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Month: September 2017

The Lottery by Shirley Jackson Short Story Study

The Lottery by Shirley Jackson (1948) is an excellent example of a short story which contains so much you might as well have read a novel. What can writers learn from this story?

STORY WORLD OF THE LOTTERY

Unfortunately this story will continue to speak to new audiences. As I re-read this in 2017, I’m thinking of what’s going on right now in Australian politics as citizens vote whether or not to afford marriage equality to all.

SEASONS AND JUXTAPOSITION

The symbolism of seasons is utilised ironically here. Normally spring weather and fine days indicate good things to come, or at the very least ‘change’, but here the nice, fine day is juxtaposed against the horrific events to come:

The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green.

— opening sentence from The Lottery by Shirley Jackson

This is a ‘storybook village’, replete with a square, a post office, a bank. I’m not sure readers of 1948 would have seen this village as particularly cosy. Certainly by 2017 any village with all of those amenities still in operation feels like an island of convenience. We are told the population of this village is about 300 people. I live in a village of 3000 people, so I am confident everyone here knows everyone else. It is clear Jackson wants this village to feel cosy… at first.

Notice, also, the man who conducts the lottery is called Mr Summers — an ironically symbolic name.

The lottery was conducted–as were the square dances, the teen club, the Halloween program–by Mr. Summers

(Notice how this heinous tradition is juxtaposed in the same sentence alongside joyous events which bring the community together.)

SYMBOLISM OF THE BOX

The black ballot box symbolises tradition itself. It has fallen apart and parts of it have been replaced, but it remains a black box. Mirroring this description: The tradition of stoning someone each year to make the crops grow is as old as the box and although small parts of the tradition have been modified, the tradition itself remains.

The original paraphernalia for the lottery had been lost long ago, and the black box now resting on the stool had been put into use even before Old Man Warner, the oldest man in town, was born. Mr. Summers spoke frequently to the villagers about making a new box, but no one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box. There was a story that the present box had been made with some pieces of the box that had preceded it, the one that had been constructed when the first people settled down to make a village here. Every year, after the lottery, Mr. Summers began talking again about a new box, but every year the subject was allowed to fade off without anything’s being done. The black box grew shabbier each year: by now it was no longer completely black but splintered badly along one side to show the original wood color, and in some places faded or stained.

Shirley Jackson uses the box to open and close the story, providing readers with a sense of circularity and therefore inevitability:

Although the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered to use stones.

FEMINIST MESSAGES

The unseen narrator tells us that the men speak of important farming issues whereas the women ‘gossip’ — the word ‘gossip’ is used to dismiss women’s speech. This is a community who doesn’t listen to women. So when it is a woman (Mrs Adams) who points out (only after her husband tentatively introduces the matter) that other places have stopped the stoning tradition, she is dismissed out of hand by Old Man Warner.  The general misogyny of the community is underlined in the scene where women aren’t allowed to draw, and if their husbands are incapacitated, ideally this job goes to his young son. Mr Summers is pitied because his wife is ‘a scold’. Again, this is a heavily gendered word used to describe women who don’t agree with men. Though we don’t get to hear directly from Mr Summers’ wife, could she be in strong opposition to her husband’s continuing this tradition?

Mrs Hutchinson is almost late to the event and jokes that she couldn’t be leaving the dishes in the sink. This would be considered shameful for a woman in this milieu, but only reflecting on women. This is the detail women are expected to be caught up in, distracting them from things like wanting a say in civic life.

This outcome, says Jackson, is what you end up with when communities don’t afford women equal say in matters.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE LOTTERY

“All right, folks.” Mr. Summers said. “Let’s finish quickly.”

“Get in, get out.” This is common advice to short story writers. But this is a story in which the abrupt ending can only be shocking after quite a bit of mundane detail. Anyone who has ever been in a meeting will recognise the characters’ clinging on to traditions and focusing on the minutiae of procedure while forgetting all about the bigger picture, or perhaps as a deliberate distraction to avoid thinking about the bigger picture.

WEAKNESS/NEED

Like Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain, this is a story about a community, not about a ‘main character’ or a ‘hero’. We are given names to lend verisimilitude — Jackson speaks to us as if we, too, are a part of this community and would know Bobby (by his first name) and Harry Jones and Dickie Delacroix.

The great weakness of this village is that they are small and insular and hew to outdated traditions without there being any outside influence to make them examine their lethal traditions. At one point someone points out, “Other villages have stopped doing this”, but without fully examining why, this change is dismissed out of hand.

DESIRE

The community is suffering from a bad agricultural year. They desire a good crop and will go to any lengths to achieve this.

OPPONENT

Nature is the main opponent here, but ‘nature’ is never an interesting opposition because it has no will/desire of its own. Opponents must have a human face. In this story we have:

  • The unseen character of Mrs Summers (who I’m guessing is a ‘scold’ due to her disagreeing with her husband)
  • “They do say,” Mr. Adams said to Old Man Warner, who stood next to him, “that over in the north village they’re talking of giving up the lottery.”
  • “Some places have already quit lotteries.” Mrs. Adams said.
  • Tessie, who says the system isn’t fair.

PLAN

They will randomly select a village member to sacrifice.

BATTLE

The battle scene of this story is the argument that takes place between the chosen and those who chose her.

This battle is so chilling because there’s so little to it. Notice the word choice:

  • Bill Hutchinson was standing quiet, staring down at the paper in his hand.
  • “Be a good sport, Tessie.” Mrs. Delacroix called. (As if this is a sport and not a murder.)
  • “It wasn’t fair,” Tessie said. (She didn’t shout or scream.)
  • “How many kids, Bill?” Mr. Summers asked formally.

There is no real screaming until the final sentence, which is where a story draws most of its power:

Tessie Hutchinson was in the center of a cleared space by now, and she held her hands out desperately as the villagers moved in on her. “It isn’t fair,” she said. A stone hit her on the side of the head. Old Man Warner was saying, “Come on, come on, everyone.” Steve Adams was in the front of the crowd of villagers, with Mrs. Graves beside him. “It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,” Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.

SELF-REVELATION

The village has no revelation and this is its tragedy. The reader, however, should have had some sort of revelation.

  • Clinging on to old traditions can be cruel, no matter how ‘fair’ it looks.
  • The thing about the feminist messages: You have to be feminist to see them. The narrator offers no judgement. We see how the women are treated and form our own conclusions. A non-feminist reader wouldn’t necessarily conclude that misogyny had a single part to play in the lethal tradition of this community.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

When Old Man Warner tells us he’s been in this lottery 77 times, this prepares the reader to know, for certain, that this same tradition will carry on next year, too. Likewise, we are prepared to extrapolate this information when the two women in the back mutter to each other that the lotteries seem closer and closer together these days.

 

RELATED READING

The Lottery is a cultural influence on more modern works such as Singing My Sister Down by Margo Lanagan (an Australian writer; universal short story). If you’ve read The Hunger Games you’ll be put in mind of that.

As for story structure, The Last Spin by Evan Hunter (1960) is very similar. Most of the narrative details the rules of a game, and ends shockingly and suddenly.

11 Facts About Shirley Jackson’s Lottery from Mental Floss

Shirley Jackson Predicted America’s Fascination With The Murderess from Electric Literature

Silence Of The Lambs Film Study

Where were you when you first watched The Silence Of The Lambs? I was about fifteen, mid-nineties. The film had made it to midday TV. It was a rainy, wintry day outside and my mother sat knitting in the recliner chair. I was on the floor making flashcards for high school Japanese, but as relaxing as I found this task, the film won out that day. The cosiness of my environs juxtaposed against the content of the film stands out in my memory.

Some years later, on a fine Monday morning, I was walking to work and saw a man struggling to put a sofa into a van. He didn’t accept my help as it happens, but I remember thinking to myself, “Don’t actually get inside the van.” Sometimes films do that to you. I can’t see a glass of water wobbling without thinking of Jurassic Park. I can’t see a man loading furniture into a van without thinking of Buffalo Bill.

The Silence of the Lambs mostly holds up to multiple viewings, and maybe even requires it. It took me a while to work out exactly how Clarice got to the right house before her colleagues did, and I’m still not sure I’m meant to know exactly what went wrong there. Here’s the thing about rewatching in 2017, though: It’s clear this film has not helped dominant attitudes towards gender non-conforming people. In 1991 the film-going public didn’t really know the difference between transvestite, transgender, gay and transsexuality. We certainly didn’t give that community a second thought.  Continue reading

Story Structure: The Plan

Characters in stories need a plan. Even passive character types need to be actively passive. Initial plans will most likely change.

sweet plan

As you can see, the plan itself is made up of 7 main segments. It also follows the Storytelling Rule Of Threes, because the plan will need to be changed 3 times. If you find your stories really sag in the middle it’s worth trying this guided breakdown on for size.

HEROES AS WELL AS THEIR OPPONENTS NEED PLANS

You always hear that “Drama is conflict,” but when you think about it –what the hell does that mean, practically?

It’s actually much more true, and specific, to say that drama is the constant clashing of a hero/ine’s PLAN and an antagonist’s, or several antagonists’, PLANS.

In the first act of a story, the hero/ine is introduced, and that hero/ine either has or quickly develops a DESIRE. She might have a PROBLEM that needs to be solved, or someone or something she WANTS, or a bad situation that she needs to get out of, pronto.

Her reaction to that problem or situation is to formulate a PLAN, even if that plan is vague or even completely subconscious. But somewhere in there, there is a plan, and storytelling is usually easier if you have the hero/ine or someone else (maybe you, the author) state that plan clearly, so the audience or reader knows exactly what the expectation is.

Alexandra Sokoloff

RULES OF THUMB

Do your worst to your character

Make the trials escalate.

Initial plans fail in the vast majority of cases. Initial plans might be a single scene or, in a film, a single montage of failed attempts. This is often the writer’s way of lampshading, “Well wouldn’t a good/regular person just do this rather than jump headfirst into that kind of danger?”

  • Walter White’s plan to get ahead financially by washing cars to supplement his teacher income fail when his medical bills suddenly skyrocket. (Breaking Bad)

The pattern in a film length story will go something like this:

  1. Main character makes a plan
  2. Opponent ruins the plan with their own plan
  3. Main character seems defeated
  4. Oh hang on: a modified plan, new motive, new momentum
  5. Second revelation. Makes some sort of decision
  6. Ideally the audience realises something
  7. Main character has a third revelation and makes another decision

THE ‘PLAN MCGUFFIN’ WORKAROUND FOR PASSIVE PERSONALITY TYPES

Otherwise known as The Reluctant Hero. Characters who have no plan overlap with characters who don’t seem to want anything either. I talk about these passive types a little in my post on Desire.

Although a rule of story is that the hero must be proactive (especially in children’s books perhaps), depressive types deserve stories too, right? So how is it done?

In the indie comedy film Safety Not Guaranteed (2012), we first meet our main character at a job interview.

character has no plan

This disaffected magazine intern doesn’t get the job at the cafe, as she is terrible at interviews. This is a masterful way of introducing a character because it tells us a lot about Darius in a short time. We learn how much she does not like being an intern, that she has interpersonal issues and is in a mood slump. Although she initially planned to get a job, she and the audience quickly learn that this plan is not going to work. She ends up with another plan.

For the writers of Safety Not Guaranteed, figuring out a ‘plan’ for this ‘character in a slump’ is a tough one, because the very nature of being in a slump and generally pessimistic about everything is that you are not making plans. This plan Darius had — to get a part-time job in a cafe — was a bit of a ‘plan McGuffin’ — we soon forget she ever wanted to leave the internship at the magazine. She is the opposite of a go-getter. She is passing up an opportunity to possibly advance in her career to work in a minimum wage job. But this initial scene exposes several things:

  1. We see that she doesn’t say/do things just because they are expected of her. She is her own person and also self-destructively honest.
  2. The interviewer says “I know your type”, encouraging the audience to categorise this young woman. If we get it wrong our expectations for her will be subverted. It’s also a pretty shitty thing for the guy to say, so anyone who hates job interview questions is likely to sympathise with Darius.
  3. The failed interview explains how she ends up on a strange trip with her womanising, unlikeable boss: She doesn’t just walk away from the adventure which is forced upon her because she has no other choice. Even her father is on her back about not living a worthy life.

Whenever a story stars a reluctant, passive, sarcastic, layabout, depressive (etc.) protagonist, during the course of the story the hero will almost always double down and realise that this thing, this one thing happening in this particular story — perhaps for the first time in their life — is the thing they are meant to do. In effect, there is a bit of a self-revelation near the beginning. This doubling-down forms part of their character arc.

PASSIVE PERSONALITIES NEED TO BE ACTIVELY PASSIVE

‘Actively passive’ sounds impossible, but refers to stories in which a passive character is actively resisting calls to adventure over and over. They actually have to do something to get out of adventure’s way.

CHARACTERS RARELY CONFRONT THINGS HEAD-ON

Most scenes are rarely about what the subject matter is. You soon see the power of dealing obliquely or elliptically with situations, because most people rarely confront things head-on.

— Robert Towne

However, there are several things you really DON’T want your audience thinking:

  1. This wouldn’t be a problem if only they just communicated!
  2. Why don’t they just call the police? (See a one line review of Home Alone on Reddit. The writers make the 8-year-old hero steal a toothbrush as a reason for not calling the police.)

I feel Robert Towne refers instead to general reluctance of ordinary heroes (not superheroes, who jump at any chance to save the world) to undertake a dangerous mission. Everyday heroes are generally drawn into danger against their will, but at about the halfway point in the story, this character doubles down. Suddenly this mission is important to them. They won’t stop for anything. This doubling down is necessary because they’re going to go through a battle. An audience isn’t interested in watching a half-hearted hero, unless we’re talking about a comedy in which the hero (or often, the heroine in detective comedies) bumbles through a story solving a mystery or saving the day by sheer accident.

COMEDY GENRE PLANS

In the comedy genres, the plans characters come up with are often the most ridiculous thing you can think of.

  • A male actor who can’t find work because he’s a bastard dresses as a woman. (Tootsie)
  • A superficial high school student plays matchmaker to two hard-grading teachers so that she can renegotiate her own terrible grades. (Clueless)
  • Two men advise their virgin friend on superficial ways to become a ‘real man’ but end up getting him into troubling predicaments (The 40 Year Old Virgin)
  • A boy comes up with ridiculous ways of retrieving something stuck up a tree ( Stuck by Oliver Jeffers)

Symbolic Archetypes In Children’s Stories

Light vs. Darkness

Light usually suggests hope, renewal, or intellectual illumination. Darkness implies the unknown, ignorance, or despair.

Pure black is rare in children’s illustration but Jon Klassen makes use of matte black in The Dark, which is obviously all about the dark.

the dark jon klassen

In general, Jon Klassen makes much use of shadows to subtly frame the focal points of his illustrations. This is a technique reminiscent of 1960s illustration, found in animation such as 101 Dalmatians. Below, a scene from 101 Dalmatians contrasts blues (darks) against warms (lights), and the light from a fireplace casts a frame as our baddie creeps towards the door. Continue reading

Story Structure: Character Desire

Kurt Vonnegut famously advised writers: characters must want something, even if it’s just a glass of water. This advice is so fundamental, every storytelling guru will tell you a version of the same thing.

Some people use different terminology: motive, goal, want. The ‘quest’ plot has a strong desire line built into its plot, which partly explains its enduring popularity over the last 3000 years.

John Yorke prefers ‘active goal’:

All archetypal stories are defined by this one essential tenet: the central character has an active goal. They desire something. If characters don’t then it’s almost impossible to care for them, and care we must. They are our avatars and thus our entry point: they are the ones we most want to win or to find redemption — or indeed be punished if they’ve transgressed, for subconsciously we can be deeply masochistic in our desires. Effectively they’re us. […] If a character doesn’t want something, they’re passive. And if they’re passive, they’re effectively dead. Without a desire to animate the protagonist, the writer has no hope of bringing the character alive, no hope of telling a story and the work will almost always be boring.

— John Yorke, Into The Woods

Without desire, no story. This is so basic — at first glance what more could be to it? This comic strip by Poorly Drawn Lines takes a common desire line and spoofs it.

comic about power and desire

Why does it work as a joke? Because of the juxtaposition between (noble) quest and the completely  unremarkable character arc — the discovery that he can eat his roommate’s leftovers with basically no consequences. This flaunts the basic rules of storytelling which we all know intuitively: When a character has a strong desire they go on an important quest and undergo significant character change as a result.  Continue reading

Child Moves House Trope In Middle Grade Fiction

Child moves house and starts at new school. This trope is hard to write well because it has been done so many times before.

child moves house

Some specific plot elements, or motifs, that we find in children’s novels are not as prominent in the mainstream fiction. The first is coming to a new home. Naturally, this element–connected to the basic motif of dislocation, inherent in all fiction–is present in quite a number of mainstream novels, such as Jane Eyre or Mansfield Park. However, I would state that the new home is more dominant in children’s fiction and also more significant, since the change of setting is a more dramatic event in a child’s life than in an adult’s. The character’s reaction to the change is very revealing.

The Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Fiction by Maria Nikolajeva

Maria Nikolajeva published that paragraph in 2002 and goes easy on the child moves house trope. Since then, despite every children’s author knowing full well that the child moves house trope — or motif — or whatever you’d like to call it had been done thousands of times before, we get to 2017 and Betsy Bird (librarian and reviewer for School Libarary Journal) has this to say about the state of middle grade literature:

If you read too many middle grade novels in a given year, you begin to sense patterns that no one else can see. In 2017 I’ve started down that path. I’ll give you an example of a particular pattern: The new kid in school. It’s not a new idea for a book (Joseph Campbell would probably tell you that it’s just a variation on the old “A Stranger Comes to Town” storytelling motif) but this year it’s gotten extreme. In book after book authors have hit the same notes. Kid is new. Kid is awkward in the lunchroom (seriously – if I never read another lunch room scene again it’ll be too soon). Kid makes friends with outcasts. Kid triumphs by being true to his or her own self. Simple, right? They blend together after a while, but it’s not the fault of the format. A good book, a really good book, transcends its format. Much of what I’ve read this year has already faded into a fuzzy haze in my brain.

Betsy Bird, SLJ

The contributors to TV Tropes have also noticed the moving house trope has become super popular in the last 10 years. The trope New House, New Problems refers specifically to a new family moving into a new home, whereupon strange happenings begin to reveal themselves. It’s not just a middle grade thing — it’s a horror thing.

Who knows what contributed to this trend, but I suspect big hits such as Neil Gaiman’s Coraline have something to do with it. The TV Tropes page also points out that every other Goosebumps book begins with a kid moving to a new house. In YA we have the huge successes of Twilight, 10 Things I Hate About You and Mean Girls, so audiences must love the trope. Writers love it too, because it allows a natural discovery of a new milieu, as our new student discovers how the new environment works, along with readers.

The question is, do young readers like it as much as writers do?

 

In The Middle Of The Night by Robert Cormier

In The Middle Of The Night is a young adult horror novel by American author Robert Cormier. Written in the mid 1990s, this was one of his later works.

The cover reads like the poster for a horror film and gives us a horror tagline: “The sin of the father will be visited upon the son.”

in the middle of the night

Although Goodreads reminds me I read (and reviewed!) this book back in 2013, I have zero recollection of ever picking it up. This probably says more about my memory than about the book, though I do have strong memories of some of Cormier’s other work, particularly Fade, which I read as a teenager and left a strong impression.

I’m reading In The Middle Of The Night again making read-along notes as I go, hoping to learn what I can about horror and suspense from a master of the form. Continue reading

Children’s Stories and Northrop Frye

Northrop Frye was a Canadian literary theorist who died in 1991 aged 78. Frye was considered one of the most influential literary theorists of the 20th century. Sometimes his theories applied equally to children’s literature; at other times he was off the mark. One of his theories — The Displacement Of Myth — does not apply well to children’s literature.

Northrop Frye’s Five Stages Of The Displacement Of Myth

Frye treated literature as ‘displacement of myth’. Here are Frye’s stages, in consecutive order, between full-on myth to what we get today:

  1. Characters are gods (superior to both humans and to the laws of nature)
  2. Romantic Narrative (idealized humans who are superior to other humans but not to the laws of nature)
  3. High Mimetic Narrative (humans who are superior to other humans)
  4. Low Mimetic Narrative (humans are neither superior nor inferior to other humans)
  5. Ironic Narrative (characters are inferior to other characters)

northrop frye

(Terminology note: The ‘mimetic modes’ are also known as ‘realism‘. Mimesis basically means ‘copying reality’.)

Examples Of Modern Popular Characters From Each Of Frye’s Five Stages

  1. Superheroes in general, though writers sometimes limit their powers in aid of a more interesting story. Superman is one of the few who actually fits this category because Superman was never meant to be relatable. (Before he was known as Man of Steel he was known as Man of Tomorrow, in a much more optimistic age when it was thought that humankind is making its way closer to the ideal mindset of altruism for altruism’s sake.
  2. The male love interests in Harlequin romances, in which the story ends before more human aspects of his character are revealed.
  3. Walter White and other genius characters who live among us e.g. Marty Byrde of Ozark which seems to be modelled upon Breaking Bad.
  4. Don Draper; the alter egos of secret-identity superheroes. (See: A Psychoanalysis of Clark Kent.)
  5. Mr Bean,

If you try this exercise yourself, you’ll probably find that contemporary stories tend to fall into the bottom two categories. It’s much harder to find genuine examples from the top two tiers in particular. Some have argued a case for more heroics in stories for adults.

The conventions of literary fiction are that the bourgeois hero (more likely the heroine) be vulnerable, prone to shame and guilt, unable to fit the pieces of the larger puzzle together, and on the same banal moral plane as the “average reader”: sympathetic, in other words, someone we can “identify” with, who reflects our own incomprehension of the world, our helplessness and inability to effect change.

– an example of why we need to read about amazing characters, in an opinion from Anis Shivani

The Displacement of Myth and Children’s Literature

How does Northrop Frye’s Five Stages map onto children’s literature? According to Frye, children (and animals) fall into the fifth category — children are regarded as inferior. Since almost all children’s literature stars children, this suggests all children’s literature is ironic.

This is not the case.

In fact, the corpus of children’s literature includes characters from each of Frye’s levels. This has been pointed out by specialist of children’s literature, Maria Nikolajeva, in Aesthetic Approaches to Children’s Literature: An Introduction.

Examples Of Children’s Characters From Each Of Frye’s Five Stages

  1. The superhero side of Miles Morales; Christopher Robin who to the toys seems like a God. (This also applies to Andy of Toy Story.)
  2. Edward Cullen and other paranormal love interests in young adult romance; Harry Potter winds up here.
  3. Rory Gilmore types, who is herself the granddaughter of Anne of Green Gables (very smart). That said, Rory Gilmore had been cut down a peg or two in the Gilmore girls revival, and Anne With An E showed a more vulnerable side to Anne Shirley. Perhaps this means a contemporary audience likes to see more ordinary characters?
  4. Laura Ingalls, Tom Sawyer, Ramona Quimby, Henry Huggins and all of these kids’ descendants populating realistic fiction, but who sometimes enter a fantasy world. (That said, entering a fantasy world often in itself denotes ‘chosen ones’.) In YA we have Francesca Spinelli (Saving Francesca), the ensemble stars of Tomorrow When The War Began and other ordinary teens who learn to become self reliant after some kind of adversity.
  5. Greg Heffley, Timmy Failure, Nikki Maxwell and many other stars of middle grade, humorous, illustrated novels starring characters who are mean, dim-witted, accident-prone, or who otherwise feel put-upon due to being the middle child, wearing braces or whatever. We see these characters in cartoons, too e.g. We Bare Bears. Comedy is full of them because these characters are easy to poke fun at. We also have serious YA characters such as Charlie from The Perks of Being a Wallflower, or James Sveck of Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You, who are basically overwhelmed by all the changes happening in their teenage years.

As shown above, children’s literature is as diverse as adult literature when it comes to this particular theory of character. ‘Children’ cannot be lumped into the bottom category. The opinion from Anis Shivani above may in fact mean it’s easier to find heroic characters in children’s stories than in stories for adults.

As a side note, animals can’t be lumped into the ironic category, either. That’s because animals in literature are very often stand-ins for humans.

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