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I Had Trouble In Getting To Solla Sollew

This month I’m blogging a series aimed at teaching kids how to structure a story. This seven-step structure works for all forms of narrative. It works for picture books, songs, commercials, films and novels. Today I take a close look at I Had Trouble In Getting To Solla Sollew by Dr Seuss.

Solla Sollew is plotted using classic mythic structure. A character goes on a journey, changes a little along the way, meets a variety of friends and foes (and some who are both), ends up in a big battle and then either returns home or finds a new one. Yesterday I looked closely at The Gruffalo, which is also mythic structure but less obviously so. The day before I looked closely at The Gingerbread Man, which is pretty classic mythic structure except Gingerbread Man never meets any helpers along the way (and spoiler alert, he doesn’t live to learn anything from his journey). I figure it’s time to present a solid, classical mythic structure picture book with all of the most basic elements.

STORY STRUCTURE OF I HAD TROUBLE IN GETTING TO SOLLA SOLLEW

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The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler

This month I’m blogging a series aimed at teaching kids how to structure a story. This seven-step structure works for all forms of narrative. It works for picture books, songs, commercials, films and novels. Today I take a close look at The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson to show how universal structure exists behind all good stories. The Gruffalo is an example of mythic structure, which has been super successful as a story structure across cultures for the last 3000 years.

Julia Donaldson is a master at taking old folktales and rewriting them in rhyme for a contemporary audience. The Gruffalo draws heavily from Alexandra the Rock-eater: An old Rumanian tale, retold by Dorothy Van Woerkom and published in picture book form in 1978. Julia Donaldson uses the same device of tricking a formidable creature into thinking you’re much stronger than you are.

In the Romanian tale, an underdog hero convinces a dragon of her own considerable might. This is a familiar device in many folk tales. (For example, you might squeeze cheese but persuade a formidable opponent that you’re really squeezing buttermilk from a stone.) She’s trying to get rid of the local dragon in return for a gift of animals. She needs animals because she has 100 children to feed (all magic results from having wished for them.)

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE GRUFFALO

For more on mythic structure, see this post. Basically, a character goes on a journey, meets friends and foes, changes as a person (or animal, in this case), and returns home. Sometimes they find a new home. In any case, they’ll be different for their experiences than they were at the beginning. This is called a ‘character arc’.

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

The mouse.

What’s wrong with Mouse? They’re small and therefore vulnerable.

But Mouse’s great strength is that they are a trickster character. The trickster is a super popular archetype in stories from every era. For a successful story (or scene), a trickster character is your absolute best bet. Go ahead and create characters who play tricks to get what they want. You may not approve of what your characters do morally, but readers love tricksters and their tricks.

WHAT DO THEY WANT?

Mouse is off on a journey. We don’t know where s/he is going, but Mouse tells everyone along the way that they are off to see the Gruffalo. Obviously, this is not the mouse’s real desire. Mouse doesn’t think Gruffalos really exist. We’ll never know where Mouse is really going. I’d say they’re off to find nuts, with no particular destination in mind.

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

Mouse encounters only baddies on this trip — no true helpers/mentors. Mice tend to have a lot of enemies because they are small. That puts them near the bottom of the mammalian food chain. Mice are popular characters in children’s stories because both mice and children are small. So the mouse is a stand-in for the child.

Because Mouse is a trickster, s/he quickly turns the Gruffalo into an ally, even though s/he didn’t even believe in Gruffalos until meeting one.

Gruffalo and Mouse

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

The plan is to walk through the forest freely by telling opponents that s/he’s off to meet a Gruffalo, scaring everyone off.

In lots of stories, the initial plan doesn’t work and has to be changed. Our quick-thinking Mouse does not disappoint. When she realises the Gruffalo is real she decides to trick the Gruffalo into thinking s/he herself is fearsome by  having Gruffalo walk behind.

Julia Donaldson has done something masterful here, pulling off what writers call a reversal. The reader now knows that the reason all those other animals were scared of the Gruffalo isn’t just because they’re easily duped — it’s because the Gruffalo really does exist. Perhaps Mouse heard about the Gruffalo but didn’t believe it was real… until this story.

BIG BATTLE

In stories with mythic structure, there won’t be just the one battle. There will be a series of them, increasing in intensity until the final showdown. There is a minor standoff every time Mouse meets a creature who wants to eat them. When Mouse is surprised to see the Gruffalo, that’s another. Then the story works in reverse, very similar to what Roald Dahl did with The Great Big Enormous Crocodile. With The Gruffalo behind, Mouse meets all of those animal opponents again, this time scaring them.

So what’s the Big Battle? It doesn’t consist of much — it’s that ending scene — we might call it the climax. Mouse doesn’t need The Gruffalo anymore, so talks about Gruffalo Crumble, scaring The Gruffalo away.

Mouse has won.

WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?

At a surface level, Mouse has learned that Gruffalos really do exist.

At a lower level, Mouse has learned that wits can overcome size in any battle.

At an even lower level, we might posit all sorts of psychological theories about how if you pretend for long enough, that thing really will seem true after a while. Bluster over substance can work. Fake it til you make it…

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

The final page shows Mouse eating nuts, and everything is good. For Mouse, life will continue as before, though I imagine Mouse is a little more confident about their abilities as a trickster now.

 

STORYWORLD OF THE GRUFFALO

Axel Scheffler’s illustrations are well-suited to Julia Donaldson’s stories because although many of the stories feature scary characters in forests, over boggy marshes (Room On The Broom) and on lonesome highways (The Highway Rat), the colour palette Scheffler uses is colourful and bright even when the atmosphere is raining and dark.

Forests and fairytales go together. If you want to add danger and intrigue to your story, you can place your cast in the middle of a forest, or if they live in a town, put that town right next to a forest. That way, there’s always the threat that something will come out of the forest. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. Doesn’t matter if you use the forest in this way. The existence of a nearby forest is enough.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

A picture book writer very similar to Julia Donaldson is New Zealand’s Joy Cowley, who also writes rhyming picture books using ancient tales as inspiration. If I told you Nickety Nakkety Noo Noo had been written by Joy Cowley, or that Joy Cowley had written The Gruffalo, you’d probably believe me.

The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee

This month I’m blogging a series aimed at teaching kids how to structure a story. This seven-step structure works for all forms of narrative. It works for picture books, songs, commercials, films and novels. Today I take a close look at The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee to show how universal structure exists behind all good stories, even when those stories don’t have words.

(Frazee is pronounced FRAY-zee.) Continue reading

The Gingerbread Man Story Structure

Yesterday I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story. Now for some mentor texts to help kids learn how it works. Picture books are perfect for this purpose, no matter the age of the student because they are brief. In ten minutes you get an excellent overview of a complete and satisfying story. As my first example this month I’ll use The Gingerbread Man, because almost everyone has access to this folktale in one form or another.

For comparison you might take Julia Donaldson’s Stick Man, which I have already analysed in detail. Donaldson is a master at remixing old stories into rhyming texts for a contemporary audience. Stick Man is a remix of The Gingerbread Man. Continue reading

Teaching Kids To Structure A Story

Teaching kids to structure a story is not easy. A lot of students know how to begin, but can’t seem to finish. Others don’t know where to begin. There are plenty of writing templates out there which focus on detail: the five senses, character sketches, describe a setting… All of these are useful, but not at the planning stage.

What to give students at the very beginning?

This is the template I use with my nine-year-old daughter. For more experienced writers there’s a lot  more to it, but I have had great success with my own kid. She loves this template. She now knows how to finish off a story.

1. Who is your main character?

  • What makes your character scared/angry/upset?
  • How do they treat other people badly?

2. What do they want?

  • What is the one big thing your main character wants in THIS story?
  • They might want two things.
  • They KNOW about one of these things. (e.g. a new guitar)
  • But they DON’T KNOW about the other thing. (e.g. to play guitar in front of an audience so everyone loves them and claps)

3. Opponent / Monster / Baddie / Enemy / Frenemy

  • Who is against your main character?
  • Who wants the exact OPPOSITE thing?
  • Or maybe they’re after the SAME thing, but only one person can have it.
  • Who thinks they’re helping, but really they’re not?
  • Who pretends to be their friend, but really they’re not?

4. What’s the plan?

  • How will your main character get that thing they want?
  • What are they going to do?
  • Where will they have to go?
  • Who needs to help?
  • Sometimes plans work, sometimes they don’t.
  • Sometimes the first plan has to change a bit before it works.
  • Sometimes a character does not get what they want. This is called a ‘tragedy’

5. Big Battle

Before the end of your story there will be:

  • A big fight
  • A big argument
  • A near-death experience

6. What does your character learn?

  • Your main character has learnt something.
  • It might be about themselves. It might be something about life in general.
  • They did not know this thing at the beginning of the story.

7. How will life be different from now on?

  • Does your main character live in the same place, or in a new place? Maybe it’s the same place, but feels different now.
  • Do they have the same friends and family?
  • Have things changed between them and other characters?
  • Have they lost something, or got something new?

 

This template is a simplified version of John Truby’s 7 Step Story Structure, which you can read more about in The Anatomy of Story.

Why Are Witches Green?

We all know that witches ride brooms and keep black cats for sidekick pets, but why the green witch? That tradition started more recently than you might think.

The history of witches is terrifying and sad and is basically the story of marginalised people. Worse, people around the contemporary world are still abused because of supernatural beliefs about their so-called witchcraft.

In children’s literature, however, witches are a useful trope.

We’re all familiar with the idea that witches ride brooms.

But when did witches become green?

Below is an illustration for the Charles Perrault version of Sleeping Beauty. The wicked fairy is depicted as an ugly green witch, to match her ugly personality.

La belle au bois dormant : The Sleeping Beauty and Other Stories, retold by Shirley Goulden; illustrated by Benvenuti, 1961

In the version below the skin is grey and sallow but the greenness is still there, in her gown. To make use of some very basic symbolism — the fairy is experiencing feelings of envy because she has not been invited to the party.

Sleeping Beauty grey green witch

Illustration by Sheilah Beckett, 1977

Witches in popular literature and media […] became sexual entities, conniving and disgraceful. […] “witches are accused of crimes similar to those which made the femme fatale of 19th-century novels and dramas such a menacing literary persona” […] Through their magic and their sensual nature, they would tempt people, and trick them into doing inherently evil things, or make them vulnerable. Thus, the witch was seen as a villain, and sexual women were seen as menacing as well. Through this process of othering, this characterization of sexually deviant women as witches, “the witch became the incarnation of the sins of the flesh, of female sexual function”.

However, witches are not always represented as being overly feminine and sexual in nature. Sometimes, they sit on the other end of the spectrum, as masculine, hideous creatures; still outliers from society’s usual expectations for women. These witches, with green skin and crooked noses, match our typical descriptions of the Halloween monsters, cursing maidens and keeping black cats or crows as company.

Socademia

The Green Witch In The Wizard Of Oz

Just as Disney has forever placed in our minds the names of the dwarfs (who were never named before that), the film starring Judy Garland forever left us with the image of the green Wicked Witch Of The West. A film, if successful, changes a work permanently. Maguire therefore creates Elphaba (after the letters of L. Frank Baum’s name) as a green-skinned creature.

Margaret Hamilton in the 1939 film

The green-skinned crone is actually a relatively new incarnation of the evil witch – in fact, while the evil witch as a cultural narrative dates back millennia, the green skin dates precisely back to 1939 and the MGM film, The Wizard of Oz. Margaret Hamilton’s cackling and emerald-tinted portrayal of the Wicked Witch of the West, rendered in vivid Technicolor, is the onlyreason that anyone associates green skin with witches. As Professor Marion Gibson, associate professor of Renaissance and magical literatures at the University of Exeter and an expert in popular depictions of witches, explained, via email, “There are a few images of witches – for instance, on Halloween postcards – with odd coloured faces (usually red/orange, surprisingly) but MGM’s green-faced witch is the first to make a key feature of a completely non-human skin colour.”

Why Are Witches Green? from Boing Boing

There is a sad story of actor abuse behind Margaret Hamilton’s greenness.

On 23 December 1938, while filming the Wicked Witch’s exit from Munchkinland in a blaze of fire, Hamilton suffered first-degree burns on the right side of her face and second-degree burns on her right hand; the flames rose too soon, before she had descended below the stage. Hamilton’s green makeup was copper-based and potentially toxic, and had to be removed from her burned flesh with alcohol — an intensely painful process. She was not able to return to the movie until 10 February. When she did return, she wore green gloves, since her hand was not yet fully healed.

OzWikia

Green skin makes a character unambiguously non-human, so there’s one reason for the green skin. But there are real-world illnesses which can give skin a greenish hue.

Physical damage of various sorts can cause greenish skin. These causes include infections, fungal attack, chemical damage, bruising, and gangrene, among others.

Holidappy

Gregory Maguire’s Wicked

There have been many, many retellings of The Wizard of Oz but the most culturally significant of those must be Wicked, in which Elphaba’s greenness is central.

[A] witch whose image was recently remade is Elphaba, from Wicked, who is also the Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz”. In Wicked, the witch retains her original appearance, “with her green skin, black clothes, and flying broom Elphaba matches our physical conception of a witch” (Boyd 99). Her personality, on the other hand, is completely different. She remains a bit rough around the edges, but this is more defensiveness and a lack of social skills than an actual evil. She is given a sympathetic back-story, and the best intentions. Overall, Elphaba is a good person, and remains that way throughout both the novel and the play, thus becoming a relatable protagonist, rather than a villain.

Socademia

 

Witches are now so commonly understood to be green that I decided yesterday to paint a green witch. Looking at my reference photo compared to the output feels like a kind of symbol — the way witches are very real and ordinary but our thoughts about them are not. (I accidentally left the pot in my office and wondered where it was when it came time to steam the cabbage.)

halloween witch reference halloween candy witch

 

Middle Grade Novel Study: Coraline

Coraline is a 2002 novel by Neil Gaiman. Strangely, it is called a novella, despite being the typical length of a middle grade novel (30,640 words). This is one of those ‘children’s books’ for a universal audience, drawing on fears we all had as children. Neil Gaiman has said that adults find Coraline more terrifying than children do.

In 2009 Coraline was adapted for film, rendering the character Coraline slightly more passive with the addition of a male sidekick.

Coraline is an example of the female myth form, and in order to adapt to a feature length film it was necessary for the director to add quite a bit of material. This is in line with my theory that the female myth form is naturally shorter than the traditional, masculine mythic form. (I think Inside Out would have been better a bit shorter, too.) Continue reading

Monster House Film Study

Monster House is a 2006 animated feature length film for a middle grade audience. The script was written by  Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab. Harmon and Schrab had collaborated on Laser Fart previously, a film which I have not seen and will not be adding to my watch list. Monster House is already 12 years old, but the animation still looks pretty good. It was animated at a time when actors were just starting to be used as models, which is why this looks better than The Polar Express. The one thing significantly improved by modern processing power is hair. Inability to depict hair and skin is why Pixar decided to make their first animated film about toys. The hair on the characters of Monster House looks plastic, like you get on a 1980s Ken Doll, compared to what you see in, say, Brave, of 2012, in which hair is almost a character in its own right. (Animators have since gotten over their hair obsession, I think. Now hair is just hair!)

Screenwriter Harmon has been working in television since Monster House, notably on Rick and Morty. He also lists The Simpsons in his credits. Schrab has also been working in TV, most notably on The Sarah Silverman Program. Basically, these are youngish American comedy writers with a male sensibility.

MONSTER HOUSE STORY STRUCTURE

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The Misplaced Importance Of Bloodline In Fiction

A ‘chosen one’ story stars a main character who is basically ordinary, but because of their bloodline, they are destined for great things. Harry Potter is the iconic example of a contemporary chosen one story.

At TV Tropes you’ll find that Chosen One stories are so popular there are various subcategories.

THE PROBLEMS WITH CHOSEN ONE STORIES

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Thirteen (2003) Film Study

Thirteen is a 2003 feature length indie film which punches above its low-budget weight thanks to expert storytelling and characterisation. Director Catherine Hardwicke co-wrote the script with her erstwhile step-daughter Nikki Reed, who also stars as Evie Zamora. Hardwicke has known Nikki since Nikki was five.

At the time this film came out I was teaching at a girls’ high school and this film impressed me for its realism. The realism is terrifying, in fact. I taught girls who idolised the young heroes in this story, and one who had been burning herself with cigarettes hoping to ‘be just like’ Tracy. This is definitely a film that needs to be watched with parental commentary, but it should be watched anyhow. This is realism for many adolescent girls. The intense relationship between Evie and Tracy, one built on dominance as much as it is built on love, is highly recognisable. Not all teenage girls get into one of these relationships, but many do. As Rachel Simmons writes in her book Odd Girl Out (published around the time this film came out), a relationship dynamic like Tracy and Evie’s is grooming Tracy up for relationship abuse later, when she gets into a romantic relationship. Better she learn some basic lessons now, while her mother is there to protect her somewhat.

This is why young women should see this film. Better they process it from the other side of a screen.

LOGLINE OF THIRTEEN

Sometimes I wonder if thirteen is considered unlucky because being thirteen-years-old is so hard.

A thirteen-year-old girl’s relationship with her mother is put to the test as she discovers drugs, sex, and petty crime in the company of her cool but troubled best friend.

 

GENRE OF THIRTEEN

Hardwicke first intended to write comedy, but soon realised after talking with Nikki that she couldn’t make a single thing up more interesting than what was going on in teenage girls’ real lives, so the film turned into a harrowing drama. So there’s an interesting insight into how much a story can change between conception and final draft. Stories can leap from one genre to another.

The actors say that in the theatre at the Sundance screening they heard uncomfortable giggles throughout the film, especially at times of high intensity. They possibly got as many ‘giggles’ as they would have had they produced an actual comedy. Audiences are weird like that.

Thirteen is not a thriller — it is a straight drama. But the structure involves the coming off of a mask, which makes the structure similar to transgression comedies and also noir thrillers. For much of the movie, Tracy Freeland is acting as a pseudo-adult, ditching her mother who she still needs very much in favour of a girl who has not been so well protected from the world. How does Hardwicke wrap up this story? It’s a story chock full of conflict — arguments with Tracy’s mother, father, brother, teacher and former best friends. Therefore the ‘battle sequence’ needs something extra. In this case it’s the coming off of the mask. After rejection from Tracy’s mother, Evie Zamora outs Tracy to everyone as a thief, self-harmer, drug abuser and all-round evil person. While this portrait of her is not quite right either, it is in this scene that Tracy’s mother finally gets the full picture regarding what’s been going on with her daughter. The mask is finally off. In the outtake scene we see Tracy on a roundabout (a regression to childhood), emitting a primal scream. The torment of keeping up this facade of rebel has passed. 

STORYWORLD OF THIRTEEN

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