Friday, September 02, 2005

First bits of learning

From The Writing Experiment:

  • when it comes to words, there's a difference between the signifier (the word) and the signified (the meaning of the word). So we can treat the word as just "the thing it means" or just treat the word as something that looks or sounds interesting.
Hard to follow? It was for me until I started looking at the examples. When we take a word and try word association, we can either associate by meaning (signified), e.g.:

green plant

...or we can associate by sound:

green scream

One of the exercises in Chapter 1 was putting random words together, similar to those magnetic poetry sets you can get. Brilliant. I'm going to find the one my sister sent me for Christmas 2003 - it was honestly so much fun, and I think therapeutic as well. Since my desk is next to the fridge, I'm sure I can get the poetry going again ... may help me when all I can think of are stale, used phrases.

So in a way the first chapter was just trying to get me to see words differently, get out of the limited track of word use that leads to cliches. Liking it so far.

Meanwhile, over in Story...

  • There's a difference between storytelling and writing, and story is by far the most important of the two. At least when it comes to films. Hollywood will throw out a well-written, bad story, and keep a poorly written great story.
  • The types of structure - classical, anti-structure and minimalism
Although the two books disagree with each other ideologically, I admire both authors for presenting all the options while making it clear which ones they prefer.

  • Beats, scenes, sequences, acts, story. I learnt what these all mean and how they are kind of (my words) concentric circles ... a beat is like a mini-story
  • Character arcs, although McKee has only been referring to story arcs, I've heard the phrase character arcs and been thinking about the character arcs in movies I've seen recently.
Character arcs are about change, and not just over the length of the movie, either. Each scene has to be about some type of change. I didn't realise this before. "No scene that doesn't turn."

E.g. Bridge on the River Kwai, there are at least two protagonists, and perhaps Saito and Jack Hawkins' characters are supporting protagonists.

So for Nicholson (Alec Guinness) he starts out loyal and stiff in his resistance to the Japanese; at the end he is questioning what he has done, collaborating with the enemy.

If it weren't for his change at the very end (and even then it's unclear whether he's changed or is just dazed - "What have I done?") Nicholson's character doesn't really change much. He doesn't want to escape at the beginning because his superiors ordered him to surrender. This "can't see the forest for the trees" quality is there from start to finish.

Much more dramatic is the arc traced by William Holden's character Shears. He begins as a bit of a coward, using a false identity to get better treatment, playing sick so he doesn't have to work so hard, and generally staying out of trouble. He seems like the opposite of the honorable Nicholson.

By the end of the film, Shears is transformed. His miraculous survival, getting tricked/forced back into a commando mission, and serving alongside courageous Jack Hawkins makes him a man committed to the cause. That's what makes the moment so poignant when Nicholson and Shears meet on the beach, Nicholson exposing the commandos' work, Shears trying to stop him.



Okay, doesn't look so exciting writ down, but it's a powerful film moment. More later.


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