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Tag: John Truby

Types of Plots In Children’s Literature

John Truby’s expertise is in film, but I’m going to use his diagrams and principles to gain a better understanding of children’s stories instead. The following are screen caps from his excellent book The Anatomy of Story. Nodelman, Reimer and Nikolajeva are experts in children’s literature. I’m going to consider Nikolajeva’s book From Linear To Mythic: Time in children’s literature alongside The Pleasures of Children’s Literature by Nodelman and Reimer to come up with my own sort-of taxonomy of plot children’s stories.

THE LINEAR STORY

 

Linear Story

 

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 adventures 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. 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

  • Tom Sawyer (‘master text’ for adventure story as the Narnia Chronicles are for fantasy)
  • The Epic Of Gilgamesh (the oldest known adventure story — 3rd millennium BC)
  • The Odyssey (by Homer, about 3000 years old)
  • The legend of Saint George and the dragon
  • The Greek tale of Perseus
  • Robinson Crusoe
  • 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
  • James Bond
  • Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
  • Starwars, 1977 (a parody of the hero adventure story)

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Is there a double standard when it comes to evaluating “chick flicks” compared to male-oriented action and war films? According to one critic, we incorrectly assign more value to the drama of male bonding than we do to the female bonding portrayed in such films as Divine Secrets of the YaYa Sisterhood.  […]  The deeper issue here is not whether “chick flicks” are devalued, but rather how you dramatize family life. Action and war films have it easy; they show life and death situations. Nobody mentions that the vast majority of the audience will never encounter these situations.

– John Truby on the film Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

Middle Grade Novel Study: Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume

Are You There God

As an adolescent I was keen to get my hands on the complete works of Judy Blume, but unfortunately only a select few were available to me. I’ve only just read Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, Blume’s first and perhaps greatest, and because this year is my year of studying John Truby’s Anatomy of Story, of course I was struck by how neatly this story fits the principles of good storytelling — whether Blume herself was analytic about this as she wrote, or intuitive.

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To what extent do screenwriting tips apply to writers of children’s literature?

tl;dr: Storytelling tips on writing for adults absolutely apply when crafting stories for children.

Screenwriting is some of the most dense storytelling there is, along with short stories. There’s a lot more room in an adult novel for meandering, though this varies according to genre. What about modern children’s literature, though? If you read children’s books more than 50-odd years old, you’ll notice a lot more meandering, but modern children’s books are competing with the screen, and must attract the attention of an audience who is used to the tightness of screenwriting. So more than ever, writing for children demands a tight narrative also.

There are a lot of books on storytelling out there, and many of them are written with screenwriters in mind, that is, unless you want to get into the real academic stuff, usually with something like ‘narratology’ in the title.

I’ve read a number of screenwriting books although I have no plans to write a screenplay, and most of them went in one ear and out the other — they were of no actual use when it came down to crafting a story. The three-act theories to me feel intuitively wrong. Advice to make something big happen smack-bang in the middle of the story feels wrong also, because what has the page number got to do with anything?

One day I was looking for a certain book in the library and came across Anatomy Of Story by John Truby, which was beside the book I had looked up on the computer.

(Isn’t that often the way? That’s the main problem with the digitisation of library resources — often it’s the book right next to the one you thought you wanted that you actually want, and you can only learn this by visiting a bricks and mortar library.)

Turns out, script doctor John Truby, like me but more so, is no great fan of the three-act-structure advice dished out to beginning storytellers, precisely because it is advice only applicable to beginners. The truth is, storytelling is a lot more complex than that.

Using notes from a podcast interview Truby did for Curious About Screenwriting Network (because there’s too much in his book to bulletpoint here!), and Cheryl Klein’s book specifically aimed at creators of stories for children, Second Sight, I’m going to think about children’s stories alongside films for adults. This should be pretty easy, since stories for children aren’t all that different from genre fiction and mainstream film. Cheryl Klein agrees about the adult-equalled complexity when it comes to modern children literature:

If you study the history of children’s literature, it begins with morality tales. There’s a set of German children’s stories called Struwwelpeter about little Peter, who wouldn’t cut his fingernails or his hair, and Pauline, who burnt herself up by playing with matches. But as children’s fiction has evolved through the last hudnred and fifty years or so, it’s taken on the literary and psychological complexity that adult fiction has had for centuries, away from the moral and heavy-handed, toward the complex, the nuanced, the real.

 

my two favourite writing books

my two favourite writing books

First, John Truby on…

WHY MOST WRITERS FAIL

Truby says it’s not what most people think — most people think it’s ‘who you know’ over ‘what you know’ when it comes to selling stories. That’s not true in screenwriting (and not true in children’s literature, either). It’s not all about pitching, either. Truby says that the skill of pitching is overrated. Unless you have a track record as a professional nobody will take a pitch seriously. A script with a great story is the only thing that matters. Most writers fail because they don’t know the story techniques professionals use. Most writers have been using the wrong craft all along.

Screenwriting has been dominated by the idea of ‘three-act-structure’. This way of understanding story has its merits, especially for when you’re first starting to write. But this is the only training that most writers get, and is strictly for beginners. The only chance any writer has to succeed as a storyteller worldwide is to learn the techniques that professionals use.

TEN OF THE MOST IMPORTANT TECHNIQUES WRITERS MUST KNOW

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Stories Must Start With Character Desire

levels of desire

When starting a story, your main character has to desire something otherwise the story won’t work. Don’t skip this step.

At the most basic level, the MC only wants to escape. The MC has been reduced to ‘the level of an animal’.

At the other extreme you have a high fantasy plot, in which the MC desires to save the entire story world.

Once your character has her desire line, she’ll generally need some allies to help her with her goal. In film, the allies will also function as sounding boards, though this shouldn’t be their only function. Use this ally to define your MC. Never make the ally a more interesting character than the MC. The story should be about your most interesting character.

– notes from John Truby, The Anatomy Of Storytelling

Short Story Study: The People Across The Canyon by Margaret Millar

Hear the story read by Douglass Greene at Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.

This is my favourite story from the excellent collection Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives. This is partly due to how much I relate to the characters; when our daughter was 5 some new neighbours moved in next door. They were very unfriendly, but had two sons who were overly friendly. They would invite our daughter next door, but oftentimes she came back subdued, and once, crying. I never knew what happened next door, but I did learn more and more about the family, and had to stop my daughter from going over there. When you’re the parent of a child between around 4-8, it’s difficult to discern fact from fiction; children so often live in their own worlds. The People Across The Canyon encapsulates that confusion most beautifully.

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Short Story Study: Louisa, Please Come Home by Shirley Jackson

Troubled Daughters Twisted Wives Cover

Without meaning to, I keep reading short stories written by women who died young: Katherine Mansfield, Angela Carter, and now Shirley Jackson, who died age 48 in 1965 of heart failure. Jackson’s husband released Louisa, Please Come Home after her death. Before that, she was best known for The Lottery, which is still her best known short.

Shirley Jackson’s best fiction is troubling and creepy, but this story, though interesting, is neither scary or suspenseful. Instead, you’ll be left wondering what possessed the main character to do such a thing, and maybe you’ll start wondering if our view of the people closest to us is really the accurate version.

I’m sure this short story appeals to me partly because I’m interested in the idea that perhaps there is no ‘true self’ — that we learn to fill the roles imposed upon us. I explore this same idea in our YA short story app, Hilda Bewildered.

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Setting A Story Over The Course Of A Single Day

When it comes to treatment of time in stories, there are several main options:

  1. Over a period of years
  2. Over a period of months (seasons)
  3. Over the period of a few weeks/days
  4. Over the period of a single day

John Truby, in his book The Anatomy Of Story, writes of the advantages of stories set over the course of a single day:

  1. ‘The first effect is to create simultaneous story movement while maintaining narrative drive. Instead of showing a single character over a long development…you present a number of characters acting at the same time.’
  2. ‘…the ticking of hours keeps the story line moving forward and gives the story a sense of compression.

It’s worth dividing the ‘single day storyline’ down further into

  1. 24-hour stories
  2. 12-hour stories

If you use a twenty-four-hour clock ‘you lessen the urgency and increase the sense of the circular. No matter what may have happened, we return to the beginning, with everything the same, and start all over again.’ In many ways, the

‘twenty-four-hour circular day has many of the same thematic effects as the four seasons. Not surprisingly, both techniques are often connected with comedy, which tends to be circular, emphasizes society as opposed to the individual, and ends in some kind of communion or marriage. Techniques of circular time are also associated with the myth form, which is based on circularity of space. In many classic myth stories, the hero starts at home, goes on a journey, and returns home to find what was already within him.’

If you make use of a 12-hour clock, you create a ‘funnel effect’.

‘The audience senses not only that each of the story strands will be settled at the end of the twelve hours but also that the urgency will increase as the deadline nears.’

Day Night Earth

12 HOUR CLOCKS IN PICTURE BOOKS

Anyone who has read books to children will already know which of these single-day stories is more popular in children’s books. Some common clocks in picture books:

  1. The main character wakes up in the morning, goes on an adventure, comes home to safety and sleeps happily in bed. These stories make for good, calming bedtime tales, functioning like a lullaby.
  2. Some books are about a specific time of day. Perhaps the entire focus is about going to bed, and the story is condensed to the bedtime routine. Or it might equally be about getting up and going to kindergarten.
  3. Less common is an inversion of the daytime story, in which the child is put to bed and the adventures begin. Maurice Sendak was fond of this form, evident in his book In The Night Kitchen:
  4. A young boy named Mickey sleeps in his bed when he is disturbed by noise on a lower floor. Suddenly, he begins to float, and all of his clothes disappear as he drifts into a surreal world called the “Night Kitchen”:[Mickey, a little boy] falls into a giant mixing pot that contains the batter for the “morning cake”. While Mickey is buried in the mass, three identical bakers (who closely resemble Oliver Hardy) mix the batter and prepare it for baking, unaware (or unconcerned) that there is a little boy inside. Just before the baking pan is placed into the oven, the boy emerges from the pan, protesting that he is not the batter’s milk.To make up for the baking ingredient deficiency, Mickey (now covered in batter from the neck down) constructs an airplane out of bread dough so he can fly to the mouth of a gigantic milk bottle. Upon reaching the bottle’s opening, he dives in and briefly revels in the liquid. After his covering of batter disintegrates, he pours the needed milk in a cascade down to the bakers who joyfully finish making the morning cake.

    With dawn breaking, the naked Mickey crows like a rooster and slides down the bottle to magically return to his bed. Everything is back to normal, beyond the happy memory of his experience.

Wikipedia

The advantage to setting a story over the course of a night-time is that the child will likely find the darkness and night-time spooky and mysterious, so the setting of darkness provides inevitable adventure. Also, the night-time is the perfect setting for dreamscapes and imaginings and all sorts of surreal fantasies.

 

 

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