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Tag: Diary of a Wimpy Kid

The Long Haul by Jeff Kinney Story Structure

The Long Haul (2014) by Jeff Kinney is the ninth book in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. I wrote about Jeff Kinney’s writing process in this post, after reading various interviews with him around the web. Kinney tells everyone the same thing — he writes the jokes first, finds a way to string them into some sort of story, then does the illustrations in a single two-month flurry of industry. In short, the jokes come first, story a distant second.

However, when Kinney wrote The Long Haul, he already knew it was going to be turned into a movie, and if middle grade novelists can get away with a ‘jokes first’ approach to story structure, Hollywood scriptwriters can’t.

I was writing it with a movie in mind—this is the first book that I’ve written in three acts and with cinematic set pieces. So I really had a different hat on when I was writing this book.

Mental Floss

The Long Haul Jeff Kinney cover

ROAD TRIP STORIES

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The Plot Of Dog Days by Jeff Kinney

Some have said that the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books have no plot, including Jeff Kinney himself. Is this really true? If so, the perennially popular Wimpy Kid series defies a ‘law’ of storytelling — a first of its kind.

Yesterday I read another book from the Wimpy Kid series and decided Dog Days story has a ‘meandering plot’.

Today I take a close look at a random Wimpy Kid book from my daughter’s shelf to see what people really mean when they say Jeff Kinney’s books have ‘no plot’. To do that I’m using the story structure template as outlined by John Truby in Anatomy of Story.

Diary Of A Wimpy Kid Dog Days cover

STORY STRUCTURE OF DOG DAYS

How Events Are Connected

The scenes in a Wimpy Kid story are made up of events in the present (on the day of writing), events of the recent past (the last few days) or flashbacks from weeks/months/years ago.

One event in the present can spark an event in the past, providing a natural segue. Where there is no natural segue, Greg writes a new entry under a different day of the week.

  • PRESENT: Mother insists Greg goes outside to play because Greg is in his room by himself under a blanket.
  • RECENT PAST: Greg goes to country club with Rowley where a girl they invited ditches them
  • FLASHBACK: Greg complained to Mr Jefferson about the fruit smoothies and other things but after complaining was uninvited to the country club
  • Greg’s mother makes him go to the local pool, which is a comedown from the country club.
  • FLASHBACK: Being terrified of the hairy naked men in the changing room
  • PRESENT: Greg learns the family can’t afford to go to the beach this year.
  • FLASHBACK: Last year he wouldn’t go into the surf because he realised sealife uses the sea as their toilet. He did enjoy a ride called the Cranium Shaker.
  • PRESENT: Mother says they’ll have a fun holiday at home hanging around the local area. Greg is looking forward to his birthday and the final Lil Cutie comic running in the paper.
  • ONGOING PRESENT: Argues with father about sleeping hours, screen time.
  • PRESENT: Greg’s photo album, with big gaps in it due to him not being the first born. “I’ve learned that photos aren’t an accurate record of what happened in your life, anyway.”
  • [Segue = Manny and mother seashell photo opportunity] FLASHBACK: Watching the same thing happen to his little brother, Greg realises mother bought seashells, buried them at the beach then took photos of Greg ‘finding’ them.
  • [New thread] Mother takes Greg to get haircut at a salon where old ladies get theirs done. Greg gets addicted to soaps.
  • [Segue = tabloids at the hairdresser] Grandmother isn’t using the phone because she read in a tabloid that they erase the memory of the elderly.
  • RECENT PAST: Mum has been throwing out grandmother’s tabloids but Greg has been reading them before they get thrown out.
  • PRESENT: At the hair salon, Greg had a long wait.
  • RECENT PAST: The old ladies who work there have been gossiping to him.
  • PRESENT: Mother interrupts story about Mr Peppers and Greg never gets to hear the end.
  • PRESENT: Greg is now hooked on soap operas. Mother tells Greg to invite Rowley over. They go to the basement and riffle through Rodrick’s stuff. They find a horror film. They’ve never seen one before so Greg arranges for Rowley to stay the night.
  • FLASHBACK: Last summer the boys had a sleepover in the basement. Rowley slept next to the boiler room because Greg is scared of it. They got spooked. This gag is a minor ghost story in which Greg tries to persuade his parents the house is haunted. But it was only one of Manny’s dolls.
  • RECENT PAST: Last night (it’s more feasible that Greg is writing his diary the day following a sleepover) the move was about a muddy murdering hand which walks. They spent the rest of the night in the bathroom with the lights on and were found this morning by Mr Heffley.
  • PRESENT: Yesterday mum gave Greg a lecture on horror movies. She has decided to start a reading club, which isn’t supposed to be a punishment but to Greg it is. This morning a few neighbourhood boys turned up.
  • FLASHBACK: When Greg was 8 years old he borrowed a book from the library but is now terrified of the librarian because he’s sure he owes thousands in fines for losing it.
  • PRESENT: This time it’s only Greg and Rowley at the book club.
  • FLASHBACK: About a book with a scantily clad woman on the cover which Greg has read, and the book doesn’t have any women in it.
  • PRESENT: Greg is the only one left in his mother’s book club.
  • RECENT PAST: Greg hasn’t been able to get through his assigned reading because he’s distracted by the thought of the muddy hand coming to get him.
  • and so on

This structure of scenes does make the plot seem in complete disarray (or ‘plotless’) but if you take away all the flashbacks and asides, there is a linear progression from ‘beginning of summer’ to ‘end of summer’. This is a Robinsonnade in the sense that Greg doesn’t go anywhere — unlike The Long Haul he is ‘marooned’ at home for much of it.

WEAKNESS/NEED/PROBLEM

I’m pretty sure Greg Heffley is on the psychopathic spectrum. His creator Jeff Kinney has said he never meant Greg to be a role model, but looking at the way he treats his friends, family and neighbours — he has no affinity to any of them. Not even to the dog who comes to stay. That personality trait leads to the inciting incident…

Without knowing (or caring) who has to pay for it, Greg and Rowley rack up a huge fruit smoothie at the country club snack bar, where Rowley’s father is a member. The reader sees him doing this, and like Greg, we pay no mind as to who is paying for all these drinks.

Some authors would introduce the issue of payment near the start, but in this story a lot of extraneous gags happen before we even realise this will be a problem. We are, however, shown within the first few pages that Greg has been drinking fruit smoothies.

DESIRE

On the first page we see that Greg only wants to sit inside under a blanket and play computer games all summer.

OPPONENT

As usual, the main opponent is Greg’s mother, who says it’s ‘not natural’ for boys to be spending so much time alone in their room. So she forces him out of the house.

PLAN

Greg plans to mooch of Rowley’s family’s country club membership while enjoying all the accoutrements of a lavish lifestyle, despite not really liking Rowley all that much. His unreliable, ironic narration has him complaining about the girl who ditched him and Rowley for the better-looking lifeguard. “The lesson I learned is that some people won’t think twice about ditching you, especially when there’s a country club involved.”

BATTLE

Another reason this story feels without structure is because we’re mostly used to a structure which builds to some sort of climax. This is achieved partly by a series of battles which (in most stories) build in intensity until the big, final showdown where the hero comes close to death. There’s nothing like that in this book. Greg has many, many small battles but these don’t lead to anything massive. The whole point of these events in Greg’s empty summer is to demonstrate the wide-open, goal-less days in the Every Boy’s summer.

SELF-REVELATION

Turns out this is essentially a story about a father/son relationship. But in Greg Heffley style, the deep and meaningful messages found in serious literature is parodied. Greg doesn’t learn much at all:

I guess some people would say that hating a comic is a pretty flimsy foundation for a relationship, but the truth is, me and Dad hate LOTS of the same things.

Me and Dad might not have one of those close father-son relationships, but that’s fine with me. I’ve learned that there is such a thing as TOO close. [An image of Rowley on the toilet talking to his father at the vanity.]

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

The holiday is ‘pretty much over’ when Mrs Heffley finishes the photo album. This final montage of the photo album is a one-image per gag rundown of each incident, but from the mother’s point of view. This provides some ironic distance between the mother and son’s version of events, and highlights the unreliable nature of Greg’s narration. We are reminded that the mother, too, only has a small part of the story of her son’s summer to document as she hasn’t the foggiest idea about all that goes on.

 

THE PLOT SHAPE OF DOG DAYS

Dog Days is far from plotless. If it appears plotless that is because it’s an example of a ‘meandering’ story structure, in which one event leads to flashbacks and asides. The hero has a desire, but it is not intense. He covers a great deal of territory in a haphazard way and he encounters a number of characters from different levels of society. Ulysses and Alice and Wonderland are well-known examples of the meandering plot, which foregrounds other aspects of story over the desire, plan and battle of the main character.

Dog Days is also a spoof on ‘serious literature’ of the sort put on summer reading lists by gatekeepers of children’s literature such as teachers and mothers. This is depicted by Mrs Heffley’s book club idea. If serious literature is meant to add to a child’s life, Greg’s summer is full of ‘mind-rotting’ activities eschewed by concerned adults such as playing video games, watching soaps, imbibing gossip at the beauty salon and reading trashy comics. No matter what Mrs Heffley tries to do to enrich her son’s life, Greg finds a way of turning even a trip to the pool into something ‘as bad as’ a horror movie.

The message of this book is that there is no message. Father and son remain united only by their common dislike of a comic, in which Jeff Kinney lampoons the mawkish comic strips often found in 20th century American newspapers. The epiphany, likewise, is that there is no substantial epiphany. In this respect (and this respect only), Dog Days is similar to Annie Proulx’s The Half-skinned Steer — another upending of a common mythic story structure.

 

By the way, do you  know why ‘dog days’ refer to the hottest days of summer (in America)? Here in Australia we don’t even use that term, and here’s the reason why.

Diary Of A Wimpy Kid And The Buddy Comedy

Jeff Kinney’s Diary Of A Wimpy Kid was first published in 2004. The twelfth in the series is due November 2017. Kinney originally planned ten, unless the quality dropped off. At this point he plans to continue indefinitely, so long as they’re still popular.

Diary Of A Wimpy Kid cover

Television tie-ins, film versions and highly illustrated diaries of the Wimpy Kid ilk are all consumed in abundance. Such books should not be despised as merely unchallenging, or even pernicious (as Enid Blyton once was by disapproving parents and teachers); welcoming, accessible work, full of deftly harnessed silliness and engaging illus­tration, plays a critical role in the reader’s deve­lopment, teaching by stealth the power of a punchline or a single phrase or word, and makes the act of reading pleasurable in a way that ­data-driven literacy objectives often do not. Predictable formulae, comforting, unchallenging narrative arcs and repeated re-reading allow a child to build a solid foundation of enjoyment from which he or she can go far.

Imogen Russell Williams

THE AUDIENCE OF DIARY OF A WIMPY KID

By this point in his career, Kinney knows his audience really well.

“Kids usually discover my books around seven or eight. Once they are nine they really understand them. They read them until about 13, when they grow out of them.”

“You can’t really write for kids or you might write down to kids.”

ON WRITING FOR CHILDREN

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The Ideology Of Wealth In Children’s Literature

Where there is wealth there are assholes. This is the overriding message we get from stories in general, be they for children or adults. However, sometimes by working hard a hero can become rich. In a Cinderella story goodness leads naturally to riches, in a Rhonda Byrne The Secret sort of bullshit idea. Characters in other stories are eventually revealed to be nice people despite being rich. Sometimes in children’s books an adult reader can see perfectly well that there is a discrepancy in income between the parents of the children, but child readers themselves won’t necessarily pick up all the clues on that. Kids are kids in the end.

cinderella before wealth

This 1919 illustration of Cinderella by Arthur Rackham shows Cinderella literally in rags.

The Pursuit Of Wealth As A Story Goal

Of the three principal preoccupations of adult fiction — sex, money and death — the first is absent from classic children’s literature and the other two either absent or much muted. Love in these stories may be intense but it is romantic rather than sensual, at least overtly. […] Money is a motive in children’s literature, in the sense that many stories deal with a search for treasure of some sort. These quests, unlike real ones, are almost always successful, though occasionally what is found in the end is some form of family happiness, which is declared by the author and the characters to be a “real treasure.” Simple economic survival, however, is almost never the problem; what is sought, rather, is a magical (sometimes literally magical) surplus of wealth.

— Alison Lurie, The Subversive Power Of Children’s Literature

A lot of children’s literature is set in a kind of utopia where the characters never have to worry about money. Food is always there. A classic example of that is The Wind In The Willows.

Storytelling Technique: Rich and Poor Together

One technique writers use to add interest and conflict to a story is to put wealthy and poor people in the same place. You’ll find this is done at some point in almost every TV show. Movies do it too.  Continue reading

Must Heroes Of Children’s Stories Be Likeable?

First, some quotes from storytelling gurus who are not writing specifically about children’s stories but about stories in general. Here we have Lena Dunham, who has no doubt noticed that female characters, like female people, are held to a higher standard when it comes to niceness:

“I sort of object to the notion that characters have to be likable. I don’t like most of my friends, I love them. And that’s the same way I feel about most of the characters I write. So often, women are sort of relegated to sassy best friend or ingenue or evil job-stealing biatch, and it’s really nice to work somewhere in the middle.

from Lena Dunham talking about Girls, quoted here.

Here’s John Yorke, from his book Into The Woods.

If it’s difficult to identify a protagonist then maybe the story is about more than one person (say East Enders of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts) but it will always be (at least when it’s working) the person the audience care about most.

But already we encounter difficulties. ‘Care’ is often translated as ‘like’, which is why so many writers are given the note (often by non-writing executives) ‘Can you make them nice?’ Frank Cottrell Boyce, a graduate of Brookside and one of Britain’s most successful screenwriters, puts it more forcibly than most: ‘Sympathy is like crack cocaine to industry execs. I’ve had at least one wonderful screenplay of mine maimed by a sympathy-skank. Yes, of course the audience has to relate to your characters, but they don’t need to approve of them. If characters are going to do something bad, Hollywood wants you to build in an excuse note.’

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Dreams In Children’s Literature

OR WAS IT A DREAM?

If you’re a fan of both Breaking Bad and Malcolm In The Middle you’re sure to appreciate the spoof ‘leaked’ alternative ending of Breaking Bad, which involves Bryan Cranston in bed with his Malcolm In The Middle wife, Jane Kaczmarek. Hal wakes from a dream, in which he recounts the basic plot of Breaking Bad. Lois comforts him and blows it off as pure fantasy.

File:Malcolm in the middle cast.jpg

At the end of this scene, the audience is left in no doubt that Hal has simply had a dream — a ridiculously funny dream given the day-to-day routine of Hal. But then the camera pans to the right, and we now see the hat Walter White wore when in character as Heisenberg. This parodies that trick, often used in magic realist picturebooks, in which a character goes away on some amazing journey which couldn’t possibly happen in real life. Then something happens to bring the character back down to earth — variations on ‘waking from a dream’ — and on the final page, often wordless, the observant (and sometimes not so observant) reader sees some artifact which has been brought back from the fantasy realm.

Of course, young children haven’t necessarily seen this done before, and are likely to be mighty impressed by this narrative trick.

The creators of TV Tropes are far more widely acculturated and have created a long list of ‘Dream Tropes’. They’re wonderful. The kind I just described is the ‘Or Was It A Dream?’ trope.

 

Maria Nikolajeva  points out that although frowned upon in creative writing class, this dream ending is alive and kicking in children’s literature.

Children’s books with ready solutions bind the child’s imagination and free thought. It is treachery towards the modern sophisticated child reader to offer a “rational” explanation at the end. “And then he woke up and it has only been a dream.” We should not think that this ending is a thing of the past, for we remember it from Alice In Wonderland. It is repeated in much later texts, and one discovers it somewhat reluctantly in Mordecai Richler’s prize-winning book Jacob Two-Two Meets The Hooded Fang (1975) and in a many even more recent texts. Critical and creative authors find such resolutions very unsatisfactory, and regard the open ending as the only possible way of appealing to modern young readers.

— Children’s Literature Comes Of Age, Maria Nikolajeva

Most recently I saw this used to good effect in The Polar Express, in which the boy is left with a sleigh bell that only children can hear.

DREAMS, QUESTS AND GENDER

Strange as it may seem, few dream narratives involve girls, that is, the nature of the dream quest is seldom unquestionably female and not possible with a male character […]

Fanny and the Birds/Fanny och fåglarna (1995), by Margareta Stromstedt and Tord Nygren, depicts the character’s transformation, but unlike into the jaguar of Not Now, Barnard, this transformation is not into a huge and fierce beast, but into a little frail bird (does this reflect the authors’ idea of male aggressiveness contra female gentleness?).

– from How Picturebooks Work by Nikolajeva and Scott

now-now-barnard fanny-och-fa%cc%8aglarna-book

Conversely, girls are consistently fictionalised as being more imaginative and reflective than boys. Girl orphans who fantasise about their absent parents (from The Great Gilly Hopkins to Tracy Beaker). In diary novels,  girls write down their deepest desires, fears and fantasies while boys write about what happened. Here’s an example from Notebooks of a Middle-School Princess by Meg Cabot. With ‘princess’ in the title and a pink and yellow cover, this book is clearly aimed at a girl audience:

OK, Dad’s never specifically said he’s an archeologist, and Aunt Catherine doesn’t like it when I ask questions about him, but I’m pretty sure that’s how he and my mom met. She had to have been the pilot on one of his expeditions. That’s probably why my dad can only communicate with me by letter.

Meanwhile, Greg Heffley of Wimpy Kid fame is an equally unreliable narrator but in quite a different way. His unreliability comes from misunderstanding or sardonically judging reality to be worse than it actually is. It doesn’t involve detailed fantasies.

If few dream narratives involve girls, perhaps this is because we permit girls the capacity to dream and fantasise. Boys, on the other hand, have to always be going on some quest, and if that quest is metaphorical, well let’s just turn it into a dream.

The Technique of Ticking Clocks in Storytelling

 

Hilda Bewildered stars a petrified young princess, charged with the task of delivering a speech to open winter. As the live broadcast draws near, the princess concocts a story in her head to help her through the task.

The very first episode of The Narrative Breakdown podcast is about a plot device which helps to amp up the tension in a story: Sometimes it even comes with a ticking clock sound effect — more often it doesn’t — and it describes a story which has time as a pressing issue. If there’s a bomb in the story you have an especially clear example of a Ticking Clock Plot Device e.g. the movie Speed.

TV Tropes refers to this as ‘Race Against The Clock’ and offers plenty of examples.

Variations of the ticking clock device can be found in a wide variety of genres — not just in thrillers — such as in Little Miss Sunshine (a road trip with a beauty pageant as deadline) and Planes, Trains and Automobiles, in which a man wants to make it home in time for Thanksgiving with his family in his warm, cosy house.

On the podcast, Cheryl’s first example of this device happens to be a children’s book: The Cat In The Hat, in which an unwelcome visitor makes a mess of the place, which must be cleaned up again by the time the mother gets home.

The_Cat_in_the_Hat_Comes_Back_Dr_Seuss_Cover

(Here are many more tropes associated with Cat In The Hat, though ‘race against the clock’ isn’t one of them.)

In picture books with ticking clocks, it is often the parent(s) who have made some rule, and it is universally understood that if the rule is broken there will be terrible consequences.

Aside from our own Hilda Bewildered, another picturebook that combines ticking-clock and the snowy, dreamy atmosphere of a mood piece is Home By Five, by Ruth Wallace-Brodeur, illustrated by Mark Graham.

Home By Five cover

As you can see, this is a gentle, dreamy book, beautifully illustrated in pastels.

But to contrast with the dreamy mood (and the dreamy Rosie), here on the first page a ticking-clock urgency is set up, as Papa instructs Rosie to be home by a certain time. He helps her to get ready for her ice-skating session. This is a handsome, nurturing dad who we don’t want to disappoint.

Home By Five setupHome by Five setup2

So we get a little antsy when we see Rosie dilly-dally along the way home, despite her best intentions. She stops to swing around the poll and to look inside the bakery window, and all the time the reader can see she’s not hurrying. But it’s a little frustrating because we aren’t given access to the time, either. This book sets out to be a mood piece, with evocation descriptions of the wintry landscape. But there’s that confounded ticking clock, ruining it for us as it’s ruined for Rosie…

Rosie dilly-dallies

We don’t know what time it is until Rosie arrives home. The clock tells us she’s pretty late. Her parents discuss what to do.

Home By Five clock

On the final page we see their decision: The 1992 option is to buy their daughter a wristwatch.

In two of our story apps I make use of the ticking clock device: In Midnight Feast we have Roya’s excitement of the lead up to Midnight, though I invert this device by drawing her evening out.

midnight feast ticking clocks

Jeff Kinney also makes use of the ticking clock in several of his Diary of a Wimpy Kid The Long Haul gags.

 

 

Menstruation In Fiction

Menstruation happens rarely in fiction. Perhaps you are rattling off half a dozen stories which feature menstruation, hoping to prove me wrong. But when you consider the impact of menstruation on a woman’s life, and how frequently it occurs, menstruation is heavily underrepresented in fiction. We need more of it. Girls going through adolescence in particular need to read more of it. Menstruation is one of the last taboos.

Outside basic instruction for adolescents, it seems adult women don’t read or talk about something that, for most of us, occurs every single month for more than thirty years of our lives. No one ever gets her period in a novel or a film, unless it is her first period, which is typically a part of the plot if it’s shown…even the famous Kinsey and Hite reports don’t mention sex during menstruation.

Mentioning the Unmentionable, from In Context

Menstruation In Children’s Literature

According to some critics, the first explicit mention of menstruation in an American children’s book occurred in The Long Secret. In Sweden, a number of children’s novels in the 1960s and 1070s broke this taboo. However, this fact is as conspicuously absent from most children’s novels as other bodily functions. Although it is common knowledge that young women stop menstruating under extreme conditions, very few adventure or war narratives focus on this detail.

– Maria Nikolajeva, The Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature

Below, feminist thinker Ariel Levy explains the excitement of menarche. Perhaps girls in general feel far more positively about menstruation than is depicted in fiction for girls, when it is depicted.

ELEANOR DUKE: You write about doing your first story for New York: “I was writing about an unconventional kind of female life. What does it mean to be a woman? What are the rules? What are your options and encumbrances? I wanted to tell stories that answered, or at least asked, those questions.” You also talk about being excited from a young age about being a woman. What do you think caused you to feel that womanhood was exciting and beautiful, and got you interested in writing about women?

ARIEL LEVY: The excitement, I think, was that we were excited about going through puberty, we were excited about changing, about the future arriving. It was the arrival of various kinds of maturity. I don’t know if it was that we were excited to be women, we were just excited that there was going to be evidence, in the form of blood, that we were old, we were changing, and that everything would change.

interview with Ariel Levy

A Brief History Of Menstruation In Children’s Literature

Harriet The Spy

In the second half of [the twentieth] century, as feminism launched its second wave, the limits of socially acceptable behaviour for girls were steadily pushed back, and one “subversive” book after another was at first condemned and then applauded. When it first appeared, in 1964, Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy was criticized because its heroine secretly observed and dispassionately recorded the foolish behaviour of adults. Its sequel, The Long Secret (1965), was censured because, for the first time in juvenile literature, it mentioned menstruation. Now both books are widely recommended.

— Alison Lurie, The Subversive Power Of Children’s Literature

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

Are You There God, It's Me Margaret menstruation

As far as big, well promoted fiction went, this was pretty much it when it came to mentions of menstruation in the books that were around when I was an adolescent. And I’m not the only one to have noticed the unusualness of Judy Blume, before her time when it comes to matters of bodily functions.

In fiction for and about boys, however, anything associated with girls is too often presented negatively. As ever, the attitudes of the writer cannot be separated from the work.

The following remarks from Jeff Kinney stands out to me as troublingly femme phobic. When Wimpy Kid create was asked about childhood influences on his reading here’s what he said:

I also sort of inherited my sister’s Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary books. I read a lot of those, Freckle Juice and Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. Luckily I got the heads-up about Are you There, God? It’s me, Margaret and I avoided that one. In about the fifth grade I discovered fantasy. You know, I started reading books by J.R.R. Tolkien, Piers Anthony, and Terry Brooks and I don’t know if it’s a guy thing or if it was a condition of the age, but I really liked escaping into those epic books that just took me to a different place.

That comment reflects the attitude about girls which shines through in all of the Wimpy Kid books. Specifically: Girl stuff is gross, girls themselves are alien creatures and in order to preserve your masculinity you must stay the hell away from any of it.

Carrie

Carrie menstruation

Though not marketed specifically ‘for children’, this story is a young adult novel.

Carrie director Kimberly Peirce tells us why tampons are still terrifying at io9

Review of Carrie from FSR

And here is Stephen King himself talking about Carrie.

Is Carrie one of the few popular novels with strong menstruation symbolism running throughout which is also written by a man? I argue in my Goodreads review that in fact Stephen King doesn’t quite get female stuff right. Though our sympathies are with the girl who menstruates, King is nonetheless relying on the Gothic tradition

Perhaps other cultures are more comfortable with stories about menstruation. There is Through The Red Door by Inger Edelfeldt, for example, which hasn’t been translated into English.

[H]orror has continued to provide the perfect medium to explore these themes. The female monster has been a great platform for exploring puberty and all its commensurate delights: it’s all blood, mayhem and rage, after all. Think Carrie at the prom, exploding with fear, confusion and violence at her tormentors, triggered by her menstruation.

Bad Reputation

Menstruation Horror And Taboo In Netflix’s Anne With An ‘E’

In the 2017 re-visioning of Anne Of Green Gables, Walley-Beckett changed Anne’s age from 11 to 13. As a consequence, it was likely Anne would start menstruating. This event is used as a catalyst for Matthew’s buying her a grown-woman’s dress with puffed sleeves, not a Pride and Prejudice type party with the Barry’s to say thank you for saving their youngest from croup.

This change in plot has the effect of asking Anne what it means to be a woman — all the good things as well as all the bad. It also takes the emphasis off Anne’s needing to look pretty and dress up for what is essentially, culturally, an opportunity to put oneself on the marriage market. The addition of Anne’s first period makes the show more feminist.

It is unlikely that Anne will mention her period ever again, however, as the girls have told her it’s a taboo topic, and Walley-Beckett approaches her series with ‘documentary like’ realism.

 

Menstruation In YA and Adult Stories

The Red Tent

A high school friend was in love with this book and really wanted me to read it. I read it many years later. This particular friend was the earliest to hit adolescence in our class. She was the first to start her periods at age eight, and the primary school even had to install disposal bins in the girls’ toilets for her benefit, and hold a special assembly for all the girls explaining what they were for. Looking back, I can see how important this book was to that friend, who for some long months was alone in her experience of menstruation.

The Red Tent Menstruation

As awful as it feels to be alone, at least there’s the consolation of having passed a rite of passage:

When we stood apart, I saw how much she had changed in the few months we had been apart. She was taller than I by a good half head, and there was no need to pull her garments tightly against her chest to see her breasts. But when I saw the belt that had declared her a woman, my mouth dropped. She had entered the red tent! She was no longer a child but a woman. I felt my cheeks grow warm with envy as hers grew pink with pride. I had a thousand questions to ask her about what it was like and about her ceremony, and whether the world was a different place now that her place in it was different.

In some religious and cultural thought, bodily fluids are thought to be a matter of ‘waste’. Every sperm is precious; every menstruation a wasted opportunity to have procreated:

Rebecca’s anger was terrible. “You mean to tell me that her blood was wasted? You shut her up alone, like some animal?”

I have long wondered if women bleed monthly because of the moon, or if the female and lunar cycles are plain old coincidence. (After all, they don’t match up exactly.) Regardless of the answer, femininity has inevitably been linked to lunar cycles. And of course the moon is heavy with symbolism of its own.

“The great mother whom we call Innana gave a gift to woman that is not known among men, and this is the secret of blood. The flow at the dark of the moon, the healing blood of the moon’s birth–to men, this is flux and distemper, bother and pain. They imagine we suffer and consider themselves lucky. We do not disabuse them. In the red tent, the truth is known. In the red tent, where days pass like a gentle stream, as the gift of Innana courses through us, cleansing the body of last month’s death, preparing the body to receive the new month’s life, women give thanks–for repose and restoration, for the knowledge that life comes from between our legs, and that life costs blood…many have forgotten the secret of Innana’s gift, and turned their backs on the red tent. Esau’s wives…gave no lesson or welcome to their young women when they came of age. They treat them like beasts–setting them out, alone and afraid, shut up in the dark days of the new moon, without wine and without the counsel of their mothers. They do not celebrate the first blood of those who will bear life, nor do they return it to the earth. They have set aside the Opening, which is the sacred business of women, and permit men to display their daughters’ bloody sheets, as though even the pettiest baal would require such a degradation in tribute.”

Lack Of Menstruation Is The Norm

I recently watched Runa British miniseries created by Jonathan Pearson, Marlon Smith, and Daniel Fajemisin-Duncan, written by Marlon Smith and Daniel Fajemisin-Duncan for Channel 4. Run is a well-written, suspenseful crime story which focuses on immigrant experiences — a welcome change for diversity on screen. Notice it was written entirely by men, though? I made a point of looking at the credits afterwards, because of a particular scene.

Run is no better or worse than any other show depicting a rape scene, but in general I feel women should be called in for #ownvoices critique in these scenarios, since a scene with a man raping a woman (the general scenario) is more triggering for women in general.

In short: A young Chinese immigrant character is raped in a car by a much older man who controls her finances and safety. The first problem is with the camera choices. The camera focuses not on the facial expressions of the old man during this rape but on the young woman, first as she slowly disrobes under duress. If the director was going for scary, he should have focused on the slow disrobing of the man — his facial expression, looking straight into the camera or just past it would have better depicted the terror of our focal character, the victim. Instead, by focusing on the disrobing of the young woman, the show’s creators end up with a scene which looks very similar to a sex scene. Why does this matter? Sex scenes are meant to be sexy. Rape scenes, however, are meant to be terrifying. When a rape scene uses the film techniques of a sex scene, there is a real risk of mixing those two things together. There are real world consequences for the cultural conflation of sex and violence against women, which pervades stories in the current era. Even the male viewer, so used to the male gaze that he doesn’t notice it’s there, would benefit from seeing that rape scene from the girl’s point of view rather than looking at the girl. I see no better way of depicting the terror of being raped by a bigger, stronger man than by putting the viewers (of all genders) into the point of view of the raped, not the rapist.

You know what else could have been done, had the creators really wanted to show how shocking this rape scene was? When the young Chinese woman slowly pulls down her underwear, the underwear is clean. Sure it was clean. It always is, on screen. Yet when rape of women really happens, in real life, there’s about a 25% chance that a woman’s underwear contains blood. Tampons are one thing, and if a woman is raped while wearing a tampon it would be a different kind of shocking to be shown the icky aftermath of that (instead we always see her hunched over crying in the shower), but young Chinese women from a rural area (i.e. this character) won’t be using a tampon because of cultural ideas about virginity and so on. This is the sort of knowledge that only women seem to have, and the disproportionately low number of women working in TV and film affects what we see on screen.

Menstruation At TV Tropes

The lack of women working in film and TV is also clear from the dominant menstruation tropes.

The Menstrual Menace

No Periods Period

All Periods Are PMS

As pointed out by Jezebel: The mainstream media is out to teach you that menstruation is terrifying. (Fun fact, Fear of Menstruation= Menophobia, apparently.)

 

Related Links About Menstruation

1. Over at Jezebel some time ago, women were asked for their most horrifying menstruation stories. They weren’t quite prepared for the stories they got. I think this link needs a trigger warning, but if you are a man writing about a woman, or having sex with women, or related to a woman, give it a read.

2. A childbirth educator and Doula over at Persephone Magazine keeps getting unbelievable questions from women who don’t know the most basic things about their own physiology. She takes anonymous questions.

3. Have you heard the term ‘sexually antagonistic coevolution’? If not, you can find out what it means here, in which we are told that men prefer the voices of ovulating women over the voices of menstrual women.

4. For an explanation of the term ‘gaslighting’ and why you probably shouldn’t ask a woman if she’s ‘on her period’, see this article from Persephone Magazine, in which we also learn the unfortunate etymology of ‘hysteria’. I, for one, try to avoid the word.

5. What to do if you get your period when you go camping. Handy non-advice.

6. Women Spot Snakes Faster Before Their Period – because there are people studying these things. Now I’d like to see a superheroine based on that bit of research. Instead, comic book world will probably continue with the girls in fridges trope.

7. Your Period Is A Time For Deep Lady Bonding. Some researchers at the University of Chicago made an online survey to gauge women’s attitudes about their period, and discovered that women who belonged to religious traditions that had menstrual rules felt more shame surrounding their period and had a sense of seclusion during it, but oddly they also reported that they had an increased sense of community, from Jezebel.

8. Menstruation And Shaming For Profit, from Be Prepared

9. A Brief History Of Your Period, and Why You Don’t Have To Have It, from Jezebel

10. Menstruation in SF.

11. 1946 Walt Disney Menstruation Animation Tells Us We’re Okay Just The Way We Are from The Mary Sue

12. Why We Should Be Angry About Periods by Clem Bastow

13. The Taboo Of Menstruation from The Telegraph

14. Dot Girl Products, selling kits for girls having their first periods.

15. Is PMS A Myth? from Time Health and Family (not as dismissive as the title suggests). For the flipside of that argumentPMS Is Real, And Denying Its Existence Is Hurting Women from The Conversation and Is PMS All In Our Heads? from Slate

16. The Film Festival For Movies About Menstruation, by Jezebel

17. Pretend You’ve Never Had a Period With Tampax’s New ‘Radiant’ Line, from Jezebel

18. I don’t understand all this silence around periods from The Peach

19. Fifteen Memorable Menstruation Moments In Pop-Culture from The Frisky

20. Adventures in Menstruation from Alter Net

21. Welcome to the jungle: Your First Period from Persephone Magazine

22. Do Men Have A Monthly Cycle? from The Good Men Project

23. Unhappy periods and delivery room poos – let’s tell the truth about women from New Statesman

24. Women spot snakes faster before their periods from NBC News

25. No Menstrual Hygiene For Indian Women Holds Economy Back from Heeals

26. Over at Freethought blogs, a statistically literate person breaks down why the argument that women menstruate therefore they might legitimately be paid less is a bullshit argument. Worth a read, if only to hone one’s own bullshit-o-meter.

27. You may expect a female-issues driven website such as Jezebel to have a lot to say about periods. They do say a few things about periods, and that’s a bit of a round-up.

28. Turns out bears aren’t actually interested in women’s menstrual cycles from io9

29. Girls Are Getting Their Periods Earlier and Earlier, and No One Knows Why from Jezebel. (Actually, a lot of people in the integrative health community have a theory: estrogen dominance, which we all have until proven otherwise, due to our contaminated modern world.)

30. Do Periods Really Sync Up Among Friends? from Persephone Mag

31. Menstruation from the ear? Science has advanced a bit since then.

32. A Periodic Table Of Your Period from Laughing Squid

33. ActiPearls and Having a Happy Period is a critique of a ‘sanitary pad’ commercial from Bad Reputation, in which ‘chemical stench equals sanitation’.

34. ‘Women weren’t included in the study because menstrual cycles may cause fluid balance fluctuations.’ That’s from a study on coffee, but makes me wonder — is the ‘complicating factor’ of menstruation (or menopause, or risk of damaging a fetus) part of why so often women are left out of medical trials and studies? At what point is it okay to eliminate women from a study, concluding instead that what’s true for men is also true for women? Many drugs are more dangerous than coffee.

35. What Life Is Like When Getting Your Period Means You’re Shunned at Jezebel

36. Women Aren’t Run By Their Periods, from Slate

Shapes of Plots In Children’s Literature

If I could persuade the fiction writers of the world to do one thing every year, it would be to read the winners of the Newbery Medal and other awards for best children’s literature. Writers of children’s fiction know that the apparent simplicity of the novel is anything but simple to write. Yet, their accomplishment offer superb models of all elements of craft.

— Elizabeth Lyons, Manuscript Makeover

The success of a novel is only five percent about the structure and ninety-five percent about the quality of the writing.

— Elizabeth Lyons, Manuscript Makeover

THE LINEAR STORY

The linear story tracks a single main character from beginning to end.

It implies a historical or biological explanation for what happens.

— John Truby, Anatomy of Story

linear_600x600

The linear story is a traditionally Western story.

Linear Plots In Adult Film

Most Hollywood films are linear. They focus on a single hero who pursues a particular desire with great intensity. The audience witnesses the history of how the hero goes after his desire and is changed as a result.

Linear Plots In Children’s Stories

As in film, the majority of children’s stories are basically linear. However, the plot doesn’t necessarily begin where the story begins. Home-away-home adventure stories are generally linear.

Dennis Butts, among others, has pointed out that in their use of formulaic elements and stereotyped characters, adventure stories owe a good deal to the structure of traditional folk- and fairy tales in which similar patterns tend to repeat themselves. [Also to myth.] Butts refers to the ideas of both Propp and Campbell as possible instruments to examine the structure of adventure stories, and to those of Bettelheim* to show the appeal of these stories. He also discusses Treasure Island in terms of folktale.

— Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear

*Bettelheim was an asshole who set psychology back a couple of decades. Look up his theories on the causes of autism. (tl;dr: Refrigerator Mothers)
  • The Epic Of Gilgamesh (the oldest known adventure story — 3rd millennium BC)
  • Tom Sawyer (‘master text’ for adventure story as the Narnia Chronicles are for fantasy), but is itself an off-shoot of The Odyssey
  • The legend of Saint George and the dragon
  • The Greek tale of Perseus
  • Robinson Crusoe (compared to Odyssean stories, the Robinsonnade keeps the characters in one place in order to focus on character development.)
  • King Solomon’s Mines (1885)
  • Jack and the Beanstalk
  • Treasure Island
  • Kim, Rudyard Kipling (1901)
  • Peter Pan
  • Sherlock Holmes
  • The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings
  • Doctor Who
  • Star Wars (a parody of the hero adventure story)
  • James Bond
  • Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
  • Cinderella, and any story using the ‘Cinderella Structure’ in which the hero can never go home again

For more on children’s adventure stories and their evolution, see The Centrality of the Adventure Story.

YouCan'tGoHomeAgain cover

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Character As Storyteller In Fiction

Character as storyteller is a narrative technique used by many writers. There are do’s and don’ts for making use of this narrative technique.

character as storyteller in fiction

ADVANTAGES OF CHARACTER AS STORYTELLER

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