The gables on this mansion cast a longer shadow than most.
“Maybe we should skip this place,” says my older brother.
I ignore him as usual and lead him by the hand.
We knock, knock, knock upon the door.
Creak, creak, creak, the maw opens.
A monster candy corn looms before us. The resemblance is uncanny. That striped and pointy body, sans face, sans limbs.
It somehow proffers a basket.
“We never said trick or treat,” says my brother, “and we don’t want whatever you got.”
“Don’t be rude,” I whisper, and I grab a tiny human for the both of us.
When it comes to stories for adults and stories for children, there’s not much in it. But children are faced with different moral dilemmas.
What Is A Moral Dilemma?
First, Donald Maass explains the difference between a ‘dilemma’ and a ‘MORAL dilemma’:
A dilemma is a choice between two equally good or two equally bad outcomes. A moral dilemma elevates such a choice by giving two outcomes equally excellent, or excruciating, consequences not only for a protagonist, but for others. A dilemma is a situation in which none of us likes to be caught, but in which we all sometimes find ourselves. A moral dilemma is a situation nobody wants, and which few must ever face, but which is terrific for making compelling fiction.
— Donald Maass
Janice Hardy calls the moral dilemma the ‘impossible choice‘. Hardy advises writers to include at least one impossible choice per story, even if the story isn’t overtly about that (e.g. Sophie’s Choice).
Karl Iglesias in his book Writing For Emotional Impact has this to say about moral dilemmas:
Dilemmas create emotional anguish for characters, which in turn challenges readers to consider what they would do if the dilemma were theirs. Our anguish may not be as acute, as we’re one step removed, but we twist our hands anyway. That is, we twist them if the dilemma is truly difficult.
Dilemmas, then, work best when the stakes are both high and personal. When one choice is morally right, it will win out unless it is offset by a different choice that is equally compelling in personal terms. Law versus love. Tell the truth or protect the innocent. Be honest or be kind. When there’s no way to win in a story, the winner is us.
The more difficult the decision your character has to make, the more you’ll engage the reader in thinking about it and therefore compel them to read on to find out how the story turns out.
Parables always feature a moral dilemma. The main character faces a moral dilemma, makes a bad decision then suffered the unintended consequences
There are various words to describe the event from a main character’s past which holds them back in the present: the fatal flaw, the psychic wound, the ghost.
Fatal flaws aren’t always fatal and suggest they tend to be inborn. Fatal flaw refers to what I prefer to call the psychological weakness, and the ghost is a bit different.
‘Psychic wound’ is good, but other people use the word ‘ghost’. (John Truby, Karl Iglesias.) This is even better because I can visualise this thing as an alter-character following the main character around, actively getting in the way of their goals. However, ghosts refer to supernatural creatures, so let’s stick with ‘psychic wound’.
Most often, the Ghost involves traumas such as abandonment, betrayal, or a tragic accident which leaves the character permanently injured or disfigured, or causes guilt if the character feels he has caused another’s death. It can also be the death of a loved one. Basically, any traumatic incident that created a sense of loss, or a psychological emotional wound. […] The difference between Backstory and Ghost is that the first molds the character’s personalty, whereas the latter is still an open wound which haunts the character in your story and affects his inner need. Both, if interesting, can add emotional complexity and fascination to your character.
— Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias
Notice Iglesias mentions injuries and disfigurements. A disfigured character is a trope of yore, and modern writers need to be careful about that one. In these more enlightened times we know that a disfigurement or injury or missing right hand does not actually say anything about that person at all, but earlier stories conflated physical wounds with evil and mal-intent.
MOST COMMON TYPE OF PSYCHIC WOUND
“The Juniper Tree” is a short ghost story by American writer Lorrie Moore, published in the collection Bark (2014). Or is it a ghost story? I interpret this story as a metaphor for the death of middle-aged friendship, and the mourning process one goes through when deciding to let a friend go.
WHAT HAPPENS IN THE JUNIPER TREE
LITERAL INTERPRETATION: A friend dies of cancer in hospital. Our narrator meant to visit but never did. Two other friends rope her into a visit to the dead woman’s house. They see her ghost and everything is quite uncomfortable as the narrator is out of the loop. Our narrator remembers the last time she saw her dead friend in good health — they had a minor clash over a man. The dead friend slaps a pie in her own face to lighten the situation but our narrator is not amused. She decides she needs to go to more conferences to meet new friends.
ALTERNATIVE INTERPRETATION: This is a story about the end of a friendship. The first cracks appeared when the two women found themselves dating the same man (not at the same time — it’s a small dating pool in this town). A frank remark about the man’s infidelity lengthens the crack. When our narrator says a premature goodbye after dinner, they are no longer firm friends. Narrator realises she does not want friends who do wacky things like throw a pie in their face for shits and giggles. (I see this as a failed attempt on the part of the dying friend, to lighten the mood.) Narrator deals with the end of the friendship by imagining the friend has actually died. Inspired by the ghostly image of her white-faced (merengue covered) former friend, the ‘dead’ woman morphs into a ghost. Narrator never really put a firm end to the friendship. She meant to keep nurturing it, but made excuses and now she hasn’t visited her in hospital and next thing she’s dead. This scene with the ghost is the narrator’s conscience reminding her that friends are actually few and far between and friendships need nurturing. She imagines visiting this dead friend with two other former friends — each with their own major flaws — one is missing an arm, the other is mentally ill. These are external manifestations of psychological problems which our narrator has decided not to bother with, consequently cutting them loose. By the end of the story our narrator has said her goodbyes to these former friends, psychologically preparing herself to move on to new ones.
The title is therefore ironic. The Juniper tree symbolises rejuvenation, healing and longevity, yet this is a story about death.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST WITH THE JUNIPER TREE FAIRY TALE
“The Juniper Tree” is also one of the darker fairy tales collected by the Grimms, which includes murder, guilt transferred onto a loved daughter and accidental cannibalism. Does that have anything to do with this? While the plots are different, the stories share certain images and emotions:
- Whiteness. The fairy tale is white noir, with the white of the snow. Moore’s short story has the white of a meringue and therefore the ghostly white face of the dead.
- The fairy tale features a decapitated boy, whose head stays on with the help of a scarf. Moore uses this imagery.
- Both stories feature jealously. The fairytale is about a second wife whereas Moore’s story is about a subsequent girlfriend.
- In the fairy tale the second wife hates the first born son because he will inherit all her husband’s wealth, according to the customs of the day. (Dealing with primogeniture is a common reason for female ‘evil’ in fairy tales.) In Moore’s story, we see the narrator give birth to some misdirected hatred as she begins to come to terms with her boyfriend’s philandering, expecting fidelity. (This is common in contemporary tales.)
- Both stories include a woman hearing voices that are not her own.
- Both stories end with grief and sorrow disappearing. Both are stories of catharsis.
- Both tales are about dark feelings. If we indulge in these dark emotions, bad things will happen. In Moore’s short story we have a woman who is likely to end up lonely.
- Both stories feature singers, and the singers trade. In the fairytale, typical fairytale treasures are traded, whereas in Moore’s story we have friends being traded.
- Structurally, both stories have two distinct parts. The fairytale seems to begin an entirely new narrative arc once the bird flies away. Moore’s story features two main scenes: The encounter with the ghost and the final supper before the friend dies.
Lorrie Moore has said in interviews that short story collections based around a theme feel contrived, so I extrapolate that a modern short story hewing too closely to a fairytale would seem similarly contrived to this writer. Moore’s ‘retelling’ of “The Juniper Tree” is therefore an excellent case study for short story writers who are interested in taking flashes of imagery from a classic; we are free to use as little as we like.
Birds occupy a special place in children’s stories, as they do in the Bible, in folklore and in fairytales. Are they good or are they evil? No other creature has so successfully been both, equally. If you’re writing a children’s story, you can do what you like with birds.
The hooked beak of this bird is undoubtedly evil.
BIRDS IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
Remember that dove which Noah sent out, to see if the waters had subsided elsewhere? Everyone knows of that dove, because we see it depicted in art holding an olive leaf in its beak. Less memorable, for me at least, is the raven. Remember that? Noah sent out the raven first but it never came back. He only sent that dove out a week later. When he sent the dove out again and it didn’t come back this time, he knew waters had subsided enough for the bird to find somewhere on land.
I wonder what was supposed to have happened to that raven. Ravens today are super smart birds. I think maybe the raven was smarter than the dove and found dry land more easily. That’ why it never came back!
There’s more to this literary symbolism, of course. The raven is black and that dove is white. Ravens = bad, doves = peace. This is seen over and over again throughout our history of storytelling.
The Old Testament is all about ‘clean’ birds versus ‘dirty’ ones. When Noah gets off the ark he thanks God for the clean birds he took onto the ark with him. What’s the difference between a clean bird and a dirty bird? (Okay, ‘unclean’.) Dirty birds eat carrion. The clean birds mostly have a diet of grain, fruits, and vegetation. Humans are safer when eating ‘clean’ birds than birds who eat dead meat themselves — less chance of getting sick. However, when all the birds of the Old Testament are taken as a group, there is no clear-cut line we can draw between a clean and an unclean one. To our modern taxonomies, some of the birds on the unclean list seem a bit random.
CATS AND BIRDS