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Tag: narrative (page 1 of 2)

Ticking Clocks in Picturebooks

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 clock cuckoo clock

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.

 

 

 

Synoptic and Continuous Narrative In Picturebook Illustrations

There are 7 main categories of Narrative art. Narrative art is art which tells a story.

  1. Monoscenic — represents a single scene with no repetition of characters and only one action taking place
  2. Sequential — very much like a continuous narrative with one major difference but uses frames. Each frame is a particular scene during a particular moment.
  3. Continuous
  4. Synoptic
  5. Simultaneous — has very little visually discernible organization to those who are not acquainted with its purpose concentrating on repeatable patterns and dualities
  6. Panoptic — depicts multiple scenes and actions without the repetition of characters. Think of the word ‘panorama’. ‘All-seeing’ (pan + optic)
  7. Progressive — a single scene in which characters do not repeat. However, multiple actions are taking place in order to convey a passing of time in the narrative. A progressive narrative is not to be interpreted as a group of simultaneous events but rather a sequence that is dependent on its location. Actions displayed by characters in the narratives compact present and future action into a single image.
Progressive Narrative Art

Progressive Narrative Art

In this post I talk about the difference between Continuous and Synoptic.

CONTINUOUS NARRATIVE

A continuous narrative is a type of narrative that illustrates multiple scenes of a narrative within a single frame.

Multiple actions and scenes are portrayed in a single visual field without any dividers. The sequence of events within the narrative is defined through the reuse of the main character or characters.

It emphasizes the change in movement and state of the repeating characters as indicators of scene or phase changes in the narrative.

Continuous narrative art is pretty much exactly the same as Sequential narrative art except minus the frames that help the viewer to know where one phase ends and the next begins.

Trajan's Column, depicting one event: The Dacian Wars

Trajan’s Column, depicting one event: The Dacian Wars

These days you find Continuous narrative art in comic strips, picture books and story boards.

This scene from In The Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak looks a blend between Continuous and Sequential, because although there is a frame to separate the pictures, the two frames almost seem to form a diptych (but only at first glance — there are two moons after all). I feel this is, overall, an example of Sequential narration.

nightkitchen121

SYNOPTIC NARRATIVE

Synoptic is the adjectival form of ‘synopsis’, which should give us a clue about what’s going on. Synoptic art = the synopsis of a bigger story.

A synoptic narrative depicts a single scene in which a character or characters are portrayed multiple times within a frame to convey that multiple actions are taking place.

This causes the sequence of events to be unclear within the narrative.

Synoptic narratives typically provide visual cues that convey the sequence, but still might be difficult to decipher for those unfamiliar with the story.

They’re not just used in ‘art’. Here’s an image from the Stihl home page:

Wouldn’t it be nice if you had that many clones of yourself working in the yard whenever big jobs needed to be done?

This is Mughal painting -- a style from South Asia.

This is Mughal painting — a style from South Asia.

By the way, it would be unusual to find a painting like this in a modern, Western picturebook because the characters are facing the wrong way! In picturebooks, the action goes toward the page turn, unless there’s some unusual reason to reverse it.

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN CONTINUOUS AND SYNOPTIC

Continuous narrative art gives you clues, provided by the layout itself, about the sequence of phases depicted.

But you have to know the story before you can understand a synoptic narrative. This wasn’t a problem anyway, because everyone of the era understood the basic plot of the myths, fables, stories and wars depicted.

Wanda Gag’s  Millions of Cats

cats drinking milk

the double spread

cats drinking milk close up 2

a better quality image

cats drinking millk close up

a closer look

 

The cat drinking milk is an example of continuous narrative because the fall of the hill forms a clear temporal guide.

Virginia Lee Burton’s Katy and the Big Snow

katy-and-the-big-snow-hero

Again, the road itself provides a temporal guide. So this is an example of Continuous narrative art.

Marla Frazee’s Books

Marla Frazee makes a lot of use of this technique.

For example Mrs. Biddlebox (There’s an image of the thumbnail sketches for this book on Frazee’s webpage.)

from Boot and Shoe

from Boot and Shoe

Jan Ormerod’s books

Usually have the action repeated. See “Sunshine”, “Moonlight”, “Putting Mummy to Bed”.

Sun and Moon continuous narrative

Getting dressed scene in Sunshine

breakfast scene from Sunshine

Falling asleep Sunshine

Sunshine continuous narrative

Ian Falconer

Olivia waited and waited and waited

Here, Olivia the pig waits impatiently for her mother to sew her a different colored soccer shirt in Olivia and the Missing Toy. Not seen here is the bit where she walks off, bored.

Olivia and the Fairy Princesses

From Olivia and the Fairy Princesses.

I make use of this same technique to show a child getting ready for bed, but in an interactive picture book app, Midnight Feast.

 

Panoptic Narrative Art In Picturebooks

suburban happenings

A panoramic narrative is a narrative that depicts multiple scenes and actions without the repetition of characters. Actions may be in a sequence or represent simultaneous actions during an event.

This form was popular in the medieval era and often depicts a myth.

Panoptic narrative art is often a bird’s eye view. The ‘camera’ is above. But the art isn’t necessarily three dimensional: Illustrators can create panoptic artwork in 2D if they’re after a more folk artsy style.

The Conquerors by David McKee

The Conquerors by David McKee

Child Life May 1979

(The term has nothing to do with Foucault’s panopticism — I believe it is made up of ‘pan’ + ‘optics’ as in ‘all-seeing’.)

In modern picturebooks, there is a gradation of activity in a scene. Often, there is way more going on in a single picturebook illustration than would ever be happening in a real life photograph. For example, in the scene of the school fair from Shirley Hughes’s Dogger, below, we can see sorts of things going on — all of which would have happened at the fair — but all of the individual actions are meaningful and it’s unlikely they were all going on at the same time. The work is therefore on the panoptic continuum.

Dogger the fair

Film makers, too, often need to arrange characters within scenes in a way that wouldn’t naturally occur. But we accept these film conventions to a large degree, even when realism is the aim.

What if it’s clear from the context of the story that multiple actions in a single scene are definitely not going on at the same time? This is called Progressive narrative art, in which ctions displayed by characters compact present and future action into a single image.

I believe Progressive narrative art is a subcategory of Panoptic art, and in picturebooks and film the two terms merge, for the simple fact that we in stories, characters live in ‘storybook worlds’, in which it’s perfectly possible all of these things are going on at once. We can’t possibly distinguish between the two states unless we were to know the ‘real events’. But these aren’t wars we’re describing — they are made up from the get-go; there is no basic ‘reality’.

Roland Harvey

Australian artist Roland Harvey is an expert at busy, detailed landscapes and has created a whole series of books with massive panoptic scenes: In The Bush, At The Beach, In The City and panoptic scenes occurring throughout his others.

Eureka Stockade cover

The First Fleet

on-the-farm-our-holiday-with-uncle-kev

Where’s Wally/Waldo

Where’s Wally was created by Martin Handford, English illustrator. These books make the most of that wish to hunt and search, linger and examine.

Where's Wally

Migrant by Jose Manuel Mateo

Migrant

This book uses a single vertical illustration and brief text.  It folds up accordion-style and recounts the story of a young family who immigrate illegally to Los Angeles, one huge image that is slowly unveiled over the course of the story.

 

The Great War : July 1, 1916 : the first day of the Battle of the Somme

The-Great-War-July-1-1916-The-First-Day-of-the-Battle-of-the-Somme__51E3YxrMkTL

an illustrated panorama by Joe Sacco would be worth a look. Not exactly for your younger crowd but an amazingly detailed depiction of what this battle site was like over the period of one day

 

Film Study: Muriel’s Wedding (1994)

Muriels Wedding poster

Mix of Genres: Comedy, drama, romance

Written and directed by Paul Hogan (no, not the Crocodile Dundee guy, and no, not everyone in Australia is called Paul Hogan). This one goes by P.J. Hogan, probably because of that Crocodile Dundee guy. This was Hogan’s breakout success, and was also the start of two stellar careers for Rachel Griffiths and Toni Collette. That said, we’re here to talk about writing, for a change.

The Plot Structure Of Pretty Much Every Comedy

While some story experts say that there are 7 or 8 different structures for comedies, others say that this is the arch structure of pretty much every successful comedy recently:

Discontent: the hero is unhappy about something
Transgression with a ‘mask’: peculiar to comedy and noir thrillers (the mask is metaphorical — the hero is trying to pass themselves off as something they’re not)
Transgression without a mask: midpoint disaster when the mask is ripped off — the hero is ‘found out’
Dealing with consequences[ Howard Suber writes: “What will the hero do when he discovers his armour doesn’t protect him, that he can be violated — now and in the future? There is only one satisfactory answer: he can pick himself up, dust himself off, and start all over again.”]
Spiritual Crisis: happens in almost every story
Growth Without a Mask [Suber writes on this point: Some people might find it astonishing how many memorable popular films end in violence and death, but the history of drama is filled with them, and it is difficult to find any period that is not filled with them. If death is the ultimate separation, the next worst is the separation of people who love one another…The story that resolves itself in unification is most often a comedy.]

The Plot Structure Of Muriel’s Wedding

Muriel’s Wedding is worth a rewatch not just because it’s funny in a bittersweet kind of way, but because it’s a great example of a comedy that follows exactly the structure described above.

Discontent: Muriel is unhappy with her life in general — she’s been unemployed for the last two years and spends a lot of time alone listening to ABBA.

Transgression with a mask: Muriel lies to Rhonda that her life is going great, that she’s going to marry a guy called Tim Simms and she has a successful career selling make up.

I'm a beauty consultant

Transgression without a mask: The mask is ripped off when Rhonda finds her wedding album under the bed and realises she spends a lot of time going around to bridal stores having her pictures taken. There is a confrontation in a wedding store when Rhonda finds her and Muriel is forced to tell her she just wants to change her life and that there was no Tim Simms.

Because who would want to marry me

Dealing with consequences: Still chasing the popular crowd, she basically ditches Rhonda for those other three bitches who are interested in being her bridesmaids now that she’s a bit famous. So she loses her best friend for a while and ends up completely alone when her husband also rejects her.

Spiritual Crisis: happens in almost every story: Muriel has a revelation at her mother’s funeral when she realises her father is more interested in the fact that Bob Hawke sent condolences than about the fact his own wife is dead. Having herself chased after celebrity by marrying the South African swimmer, she confesses to her fake husband afterwards that she’s just the same.

Growth Without a Mask : The good-looking husband rewards this growth with a proper kiss. Muriel realises that what she wants in life is to live in Sydney with her best friend and make her own life so she pays her father back some of the money she stole and takes off.

The other thing Muriel’s Wedding has going for it are two catch phrases: “You’re terrible Muriel” really took off in Australia and NZ in the late nineties and everyone knew where it was from. It is said three times during the film by Muriel’s hopeless sister.

Relying on the magic storytelling number of three, the sister says this three times over the course of the film.

You're Terrible Muriel

The other is, “What a coincidence!” which is funny because the audience realises immediately that the father is having an affair, and so their meeting at the Chinese restaurant is no coincidence at all, but also comedies like this tend to be full of coincidences, so it’s a bit meta. (E.g. Rhonda finding the album exactly when Muriel is trying on the dresses, and so she confronts her inside the bridal store.)

STORY WORLD

The story begins, appropriately, in a small town on the Gold Coast, which is glittery and touristy and offers regular people a week or two of rich lifestyle once per year — the illusion of greatness for the average Joe. Muriel has to escape this setting and go to the big, anonymous city in order to really confront her genuine self. Hence, the story world is connected to the theme.

Welcome to Porpoise Spit

Sydney contrasts with Porpoise Spit — Sydney is the ‘New York of Australia’, the place aspirational young people from small NSW/QLD towns hope to go to make their own way and discover who they are as part of an anonymous crowd.

OTHER POINTS

Muriel’s Wedding is also successful for other reasons:

The main character, Muriel Heslop, is full of  plans and scams. Though we don’t like such characters in real life, we do love watching them on screen — shoplifting, lying, stealing money from her own parents… Muriel has it all.

Muriel is morally as well as psychologically weak, as noted aboveThe lying and cheating constitute the moral weakness; psychologically she has no confidence and is shy. She mistakes the shallow, pretty, high-school-popular girls for good people and tries to be like them even though they’re awful.

The story ends happily ever after, not as a typical romantic comedy would (with the man of her dreams), but with a good female friend, thereby still fulfilling the expectation of unification. (This sort of happy ending has been replicated in rom-coms numerous times since, with another example of female unification being Waitress (2007). In Juno we have a re-unification with a man, though without her baby, which subverts norms for the genre.

There are several set pieces which are memorable: If you watched this when it came out you probably still remember the first boyfriend unzipping the beanbag instead of Muriel’s clothing.

The film is spliced together with juxtapositions. That beanbag scene is swiftly followed by Rhonda’s collapse due to cancer. Hilarious scenes are immediately followed by serious ones. Within scenes, we have the juxtaposition of Muriel’s overjoyed face against her husband’s disgusted expression as she walks down the aisle. This leads to the bittersweet vibe. Muriel’s family is basically a tragic story.

Juxtapositions can be seen in the scenery, too: The bright, kitsch colours of the holiday destination against the griminess of Sydney, where bad things can happen (and do).

kitch setting muriel's wedding

Muriel's Wedding video shop

Since Muriel starts off as such a morally and psychologically weak person, her range of change is large. The audience is given plenty of opportunity to see exactly how she has changed. She’s come full circle when she starts to pay her father back the money she stole and makes the moral decision to look after her friend (a good person) who is now in a wheelchair.

Comedies usually begin with someone who is out of a job, poor, broke, unemployable — a ‘loser’. By the end of the story, more often than not, they’re a ‘success’. The course of comedy is thus always an ascent to power.

— Howard Suber

I can change you'll still be you

Muriel’s duplicitous nature — common to all comedies of this kind, of course — is visually portrayed in numerous ways, not least by the rendition of the ABBA song, in which we see a ‘Betty and Veronica’ sort of difference between two female faces. Two different Muriels.

Abba dress up two personae

Mirrors are often used to convey the same thing, and sure enough…

Muriel mirror

Film Study: Waitress (2007)

Poster

Though I don’t like this film nearly as much as I like Juno, it’s worth a brief compare and contrast as a way of understanding the way the rom-com is evolving through the decades. Writers can no longer expect large, enthusiastic female audiences for films which basically end with a happy-ever-after when the couple comes from such completely different socioeconomic backgrounds (Would Pretty Woman get a great reception today?) We don’t want to see a woman basically saved by a man. Modern female audiences (even those who love rom-coms) expect agency in our female heroes — it’s not enough to be saved by a prince. (This sort of retrograde, pure fantasy is valid as a fantasy though, and may explain the increasingly popularity of erotica, rather than romance, which at least nods in the direction of feminism.)

First, what Waitress and Juno have in common:

  • They are the same blend of three genres: Drama, Romance and Comedy.
  • They were both released in 2007.
  • They are both indie productions.
  • They’re both about a young woman who, at the very beginning of the story, is thrown into crisis with an unexpected and unwanted pregnancy.
  • They are both stories which subvert the traditional love story by ending with the female hero happy, but not happy because she has been reunited with man and child — happy because she has been on a journey to ‘find her true self’.

As far as feminist messages go, Juno does a better job by far. Waitress has the right general idea, but undermines itself in several ways:

  • Jenna’s husband Earl does not transcend the stock character of a toxically masculine red-neck husband in the way that Juno’s boyfriend subverts high-schooler stock characters by being both nerdy and sporty. He is so very unlikeable that it’s difficult to see how Jenna could ever have ended up married to him. Witnessing the unfortunate relationships of her two best friends are meant to give us some insight into how Jenna, too, ended up with a man like Earl, but it still doesn’t quite work, as Jenna seems smarter.
  • Domestic violence is only hinted at. The problem with portrayal of domestic violence in a rom-com is that it’s the wrong genre to explore it seriously.
  • Although it appears Jenna suddenly achieves independence on her own, she in fact is saved by a man, and why did Jo leave all that money to her? Why was he so involved in her life? Because she’s pretty, let’s face it. (The admiration appears to have been largely one-sided.)
  • Jenna’s friend seems to have learnt an unfortunate lesson in love: That stalking equals true love. This is a source of comedy — the man has truly terrible poetry — and the message for the audience seems to be ‘well, you never can judge other people for who they find attractive’, but the unintended message is also that stalking works.
  • Dr Pomatter was created before the decade of NiceGuysTM, but to me comes across as hapless and hopeless and obviously not interested in pies. Let’s face it: Dr Pomatter is not in any kind of prison. As a highly educated white man, America is his oyster. If he’s not happy with his wife (and his actions would suggest he is not) then he should get over himself and leave this small town. He can literally go anywhere. I didn’t buy his bullshit, though perhaps that was the writer’s intention; Jenna doesn’t end up with him, after all.

Still, this film was made on a very low budget ($2m) and grossed closer to $20m, so it’s a success in financial terms. It’s also got a rating of 7.1 on IMDb, so this film is a success by many standards.Waitress has an unfortunate real life drama — writer and director Adrienne Shelley was murdered by a tradesman in her own home before the film was released. So she didn’t even get to see how it became a box office success.

Let’s see how Adrienne Shelley told a satisfying story, even if we have personal political problems with the message…

4

Dawn is played by Adrienne Shelley

Storyworld

This is an unspecified Southern American town, and I have not ever been to an actual Southern American town, but I’m getting the impression that this is the utopian version thereof. There are certain Southern features in this story arena: The accents, the diner as the main setting, the ‘native’ sexist man (called Earl, of course) versus the forward-thinking newcomer (Dr Pomatter) and the feeling that cultural evolution stopped in the 1950s. The nurse is even wearing an old-fashioned uniform of the sort never seen today except in kinky dress-up scenarios. Pies, too, are a symbol of 1950s America, in which housewives had the time to bake, and were encouraged to think that pie-baking was an expression of love. Jenna, too, has absorbed these values.

2

 

Symbolism

Pie Waitress Movie

The pie symbolism would be way too heavy-handed in anything other than a comedy. The pies Jenna concocts represent her moral dilemmas and inner turmoil. As you can see, the pie above symbolises love. The pie itself, though, hooks us into the 1950s housewife sensibilities that the story then aims to subvert. We’re lead to expect a cheesy love story because of these pies, and we’re therefore a little surprised when Jenna ends up without any man at all.

 

7 Step Structure Breakdown of Waitress

1.  Weakness/Need

8

Psychological Weakness: Jenna is in a bad relationship but doesn’t have the strength to leave. Whenever she has a problem she deals with it by making up a new recipe for a pie. She is cynical when it comes to love: “What if it’s my prince charming?” “There’s no such thing.”

Moral Weakness: Although the audience is helped to understand Jenna’s position (Earl is ridiculously despicable), it is a moral weakness (in general) to hate your own husband while pretending everything is all right, then start something with another man. Jenna is not truthful with the people she is closest to. She also considers selling her baby as a way to raise cash — also challenging to the typical audience.

As seems to be the case in all of these stories about a downtrodden wife, it’s necessary for the audience to understand the nature of sexism and acculturation as it happens in small towns. The film A Walk On The Moon has exactly the same problems for a certain segment of the audience: That film, too, is about a repressed wife who has an affair. In order to understand why she did that, it’s necessary to understand the likes of that explained by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique. An issue with Waitress is that it is not in fact set in the 1950s or 60s, so we might expect Jenna to have a little more freedom and agency, and just leave her damn husband.

2.  Desire

In the first scene Jenna realizes she’s pregnant, throwing her life into chaos, since she doesn’t love (or even like) the man she’s with, Earl. She wants to save money so she can leave her husband. She desires to win a big pie competition, in which case she will win $25k and, as her friends point out, she could open her own pie shop.

3.  Opponent

Earl, her husband, is a stock character. He’s a masculine redneck who thinks a woman’s place is to cook and clean for him.

1

Dr. Pomatter is a romantic opponent, as romantic conquests usually are at the beginning of stories. The problem with romantic plots is that the writer needs to concoct some way to keep the lovers apart. In this case there’s the fact everyone is married plus the unethical bit about a doctor sleeping with a patient. Dr Pomatter is the inverse of Earl, which does not equal perfect — Dr Pomatter isn’t possessive of his wife (that we can see) but he is unfaithful to her. (Is the name ‘Po Matter’ deliberately unappealing? All I can think of is the contents of a po.)

5

Jo – who is Jenna’s crotchety old-man boss who owns the pie restaurant – is basically her ally who does the bit where the hero is confronted by her ally about her moral decisions. He does this covertly by pretending to read out Jenna’s horoscope from the newspaper but really he’s playing a sort of fairy-godmother, crystal-ball role, giving her life advice based on what he’s heard about her and the doctor’s affair. His views are conservative, in line with the views of the community and also in line with those of a conservative audience: homewrecking is a thing — affairs are always the woman’s fault. (I’m paraphrasing.) Anyhow, I wonder if he also confronted the Doc for being a philanderer… He had every opportunity when he was in hospital!

3

4.  Plan

The plan is to save money working at the diner making pies, then eventually leaving Earl. But of course this plan doesn’t work – she is forced to tell Earl that she is pregnant because he’s starting to get violent with her. Earl wants to be a father. The complicating factor is that Jenna and her doctor are falling in love with each other. Then Earl finds Jenna’s stashes of money. She lies and says it’s all for the baby’s things (when it’s actually for her running away).

5.  Battle

For Jenna, the battle is the birth. This leads to the self-revelation. So, the birth process (in which, once again, we see a woman on her back despite not being hooked up to all sorts of cords and monitors, THE most painful way to push out a baby) is symbolic for Jenna’s inner turmoil. 

6.  Self-Revelation

Jenna realizes that she doesn’t want to be the reason Dr Pomatter’s marriage breaks up when she meets his wife for the first time and observes how much the wife seems to admire her husband. Then, when Jenna sees her baby for the first time she realizes what true love is, and that she doesn’t love her husband at all. The baby gives her the strength to tell Earl that she doesn’t love him and he gets dragged out of the room by staff.

6

7.  New Equilibrium

When Dr Pomatter unwraps the supermarket pie thing and watches Jenna leave we know he’s going to go back to his wife and that he’s going to go back to eating his crappy pies rather than Jenna’s homemade ones. We see a flash forward to Jenna happy and singing to her baby while she continues to work at the pie shop. Alone. She is financially secure because of the money left to her by Jo, and the next scene shows us that she now has her own pie shop, bustling with people and brightly decorated. She has named it Lulu’s Pies after her daughter. (And after her real life daughter, who appears in the film.) She continues to be great friends with her female buddies.

waitress allies

Side-shadowing In The Wrysons by John Cheever

“The Wrysons” is interesting as a study of writing technique because it is a story with the theme of ‘lack’ running throughout, and Cheever masterfully chose to employ some narrative techniques which are themselves about describing not what did happen but what didn’t, and what might have.

Lady Baltimore Cake which may have been eaten in The Wrysons

A Lady Baltimore cake — created for genteel tea parties. Novelist Owen Wister made this cake famous in his 1906 romance, Lady Baltimore.

Apart from The Bella Lingua, which is set in Italy, this and the preceding number of Cheever’s short stories were all set in his famous Shady Hill.  Did Cheever want to live in a place such as Shady Hill? I suspect he would have called the whole place ‘phony’, and in The Wrysons he once again dips into the idea that in the suburbs where everything seems perfect, there must be rot beneath the veneer. In fact, he has gone much further with this in other stories such as The Housebreaker of Shady Hill, in which a man burgles his own neighbours (I guess I didn’t really spoil anything for anyone there — it’s all in the title!), and in “The Enormous Radio”, which is not set in the suburbs but is all about the feeling that you’re living two steps away from terrible, terrible happenings.

WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE WRYSONS”

A suburban couple with one daughter have zero interests except the wish for their comfortable suburb to stay exactly the same. The only difficult thing about the wife’s life seems to be her regular unsettling dreams in which someone explodes a hydrogen bomb and causes the end of the world. She also dreams that she poisons her own daughter. The husband thought he felt nothing when his mother died, but deals with her death by occasionally waking in the middle of the night and baking a cake in the kitchen to remind him of his childhood, in which his mother and he would bake together to create a cosy atmosphere. The husband is unaware of his wife’s dreams; the wife is unaware of her husband’s cake-baking habit, until one night he burns the cake, wakes her up, and they go back to bed more confused about the world than ever.


 

SETTING OF “THE WRYSONS”

Nicotiana grows in the Wrysons' garden.

Nicotiana grows in the Wrysons’ garden.

Place

If you’ve read other, better-known stories of Cheever you’ll be familiar with this place in middle to upper-class America — it’s not a real suburb in any real town, but Cheever returns to it as a setting time and again. Perhaps his most famous story set in Shady Hill is The Swimmer.  This family lives in the fictional Alewives Lane. They have a nice garden. ‘They were odd, of course’, writes Cheever — and with a masterly use of ‘of course’ we are to take it for granted that everyone who might seem ‘normal’ is actually harboring a hidden or overt eccentricity.

 

Time

It’s significant in this story that at the time this story was written, the baking of cakes in the home was strictly a feminine task, a point of pride, in fact, and for a married man to don an apron and make a cake — a Lady Baltimore cake, no less — would have been thought terrible emasculating. Indeed, when the wife is finally woken by the smell of burning, she admonishes the husband by telling him he should have woken her if he was feeling hungry, as if the kitchen was her own private space.

This is also a time — difficult for those of us who are younger to imagine — in which people genuinely feared a hydrogen bomb ending everything.

Continue reading

The Traveling Angel Trope

Although in drama and masterpiece theatre and in literary fiction your main character needs to have both a moral and a psychological ‘need’, that rule doesn’t hold for travelling angel types. Mary Poppins does not have a moral need. (She does not treat other people badly.)

Traveling angel characters are found mainly in Westerns, detective stories and comedies. They are also found in children’s stories.

The travelling angel often enters the storyworld when the storyworld is in trouble. (But not always.) They fix the problems, then move on.

The travelling angel comedy is a comedy of structure and contrast. Other comedic forms rely on comedy of dialogue. Because the comedy is in the story’s structure, critics tend to say a comedy of the traveling angel type has ‘heart’. Audiences love stories with heart and so traveling angel films rarely fail at the box office.

EXAMPLES

  • Crocodile Dundee (Australian film) — comedy, adventure
  • Amélie (film) — French comedy romance — traveling angel comedies are popular in France for some reason
  • Chocolat (book and film) — drama, romance
  • Good Morning, Vietnam (film) — biography, comedy, drama
  • Mary Poppins (family musical based on a series of books by P.L. Travers) — children’s book — comedy, fantasy
  • The Music Man (film, musical) — comedy, romance
  • Shane (classic Western) — about the only non-ironic Western movie made since the world wars — includes drama and romance
  • Anne Of Green Gables — though Anne doesn’t leave Avonlea for good, she is back and forth, and tends to win crotchety people over so long as they are basically good in the first place.
  • Santa — the ultimate travelling angel!

Related: Angelic Tropes at TV Tropes

Mary-Poppins

The Influence Of King Arthur

the influence of king arthur john truby quote

 

More from John Truby:

King Arthur is not just a man and not just a king. He is the modern centaur, the metal horseman. As such, he is the first superman, the Man of Steel, the male taken to the extreme. He is the ultimate embodiment of warrior culture. He represents courage, strength, right action, and establishing justice through combat in front of others. Ironically, as masculinity taken to the extreme, he lives by a code of chivalry that places woman high on a pedestal of absolute purity. This turns the entire female gender into a symbol, divided into the Christian binary opposites of Madonna and whore.

King Arthur also symbolizes the modern leader in conflict. He creates a perfect community in Camelot, based on purity of character, only to lose it when his wife falls in love with his finest and purest knight. The conflict between duty and love is one of the great moral oppositions in storytelling, and King Arthur embodies it as well as any character ever has.

Arthur’s ally is Merlin, the mentor-magician par excellence. He is a throwback character to the pre-Christian worldview of magic, so he represents knowledge of the deeper forces of nature. He is the ultimate craftsman-artist of nature and human nature, and of human nature as an outgrowth of nature. His spells and advice always begin with a deep understanding of the needs and cravings of the unique person before him.

… If you want to use King Arthur symbols, be sure to twist their meaning so they become original to your story.

SEE ALSO

List of works based on King Arthurian Legends

King Arthur at TV Tropes

The Centrality of the Adventure Story, a quote from Marjery Hourihan

The Warm House Of Childhood Stories

How I Live Now Sitting Room

Sitting room from the film adaptation of How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff

The warm but ramshackle kitchen of Gilly’s good-Christian foster mother, film adaptation of The Great Gilly Hopkins

Of all the stories you loved in childhood, which of the houses would you most like to live in? Was it, by chance, a ‘bustling’ environment? Was it quirky or intriguing or very large?

John Truby writes about the warm, bustling house in his book The Anatomy Of Story:

The warm house in storytelling is big (though usually not a mansion), with enough rooms, corners and cubbyholes for each inhabitant’s uniqueness to thrive. Notice that the warm house has within it two additional opposing elements: the safety and coziness of the shell and the diversity that is only possible within the large.

Writers often intensity the warmth of the big, diverse house by using the technique known as the “buzzing household”. This is the Pieter Brueghel technique (especially in paintings like The Hunters In The Snow and Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap) applied to the house.

In the buzzing household, all the different individuals of an extended family are busy in their own pocket of activity. Individuals and small groups may combine for a special moment and then go on their merry way. This is the perfect community at the level of the household. Each person is both an individual and a part of a nurturing family, and even when everyone is in different parts of the house, the audience can sense a gentle spirit that connects them.

Mary Poppins Banisters

Mary Poppins

Truby continues, happening to put into words why children’s books are so often enjoyed by adults even after we are long since grown:

Part of the power of the warm house is that it appeals to the audience’s sense of their own childhood, either real or imagined. Everyone’s house was big and cozy when they were young, and if they soon discovered that they lived in a hovel, they can still look at the big, warm house and see what they wished their childhood had been. That’s why the warm house is so often used in connection with memory stories, like Jean Shepherd’s Christmas Story, and why American storytellers so often use ramshackle Victorian places, with their many snug gables and corners from a bygone era.

Leçons de choses

Leçons de choses

Who Lives In This House

The Importance Of Narrative Arts

Jack will act in ways which recognise, and are sensitive to, Jill’s interests, only if he is able to grasp how things are for Jill, and understands why they matter to her; and, further, recognises that things being that way for Jill makes a claim on some of his own attitudes and behaviour.

Any Jack’s gaining access to Jill’s perspective on life thus demands a degree of sympathy. But when Jill’s interests and aims lie outside the normal range of Jack’s own experience, his ability to sympathise with Jill’s concerns enough to be considerate about them in relevant ways, will require him to see beyond his own usual range. Most people can learn about the needs and interests of others by extrapolating from their own experience and from their observation of people around them, but if these were the only resources for insight, the scope of an individual’s sympathies would be limited. And this is where the narrative arts come in. Exposure to the narrative arts overcomes that limitation: it enormously widens an attentive individual’s perceptions of human experience, and enables him — vicariously, or as a fly-on-the-wall witness — to see into lives, conditions and experiences which he might never encounter in practice. This extension and education of the sympathies is therefore the basis for a richer moral experience and a more refined capacity for moral response.

– A.C. Grayling, The Reason Of Things

Grayling goes on to explain that educating moral sensibility through education ‘has a general tendency, not a universal effect, and works by heightening morally relevant insight in at leat many cases, in not all of which will the insight necessarily conduce to the good (after all, the sadist has to have insight into his victim’s circumstances in order to dow hat he does; so mere possession of the insight is also not a guarantee of such goods as kindness and consideration).’

(What’s a sadist? Psychopaths vs. Sadists from Time)

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