Slap Happy Larry

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Story Structure: Character Weakness and Problem

Most writers are well-aware that a main character needs a weakness, but this does not go far enough. Go one step further and break it in half.

What about children’s books? Do they follow the same rules?

Mostly, but not always. Some picture books do not feature characters with weakness. These stories tend to be of the carnivalesque variety. A few standout examples feature the reader as protagonist. These, too, do not follow the rules of story.

Children’s books for older readers do follow the same rules as those applied to narrative aimed at adults. Modern picture books which win big awards are also likely to follow these rules.

CHARACTER WEAKNESS

character weakness

According to the rules of story structure aimed at screenwriters and writers with an audience of adults…

 

Every Main Character Needs

  1. A PSYCHOLOGICAL WEAKNESS: What are the fundamental flaws? (Lacking confidence, scarred by former lovers, afraid of intimacy, overly pessimistic etc.)
  2. A MORAL WEAKNESS: How does this character treat others badly? (Lacking empathy, overbearing, two-faced, greedy, lying, selfish etc.) The Seven Deadly Sins feature prominently in this part of the weakness.

Like anything, this ‘rule’ of story has developed some tropes. As an example:

Common Weaknesses of Young Women

This trope comes from the Gothic tradition.

The story of the poor girl who overcomes obstacles and makes a good marriage in the end, what might be called the Horatia Alger story, is very common in nineteenth-century fiction, especially fiction written by women. This heroine does not have to begin in absolute poverty — even Cinderella’s family must have been middle-class or her stepsisters wouldn’t have been able to go to the ball in such style. But she does have to be in some way underprivileged at the start of the boo, and she must go through many difficulties before she can marry the prince.

Occasionally she is poor in other than the economic sense, as with some of Jane Austen’s heroines: Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey is poor in intellect; Marianne Dashwood of Sense and Sensibility is naive and muddleheaded; while Fanny Price of Mansfield Park is … poor in spirit. Charlotte Bronte, even more daring, made the heroine of Villette plain.

— Alison Lurie, Don’t Tell The Grown-ups: The power of subversive children’s stories

The weakness of being ‘plain’ continues to be explored in young adult fiction today, as beauty privilege continues to be a thing in modern society.

Do Children’s Book Characters Need A Moral Weakness?

Or any weakness at all?

The short answer is that, yes, an interesting modern children’s book character needs at least a psychological weakness, and the story might also support a moral weakness. This wasn’t always the case, as you’ll already know if you’ve read from the First Golden Age Of Children’s Literature. It was the amazing Edith Nesbit who changed all of that.

All of Nesbit’s characters have both virtues and flaws: not only are the children’s actions always a push and pull between their better instincts and their baser impulses, but the various authority figures they encounter are equally complicated. The magical Psammead creature is peevish, the Queen of Babylon is kind-hearted but imperious, and the upstairs scholar is helpful but blind to the magic he experiences.

The Toronto Review Of Books

Until Nesbit came along, adults who wrote for children believed children read as medicine. The viewpoint characters therefore had to demonstrate impeccable behaviour, or else be punished for wrongdoing, learning to be good along the way.

The older the reader, the more likely they are reading about characters with both types of weakness. But when it comes to picture books, no. That’s because a picture book character is quite often ‘The Every Child’, and because children are all different, the writer doesn’t always want to tell us much about the character at all. In this case, the child’s main weakness is the fact that they are a child: naivety, weakness, lack of freedom, lack of knowledge. These are weaknesses common to all children and cannot really be called ‘psychological’ weaknesses. This is the main difference between a protagonist in a children’s book and a protagonist in a story for adults.

That said, the most popular, award-winning, beloved contemporary picture books for children often feature characters with a moral weakness.

Psychological weaknesses are also common:

Even in children’s books, the most interesting and beloved characters do have both kinds of weakness. This character isn’t necessarily the viewpoint character.

  • Scarface Claw by Lynley Dodd  — Scarface is mean to the dogs but this particular story shows us that he is also a scaredy-cat underneath.
  • Olivia by Ian Falconer is basically a narcissistic little girl in a pig’s body. While I personally have no love for Olivia, she is very popular.

 

CHARACTER PROBLEM

In children’s stories where there is no psychological or moral weakness and won’t learn anything or change in any way by the end of the narrative, your character will (probably) have a Problem. This problem is external to their psychology. Stories like this don’t tend to be as emotionally interesting, but are appropriate for, say, humour.

There’s another kind of story where the ‘main character’ is the reader. Where Is The Green Sheep? by Mem Fox and Judy Horacek is one example of this: The reader’s problem is that the book asks them to locate a green sheep, but that’s impossible until turning the final page. Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown is another example of a perennial favourite which doesn’t seem to follow any of the usual rules of story — again, this book addresses the young reader directly. The child is the character, saying goodnight to the items. This is more secular prayer than complete narrative.

Do all children’s book characters need a Problem, if they don’t have a moral or psychological weakness? Again the answer is not always, actually.

  • The Biggest Sandwich Ever by Rita Golden Gelman and Mort Gerberg is a carnivalesque story in which a man turns up and makes an enormous sandwich. In a carnivalesque story, there doesn’t have to be a problem as such, because the unsupervised play itself is the story — equivalent to the battle scene in a more common type of story. A carnivalesque story is a ‘toy story’ — all about play and enjoyment with no ‘broccoli’. However, even in The Biggest Sandwich Ever, the characters do face a problem by the end: After stuffing themselves full of sandwich, they are now faced with the task of eating a giant pie.
  • More! by Peter Schossow  is a wordless picture book which celebrates the joy of walking (flying) along a beach on a windy day.

A golden rule about problems in story: The initial problem gets more complicated as soon as the main character tries to solve it.

complicated problem comic

comic by Poorly Drawn Lines

Sometimes the initial problem exists only to get the story rolling. This is what Hitchcock called a McGuffin.

The Problem With Subversive Humour

The problem with subversive humour, such as irony, satire and parody, is that the audience doesn’t necessarily come to the party. This is true of audiences of all ages, and may be especially true of young audiences.

Subversion, Irony, Satire and Parody

Subversion involves foiling the expectation of your audience. Subversion aims to challenge pre-existing views. This is hard to achieve because the writer must intuit what the audience will expect, as well as what they already believe to be true about the world. The writer must have a solid understanding of psychology and of cultural tropes. (Note that simple inversion does not equal subversion.)

Irony has a very wide meaning and various subcategories and very much deserved its own post.

Satire is the ridicule of vice or folly. Its ostensible goal is to take an individual person, a type of person, an individual folly, or a type of folly, and expose it to public scrutiny. Satire doesn’t have to be funny, though it very often is. Satire makes a political comment. Gulliver’s Travels is a very old example — a biting work of political and social satire by an Anglican priest, historian, and political commentator. Jonathan Swift parodied popular travelogues of his day in creating this story of a sea-loving physician’s travels to imaginary foreign lands.  The Paddington Bear movie offers a gently satirical view of a particular kind of middle-class white English person.

ParodyA parody mimics the style of a particular genre, work, or author. The purpose is to mock a trivial subject by presenting it in an exaggerated and more elegant way than it normally deserves. Parodies are the most popular and widely used form of burlesque. An example (and subcategory) of the parody is the mock-heroic. Mock-heroic stories imitate the form and style of an epic poem (like Homer’s Odyssey); which is quite formal and complex. Mock-heroics induce humor by presenting insignificant subjects in the long, sophisticated style of epic poetry. Annie Proulx’s Wyoming stories are often mock-heroic. In The Half-Skinned Deer” we have a mythical hero who doesn’t quite make it back home. In “The Mud Below” we have a rodeo rider who thinks he’s a cowboy, but in fact he knows nothing about horses, or any of the traditional skills; he wants to become the bull — a symbol of masculinity — but is of course beaten by the bull. In children’s stories, you’ll often find a parody in the form of a carnivalesque tale.

Apparent Subversion

the ironic thing about irony

Just like an ‘apparent utopia‘ has little in common with a ‘genuine utopia‘, attempts at subversion don’t always work as such.

As Heather Scutter comments with regard to jokes in children’s fiction, “apparent subversion may prove, on deconstruction, to mask a form of socialization which actually reinforces existing cultural values and beliefs, and encourages the child [reader] to accept the status quo“.

Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature by Carolyn Daniel

I recently took a close look at the taxonomy of humour as suggested by the main guy at The Onion. One of the categories he suggests is, of course, Irony. In that post I question whether young readers necessarily understand irony, which is a main feature of children’s humour, but then modern books (especially picture books) are aimed at a dual audience. Even in middle grade, about half the jokes in a David Walliams books are decidedly ‘adult’ — not surprising given that Walliams comes from an adult comedy background.

Animal Farm is often named as a satire on dictatorship, but Margaret Blount questions its success as such:

[Animal Farm] is a chronicle of the sad sameness of human nature and the ultimate absorption of every revolutionary movement — the endlessly turning wheel of conquest, power, corruption and decline. If you removed the moral, it would be no more memorable than the kind of sermon that tells one what ought to be done by giving a gloomy and prophetic chain of consequences that will be brought about if one persists in the way one is going.”

— Margaret Blount

The Satire Paradox

“The Satire Paradox” is a podcast from season one of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History series. This tenth episode is well worth a listen for those interested in children’s literature because there are particular implications for writing humour directed at an audience who are at a developmental stage of learning what is ironic, what is told straight. I say there is particular significance for child audiences, but as Gladwell points out, adults are hardly immune from interpreting a stand-up comic exactly in line with how they already see the world.

Basically, leftie comedy news anchors in America are popular with both right and leftwing voters because their jokes are interpreted in whichever way the audience sees fit.

Children And Irony

A child’s ability to understand irony depends on all sorts of things, including culture and subculture. A child from a heavily ironic family will naturally learn to pick irony, and use it, at an earlier age. Certain cultures — Japan is one I know about — accepts and expects far less irony than typical Western subcultures. Even within the West, there’s a subculture called ‘hipster irony’, in which any sort of racist/sexist/ageist joke can be told with the shared understanding that the speaker is not really racist/sexist/ageist. This shared understanding binds subgroups together. However, hipster irony has justifiably come under some fire for perhaps actually reinforcing ideas the group purports to disagree with.

Children don’t understand all the different kinds of irony all at once.

  • Earlier studies believed that children didn’t understand irony until the age of eight or ten, but these studies were conducted in a lab environment and ‘irony’ was mainly limited to ‘sarcasm.’
  • Later studies suggest children can understand hyperbole by age four.
  • It takes another two years before children can start to get a handle on sarcasm.
  • Sarcasm remains one of the easiest forms of irony for children to understand.
  • Sarcasm and hyperbole are associated with positive experiences for children. (I would have guessed that sarcasm is not an overall positive form of communication.)
  • Euphemisms and rhetorical questions are associated with conflict.
  • Fathers are more likely to use sarcasm.
  • Mothers are more likely to use rhetorical questions.

Adults and Psychology

It’s not just children’s writers who should be thinking about this.

In the “What Is Technology Doing To Us?” episode of The Waking Up Podcast, Sam Harris talks to Tristan Harris, who touches on a peculiar psychological bug in which humans can be told a story, then told in the same paragraph that that story is blatantly untrue, but later it turns out we’ve forgotten the ‘it’s untrue’ part of the message and accidentally held onto the story. This is perhaps because the human brain is wired really well to remember story. Harris touches on this phenomenon again in the “Living With Violence” episode, in which Gavin de Becker gives the audience an example about violent kangaroos, then tells us that everything he just said is totally wrong. Be careful when using this trick to try and persuade your audience of something. They may end up misremembering that kangaroos give clear signals before they kick you in the mouth. (They don’t.)

Humans have a bunch of memory errors. It pays to be aware of these if you’re ever called to the jury.

Some questions for writers of children’s humour

  • If your viewpoint character expresses nasty views towards another person/group of people (I’m still seeing a lot of hatred directed towards fat people), will the young reader understand that ‘this is the character being awful because they are awful’, or is this character modelling the behaviour the author means to call out as wrong?
  •  Who is the likely audience for your particular story? Sophisticated kids with hipster parents, or do you think there’s a chance this has an international audience?
  • If your subversive humour will be understood only by a certain proportion of young readers, does this matter? Menippean satire is a subcategory of satire aimed at attacking mental attitudes rather than specific individuals or entities. (Alice In Wonderland is an example from the children’s book world.)
  • Are you hoping to make fun of an individual (real or fictional) or of a group? Menippean satire passes criticism of the ideas of certain character tropes and on the single-minded mental attitudes, or “humours”, that they represent: the pedant. Common victims include the braggart, the bigot, the miser, the quack and the seducer. In children’s stories it’s commonly the schoolyard bully, the evil teacher, the overprotective parent, the prissy blonde girl.
  • If you are going for Menippean satire, if your subversive humour were inadvertently swallowed as straight, does this harm any group of people?

 

How To Write Mystery

The need for mystery is greater than the need for an answer.

– Ken Kesey

 

What Is A Mystery Story?

Some long fiction has mystery and revelation as a subordinate element, but very often they stand alone as a novel’s main motion.

Mystery fiction involves stories in which characters try to discover a vital piece of information which is kept hidden until the climax. The standard novel stocked in the mystery section of bookstores is a whodunit. A few other types of mystery novels are Cozy Mysteries (where a group of people who are very unlikely to be mixed up in a crime become involved – these are usually not gory) or Hard-Boiled Mysteries (where the detective/private eye is very tough and unsentimental).

Mysteries often include crime, but not necessarily (for example the grandchildren spending the summer on an island will attempt to find out the source of the jewels hidden in the attic). If they are about a crime, they don’t have to have a detective, because some crimes are solved by clever veterinarians or clever quilt-shop owners.

Even when there is no mysterious past, our interest in the story is maintained by the question, “What’s going to happen next?” If we can predict what that will be — if there is no mystery — the story is boring.

By definition, a mystery requires that we be aware that some powerful knowledge exists that we do not possess. Mysteries, therefore, deal not with things that are totally hidden, but with things that are obscure.

What we often call “Mystery Stories” are, in fact, usually “Question Stories,” and once we have an answer to the question, the “mystery” disappears.

A true mystery, no matter how much we analyse it, remains a mystery. Great films, like all great works of art, are often like that — the more we learn about them, the more we realise that the mystery of their power remains.

— Howard Suber

That’s what great fiction does, I think: A writer uses narrative to ask a question more clearly than it has ever been asked before. When a question is asked perfectly, it doesn’t need a tidy answer. To discover the precise shape of what the mystery is: That can be enough.

— John Rechy

Subgenres of Mystery

Some people divide mysteries into those that deal with the past and those that deal with the future. In the most obvious kind of mystery stories — detective films and thrillers — the mystery about the past concerns “Who done it?” and the mystery about the future concerns “Who’s going to be done in?”

A whodunit (whodunnit) is a type of mystery best described as a ‘mind-riddle’. The reader is encouraged to put pieces together themselves.

A whydunit (whydunnit) is a type of mystery where the audience knows who did it from the outset. Emphasis has now shifted onto how the situation got this bad. In this type of mystery we’ll generally be introduced to the criminal at the outset.

A ‘locked door’ mystery refers to a story in which the answer to the question is ‘this person’, and that person won’t come out of nowhere — they’ll exist in the cast. You eliminate them one by one until you find the person who did it. Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death is an example of this kind of mystery.

Detective fiction has become synonymous with mystery, but of course detective fiction requires a detective, even if it’s a nosy middle aged woman such as Agatha Raisin.

Raison d’être of Mystery Stories

There are said to be two main reasons for reading — intellectual engagement or emotional engagement. Mysteries of the Agatha Christie type offer us intellectual engagement as we are encouraged to work out a puzzle.

There’s something in mystery for everyone, or rather there’s a bit of mystery in everything, since plot is basically another word for ‘surprise’. That said, mystery is not like SF, in which readers are either SF readers or they are most definitely not.

A murder mystery, which is always solved at the end, provides a sense of justice sorely lacking in the real world.

Two Approaches To Writing Mysteries For Children

chasing vermeer children's mystery book cover

When a book of unexplainable occurrences brings Petra Andalee and Calder Pillay together, strange things start to happen: seemingly unrelated events connect, an eccentric old woman seeks their company, and an invaluable Vermeer painting disappears. Before they know it, the two find themselves at the center of an international art scandal, where no one — neighbors, parents, teachers — is spared from suspicion.

Now let’s talk about how you set up a mystery novel for kids. There are two ways to go about it. I call the two options The Agatha Christie and The Chasing Vermeer.

The Agatha Christie model is the hardest to pull off. You give your readers all the facts, lay them out plain and clear, and let them solve the mystery alongside you. When done well this engages the reader and makes them complicit in the solution. Instant audience identification! Brilliant!

Then you have The Chasing Vermeer method. Now the book Chasing Vermeer was very popular with kids, so you can’t knock it on that account. It was, however, a book where the mystery and solution was based entirely on coincidences. That’s a frustrating way to set up a novel.

— From a review of York by Betsy Bird

If writing a Chasing Vermeer type mystery, best to add some Agatha Christie elements and make the coincidences as disguised as possible. Betsy Bird, children’s librarian points out that the Chasing Vermeer series is very popular with children, which suggests young readers don’t mind coincidences so much, being more in line with adult readers of cosy mysteries in that regard. (Children’s mysteries are basically cosy mysteries.)

General rule of thumb: If the contrivance hurts the protagonist, it’s usually okay. Contrivances that help the protagonist usually feel forced or overly convenient.

Janice Hardy

A lot of children’s mysteries have something in common with a scavenger hunt, where children go looking for something (a lost dog, the answer to a secret, an absent parent).

Ciphers, puzzles, treasure, secret codes… these are all commonly found in children’s mystery stories.

Common Features Of Murder Mysteries

A crime is committed—almost always a murder—and the action of the story is the solution of that crime: determining who did it and why, and obtaining some form of justice. The best mystery stories often explore man’s unique capacity for deceit—especially self-deceit—and demonstrate a humble respect for the limits of human understanding. This is usually considered the most cerebral (and least violent) of the suspense genres.

Thematic emphasis: How can we come to know the truth? (By definition, a mystery is simply something that defies our usual understanding of the world.)

Twists are really common in lots of mysteries. A twist is another word for a reversal, which is a type of reveal. They’re hard to do well because the reader isn’t meant to guess early on. But when they do find out, everything should click into place for them.

Basic plot elements of the murder mystery:

  • The baffling crime
  • The singularly motivated investigator
  • The hidden killer
  • The cover-up (often more important than the crime itself, as the cover-up is what conceals the killer)
  • Discovery and elimination of suspects (in which creating false suspects is often part of the killer’s plan)
  • Evaluation of clues (sifting the true from the untrue)
  • Identification and apprehension of the killer.

Things murder mysteries must have:

  • Someone is killed early in the telling, perhaps on the very first page
  • An investigator will be called in to solve the crime.
  • Stock characters: the hero, the villain etc.
  • False clues in the plot (“red herrings”)
  • An eventual confrontation between investigator and murderer
  • An ending that either results in justice, injustice or a pyrrhic victory. In other words, the murderer is discovered and pays for the crime, the murderer gets away, or the investigator gets the killer, but loses someone or something in the process.

The Hero

Whether a cop, a private eye, a reporter or an amateur sleuth, the hero must possess a strong will to see justice served, often embodied in a code (for example, Harry Bosch’s “Everyone matters or no one matters” in the popular Michael Connelly series). He also often possesses not just a great mind but great empathya fascination not with crime, per se, but with human nature.

The Villain

The crime may be a hapless accident or an elaborately staged ritual; it’s the cover-up that unifies all villains in the act of deceit. The attempt to escape justice, therefore, often best personifies the killer’s malevolence. The mystery villain is often a great deceiver, or trickster, and succeeds because she knows how to get others to believe that what’s false is true.

Setting

Although mysteries can take place anywhere, they often thematically work well in tranquil settings—with the crime peeling back the mask of civility to reveal the more troubling reality beneath the surface.

Reveals

Given its emphasis on determining the true from the untrue, the mystery genre has more reveals than any other—the more shocking and unexpected, the better.

— David Corbett

Writing Techniques

Clues/Red Herrings

To be fair to the reader, it’s probably best to have a few subtle clues scattered throughout the story.  Clues can be verbal—something that contradicts a suspect’s alibi or that points to a possible motive for murder.  Clues can be physical—a suitcase in the back room. Clues can even result from insights our sleuth gets into the suspects’ characters.  That’s one reason why our investigation isn’t just about the crime—it’s about the people who might be involved.

It’s very tricky to use our sleight of hand with mystery readers. They’re extremely savvy readers who usually read a lot of mysteries each month. They’ll frequently believe any extraneous detail must be a clue (which is why we need to be careful about wrapping up anything that seems like a loose end or a Chekhov’s gun at the end of the book).

The best ways to slip clues under the radar: lay them near the beginning of the story and then introduce things that seem more interesting (the victim’s body, perhaps), and then continue laying them out throughout the book but being very careful to distract from them (maybe with an argument between two suspects, etc.).  It also helps to have an especially well-thought-out red herring near the end of the story to lead the sleuth and reader in an entirely different direction.

The puzzle has to be fair. Modern mystery readers won’t be happy if the killer is someone who was introduced at the very end of our story, etc. The modern mystery reader expects to be able to solve the mystery alongside the sleuth—it’s an almost interactive experience, or it needs to be.

Challenges For The Mystery Writer

Technology

Anthony Horowitz — wrote Alex Rider (a young adult mysteries), Magpie Murders, Midsomer Murders and makes gleeful use of Agatha Christie’s techniques. Here’s what he has to say about technology:

[Anthony Horowitz] placed the Conway novel in the 1950s, he said, because he likes murder mysteries that are “forensic free,” without surveillance cameras and DNA. “I want sprinklings of clues and red herrings,” he said. “And having no mobile phones is wonderfully helpful; it slows the pace down, and you have more time for atmosphere and character.

If writers want to write a mobile phone free story for adolescents and teens today they have to either contrive it, or set the story in the past.

Reversals and Reveals

The mystery writer needs to master this technique.

Examples of Culturally Significant Mysteries

  • Rebecca — an example of a gothic mystery
  • The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo — Scandi crime mystery which lead to what is now a huge boom in Scandinavian crime/mystery.
  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. There’s usually a central question in her books. (Suspense is the official mystery blend to describe these books.) This is the mystery which started a successful wave of psychological thrillers with complex female leads, mostly with dark covers. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins is another example. 
  • Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter is another example of how ‘Girl’ in the title these days indicates a murder mystery, probably with tantalising reveals and definitely female characters (solving the mystery as well as falling victim to it).
  • Tana French is another author who writes bestselling mysteries.
  • Little Face by Sophie Hannah. A weird, creepy central mystery.
  • Into the Water by Paula Hawkins immerses readers in a town where a river has mysteriously claimed the lives of two women.
  • The Passenger by Lisa Lutz
  • What She Knew by Gilly Macmillan
  • Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty is an Australian novel with a romantic subplot, contrasting a domestic violence subplot. This story manages to be both light and dark at the same time. Later made into an American limited TV series. Narrative is punctuated by excerpts from interviews with a journalist, commenting on and encouraging the intense drama between the women and their husbands during the school year.. We don’t know who the interlocutor is until the end of the story — another minor reveal. (I thought it was probably a police officer.) Note that when we find out who got killed, the reader/viewer is rewarded with a sense of just desserts, because this is the least sympathetic character of the cast.Other big reveals show us how the characters are more linked together than we anticipated, but is foreshadowed with the information that everyone knows everyone in this small town.  
  • Dragon Teeth by Michael Crichton
  • Dark Matter by Blake Crouch
  • The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

Notice how many of these examples I’ve picked are by and about women. In an historic turnaround, men are apparently pretending to be women in order to sell crime fiction.

Mysteries Aimed At Children
  • Lord Of The Flies — Though you may not think of this book when you think of the mystery genre, the most central part of this story is the developing answer to the question, “What is the beast?” This example shows that almost all children’s literature (in particular) contains mystery elements.
  • Ginger Pye — An easy Agatha Christie mystery story for children in which their pet dog is stolen by a boy in their class. Young readers are supposed to work this out before the characters do, making use of dramatic irony. (The mystery is for beginners, rather than the text.)
  • Harry Potter — J.K. Rowling’s wizard series is basically of the mystery genre. For adults Rowling writes hard-boiled detective novels with plenty of plotting to show that she’s a master of mystery.
  • Encyclopedia Brown series for children — Donald J. Sobol wrote ‘two minute mysteries’. In two or three pages you have to solve them. To find the answer you flip the book upside down. They all hinge on reasoning things out.
  • T.O.A.S.T. Mysteries by James Ponti — for kids itching for a hilarious mystery to solve. Florian Bates is a bit bored at Alice Deal Middle School. Math class just can’t compare to helping the FBI solve the mystery of an art theft or uncovering a spy ring in DC. But in the second book of the series his dull life is soon interrupted when he gets a call from the FBI inviting him to investigate a series of seemingly-harmless pranks involving the daughter of the President of the United States. Florian and his best friend Margaret begin to investigate, just as the pranks evolve from innocent to dangerous.
  • Pretty Little Liars has a mentor text of Desperate Housewives. Originally a YA novel series, later a TV series. Unlike Desperate Housewives, the big reveal (reversal) was withheld until the end of the series. Desperate Housewives mysteries were neatly tied up at the end of each season, and the writers must have been confident viewers would happily return for a new mystery.
  • Riverdale is a Netflix series based on retrograde tropes, inspired by the Archie comics but with a more diverse cast. The other thing the writers of the TV series did was incorporate a murder mystery at its heart. Though aimed at teens my nine year old daughter loved it.
  • Wolf Hollow is the perfect example of a middle grade mystery.

What is a heterotopia?

I have previously written about utopias, apparent utopias, idylls and dystopias. I thought I had -topias covered. Then I came across the word heterotopia. What’s that now?

Foucault uses the term “heterotopia” to describe spaces that have more layers of meaning or relationships to other places than immediately meet the eye. In general, a heterotopia is a physical representation or approximation of a utopia, or a parallel space (such as a prison) that contains undesirable bodies to make a real utopian space possible.

thanks, Wikipedia.

That last clause makes zero sense to me. The article gets more impenetrable from there.

After taking a close look at what the concept means, I’m reminded of when I was teaching. Teachers would refer to ‘the real world’ as if it were somewhere else. In ‘the real world’ people don’t get 12 weeks of holiday. In the real world you don’t get a fixed but safe salary every two weeks. Like some sort of wild creature taking risks real world people have to run their own businesses or something. But then I had a job with public service. I noticed that people who work for the public service also talk about everyone else is if everyone else is ‘the real world’. Council workers do it, too. I now realise that teaching, like few other jobs, really is ‘the real world’. In a school you’re dealing with whatever trouble comes through the door — family issues, medical issues, car crashes, rape, imprisonment and physical assault on top of the day-to-day actual teaching and paperwork. This feeling that everyone else is ‘the real world’ and you yourself are living in some sort of insulated bubble is quite widespread, and I wonder if any group of professionals do in fact consider themselves The Real World. I suspect even emergency department nurses are prone to this feeling, working at night when everyone else is perceived to be asleep, and on the side of the bed where you are expected to be calm ande helpful rather than show your human side.

heterotopia

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE WORD HETEROTOPIA

Hetereotopia is based on the concept of utopia. The Greek ‘u’  bit at the beginning of utopia means ‘not’. The ‘topia’ part means ‘place’. So if utopia means a place that is not — a place which doesn’t actually exist — heterotopia means a place that is different. Whereas the word utopia has been around since 1516 thanks to Thomas More, heterotopia has only been around since 1967, thanks to Michel Foucault, who was giving a lecture to students of architecture at the time.

The sorry truth is, Foucault made this word up, explained it a bit, and then left it alone. Maybe he confused his own self. BUT he said just enough to make a lot of us want to know more, and others have said a lot since. Others have picked up the word and ran with it.

Let’s look at the concept of heterotopia from a perspective I can sink my teeth into  — children’s literature.

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The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen

To a modern audience, The Little Match Girl is unbearably tragic. Perhaps, like me, you vividly recall reading your version of this story as a young kid and being profoundly affected. For me, it was probably the first time I considered the possibility of childhood death.

Hans Christian Andersen was commissioned to write a story based on a woodcut. This woodcut illustration was by painter Johan Thomas Lundbye and was of a poor girl selling matches, dressed in rags. It was widely recognised in Denmark at the time and appeared in calendars with a caption encouraging people to give to the poor. Lundbye himself died at the age of 29, during the Three Years War in Denmark but it’s not clear whether he was accidentally shot or whether he took his own life.

STORYWORLD OF THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL

For the Victorians, child death was all around them. These days when a young life ends we focus on all the years lost. But the Victorian mindset was a little different. Sad as death inevitably still was, the focus was not on the years wasted but on the opportunities presented when one is able to fly up to heaven with their childhood innocence intact.

Alison Lurie writes not of The Little Match Girl but of Peter Pan when she talks about the Victorian ideology of childhood innocence, but it applies equally to the mindset of Hans Christian Andersen:

In every society, every century, some time of life seems to embody current cultural ideals and have superior prestige. In ancient China, we are told, the greatest honor was given to old age; America in the 1960s admired teenagers, attributing to them boundless energy, political altruism, and a polymorphously joyous sensuality.

The Victorians, on the other hand, preferred children who had not yet reached puberty. The natural innocents of Blake and Wordsworth reappeared in middlebrow versions in hundreds of nineteenth-century stories and poems, always uncannily good and sensitive, with an angelic beauty and charm that often move the angels to carry them off. But the early death of these children was not felt as wholly tragic, for if they never became adults they would escape worldly sin and suffering; they would remain forever pure and happy.

— Don’t Tell The Grownups: The Subversive Power of Children’s Literature

How do we really know this is set in Victorian times, though? That is the assumption, because Hans Christian Andersen lived during this time, and the sensibilities line up. But this is a more timeless story than that, and others adapting this tale have chosen a variety of different eras and places for the story. Another common era for setting this story is the early 20th century, sometimes in an American city, sometimes in London. Continue reading

The Symbolism Of Windows

Many children’s stories feature windows, whether it’s children gazing from windows, opponents framed by windows, yellow squares of light offering the solace of civilisation. Windows are important to plot but are also symbolic.

THE WINDOW REFLECTION

Below is a screen capture from The Homesman. This is a trick often used by film directors as a way of showing an actor’s face and what the character is looking at simultaneously.

CHARACTER GAZES FROM WINDOW

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Animal Characters Can Still Be White Dudes

Previously I delved deep into how jokes can be broken into categories, using a taxonomy proposed by the writer of The Onion. Today I will talk about an implicit rule of comedy to do with gender and also race: White dudes are the Every Person. Any ‘extra’ identity muddies the joke. This rule is less talked about, but is starting to be acknowledged. Next, it needs to change.

animal white dude default from Bojack Horseman

The creator of Bojack Horseman, Raphael Bob-Waksberg, explains for us all why gender diversity is such a tough hurdle, and why the subjects of comedy are still — despite an increasingly woke population — white and male:

In one of the episodes from the first season (I think it’s 109), our storyboard artists drew a gag where a big droopy dog is standing on a street corner next to a businessman and the wind from a passing car blows the dog’s tongue and slobber onto the man’s face. When Lisa designed the characters she made both the dog and the businessperson women.

My first gut reaction to the designs was, “This feels weird.” I said to Lisa, “I feel like these characters should be guys.” She said, “Why?” I thought about it for a little bit, realized I didn’t have a good reason, and went back to her and said, “You’re right, let’s make them ladies.”

I am embarrassed to admit this conversation has happened between Lisa and me multiple times, about multiple characters.

The thinking comes from a place that the cleanest version of a joke has as few pieces as possible. For the dog joke, you have the thing where the tongue slobbers all over the businessperson, but if you also have a thing where both of them ladies, then that’s an additional thing and it muddies up the joke. The audience will think, “Why are those characters female? Is that part of the joke?” The underlying assumption there is that the default mode for any character is male, so to make the characters female is an additional detail on top of that. In case I’m not being a hundred percent clear, this thinking is stupid and wrong and self-perpetuating unless you actively work against it, and I’m proud to say I mostly don’t think this way anymore. Sometimes I still do, because this kind of stuff is baked into us by years of consuming media, but usually I’m able (with some help) to take a step back and not think this way, and one of the things I love about working with Lisa is she challenges these instincts in me.

Boring Old Raphael, Tumblr

Bob-Waksberg goes on to say that this thinking is everywhere.

White Dude As Default In Children’s Stories

It is also everywhere in children’s literature. In fact, it may be at its worst in stories for children. Bob-Waksberg even brings up The Lego Movie as his prime example — a big budget film which is first and foremost designed to draw in a young audience, with a large adult audience as bonus.

The LEGO Movie was my favorite movie of 2014, but it strikes me that the main character was male, because I feel like in our current culture, he HAD to be. The whole point of Emmett is that he’s the most boring average person in the world. It’s impossible to imagine a female character playing that role, because according to our pop culture, if she’s female she’s already SOMEthing, because she’s not male. The baseline is male. The average person is male.

That’s why Jon Klassen’s characters are male. That’s why Aaron Blabey’s Pig The Pug characters are male. The main guy in Pig The Pug is even called ‘Trevor’ — the most non-descript, white, male Australian name possible. That’s why Oliver Jeffers writes a story about a boy called Wilfred and not a girl called Wilhelmina.

Bojack Horseman isn’t entirely problem free. It’s still about the problems of a white dude, as clearly explained by Eleanor Robertson at The Guardian.

But I have seen interviews with various comedy writers whose default position is this: My books are not gendered. This boy could be anyone. Even academics will argue that Winnie-the-Pooh is gender free. (Winnie-the-Pooh is sex free, but cannot be gender free because we do not have a gender free pronoun in English.)

It is remarkably rare to find a writer who will acknowledge the reason for why their main character is white and male. It is even more rare to find a writer/illustrator acknowledge that even though their character is an animal, that animal is obviously coded as white.

double spread from This Moose Belongs To Me

That’s why the creator of Bojack Horseman is so unusual. He is talking about a specifically comedy example of an implicit rule of writing, but writers have long called this “The One Big Lie Of Storytelling“. According to this rule, audiences can’t cope with too much new stuff in a single story. It is a particularly cynical view of audiences, but not without basis.

White Dude As Default In Speculative Fiction

Alongside comedy,  the genres of fantasy and sci-fi suffer badly because of this thinking. That’s because the audience sees anything other than a patriarchy and has to work extra hard to work out what’s going on. If speculative fiction is about the real world, only highlighted by dint of its being transplanted to an alien setting, both writer and audience must work very hard because:

a. They’re already working hard to form a mind-picture of this new world

b. Even just imagining an alternative political set-up in this real world of ours is beyond the imagination of most.

That’s why Game of Thrones is a white patriarchy, and why almost every big, popular fantasy series is also a white patriarchy, where dragons are a thing, where time travel is a thing, but where only one kind of oppressive system of politics works.  We recognise this political structure immediately, because it’s all around us in our everyday lives. Because it’s all around us, it is invisible within our stories. This lets us sink into the fantasy of the rest of it.

(When I say ‘the audience’, I mean the popular, ticket-buying audience who cite ‘entertainment’ as the main reason for engaging with story. That’s all of us at least some of the time. For most people it’s us almost all of the time. We don’t want to work too hard for our stories.)

 

This rule of storytelling needs to change, and I’m glad to see young, woke writers with a decent platform, like Raphael Bob-Waksberg, talking about it. I hope he keeps talking about it.

For those of us working in children’s literature world, little kids have not yet learned to question jokes about female characters. Humans are not born harbouring gender stereotypes. The place to start changing this expectation of male as default is with picture books. Don’t assume that simply by making your characters animals you are suddenly free from all gender and racial constraints.

Synoptic Narrative In Picture Books

A synoptic narrative depicts a single scene in which a character or characters are portrayed multiple times within a frame to convey that multiple actions are taking place.

The sequence of events is unclear.

Synoptic narratives typically provide visual cues that convey the sequence, but still might be difficult to decipher for those unfamiliar with the story.

There are 7 main categories of Narrative art. Narrative art is art which tells a story.

  1. Monoscenic — represents a single scene with no repetition of characters and only one action taking place
  2. Sequential — very much like a continuous narrative with one major difference. The artist makes use of frames. Each frame is a particular scene during a particular moment.
  3. Continuous — Continuous narrative art gives clues, provided by the layout itself, about a sequence. Sequential narrative without the frames.
  4. Synoptic — offers the synopsis of a bigger story. You must already know a story before you can make sense of synoptic narrative.
  5. Simultaneous — has very little visually discernible organisation unless the viewer is acquainted with its purpose. There’s an emphasis on repeatable patterns.
  6. Panoptic — depicts multiple scenes and actions without the repetition of characters. Think of the word ‘panorama’. ‘All-seeing’ (pan + optic)
  7. Progressive — a single scene in which characters do not repeat. However, multiple actions are taking place in order to convey a passing of time in the narrative. A progressive narrative is not to be interpreted as a group of simultaneous events but rather a sequence that is dependent on its location. Actions displayed by characters in the narratives compact present and future action into a single image.

Synoptic is the adjectival form of ‘synopsis’, which should give us a clue about what’s going on. Synoptic art = the synopsis of a bigger story.

You can find examples of synoptic art in ancient murals. The viewers of these murals knew the plots of these stories. The art simply triggered their memories of a familiar story. Everyone of the era understood the basic plot of the myths, fables, stories and wars depicted.

This is Mughal painting -- a style from South Asia.

This is Mughal painting — a style from South Asia.

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Story Structure 05: The Battle

All complete narratives feature a battle scene. No, that doesn’t have to be a literal battle scene, Lord of the Rings style. In fact, we should be thinking outside that box altogether. One thing I love about Larry McMurtry’s wild West novels (especially Lonesome Dove) is that he condenses the gun battles and torture scenes in favour of character conflict.

battle

WHAT IS THE BATTLE SEQUENCE?

  • Throughout the middle of the story the hero and opponent engage in a punch-counterpunch confrontation as each tries to win the goal.
  • The battle is the final conflict between hero and opponent and determines which of the two characters wins the goal.
  • A battle can be violent or it can be of words. In an action thriller it will probably be violent. In a rom-com it will probably be verbal.
  • The battle is an intense and painful experience for the hero. The hero has to come close to death, even if only metaphorically.

THE BATTLE SEQUENCE IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

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Pygmalion In Modern Stories And Literature

Pygmalion was a sculptor who falls in love with an ivory statue he had carved. The most famous story about him is the narrative poem Metamorphoses by Ovid. (Pygmalion can be found in book ten.) In this poem Aphrodite turns the statue into a real woman for him. In some versions they have a son, and also a daughter together.

In Ovid’s narrative, Pygmalion was a Cypriot sculptor who carved a woman out of ivory. According to Ovid, after seeing the Propoetides he was “not interested in women”, but his statue was so fair and realistic that he fell in love with it.

In time, Aphrodite’s festival day came, and Pygmalion made offerings at the altar of Aphrodite. There, too scared to admit his desire, he quietly wished for a bride who would be “the living likeness of my ivory girl”. When he returned home, he kissed his ivory statue, and found that its lips felt warm. He kissed it again, and found that the ivory had lost its hardness. Aphrodite had granted Pygmalion’s wish.

Pygmalion married the ivory sculpture changed to a woman under Aphrodite’s blessing. In Ovid’s narrative, they had a daughter, Paphos, from whom the city’s name is derived.

In some versions Paphos was a son, and they also had a daughter, Metharme.

Basically, Pygmalion/Daedalus is a story in which a man gives birth to a woman. You might say, it’s a type of wish fulfilment for men: The wish to create someone, especially someone in his own image. The creator might be deformed, and wishes he could have the advantage of beauty, like a beautiful woman. (Because women are the main objects of The Gaze, and always have been.) Or maybe he’ll change a small thing about her to make her his version of ideal. Or it might be about controlling her fertility. 

Edward Burne Jones painting of Pygmalion

Pygmalion and The Image by Edward Burne Jones

The Pygmalion/Daedalus story has been told many times, and continues to be told. There is inherent sexism in this story, of course, or at least there is in many modern renditions, unless the whole point of the retelling is to point out the sexism. The modern form is that a man makes a woman into who she is. Ironically, the males do not find fulfilment for having helped a woman fulfil her potential. His control of her generally leads to his downfall rather than to exultation.

As feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey once put it, the woman stands as a “signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command, by imposing on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as a bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.”

PYGAMLION AND LITERATURE FOR ADULTS

Some examples in stories for adults:

  • The Winter’s Tale, William Shakespeare, about controlling pregnant women’s bodies among other things
  • Million Dollar Baby, the 2004 film starring Clint Eastwood, who turns trailer park kid Hilary Swank into a prize fighter. The film poster would have you believe that this is a film about a female protagonist, but the real hero — the one who changes over the course of the story — is Clint Eastwood.
  • Annie Hall, the 1977 Woody Allen movie. Annie actually resists Alvy’s attempts to turn her into something in his own image, subverting the story. (Woody Allen is a feminist? Who knew!)
  • The Phantom of the Opera, who falls in love with an obscure chorus singer Christine, and privately tutors her while terrorizing the rest of the opera house and demanding Christine be given lead roles
  • Titanic, becauseJack helps Rose speak out and assert her independence from her suffocating family and fiance.
  • The Birth-Mark by Nathaniel Hawthorne, in which a man is repulsed by the birth-mark on his wife’s cheek, so dreams he cuts it out with a knife while she’s asleep, comparing himself to Pygmalion. The man is a natural scientist, so in real life makes a concoction and has her drink it.
  • George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion. A professor of phonetics wagers that he will be able to transform the cockney speaking Covent Garden flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, into a woman as poised and well-spoken as a duchess.
  • Pretty Woman, in which creator and created are united at the end (and is probably why audiences loved it so much)
  • John Cheever’s short story Metamorphoses translates legends from Ovid into Westchester settings.

Stories in which a man helps a woman have a sexual awakening might also be considered part of the Pygmalion wish-fulfilment fantasy of men. This can be traced at least as far back as fairytales:

The disadvantage — or, if you prefer it, the advantage — of being a princess is that you are essentially passive. You just sit there on your throne, or on a nearby rock, while the suitors and the dragons fight it out. In an extreme form of this passivity you are literally asleep or in a trance like Sleeping Beauty or Snow White. This particular archetype is one that has always appealed to men, and it turns up again and again in their fiction. The trance takes different forms: soemtimes it is physical virginity, sometimes it is a sort of psychic virginity. Often the princess is frigid, or sexually unawakened like Lady Chatterley; sometimes she is intellectually or politically awakened, like Gwendolen Harleth in Daniel Deronda or like the Princess Casamassima in Henry James’s novel of the same name, which is in  many ways, and not always successfully, very much like a fairy tale.

— Alison Lurie, Don’t Tell The Grown-ups: The subversive power of children’s literature

This Pygmalion trope is not limited in stories for and about men; take the Fifty Shades of Grey series by E.L. James. The success of this series shows that the trope has worked its way into a widespread female fantasy of the 2010s.

PYGMALION IN PSYCHOLOGY

The Pygmalion effect, or Rosenthal effect, is the phenomenon whereby higher expectations lead to an increase in performance. A corollary of the Pygmalion effect is the golem effect, in which low expectations lead to a decrease in performance; both effects are forms of self-fulfilling prophecy.

 

 

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