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.
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
Since a child’s main weakness is that they are small and without power, a lot of children’s stories have historically relied on an adult stepping in to help. The child’s main job was to find someone more powerful. Victorians preferred the version of “Little Red Riding Hood” in which the adult male woodcutter saves the day, and alternatives of that era have basically been forgotten.
The hero or heroine of a fairy tale usually cannot kill the dragon or marry the princess without help. This, of course, is contrary to the American tradition that if you go it alone and work hard enough, you will get to the top. In fairy tales, characters who refuse help, or refuse to help others, end up covered with tar or talking frogs and snakes.
— Alison Lurie: Don’t Tell The Grown-up: The subversive power of children’s literature
Not all fairy tales follow this general rule of course. That’s because the fairy tales which we read today have been edited by Victorian men who liked it when men stepped in to save women and children. Fairy tales such as “The Gallant Tailor” and “Mollie Whuppie” feature protagonists who save themselves, but it’s unlikely you were exposed to those as a child.
In contemporary children’s fiction, children fight their own battles. However, they very often call in someone more powerful/older to help them in the pre-battle stage. That helper might be just a little bit older, or they might be eccentric (powerless in their own way).
- In Monster House the children call on the help of the guy who plays computer games down at the arcade.
- Harris Trinsky in Freaks and Geeks
Or helper might be very old e.g. a grandparent, neighbour, wizard/witch or realistic equivalent.
These days help may come from the Internet. Courage the Cowardly Dog was one of the first children’s shows to do this — back when the Internet was very new and therefore novel. Courage would regularly consult the anthropomorphized PC in the Bagge family attic. 25 years on, children’s writers seem less enthused about having The Web solve children’s problems. Now writers of realistic contemporary fiction might have to contrive ways to keep phones out of their characters’ hands all the time.
The people who regularly help children in real life rarely help them in stories. Therefore, you’ll rarely see a parent or a teacher helping a fictional child in any useful way. They may try to help, but inadvertently make the situation worse. This is to do with wish fulfilment — the wish to be independent. Or rather, the first step towards independence.
WHAT DOES A BATTLE LOOK LIKE IN CHILDREN’S STORIES?
In books for the very young, you’re not going to find many guns, bows and arrows, fisticuffs and arguments (though you will sometimes). Still, picture books definitely feature ‘battles’.
- Oftentimes, the battle phase seems to comprise about half the entire book.
- The battle scene may be a ‘culmination’ of ridiculousness (followed by calm after the page turn, perhaps with more white space and calming rhythm.)
- Therefore, the ‘battle scene’ in a picture book might also be called the ‘Culmination’.
- It might also be called ‘The Fright’.
- The battle isn’t necessarily between the child and the main opponent. Rather, another opponent will often step in.
What form does this so-called battle sequence take in picture books? I’ve been breaking down the story structure of picture books for some time now. Now it’s time to take a look at the picture books on my shelf and those studied on this blog.
AN ACTUAL GUN BATTLE
Hunters with guns are switched out for the lesser opponents (the animals residing in Thidwick’s antlers) to create a more dramatic battle scene.
AN OVERSIZED BODILY FUNCTION
You can see an oversized bodily function in The Three Little Pigs in which the wolf huffs and puffs and blows the houses down. However, in The Three Little Pigs, the sneezing is not the main battle scene. The main battle scene (at least in less bowdlerized versions) is the wolf falling splash into the pot.
All the animals in the story sneeze together and wake up a sleeping toddler.
— Wake Up Do, Lydia Lou! by Julia Donaldson
TRICKSTER HERO WINS BY SAPPING THE OPPONENT’S STRENGTH/POWER
Our hero is a trickster archetype who challenges the opponent to perform things which will eventually lead to their own downfall. We see tricksters in classic tales such as The Emperor’s New Clothes.
In a mythically structured narrative our protagonist defeats a dragon as an archetypal trickster, tiring him out until he’s fast asleep by challenging him to perform tiring feats.
A SCARY CHARACTER SUDDENLY POUNCES AFTER A LONG LEAD UP
This kind of story has its origins in oral narrative such as Little Red Riding Hood. The young listener/reader KNOWS what’s going to happen — the thrill is in the waiting.
A wolf has enough of performing circus tricks for three show-off little pigs and eventually bites them.
— Wolf Won’t Bite by Emily Gravett
THE CULMINATION OF RIDICULOUS, ESCALATING (POSSIBLY NEAR DEATH) EXPERIENCES
This often happens in a tall tale or in a comic classic/carnivalesque plot.
A city tries to murder a man but they can’t do it because he has four brothers and each has a secret superpower. Battle scenes: an attempted drowning, an attempted execution, an attempted burning at the stake, an attempted burning in the oven.
— The Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Huchet Bishop
Inside a boy’s imagination, a simple horse and cart becomes an entire procession of motley scenarios. The illustration starts simple then becomes more and more detailed until nothing more will fit on the page. The battle scene, in other words, is extreme chaos.
There are so many things stuck in a tree that it’s impossible to imagine anything bigger or more ridiculous.
THE OPPONENT IS INJURED/SCARED OFF BUT NOT KILLED
A trickster wolf is pushed into the river. This doesn’t kill her — she dashes off into the wilderness.
A trickster fox is turned into a mouse by a magic bone