At first this reads like a comical story, but since you know this is a Cheever story you will be expecting a sombre turn before the end.
An elevator operator complains of how lonely he is to all the people he gives rides to. Each passenger regales him with a story of their own kind of loneliness. Over the course of Christmas Day, it turns out each of the residents has prepared a present and a dinner with dessert for Charlie, who can’t possibly eat all of it, and spreads it across the floor of his locker room.
After drinking too much of the liquor that has been gifted to him over the course of Christmas Day, he gives one lady a fright by joking with her:
“Strap on your safety belt, Mrs. Gadshill! We’re going to make a loop-the-loop!” Mrs. Gadshill shrieked.
This gets him fired. To make himself feel better about the day, he puts all of his presents into a burlap sack and takes them to his landlady, who has lots of children and not all that much money. This woman accepts them on behalf of the children, but when Charlie has left, the narrator tells the reader that in fact these children have had lots of presents all day and aren’t quite sure what to do with new ones. So she plans to regift the as-yet unopened ones to a family she feels is even less well-off than herself.
More often than not, middle grades books about friendship changes are explained away with bullies and Mean Girls. There’s usually a clear hero(ine), a clear villain, and that’s that. But we all know that real life is much more murky and complex, and real-life aggressors look more like Astrid [inin Victoria Jamieson’s delightful graphic novel Roller Girl] than a Disney villain.
– Nerdy Book Club
Screenwriting is some of the most dense storytelling there is, along with short stories. There’s a lot more room in an adult novel for meandering, though this varies according to genre. What about modern children’s literature, though? If you read children’s books more than 50-odd years old, you’ll notice a lot more meandering, but modern children’s books are competing with the screen, and must attract the attention of an audience who is used to the tightness of screenwriting. So more than ever, writing for children demands a tight narrative also.
There are a lot of books on storytelling out there, and many of them are written with screenwriters in mind, that is, unless you want to get into the real academic stuff, usually with something like ‘narratology’ in the title.
I’ve read a number of screenwriting books although I have no plans to write a screenplay, and most of them went in one ear and out the other — they were of no actual use when it came down to crafting a story. The three-act theories to me feel intuitively wrong. Advice to make something big happen smack-bang in the middle of the story feels wrong also, because what has the page number got to do with anything?
One day I was looking for a certain book in the library and came across Anatomy Of Story by John Truby, which was beside the book I had looked up on the computer.
Turns out, script doctor John Truby, like me but more so, is no great fan of the three-act-structure advice dished out to beginning storytellers, precisely because it is advice only applicable to beginners. The truth is, storytelling is a lot more complex than that.
Using notes from a podcast interview Truby did for Curious About Screenwriting Network (because there’s too much in his book to bulletpoint here!), and Cheryl Klein’s book specifically aimed at creators of stories for children, Second Sight, I’m going to think about children’s stories alongside films for adults. This should be pretty easy, since stories for children aren’t all that different from genre fiction and mainstream film. Cheryl Klein agrees about the adult-equalled complexity when it comes to modern children literature:
If you study the history of children’s literature, it begins with morality tales. There’s a set of German children’s stories called Struwwelpeter about little Peter, who wouldn’t cut his fingernails or his hair, and Pauline, who burnt herself up by playing with matches. But as children’s fiction has evolved through the last hudnred and fifty years or so, it’s taken on the literary and psychological complexity that adult fiction has had for centuries, away from the moral and heavy-handed, toward the complex, the nuanced, the real.
First, John Truby on…
Truby says it’s not what most people think — most people think it’s ‘who you know’ over ‘what you know’ when it comes to selling stories. That’s not true in screenwriting (and not true in children’s literature, either). It’s not all about pitching, either. Truby says that the skill of pitching is overrated. Unless you have a track record as a professional nobody will take a pitch seriously. A script with a great story is the only thing that matters. Most writers fail because they don’t know the story techniques professionals use. Most writers have been using the wrong craft all along.
Screenwriting has been dominated by the idea of ‘three-act-structure’. This way of understanding story has its merits, especially for when you’re first starting to write. But this is the only training that most writers get, and is strictly for beginners. The only chance any writer has to succeed as a storyteller worldwide is to learn the techniques that professionals use.
In reading for character, readers conventionally use their knowledge of the way people in the world around them usually behave to assign traits to characters, to guess about their motivations, to reconstruct their past, or even to predict what they might do after the end of the story.
Reading in this way implies that fiction is a kind of gossip. It assumes that authors say a little bit about the characters they describe so that readers can have the fun of guessing about all the aspects of character and experience they are not told about. […] But, like gossip, guessing about literary characters can misrepresent them by fitting them into categories readers already possess. Readers who want the pleasure of perceiving something more than or something different from what they already know or believ about human nature have to work with a different assumption: that authors carefully select what they choose to say, and that their choices–both what they say and what they don’t say–define what they wish readers to understand.
– The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Perry Nodelman and Mavis Reimer
[T]he form of innocence described in many texts is one that suits adult needs. For instance, the small creatures in many generic stories leave home to achieve freedom, and then learn the wisdom of not doing so. Although they claim to be happy about their discovery that they are not capable of fending for themselves, their joyful acceptance of constraint seems to be wish-fulfillment on the part of adult writers who would prefer that children didn’t in fact wish for more independence.
– The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Reimer and Nodelman
Examples from Nodelman and Reimer, who call such picturebooks ‘no-name stories’, because they are so generic. Here’s what the following books have in common:
(The following are notes from the same book, with a few of my own examples.)
You can tell a great story with [fewer] than 500 words—think of Where the Wild Things Are (338 words) and The Carrot Seed (101 words)—but you may have to be a genius to do so! And there’s probably a limit on the number of stories that can be told well in under 1,000 words. During this time, by the way, informational picture books have retained longer texts. Novels have gotten wordier. But in the picture book arena, the prevailing wisdom is to shackle writers and get them to be as creative as possible with very few words…
– Make Way For Stories, By Anita Silvey.
I’ve just read yet another article about the new length of picture books. Some say publishers won’t even consider publishing a picture book over five hundred words anymore. Others say they should be under three hundred words. Why? Inevitably, the shorter attention spans of children are cited somewhere in the reasoning. Rubbish, I say!
– We Need Longer Picture Books, Too! from Bookology
Length: Generally 30,000–50,000 words (although fantasy can run longer to allow for more complex world-building).
General Word Counts:
Percy Jackson & the Lightning Thief – 87,223 (Rick Riordan)
Harry Potter & The Sorcerer’s Stone – 77,508 (J.K. Rowling)
Magyk – 112,921 (Angie Sage)
Hunger Games – 99,750 (Suzanne Collins)
A Wrinkle in Time – 49,965 (Madeleine LEngle)
The Graveyard Book – 67,380
Children of the Lamp Book 1 – 85,761
The Alchemyst – 85,926
The Name of this Book is Secret – 59,485
Generally 50,000–75,000 words (although there’s also a length allowance for fantasy).
…During the last few years, publishers began to maintain that adults wanted shorter texts to read to children—because of the demands on their time and young readers’ shorter attention spans. In the 1990s, publishers believed that kids didn’t want novels longer than 200 pages—until J. K. Rowling set everyone straight. One of my mentors in publishing used to say that trends are like sunspots: they come and go with no earthly reason. But Susan Hirschman, who founded Greenwillow Books in 1974, always insisted that publishing trends operate more like pendulums. Things swing one way for a period, but then the industry becomes poised to go another.
– also from Make Way For Stories, By Anita Silvey.
It’s difficult to read the stories of John Cheever without taking what you know of the author’s life as a palimpsest for his characterisations. Though I’m interested in reading one of the biographies, I’m deliberately holding off until I’ve finished his collected short stories, but even the most rudimentary look into the life of the author soon highlights his bisexuality as influential in the themes of his work.
In “Clancy in the Tower of Babel” (1953), Cheever dealt with homosexuality overtly for the first time. But his treatment is stereotypical; he portrays his homosexual characters as effeminate, hysterical, and tortured.
An Irish immigrant to New York has an accident at his labouring job and eventually finds a job as an elevator operator at a nearby apartment block which, despite its geographic proximity, is completely foreign to Clancy, and his simple life which is in many ways humble. He gets to know the people who come and go, and eventually learns that one of the men is gay. He is disgusted when this man brings back a male lover, and refuses to take them down in the elevator.
As outlined by Nodelman and Reimer in The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, here are the common-characteristics of best-selling modern children’s books.
Adults often assume that all children’s stories are fables or should be read as fables […] Aesop’s fables usually end with an explicit statement of a moral. But these stories have been retold by many people, and Joanne Lynn points out that “those who retell the fables always manage to find ‘morals’ that mirror their own values”. When the printer Caxton first published the fables in English in the fifteenth century, he said that the story of the fox and the grapes showed that the fox was wise not to want what he couldn’t have. In more recent versions the fox’s behavior is neither wise nor admirable but shallowly self-deceptive; the moral is something like “It’s easy to despise what we can’t have” It seems that, if readers assume a story is a parable or a fable, the presence of a moral is so important that almost any one will do. Anyone who expects a moral or a message is sure to find one. That this is the case reveals the degree to which messages or themes are separate from the texts readers relate them to. In seeking messages, readers tend to confirm their own preconceived ideas and values: to take ideas from outside the text and assume that they are inside it. That prevents them from becoming conscious of ideas and values different from their own.
– The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Nodelman and Reimer
A sobering panel discussion on the gendered nature of book covers from earlier in 2015 can be found here at The Wheeler Center’s website.
As was noted by someone on the panel, “It starts with children’s books.”