Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Today's lesson: Recycling/Controlling idea

For once my two books weren't on the same subject, so my brain had to work overtime this morning. Also, there was a dead rabbit on the way to my usual bench :-(

Writing talked about recycling writing - using writing from other sorts in your own writing. It's not plagiarism (unless you don't acknowledge the source!), it's using someone else's ideas to springboard your own. Or even just taking writing from disparate sources and putting them together in a way that suggests new meaning.

This literary device has a lot in common with the kind of stuff Not the Nine O'Clock News team and Monty Python did - taking disparate elements (in their case film footage) and putting them together to create new meaning, mostly ironic or ridiculous.

Writing recommended several ways of recycling writing, starting with a collage - the old fashioned way, with scissors and glue.

There's also "found text", for instance an advertisement, a bus ticket, some other non-literary piece of writing, and giving it artistic significance by calling it art. Sounds dodgy (and often is), but in its defence found text (and its visual counterpart found art) calls into question what is art? A good question to ask. It also helps us look at the everyday in a new way.

In a way, sampling in music is doing the same thing, except the samples are often of something (e.g. a line in a movie) that already has cultural resonance, ie: it means something to the listener.

Gosh, I'm sounding like an academic!

The last suggested way of recycling writing was rewriting a classic text or fairytale from a modern point of view. Saw this on Desperate Housewives the other night, when the mother in charge of the school play wanted Red Riding Hood NOT to kill the wolf, but instead to "rehabilitate" it.

Going back to found text, it's an idea I'd had before, after seeing works of art which incorporated text with the imagery of a chess game. It was quite compelling and for me combined emotion and intellect - something that McKee talked about in his chapter this morning.

My 'found text' idea came when I was looking through some documents from around the time my dad died. The order I was looking at them told its own story:
  1. A traffic infringement ticket, when my father drove into a parked car because he didn't realise his left eye was totally blind.
  2. His draft letter of resignation, replete with typographical errors and suffused with regret. And denial.
  3. His terse letter to the department of Inland Revenue, asking for a rebate on expenses he has incurred for work.
  4. A telegram from my mother to my uncle, informing him of the time of death.
  5. The involved documentation between lawyers and accountants, sorting out probate and arranging a waiver of rates for my mother, my sister and I, now without income.
The fact that these documents are official and to do with everyday things just heightens the emotions. To me, anyway, but then it's my life. In fact, it's a life I was unaware was taking place - I was just four. As an adult I read these documents and wish I had been able to help.

Writing is so about self-psychoanalysis!

Anyway, Story today was about structure and meaning. Every good story has a premise - what the writer thinks when they start - and a controlling idea - a theme or underlying message of the film.

Premise is usually a question: "What if...?"

"What if aliens were already here?"
"What if four astronauts got super powers?"
"What if superheroes were outlawed?"

Controlling idea is something that happens when you take the climax of the film, and explain it.

For instance, the climax may be: "Justice triumphs" when the good guys catch the bad guys... but why did the good guys catch the bad guys?

"Justice triumphs... because the good guys are smarter than the bad" (Colombo) ... OR
"Justice truimphs... because the good guys are ruthless and violent" (Dirty Harry)

That was the essence of this entire chapter. And also saying that you don't force the controlling thought on the story; it presents itself to you. It's about revealing the truth, not forcing the story to conform to an ideal.

He also mentioned about a film being a conflict between "the idea" (e.g. justice triumphs) and "the counter-idea" (e.g. crime pays).

The ups and downs of the movie have justice triumphing in one scene and crime paying in the next. The temptation for an ideologically driven film is to make the idea of "crime pays" really weak, in order to make "justice" look stronger. But a good writer is able to present the counter-idea at its strongest, so the real idea stands up and proves how really strong it is.

Good morning's learning, dead rabbit notwithstanding. I love life!


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