Words offer us a myriad of possibilities in the telling of our stories. We may focus on why we love someone, what draws us to a location or why something is beautiful. Often our stories take a particular narrative line, focusing on a direct theme or idea. It is important that we evaluate: Is our story being told the best way possible? What I mean by this is, are we using the right medium to drive our story the furthest it can go?
Many Australian artists present themes through their work that are made all the more powerful by the way they are told. Some choose to focus on the nuances of human character and write through plays. Others choose to focus on the ambiguities life presents us with and write through song. Before you begin your writing journey, think about your story and its qualities. Ask yourself: Can my story be enhanced through its telling? Below are 4 different ways in which stories can be presented and the way famous Australian artists have used them and their merits.
1. Play writing – David Williamson
Plays are of a different narrative language to other mediums in the way they favour character and performance. These presentations are an experience for the listening audience, an event hundreds, if not thousands, of people come together for. Plays are interesting in the way that the audience cares not for the relatively sparse props and environments used but rather for the acting of the individuals involved. Plays are at their core, bare bones story telling. When children watch shadow puppets dancing on the wall they care not for the lighting, location or aesthetics of what is occurring. Instead, it is the characters and their interactions that are of paramount importance; the dialogue, which strikes an emotional chord, rings long after the event is over.
An Australian artist who uses the play format at its best is David Williamson (famous for works such as Don’s Party, The Removalists and The Club). Williamson’s work is an unflinching example of the Australian public developing through historical change. Don’s Party is a conversational piece detailing a group of friends and their political beliefs over the 1969 Federal Election. Over the three act structure the characters begin to show their true colours. We see that the political idealisms each person holds fail to keep their debauchery, misogyny and other failings at bay. We are drawn to the idiosyncrasies and imperfections that Williamson has written into the dialogue for his characters. We are sitting in a dark room, watching people on stage, their shadows dancing against the wall, and the only thing that matters is what one person will say to the next.
2. Poetry – Henry Lawson
There’s an old Chinese proverb which states that a picture is worth a thousand words. In a way this reflects the nature of poetry. The medium paints a picture through a small vision of the world. However under closer scrutiny, it’s so much larger. We can see the time, the place, the colours and texture embedded in the portrait of life before us. The poet Henry Lawson used his poetry to evoke the laconic tones of past Australia. Through carefully structured sentences Lawson is able to depict the working class of a generation.
Below is an excerpt from Lawson’s poem The Cattle Dog’s Death. Stringing together lilting prose with humane authority, we as the audience feel the dry landscape before us. We see and identify with the characters presented, and are treated to a picture of Lawson’s love of the land:
The plains lay bare on the homeward route
And the march was heavy on man and brute;
For the Spirit of Drouth was on all the land,
And the white heat danced on the glowing sand.
It is true that a picture says a thousand words, but it must be noted that through the carefully measured cadences of a good poet, each word evokes more than just a picture. We have been given a small opening in the door of human experience. To understand poetry is to approach this door and peek through the cracks, to see the panorama of life before us.
3. Screenwriting – David Michôd
In life, people do not roam the streets, describing their ardent passions and desires. If we seek to understand the emotions of our peers, we use the signs a lifetime of interaction has provided us with. Often we are able to sense the emotion of people we may not know. We see the way their eyes burn into the distance or the way they hold their head. We are given a world of thought by the occurrences of the external. To write screenplays is to refrain from overtly exposing the intricacies of what we or others feel. Instead, it is to show the audience location, character, plot or structure. To write screenplays is to emulate the human eye and aestheticize human emotion.
Writer David Michôd uses the screenplay medium to show how individuals pulled into darkness find redemption through grace or the kindness of others. In his most recent film The Rover, Michôd pits his protagonist (Eric) against an economically ravaged Australia while he searches for his property. Through images of bleak landscapes and savage violence we are inducted into a futuristic vision of Australia; Hopeless, anarchic and lost, just like the characters. However, a glimmer of hope presents itself when Eric meets his wandering compatriot, Rey. Through character interactions and unfurling events we see the relationship between the two leads changes. At no point are we given the inner workings of any characters mind. Instead, we visually witness the catharsis that comradery has on the protagonist. We have been given a world of story through well written visuals. Although the characters do not roam the streets, preaching their emotion, we still see it. We still feel it.
4. Songwriting – Nick Cave
Similar to the nature of poetry, songs can work on many levels at once. Levels of meaning, structure or emotion. The ability to write songs doesn't come from a foolproof structure or set of rules. The craft of writing to music comes instinctively. Musicians often absorb ideas about form and style from the world they know and live in. This reverberates to their listening audience. For some, a ballad could reflect the image of a soft flowing river, easy on the ears and full of beauty. While to others the same tones and chords could reflect the jagged nature of a white water stream, full of force and pace.
Australian musician Nick Cave writes most of his songs ambiguously with little to no clarification of their meaning through interviews and seminars. This is great in that meaning flows from many thought patterns and mindsets, however what is the ‘real’ meaning; what is the truth? Cave’s 15th album, No More Shall We Part, is regarded as a work dealing with the stoicism of married life. In the eponymous song of the same name, Cave croons:
And no more shall we part…
Lord, stay by me
Don’t go down
I will never be free
If I’m not free now
The flowing stream of song hints at feelings of isolation, wedlock, wanderlust and desire. But what is it that Cave is trying to state through the allegory of his words? The truth is that any interpretation is correct. Every interpretation contributes to the writings overall purpose. The beauty of song writing is that it works on many levels, like the rivers of a state all meeting at an ocean. Like the veins of a body meeting at the heart.
As artists who strive for perfection, it is important that we seek to present our stories in the best way possible. Whether we specialise in novels, films, plays or any other form of art, we must be able to display the same emotion that first sparked the fire of our interest. If a painter creates a water colour portrait of the night sky he may tire of the image before long. But with a different type of paint, he may create the same night sky with a different style. A new outlook on an old scene. We must consider and learn from the different vehicles writing presents us with to perfect our ideas and stories. In doing so, just like the painter, our stars will shine brighter than ever.