Visual stimulus is a staple of imaginative writing exam questions. In preparation for the Preliminary English Extension exam, our class completed a prolonged discussion prompted by images of the recent commemoration of the Great London Fire of 1666. Why? A student had been working on a narrative premise where a character’s attitude shifted with each revolution of the London Eye, following class based exercises on character perceptions of famous landmarks.
In other years, I have made use of Gail Jones’ Five Bells, and more specifically the four character’s first view of the Sydney Opera House. We considered these extracts: five-bells-images and how Jones’ language choices shape our understanding of each character’s outlook.
We also considered how Deb Westbury personifies an Illawarra suburb in ‘Dapto dresses up’, noting the imagery of a middle aged woman struggling to find her place in a changing world. We then took each of the following visual representations of Big Ben, deliberately moving from a daytime long shot, to an early evening close up and an extreme close up. The 10 minute challenge was to freely write words that explored the five senses.
Importantly, allow your mind to drift into any area that a word my prompt. When we shared our words, we noted interesting ideas and new connections that were created. This activity always proves fruitful. Here are some of our collected ideas:
- leafy, river, majestic, tall, lapping, imposing, phallic, still, spring, fresh, breeze, tolling, bong, authority, repetitive, incessant, glow, traffic, cacophony, conformity
- winter, gnarly, mauve, afternoon, cool, goosebumps, clicking, chirping, breath, rising sun, silhouette, peach, morning dew
- rough, coffee, bustle, city, cars, beeping, chatter, towering, monotonous, on edge, weird, intricate, pieces
We also discussed the kind of person or character that could suitably represent Big Ben, and what that might reveal about our understanding, or position a reader.
The homework task was to write a poem that personifies this London landmark.
The Big Ben
Sitting on a park bench
A solace for pecking pigeons,
whistling a musical fanfare.
People freely pass by,
but not the passage of time.
All dressed neatly, but nary the eye glimpses.
So iconic and familiar yet misunderstood.
A fragment of an era long forgotten
Spying through an archaic monocle.
Sitting, silently judging their futile progression
And a longer example:
The last of light drawn into the horizon.
Resisting, bellowing, and fighting the inevitable.
Life seeks to hold on.
A memorial to a prosperous age yet,
Heat rises, replaced with bitter frost.
A towering figure stood solemnly
Staring at his companion of many a day,
Scowling at her easing tears
Commanding her to stay. An assertion. A plea.
Her refusal; an insult.
Instigating a thunderous echo.
She escaped his grasp,
the current drowning his dignity.
Ultimately he could do nothing
A monument to the past.
A herald of the present.
A grave to the future.
Powerful, yet powerless,
The incessant ticking continues
Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock.
So how can you incorporate ideas from an image into an imaginative piece in the allocated 40 minutes of Paper 1? Spend some time – a few minutes – letting your mind give your words. Annotate the image (after the reading time has elapsed and you begin to write) and allow every word to be written, rather than dismissing ideas before they are fully formed.
Consider the five senses, colour, shape, texture and emotion. When you have many different words compiled, ask yourself how these can be linked to ‘discovery’, or in the case of Preliminary Extension – ‘love’. We had studied a range of texts under the unit heading of ‘Narratives of Love’ and considered cultural values and representations of different forms of love over several hundred years.
These fire photographs suggest high levels of energy, passion, and power. Notice the different impact of night and day – how might this be incorporated into a narrative? Perhaps it could be shown in a character’s emotional shift. The skeletal beauty of the burning buildings contrasts with the simple, raw wood construction juxtaposed with a silhouette of the London Eye – contemporary technology a grey bleakness to the traditional buildings.
Flames were projected onto the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral at night, standing proud between two glass towers. Notice the distortion of the image? Perhaps a character could demonstrate verisimilitude: outward strength that dissipates when challenged by a traumatic situation.
Consider the impact of anonymous people foregrounding an important building. This could add descriptive detail to the setting or location of your narrative. Take a moment to write an interesting perspective from a crowd’s viewpoint, lulling the reader into a false position.
Finally, we considered a drawing of the fire that was created some 50 years after the event. This view privileges the river and creates a sense of catastrophe for those who helplessly watched events unfold. How could a situation develop into a dawning menace, supported by sustained tension through tightly structured paragraphs that inexorably lead the reader?
* images from the 2016 commemoration of the Great Fire of London taken from UK newspapers The Sun and The Guardian