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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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Picturebook Study: Grey

Gray, the color we attach to characterless people, often suggests bleakness, lack of intensity, a cool detachment. The oppressively predominating gray of the stone walls surrounding Snow White’s mother in Burkert’s picture of her demands our detachment from her but also contrasts with the vibrantly colored patterns we see surrounding her as we look through her window into her room; perhaps as a foreshadowing of her daughter’s fate, she is a small spot of lively beauty in an otherwise bleak and forbidding world. In Intercity, the wordless story of a train trip, Charles Keeping creates a similar relationship between what can be seen around a window and what can be seen through it. The feeling of boring detachment in the predominantly brownish grey pictures of passengers on a train contrasts with the vibrant colors of the world outside the train’s windows, which the passengers ignore. The contrast between the monochrome of the passenger pictures and the rich colours of the window pictures supports the central theme of the book: we see the passengers as they themselves see the world, and we see the richness of the world they miss because they do not bother to look at it.

– Words About Pictures, Perry Nodelman

Daniel Miyares

Daniel Miyares

The Boy and the Airplane




the farmer and the clown




The Invisible Boy






Little Elliot Big City








Black Dog by Levi Pinfold, book jacket


Related: Do you know the word eigengrau?

Short Story Study: The Pot Of Gold by John Cheever

Cheever isn’t exactly well-known for his ability to get inside women’s heads and depict the other half of humanity as fully human. If he wrote a story with a rounded female protagonist, I’m yet to read it. In this story, at least, the main male character has something to learn from his wife. This short story demonstrates that even if Cheever didn’t feel he understood women sufficiently to be able to write from a female perspective, he at least grasped the essence of white male privilege of 1930s New York.

John Cheever demonstrates a complex understanding of what money, or the pursuit of it, can do to the psyche. Though there are many stories and folktales about the evil of money, the messages here are a little more nuanced.


In depression era New York, a young married couple feel that they live on the edge of poverty. In fact, they have enough money to afford an apartment and to go out to dinner on special occasions. But the husband is constantly after a get-rich fix, and spends a lot of money in this pursuit. When he goes off to war, the wife does quite well on her own with their daughter, having temporarily gone back to work. But when he returns, it’s back to high expenditures.

Eventually, the husband gets a lucky break. His uncle has saved a man’s life on Lake Eyrie, and through this connection, the husband is offered a very well paid job in California.

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Short Story Study: Bernadette by Mavis Gallant

The idea of a strange, perhaps untrustworthy housemaid is particularly discomfiting to a middle class who can afford such luxury; we hate to think that we invite our own evil into our comfortable homes. An untrustworthy woman let into the home is a familiar trope in horror stories.


The Nanny 1965

The Hand That Rocks The Cradle 1992

The Hand That Rocks The Cradle 1992

Sometimes the trope isn’t used in the horror genre, but to lend a bit of horror to a different kind of story.

The evil nanny from season four of Downton Abbey 2013

The evil nanny from season four of Downton Abbey 2013


The reader of Mavis Gallant’s story Bernadette is lead to wonder, what is wrong with this girl and is she about to do something terrible? In fact, the housemaid of this story is simply a magnifying glass into the evil which existed in the house before her arrival.

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Picturebook Study: Perspective

The illustrators I admire the most have one thing in common: They each employ the full range of perspectives and points of view: high angle, low angle, up through tunnels, long shots, close ups and so on and so forth. Much can be gained from thinking about perspective in picture books, though Perry Nodelman the whole thing up in a few sentences:

Generally speaking, figures seen from below and against less patterned backgrounds stand out and seem isolated from their environment and in control of it; figures seen from above become part of an environment, either secure in it or constrained by it. Also generally speaking, illustrators who make significant use of changing angles tend to be those who emphasize the intense drama of the stories their depict; Van Allsburg and Trina Schart Hyman, both of whom tend to depict highly charged emotions, use extreme views from above and from below in book after book…As well as viewing their characters from varying angles, picture-book artists can place them against differing sizes of backgrounds, much as movie directors do, in order to focus our attention on specific aspects of their behaviour. Long shots, which show characters surrounded by a lot of background, imply objectivity and distance; they tell us about how a character’s actions influence his environment, or vice versa. Middle-distance shots, which show characters filling most of the space from the top to the bottom of a picture, tend to emphasize the relationships between characters. Close-ups generate involvement with characters by showing us their facial expressions and, presumably, communicating the way they feel…In picture books, close-ups are rare–not surprisingly, for the width of most picture books makes it difficult to show a face without any background behind it. IN any case, this is a literature of action rather than of character, and the empahsis is on events and relationships rather than on subtleties of feeling. If close-ups are used at all in picture books, they tend to be on the front cover or dust jacket and to operate more as an introduction to a character’s appearance than as a way of revealing character.

– Words About Pictures


Jumanji Van Allsburg

from Jumanji by Van Allsburg

from Zathura by Van Allsburg

from Zathura by Van Allsburg


A Child's Christmas In Wales Schart Hyman

A Child’s Christmas In Wales Schart Hyman – bird’s eye view

A Child's Christmas In Wales Schart Hyman

A Child’s Christmas In Wales Schart Hyman – over-the-shoulder view of empathetic character

The Kitchen Knight Trina Schart Hyman

The Kitchen Knight Trina Schart Hyman – drawn from the height of a child reader looking on

Burkert's Snow White - an example of a close up of a face on a front cover

Burkert’s Snow White – an example of a close up of a face on a front cover


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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Making Use Of Juxtaposition In Writing

Juxtaposition Of Scenes John Truby

John Truby points out that TV dramas make excellent case studies for working out how to achieve narrative juxtaposition, and offers a case study of ER. I would suggest also Six Feet Under, in which the narrative juxtaposition running throughout the series is, of course, a metaphor for life and death.

Each scene in a juxtaposed TV drama will be variations on a single problem. Each strand/plotline will have an underlying unity.

Rules Of Subplot

1. The subplot must affect the hero’s main plot, or it shouldn’t be there at all. If the subplot doesn’t serve the main plot, you have two simultaneous stories that may be clinically interesting to the audience, but they make the main plot seem too long. To connect the subplot to the main plot, make sure the two dovetail neatly, usually near the end.

2. The subplot character is usually not the ally. The subplot character and the ally have two separate functions in the story. The ally helps the hero in the main plot. The subplot character drives a different but related plot that you compare to the main plot.



Most modern Hollywood movies preference speed over true subplots so you don’t see them much anymore.

If you do see one in Hollywood, it’s most likely to be in love stories. This form tends to have a thin main plot, so needs something meaty to turn it into a story.

True subplots aren’t as common as you might think.

Benefits of subplots: improves character, theme and texture of story.

Downsides of subplots: slows ‘the desire line’ (the narrative drive).

Decide whether the texture of the story or the speed is more important.


– John Truby, The Anatomy Of Story

Irony In Decorative Illustration

Tales From The Brothers Grimm Zwerger

In a NYT review of some illustrated fairytales, Maria Tatar says the following:

Though Zwerger’s watercolors are sometimes disturbing, the decorative beauty of her work also functions as an antidote to the violent content of the tales. This dynamic is reversed in Hague’s “Read-to-Me Book of Fairy Tales”: Allison Grace MacDonald’s gentle prose mitigates the ferocity of some of Hague’s illustrations.

In other words, a beautiful picture can moderate violent images in a horrific story. Likewise, a sweet, innocent story can be spiced up by ferocious and daring illustrations.


Picturebook Study: Dogger by Shirley Hughes

dogger cover

I don’t remember seeing a pristine copy of Dogger, ever. Our own copy as a child had been cancelled from a local library and was covered in yellowing sellotape. I still have that copy. Many years later, this is one of my six-year-old daughter’s favourite books. It is also the number one favourite book of the now 13 year old who waits at the same bus stop. In short, Dogger by Shirley Hughes is a timeless classic. What makes it so good?

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