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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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I don’t usually revisit early drafts of things that are well and truly finished, but I happened upon my very first scribblings about Hilda Bewildered. I use a Scrivener file for an ‘ideas binder’. I’d completely forgotten that I initially imagined this as a Christmas story.

Scrivener Screenshot of Hilda Bewildered

Scrivener Screenshot of Hilda Bewildered

Gilgamesh and The Wizard of Oz

The Epic of Gilgamesh

As modern humans we are all familiar with the Quest story. The nature of the quest story is explained succinctly by Michael Foley in his pop-psychology book The Age of Absurdity:

There is a rich and unbroken tradition of quest literature running from The Epic of Gilgamesh in 1000 BCE to The Wizard of Oz in the twentieth century. The scholar of myth, Joseph Campbell, has shown how the quest saga has been important in every period and culture and always has the same basic structure, though local details may vary. Each saga begins with a hero receiving a call to adventure which makes him abandon his familiar, safe environment to venture into the dangerous unknown. There, he undergoes a series of tests and trials, negotiates many difficulties and slays many monsters. As a reward he wins a magical prize — a Golden Fleece, a princess, holy water, a sacred flame or an elixir of eternal life. Finally he brings the prize back from the kingdom of dread to redeem his community.

Likewise, the Quest Story has been very popular in children’s fiction.

Wizard of Oz

This narrative hasn’t always been the dominant one; the Quest Story started with The Epic of Gilgamesh. Before that, stories tended to star female characters, because they were about the birth of the world, and in order for things to come into existence, our ancestors believed that a female being was necessary. If you’ve never read The Epic of Gilgamesh, here’s Foley’s summary:

The hero, Gilgamesh, a Mesopotamian king, becomes disenchanted with his kingdom and life and departs on a quest, which involves dealing with ferocious lions, scorpion men and a beautiful goddess who attempts to detain him with surprisingly modern temptations: ‘Day and night be frolicsome and gay; let thy clothes be handsome, thy head shampooed, thy body bathed.’ Nevertheless, the hero persists in his quest and, diving to the bottom of a deep sea, plucks the plant of immortality. But the ending has a nasty twist that would have to be changed in any movie version: when Gilgamesh lies down to rest a serpent steals the plant, eats it and attains eternal youth. In mythology the snake is always the villain.

Storytellers such as John Truby argues a case for a departure from these old stories, as have others before him. (See Marjery Hourihan: The Centrality of The Adventure Story) But can we ever really get away from this narrative? Foley says we’re all living the narrative. By ‘abstract seeker’ he’s talking about people who say they ‘want to travel’, but if you were to ask them to where, and for what purpose? they would be hard-pressed to say why — instead, the modern imperative is to be constantly on the move.

Campbell argues that these narratives symbolize an essentially inward journey–the hero breaks free from the conventional thinking of his time, ventures out into the dark of speculative thought, finds the creative power to change himself and wishes to share this with others. The prize won after much uncertainty and danger is knowledge. “The hero is the one who comes to know.” So the narrative has four stages: departure, trial, prize, return; these are the same as the goals of the abstract seeker: detachment, difficulty, understanding, transformation.

The Narrative of the Modern 'Abstract Seeker'

The Narrative of the Modern ‘Abstract Seeker’

 

 

 

Picturebook Study: Character Desire and Need

This post concerns the sorts of picture books with a storyline, as opposed to the increasingly popular ‘concept’ picture books (e.g. Press Here) or look-books (e.g. the work of Richard Scarry, Where’s Wally).

It’s clear that in a successful, award-winning book for middle grade readers and above, the main character of the story requires both a surface desire, and a need, which can in turn be broken down into ‘psychological need’ and ‘moral need’. (See John Truby’s book Anatomy of Story for more on that.)

Now for some picture book case studies.

THE TALE OF TWO BAD MICE BY BEATRIX POTTER

The Tale of Two Bad Mice cover

Click for the full story on Project Gutenberg

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Examples of Desire and Need in Children’s Literature

Says John Truby in his screenwriting book, Anatomy of Story:

  • A story doesn’t become interesting to the audience until the desire comes into play.

  • Desire is the driving force in the story.

  • Desire is intimately connected to need. In most stories, when the hero accomplishes his goal, [s]he also fulfills his need.

  • Need has to do with overcoming a weakness within the character.

  • Desire is a goal outside the character.

  • Need and desire have different functions in relation to the audience. Need lets the audience see how the hero must change to have a better life, but it remains hidden, under the surface.

  • Desire gives the audience something to want along with the hero. Desire is on the surface and is what the audience thinks the story is about.

character desire need

Of course, these points apply to stories for children as much as they relate to films for adults. Some case studies, below.

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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

Storytellers Are To Blame

vonnegut storytellers are to blame

See also: On Happy Endings

Endings 04: Picturebook Endings

Picture books without a twist at the end aren’t as much fun as those with a surprise ending that moves the story beyond the book.

– @taralazar

The so-called “open ending” that is gradually gaining more and more acceptance — first in young adult novels and then also in books for younger children — should be views as a modification of the linear code (in which a character goes on a journey, changes, then returns home).

– Maria Nikolajeva

For examples of contemporary picture books with open endings, see This Is Not My Hat and I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen.

The great challenge of picturebooks — which is also true of other stories but less so — is the need to create a story which stands up to not only being read twice,  but 100 times. Much of the re-readability of a picturebook comes from its conclusion.

 

THE IDEOLOGY OF ENDINGS FOR YOUNG CHILDREN

How a narrative resolves, ‘ties up’ or ‘untangles’ (both metaphors are widespread), the complications of story is a recurrent concern among theorists, but is of special interest with children’s fiction. Here, the desire for closure, both in the specific sense of an achieved satisfying ending and in the more general sense of a final order and coherent significance, is characteristically a desire for fixed meanings, and is apparent in the socializing, didactic purposes of much children’s literature. There is an idea that young children require (that is both ‘demand’ and ‘need’) certainties about life rather than indeterminacies or uncertainties or unfixed boundaries. Even a genre such as fantasy, which might be expected to offer a site for a play of meanings and for resistances to fixed meanings, usually shows a strong impulse towards closure. … As readers we learn to look for some sense of completeness, both aesthetic and thematic, over and above the bringing of a series of events to a close. Aesthetic completeness is achieved in children’s literature through representation of symmetries, or movements from states of lack to states of plenitude.

Language and Ideology In Children’s Literature by John Stephens

 

THE CONCEPT OF THE NEVER-ENDING STORY

John Truby, in his book Anatomy of Story, writes about endings with a focus on film, but what he says about creating a ‘Never-Ending Story’ is particularly true for picturebooks.

You don’t create a never-ending story just by making it so good it’s unforgettable. The never-ending story happens only if you use special techniques embedded in the story structure.

He explains what he means by a ‘never-ending story’ by giving examples of stories which fail — stories which have limitations:

1. PREMATURE ENDINGS

This happens for three main reasons: early self-revelation, in which hero has a big insight, development stops, everything else is anti-climactic. Or the hero achieves his desire too quickly. Giving him a new desire doesn’t fix the problem, by the way, because then you’ve started a new story. Third, if your hero acts in an unbelievable way this can cause a premature ending because you’ve taken your reader out of the story.

2. ARBITARY ENDINGS

The story just stops. The reader will feel like the writer just got sick of writing, or reached the required 32 pages and had to quit.

3. CLOSED ENDINGS

This is the most common kind of false ending, and I suggest it’s the most common ending of popular picturebooks. ‘The hero accomplishes his goal, gains a simple self-revelation, and exists in a new equilibrium where everything is calm.’ Think of all those going to bed stories, which serve a purpose for young children. Or, if not bed, the child returns to the home after an adventure.

The thing is, ‘desire never stops. Equilibrium is temporary. The self-revelation is never simple, and it cannot guarantee he hero a satisfying life from that day forward. Since a great story is always a living thing, its ending is no more final and certain than any other part of the story.’

John Truby then offers tips on:

How to Create a Never-ending Story

You can ‘create an apparent equilibrium and then immediately shatter it with one more surprise. This reversal causes the audience to rethink all the characters and actions that have led them to this point…The audience mentally races back to the beginning of the story and reshuffles the same cards in a new combination.’ The movie example is Sixth Sense. We won’t be watching that the same the second time.

In other words, there’s a surprise ending. I make use of this technique in Hilda Bewildered. The limitation of this kind of plotting is that it is the most limited way of creating the never-ending story. ‘It gives you only one more cycle with the audience. The plot was not what they first thought. But now they know. There will be no more surprises.’ This is more a ‘twice-told tale’ than a never-ending story.

Truby recommends weaving a complex story tapestry using character, plot, theme, symbol, scene and dialogue. The permutations can seem infinite.

Tips to create an infinite story tapestry:

1. Hero fails to achieve her desire. Other characters come up with a new desire at the end of the story. This prevents the story from closing down and shows the audience that desire, even when it’s foolish or hopeless, never dies. I make use of this technique in Midnight Feast.

2. Give a surprising character change to an opponent or a minor character. This technique can lead the audience to see the story again with that person as the true hero.

3. Place a tremendous number of details in the background of the story world that on later viewings move to the foreground. Picturebooks lend themselves brilliantly to this technique, because detail and clues can be hidden in the illustrations, revealing themselves only after the story has been read. For an excellent example of this see Guess Who’s Coming For Dinner.

4. Add elements of texture–in character, moral argument, symbol, plot, and story world–that become much more interesting once the audience has seen the plot surprises and the hero’s character change.

5. Create a relationship between the storyteller and the other characters that is fundamentally different once the viewer has seen the plot for the first time. Using an unreliable storyteller is one, but only one, way of doing this.

6. Make the moral argument ambiguous, or don’t show what the hero decides to do when he is confronted with his final moral choice. As soon as you move beyond the simple good versus evil moral argument, you force the audience to reevaluate the hero, the opponents, and all the minor characters to figure out what makes right action. By withholding the final choice, you force the audience to question the hero’s actions again and explore that choice in their own lives. Jon Klassen’s hat books are excellent examples of this type of storytelling.

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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