HSC English Standard – The Truman Show Study Guide

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HSC English Standard – The Truman Show Study Guide

Introduction

The Truman Show is an evocative and intelligent text that encourages readers to reconsider their understanding of reality, the media and the human spirit. Incorporating elements of satire, irony and metacommentary, director Peter Weir’s 1998 film is one that has remained culturally significant for over two decades. The Truman Show therefore proves itself to be an extremely fitting text for Module B, or Close Study of Literature. After all, the role of the student in this module is to analyse in great depth a single text or body of work and evaluate its cultural significance. It is extremely important that the student knows the text well enough that they can take on the role of a critic and be able to contribute an original idea about their personal interpretation of the prescribed text.

In this study guide, we will deconstruct the key aspects of the Close Study of Literature rubric and how they relate to The Truman Show. Then, the key prominent themes of the text will be explored. Lastly, we will look at what to expect when sitting Paper 2, as well as a general guide to writing responses for this module.

Initial considerations

No matter which text you are assigned as your prescribed text, it must be analysed in terms of the Close Study of Literature rubric. Some initial considerations you should deliberate before writing a response in order to consolidate your understanding of the film and the module include:

  • Your personal response to the text – again, the most important aspect of this rubric is your ability to convey to the marker what you think of the text
    • What is the film about?
    • What is the film trying to say?
    • Is the film attempting to influence audiences to react in a certain way?
    • How do your personal experiences affect the way in which you interpret the film?
  • Peter Weir’s purpose in creating the film – is it to provide commentary on social and political issues, spark a certain emotion in responders, challenge cultural beliefs and stereotypes, create art for art’s sake or a culmination of all of the above?
  • The literary significance of the film (awards, accolades, critical and commercial reception) – what do the broader responses to The Truman Show mean? Why does society regard the text as being important or notable?
  • Responses to the film and how they have changed over time, particularly has the media, society and ideologies have evolved
  • How form, structure, genre and style deeply influence the ways in which messages, themes and ideas are depicted by the composer and interpreted by the responder

 

An evaluation of some key terms

In Module B, you may come across various terms that will be central to the unit of study. They may initially seem very vague and confusing. This is partially because these terms have various definitions – none of which are unanimously agreed upon. It would therefore be a good idea to familiarise yourself with what each term means and ask how it can apply to The Truman Show.

  • Cultural significance – the aesthetic, historic, scientific, social or spiritual value of a text
    • What makes your text interesting, unique or important?
    • Would the world be the same if this text had never been created? Why/why not?
  • Literary canon – the body of texts considered to be ‘high culture’ or have achieved the status of being ‘classics’
    • What texts do you think belong in the literary canon? Why/why not?
    • At what point does a text become a classic?
    • What issues of diversity come with the literary canon? Is it good to take an elitist attitude towards texts in this way?
  • Textual integrity – the ability of a text to unify content, form and purpose into one coherent message
    • Why is it important to consider all aspects of the text when analysing it?
    • Do you think these three elements complement each other in The Truman Show?

 

Background to The Truman Show

Director’s context

Peter Weir, the director of The Truman Show, was born in Sydney, Australia in 1944. When he was 21, he embarked on a ship voyage to Europe that would influence his life’s course. During the long trip he met his wife and future production designer, Wendy Stites, and made his first film, of sorts: using the ship’s closed-circuit television system, he directed and filmed a comedy revue. Weir’s year abroad, most of which was spent in London working a variety of casual jobs, seems to have afforded him a fresh perspective from which to contemplate what it means to be an Australian, a question that would inform all his early full-length features. By the time he returned to Australia the following year, he had decided on a career in entertainment. Weir began working as a stagehand for a television network, where he and other employees made short films for fun. Beginning in 1969, he worked for the government-funded Commonwealth Film Unit as a cameraman and director.

This would eventually lead to Weir being known for his intelligent emotional dramas that frequently explore the relationship between characters and their social environment, which is precisely what The Truman Show is about. Weir also contributed to a renaissance in Australian filmmaking and directed a string of other acclaimed Hollywood movies.

Literary significance

The Truman Show was an undeniable commercial and critical success. It won many awards, including:

  • 3 Golden Globes (1999)
  • BAFTA David Lean Award for Direction (1999)
  • 2 Saturn Awards (1999)
  • 3 Awards Circuit Community Awards (1998)
  • Satellite Award for Best Art Direction (1999)
  • Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation (1999)

and received a nomination for:

  • 3 Academy Awards (1999)
  • 14 Online Film & Television Association Awards (1999)
  • 4 BAFTA Awards (1999)
  • 3 Saturn Awards (1999)
  • 4 Chicago Film Critics Association Awards (1999)
  • Empire Award for Best Film (1999)
  • Writers Guild of America for Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen (1999)

The film also achieved a total of $264.1 million in box office earnings and has since inspired various articles from sites such as Vulture, Vanity Fair and Medium that claim the film ‘Predicted the Future.’ Needless to say, The Truman Show has had a profound cultural impact on not only the audience of its time, but audiences today. The fact that the film has been so critically acclaimed suggests a broader response to this text being culturally significant in not only the world of art, but in everyday people using it as a medium through which they can better understand the human condition. That is, it is important to consider how The Truman Show has established itself as being a ‘significant’ literary text through its exploration of complex themes using complex techniques, devices and stylistic choices.

Deconstructing the rubric

As with any text, we must first look to the Close Study of Literature rubric to understand what it really is that we are asked to do. In fact, every potential HSC examination question can come only from this rubric—though at times it could be less obvious and masked by synonymous language—so it is imperative that we study the links between The Truman Show and the major points in the Close Study of Literature rubric. The rubric is as follows:

‘In this module, students develop an informed understanding, knowledge and appreciation of a substantial literary text. Through their development of considered personal responses to the text in its entirety, students explore and analyse the particular ideas and characteristics of the text and understand the ways in which these characteristics establish its distinctive qualities.

Students study one text chosen from the list of prescribed texts. They engage in the extensive exploration and interpretation of the text and the ways composers (authors, poets, playwrights, directors, designers and so on) portray people, ideas, settings and situations in texts. By analysing the interplay between the ideas, forms and language within the text, students appreciate how these elements may affect those responding to it. Students produce critical and creative responses to the text, basing their judgements on a detailed knowledge of the text and its language features.

Through reading, viewing or listening, students analyse, assess and comment on the text’s specific language features and form. They express increasingly complex ideas, clearly and cohesively, using appropriate register, structure and modality. They draft, appraise and refine their own texts, applying the conventions of syntax, spelling and grammar appropriately.

Through their analyses and assessment of the text and their own compositions, students further develop their personal and intellectual connections with, and enjoyment of the text, enabling them to express their informed personal interpretation of its significance and meaning.’

Let’s look at some example questions you could receive in the HSC examination and what aspect of the rubric it most closely reflects (remember, some questions can be a combination of different elements of the rubric!). Then, we will deconstruct what the statement actually means and, most importantly, how you can apply it to your response.

Understanding and appreciating a substantial literary text

  • Potential question: ‘Without the ability to appreciate art, we lose the ability to feel truly connected to the universe.’ Explore this statement in relation to your prescribed text.
  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: ‘Students develop an informed understanding, knowledge and appreciation of a substantial literary text.’

Essentially, what this rubric statement means is you will be tested on how well you know the film and are able to engage in meaningful discussions about it. Although it is necessary in every module for you to know your text in great detail, Module B is perhaps the most important when it comes to this.

There are various ways in which you can become informed about your text. Make sure you employ as many as techniques as you can, if not all of them:

  • Watch the film more than once and write good notes about it
  • Engage with critic readings
  • Discuss the text with teachers and peers
    • Try to understand or listen to others’ opinions, even if you don’t agree with them. Then, ask yourself why you disagree – what evidence from the film makes you believe what you believe?
  • Keep notes throughout the term so that you can reflect on how your understanding of the film has changed
  • Research the composer’s context and the form of the text
  • Ensure that your work is read by others

It should also be noted that there is a difference between understanding and appreciating a text. Understanding a text is quite straightforward – what is the text about? What are its main themes, messages and textual features? What techniques did Weir use to get his point across? Attempting to understand the film should be the first thing you do.

However, to elevate your responses to a Band 6 response, you must learn how to also appreciate the text. Here, you must apply that knowledge you have about the film and evaluate it. Explain to the marker why you think the text is significant to society. Discuss the cultural impact of the text, whether that be on the ability of The Truman Show to satirise the way in which modern society is commercialised, or how it forces audiences to reflect on their own compliance in providing so much power to the media. Consider the different perspectives of the text that exist, and then form your own.

The distinctive qualities of a text

  • Potential question: In your opinion, what aspects of your prescribed text make it unique, distinctive and memorable?
  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: ‘Students explore and analyse the particular ideas and characteristics of the text and understand the ways in which these characteristics establish its distinctive qualities.’

Every text is unique and different. This should be obvious to any person. Try to think about what makes The Truman Show memorable. You might start to realise that it is more than the plot and themes that differs between texts. After all, there are many texts other than this film that looks at the media, authenticity and discovery as thematic concerns. The film’s personal style, genre, tone, political commentary, subversions of expectations, techniques make it distinctive from other texts with similar themes.

Your job, as the student, is to identify features like this that separate The Truman Show from others. Then, you must examine why Weir chose to subvert expectations this way and what kind of implications it has on the text’s reception by audiences. It may be helpful for you to go through this checklist:

  • How is the film similar to other texts?
  • What was surprising to you about the film?
  • What was the most memorable aspect of the film to you?
  • What purpose does the film serve by subverting expectations?
  • Were there any aspects of the form that were unique?
  • Was there something about the film that hadn’t been done before?

The interplay between the ideas, forms and language

  • Potential question: ‘In order to fully understand a text in its entirety, one must consider all elements of the story, its structure and purpose.’ To what extent does this statement apply to The Truman Show?
  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: ‘By analysing the interplay between the ideas, forms and language within the text, students appreciate how these elements may affect those responding to it.’

When attempting to understand or appreciate the film, it is important that we talk about it in its entirety. This includes not only the themes and ideas presented by Weir, but the way in which these themes and ideas are being portrayed. For example, the plot of The Truman Show is thought-provoking in itself. The idea of a man who is constantly being recorded and lives in a world that is entirely fabricated is one that is very interesting. However, part of what elevates the film from good to great is its ability to convey this story through the use of metacommentary. That is, not only does Weir show the effects of modern media on society, but he is able to directly speak to the audience and therefore blur the lines between reality and fiction. This is seen in the various shots that feature direct gazes from Truman to the camera, as though we are part of the audience inside the universe of the film watching the show. By manipulating the form this way, Weir is able to create a text that is extremely complex and thought-provoking, a result of both the film’s content and form working together to create one cohesive story.

Hence, you must be able to analyse the connection between the ‘ideas, forms and language’ of the text. This is where the concept of textual integrity becomes extremely important. Refer to the earlier definition in part 1.3 if you need a reminder of what this term means. Ultimately, when you write your response in Module B, you must consider and incorporate all elements of the film in order to provide a meaningful analysis.

Textual form and language features

  • Potential question: Discuss the significance of form and how it can be manipulated by composers to portray important themes. In your response, make close reference to your prescribed text.
  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: ‘Through reading, viewing or listening, students analyse, assess and comment on the text’s specific language features and form.’

As mentioned before, the form of a text – that is, features of the text that relate to its structure, style, genre or techniques – is an extremely important feature that should not be dismissed. After all, a really interesting, clever story idea would not matter if the author does not know how to tell the story in an engaging way. Discussing form in an answer is certainly ideal, but not essential unless the question specifically asks for it. Even still, it should always be considered whilst undertaking a study of the texts and explored whenever possible. Common features or tropes that can be found in The Truman Show include, but are not limited to:

  • Filmic conventions
    • Camera angles
    • Lighting as a means to create mood
    • Taking advantage of the multimedia form – using music, visual techniques and dialogue/text to portray their message instead of simply written language as prose fiction would do
    • Setting
  • Genre
    • Satire
    • Irony
    • Comedy
    • Metacommentary – how Weir is able to comment on the nature of film and media within the text

It is not enough to simply state these aspects of the film. You must analyse its genre and context and understand how every sequence of the work is a deliberate choice made by Weir to contribute to these features (or, perhaps, challenge or pioneer them). Think of the form, structural features and nature of language as decisions made in order to most effectively tell the story Weir wanted to tell. These techniques aid composers in exploring universal themes as a medium through which they can communicate with the responder.

Your personal response

  • Potential question: Write a series of three or four reflections that detail how your personal response and connection to The Truman Show has evolved over time.
  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: ‘Through their analyses and assessment of the text and their own compositions, students further develop their personal and intellectual connections with, and enjoyment of the text, enabling them to express their informed personal interpretation of its significance and meaning.’

What separates Module B the most from other units of study is the fact it requires you to form your own, personal opinion about whichever text you are studying. With every other module, you are still required to analyse and become familiar with your prescribed text. However, Close Study of Literature is unique in that you are allowed and encouraged to convey your personal response to the text’s themes, message and impact.

Think of how The Truman Show has challenged you personally, or how it has made you feel. What parts of the text did you enjoy? It may be the comedic genre that Weir adopts, its enduring relevance to the issues in today’s society or – more likely – a combination of various aspects of the film.

Draw on your own experiences, memories and values to evaluate how the film has impacted you as an individual. By doing so, you are showing to the marker that you have established a personal connection to the text in a unique way that could not have been achieved with any other student. Note that the rubric also states the importance of developing an ‘intellectual connection’ with the text, meaning you must be able to express to the marker what the text has taught you. Perhaps, it may have even made you a better writer. Regardless, the notion of forming a personal response to the film is arguably the most important, defining aspect of Module B.

Prominent themes

Reality and authenticity versus appearances

Perhaps the most prominent theme in the film, The Truman Show looks heavily into what is real and what is contrived. What is most interesting and compelling about this film, however, is that the line between these two opposites is not always clear. Truman’s life – his parents, his wife, his friends, his job – is entirely fabricated and controlled. Yet, as Christof rightly says, ‘there’s nothing fake about Truman himself. No scripts, no cue cards. It isn’t always Shakespeare, but it’s genuine. It’s a life.’ Even Truman’s name is a not-so-subtle pun – ‘true man.’ It’s his authenticity and desire for something real that ultimately leads to his freedom, as well as the downfall of the show.

So, what exactly is Weir trying to say about this notion of fakery and appearances? One obvious interpretation of this theme is that the film argues that all of us lead fake lives, not unlike Truman’s. The media, the government and those in power control the information we receive, the laws that we must obey and the social norms that we have to abide by. There is nothing in our existence that can be considered pure, untouched and genuinely authentic – the ‘truth’ is simply unreachable. Yet, it is this desire for something real that drives each and every one of us, Truman included.

Here’s another interpretation: in recent years, this film has become even more relevant due to its unforeseen commentary on the nature of social media and how our lives can become distorted and (literally) filtered through Facebook, YouTube and so on. Just like Truman cannot tell that Meryl is simply playing the part of a loving wife, many believe that the seemingly perfect lives of influencers on their Instagram feed is entirely genuine. Social media allows individuals to curate the most attractive, appealing, enviable photos to post, while concealing the moments that might paint our lives in a negative light. In a way, The Truman Show unintentionally predicted how this notion of the private versus public self would become an extremely prominent theme in today’s society.

Modern media

This theme is closely related to the last, in that the power of the media lies in its ability to distort and control reality. After all, without newspaper articles, television, social media and other forms of media, how could anyone receive information about current events or important news? According to The Truman Show, however, the issue with this is that these pieces of information are always written by people with personal biases, beliefs and agendas, even if it is not intentional. Weir asserts that, to some extent, we are Truman. We believe and consume everything that is put before us, often without question. His film, as a result, serves as a wake-up call for audiences to realise that what we observe in the media is often not a fair representation of the ‘truth.’

Another aspect to this theme is the sensationalism of modern media. Sensationalism refers to the term where stories are presented in a way that is ‘intended to provoke public interest or excitement, at the expense of accuracy.’ This is clearly Truman’s situation – he lives in a world that is carefully designed by Christof to evoke the most attention from audiences, including fabricating the storyline in which Truman’s father dies in a horrific sailing accident. Yet, despite the ethical implications of the emotional toil this had on Truman (he even develops a fear of water after this), audiences continue to devour the content that the show provides. It appears that Weir is making a statement about how, in the media, terrible tragedies are exaggerated and made into public spectacles in order to gain views and revenue. Consumers of this media are compliant in encouraging this behaviour. In terms of the module, you should consider how Weir explores this group mentality of humans, as well as how he tries to inspire more individual thinking amongst viewers.

Commercialism and advertising

Another prominent theme in the film is that of commercialism and advertising. Weir criticises modern society in how it perpetuates and contributes to the abundance of advertisements that are now found in every aspect of our lives. After all, it is these sponsorships that essentially allow the show to have the funding to continue. However, it definitely has a negative effect on the authenticity of our interactions and interests.

One of the most obvious examples of this theme are the various product placements found during the show, such as Meryl’s Chef’s Pal. The camera shot in this scene – a closeup of the item – and the melodic tone of Meryl’s voice is deliberately used to emulate and mock the ways in which advertisements permeate modern culture. They are found everywhere, from the windows of buses to the social media applications we use. They are inescapable, and the film’s satirical genre aids in its parody of these kinds of advertisements. Ultimately, Weir asserts that people today are controlled by corporations. Much of what we see and believe is no longer a reflection of who we truly are, but a result of capitalist greed, particularly as technology becomes progressively more advanced. This could be one reason as to why the film is so culturally important – it exposes, criticises and makes fun of this aspect of society to its audiences.

The American Dream

The American Dream is widely considered to be the United States’ ethos, which is another word for the defining spirit, attitude or beliefs of a certain group. The American Dream refers to the idea that any person, regardless of their origins, can achieve any goal they aspire to, as long as they have a strong will and work ethic. This notion was extremely popular in the 19th and early-mid 20th centuries, as many truly believed that there were no structural factors (such as race, socio-economic class or religion) that could stop people from reaching that ‘dream,’ which was often centred around wealth. However, in the mid-late 20th century – which was when The Truman Show was released – the United States saw a change in thinking. People became extremely critical of this ethos, arguing that the American Dream is a lie. There are, in fact, many invisible barriers for minorities and oppressed groups, who start out in life much further behind than privileged people, unable to ever catch up.

In the film, we are introduced to Truman as a man who has an essentially perfect, yet modest, life – a wonderful home, a beautiful wife and a stable job. In other words, Truman has already achieved the American Dream. He quite literally has the ‘white picket fence’ that many Americans historically strived for, as this suburban lifestyle was reflective of the upper-middle class. Despite this, Truman is shown to be increasingly dissatisfied with his life thus far. He constantly searches for something more – though he isn’t sure what that is – as seen by his preoccupation with travel and Sylvia. Even at the end of the film, when Christof warns Truman that ‘there’s no more truth out there than there in the world I created for you,’ the protagonist chooses to go out into the unknown because the American Dream is essentially a lie. Truman cares little for his material possessions and his contrived life, preferring to break away from the norm that has been enforced onto him.

This is why the film has resonated with so many people. It presents a character that embodies the new ethos of the era – a postmodern, pessimist view of the American Dream. Truman rejects the old ways of thinking and looks to the future, as scary and unfamiliar as that may be. Weir artfully establishes his film as one that appeals to many people because of this relatable mindset, which adds to the overall significance of the text.

Discovery, realisation and the loss of innocence

Part of what makes Truman so appealing to audiences is his growth throughout the film. While his biting remark to Christof, ‘you never had a camera inside my head,’ suggests that he has always been a curious person who wants more than what has been given to him, Truman does begin a somewhat naïve character. The way that the show (and the film itself) presents our protagonist at the start of the film is almost robotic – he has a daily routine, even a daily motto. However, as the plot begins to unfold, Truman evolves into a free-thinking, risk-taking character. In other words, Truman loses his innocence and steps out into the ‘real’ world, the same way that a young adult might when moving out of their parents’ home, getting their first job or starting a family of their own.

This theme of discovery and realisation is not limited to just Truman. We, the audience, also undergo a similar process. We continually learn things about Truman’s personality and past that surprise us, such as Truman’s obsession with finding Sylvia. More broadly, the film’s message and purpose allow us to become more aware of the implications of modern society. For example, by satirising the commercialism that permeates today’s media through Marlon and Meryl’s product placement scenes, Weir has invited the audience to see how inauthentic and tacky these sponsorships are. This is a major part of what makes the film so revered – it is not only a convincing piece of entertainment, but it actually strives to teach, show and confront the audience about their own choices. The Truman Show encourages viewers to reflect on how much freedom we actually have from the media, the government and other establishments.

Religion

Just as with the American Dream, religion – particularly Christianity – used to dictate the rules, social norms and morals of the Western world in a way that it no longer does today. Although Christianity is still relatively common and is currently the world’s largest religion, there are an increasing number of non-religious people.

The Truman Show makes various, not-so-subtle references at this change in society. Christof, whose name is quite literally made of the word, ‘Christ,’ controls the entire world that Truman knows of in a way that some believe God controls our earth. He is all-powerful, all-knowing being that is aware of every actor’s position at a given time, as well as Truman’s greatest fears and dreams. Even the way Christof’s conversation with Truman towards the end of the film is filmed is highly reminiscent of a godlike figure. The low-angle shot of the sunlight seeping through the clouds accompanied by Christof’s voice, which has added reverb and echo, makes it seem as though Truman is quite literally talking to God – and, in a way, he is. Yet, when Truman is facing that decision to stay with the life that Christof has curated for him or step out into the literal darkness and uncertainty of the ‘real’ world, our protagonist chooses the latter. That is, he chooses to abandon the God that has seemingly controlled every part of his life up until that point.

Clearly, Weir is making a bold statement about the increasing secularism and non-religious population of the world. He is criticising those who accept what has been told to them without questioning the nature of believing in such a powerful being. More broadly, Weir has encapsulated the world’s sentiment at the time – a growing realisation that there may not be a god up there, and if there is, he may not have our best interests at heart. Of course, all of this is up for discussion. You might not personally agree with this statement, which is fine. Just ensure that you can back up your opinions with strong arguments and carefully selected examples from the film.

Writing a Close Study of Literature response

What to expect from Paper 2

Now that you have familiarised yourself with precisely what NESA is asking of you in this module and in the film, you should know what to expect from Paper 2. The following is a summary of key points about Paper 2:

  • Paper 2 consists of three sections
    • Section I – Module A response
    • Section II – Module B response
    • Section III – Module C response
  • It will be 2 hours of writing time, with an additional 5 minutes reading time (you will not be able to mark your page in any way during this time)
    • This means you should be devoting approximately 40 minutes to each section. While you don’t have to evenly divide time between the three modules, we recommend that you stick to this guideline as much as possible
  • All parts are out of 20 marks each
  • You must only write in blue or black pen

Being a guide to Module B, this study guide will focus on Section II. This section is relatively straightforward in that you are given one question only. However, you may be expected to write in a variety of forms, such as a full essay with an introduction, body paragraphs and a conclusion, personal reflection, a creative response or any other type of persuasive form. Regardless, all questions will draw from any aspect of the Close Study of Literature rubric (including specifying form!), though it may sometimes include quotes and extracts or rewrite statements from the rubric in a different way. You must come prepared having studied The Truman Show in great depth. After all, Module B essentially evaluates how much you know about a single work of literature.

Constructing an essay

In any English essay, the following structure should generally be followed.

  • Introduction: 6 sentences maximum, approximately 150 words
    • General statement about the module (e.g. ‘Literature has the ability to make its mark on the world in more ways than one.’)
    • Thesis statement that defines key terms of the question and makes a judgement on the question asked
    • Introduction of the text
      • Title (The Truman Show), composer (Peter Weir), date of publication (1998) and form (satirical film)
    • Conclude using an evaluative adverb to demonstrate how you will develop a thoughtful response
  • 3 – 4 body paragraphs: 200 – 300 words
    • Topic sentence: explicitly reference language from the question, restate your thesis in terms of your theme
    • Context/elaborate sentence(s): emphasise more specifically what you mean by the topic sentence, especially in terms of what happens in the film. Two sentences maximum
    • Analysis: using evidence to support your topic and elaboration sentences—there must be a direct link or progression of logic made between the analysis and the argument. Deconstruct at least two quotes, but ensure that you are focused on quality over quantity
    • Concluding sentence: use an evaluative adverb such as purposefully, cleverly, insightfully (e.g. Significantly, this text projects the necessity of … ) in order to assess the question and your argument as a whole
  • Conclusion
    • Re-address main ideas/topic sentences of body paragraphs
    • Make an overall judgement about the film in terms of the question
    • Optional: finish with an insightful afterthought about the role of texts in allowing us to better understand the human condition

Of course, this is only a general guide to writing a sound essay. As frustrating as it can be to hear, there is simply no single scaffold you can follow to impress a marker, as each module will have different requirements, every student’s writing style will differ, and markers will have different tastes.

The most important advice to keep in mind when writing an essay is to have a strong thesis. Learn to define the question in your own terms—this is what your thesis is, not simply a restatement of the question. By defining the key phrases in the introduction, you can manipulate any given question so that it fits your plan/ideas about the film. If you state this thesis at throughout your body paragraphs (not simply the topic and concluding sentences), your essay will have a strong argument and persuade the marker that you are confident in your case. It is similarly important to ensure that your arguments always come back to Close Study of Literature. That is, you should be able to clearly explain how your quotes or ideas are relevant to the themes in your prescribed text.

Personal reflections

Over the course of this study guide, the notion of ‘personal responses’ have been emphasised a lot. In fact, this aspect of the module is so important that it is very possible that you will be asked to write a personal reflection of your text. When writing in this form, you must remember that it is not the same thing as an essay – the structure, tone and purpose of personal reflections are completely different.

Firstly, there is no strict introduction-body-conclusion structure that you should follow. You may choose to simply write your response in normal paragraphs. Your paragraphs can be in chronological order – that is, they detail the progression of your learning over time – or they can be grouped thematically like you would in an essay. You still need quotes, examples and analyses, but you do not have to follow PEEL or any other paragraph structure. Above all, write what feels natural to you.

The tone of the personal reflection should be, obviously, quite personal. You may use first-person pronouns like ‘I’ and ‘my,’ which you should avoid when writing formal essays. The way in which you discuss the text should also be more intimate. Instead of describing what the text is about, you should focus more on how it made you personally think and feel. This style of response can also invite colloquial language! Don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone.

These two aspects tie into the purpose of personal responses. Unlike formal essays, which attempt to present the ‘facts’ about a text in a cold, hard way, personal responses should only be used to present how you feel about the prescribed text. You are not just persuading the audience of something (although your response should still serve this purpose!), you are putting forward your own thoughts and perspectives. Hence, your response should reflect this purpose.

Creative response

Creative writing is a skill that is difficult to learn, mostly because of the fact that good stories do not take one form. For example, a saga set in space that deals with questions of morality and justice is not inherently better than a simple story that takes course over an average businessman’s lunch break. Instead, good writing is judged on the overall effectiveness and cohesiveness of a story rather than its specific parts. That is to say, there is no ‘formula’ or scaffold in which you can follow in writing a story as there might be when writing an essay. Each writer will inevitably have different writing styles, quirks and nuances – it is up to you to capitalise on and focus on your strengths, whilst still working on improving your weaknesses, to create an effective piece of writing.

Regardless of the fact that all short stories are extremely different in their plot, style and themes, there are some features that will assist you in writing a more effective story. Firstly, one of the most important characteristics of any good story is having a convincing purpose. That is, though you may not think essay writing and creative writing are the same in any way, both forms actually have a thesis/argument that you are attempting to prove that you are trying to prove to the reader. A short story is, in essence, an essay in action. Your very first step in writing a story is choosing a purpose – in other words, the moral of your story.

Secondly, every engaging story must have a sense of development in either the world or the characters. Without this change, there is no story to be told. A character or a society must have had their values or perspectives on the world challenged, an obstacle to overcome or an event that confronts their fears, beliefs, etc. Your character/world should never be the same from start to finish.

Above all, make sure that you are following the stimulus given instead of simply rewriting a memorised story. Think of what the stimulus inspires in you, as well as how it might be relevant to your prescribed text.

Conclusion

The Truman Show is a film that explores what it means to be human in a distinctly modern way. It looks at issues that are relevant to audiences over twenty years after its initial release, including the power of the media, our search for truth and humanity’s struggle with spirituality. Indeed, it is not only important to understand this text well, but to explore it through the lens of the Close Study of Literature module. There are many aspects of the rubric to familiarise yourself with. Above all, it is extremely important to maintain a focused attitude and show to markers your personal ideas and beliefs about the film.

Final tips

  • Avoid writing memorised responses. It is incredibly easy to recognise when a student has done so, and markers are ultimately judging you based on how well you are able to think critically and not simply regurgitate an essay or a creative response
  • Write lots and lots of practise responses. You may (and should) begin setting no timer so that you can clearly express your thoughts without timed pressure, but gradually move on to putting yourself under exam conditions so that the actual assessment will feel familiar to you. This, as well as actually writing responses out on paper and not simply on a computer, is going to make a huge difference
  • It is ideal to discuss form in your essay even if the question does not ask for it. Of course, in that case, it would not have to be your primary concern, but even a sentence or two about the structural features or language used in the texts could show the marker that you really understand the relationship between theme and form
  • When writing a creative response, try to limit your story to 2 – 4 characters, with the main plot not exceeding 24 hours. This way, your story is more manageable and therefore more detailed
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