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Story Structure: Character Weakness and Problem

Most writers are well-aware that a main character needs a weakness, but this does not go far enough. Go one step further and break it in half.

What about children’s books? Do they follow the same rules?

Mostly, but not always. Some picture books do not feature characters with weakness. These stories tend to be of the carnivalesque variety. A few standout examples feature the reader as protagonist. These, too, do not follow the rules of story.

Children’s books for older readers do follow the same rules as those applied to narrative aimed at adults. Modern picture books which win big awards are also likely to follow these rules.

CHARACTER WEAKNESS

character weakness

According to the rules of story structure aimed at screenwriters and writers with an audience of adults…

 

Every Main Character Needs

  1. A PSYCHOLOGICAL WEAKNESS: What are the fundamental flaws? (Lacking confidence, scarred by former lovers, afraid of intimacy, overly pessimistic etc.)
  2. A MORAL WEAKNESS: How does this character treat others badly? (Lacking empathy, overbearing, two-faced, greedy, lying, selfish etc.) The Seven Deadly Sins feature prominently in this part of the weakness.

Like anything, this ‘rule’ of story has developed some tropes. As an example:

Common Weaknesses of Young Women

This trope comes from the Gothic tradition.

The story of the poor girl who overcomes obstacles and makes a good marriage in the end, what might be called the Horatia Alger story, is very common in nineteenth-century fiction, especially fiction written by women. This heroine does not have to begin in absolute poverty — even Cinderella’s family must have been middle-class or her stepsisters wouldn’t have been able to go to the ball in such style. But she does have to be in some way underprivileged at the start of the boo, and she must go through many difficulties before she can marry the prince.

Occasionally she is poor in other than the economic sense, as with some of Jane Austen’s heroines: Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey is poor in intellect; Marianne Dashwood of Sense and Sensibility is naive and muddleheaded; while Fanny Price of Mansfield Park is … poor in spirit. Charlotte Bronte, even more daring, made the heroine of Villette plain.

— Alison Lurie, Don’t Tell The Grown-ups: The power of subversive children’s stories

The weakness of being ‘plain’ continues to be explored in young adult fiction today, as beauty privilege continues to be a thing in modern society.

Do Children’s Book Characters Need A Moral Weakness?

Or any weakness at all?

The short answer is that, yes, an interesting modern children’s book character needs at least a psychological weakness, and the story might also support a moral weakness. This wasn’t always the case, as you’ll already know if you’ve read from the First Golden Age Of Children’s Literature. It was the amazing Edith Nesbit who changed all of that.

All of Nesbit’s characters have both virtues and flaws: not only are the children’s actions always a push and pull between their better instincts and their baser impulses, but the various authority figures they encounter are equally complicated. The magical Psammead creature is peevish, the Queen of Babylon is kind-hearted but imperious, and the upstairs scholar is helpful but blind to the magic he experiences.

The Toronto Review Of Books

Until Nesbit came along, adults who wrote for children believed children read as medicine. The viewpoint characters therefore had to demonstrate impeccable behaviour, or else be punished for wrongdoing, learning to be good along the way.

The older the reader, the more likely they are reading about characters with both types of weakness. But when it comes to picture books, no. That’s because a picture book character is quite often ‘The Every Child’, and because children are all different, the writer doesn’t always want to tell us much about the character at all. In this case, the child’s main weakness is the fact that they are a child: naivety, weakness, lack of freedom, lack of knowledge. These are weaknesses common to all children and cannot really be called ‘psychological’ weaknesses. This is the main difference between a protagonist in a children’s book and a protagonist in a story for adults.

That said, the most popular, award-winning, beloved contemporary picture books for children often feature characters with a moral weakness.

Psychological weaknesses are also common:

Even in children’s books, the most interesting and beloved characters do have both kinds of weakness. This character isn’t necessarily the viewpoint character.

  • Scarface Claw by Lynley Dodd  — Scarface is mean to the dogs but this particular story shows us that he is also a scaredy-cat underneath.
  • Olivia by Ian Falconer is basically a narcissistic little girl in a pig’s body. While I personally have no love for Olivia, she is very popular.

 

CHARACTER PROBLEM

In children’s stories where there is no psychological or moral weakness and won’t learn anything or change in any way by the end of the narrative, your character will (probably) have a Problem. This problem is external to their psychology. Stories like this don’t tend to be as emotionally interesting, but are appropriate for, say, humour.

There’s another kind of story where the ‘main character’ is the reader. Where Is The Green Sheep? by Mem Fox and Judy Horacek is one example of this: The reader’s problem is that the book asks them to locate a green sheep, but that’s impossible until turning the final page. Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown is another example of a perennial favourite which doesn’t seem to follow any of the usual rules of story — again, this book addresses the young reader directly. The child is the character, saying goodnight to the items. This is more secular prayer than complete narrative.

Do all children’s book characters need a Problem, if they don’t have a moral or psychological weakness? Again the answer is not always, actually.

  • The Biggest Sandwich Ever by Rita Golden Gelman and Mort Gerberg is a carnivalesque story in which a man turns up and makes an enormous sandwich. In a carnivalesque story, there doesn’t have to be a problem as such, because the unsupervised play itself is the story — equivalent to the battle scene in a more common type of story. A carnivalesque story is a ‘toy story’ — all about play and enjoyment with no ‘broccoli’. However, even in The Biggest Sandwich Ever, the characters do face a problem by the end: After stuffing themselves full of sandwich, they are now faced with the task of eating a giant pie.
  • More! by Peter Schossow  is a wordless picture book which celebrates the joy of walking (flying) along a beach on a windy day.

A golden rule about problems in story: The initial problem gets more complicated as soon as the main character tries to solve it.

complicated problem comic

comic by Poorly Drawn Lines

Sometimes the initial problem exists only to get the story rolling. This is what Hitchcock called a McGuffin.

Reversals and Reveals In Storytelling

Reversals and reveals are vital for creating momentum and suspense in a story. Certain genres are required to be more page-turny than others, and all children’s literature must be page-turny. So you’ll find reversals and reveals everywhere in children’s literature.

the mountain of reversals and reveals

A picture of a mountain because in stories, character revelations often take place on one.

WHAT ARE ‘REVEALS’?

‘Oh darling, [story is] just two or three little surprises followed every now and again by a bigger surprise.

– Peggy Ramsay, agent

A revelation is basically a surprise.

Revelation is seen by the audience as motion, even if nothing has changed but knowledge or insight.

 

WHAT ARE ‘REVERSALS’?

‘Reversals’ are ‘big reveals’. The audience’s understanding of everything in the story is turned on its head. They suddenly see every element of the plot in a new light. All reality changes in an instant. ‘Reversal’ is a term writers use. Audiences tend to just say ‘twist’, but that often just means a sequence they weren’t able to easily predict. For example, when Andy escapes in Shawshank Redemption, that’s not a reversal. It might qualify as a twist because we generally expect life-prisoners to stay where they are. 

The Sixth Sense, however, includes a genuine reversal because the famous revelation requires us to regard the entire story until that point in a completely different light. The big reversal reveal comes right at the end of the story. This has the advantage of sending the audience out of the theater with a knockout punch. It’s the biggest reason this movie was a hit. (M. Night Shyalaman didn’t come up with the idea of the psychologist being dead until well after his first draft. Though he managed to make it feel very new, Shyalaman was borrowing from a long tradition of Dead All Along characters.) 

An example of a reversal is when the audience finds out who A.D. is on Pretty Little Liars. A mistake the writers of that show made was waiting seven seasons to give that information to the audience. Desperate Housewives, the writer’s mentor series, wrapped up mysteries at the end of each season, not at the end of the entire series. This is called a ‘reveal’ but is also a reversal because we realise A.D. was in front of us the whole time. We are asked to think back on everything we’ve seen so far and consider in a new light.

An example of the frustration experienced by viewers when information is withheld across years.

The Greeks called this ‘peripeteia’. A classic example is Oedipus Rex — it’s the bit where he finds out about his parents. Fast forward a few years we have Luke Skywalker finding out who his father is.

A story can have more than one reversal. While minor reversals can occur in every scene, bigger ones tend to divide the work into specific acts.

A reversal reveal is most common in detective stories and thrillers. 

But you must be careful with this technique. It can reduce the story to a mere vehicle for plot, and very few stories can support such domination by the plot. O. Henry gained great fame using the reversal technique in his short stories (such as “The Gift of the Magi”), but they were also criticized for being forced, gimmicky, and mechanical.

A subversion is not a modern invention but peripeteia itself; it is the tool that catapults the hero into the opposite of their present state — from thesis to antithesis, from home to a world unknown.

That’s what inciting incidents are too — they are ‘explosions of opposition’, structural tools freighted with all the characteristics the characters lack; embodiments, indeed, of everything they need. Cliffhangers, inciting incidents and crisis points are essentially the same thing: a turning point at the end of an act; the unexpected entry point for the protagonists into the new world; bombs built from the very qualities they lack which explode their existing universe, hurtling them into an alien space of which they must then make sense.

—John Yorke, Into The Woods

STORYTELLING TECHNIQUE: THE ‘REVEALS PLOT’

When a story relies on reveals as its main source of interest for its audience, this is known as a ‘reveals’ or ‘revelations’ plot. Another name for this is the ‘big plot’, not just because there are so many surprises but also because they tend to be shocking. Although still immensely popular today—especially in detective stories and thrillers. Mysteries are required to include a big revelation, but other kinds of stories make use of revelation also. (Lord Of The Flies: Who is the beast?)

Came from: The heyday of the reveals plot was the 19th century e.g. Dumas (The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers), Dickens, The Portrait Of A Lady

How It Works:

  • The hero generally stays in one place, though it is not nearly so narrow an area as unity of place requires. For example, the story may take place in a town or a city. Desperate Housewives is a great example of a reveals plot. Characters don’t leave the suburbs except to visit hospitals/schools/workplaces which are themselves a part of suburban life. 
  • The reveals plot almost always covers a longer time period than unity of time allows, even up to a few years. 
  • The hero is familiar with his or her opponents, but a great deal about them is hidden from the hero and the audience. In Desperate Housewives, the mysterious newcomers have secrets. Characters and audience learn about them as each series progresses.
  • These opponents are very skilled at scheming to get what they want. This combination produces a plot that is filled with revelations, or surprises, for the hero and the audience.
  • These plots tend to start en medias res, then take the audience backwards and forward through time. We’re not just talking flashback here. One set of scenes might unravel a secret in the forward direction. Another set of scenes might move us backwards from the ‘beginning’ to the source of the mystery itself. In a detective story the plot begins in the middle of the story — the point at which the investigation gets going. In this kind of story, the plot progresses by going backwards in time. The biggest revelation will coincide with the moment of the deepest penetration into the past.

The inverse* of the ‘reveals’ plot is the ‘journey’ plot.

  • In the journey plot, surprise is limited because the hero dispatches a large number of opponents quickly.
  • The reveals plot takes few opponents and hides as much about them as possible. Revelations magnify the plot by going under the surface.
*Dickens actually blended the reveals plot with the journey plot. This shows what a master he was of plotting, since the two approaches are in many ways opposites.

Advantages Of The Reveals Plot

  • The reveals plot is organic because the opponent is the character best able to attack the weakness of the hero, and the surprises come at the moments when the hero and the audience learn how those attacks have occurred. The hero must then overcome his weakness and change or be destroyed.
  • The reveals plot maximises surprise. (Since plot basically equals ‘surprise’, surprises are always good.)

Plot in this kind of story comes from digging deeper and deeper into the same world, with each new level providing a whole new batch of reveals, and thus plot, for the audience.

Planning and Editing A Revelations Plot

John Truby advises writers take some time to separate the reveals from the rest of the plot and look at them as one unit. Tracking the revelations sequence is one of the most valuable of all storytelling techniques. You’re checking to see if the sequence builds properly.

1. The sequence of revelations must be logical. They must occur in the order in which the hero would most likely learn of them.

2. Reveals must build in intensity. Ideally, each reveal should be stronger than the one that came before it. This is not always possible, especially in longer stories (for one thing, it defies logic). But you want a general buildup so that the drama increases.

3. Reveals must come at an increasing pace. This also heightens the drama because the audience gets hit with a greater density of surprise.

4. Start the hero’s desire low and raise it with each “reveal”. It’s pretty typical in a story for the hero to be ambling along not wanting anything much and then something happens and they are forced into action. Then, at about the midway point the hero will really, really want that thing, doing everything in their powers to achieve the thing they never really wanted in the first place. The reveals are what drive the hero’s increasing intensity of desire.

Further questions to ask:

  • Are these revealed secrets worth knowing? There must be a direct impact on the immediate situation.
  • Does the audience have enough context for this revelation to be meaningful?
  • Is the secret simple? If it needs heaps of explaining it won’t have any punch when revealed. (“Luke, I am your father.” Not, “Luke, I am your cousin thrice removed.”)
  • Have you foreshadowed but not telegraphed?
  • Like endings, reversals should feel both inevitable and surprising at once.
  • Is this so-called revelation simply one of two possible alternatives considered from the beginning? If so, the answer won’t be much of a ‘revelation’ — more like when you’re expecting a baby it’s probably going to be a boy or a girl. The surprise is pretty minimal in that regard. If you’re stuck with this problem, consider audience misdirection or hint at something different but related.

Story Structure: Opponents In Fiction

Every interesting hero in every story needs a worthy opponent. The opponent makes the hero interesting. The hero learns through their opponent. The opponent attacks the hero’s great weakness. The hero deals with their own great weakness and grows as a result.

The cat sat on a mat is not a story. The cat sat on the other cat’s mat is a story.

– John le Carre

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What we mean when we talk about theme

The concept of theme means different things in different settings. In high school literature class we are told that ‘theme’ is a word — a sort of abstract noun like ‘love’ or ‘independence’. This is okay — this gets most students passing year 11 English, but if you go on to study literature, or if you’re a writer, the single word example of theme isn’t enough.

THEME AS USED IN EVERYDAY ENGLISH

“Well, the theme of today’s meeting was definitely muffins.”

In everyday usage, ‘theme’ can refer to any collection of ideas which are somehow connected.

DEFINITION FOR WRITERS

A theme is a sentence, not a single word.

Theme is a coherent sentence that expresses a story’s irreducible meaning.

theme is not a word

WAR is not a theme. War is a setting.

LOVE is not a theme. Love is a genre (Romance, love story)

TEEN DRUG ABUSE is not a theme. Teen drug abuse is subject matter.

THEME AND SCREENWRITING

Screenwriters are tasked with the job of coming up with a great hook and logline — even more so than novel writers because of the big budgets involved and because the traditional movie-going audience are looking for high concept stories. Accordingly, screenwriters think of ‘theme’ a little differently. They like to attach their own words to the concept. (The skeptic in me thinks that’s partly so they can package their own brands… But in the end we should pick the version that makes sense to us.)

Well-known screenwriting guru Robert McKee prefers the phrase ‘Controlling Idea’, because ‘theme’ is now used widely in colloquial language and doesn’t mean what he wants it to mean. McKee says the theme (controlling idea) exists to tell the emotional lesson of a story. This sounds a little like math class but if your brain works like this:

The Controlling Idea = Value changed by Cause

Value means the primary value in its positive or negative charge that comes into the world or life of your character as a result of the final action of the story.

Cause refers to the primary reason that the life or world of the protagonist has tuned to its positive or negative value.

e.g. Justice (VALUE) triumphs (the change) because the hero is smarter than the villain (CAUSE).

Another screenwriting guru, John Truby, thinks in terms of ‘moral argument’ and ‘symbol web’. According to Truby,  theme exists to show “The writer’s view of the proper way to act in the world.”

THEME IN YOUR OWN STORIES

The best way to get a handle on the concept of theme is to write sentences summing up your own stories. Then do the same for your favourite stories by other writers. I used McKee’s formula to write the controlling ideas (after the fact).

The theme of The Artifacts: Hope (VALUE) is restored (CHANGE) because a boy realises the value of knowledge and abstract joys over the amassing of material wealth (CAUSE).

The theme of Midnight Feast: Adult-like awareness of poverty (VALUE) is gained (CHANGE) when a girl stays up late one night and sees the poverty right outside her home (CAUSE).

The theme of Hilda Bewildered: A young princess learns to deal with performance anxiety (CHANGE) when she learns the power of visualisation (VALUE) on the night of her first speech (CAUSE).

The theme of Diary of a Goth Girl: It is only after the grim reaper comes for a pessimistic try-hard goth (CAUSE)  that she learns (CHANGE) the value of human kindness (VALUE).

 

Theme might also be expressed like this, embracing the didactic (moralistic) aspect of the story. This is often done for children’s stories.

The Artifacts: It’s better to collect knowledge and experiences than material wealth.

Midnight Feast: It’s fairly easy to ignore poverty even when it’s right outside your own window.

Hilda Bewildered: Difficult real life situations become surmountable once harnessing the power of visualisation.

Children’s literature seems to have a higher tolerance for didacticism (though the trend is against it), so you’ll often find themes written like that somewhere in the advertising copy.

 

 

Picturebook Study: The Biggest Sandwich Ever

The Biggest Sandwich Ever Cover

The Biggest Sandwich Ever is a book from 1980. It was my first “Lucky Book Club” purchase, and I loved it. (I don’t agree with my husband either, who says there should also be an “Unlucky Book Club”.)

The Biggest Sandwich Ever is such a simple story and that’s why it works. My own daughter loves it as much as I did.

What makes it great? It’s not especially original, but it does follow a successful formula. Although the plot feels quite Dr Seuss-ish, Rita Golden Gelman didn’t fall into the trap of trying to rhyme like only Theodor Geisel can. Instead, she sticks to simple rhyme. There are no special tricks in the rhyming scheme but it is easy to read aloud.

A descendent of this kind of picture book is the bear series by Jez Alborough, also featuring simple rhyme, playing with scale (a massive teddy bear) and a circular ending.

Why are stories of excess and outsize so memorable? I don’t know, they just are. In fact, people who specialise in training others to have good memories recommend making use of this trick of the brain. We’re more likely to remember to buy lemons at the supermarket if we imagine a massive lemon beforehand, squirting juice painfully into the eye.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE BIGGEST SANDWICH EVER

WEAKNESS/NEED

Although it’s a rule for main characters to have a psychological and moral weakness, the rule doesn’t necessarily apply to stories for children. More specifically, it doesn’t seem to apply to carnivalesque children’s stories.

Instead, the story begins:

We were having

a picnic.

Just Tammy and I.

In other words, these kids were just fine as they were. Like a Cat In The Hat plot template, a character arrives unbidden and the purpose of that character is simply to liven up the day.

The general rules of story are quite different in a carnivalesque tale. This becomes apparent when I take a closer look, comparing this picturebook to John Truby’s universal plot template:

DESIRE

In any carnivalesque story the children crave a fun time.

Ostensibly, however, they don’t seem to want anything at all. Adventure seems to find them.

OPPONENT ALLY

The man with the pot

PLAN FUN

Watching an enormous sandwich being built in the countryside

BATTLE

The eating of the sandwich

SELF-REVELATION

Self revelation is perhaps replaced by an achievement: the finishing of the sandwich.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

This is a circular story. The reader predicts the same story will happen over again, but this time with a pie. In other words, this was a moment of fun, and there will be many more such moments for these children.

OTHER TALES OF ABUNDANCE

Many, if not most, children’s picturebooks include an element of fantastic excess.

Some of those stories are veritable tall tales, in which the excess is so exaggerated that the excess is the story.

Thirty Thousand Watermelons

30,000 Watermelons by Aki Bingo

Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag

Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag

avocado-baby-cover

Avocado Baby by John Burningham

 

vintage-ladybird-book-the-magic-porridge-pot-well-loved-tales-606d-gloss-hardback-1989-6030-p

The Magic Porridge Pot — a classic fairytale

enormous-turnip-scene_1000x747

The Enormous Turnip from a Ladybird edition

FURTHER READING

The inverse of a tale of excess is the miniature — memorable, again, for its playing with scale.

Thumbelina, Tom Thumb and Other Miniature Tales

The Three Main Types Of Modern Myth Stories

The Adventure Story

An adventure story contains the following:

  1. action
  2. suspense
  3. surprise
  4. setback

There are three main types of modern adventure stories. For more on children’s adventure stories and their evolution, see The Centrality of the Adventure Story.

1. THE MYTHIC JOURNEY

The ur-Myth is The Odyssey, first recorded by Homer 800 BC.

Also known as the (Mythic) Quest. These stories all have the same basic structure.

See: What is mythic structure?

In this kind of adventure there are often two journeys, closely linked and mutually dependent, one physical and the other spiritual. The protagonist, by means of a physical journey, experiences a growth in self-knowledge or subtle character development. An observant reader will respond to both journeys and be aware of the spiritual growth that has taken place.

Give Them Wings, edited by Saxby and Winch

Or, as John Truby says, in a mythic journey, the hero goes on a journey, finds himself, then comes back home a slightly (or vastly) changed individual.

The Home-away-home story is also very common in picturebooks.

Apart from The Odyssey there are a whole bunch of really old myths that all have the basic same plot: Jason and the Golden Fleece, Beowulf, Saint George etc.

A slightly more modern mythic journey is Gulliver’s Travels, published 1726.

Gulliver tied down

From Gulliver’s Travels came 20th Century stories such as:

(Gulliver’s Travels is also the ur-Miniature Story as well as being the ur-Journey.)

An example of an Odyssean journey in a picture book is Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.

2. THE STATIC JOURNEY

The ur-Static Journey is the Robinsonnade, a word that appeared to describe two similar novels which happened to both have ‘Robinson’ in the title: Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Swiss Family Robinson.

What made Robinson Crusoe so popular?

  1. A wonderful narrative voice — exciting, unhurried and conversational. Quasi-journalistic.
  2. It’s actually a very old story pattern, also seen in the Bible: transgression, retribution, repentance, redemption. (Youthful rebellion, successive shipwrecks, the painful lessons of isolation, Crusoe’s return home.)
  3. Memorably concrete images, like Friday’s footprints in the sand, Crusoe with his parrot and umbrella.

One reason for the island myth is pure escapism, of course. But this sort of myth is often not an escape from work. Once you’re on the island, you need to work hard to live. Like ultra-camping, or the feeling you get watching reality TV of the Doomsday Preppers variety. In Robinson Crusoe, our hero has to build shelters, fence off territories, hunt and farm.

Another island story is The Tempest, by William Shakespeare. Prospero has to procure the island’s secrets from Caliban, make the wretch his slave, learn to master the elements and protect his daughter.

Why are these stories so popular? Well, we love a story in which characters work for what they have. This is a dominant ideology in children’s literature too. When characters get what they desire we like to see evidence that they deserve it. Robinson Crusoe has achieved longevity due in part to its consonance with this modern ideology that work is one of most important things humans can do. Indeed, Defoe presents work as a kind of therapy — working on mind, body and spirit. When Crusoe bakes his own bread he’s proud of his achievement. This is in line with the tale of The Little Red Hen: If you want to enjoy your bread you had better have baked it yourself.

For more on Robinson Crusoe see The Guardian, in which they count Robinson Crusoe as the second most important book in English literature.

A more recent evolution is Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, written in the mid- to late-1800s in which the hero doesn’t actually need to go anywhere; all the action takes place at home.

In the 20th century we read school stories and holiday stories, which are also static in that the action takes place at a (boarding) school or at a holiday destination.  See: School Stories.

Around the 1960s and 70s adventure stories started to focus less on plot and more on character. Romanticism gave way to realism. As in the best adventure stories, setting is still important.

  • Betsy Byars
  • Joan Phipson
  • Patricia Wrightson
  • Ivan Southall — the Simon Black series — the Australian Biggles
  • Eleanor Spence
  • Lilith Norman

Most recently these realistic adventure novels have evolved into ‘issues novels’, especially in YA, and the trend is now moving down into MG.

A more direct modern retelling of the Robinson Crusoe story is of course Castaway starring Tom Hanks. But don’t forget that any adventure story which takes place in one place is a descendent of Robinson Crusoe.

3. THE FEMALE MYTH

It could be that we’re all sick of the three act structure and that actually there is a way of telling a story that is different. And it’s just not about the big orgasm at the end. We have multiple orgasms, that’s God’s gift to us. […] There is a theory around women’s storytelling, that it isn’t just the three act structure to get to the big bang at the end. That isn’t our biology. We like a slow burn. And it’s very rewarding. What’s wrong with 10 endings?

Gaylene Preston, New Zealand filmmaker

Odyssean stories and Robinsonades are of the ‘male’ type. (The first involves leaving home and going on a journey to find oneself; the second focuses a bit more on character development.) The Male Myth form is well-known to everyone because it is so common and so ancient.

Then there is the female myth form which is much newer.

This new female myth form is a blend of the two minus a few things.

We saw it recently in the Pixar movie Inside Out. For the last 3000 years (since The Odyssey) adventure stories have been about men and typically masculine pursuits.

Riley from Inside Out, a female myth

Riley of Pixar’s Inside Out is a good example of a female character who also happens to star in a female myth.

John Truby says that female myths:

fundamentally change our collective vision of who the hero is and what she will accomplish on her life and story paths.[…] Of course both Joy and Riley are female. But that alone does not make this a female myth. Joy is not a warrior like the Diana goddess, as depicted by the Katniss Everdeen character in The Hunger Games. She is an emotion, and a way of seeing and interacting with the world without fighting. Riley isn’t the typical Disney princess. She’s a normal, eleven-year-old girl facing a traumatic life event where she’s been forced to move to a new home.

Like the Male Warrior Myth laid out by Joseph Campbell, Joy goes on a long, difficult journey. But she doesn’t fight her way through one opponent after another, ending with a big bloody battle. She thinks and feels her way through the labyrinth that is Riley’s mind. Nor is there a Minotaur at the center that Joy must slay. There are references to some of the old Greek myths, such as the Cyclops in the form of a giant, scary clown and a mountain which Joy, as Sisyphus, must climb only to tumble back down and try again. But it’s the way she handles the opposition, and ultimately succeeds, that makes this a new Female Myth story.

In other words, the Female Myth:

  • Doesn’t technically have to star female heroes — ‘female myth’ describes the story type rather than the gender of the main character. The inverse is also true: Just because a myth stars a female doesn’t mean the story is a ‘female myth form’.
  • Doesn’t have all the fighting
  • Or the big battle at the climax
  • Doesn’t necessarily involve a journey away from home, but there is some sort of long, difficult journey
  • There doesn’t have to be a ‘minotaur’ (a powerful outside opponent)
  • Plots are not based on conflict
  • It draws heavily from Jungian theory.
  • Interiority. The Female Myth is an inner journey. It seems to have been around since the Second Wave feminist movement (though there may well be excellent earlier examples I don’t know about.) Either the character goes into their own heads or, as in Inside Out, there’s a whole other world in there. Imagination and fantasy are great combos for the female myth form, as without the big battles and strong outside villain we do require a rich story world.

The differences between the ‘male’ and ‘female’ myth forms are described by Elizabeth Lyon in her book Manuscript Makeover, in which she picks the highlights from an earlier feminist book The Heroine’s Journey by Maureen Murdock.

MALE MYTH: THE OUTER QUEST

FEMALE MYTH: THE INNER QUEST

The Hero is in his familiar Ordinary World when a serious event introduces a problem that is his Call To Adventure.

A life changing event compels a woman to go on a quest to find her own identity, separate from the one she assimilated from the male culture that was modelled by her mother.

He refuses the Call because it will mean change, challenge, Separation from the known and familiar, and Departure from home. It may even mean risking his life. He also doesn’t know if he is capable of the task.

At first she adopts so-called male behaviours, thinking that she has denied aggressiveness in the past and that is what she needs.

A Mentor assures him that he can do it, must do it, and is the only one who can succeed.

This belief leads her into the world of men, often also growing closer to her father.

Emboldened and committed, the Hero departs. He Crosses the Threshold into the Special World, which is alien compared to his Ordinary World.

She often achieves success in the work world as she perfects her Animus, the assertive competitive, perfectionist, and male-identified side of her personality.

He quickly learns the rules, encounters Allies and Enemies, and begins his Descent deep into the Special World, the territory of those who oppose him and where he’ll find the solution to the problem.

At the same time, she challenges, rejects and even rebukes the beliefs in inferiority, dependency, and romantic love that she now sees as cultural indoctrination of women.

As he continues on the Road of Tests and Trials, the obstacles grow more formidable. He reaches the Approach to the Inner Cave, knowing that at its heart will be the Supreme Ordeal. In the innermost cave, he encounters the biggest obstacles and threats to success. If he overcomes these final challenges, he will have claim to the Reward: He’ll achieve the goal that resolves the problem that set him on his journey.

She may blame her mother and distance herself from her.

After he succeeds (or fails), he Refuses the Call to return home, instead emerging from the cave to regale in his glory or to lick his wounds.

But when success in the male world also leaves her feeling hollow she no longer feels close to her father or male mentors. She feels betrayed by everyone and everything she has known and believes, including God as a male-defined creation of the culture.

Believing his quest is over and he can at last begin his Return home, he is confronted with one last obstacle, the Ultimate Test. Whether or not he reaches his story goal, if he summons all that he has learned, and releases or heals a wound he was afflicted with in his past, he will let his old self die to be reborn into a new, freer self.

Alone, “spiritually arid”, the woman begins her turn inward in search of her unique self. She examines her unique experiences and searches for memories that seem to reflect pieces of a lost but authentic self. However long this period lasts, it often involves shedding any accoutrements of what the patriarchal culture deems appropriate and desirable: female dress, manners and friends. Yet she yearns for an end to the grief and emptiness. She fears she may die without finding her true self and a chance to pursue dreams that she discovers within her.

This is his emotional passage, his Initiation. Death and Rebirth allow him to overcome this final confrontation (unless the story is a tragedy, and then he clings to his old ways, weaknesses, and the emotional wound.)

Little by little, or all at once, she finds that connection, and the courage to receive the archetypal power of the Feminine. She integrates it in her own way. She begins to express her unique and now known self. Now she can also express, as needed, nurturing, relatedness and receptivity. These are the positive qualities of the Feminine.

She reconnects with her mother or with the archetype of the Mother. If the relationship with her earthly mother permits it, she seeks to heal the former breach.

Instead of rejecting all the Masculine qualities, she integrates the side of herself that also holds the power of the positive Masculine archetype.

At last he can Return with the Elixir, perhaps a treasure, but the true reward is being a new, transformed individual, a Master of Two Worlds, an integrated person with wisdom to share, in the form of the theme reflected by his journey.

Finally, she ends her duality, the split of her self and cultural beliefs about the Feminine and Masculine. She ends the misery of beliefs and behaviours not in harmony with her discovered self. She emerges into her new world and selects her new life as an integrated, renewed and healed person.

In order to work out whether a mythic story is ‘male’ or ‘female’, don’t look at the gender of the hero. Men and boys can star in female myths while women and girls can star in the traditional male myth.

Oprah’s book club picks were usually good examples of the female myth. Since the reader of this kind of female myth form is asked to identify with a character battling what is essentially the patriarchy, it’s not surprising that some men (one of whom even refused to appear on Oprah’s book club…) will be turned off by a Oprah’s book club sticker. It is true of many things in life as it is in reading — women are expected to understand and sympathise with the male experience but not vice versa. Many men simply cannot understand what such a struggle would feel like, or what it even entails.

The most recent Female Myths have branched out. The woman/girl hero no longer has to battle against the patriarchy, or wrestle with the binary gender norm. We are moving into a political period where, in enlightened communities, the gender binary is put aside in favour of individual expression.

We’re even starting to see the female myth in film — traditionally later than novels in picking up the latest trends. (Hollywood is notoriously conservative.)

The Male Warrior Myth, indeed all of Western storytelling in the last 3000 years, is based on maximum conflict. The hero goes on a journey and fights one opponent after another. There is always a big bloody battle near the end.

Female Myths solve problems in a different way. The hero goes on a journey, but instead of battling with others, she might think and feel her way through her problem.

[Echoing Maureen Murdock and Elizabeth Lyon:] Females as main characters are not what make a ‘female myth form’. It’s all about how the hero deals with the problem.

— John Truby, Anatomy of Story

As John Truby points out, Pixar’s film Inside Out is an excellent example of a Female Myth. While Riley is a girl, she could just as easily have been a boy.

Like the Male Warrior Myth laid out by Joseph Campbell, Joy goes on a long, difficult journey. But she doesn’t fight her way through one opponent after another, ending with a big bloody battle. She thinks and feels her way through the labyrinth that is Riley’s mind. Nor is there a Minotaur at the center that Joy must slay. There are references to some of the old Greek myths, such as the Cyclops in the form of a giant, scary clown and a mountain which Joy, as Sisyphus, must climb only to tumble back down and try again. But it’s the way she handles the opposition, and ultimately succeeds, that makes this a new Female Myth story.

Her primary ally in this journey, and the key to its final success, is another woman, Sadness. As in any Buddy Picture Comedy, the buddy is the first opponent. In the mind of Joy and the audience, Sadness is her polar opposite and best avoided whenever possible. But the key to the self-revelation, for Joy and thus Riley as well, is that experiencing loss and Sadness is part of growing up.

Other examples of the Female Myth form:

  • Coraline
  • My Neighbour Totoro
  • The Snowman
  • Arrival — A woman’s ability to see holistically instead of divisively is matched by the story’s structure, and results in a personal and global revolution.

 

Where are all the female creation myths?

The female body follows the lunar cycle, which is closely associated with the idea of death and rebirth (waning and waxing moon). The cardinal function of the female body is reproduction. The female myths, describing female initiation, are aimed at repetition, rebirth, the eternal life cycle. Actually, very few genuine female myths exist in written–male, civilised, “symbolic” (Lacan)–form, due to many reasons. Connected with essential life mysteries such as menstruation and birth (both involving bloody), female myths are more secret and sacred than male myths. They have mostly existed in oral form, as esoteric rituals. In Western civilisation, they have been suppressed and muted by the dominant male culture. We can only discover traces and remnants of them, in the figures of the *Progenitrix, the witch, the **chthonic goddess.

— Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature

*Progenitrix = A female progenitor, a foremother, any of a person’s direct female ancestors (ancestresses).

**Chthonic = relating to or inhabiting the underworld

There are still few female myths around, which is why I wrote one myself, in the form of Hilda Bewildered. Though I didn’t realise it at the time, this story is similar to Inside Out in that it’s about a girl facing a hard situation, learning to overcome a difficult fear by going inside herself. There is no minotaur; there is no big battle scene. These stories are certainly difficult to write, for exactly that reason.

The Artifacts is also a female myth form even though it stars a boy.

Midnight Feast may also fit the female myth form — I’m not quite sure myself. But I did aim to write something different, and I think I succeeded in that, for sure.

I would love to see more female myth forms in the world, so if you have an idea for one, please write it!

(And remember, inversion does not equal subversion.)

 

RELATED LINKS

The masculine, heroic adventure story in the tradition of Odysseus has ‘only’ been dominant for the last 3000 years. Before then, myth was often about ‘origin’ — where did we come from? Who made us? Since women are the creators of life, it followed that the heroes of such myths were originally female. But where are all these original creation myths?

Young Adult Fiction Uses Myths To Keep Traditional Storytelling Alive from NPR (and also because traditional mythic form is still a successful way to satisfy an audience).

What Is Meant By Mythic Structure? for writers who would like to use it.

Slinky Malinki by Lynley Dodd

Slinky Malinki cover

A BRIEF HISTORY OF CATS IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

Sometimes it is difficult not to resent their apparent success, and they are good or evil according to their creator’s feelings. […] Perhaps Kipling was right, and cats are neither for nor against us, but both or neither, as they wish or feel*. As characters they have great possibilities and depths that few writers, with the possible exception of Paul Gallico, have made use of. Their long history of connection with witchcraft has suggested tales of magic cats such as Barbara Sleigh’s Carbonel, 1955, or, in a more down to earth setting, Rosemary Weir’s Pyewacket, 1967; and their urbanised versatility (dog stories are more usually about country life) is categorised unforgettably in T.S. Eliot.

— Margaret Blount, Animal Land

* When creating the character of Slinky Malinki Lynley Dodd absolutely makes use of this historical duplicitousness: Slinky is one thing during the day, another thing altogether come nightfall. The werecat, in other words.

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Wolf Children Japanese Anime

オオカミ子供の雪と雨

The Japanese anime Wolf Children is my seven-year-old daughter’s favourite film of all time. When she first watched it, several years ago, she decided that she herself must be half wolf. She has since developed an almost monomanical interest in wolves, and she’s not the only kid I’ve heard of to be affected thusly after watching this film: Wolf Children is an inspiring and engaging film for miniature nature lovers. I have recommended this film to people completely forgetting that it is basically a very sad story though, so consider yourself warned!

I wonder if the author of Wolf Children was inspired by the story of Amala and Kamala, two “feral girls” from Bengal who are alleged to have been raised by wolves.

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Olivia by Ian Falconer And Other Pigs

Starting with the cover, here we have a static picture of Olivia the pig, our main character. In picturebooks, the very best illustrators are able to depict motion very well, but you often get a character in ‘pose’ position when they are first introduced, or when the reader is meant to be contemplating the character rather than focusing on the action.

Olivia cover

The other thing you may notice is that Ian Falconer’s name does not appear on the cover. This is out of respect for his own minimalist style. He doesn’t want any extra clutter.

I feel like this book has been around forever, so it’s hard to believe the first in this series was published in 2000.

Setting

Falconer thinks of the fictional Olivia as a “suburban pig but within driving distance of Manhattan.”

In other words, Olivia is from a pretty well-off family. They do cultural activities such as visiting the art museum. I guess this drawing style is the picturebook equivalent of one of those white, minimalist, architecturally designed homes that I’ve only ever seen on Pinterest. Even when reading this book to your child in a room full of strewn toys, there’s something satisfying about picking up this minimalist book, imagining that, like Olivia’s family, you have an invisible housekeeper who comes into your home while you’re out, keeping toys off the floor.

Or maybe the mother pig does it all. Maybe that’s why she’s ‘worn out’.

Character Names

There’s something about naming fictional families after real world families who actually exist: The Simpsons family are named after real people and for some reason their names are both funny when applied to generic cartoon faces and oddly specific in a ‘you couldn’t make those names up’ kind of way. Likewise, the characters in Olivia are named after a real human family — Ian Falconer’s niece and nephew.

Like The Simpsons, these children never age.

When animal characters are given human names and live in human houses, readers are encouraged to see them as entirely human.

Iterative/Singular

Since this is the very first in a series, Olivia’s personality needs to be set up in this book, but as in the first of any series, there also needs to be a story in its own right. This is a particularly interesting case study in how to achieve both in the same book.

Falconer spends the first few pages describing Olivia and her family (which Nikolajeva calls the ‘iterative’) then switches to the story at hand (the singular) at: “Last summer when Olivia was little, her mother showed her how to make sand castles.” Interestingly, he doesn’t stay with the singular for long and we’re very soon back to the iterative: “Sometimes Olivia likes to bask in the sun. When her mother sees that she’s had enough, they go home.”

Later, however, I feel we almost need another description apart from ‘iterative’ and ‘singular’ to describe Falconer’s writing style:

But there is one painting that just won’t do. “I could do that in about five minutes,” she says to her mother.

As soon as she gets home she has a go.

Falconer is now describing a singular event, we presume, but this event fits seamlessly into the story because it’s written in the present tense, as are all the iterative descriptions. The sentence “As soon as she gets home she has a go” could be either iterative or singular, and seems to fit in a nebulous place between the two categories.

Dual Audience Appeal Of Olivia

Falconer says the grown-up touches are “as much for my amusement as anyone else’s. But I think they’re good for the parents, especially if they’re trapped reading the book night after night.”

Olivia loves to be read to. In the first book, she announces, “Only five books tonight, Mommy.”

“No, Olivia, just one.”

“How about four?”

“Two.”

“Three.”

“Oh, all right, three. But that’s it.”

After they read a book about opera star Maria Callas, Olivia’s mother tells her, “You know, you really wear me out. But I love you anyway.”

Olivia replies, “I love you anyway too.”

USA Today

The other thing I appreciate about this book is that although the mother is probably what I’d describe as a ‘career mother’ — in which I mean she treats her parenting as a job and seems willing to sacrifice her own energy levels by taking her exhausting children out to art galleries and whatnot — she does at least have the honesty to tell her daughter how she really feels. Yet we probably shouldn’t. At least, that’s the cultural vibe — that even when we’re sick to death of our kids, we should make sure we love them without any reservations whatsoever. When the mother tells Olivia a version of “I love you but”, after an especially trying day this is something parents are able to relate to.

Pigs In Children’s Books

Pigs are shaped like little kids. Their bodies are smaller than their heads. Pigs are supposed to be intelligent, smarter than dogs, but they’re a bit awkward. Their trotters are like little kids’ arms that don’t work very well yet.

— Ian Falconer

The huge advantages I can see for an illustrator turning a little girl into a pig:

  • Pigs don’t need to have skin colour. Technically, any middle-class kid could see themselves in Olivia, though it would be interesting to know if black girls consider pink pigs ‘white’, or if we need a black pig to achieve the job of self-reflection. The part where Olivia goes to the beach and turns pink (from monochrome) kind of means Olivia gets coded as white, so in this particular instance, the issue of skin-colour is perhaps not avoided after all. (Black kids don’t turn pink after a day in the sun.)
  • Falconer can depict Olivia with no clothes on at all and avoid charges of inappropriate content and censoring. Yet little kids very often do prance about with no clothes on, or just a hat, and these scenes are indeed shown in this book. Another picture book (this time Australian) in which toddlers prance around naked is Rudie Nudie by Emma Quay, but in this case the sensitive areas are always discreetly covered — an amazing achievement when depicting carefree, uninhibited body language while at the same time covering the crotch.
  • We are familiar with Olivia now, so it’s hard to remember that pigs in children’s books are typically not like Olivia in personality. They tend to be Wilbur types (from Charlotte’s Web), in which they sort of know they’re human food and have this worried aura to them, or they stand in for the messy/greedy/uncouth side of little kids. Olivia doesn’t have these aspects to her character at all — she is a young fashion-designer who attempts to be graceful but is trapped inside the limitations of her pig’s (toddler’s) body. Her exuberance means she’s the opposite of lazy.

Here’s a list of fictional pigs.

The pig Olivia reminds me of most is Peppa Pig. Olivia precedes Peppa Pig by four years, and I suspect the creators of Peppa Pig used the success of Olivia as somewhat of a guide.

This blogger lists the main differences between Olivia and Peppa Pig as a way of saying something about wider cultural differences between American and British children’s stories.

Controversy

Here’s the thing about characters in children’s books who get into trouble: Some parents believe their own children will read these books and be corrupted by the moral weaknesses of the empathetic characters. Here’s an example, in a post in strong defence of Peppa Pig, ironically:

In my opinion, if you want spoilt pigs, look no further than the ghastly Olivia, who has to always be the best & get all the attention, and her mum & dad find her oh-so adorable for doing so. Or that incredibly irritating Angelina Ballerina. Both a big pair of brats, if you ask me.

Growing My Family Tree blog

The author of that post has mentioned:

  • Olivia
  • Angelina Ballerina

Given how many shows there are which in fact star male characters who are constantly getting into and out of scrapes, it sticks out to me that the two examples of ‘irritating’ protagonists are both female.

It’s worth asking: Do parents have higher standards for female behaviour, even in story books? Would we judge Olivia so harshly for being naughty if she were a boy? Others call Olivia ‘narcissistic‘, but would she be accused of being so if she were a little boy dressing up in pirate clothes, or is there something specific about dressing up in ballet costumes and pretty dresses that leads to the gender-specific accusation of this particular mental disorder?

(On a slightly different note, next time you see an article on ‘the narcissism epidemic’ take a look at the stock photo that accompanies it and tell me if it’s not a woman posing for a selfie. We are being trained to regard narcissism as a specifically feminine trait, yet more males are clinically narcissistic than females.)

STORY STRUCTURE OF OLIVIA

I’ll break this story down to the 7 story steps a la John Truby. My mnemonic for remembering the seven steps conveniently links to pigs, just by the by: Why Do Oinky Pigs Behave So Nicely?

Weakness/Need

Moral Weakness: “She is very good at wearing people out.”

Psychological Weakness: “She even wears herself out.”

She needs to learn how to get on with her little brother Ian even though “Sometimes Ian just won’t leave her alone”.

Desire

The high angle view of Olivia gazing at the painting and the words: “What could she be thinking?” tell the reader that Olivia wants to be an artist of some kind. We assume a ballet dancer AND a painter (because when you’re a toddler you can do any combo of things, right?) She wants to show her mother how good she is as a legitimate artist.

Opponent

Olivia’s mother, who is also her ally, responsible for keeping Olivia safe but also from doing fun things.

Plan

She plans to do an abstract painting on the wall when she gets home. We don’t see her forming the plan. We just see her having done it.

Battle

The real naughty thing that happened that day was painting on the wall, but the battle scene in stories is often deferred: The battle scene we see played out is the funnier one in which Olivia and her mother negotiate how many books are going to be read before bed.

Self-revelation

On the stairs, Olivia realises she isn’t actually a good abstract painter and can’t go about painting the walls of her home and hope to be appreciated for it.

New Equilibrium

Olivia and her mother will continue wearing each other out but loving each other anyway.

 

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION OF OLIVIA

The illustrations are done in charcoal and gouache.

White Space

Falconer starts with the idea for a plot but does the drawings before writing the words. “I tell the story first in pictures, which is how kids, who don’t know how to read yet, will see it.”

USA Today

The first thing you notice about Ian Falconer’s illustrations is all that white space. Why all the white space? Ian Falconer says he was inspired by Dr Seuss.

And here’s the academic explanation:

[W]here circumstantiation is absent, the focus is necessarily simply on the character and/or the process displayed. This is the default choice… in Olivia’s dizzying series of behaviours, with just a few circumstantial elements indicated here and there — a mirror and basin for cleaning her teeth, a few waves as she builds a sandcastle, an artwork on a wall as she looks intently, a set of stairs for her to sit on when ‘cooling off’. The point is not to create her material world, but to build a picture of her energy and activity.

— Reading Visual Narratives by Painter, Martin and Unsworth

But sometimes, Falconer adds the entire background, for ambience. I guess if he never did this we would feel as if Olivia and her family were living in some kind of dream world where everything is floating.

Olivia bedroom illustration

Color Palette

The other thing you notice about the illustrations is the limited colour palette: Monochrome with red as an accent colour.

Sometimes illustrators are so well-recognised for their colour palette that they stick to it, presumably for brand recognisability. Here’s Falconer’s 2006 New Yorker illustration.

Ian Falconer New Yorker illustration author of Olivia

But he doesn’t just use red as an accent colour. Below you see the other primaries, yellow and blue.

Falconer chose to draw uncluttered images in black and white with the occasional splash of red, along with the insertion of real artwork by famous artists — Degas and Pollock, for example. Each book in the series explores the use of another signature color in addition to the original black, white and red images.

— Wikipedia

Olivia and the Fairy Princesses

from Olivia and the Fairy Princesses

How To Structure Any Story

Though John Yorke’s definition of ‘story’ is a wide one, the following is John Truby’s seven step structure for creating memorable stories which feel complete — not like mood pieces, not like character sketches, not descriptions of setting but complete narratives we remember for a long time.

‘Once upon a time, in such and such a place, something happened.’ There are far more complex explanations, of course. […] Jack discovers a beanstalk; Bond learns Blofeld plans to take over the world. The ‘something’ is almost always a problem, sometimes a problem disguised as an opportunity. It’s usually something that throws your protagonist’s world out of kilter — an explosion of sorts in the normal steady pace of their lives: Alice falls down a rabbit hole; Spooks learn of a radical terrorist plot; Godot doesn’t turn up.

— John Yorke, Into The Woods

Weakness/Need

What’s psychologically wrong with the hero?

How is the hero treating others badly? (Moral weakness)

What does the hero need in order to live a better life?

Sometimes these needs are called ‘dramatic needs’.

You may have heard the term ‘lack’ to describe this portion of characterisation. That’s Russian Formalist Vladimir Propp’s word. Another word commonly used is ‘flaw’. But I really like John Truby’s breakdown of the lack/flaw into both moral and psychological weakness because it’s really easy to forget the moral weakness, and so much better when you don’t.

Do children’s stories always feature a main character who treats others badly? You probably already know the answer to this: No, no they do not. In a series like A Series of Unfortunate Events, for instance, the main characters function as avatars for the young readers (both boy and girl readers, notice), and the characters around them are full of weaknesses — and are also much more interesting than they are.

Desire

What does the hero want? (In this particular story… not in general.)

If you think in terms of ‘inciting incidents’, the desire becomes clear to the main character and to the audience after the inciting incident. That’s what the inciting incident is for. A specific type of inciting incident is Hitchcock’s ‘MacGuffin’. This is an inciting incident which the audience has completely forgotten about by story’s end.
The best inciting incidents subvert readers’ expectations.
Inciting incidents aren’t always so easy to pick as an ‘explosion which rocks the main character’s world’. It can be much more subtle.
  • The protagonist will be alerted to a world outside their own.
  • They will make a decision on how to react to this and pursue a course of action that will precipitate a crisis. 
  • This will force them to make a decision propelling them into a whole new universe. 

The main character will come up with their first revelation somewhere in here.

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.

— John Yorke, Into The Woods

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

Somebody’s got to want something, something’s got to be standing in their way of getting it. You do that and you’ll have a scene.

— Aaron Sorkin

At this point you may be thinking hang on, what if the character doesn’t want anything and that’s the point? A lot of coming-of-age stories are about teenagers mooching around, for instance. A good example is Greg from Me, Earl and the Dying Girl. These characters are defined by what they don’t want rather than what they do want.

With these characters something must happen externally. They have to be forced into action, even if it’s in a vain attempt to keep everything exactly the same as it was before. Often in realistic fiction it’s the annoying mother or a teacher on their tail. In a fantasy/thriller there’s a much wider range of villains who can enter the story to turn a character’s life upside down.

The desire must be specific to this particular story. It’s not enough for a character to want ‘love’ or ‘acceptance’. These things will of course be true, but alongside these nebulous, generalised deep-seated desires there must be another one far more targeted. For instance, “to cheer up a girl who is dying and make her a short film as tribute”. The more concrete the desire the easier it is to write the story. The easiest stories to create can be held in the main character’s hand (or not, if it’s a tragedy). Searching for something, getting something, returning something — these kinds of stories might be called ‘grail quests’.

The most interesting goals will be an outworking of the main character’s deep-seated desire. Greg from Me, Earl and the Dying Girl wants love and wants to be accepted, which is precisely why he has made it his mission to cheer up the dying girl.

Opponent

The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture.

— Alfred Hitchcock

Ideally the main character and the baddie will be about evenly matched. No good to create a really stupid opponent unless you’re creating a comedy.

In most of the best stories the opponent will be another human but it can also be ‘nature’ (e.g. in a disaster movie). Think of ‘opponent’ as a sum total of forces:

So something happens to a central character that throws them off the beaten track and forces them into a world they’ve never seen. A beanstalk grows, a patient collapses, a murder is committed. All of these actions have consequences, which in turn provoke obstacles that are commonly dubbed forces of antagonism — the sum total of all the obstacles that obstruct a character in the pursuit of their desires. These forces accumulate from this initial moment as we head towards the climax of the story.

— John Yorke, Into The Woods

The opponent will depend on the genre/type of story you’re writing.

In the simple detective story they’re catalysed by the murder; in the medical drama the patient. […] In the simple thriller form the antagonist is marked out by their desire to control and dominate the lives of others. They don’t follow the moral codes of the community; more often than not they’re an embodiment of selfishness. They are also, historically, often marked by physical or mental deformity. Le Chiffre’s maladjusted tear duct in the film of Casino Royale is the modern equivalent of Dr No’s missing hands or Scaramanga’s third nipple in the Man With The Golden Gun.

— John Yorke, Into The Woods

Since ‘nature’ makes an uninteresting opponent, even when the opponent is plenty strong enough the writers will concoct human antagonists. In Twister the hurricane is the main opposing force, but none of the characters are getting on with each other, either.

If there’s a killer or an evil mastermind bent on planetary domination then they are, obviously, the antagonists [often called ‘villains’]; the patient may not behave antagonistically, but they effectively embody the illness that will be the true enemy in the drama. The antagonist is thus the thing or person the protagonist must vanquish to achieve their goal.

— John Yorke, Into The Woods

You might be asking yourself at this point, can the main character be ‘their own worst enemy’?

The antagonist is … the thing or person the protagonist must vanquish to achieve their goal. The detective and ‘monster’ templates illustrate this well, but antagonism can manifest itself in many different ways — most interestingly when it lies within the protagonist. Cowardice, drunkenness, lack of self-esteem — all will serve as internal obstacles that prevent a character reaching fulfilment.

— John Yorke, Into The Woods

However, if your main character’s ONLY opponent is their own self, you’re in for a tough job. Sure — great stories can be created in which the main character is their own worst enemy. An excellent example is Larry McMurtry’s Hud, from his novel Horseman, Pass By. That said, McMutry knew that in order to show the audience that Hud is his own worst enemy he had to do it via conflict with other characters. He couldn’t just put him on a farm alone. Even in The Martian by Andy Weir, the story was improved with the addition of other people — the base back on Earth, and the backstory which included the other astronauts. The Martian environment is plenty oppositional enough, but doesn’t make for the best story.

Where the character is their own worst enemy, that part goes under the ‘psychological weakness’/’moral weakness’ banner, not under this one.

Plan

The hero makes a plan. In longer stories like feature films or novels the initial plan falls flat, then they have to change the plan a bit, or a lot, as things go increasingly wrong. Do your worst to your character. Make the trials escalate.

The pattern 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

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.

Battle

They might kill off their old self. Or, they might choose to return to their former selves. This rarely happens, and it very rarely happens in children’s literature. It does happen in Larry McMurtry’s Hud, and I did choose this for my picture book app, Midnight Feast.

The main character far more often chooses to confront their innermost fears, overcome them and are rewarded for that.

There’ll be a battle scene in every story. Not literally a fisticuffs showdown, or a gunfight (though in certain genres that will definitely happen too). But there will be one big scene — there’ll be arguments or extreme peril, or witnessing someone else have a fight, which the hero will have had a role in provoking.

If we distinguish between ‘crisis’ and ‘battle’ at all, it’s a very small difference: the ‘crisis’ comes right before the battle. A crisis point always embodies the worst possible consequence of the decision taken when the initial dramatic explosion occurred. This decision brings the character face to face with their worst fear. Their worst fear is represented by the obstacle that is going to force them to face up to their underlying flaw. e.g. If a character is wary of commitment then the crisis will force them to face losing someone they love. If a character is selfish they are brought face to face with what they might lose by being so. If a character is timid they will have to face up to what timidity might cost. Sometimes it’s easier to think of the structure in question-and-answer form, and as writer you will have done this earlier under ‘weakness/need’:

Question: What are the worst possible consequences of my main character’s decision to…?

Answer: [Whatever the answer is, that’s your battle sequence, which leads to a climax.]

(By the way, this question and answer doesn’t just open the story and lead to closure, but is found within every ‘act’.)

TV writers in the United States call the crisis the ‘worst case’. BBC writers call it ‘worst point’. If it’s TV we’re talking about, on a commercial station, it’ll be the bit that happens right before the last commercial break. It’s also where TV writers leave the ending in continuing series, knowing the audience will want to come back to find out if the characters escaped alive.

Others call this stage the ‘crisis’. The bit where the main character comes close to death, often. The worst happens to them. Bad things happen, worse things, now the worst. The crisis is a kind of death. It usually isn’t the hero who dies, of course. We want them to stick around for the next bits. The most dangerous thing to be is the hero’s best buddy. There’s a high mortality rate with those guys.

Sometimes no one actually dies, but hope passes away.

Perhaps, if you think in terms of narrative climax, you’re wondering which part that would map onto. Think of the ‘climax’ as the bit where the main character finds release from their seemingly inescapable predicament. I’ll slot the climax in right between battle and new equilibrium. It’s a useful concept in terms of criticism, but for writers? I prefer to think in terms of battle followed by new equilibrium. The climax is what the audience feels. It’s not a story stage per se. The climax is the part which is the ‘obligatory scene’, set up by the inciting incident. For instance, when Louise murders the rapist in the inciting incident, the climax must be the confrontation between the women and the law.

Self-revelation

The hero will learn something about themselves. Importantly, the character makes a choice. They find out what sort of person they really are.

This new self-awareness usually comes with struggling, pain, and even suffering, especially in modern realistic YA. Characters are really put through the mill.

Characters…should not always get what they want, but should — if they deserve it — get what they need. That need, or flaw, is almost always present at the beginning of the [story].

— John Yorke, Into The Woods

New Equilibrium

The hero’s life will be different from now on. The audience generally needs a scene or two in which we get a glimpse of how things are going to be from here on in, though sometimes writers offer a truncated story, leaving out this bit, so the audience can decide for themselves what happened. Lots of people don’t like having to do this though.

*Short stories don’t always follow this pattern. For example, Chekhov often leaves out the self-revelation, hoping for the revelation to happen for the reader rather than for the character. Make Way For Ducklings is missing the Weakness/Need and Plan steps, leading to the criticism of ‘weak characterisation’. But really there are few popular exceptions existing outside this basic structure.

Extrapolated Ending

I am adding an extra step which applies to a few stories, not most. Sometimes the writer leave the ending open. In this case it’s up to us to work out what happened next. This isn’t going to be a scene as such, but an accumulation of details garnered from all the scenes which lead us to our conclusion.

Here’s the Mnemonic

Why

Do

Oinky

Pigs

Behave

So

Nicely?

(Eh?)

What's Polite board book

 

If you’d like to use my mnemonic above (it works for me!), you might like to watch this video of a little pig very politely sharing his dinner with a woman.

Tom Gauld has a different way of explaining the same rules. Here is one of his New Yorker comics:

undramatic-plots

Box one shows that a hero must take action otherwise it’s not a story.

Box two shows that there must be conflict otherwise it’s not a story.

Box three shows that the hero must constantly redouble efforts (and modify plans) in order to achieve the goal.

Box four shows that a hero needs a strong desire line, and by desire ‘line’, we mean that it lasts until the end of the story.

Does this structure work for children’s stories also?

Yep. Every single time. But I’ll add a few points:

  • Picture books (at least, the kind with a narrative — not typical abecedaries or toy books such as Where’s Wally books — are excellent for showing this structure because the structure is so clear. The steps will even be marked clearly.
  • An especially clear example of storytelling structure can be found in This Moose Belongs To Me by Oliver Jeffers.
  • If a story is ‘once upon a time something happened’, then the inciting incident is the ‘something’ that kick-starts a story.
  • There’s a rule that picture books for  young readers need a non-tragic ending (I won’t say happy, since we do have Jon Klassen’s Hat books, in which the main character dies.) The majority of picturebook stories are home-away-home structure. Books designed to be read before bed require the main character to make it home safely, in general.
  • The ‘opponent’ is often also an ally. For example, well-meaning parents and teachers. This is true of realistic stories for adults, too, of course.
  • When the main character is an animal, there’s sometimes a parallel subplot in which a human character is the one with the clear desire and plan. An excellent example of this is Kate diCamillo’s Mercy Watson Goes For A Ride, in which the old lady next door is the human proxy for the pig. This applies to animals who are not fully humanized (and would never be necessary in a book such as Olivia, in which the pig is for all intents and purposes a little girl.)
  • The hero in a children’s book does not need to have a moral weakness. In other words, the reader does not need to see how the hero is treating others badly. That said, a character such as Olivia, who is very wearing on her mother, is more rounded and ‘human’ precisely because of her annoying habits. There is more tolerance for Pollyannas in children’s literature (at least among adults), no doubt because the gatekeepers of kidlit still like heroes to be models of behaviour, and always punished for their misdemeanours.
  • In the self-revelation stage of children’s fiction, the protagonist usually reaches a higher level of maturity and a greater sense of self-awareness by the book’s end, but has not achieved adulthood. There will be some sense that they have much more yet to learn. No Awareness >> Growing Awareness >> Full Awareness
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