Building 'The Wall': Analysing Narrative in Film and Literature to Improve Writing: Lance Hanson Explains How His Department Has Used Analysis of Both Literature and Film to Heighten Students' Awareness of Narrative Tension and Inspire Their Own Creative Writing
Hanson, Lance, English Drama Media
The moving image occupies a troubled place in the English curriculum--always the bridegroom to the blushing bride of language--Andrew Burn (2003)
Muliti-modal texts combine two or more modes of communication (eg written, aural and visual) to create meaning--QCA (2007)
An esteemed colleague recently commented on the value of film studies as a subject: 'Film Studies and Media Studies are not real subjects; they are merely subjects about subjects' went the claim and, although there is no time here to enter into the pedagogical arguments, as well as the cultural elitism, surrounding such a throwaway remark, it is worth beginning with this merely to contrast it with the growing importance of 'multi-modality' in the 'new' curriculum. Clearly, if my colleague's views are any indicator, there is still much to do to sweep away such outmoded thinking but one option is for him and his fellow detractors to visit an English classroom where film is not only celebrated, enjoyed (and, of course, studied) for its own intrinsic artistic value but also where the knowledge of its forms and structures can be used to improve literacy. Readers of this journal will need no convincing of the importance of film in inspiring English students; others have produced some remarkable work on the use of moving image in the English classroom (see Durran and Morrison, 2004 amongst others). As a department that believes fully in the place of film and media in the teaching of English, we at Redhill School have always turned to the use of moving image to reinforce students' writing and, when teaching writing and the writer's craft, there are fantastic opportunities to combine these art forms to remove the veil of mystery that has often accompanied the art of writing fiction.
The following article is essentially in two parts. The first explores the process of analysing literary texts (more specifically, Susan Hill's modern classic The Woman in Black) using a structured approach based on what we have called 'the wall'. The second part shows how we have been able to use this structure and, by combining it with a study of a moving image text (the atmospheric American Gothic of Jacques Tourneur's classic Cat People (1942), we have been able to improve writing. Both sections outline how we look at the way writers and filmmakers use similar structures in the construction of texts to create similar effects on the audience and how we use these structures to produce our own narratives. Both activities can stand as independent ways of getting students to write; combined, they can offer a meaningful exercise in 'multi-modality', enabling visual as well as aural learners the chance to access stimuli material.
Susan Hill's classic Gothic novel The Woman in Black (1989) offers many opportunities to explore the writer's craft. In her introduction to the novel, Hill herself admits to the derivative nature of the work--and the writing does have a formulaic quality to it. This is not a criticism: the formula has worked for centuries, and Hill uses it to create an iconic story that combines simplicity of plot with atmospheric writing of breath-taking effectiveness. To reduce English to a formula might be anathema to some--but it can release creativity in the hitherto restricted imagination. One particular formula we have found useful is that of 'the wall'. The notion is that the structure of a narrative is like that of a wall, with words and sentences replacing bricks and mortar, and layers of effects being built up. So far, so abstract. Below, I show how we apply this idea to an example of Susan Hill's writing (the account below looks at page 82--83 from the chapter entitled 'In the Nursery').
During this sequence, Hill's protagonist, Arthur Kipps, faced with spending another night alone amidst the haunted surroundings of Eel Marsh House, tries to take his mind off any supernatural thoughts by turning to 'The Heart of Midlothian'. …