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Let’s get real - nobody likes pancakes without any toppings, or a hamburger without the bun. Well, it’s the exact same for Text Response essays. For that deeply-desired ‘A+’ written on your SAC, you’ll need a holistic interpretation of your text; including some ingredients that are so commonly pushed to the periphery. There are several components that assist in making your essay ‘stand out’ against fellow students, and each should be addressed to convey comprehensive knowledge of your text. Along with the points below, don't forget to also read our Ultimate Guide to VCE Text Response.
Collaborating with friends
Practice writing essays
Gather your resources; it’s time for a background check! Researching the context of your text is imperative for understanding its nuances. This is particularly necessary when investigating the author’s life, and the social, cultural and historical influences of the text. This may also answer those burning questions that you can never quite understand by just reading the text. Borrowing a book from a library, talking to your teacher, looking up queries on Google - is all it takes to have that deeper understanding to bolster your confidence … and potentially your grades!
Ever been stuck in the middle of your essay, just trying to remember what quote it was you wanted to write? It’s scientifically proven that how you memorise your material impacts its retrieval rate! Remembering items that are similar to each other improves the likelihood of recall in the long term and means that you won’t have to waste any time during your SAC with the sensation of knowing the quote, but not being able to retrieve it from memory. Therefore, organising your quotes in terms of themes, locations, settings or characters (and memorising them in the order of their category) can improve your ability to remember the information!
I think we’ve all had that ‘Oh my God’ moment when you read someone’s essay and see a frightening number of long and complex words appearing in each sentence. Well, you can rest easy in knowing your sophistication and vocabulary isn’t the only indicator of a SAC’s worth. In fact, consider your vocabulary as sprinkles on a cupcake - too much is overload, but you do need to include some to compete with other students. If vocabulary is a particularly weak point for you, take your time once a day to look up a new word in the dictionary, or better yet, subscribe to an online dictionary to be emailed one new word’s definition per day.
The best tip to doing well in English is passion! You may be thinking ‘well yeah, but I have none…” and this is something that is easily adaptable. The predecessor to passion is always interest! Creating a study group with friends, or even just talking to classmates before, during and after class to open discussion can provide you with a broader outlook on the text and get you asking questions such as ‘how?’ and ‘why?’. Everyone has different opinions, and so by hearing others it encourages you to share your viewpoint.
The final step to any revision is practice, practice, practice! Just remember, writing essays should never be the first thing you do after studying your text, but should be the product of weeks of hard work. At this stage of the process you should have ideas shared from your friends, vocabulary relevant to the text, multiple quotes to embed and background knowledge! It makes the learning process so much simpler and easier to learn - relieving you from a tonne of stress as you approach your SAC date!
Get our FREE VCE English Text Response mini-guide
Now quite sure how to nail your text response essays? Then download our free mini-guide, where we break down the art of writing the perfect text-response essay into three comprehensive steps.
We’ve explored historical context, themes, essay planning and essay topics over on our Like a House on Fire by Cate Kennedy blog post. If you need a quick refresher or you’re new to studying this text, I highly recommend checking it out!
‘Liz sits there helpless’
• From the beginning of the short story we can see that Liz isn’t, or doesn’t feel in control of her situation. The step by step process where she needs to ‘put the key in the ignition and turn it. Fire up the car and drive away’ showcases how the smallest details of starting the car, something that should be so simple instead requires immense mental effort on her behalf.
‘And he’s in there, alone, where she’s left him’.
• Her guilt bubbles to the surface here because it’s as though she’s the villain here, and she’s to blame for leaving him alone.
‘Abandoned him to a roomful of rampaging strangers’
• What’s really interesting here is her description of the other children. Instead of seeing this as an opportunity for Daniel to befriend others and have a great time, she describes them as ‘rampaging strangers’, giving us a sense that Daniel is subject to an unfamiliar environment that is wild, frenzied, rioting.
• These "fighter” phrases reveal Liz’s anxious mindset, as she imagines a world where her son is almost in the wilderness, every man for himself, as though it’s the survival of the fittest - and which Liz so fearfully express, “not that there’s going to be anybody with enough time to notice that Daniel needs help”, is not an environment where Daniel belongs.
“She digs in her bag for her lipstick, her fingers searching for the small cylinder, and pulls out a crayon, then a battery, then a tampon, then a gluestick.”
• Her everyday objects are splashed with Daniel’s belongings - the crayon, the gluestick, and demonstrate how intertwined her life is now with her child. This foreshadows her return to her pre-baby life - that things will not be the same.
“The smell of the place, that’s what throws her, the scent of it all, adult perfumes, air breathed out by computers and printers and photocopiers.”
• Even her sense of smell betrays her being away from Daniel. There’s a sense of alienation, of nausea that shows readers like us that Liz doesn’t feel like she belongs. This is in contrast to later in the story when she is reunited with Daniel and is comforted by ‘inhaling[ing] the scent of him again’.
“Same computer, same shiny worn spot on the space bar…"
• The repetition of ’same’ actually heightens how much has actually changed for Liz. Her entire world is now Daniel, whereas everything in the office is as it used to be. Therefore, there’s this sense that the people’s lives in the office remain unchanged, highlighting again Liz’s alienation.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, they’re right, of course they are.”
• This sarcastic internal monologue reflects Liz’s current state of mind, where she’s experiencing a disconnect from her coworkers, and ’the land of the living’.
"Delete, she presses. Punching the key like a bird pecking. Delete, delete, delete.”
• We can feel Liz’s exasperation at this stage. The simile ‘like a bird pecking’ automates Liz’s actions in the workplace, as though she is doing it by switching to a ‘mechanical form’ of herself. The repetition of ‘delete, delete, delete’ gives us the sense that she’s frustratingly attempting to ‘delete’ her self-acknowledged, perhaps over-the-top anxiety surrounding Daniel, or trying to delete herself out of her situation. Whichever is unclear and left up to interpretation. Perhaps both ring true.
‘Returning to work after maternity leave’
• Liz’s narrative interspersed with new mum’s pamphlet. The juxtaposition of the pamphlet’s words ‘being a stay-at-home mum can begin to seem mundane and repetitive’ is contrasted with Liz’s love of motherhood - she is at odds with what society tells her she should be feeling.
‘[Daniel]’d have his thumb in his mouth right now. Not smiling, that’s for sure.’
• There’s a self-projection of anxiety here with Liz assuming that the childcarers are unable to look after Daniel properly, and that he’s suffering.
‘God, these endless extended moments where you’re left in limbo, the time dangling like a suspended toy on a piece of elastic.’
• This simile highlights how her mindset is completely consumed with Daniel, as she likens her daily experiences with objects and things related to Daniel and childhood. She struggles to switch between her identity as a mother, and her previous identity as a colleague in the workplace.
‘Caroline, Julie and Stella had laughed dutifully enough, but their faces had shown a kind of pained disappointment, something faintly aggrieved.’
• Perhaps this is Cate Kennedy's commentary on society and motherhood. The expectations others have on you as a new mother, and how you should be feeling.
‘He doesn’t run over when he sees her’.
• The opening of this chapter is blunt and brutal. Liz has longed to see Daniel all day, her anxiety getting the best of her, and yet at the moment of their reunion, it’s not as she expects. In this sense, we can to feel that Liz is very much alone in her anxiety and despair and, not the other way around with Daniel.
’She’s fighting a terrible nausea, feeling the sweat in the small of her back.’
• Unlike other stories in this collection, her pain isn’t because the absence of love, but because of its strength. Her love for Daniel is so intense that it’s physiological, making her unwell to have been away from him.
• The symbol of cake represents her pre-baby life, a time when she was concerned with the ‘account of Henderson’s’ and ‘delete fourth Excel column’. Her priorities have now shifted, and the celebrated ‘cake’ tradition in the workplace, one that is at the centre of several conversations, is no longer to significance to Liz. Her husband, Andrew’s attempt to celebrate Liz’s first day back at work with cake is highly ironic. The societal expectation that Liz is happy to be back at work even extends to her husband, and heightens how Liz is very much alone in her experience.
If you found this close analysis helpful, then you might want to check out our Like a House on Fire Study Guide where we analyse EVERY story in the text and pinpoint key quotes and symbols!
When Lisa suggested that I blog about what teachers want in their students my immediate response was “Don’t we all want the same things!” We want our students to exhibit the insight and dedication that signals a top class learner. Additionally, it is obvious that teachers want students who are interested in the subject. Interested students make interesting lessons.
However, in my pondering on this question I have realised that for me students who are willing to engage with the text and commit to the task are always preferable.
Especially in English your teachers are looking for your willingness to explore your own ideas rather than rehash what others think. Your fresh perspective is welcome in a world where it’s all been said before… (and again!)
Another thing I like to find in a student is a unique style. There’s something sincere and credible about writing that speaks with its own distinct timbre, its individual structure and its authentic voice. This is the sort of writing that has you wanting to read on rather than doggedly plodding along to the end wishing that they had stuck to the lower word limit.
I can be a touch (*ahem*) pedantic and traditional in my views. I mean I love a page that is neatly written in a legible well-formed hand. There’s no chance of missing your meaning when your teacher can see what you’re saying. And something I instil in my students if they have not come to me already equipped with it is the ability to write on alternate lines only – I need a place to comment. You need a place to edit and this layout guards against sensory overload for your marker. Being willing to pay attention to apparently trivial details like this is the difference between a good student and a top student.
10 popular questions from VCE students answered by a VCE teacher
1. My teacher says I have problems with my expression. What can I do to fix this?
Lisa has already posted one of the best ways to fix your expression: that is to read it aloud. The natural rhythms of your expression will be clearer to you and you will find that your ‘mouth’ often makes corrections as you articulate your prose.
Another excellent way to find your voice is to read quality writing. Make it a habit to read a few pages every day. You can use the books on the VCE reading lists, you can go to your local library, find classics online and look at the opinion columns in the city newspapers. The more you read the better you will be at phrasing your ideas succinctly.
2. Teachers often say, “you need to develop your essay more”. What does this really mean?
This means that you look beyond what the topic statement or prompt demands that you address and explore what it invites you to consider.
Too many students are content to skim along the surface of the text. Take a deep breath and dive right into the depths of the ideas and points of views that are proposed in each text.
Formulate your own ideas and then develop them: explain and elaborate. Pick a thematic concern in one of your texts and follow its progress through the text; that way you will understand it with greater awareness of the author’s intentions.
3. In regards to Text Response, should students be ready to write on both their texts for the exam?
I would encourage students to be prepared for both texts. Apart from the extra analysis practice you get by preparing for both texts, you can never be 100% sure that you have adequately covered all options for the type of reading and responding topic you may face.
However, if you know your text intimately, if you have explored its nuances thoroughly and are so familiar with its narrative that it’s like your best friend then, yes, going into the exam with the plan of responding to one text will be possible.
4. Is it important to make my essay ‘sound’ good by using ‘sophisticated’ language?
One of the criteria for a successful response and a regularly commented upon aspect of a successful essay is your ability to show “strong language skills”.
Having a broad vocabulary base – a word bank – will enable you to express your ideas fluently and with eloquence. Additionally, used appropriately (no Malapropisms please like the student who wrote that “parents these days pamper to their children’s every desire”) some sophisticated words will add gloss to your piece. Think of BIG words as the seasoning of your essay – there to enhance, to titillate your reader to continue, not to overpower her. This is definitely a case where “less is more”. A little advanced vocabulary adds depth and interest; too much and meaning is sacrificed to effect.
5. In regards to Writing in Context, which is the easiest form to score well in? (for example: short story, essay, poem, speech etc.)
Note: This question is no longer relevant to the current English study design.
No one form is easier than another – it depends on the strength of the individual student. Find your strengths and cater to them. Perhaps you are skilled at taking a stance and validating that position with reasoned and logical rhetoric. If so then you should consider a form of the persuasive genre. If you are an adept storyteller with a flair for creating believable characters then opt for a type of creative response.
The way to excel is more about your authenticity as a writer rather than the type of text you produce.
6.In regards to Writing in Context, would it be best to stick to a conventional essay structure or write in the form of a hybrid? (for example, merging creative with expository writing.)
Note: This question is no longer relevant to the current English study design.
This reminds me of how subjective the marking process can be. I’m not a fan of hybrids, although according to the assessors’ comments there have been some successful results by students who choose to take this approach.
I think the hybrid type of response is better suited to the practiced, confident and polished writers amongst you.
Again, your score won’t depend on the form in which you decide to write your piece but on the degree to which you satisfy the criteria.
7. How should I prepare for the exam?
You should prepare for the exam by reading and rereading, watching and watching again, thinking and challenging those thoughts. You should do this until you come to a point where you know the text so thoroughly that you are equipped with enough knowledge about the text to enable you to respond to any topic with finesse.
You should discuss the texts with your friends, your fellow students, your teachers and your tutors.
You should look at study guides and compare your ideas to those you find in the many guides available.
You should brainstorm topics and write some full-length essays under exam conditions.
8. During the exam, ideally which essays should be approached first, second and last, and why?
There’s no set way of doing the exam. Some students like to attack the part of the exam that they are most confident about first – that can save valuable time for the more challenging section. Do it the way that you feel more comfortable with.
Others find it more useful to do the hardest first and get it out of the way. One successful student I know wrote half of each essay in order and then went back and finished each. Only attempt this approach if you are super confident about your voice and your capability for each section.
9. How can I avoid ‘retelling the plot’?
Only tell the story when it is essential for explanation and elaboration. A great tip was passed on to me by a student who attends one of the bigger boys schools: to test if you are telling the story see how many of your sentences express an opinion – the key word here is opinion, obviously.
Assume that your teachers and markers know the text and use the events from your selected novels, plays or films to validate your ideas. You are required to make relevant textual reference in your discussion as a means of evidencing your thoughts, so you cannot omit all elements of the narrative – just be fussy about what you include.
10. How can I make my conclusions more interesting?
A conclusion should be just what its name implies – it should show the position that you have reached having explored the topic (question, statement, media text). One of the most tedious ways to conclude is the one in which you summarise what you have already written. Another no-no is the restatement of your introduction.
You should make your conclusion show what you have deduced after your exploration of the required task. It is appropriate and useful to comment on authorial message in the conclusion. Just this one amendment from the tired old approach will raise your score.
This guide was written by a past VCE teacher who wishes to remain anonymous. Thank you ‘VF’ for your expert advice!
1. Summary 2. What Is Magical Realism? 3. Themes 4. Symbols and Analysis 5. Quotes 6. Sample Essay Topics 7. Essay Topic Breakdown
Flames is a bit of an out-there story right from the beginning: Levi is attempting to build a coffin for his sister Charlotte because the women in their family come back to life after dying. Neither of them is that close to dying - both are young adults. Charlotte doesn’t really want a coffin so she runs away from home, as far as she can while still remaining in Tasmania at least, and Robbie Arnott takes us on this adventure through interweaving perspectives and rich imagery of his home island.
Some of these perspectives are surprising and unexpected, ranging from a hardcore private investigator to a river god in the form of a water rat, but each of them earns their place in the story. Our job when studying this text is to follow these shifts in perspectives and make sense of how they contribute to the overall text. If you’re writing creatively, you may want to play around with this sort of structure as well in your piece.
2. What Is Magical Realism?
Before we get stuck into the text itself, it might be useful to first discuss its genre. Magical realism books tend to be extremely confusing if you’re not familiar with the genre (and sometimes even when you are!). This is because authors in this genre will typically set their stories in the real world (in this case, in Tasmania), but they’ll add supernatural elements, which vary wildly from story to story.
Let’s unpack the genre a bit more, in particular, what it involves and why it’s used.
Elements of Magical Realism
The most important element of magical realism is that it blends the real world with fantastical elements. In Flames, the most obvious example is gods: gods don’t exist as far as we know, but they walk among humans and play key roles in this text. Less obvious examples of fantastical elements include the wombat farm at Melaleuca (fortunately nobody actually skins wombats) as well as the Oneblood tuna and (unfortunately!) the pet seals.
The fact that these examples are narrated as perfectly normal is another element of magical realism: the author usually operates as if the fantastical elements are perfectly real. We, as readers, enter a world where the existence of these magical things is taken for granted by the characters.
Purpose of Magical Realism
This blurring of the lines between real and magical is primarily supposed to suspend our disbelief: we can’t really be sure what’s real about the novel’s world and what isn’t. All we know is that in many respects, it looks like our own. Within this familiar setting, Arnott lets his own imagination run wild and leaves the reader to figure out the rest. This helps to create a sense of wonder, as if these elements could be real and as magical as described.
These elements also contribute to the story in other ways: in particular, they open up new possibilities for commentary. For example, the voice of the South Esk god is used to highlight the impacts of colonialism and the “blood-tasting tang of iron” that was brought with it.
Other Magical Realism Books
If you’re liking the sound of this genre and/or if you enjoyed Flames, there’s plenty more to discover in the way of magical realism. It’s a hallmark of Latin American literature (Isabel Allende, Gabriel García Márquez), and it’s also been picked up in Japan by the likes of Haruki Murakami. A prominent Australian example is Carpentaria by Alexis Wright.
Death and Grief
Let’s move more closely into Flames, starting with its central theme of death and grief. It’s what defines this central point of tension between Levi and Charlotte throughout the novel, since it starts with their divergent responses to their mother’s death (and reincarnation etc.). Their divergent responses suggest that there’s no one way to cope with death, and their father’s reaction on top of that introduces further complexity: he disappears from their lives altogether, “not want[ing] to be close to them when they [died]”. Between the three of them, there are three very different expressions of grief.
But Edith McAllister is not the only death of significance in the novel. Another standout is the passing of Karl’s seal, after which he becomes haunted by “clicks”; he subsequently leaves tuna-hunting behind. The death of the South Esk god is also explored as causing grief, this time in the form of divine emotional outpouring, “a cloud’s sorrow”. Arnott is thus exploring many processes of grieving, from solitude and callousness to physical and emotional labour.
Outside of these moments of grieving, Arnott explores the background relationships between family members as well. Again, Levi and Charlotte are central to this. As siblings, they don’t always see eye to eye: “Levi and I have never understood each other”. However, that does not diminish their love for each other, particularly as they were left alone after their mother’s death. Their father Jack again makes this dynamic more complicated: he sees an “unbridgeable gap” between himself and Levi for example, but the omniscient third-person narrator in that chapter knows otherwise. Consider what difference it makes when Arnott writes in first person from within these relationships (as he does with Charlotte) versus when he writes in third person, observing from outside.
We also see interesting relationships between Karl and his daughter Nicola. Unlike the McAllisters, the two of them are remarkably close despite his ongoing grief for his seal: “nothing could match the blaze of love in her father’s smile”.
Nicola crops up again under this theme, as she begins to navigate a relationship with Charlotte. In a book review for The Guardian, Sam Jordison argues that this is a bit trite, but we can think of it as one perspective on how relationships begin: organically and sincerely, and out of a desire to protect someone else. By contrast, the start of Jack and Edith’s relationship was founded on something more artificial and manipulative, a “tiny spark” which he ignited in her mind.
This is bookended with romantic relationships that have come to an end, as explored through the eyes of the private investigator: her and her ex-husband, Graham Malik, have settled into something of an “ecosystem”. With these various beginnings and endings, Arnott shows how it can be natural - or supernatural - to fall in and out of love.
Finally, this novel touches on the impacts of colonisation. It’s a few quiet allusions here and there, but they are important: Arnott acknowledges the impact of colonisation on the natural landscape of his birthplace. He does this firstly through the eyes of the South Esk god, who observes the “foul industries” of the “loud, pale apes” when they first arrived on palawa and pakana land, the land we now know as Tasmania.
Arnott also explores colonisation through the eyes of Jack, who experiences racism when taking on the human form of an Aboriginal person. He wanted to learn more about how European colonisers were using fire, but he found “they reacted poorly to his dark appearance”. Meanwhile, First Nations people in Tasmania were being “hunted in their own homeland”, and he chooses not to intervene.
As immortal outside observers, their perspectives are the only ones in the novel that can really trace this history. Arnott might be including them so readers take his descriptions of nature with a grain of salt: even as we appreciate Australia’s beautiful landscape, it’s worth acknowledging its custodians who have kept it that way for tens of thousands of years.
4. Symbols & Analysis
We’ve traced the major purposes of these deities already, but to reiterate them here these ‘gods’ symbolise different parts of nature and the wonder Arnott derives from them. Although nature is already alive, these figures help it feel even more so. They also serve the important purpose of highlighting and acknowledging Tasmania’s colonial history, as well as the disconnect between humankind and nature.
The one natural element worth discussing as its own symbol is water. There are many bodies of water identified in the novel, from rivers and lakes to the ocean, and they each have their own significance. For example, rivers connect parts of the natural landscape while lakes (particularly Crater Lake) represent a getaway, solace, solitude and peace.
The ocean is the most complex of these symbols though: it’s all around the island of Tasmania, and it appears to be a vicious and unforgiving place filled with orcas and tunas the size of “mountains”. But it’s also a place that brings calm to Edith and Charlotte, and even Levi as a child. Arnott canvasses all of these different relationships to nature through the different manifestations of water. Water even exists as rain, which in the novel’s denouement represents a new beginning, a washing away of past tensions and conflicts.
“My sister is struggling to cope with the loss…I cannot allow her pain to continue.”
“They (Levi and Jack) were so alike”
“The tears were flames, and they were coming from within Charlotte.”
“Levi and I have never understood each other”
“Some wore fur and feathers and watched over the creatures they resembled… Some, like a blood-hungry bird spirit he encountered deep in the southwest, were cruel. Most were calm, seeking only to care for the creatures and land that they felt drawn closest to.”
“He (the South Esk god) continued on, soothing his rage in a simple, humble way - by nipping screws out of the hull of an idle jetski”
“Living with humans did not work”
6. Sample Essay Topics
More than anything else, Flames illustrates the importance of family. Discuss.
Levi McAllister is the hero of Flames. Do you agree?
How does genre contribute to the storytelling effect of Flames?
What is the effect of shifting narrative perspectives as used in Flames?
“I could have spoken to him but he would not have listened.” What does Arnott say around family?
Within the THINK strategy, we have 3 steps, or ABC. These ABC components are:
Step 1: Analyse
Step 2: Brainstorm
Step 3: Create a Plan
How does genre contribute to the storytelling effect of Flames?
Step 1: Analyse
When talking about the genre of this text, we’ll definitely need to discuss magical realism. The question here is about how magical realism enriches or contributes to the story, so it might be worth breaking down the elements of magical realism and thinking through each of them one-by-one. The fact that this prompt is framed as a ‘how’ question (one of the 5 types of essay questions) also means we’ll have to bring in Arnott and how he chooses to tell the story.
Step 2: Brainstorm
One magical realism element Arnott adopts is the gods, who play a few roles symbolically in the novel, but there are other elements too: the seals, the flames, the cormorants and so on. Do these elements add as much as the gods, and if so, what are they adding?
Consider also not just the elements as they appear, but also how Arnott is treating them. The fact that a lot of them are taken for granted as perfectly normal is in itself another genre element.
Step 3: Create a Plan
Instead of talking about the elements too disparately or separately, I think a lot of them revolve around this central question of how humans relate to the earth and to one another. This will help connect my ideas to one another.
Paragraph 1: Elements of magical realism show how humans adversely impact nature
Nature is a huge part of the story: around the island, we see everything from beaches and rivers to “undulating moorlands of peat and buttongrass”. Sometimes, these elements are personified as deities (e.g. South Esk god) – this is where genre comes in, since these deities are supernatural or ‘magical’, though they are written to exist in our world.
These voices, made possible by magical realism, highlight the impact of human industry on the environment: for example the “blood-tasting tang of iron” that seeps into Tasmania’s waterways.
Even Jack and Edith’s relationship could be seen as a metaphorical take on our incompatibility with nature: “living with humans did not work”.
Paragraph 2: At the same time, not all humans contribute equally to this pollution, and magical elements also facilitate commentary on this perspective
Before European colonisers arrived in Australia, the land had been tended to by the First Nations peoples for over 60,000 years - and pollution had been minimal. We cannot blame the entire human race equally for the deteriorating natural environment (see this Instagram post for an explanation!).
This is pointed out by the South Esk god: it is the “pale apes” who are trying to “swamp over everything”.
Jack, the deity of flame, also recognises this, although he is far more complicit: “he liked learning from the pale people more than he wanted to help” Aboriginal people.
Magical realism adds this historical and political dimension to the narrative.
Paragraph 3: However, Arnott’s use of magical realism also shows possibilities for ‘ideal’ relationships between humans, and between humans and nature
This paragraph gets to draw on some examples that aren’t just the deities: the seals for example coexist really poetically with humans, “the half of themselves they had been born without” (these were inspired by dogs, by the way).
Plus, even though Jack and Edith’s relationship was founded on a lie, Arnott is able to use that as a point of contrast for the relationship between Charlotte and Nicola, born from Nicola’s “desire to help”, plus her “fast and firm” attraction to Charlotte. This relationship is highly organic, and the ‘magical’ relationship between Charlotte’s parents proves a useful foil.
Even though some textual elements are exaggerated because of genre, Arnott still manages to use magical realism to highlight what might be possible, inviting the reader to imagine possibilities for harmony between people and nature within their own worlds.
Flames is usually studied in the Australian curriculum under Area of Study 1 - Text Response. For a detailed guide on Text Response, check out ourUltimate Guide to VCE Text Response.
Tracks and Into The Wild are studied as part of VCE English's Comparative. For one of most popular posts on Comparative (also known as Reading and Comparing), check out our Ultimate Guide to VCE Comparative.
Into the Wild (2007) is a non-linear survival film directed by Sean Penn, which is based on Jon Krauker’s 1996 novel of the same name. It recollects the final few months of the life of Christopher McCandless as he departs from society in both an act of resistance as well as a means of self-discovery. A bright young college student in the 1990s, McCandless abandons his family and affluent lifestyle to embark on a frontier-style journey into the Alaskan wilderness. Troubled by a dysfunctional family and disenchanted with the materialistic excesses of 1980s America, McCandless seeks a radical engagement with nature, in the style of his literary heroes Henry David Thoreau and Jack London. After 113 days in the wilderness, he suffers from starvation and dies. The true story of McCandless’ journey renders the film an important depiction of self-reliance, isolation, and the unparalleled power of nature.
Whilst the film is of a biographical nature, it is important to understand that it is heavily subject to the interpretations and opinions of Penn. The story is informed by McCandless’ writings, and interviews with those who knew him, but is ultimately a work of artistic interpretation. Nonetheless, Penn’s film offers strong commentary regarding the materialistic, consumerist nature of modern living, whilst also ultimately emphasising the more humanistic importance of family and love.
Tracks is Robyn Davidson’s 1980 memoir detailing her perilous journey through 1700 miles of Australian outback and the remarkable character transformations that take place throughout. The events of the story begin in 1973, when a young Robyn Davidson arrives in Alice Springs with an outlandish plan to train wild camels to accompany her through the Australian desert. When, after two years of gruelling training, she receives a sponsorship from National Geographic, her journey can finally go ahead- on the condition that a photographer accompany her and document parts of the journey. This compromise weighs heavily on Robyn, as photographer Rick Smolan intrudes on her solitude and compromises everything the trip means to her. As Robyn delves deeper into the journey, each day brings new discoveries about the camels, the landscape, the people of Australia, and ultimately, her self. Tracks emerges as a candid and compelling story of one woman’s odyssey of discovery and transformation.
Whilst Tracks is mostly a personal account, it also presents a co-existent dichotomy between modernistic libertarianism and conventionalism, which serves as a reflection of the changing political views and ideological turbulence of the time, as Davidson notes ‘you could choose not to participate in politics, but you could not avoid politics’. Thus, in many ways Davidson’s journey can be seen as a firm statement that challenges the inherent sexism, racism, and ‘status quo’, whilst also simultaneously embracing the notion of freedom, independence, and escape from conventionalism and ‘self-indulgent negativity’.
At LSG, we use the CONVERGENT and DIVERGENT strategy to help us easily find points of similarity and difference. This is particularly important when it comes to essay writing, because you want to know that you're coming up with unique comparative points (compared to the rest of the Victorian cohort!). I don't discuss this strategy in detail here, but if you're interested, check out my How To Write A Killer Comparative. I have used this strategy to create this themes table and throughout my character, views and values, and literary technique analysis.
Both Robyn Davidson and Christopher McCandless are products of the time period in which they live, and reject the concept of adhering to a predetermined notion of who they should be and how they should behave. Both embark on their journey because they reject the expectations of their class and gender.
Women’s rights in 1970s Australia
Tracks is set in the late 1970s, an era of intense social and political change in Australia. The second wave feminist movements of the 1960s and 70s were enormously influential in Australia, as women began to dismantle the sexist structures inherent in Australian society at this time. Davidson describes Alice Springs as hopelessly in the grips of a ‘cult of misogyny’. She rejects the archetype of the passive, docile woman. She is passionately determined to shed her own sense of herself as traditionally “feminine,” a quality she sees as arising from being trained from birth to be “door-mattish”.
Davidson acknowledges her gender has played a central part in the media’s fascination with her journey. The character of the ‘camel lady’ that emerges suggests the significance of her trip, as a woman travelling alone in the 1970s through intensely difficult terrain. Davidson describes the late sixties and early seventies as a time of radical social time, when “anything and everything seemed possible, and when the status quo of the developed world was under radical scrutiny by its youth”. Thus Davidson’s actions must be considered in the context of this time, at the peak of the second wave feminist movement.
There are many explicit examples of Robyn facing misogyny and embodying feminist principles. One such example is when an Alice Springs local suggests she’s the “next town rape case”. This statement reveals the position of a woman in this misogynistic society, wherein a single woman travelling alone through the bush was synonymous with danger and irresponsibility. Davidson rejects this ideology and refuses to succumb to the violent sexism she encounters, or compromise her journey.
Tracks is not an explicitly feminist text, but it clearly echoes the philosophies of feminism. In the years since the trek, Robyn Davidson has become a feminist symbol of defiance, endurance and strength. Thus to consider Tracks from a feminist perspective is important when studying this text, Davidson’s criticisms of Australian misogyny inform our understanding of this historical context, and the significance of her actions.
Some example sentences:
Davidson exposes the realities of misogynistic Australian culture in the 1970s.
Davidson’s journey emerges as a defiant example of women’s strength and independence.
Davidson’s friendship with Gladdy Posel suggests the injustices of women’s financial dependence on abusive men and condemns the limited options for women, particularly for those in rural settings.
Tracks challenges the constraints of gender through a narrator that cannot be defined by stereotypical images of the domestic and passive female.
Indigenous Rights in Australia
The 1970s saw the first attempts to improve the lives and rights of indigenous Australians. In 1971 Indigenous people were counted in the census, and in 1976, the Aboriginal Land Rights Act was established. Davidson’s time with Mr Eddie exposes her to the harsh reality of the living conditions of Indigenous Australian’s throughout the 1970s, as well as inspiring a deep appreciation for the culture and connection with the land. Davidson is frustrated with the mistreatment of Indigenous people in Australia, and feels ambivalent about her status as a white, privileged, outsider in their community. Davidson confronts the racist and discriminatory stereotypes and attitudes towards Indigenous Australians, and experiences first hand the realities of the issues these people face. Davidson encounters intense generosity and friendship in the Indigenous community that she admires and presents as a stark contrast to the intolerant attitudes of white Australians in Alice Springs.
“The blacks were unequivocally the enemy – dirty, lazy, dangerous”
“Ceremonies are the visible link between Aboriginal people and their land. Once dispossessed of this land, ceremonial life deteriorates, people lose their strength, meaning and identity.” (p. 167)
Some example sentences:
Davidson renegotiates her identity and relationship with the land after learning from the Indigenous Australians.
Davidson condemns the racist attitudes of white Australians towards the aboriginal people.
Davidson embodies the changing attitudes of young Australians towards aboriginal Australians, endorsing a respectful relationship with the traditional land owners.
INTO THE WILD
Social criticism of materialistic excess
While Into the Wild is set in the 1990s, McCandless’ formative years were the 1980s – a decade characterised by the consumerism, extravagance, and materialism of President Reagan’s America. The reverberating effects of this time period inform McCandless’ general outlook and disdain for American society. Whilst this contempt for consumerism is one motivation for McCandless’ actions, he is equally troubled by the family violence and dysfunction he experienced as a young man. This traumatic past informs his extreme actions and outlook.
Penn exposes the effects of materialistic society on young impressionable people.
Penn explores the consequences of experiencing childhood trauma, and how this manifests in adult actions.
Penn condemns the expectations of 21 st century nuclear families.
Penn endorses the liberating power of familial love and relationships.
Depiction of the unparalleled power of nature and man’s inability to contend with it
Inspired by Thoreau and London, Chris seeks enlightenment in the wild. Despite a philosophical understanding of the power of nature, Chris believes he can survive the untamed wilderness of Alaska. Although nature is the locus for self-realisation and growth for Chris, it is also what destroys him. As the viewer watches him slowly deteriorate, we come to fully comprehend the force of nature – suggesting man’s inability to control it.
Some example sentences:
Penn’s depiction of McCandless’ deterioration suggests human’s inability to control nature.
Penn endorses the liberating power of literature, but cautions the idealism contained within romantic depictions of nature.
An important aspect of Into the Wild to consider is that McCandless’ story, while true, is told through Sean Penn’s directorial lens, which is in turn based on Jon Krakeur’s book. The story is informed by McCandless’ writings, and interviews with those who knew him, but is ultimately a work of artistic interpretation. Consider how this affect’s a viewer’s perception of Chris, does this raise questions around representation and identity? This is in direct contrast to Tracks, which is a first person, linear past tense, autobiographical account of the writer’s experience. Where Robyn is completely in control of her narrative, McCandless’ is subject to the artistic interpretation of others.
Anthropomorphism is defined as the attribution of human characteristics or behaviour to a god, animal, or object. Robyn repeatedly personifies the animals she encounters. The camels in particular take on their own human personalities in her life. This technique, called anthropomorphism, can be used to complement a discussion of the theme of isolation. Robyn attributes distinct characteristics to each camel, suggesting her need for companionship and the powerful absence of human connection in prolonged periods of isolation.
Davidson’s depiction of her dependence on animals reveals deeper meanings about her inability to depend on, and communicate with, humans in the same way. Robyn’s reliance on her dog, Dookie, becomes more intense as the journey continues. Upon Dookie’s death, both the reader and Robyn experience the dog’s death as a powerful blow.
“I am quite sure Diggity was more than a dog, or rather other than dog. (p. 207)”
“But I said goodbye to a creature I had loved unconditionally, without question. ... I walked out into the morning and felt nothing. I was numb, empty. All I knew was I mustn‟t stop walking. (p. 223) ”
“Diggity had become a cherished friend rather than simply a pet. (p. 227)”
Kate: “remembered humans and hated them”
Zeleika: “had a lovely gentle nature” “the street-smart, crafty, unfazable, self-possessed leader”
Dookie: “nominally king, but if anything untoward happened he was the first to hide behind Zeleika’s skirts”
Goliath: “cheeky, pushy, self-centred, demanding, petulant, arrogant, spoilt and delightful”
Prompt: Discuss the ways in which the environment assists the protagonists in their journey for self-discovery.
Introduction: In forging connections with the environment and people around us, humans end up inadvertently discovering themselves. It is this notion that resonates throughout both Robyn Davidson’s 1970 memoir, Tracks, and Sean Penn’s 2007 film, Into the Wild, where the relationships that the protagonists form throughout their journeys leads to intense self- discovery and growth. Both Davidson and McCandless seek knowledge and guidance through both the individuals they meet and, specifically to McCandless, the books he reads, citing it as a means of grappling with the fundamental stages of self-discovery. Whilst Davidson and McCandless experience different relationships with their immediate family, it is ultimately the concept of family that underpins their motivations and inspires them to pursue their journeys – both physical and psychological. Further, the respective temporal environments in which both protagonists are immersed in emerge as a distinct theme that facilitates each stage of self- discovery in the climatic lead up to the ultimate self-realisation.
Body Paragraph 1: Both Into the Wild and Tracks endorse the guiding power of influential figures on both protagonists, as a catalyst for their growth. Davidson commences her self-described ‘lunatic’ journey with little knowledge of the wild to substantiate her mammoth ambition. That her drive outweighs her preparation manifests in the early moments of the text, wherein Davidson endures a grueling internship with the impulsive ‘maniac’ Kurt Posel. This man appears the epitome of the ‘biased, bigoted, boring and above all, brutal’ man she describes as the stereotypical ‘Aussie male’. Kurt is abusive to both Davidson and his wife, but his eccentric and impulsive ways expose her to the harsh realities of bush living. Ultimately, Kurt’s guidance allows Davidson to gain the fundamental skills she needs to train camels, whose dispositions reflect the erratic nature of Kurt himself. In direct contrast to this tense, exploitative relationship, is Davidson’s nuanced and spiritually rewarding relationship with Mr. Eddie, an aboriginal elder whom she describes as a “sheer pleasure to be with”. Despite an ostensible language barrier, Eddie’s instruction of the Indigenous Arts and Culture leave an impressionable impact on Davidson’s character and personality. By accepting Eddie’s guidance at a pivotal point in her journey, Davidson’s ambivalent sense of self, the overwhelming feeling of being an imposter, is diminished. Davidson becomes more grounded and connected to her environment; the knowledge that she derives from key characters contributes to a distinct conformational change in her personality and thus critically assists her in developing a strong sense of one self. A similar theme resonates in Into the Wild, where Chris McCandless heavily relies upon the guidance of various prominent figures he meets throughout his journey as well as ‘the characters of the books he loved from writers like Tolstoy, Jack London and Thoreau’ whose words he could and often would ‘summon….to suit any occasion’. The fact that McCandless readily referred to the words of the likes of Tolstoy, London, and Thoreau amidst times of mental angst and challenge, is a significant reflection of not only the quintessential teacher and student relationship he shares with them, but also the level of impact they have had in shaping in the ideological processes that define Chris’s values and sense of oneself. This very idea is furthered by Sean Penn when he depicts Christopher McCandless quoting soviet Russian poet, Boris Pasternak, suggesting that humans ‘ought to call each thing by it’s right name’, following which he acts impulsively and with great haste, engineered with rapid and distorted camera movements. In doing so, Penn illustrates the importance that Chris places upon the words of such idealists to the stage where he acts upon their advice without giving them proper consideration within his literal, temporal context. The protagonists of both Into the Wild and Tracks, both rely upon the knowledge and guidance of individuals, be they physical or via literature, as a means of grappling with their fundamental understanding of the human spirit and in doing so their intricate understanding of themselves.
Body Paragraph 2: Both texts demonstrate a degree of discontentment and resent towards the institutionalized, '20th century convention' of family. Davidson describes the notion of family as “invisible ropes and chains” of guilt, she comments that families lack for the most part, a true sense of love. This sentiment is starkly contrasted with Davidson’s intense engagement with the wild, which she describes in the language of love and connection. “I love you. i love you sky, bird, wind, desert, desert, desert’ proclaims Davidson, as she describes having “no more loved ones to care about” and “no more ties” to bind her to material existence. Davidson laments the distortion of her journey for public consumption, stating “so far people had said that i wanted to commit suicide, that i wanted to do penance for my mother’s death…” this comment is one of the only references to her mother’s suicide, which can be interpreted as a catalyst for her ambivalence about the notion of family. This experience evidently informs Davidsons’s somewhat impenetrable exterior and suggests a deeper complexity to her resistance of 20th century societal expectations. Similarly, Christopher McCandless articulates a powerful contempt for family. McCandless feels impeded in his personal motivations by the familial concepts of ‘graduating college’ and ‘getting a job’ which he describes as “20th century inventions” inextricably linked with “this world of material excess”. McCandless expands on this point, commenting that his pursuit for self-discovery has ultimately resulted in ‘the killing of the false being within’, the ‘false being’ that was bound to the societal expectations and the material conventions of the time. Chris’ departure into the wild is as much of an act of punishment for his family, as it is about Chris discovering true freedom and metaphysical spirituality. It is this idea of ‘telling the world’ of his family’s misdeeds that continually motivates Chris to continue on with his journey, which is depicted by Penn through the countless solo enactments and impersonation of both Chris’ mother and father, often depicting a negative experience which has quite evidently scarred his ‘crystal like’ mind. Family is thus, a primary motivation for both key characters within Tracks and Into the Wild to firstly partake on their journey, but more significantly to discover an uncorrupted, unbiased ‘true’ version of them that had been lost amidst ‘this world of material excess’.
Conclusion: Both Tracks and Into the Wild explore the inextricable link between ones environment and their personal growth. Nature is emphasised as a world removed from the materialistic excess of modern urban life, in which one can engage with an alternative, radical set of values. Both Davidson and McCandless escape from the confinements of their lives and experience profound transformations over the course of their journeys. Thus, both Davidson and Penn comment on the omniscient, multifaceted nature of the environment around a person being instrumental in moulding each stage of the journey of self-discovery and transformation.
*A big shout out to Suraj Hari, 2017 graduate and currently studying Medicine in Tasmania, who is a contributing author of this blog post.
Most people only think about EXECUTING their essay - the writing. Whether that be essay structure, memorising quotes or how to avoid repeating yourself in the dreaded conclusion. However, my strategy places emphasis on the THINK.
THINK is the brainstorm, exploration, and development of ideas. Get this right, and you'll come up with ideas and a response that pushes you ahead of your peers. The EXECUTION comes next, only strengthening your lead to the finish line.
So what does THINK actually involve? 🤔
You need to consider aspects of an essay topic that most students gloss over, including:
💭What's the essay topic type?
Knowing the essay topic type will change your essay structure. While you might wish for a one-size-fits-all essay structure, this is a limited viewpoint that stops you from reaching your potential. Different essay types include:
Author's message-based prompts
By understand what's required in each one of these essay topic types, you'll have a template you can follow to ensure that you answer the prompt (no more complaints from your teacher complaining that you're going off topic!).
💭 What are the question tags?
Never heard of this term previously? That's because majority of teachers don't teach you to change your Text Response according to the question tag. A 'do you agree?' essay topic expects a different response from a 'discuss' essay topic.
💭 How do I ensure I respond to each keyword?
This is important so you don't go off topic (we've all at least experienced this once in our high school writing careers 😥). Sometimes, one missed keyword is all it takes to derail your entire essay. No matter how well you've written your essay, an essay that doesn't answer the prompt won't fare well.
For example, have a think about which keywords can be found in this essay topic "Jeff's attempt to pursue justice are entirely without honour. To what extent is this true?".
For me, the keywords include:
- 'Pursue justice'
- 'To what extent is this true?'
Even though I've labelled almost every word in the essay topic, individually, each of these keywords will shape my response. Majority of students will pick up the necessity to discuss the keyword 'entirely' in their essays. They will potentially argue that Jeff's attempt isn't entirely without honour, and mention instances where honour was shown. However, a less obvious keyword that needs further exploration is 'justice'. Most students will take this word for granted, and won't really explore what the word 'justice' means in this sentence. A more advanced student will understand that 'justice' in this essay topic is viewed from Jeff's perspective, meaning that what Jeff deems to be 'justice', might not be the same 'justice' for a viewer. These are the nuances in an essay topic that I'd like you to be very confident in.
Knowing how to THINK will ensure that you EXECUTE your essay writing most effectively, optimising your potential to nail that A+. If I went from average to consistent A+s in Year 11 and Year 12, I have no doubt you can do it too. That's why I created the How To Write a Killer Text Response ebook.
I know that you are probably like I was, searching for a clear, simple way to get better at English without just relying on my teacher (despite the fact that I had a great teacher!). I've compiled my 10 years of tutoring English, refining this strategy year after year. With this knowledge, many of my students achieved a study score they thought was impossible (one student Ruby, wanted a study score of 30 to get into her university course, and ultimately achieved a 40 study score! WOW! 😮).
If you're interested, How To Write a Killer Text Response ebook shows you the inner workings of my brain 💭- what I think when I see an essay topic, how I tackle it, and how I turn these thoughts into a high-scoring essay. The ebook includes:
- 50-pages teaching you how to respond to ANY essay topic
- Examples from 15+ popular VCE English texts
- Know exactly what to THINK about so you can formulate the best possible essay response
- Plus a bonus 20-pages of high vs low scoring essays, fully annotated (what works and what doesn't) so you know exactly what you need to do and what not to do
There are two types of people in this world… those who love creative writing, and those who don’t. But no matter which one you are, never fear, your saviour is here (in the form of this simple guide to writing creatively – whether it’s for school, for a writing competition or just for fun)!
What Are the Five Steps?
Do a brain dump of your ideas!
Stay true to yourself
Start small - keep it simple
Don't be afraid to add "spice"
Read your writing out loud
STEP 1: Do a brain dump of your ideas!
You’ll often find that your brain is buzzing with possible storylines or scenarios; you’ll feel so overwhelmed trying to pick just one! Or maybe, you’re experiencing “writer’s block”, a mind blank. My tip for this is to set a five-minute timer, get a blank sheet of paper and scribble down everything that comes to your mind! You’ll be surprised at how imaginative your mind can be under pressure! When the timer goes off, take a break and then read through each idea individually before choosing one to develop. This way you’ll be able to clearly see all your thoughts, and maybe even be able to link multiple ideas into a more detailed story!
STEP 2: Stay true to yourself
Creative writing is so different to other text types because it gives you the freedom to choose what you're writing about, and how you're going to do it! So, take advantage of this and write from the heart – don’t try to be someone you’re not. Let your personality shine through your writing. It's usually the stories that have some kind of personal backstory, or are based on a real-life experience that are the most enjoyable to read!
STEP 3: Start small - keep it simple
No one expects you to write a New York Times best seller novel in your first attempt! Even the most talented authors began with a dot point plan or a simple paragraph based on their idea. From my experience, the absolute hardest thing to do is actually get started. Keeping it simple and focusing on getting your ideas down on the page is the easiest way to overcome this hurdle. You can worry about the language and descriptions later, once you have a basic first draft, editing and developing is so much easier!
Want to also know the 11 mistakes high school students tend to make in creative writing? Check out this
STEP 4: Don't be afraid to add "spice"
Now it's time for my favourite part; adding the flavour! This is what will make your writing stand out from the crowd! Take some risks, don’t be afraid to rewrite parts of your piece or use language techniques that are out of your comfort zone!
Here are a few of my favourite features to use when creative writing:
Flashbacks/ Foreshadowing (these are good tools to subtly suggest a character’s backstory and add some mystery – especially if you use third-person language to make it more cryptic)
E.g. As he entered the quadrangle for the first time since the accident, a wave of nostalgia hit Jack… The boy chuckled as the girl ran across the quadrangle to meet him, her cheeks rosy from the frosty air. The pale orange sky was transforming into a deep violet and the new-formed shadows cast dancing silhouettes on the young couple. The boy took the girl’s hand, making a silent promise to himself to protect her smile forever. A promise he would fail to keep…
Personification (giving inanimate objects some life to spice up your descriptions!)
E.g. Her favourite oak tree stood proudly in the middle of the park, arms outstretched, waving to those that passed by.
Oxymoron (contradictory words or groups of words)
E.g. Deafening silence, blinding darkness, cold fire
If you want to enhance your language or use different adjectives to what you normally use, https://www.thesaurus.com/ is your best friend! 😉
If you're stuck on how to develop your descriptions and make them more vivid, I suggest relating back to the five senses. Ask yourself, what can the character see? What can they smell? What does the setting they're in sound like?
E.g. He was paralysed in front of the caskets… the cotton wrapped, caterpillar-like bodies, the oppressive silence of the parlour made him feel sick. And the overpowering stench of disinfectant mixed with already-wilting flowers certainly didn’t help.
STEP 5: Read your writing out loud
It can be awkward at first, but have some fun with it! Put on an accent, pretend you're a narrator, and read your writing. It really helps you to gauge the flow of the piece, and also identify things you might need to change. Or even better, read your writing to a friend or family member - ask them how they feel and what their initial thoughts are after hearing your piece.
Either way, reflection is one of the best ways to improve your writing and get it to the next level.
That’s all there is to it folks! Follow this simple recipe and you’ll be cooking up a creative-writing storm! Good luck! 😊
Want more tips on how you can achieve an A+ in creative writing? Read this blog post.
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