Secrets and Scams in Storytelling

When telling a story, the following is non-negotiable: Your character must have some kind of plan. There really are no exceptions to this rule.

There are some caveats, such as when your main character is a passive sort of character, in which case another character will make the plan which kicks them out of passivity. (Often it’s the opponent.)

But a story with no plan is not a story.

There’s a specific kind of plan which, as screenwriting guru John Truby has pointed out, audiences really go for. The scam. In her Watching email, NYT writer Margaret Lyons shares her own passion for the scam:

Dear Watchers,
My passion for scams and hoaxes continues unabated, and I’m not alone. I finally had a chance to watch both Fyre Festival docs last week — both flawed; both interesting — and I was also delighted to see that ABC News has a new podcast about Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos. And now, perhaps the best of all scams: A literary scam. This New Yorker piece about the novelist Dan Mallory’s “trail of deceptions” is going to power my whole week.
If you would like to sing “oh my scammy, whammy mammy,” now is the time to rewatch “Mr. Show.”

We hate scammers in real life, but we love to read about scamming plans in our fiction. Perhaps this is wish-fulfilment. We like to fantasise about getting our own back on the those who have wronged us.

The scam is closely related to two other storytelling terms/techniques:

Here’s what Truby says about scams.

Audiences love to be fooled, so make use of plans and scams to extend your plot.

  • The average writer doesn’t realise one of the first keys to plot is your hero’s plan.
  • Plan is a set of guidelines the hero is going to use to beat the opponent and reach the goal.
  • In really good [stories], this plan is often a scam. A scam is simply a plan that involves deception.

A scam isn’t just a single trick that the hero plays on the opponent. A scam is actually a campaign of trickery. It’s a complex sequence of tricks that surprises not only the opposition, it surprises the audience.

When you use a scam, it gives you more plot. A scam involves deception. The scam ties in with the trickster character, in turn tying in with the surprises you get from your opponent. All of these provide a substantial plot. Plot is the area where most writers are weakest.

Films that make use of the scam are varied. Some are serious films:

  • The Dark Knight
  • The Godfather
  • The Bourne Ultimatum
  • Die Hard
  • The Usual Suspects
  • But scam is even more important in comedy genres:
  • Wedding Crashers
  • Beverly Hills Cop
  • Tootsie

The main characters in Orphan Black and The Killing regularly use scams to achieve their goals, by dressing up, telling lies — but the audience knows that it’s all to a worthy end.

WILL ANY SCAM DO?

An audience accepts scams from some characters more than others, and your typical, conservative audience has little tolerance for certain kinds of scams.

In Breaking Bad, Skylar uses a scam to get Ted out of trouble, which many (sexist?) viewers interpret as an ‘unworthy cause’, since she’s married to Walt, and therefore should be loyal only to Walt.’

Children tend to have a higher tolerance for scammer heroes than gatekeeper adults, many of whom believe storybook heroes need to model good behaviour.

SCAMS AND PLANS IN CHILDREN’S STORIES

In children’s literature, baddies who plot evil are often foiled by a child or a childlike creature who saves the day. As in films for adults, some of these plots are serious and some are comical.

Almost every children’s story involves a scam scene, regardless of what we call it:

    • The entire Famous Five and Secret Seven series, and all of the child sleuth grandchild books, in which groups of children outwit smalltime crooks.
    • Matilda — Roald Dahl absoluetely loved scams. Scams form the entire plot points of Matilda and the Twits. But every one of his books involves a scam of some kind, in which the young hero gets back at the opponent. David Walliams writes in the same tradition.
    • Ramona Quimby hides her report card in the freezer because her older sister Beezus’s is always perfect, showing her own school achievements up.
    • Jesse Aarons in The Bridge To Terabithia really wants to go with his music teacher to the museum, so when his mother is half asleep when he asks permission to go, he isn’t really concerned that she may not have even heard him.
    • Mildred Hubble from The Worst Witch series is constantly foiled in the second book in the series by a newcomer (Enid) who Mildred is supposed to be in charge of. This newcomer is full of mischief, which is interesting because she doesn’t really mean to cause trouble for Mildred, she is simply blundering her way through the strict rules of the boarding school for witches, breaking lots of rules.
    • The Pokey Little Puppy — Like Peter Rabbit, this is the character children fall in love with, even though he is doing exactly as his mother tells him not to. Perhaps we like these animals so much because they are justly punished.
    • Room On The Broom — through their own creativity, all of the passengers of the broom display great team work and fool the baddie to save the benevolent witch.
    • The Wee Wishy Woman of Nickety Nackety Noo-noo-noo by Joy Cowley saves her own bacon by fooling her captor into eating a stew made of glue. This is a classic fairytale ending — the clever trickster character gets away, similar to tales such as Hansel and Gretel, who fool the wicked witch by sticking out a chicken bone instead of a finger, and then by feigning ignorance about how to climb into an oven.
    • Holden Caulfield from Catcher In The Rye might be called the father of Ferris Bueller, taking off from school and doing his own thing.
    • Eleanor and Park each deceive themselves about how much they like each other, and then when they realise this, they must deceive certain adults in their lives. Is this the romance equivalent of a scam? I consider it as such.
    • The Fish in This Is Not My Hat has already stolen the hat at the beginning of the picture book, which shows initiative. In We Found A Hat, one tortoise fantasises about scamming his friend, but ultimately realises that this would ruin the friendship.
    • The Story Of The Little Mole Who Knew It Was None Of His Business is basically a revenge story in which a mole gets his own back by shitting on someone else.
    • Wolf Comes To Town is all about a wicked wolf who dresses up as respectable people in order to do very bad things. (Truby calls these plots ‘switch stories’.) This particular form of deception fails to go unpunished, though, which may explain why this children’s picture book went out of print.
    • Artemis Fowl behaves badly, stealing fairy gold, but is undeniably attractive as a character because he goes after what he wants even if it’s illegal. He’s also very proud of himself.

But children’s authors aren’t usually encouraged to make use of ‘scams’, as such. I haven’t seen the word used. But I have heard advice to make use of ‘secrets’, the close cousin of the scam.

SECRETS

In children’s literature, think in terms of ‘secrets’ rather than ‘scams’.

Children’s book editor Cheryl Klein advises that child protagonists should have secrets:

Let the reader know there’s a secret, and then don’t tell them what it is until it absolutely serves your purpose to do so. …It could be a secret the narrator knows and is keeping from the reader…Or it could be a secret the characters have to find out.

Klein points out that the genre of mystery novels require secrets and offers the example of Lemony Snicket, an example of a narrator who has a secret but refuses to tell the reader what it is.

Other child(like) characters with secrets:

  • Claude the dog goes off on his adventures when his owners are at work, so they never know what he’s been up to.
  • The Secret Seven were called ‘secret’ because they never told their parents (or other children outside the club) exactly what went down in their crime-busting world.
  • The storyteller character of Looking For Alaska by John Green keeps a secret from the reader and the structure of the book lets the reader know that we are counting down to a big reveal.
  • Billy in Where The Red Fern Grows has a secret — he sneaks off to buy a puppy after saving up a lot of pocket money, even though his family needs it

Are secrets more common in chapter books (and up) than in picture books? It seems so, since it’s harder to find examples of picture book characters who keep secrets. Since toddlers and young children are completely reliant upon their caregivers, the degree to which child protagonists keep secrets will depend on the age of the ideal reader, with the deepest darkest secrets being kept by YA protagonists.

Klein offers a caution about secrets when crafting the plot:

The answer to the secret has to have a significance equal to the effort the reader has invested in it.

 

Chekhov’s Toy Gun In Children’s Literature

chekhov's toy gun

Chekhov’s gun is a storytelling technique to do with foreshadowing. The author places a gun in the story/picture and one of the characters uses it later. This is the general rule: If the gun has been placed, the author must make use of it. Otherwise the reader will wonder what on earth it was doing there. The reader will feel cheated. In this way, stories are very different from real life.

Obviously, when it comes to children’s literature, guns are a bit of a no-go. However, the Chekhov’s Gun technique is super useful for increasing tension and narrative drive. Children’s writers must be inventive when it comes to avoiding actual gun violence in stories for young readers, but do make use of this same technique.

I’m not sure if someone has already done this, but for children’s literature I’m inventing my own related terminology. The kidlit equivalent of Chekhov’s gun is… Continue reading “Chekhov’s Toy Gun In Children’s Literature”

What is a ‘strong verb’?

dictionary

In high school English we were taught to use ‘strong verbs’ and ‘specific nouns’. Today I’d like to say about more about those strong verbs.

When I taught high school English myself, I noticed the advice was sometimes misinterpreted. Some took it to mean ‘pick the most comically impactful verb’. In place of ‘get out’ (of a chair) they’d choose ‘leap’. In place of ‘put down’ (a school bag) they’d choose ‘throw down’. There was also the danger that those ‘strong verbs’ would creep into dialogue tags, which is another issue altogether.

Other students would make heavy use of a thesaurus, picking unusual verbs. In place of ‘whisper’, ‘susurrate’.  Better thesaurus enthusiasts do make sure their readers could nevertheless deduce the meaning from context.

But there’s another, higher level of word ninja-ing and as writers we must aspire to this one.

Word ninjas choose verbs not only for their dictionary definitions but for their connotations, associations and how they fit into your overall symbol web.

Earlier this year I wrote a re-visioning of “The Pied Piper.” In my story, children are swallowed up into a hill. That’s the verb I used in my first draft — swallow. It was the first that came to mind and it’s not particularly apt. Nothing wrong with it really, and it lasted several drafts. But when I really focused on my verbs in a later pass, I had to admit, I didn’t really mean to turn the hill into a creature with a mouth.

Then I referred back to Robert Browning’s poem and realised that his verb ‘trepan’ was far better. Why? Because of its multiple associations:

trepan

Note that the verb has a mining use, which is basically how Browning uses it, but it also has a grotesque medical use which harks back to medieval times. (Browning wrote his poem fairly recently — even to him, the medical practice of trepanning would have seemed archaic and disturbing.) Because of its mining AND its medical associations, trepan is a far better verb than swallow.

After all the Annie Proulx short stories I’ve been reading lately, I’ve turned attention to how Proulx uses verbs.

Strop — ‘His razor tongue stropped itself on the faults and flaws of his dead parents’. This verb in its literal (non metaphorical) sense means to sharpen something with a strop. A strop is a strip of leather for sharpening razors. In a story about rural characters who work with their hands, this verb is especially appropriate.

Patinate — ‘But in the insomnia of old age he read half the night, the patinated words gliding under his eyes like a river…’ Patina is a thin layer that forms on the surface of copper, bronze and similar metals (a.k.a. tarnish) or certain stones and wooden furniture (sheen from wear, age and polishing) or any similar acquired change of a surface through age and exposure. This may count as an example of pathetic fallacy, in which attributes of something else actually describe the character. It is the character who is built up with layers (of age and experience). (Literature majors let me know if there’s a more appropriate term for this technique than pathetic fallacy.)

Other various examples of verbs done well:

Unloose — meaning ‘to loosen the ties of’, but when the writer used ‘unloose’ instead of ‘loosen’, they wanted to suggest ‘unleashing’, of something bad, like demons or bad memories.

‘Leavened with pride’, in a story which includes kitchen scenes where bread is baked. Pick any verb in any dictionary and you’ll find literal meanings listed first, followed by metaphorical meanings, which are now so common we hardly consider them metaphors. Pick verbs whose metaphorical meanings match the symbol web of your story.

Confect — means to make or construct, but is linked to confectionary, so this verb is useful to describe a character who is both a confectioner/lover of sweets and also, say, a liar.

FURTHER TIPS FOR CHOOSING GOOD VERBS

Think of your milieu. Some verbs are chosen because they are reminiscent of an earlier era: to be afeared of (afraid of), bewail.

Play with your verb nouns. In English, a lot of words are used as both nouns and verbs, one usage leading to the other. Blat means to cry plaintively. It’s also a noun: ‘tooting the horn in loud blats’ (Annie Proulx). A lot of our English words are commonly used as verbs but not as nouns, or vice versa. Try making use of the less common part of speech.

Be mindful of syllable count and phonology. Proulx writes harsh landscapes, so chooses single syllable verbs where possible, and if there are hard consonants like plosives and fricatives, all the better. (Blat, strop and crump etc. match these harsh landscapes. Proulx also uses words like these as character names, and links character to physical setting.)

ONE LOOK DICTIONARY

To help with all this, I highly recommend making use of (the completely free)  OneLook Dictionary. It’s the best writing resource I’ve seen online. You probably know it yourself, but have you found its slightly hidden features? If you haven’t used it recently, it benefited from recent upgrades.

The ‘related words’ page is especially useful, but this is no traditional thesaurus.

onelook dictionary

I recently wrote a short story about a butcher, and the symbol web was — of course — related to meat. So when using OneLook I made sure to make use of its filter functionality:

onelook filter

When I search for hits ‘related to meat’, the dictionary returns results which are tangentially, if not directly, related to my symbol web of meat. Top of the list were:

layer related to meat

As you can see, the job of selecting words is still a very manual process, but this OneLook feature has been super useful to me on various occasions. (Sometimes it is, sometimes it leads me down a fascinating rabbit hole, but is that not the joy of writing?) This feature is especially useful if you have a word on the tip of your tongue.

Poets and poetic stylists take note: You can search the thesaurus by meter:

(The forward slash means stressed, the x unstressed.)

For the more common definitions all you need to do is click once on a word and you get a pop-up window. This saves you opening a whole heap of extra tabs while you’re looking for just the right word:

And I generally know which part of speech I’m looking for, in which case, I definitely make use of this tab to narrow down the results:

OneLook parts of speech

OneLook lets you search by the number of letters (good for crossword enthusiasts, I imagine — I haven’t used it once when writing prose); by ‘sounds like’ and also by ‘primary vowel’. The nice thing about the ‘primary vowel’ feature is, it breaks the non-useful aeiou of English into useful phonemes (though doesn’t make use of phonemic transcriptions, which is only a bummer if you have learned that and would like to occasionally put it to use).

Go forth and have fun with OneLook. Some writers advise against making use of a dictionary and thesaurus — Stephen King is a well-known naysayer, but I wonder if he’s ever seen OneLook! I wonder if Stephen King has ever been stumped for words… Possibly the very best thing about OneLook, and I believe its raison d’être, is its ‘reverse’ functionality. I couldn’t think of the word ‘naysayer’ just then, so I typed ‘anti advocate’ and it returned what — at first — looks like a useless bunch of words, but the 19th result was ‘nay’, which led me to ‘naysayer’.

There’s also a new Spanish version of OneLook.

 

Introducing your character’s age in a children’s novel

child age

Readers want to know early on the age of a main character in a children’s book. In a (non-illustrated) book, we don’t have a visual before us. So character age is one of the most important things we need to know up front.

How and when to convey that bit of information?

I took a look at character age and how this boring but necessary bit of information is introduced in various children’s books I happen to be reading lately. Continue reading “Introducing your character’s age in a children’s novel”

Parts of Prose

parts of prose

There are various ways of thinking about prose.

  • Paragraphs, sentences, words, letters, morphemes. Useful in linguistics; not especially helpful when editing fiction.
  • Acts, scenes, beats. Useful for screenwriters, maybe. (Not everyone thinks in terms of acts, ie. three act structure. John Truby for instance thinks in terms of 22 steps, and 7 minimum. Every screenwriting guru has their own number.)

What about fiction writers, crafting stories for ‘print’ (and eReaders)? Here’s how Rennie Browne and Dave King break it down in their book Self-editing For Fiction Writers, which is excellent:

Let’s start with scenes then ignore that screenwriting term, ‘beat’. (‘Beat’ is a confusing word — it can mean a segment of drama which is smaller than a scene or it can mean a noticeable stretch of silence.) Any scene from a work of fiction can be divided further into:

  1. ACTION – stuff happens
  2. NARRATIVE – the narrator says stuff happens. “Tells”
  3. DIALOGUE – stuff inside the speech marks. “Shows”

An author must decide how much of each kind to include in each scene. There are pluses and minuses with each decision:

  1. Too much ACTION loses the reader because character development is sacrificed. Also, fight scenes and whatnot are actually really boring to read. What works on screen probably doesn’t work as well on page, and vice versa.
  2. Too much NARRATIVE slows the pace and gets boring.
  3. Too much DIALOGUE makes the thing sound more like a script than a story and fails to engage.

PROSE AND GENRE

Different genres demand different balances. Modern young adult novels, for example, have a much higher proportion of dialogue than those published 100 years ago (before YA was a thing, tbf). Literary or experimental fiction can get away with little or no dialogue, which may be appropriate for that particular story.

GENERAL TIPS AND FURTHER OBFUSCATIONS

  • When opening a story, some writers decide to start with a snippet of dialogue to plunge the reader right into ‘the action’. But this is usually confusing. It’s like a stranger yelling fire in a cinema. It can feel like a cheap trick.
  • In the beginning you’ll probably want to be establishing the main character, in which case let us hear them speak pretty early on.
  • There are representation issues that can be fixed/broken with dialogue — in the editing process make sure you haven’t given all the dialogue to the white guys, and while you’re there, make sure you haven’t written all the girls giggling at the boys’ jokes. Even if your marginalised characters are described heavily in narrative summary, and on the page take up as much space as characters from the dominant cultural group, that won’t cut it. Readers will notice if you don’t let underrepresented characters speak, inside speech marks. It feels like a form of symbolic annihilation, and comes on the back of a long history of silencing.
  • ‘Action’ is an easily misunderstood word. We’re not just talking about car chases and fight scenes here. To channel Kurt Vonnegut, ‘action’ may be a section of prose in which a character gets up for a glass of water.
  • Not all ‘-logue’ happens between two characters, and it doesn’t always appear inside speech marks. This is known as ‘free indirect speech’. Free indirect speech is the bacterium of writing world. Er, maybe I should explain. Bacteria are like a cross between animals and plants and have their own unique cell structure. Likewise, free indirect speech is like a cross between dialogue and narration. It’s sort of what the character is saying (to themselves, probably), but it’s not presented inside speech marks. The narrator zooms right into the character’s head. A really adept writer will do this without the reader noticing, and you could say it further breaks up the prose into another, fourth category. If you find a narrative heavy piece of writing which reads really well, take a look and see if the author has broken ‘narration’ down into ‘deep third person’ (camera away from head) and ‘free indirect speech’ (camera inside head).
  • Stream of Consciousness vs Interior Monologue (Stream of consciousness is what we called ‘free indirect speech’ in the 19th and 20th centuries.)

 

FURTHER LISTENING

For an informative podcast on weaving narrative and dialogue, listen to Paula B at The Writing Show — no longer producing new episodes but the archive is a great resource.

 

Diary of a Wombat by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley

Diary of a Wombat cover

This month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story. Today I continue with a selection of mentor texts to help kids see how it works. Yesterday I analysed the structure of an Australian bush ballad. Today I stay in Australia, with the modern picture book classic Diary of a Wombat by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley.

Like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Diary of a Wombat is a parody of a diary. We expect that if someone has taken the trouble to write something down then it must be something important. But wombats don’t really do much and have little to report. Jackie French could have anthropomorphised the wombat and taken her off on an adventure to save the world, but this wombat is inspired by the wombats around French’s own house. Bruce Whatley illustrates animals in a mostly realistic style, with only a few modifications to make the facial expressions more human, making the pairing perfect.

Tuesday Diary of a Wombat

STORY STRUCTURE OF DIARY OF A WOMBAT

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

The wombat.

Unusually for a children’s book, the wombat is female yet has not been given any typically feminine markers, such as a big pink bow. This is partly to do with the realistic style of art. (There is no obvious sexual dimorphism in wombats — you can’t easily tell the sex of a wombat unless you’re an expert.) I wonder if you assumed the wombat was male until “For Pete’s sake! Give her some carrots!” A study by Janet McCabe told us that unless animal characters are given obvious female markers then we tend to read them as male.

The wombat hasn’t been given a name. Often this is because a character stands in for a group. In this case, she stands for your typical wombat, doing typical wombatty things.

A standout feature of the wombat is the distinctive round bottom, which may be why Bruce Whatley chose to depict the wombat from behind in a number of illustrations. This is surprisingly uncommon for picture books, in which we’re more likely to see ‘posed for a photo‘ characters. Bruce Whatley doesn’t vary the top-bottom angle of the wombat, keeping to one-point perspective throughout, without making use of high/low angles. This allows the reader to remain right alongside the wombat as an equal at all times. His choice to depict the wombat in various cardinal directions may partly be to do with the need to vary each illustration from the others. But when wombat sits and stars at the boarded-up door, we really feel her petulant patience for carrots, even though we can’t see her face.

The choice is masterful.

Diary of a Wombat back view

What is wrong with her?

Since our main character a wombat she is unable to communicate what she wants to the humans. This is one of the reasons animals are so common in picture books. They are like young children, also unable to communicate what they need in words.

She is also capricious and according to typical human work ethic, she’s comically lazy.

This is an oblivious character who doesn’t see the havoc she wreaks behind her. She doesn’t realise the humans filled up her hole because they didn’t want a hole. Unlike Peter Rabbit, she doesn’t realise the carrots in the garden have been planted there by someone and that she thieved them. She thinks she happened upon them.

WHAT DOES SHE WANT?

The wombat has simple needs and lives in a wombat utopia — a rural human environment with a large supply of carrots growing in the garden, good soil for digging holes and everything else she could possibly want. The wombat’s stand-out feature is that she wants for nothing. But for narrative drive, a story requires that the main character want something.

Jackie French has fulfilled this story step by giving our wombat the strong desire for carrots. Not only that, she is endlessly greedy for carrots and even when given carrots, she still wants more. This desire drives most of the story but, comically, she eventually has enough of carrots and decides she wants rolled oats instead. This is where her main weakness comes in: she is unable to tell the humans that she now wants rolled oats.

By the way, comic characters often have insatiable appetites. In a comedy ensemble you’ll usually get one who is obsessed with food.

  • In Kath and Kim, Kim is always eating. (Sharon stress eats as well.)
  • In Seinfeld it’s Kramer who is always going to Jerry’s for cereal and whatnot. He is shown to be a fruit connoisseur, and in another episode the big gag is that Kramer could have won a lot of money after being scalded by hot coffee, but he is delighted with a lifetime’s supply of free coffees instead.
  • In The Simpsons, Homer is the character who represents the stomach.

Characters are also funny if we can laugh at their stupidity. The obliviousness of the wombat means that Jackie French created her loosely  based upon the classic Dolt character. There are many different comedy character archetypes. Here are a few more.

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

The human family are in opposition to the wombat not because the humans are trying to get rid of her, but because they have different goals which cannot coexist:

  • Family wants a front door, wombat wants to gain their attention so chews the nice front door.
  • Family wants carrots for dinner so grows carrots in garden; wombat digs them up.
  • Family buys carrots from shop; wombat sits in back seat of car and eats them out of the bag.
  • Family wants a nice garden bed; wombat wants to dig holes where garden bed is.
  • Family wants to dry washing on the line; wombat doesn’t want things dangling onto her nose, so chews washing on line.

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

With a lazy, roly-poly character like this wombat, you aren’t going to get a complicated plan. The plan is simple: to walk to the family’s front door and make a nuisance of oneself until food is provided.

The family’s plan is to work around the  mischief of the wombat, filling in holes once they’re dug, buying more carrots once the home store is depleted.

BIG BATTLE

Though it’s not obvious at first sight, Diary of a Wombat has a mythic structure. Rather, this is a parody of a classic story with a mythic structure. In myths, a hero goes on a very difficult journey to achieve a goal, meets lots of challenges along the way and finally gets what he wants (or not, in a tragedy). The hero then either returns home a changed person or finds a new home wherever he ends up.

The journey of the wombat is down the garden path to the front door. Sure enough, she meets obstacles along the way, but these obstacles are no more fearsome than a bush or a pair of wet pants which tickle her nose. Her ‘big battles’ are therefore ironic.

Okay, so until now I’ve been saying the same things, which are general rules but rules can be broken. So far I’ve told you that in a story with mythic structure the battles increase in intensity until one massive life-and-death battle. This is seen clearly in the Solla Sollew picture book by Dr. Seuss, which is why I included it in this series.

Jackie French shows us that there doesn’t need to be any big battle. In fact, in a parody, where nothing much happens by design, the story wouldn’t cope with one.

So what did the author do instead, to lead us gently towards a conclusion? She used a trick I’m going to call ‘accumulation’. This is exactly what it sounds like — various things from the story come together. By ‘things’, most often I mean ‘objects’. Another (really obvious) example of an ‘accumulation battle’ occurs in Stuck by Oliver Jeffers in which a boy gets something stuck in a tree. He keeps throwing more and more things into the tree hoping to get the other things down. The story gets more and more ridiculous as the things accumulate in the tree.

In Diary of a Wombat, the gag doesn’t rely on the accumulation plot, so it’s much more subtle. You can see it in the line, ‘Demanded oats AND carrots’. Oats and carrots have been the important twin desire lines throughout the story and they come together at the end.

WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?

Wombat learns that if she makes a big enough nuisance of herself then the humans will give her exactly what she wants.

The reader learns, comically, that animals can train humans, not just the other way around!

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

In this mythic journey the wombat finds a new home, even closer to the humans than before, burrowed under the house.

We can extrapolate that things will continue as they did before, but this time the wombat’s life is even more convenient as she doesn’t even have to walk up the garden path to get fed.

 

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

  • I’ve already mentioned Stuck by Oliver Jeffers as another example of an accumulation plot. Another example of an accumulation plot is Let’s Go For A Drive! an Elephant and Piggie book by Mo Willems. In this early reader, two characters collect all sorts of things they’ll need for a drive. These things pile up on the floor. They eventually realise they haven’t got a car so they have to play make believe instead.
  • Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins has other subtle similarities. The hen in Rosie’s Walk (Rosie) is unaware that a fox is trying to catch her. She walks happily through a farm. Rosie’s Walk has been heavily influential as a story in which the text says something completely different from the pictures. Jackie French’s wombat is similarly oblivious, though her life is not in danger. Like Rosie’s Walk, there is a big gap between the pictures and the text. The text is first ‘person’, from the wombat’s point of view, but only the reader knows how much of a nuisance she’s being to the humans she lives with.

 

Teaching Kids To Structure A Story

teaching kids to structure a story

Teaching kids to structure a story is not easy. A lot of students know how to begin, but can’t seem to finish. Others don’t know where to begin. There are plenty of writing templates out there which focus on detail: the five senses, character sketches, describe a setting… All of these are useful, but not at the planning stage.

What to give students at the very beginning?

This is the template I use with my nine-year-old daughter. For more experienced writers there’s a lot  more to it, but I have had great success with my own kid. She loves this template. She now knows how to finish off a story.

1. Who is your main character?

  • What makes your character scared/angry/upset?
  • How do they treat other people badly?

2. What do they want?

  • What is the one big thing your main character wants in THIS story?
  • They might want two things.
  • They KNOW about one of these things. (e.g. a new guitar)
  • But they DON’T KNOW about the other thing. (e.g. to play guitar in front of an audience so everyone loves them and claps)

3. Opponent / Monster / Baddie / Enemy / Frenemy

  • Who is against your main character?
  • Who wants the exact OPPOSITE thing?
  • Or maybe they’re after the SAME thing, but only one person can have it.
  • Who thinks they’re helping, but really they’re not?
  • Who pretends to be their friend, but really they’re not?

4. What’s the plan?

  • How will your main character get that thing they want?
  • What are they going to do?
  • Where will they have to go?
  • Who needs to help?
  • Sometimes plans work, sometimes they don’t.
  • Sometimes the first plan has to change a bit before it works.
  • Sometimes a character does not get what they want. This is called a ‘tragedy’

5. Big Battle

Before the end of your story there will be:

  • A big fight
  • A big argument
  • A near-death experience

6. What does your character learn?

  • Your main character has learnt something.
  • It might be about themselves. It might be something about life in general.
  • They did not know this thing at the beginning of the story.

7. How will life be different from now on?

  • Does your main character live in the same place, or in a new place? Maybe it’s the same place, but feels different now.
  • Do they have the same friends and family?
  • Have things changed between them and other characters?
  • Have they lost something, or got something new?

 

This template is a simplified version of John Truby’s 7 Step Story Structure, which you can read more about in The Anatomy of Story.

Save The Cat, Kill The Dog

save the cat kill the dog

Save The Cat was Blake Snyder’s term for screenwriters, though it’s used a lot by novelists, too. Snyder had the following advice when setting up a main character:

Heroes should be introduced by a selflessly heroic moment in which they ‘save a cat’ or similar, to show they’re a good person.

— Blake Snyder

The opening of the book must establish an emotional connection with the protagonist. The poignancy doesn’t need to happen on page one, and the character doesn’t need to (and shouldn’t) be a saint, but readers need to feel something for them. In screenwriting, this is called saving the cat. The protagonist can yell at old ladies, steal from a blind man’s cup, and cheat at cards, as long as they go out of their way to save one creature from discomfort. Start watching for it in movies. You’ll find that in the first ten minutes, the lead character will enact some version of saving a cat.

— Jane Friedman

The technique is not always called Saving The Cat, but most writers have an intuitive grasp of it anyway.

During the story, your character works to do something valuable despite no obvious benefit to themself. They might bestow gifts on whoever they find in need, devoutly say their prayers at every meal, or just carefully tie their shoelaces before they leave their home. Everyone else thinks the hero is just wasting time. But when the climax comes, it’s the people they helped, the gods they pleased, or those well-tied laces that make the difference.

Mythcreants

This is related to another writing trick in which you, as writer, do something nasty to a character at the beginning of a story to show what you are capable of. This increases suspense because the audience wonders what on earth you are going to do to your characters next.

For example, in the film Super Dark Times, the first scene is of a moose who is dying in a high school classroom after jumping through the window. A police officer is tasked with the job of jumping on the moose’s head to put it out of its misery. This scene seems completely unconnected to the rest of the film, except symbolically, and you could argue that it’s a scene of gratuitous violence. The reason for the scene’s existence is more than symbolic, though. This scene tells the viewer that bad things will happen in this story. We either turn it off or keep watching, to see what those bad things are.

Save the Cat technique is especially valuable when writing an antihero, who must first be written as likeable in their own way. Before Walter White breaks bad, we empathise with him. Antiheroes are harder to write than heroes. See further techniques for writing antiheroes in this post.

Examples of Save The Cat Technique

In The Beach by Alex Garland, Richard has a Save The Cat moment when he, alone among all the backpackers, approaches the woman who cleans the hostel about how dangerous it is to mix water with electricity. He ends up backing away, confident she’ll be fine because she’s obviously been doing this job for years, and feels a little chastised — who is he to tell her how to do her job? We now know several things about Richard — he has concern for other people and experiences can be humbling. This is in line with his first person storyteller’s voice — he’s looking back on this period of his life with a large measure of humility.

In No Country For Old Men, Llewelyn is portrayed as an uncaring person when he quickly forgets about the man dying in the van, the one who asked him for agua. But McCarthy wanted to portray him as far less evil than Chigurgh. So Llewelyn awakes in the middle of the night to take a big bottle of water to the dying Mexican. A Save the Cat moment. Unfortunately he coincides with drug runners, the beginning of a cat and mouse thriller. Llewelyn would’ve been far better off had he never gone back to do the good deed, setting up McCarthy’s ironically harsh world in which even good deeds don’t go unpunished. Although he was unable to save the dying Mexican drug runner, the audience sees the humanity in Llewellyn, and we root for him against his struggle with out-and-out evil.

Friday Night Lights — In the pilot episode, the morality of Landry Clarke is unclear as he plans to lay on the romance with a girl who is probably not interested in him. How far will he go? But our empathy is cemented when he insists they stop to rescue Lyla after she breaks down on the side of the road.

Mad Men — Don Draper has gifted his mistress a television. We don’t know she’s his mistress at this stage — she could be his girlfriend. She throws the gift out the window, further engendering empathy for this poor, put-upon man (who is studying her as a way of getting to know people and to be better at his job).

Breaking Bad — The writers use pretty much every trick in the book to inspire empathy for Walt in the pilot episode but Walt’s Save The Cat moments are understated and based upon what we feel men, in general, shouldn’t have to put up with. He has purchased office supplies but instead of getting thanked he gets chided for using the wrong account. (But he did save the cat by buying the office supplies.) He dutifully goes along to a family celebration and doesn’t cause a scene by reacting to Hank’s dick-waving.

Likewise, Tony Soprano, all round despicable human being, cares deeply about a family of ducks in his damn pool.

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri — Mildred is a tough, thuggish character and we’re shown this immediately, but when she sees a bug upside down on the window sill, waving its legs helplessly in the air, she flips it over the right way.

Moana — We first see cute little toddler Moana help a turtle down to the water’s edge by shading it with a big palm leaf to save it from a flying predator. We fall in love with Moana.

The Iron Giant — Dean McCoppin stands up for the local kook by saying he saw the Iron Giant too, though it turns out he didn’t. He tells Hogarth that if he doesn’t stick up for the kooks who will?

American Fable — Gitty is depicted as the sympathetic character because of how she cares for her pet chicken. Later she will care for her family’s prisoner in similar fashion. On the way home, her father runs over a yearling deer. Gitty is distraught and won’t let  her father put the deer out of his misery, so both father and daughter take the deer home, hoping to nurse it back to health. I don’t remember seeing the deer again — the deer exists only to set the father and daughter up as sympathetic characters. This contrasts with Gitty’s psychopathic older brother. We know he is psychopathic because he plays a trick which almost chops her hand off.

 

Avoiding Save The Cat

This technique is used so frequently that a savvy audience can spot it and see it for the trick that it is. Writers such as Gillian Flynn acknowledge this new level of reader sophistication and go out of their way to avoid it:

I […] wanted to make sure no one tried to make [my character] “save the cat.” To me, Camille is an inherently kind person despite everything that’s happened to her. And you see that when you walk through the day with Camille. You see how she treats people. But she’s not running around saving babies and kittens just so the audience can be sure she’s a good person.

Gillian Flynn in interview

Fresh spin: Kill The Dog

The problem with the Save The Cat technique is that it is such an easy trick and so commonly used that sophisticated audiences pick it as a writer’s trick. So some writers are twisting it a little, putting on a fresh spin.

A Slate article from 2013 asked if Snyder’s Save The Cat screenwriting techniques had become too popular, causing Hollywood to churn out the same stories time and again. It’s worth noting that the Slate culture critics are very sophisticated audiences. A younger audience, for instance, isn’t going to pick Save the Cat moments. In fact, until I had the technique pointed out to me, I never noticed them myself. Now I see saved ‘cats’ everywhere.

Once the audience starts to pick a writing technique, this breaks the fourth wall. So now writers need to put a fresh spin on it.

How, exactly, do you put a fresh spin on Save The Cat?

Matt Bird has noticed an increasingly common trick he has called ‘Kill The Dog’.

Examples of Kill The Dog Technique  (or Drown The Cat)

In The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins has Katniss almost kill a cat, and later Katniss murders a lynx. All this sets the reader up for her to actually save a metaphorical Cat later.

Matt Bird talks about how Suzanne Collins gets away with this.

Matt Bird also offers examples from John Wick and House of Cards.

I noticed it most recently in a Netflix original, The End Of The Fxxxing World.

Case Study: The End Of The Fxxxing World
  • Our two main characters, who have already murdered a serial killer, realise near the end of the narrative that they’re going to have to put an injured dog out of its writhing misery by wringing its neck.
  • I dislike stories in which dogs are killed, and most audiences must feel the same because writers traditionally go out of their way to save dogs, even when numerous humans are expended.
  • This dog is sacrificed for the story, to force the audience to dig deeper into the main moral dilemma: Is it sometimes okay to kill someone? Where would you draw the line? Could you do it?
  • The story starts off priming the audience to think “Killing is wrong in all scenarios, no doubt about it.” We have a seventeen-year-old who wants to murder for the worst of reasons — because he wants to. He is fascinated by it.
  • This is subverted when James and Alyssa accidentally cross a genuine psychopath, which ends with James killing a stranger to save Alyssa from rape and probably death. Now the audience is primed to think that maybe, in some circumstances, murder is all right. It is clear from the props inside the serial killer’s house that he is a despicable human being and that by murdering him they are saving others.
  • Later, James and Alyssa are faced with either murdering the dog or leaving it to writhe in agony. The audience’s morality regarding murder has hopefully gone from one extreme to the other, after various scenarios are presented to us.
  • James, too, is revealed to be not so bad after all. He does show empathy for the dog, proving to himself and to us that he is not actually a proper psychopath. We are what we do, not what we ‘want’ to do, and manage to suppress. Perhaps suppressing our darkest impulses in fact makes us more noble than people who don’t have those impulses in the first place.

Fresh Spin: What You Are In The Dark

The End of The Fxxxing World also makes use of this related trope. Alyssa can easily escape the police by running away, but she finds a lost girl and takes her back to her father, sacrificing herself.

For more on this trope, see the TV Tropes article.

Disturbing Spin but not Fresh: Male Heroes Finding Ugly Women Desirable Nonetheless

This is when a male character finds a woman ‘objectively’ ugly but he wants to do sex to her anyway, in a perverse Save The Cat moment where the author — male author, always a male — seems to want a cookie for his personal stand-in hero, who loves women, all women, even the ugly ones.

Women do realise that we don’t have to look like models and men will still want to have sex with us. Nobody needs saving here.

I write about it here, with examples.

How else are writers saving cats in fiction? Have you noticed related tricks?

Character Empathy In The Sopranos Pilot

If there was a single moment that signaled the new TV reality, it came only a handful of weeks after The Sopranos debuted. By that time, audiences had already begun to feel affection for this new, unusual hero. True, they had seen him involved in beating a man up; plotting insurance fraud, extortion, and arson; and committing adultery. On the other hand, he seemed to come by such behaviour honestly, what with the crazy mother.

— Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution by Brett Martin

It is more difficult to write an antihero than to write a hero. Before creating Tony Soprano, David Chase served his apprenticeship writing a large number of likeable characters, such as amicably divorced Norman Foley from Almost Grown and 1950s Southern lawyer Forrest Bedford in I’ll Fly Away. He graduated to the antihero from there.

If you’re writing an antihero you must use every trick in the book to get your audience to empathise with them early on.

Interestingly, the Sopranos writers weren’t initially brave enough to attempt an empathetic antihero and a murdering one at that, all in the pilot episode. But the show failed to garner interest with show runners. It was only when the writers had someone murdered that The Sopranos was picked up. The subsequent popularity of this show taught writers something — it’s possible to write an empathetic antihero from the very start, even when we show that character at their very worst.

The key is ’empathetic’, not ‘sympathetic’. We have to understand why a character does what they do, but in the case of criminals, gangsters and murderers, we won’t agree with their goals. The best place to find empathetic antiheroes is TV. For the length of a movie we might stick by a  less empathetic antihero because we don’t have to be in their company for so long. It’s said that the age of the TV antihero began with Tony Soprano, who has been strongly influential in many dramas that have emerged since then, paving the way for characters such as Walter White. The writers of the Breaking Bad pilot used all the tricks listed here.

What tricks are those? How did The Sopranos writers ensure audiences would want to stick around Tony for six seasons? Here they are. And for an ordered list, see How To Write An Unlikeable Main Character.

Continue reading “Character Empathy In The Sopranos Pilot”

How To Write An Unlikeable Main Character

In a previous post I wrote about how to make a character likeable. Here’s how to write an unlikeable main character. This is harder to do. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it! Unlikeable characters can be the very best!

A few quick thoughts on “unlikeable characters”. Often I’ll hear people saying they got feedback their character was unlikeable, so they try to make him/her (usually a her) “nicer.” You do NOT need to make your “unlikeable” character nice! You *might* want to make them more relatable/sympathetic. Important difference. If a character is mean as a snake but has sympathetic backstory &/or relatable motivation, readers will invest in them. (Ex: Snape!) Layering an “unlikeable” character’s interiority to show vulnerability can also help us relate. Some “unlikeable” characters are merely determined/motivated in a way/place society deems inappropriate. (Ie strong girls.) In which case… My advice is usually: don’t compromise a strong girl character *just* to make her “nice” for readers. Those aren’t your readers anyway. But if your strong girl character feels unrelatable (different from “not nice!”) think about adding vulnerability or sympathetic motivation.

Ways to make “unlikeable” characters more relatable:

-Sympathetic backstory

-Vulnerability

-Relatable motivation

NOT by making them “nicer”

“Nice” characters typically annoy and/or bore me anyway as a reader. I want motivated! I want determined! Not nice. At least not in fiction.

@NaomiHughesYA

We do need to know how to write likeable characters before we can write unlikeable ones. All the writers who’ve written super popular antiheroes spent years writing likeable characters first. It’s like how you can’t be a good cartoonist until you’ve mastered life drawing.

Surround unlikeable characters with characters who love them.

A classic example of this is Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind, who for some reason, hasn’t driven everyone away. If the other characters don’t mind her, we think as readers, she must be all right deep down, and we persevere through the story.

Scarlett O'Hara unlikeable character

If the hero is unlikeable, at least make them super competent.

A main character’s unlike-ability is almost completely cancelled out if they are very good at what they do.

Unfortunately for women in real life, this doesn’t apply to female characters quite so much. Compare and contrast Skyler and Walter White. Both are super good at what they do, but one of these characters was vilified by a bulk of the audience. The other was celebrated. I even got talking about TV in a doctor’s waiting room with a man who earnestly and passionately argued his case that Walt should’ve murdered Skyler to get rid of her early on. To him that would’ve made a better, more satisfying TV show.

From Steve Jobs, who was a petulant, entitled asshole who bullied employees and nearly destroyed his own company because of his immaturity…from his father he was taught that even the back of the cabinets – the parts people never saw – still mattered. Being a craftsman means caring about every part of what you do, not just the visible or superficial parts.

–- Great Lessons From Bad People

Steve Jobs unlikeable character

Make sure the audience understands motivation.

Okay, backtracking  a little, first they have to be motivated. They have to be active, not passive. They have to have a solid desire and plan to get it. Same as all good characters.

Even heroes who are totally likeable in the beginning often begins to act immorally—to do unlikable things—as they begin to lose to the opponent. What’s really important is that audiences understand the character but not necessarily like everything they do. 

This is another way of saying, make sure your audience empathises (but not sympathises) with your antihero.

When the audience understands a character’s reason for doing bad stuff, we’ll put up with a helluva lot.

 

Generate Twice As Much Empathy For An Antihero As For A Hero.

The pilot of Breaking Bad is a master class in how to generate empathy for a character who will soon turn out to be an antihero.

The pilot of The Sopranos works in a very similar fashion — both Tony and Walt have wives who are depicted as really annoying and unreasonable. In Tony’s case we see an awful mother and a criminal father — how could Tony have turned out any other way? We see his soft side (kind of) with the psychologist. We see him look after The Family.

The audience will share in their frustrations and anguish. The audience won’t share their hates.

Show the audience their hopes, dreams and fears. The audience won’t share their goals.

Since everyone feels misunderstood at times, showing other characters misunderstand them is a great way to generate empathy for unlikeable characters.

 

You can make them morally reprehensible but don’t make them annoying.

Reason  being, no one wants to hang around the length of a book or a movie with an annoying character. But morally terrible people on the other hand? Well at least those people are interesting. When characters cross the line we get to see where our own lines are. That’s what these characters are for. Would we do the same in their situation? How could they have handled things differently?