things ourselves and it…. Umm… errr. Did I say the extract uses a first-person perspective? Recently, I sat through some training on the exam paper and the person leading the session informed us that ‘a sentence’ is appropriate technical terminology for describing structure. Therefore, students talking about the first and last sentence would qualify for using technical terminology.   There has been, however, a lot of frustration over the terminology aspect. We have finally had a list, but I don’t find it especially helpful for teaching structure.

I feel that maybe students understanding before they look at techniques that writers shape a story and that they lie, steal, trick and surprise you. The recent finale to ‘The Walking Dead’ was brilliant, in my opinion. However, some were disappointed. Fans of the show knew that a new villain was due to appear in the story and this has been hinted at throughout the series. In the comics on which the shows is based on, the villain brutally murders a beloved character in sight of all the other characters. But the writers included the infamous scene, but they will devilishly cruel with how they presented it. We had the villain swinging a bat at each character. Then, we had the villain tell the characters that he is going to kill one of them. Then, he decides which one to kill by singing ‘eenie meenie miney mo’. The camera at this point switches through all the characters. We then get a shot of the villain taking aim to kill one of the people. Finally, we switch to the perspective of the person being killed, including blood pouring down the screen. Yes, someone was killed, but we didn’t find the identity. For me, I thought it was brilliant. We had been promised a death, but we were tricked. Some like me loved it; others hated it. But, it goes to show what writers do when they shape the narrative. That’s why I think we need to be looking at some of the following technical terms or ideas when exploring an extract:

Ambiguity

Anti-climax

Changes

Climax

Contrast

Cumulative

Digression 

Foreshadow

Juxtaposition

Misdirection

Perspective

Red-herring

Reveal

Reversal

Secrets

Tricks



‘The Walking Dead’ built up the audience’s expectations through constant foreshadowing of the villains arrival. When we think the villain is going to kill someone the focus is vague and ambiguous to confuse the audience. They misdirect the focus on who is going to be killed. Then the perspective is changed, so just when we think we know who is going to die. It is again hidden from us. Therefore, the whole ending was a red-herring. We were promised a character was going to die in the episode. They did die, but we just couldn’t tell who it was.

 We must make students see that writers lie, steal, trick and surprise us. Importantly, we need to show students examples of writers doing this. ‘The War of the Worlds’ does just that. The rest of the extract I use ends with the narrator running away. After spending the whole extract getting closer and closer to the cylinder, the writer then ends the extract with him running away. Also, the writer tricks us by making two creatures appear instead of one. In fact, curse that H. G. Wells, that’s all he does is one trick after another. 

In my attempts to help students discuss structure effectively, I have used poetry. This poem by Imtiaz Dharker made a great starter for exploring structure.



The skin cracks like a pod.

There never is enough water.



Imagine the drip of it,

the small splash, echo

in a tin mug,

the voice of a kindly god.



Sometimes, the sudden rush

of fortune. The municipal pipe bursts,

silver crashes to the ground

and the flow has found

a roar of tongues.



From the huts,

a congregation: every man woman

child for streets around

butts in, with pots,

brass, copper, aluminium,

plastic buckets,

frantic hands,



and naked children

screaming in the liquid sun,

their highlights polished to perfection,

flashing light,

as the blessing sings

 over their small bones.



I used the poem with a Year 8 class, but I moved away from your typical structure questions, instead I went for these questions instead.



First:

       How do they introduce the setting?

       How do they introduce the characters?

       How do they introduce the history / background to the events?

       How do they introduce drama?



Then:

       Where does the writer trick us?

       What does the writer change perspective?

       How does the writer prepare us for the end of the poem?



As a class, we discussed the poem’s structure at length for a whole lesson. Below are some of their points:

·         Starts and ends with skin

·         Given how much important water is, it is never really described in the poem

·         Keeps referring to parts of the body

·         People introduced through their pain

·         Follows a structure of skin, sound, skin, sound or sound, physical action, sound, physical action

·         Moves from pain, sadness, lack of life  to freedom, joy and life

·         The water is the key point of drama and separates two parts of the poem



When describing the poem, we could now introduce terms, although not overly complex, like reversal and juxtaposition. The drip in the second stanza could foreshadow the rush of water later on. In a way, I think we have to be more attuned to structure. Before, I always focused on the opening, ending and the order of things. I think we have to be more precise with how and when things takes place. We need to get our hands dirty and look at things precisely. Poetry I think is great for preparing students for looking at structure. One stanza can be packed with loads of structural choices. I also found the following helpful for students:



What is happening across the text?

moving towards vs moving away

inside vs outside

constant vs varied

decreasing vs increasing 

moving vs not moving

speech vs silence  

action vs description

1st person vs 3rd person

emotions vs emotionless



To reflect back on the opening sentence, ‘this blog contains spoilers’. This foreshadows a secret later. I then digress and avoid talking about the main purpose of the blog by talking about television.



I am sure I will have some more thoughts on the question later in the year. A big thank you to Mark Roberts and @MrRDenham for their recent offerings on this particular question.

Thanks from reading,

Xris

2 comments:

  1. I really like this - but it requires a certain stamina for close reading. The classes that would most benefit from this I think would struggle with this line-by-line reading; they would feel like they're doing the same thing over and over. I haven't worked out yet how to sell that to them as a good thing (ie. it's simple - learn one thing and you know it all) and not just a dull one (we just do the same thing over and over again) - any tips?

    Tim

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  2. The correct english sentences online is available here. Thanks a lot for sharing this. I enjoyed it from my deepest core of heart. Very educative post.

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