The Tale of Mr Jeremy Fisher by Beatrix Potter

The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher (1906) is one of Beatrix Potter’s more popular stories, and is an excellent example of how to write a sympathetic main character. Publishers had been telling Potter since she wrote it in 1893 for her last nanny’s son that frogs aren’t cute and fluffy enough to warrant main character status in children’s literature. This feels almost unbelievable today, but Potter helped pave the way for non-fluffy stars in picture books.

STORYWORLD OF JEREMY FISHER

JEREMY’S HOUSE

Jeremy Fisher lives in a part human, part animal dwelling, which looks like a regular house but with water slopping all around the corridors and larder. (Just this week I’ve had the washing machine overflow, which calls to mind Jeremy Fisher.)

STICKING PLASTERS

I was surprised to read that when Jeremy gets mildly injured he reaches for the sticking plasters. I didn’t think they’d have been around that long. I looked up ‘when were sticking plasters invented’. Certain American websites think they didn’t exist until Johnson & Johnson made them, but the adhesive plaster has a much longer history in England. These days I don’t hear kids talk about ‘sticking plasters’ — Band-aid seems to have suffered the fate of generification.

Beatrix sold Jeremy Fisher partly on her beautiful scenery to compensate for the unappealing amphibian. So The Tale of Jeremy Fisher is one of Potter’s most beautiful books. The flora, the mountainous background with its misty aerial perspective and the reflections in the water are beautifully rendered. Jeremy Fisher himself is patterned in what looks (to the modern eye) like camo pants, but they’re actually his own skin.

SYMBOLISM OF WATER

Potter is making doubly symbolic use of the water. Consider bodies of water two separate realms in storytelling: The water’s surface and the water’s depths. The water surface functions more like a vast plain (a la the Wild West) whereas the depths are more like outer space — you never know what can come out of it. You can’t see things coming, either. Humans have a natural fear of the ocean, and the further down we go, the more gruesome the fish life appears to us.

STORY STRUCTURE OF JEREMY FISHER

WEAKNESS/NEED/PROBLEM

Through my contemporary lens, Jeremy Fisher is sympathetic in his own right, even without the help of lush scenery. Potter did a great job of his body language and face. The illustration below succeeds in making him look super cute, don’t you think? It’s all in the tilt of the head and perhaps in the underbite jaw.

Jeremy’s Weakness is that he is a low down on the food chain. Potter depicts him as fully a part of it — Jeremy plans to eat minnows, which he catches with worms. He invites to dinner a creature who only eats salad. The reader is made fully cognisant of the food chain and Jeremy’s place within it. There’s nothing sentimental about these stories.

Potter makes Jeremy sympathetic with subtle injections of humour. For instance, his ‘boat’ looks ‘very like the other lily-leaves’. In fact it’s just a lily leaf, not a boat at all. So Jeremy thinks of himself as a human. I know when my dog does things that appear human, I find him very cute. (Curling up in my bean bag, making use of a blanket to keep warm, learning how to open the door etc.) This tends to compensate for the annoyance.

DESIRE

Jeremy Desires minnows (small fish) for his dinner. Ideally he wants to catch more than he needs so he can entertain his friends at his house. This is a likeable sort of desire — we can see Jeremy is a generous ‘person’. Like actual animals in the wild, his relationship with killing isn’t about power (with humans it’s often about power), but about sustenance.

OPPONENT

Jeremy’s Opponents are the much larger fish who swim beneath his ‘boat’. They can eat him up at any time. (He seems remarkably relaxed, considering.)

PLAN

  1. Dig in the garden for worms
  2. Take can of worms to the ‘boat’
  3. Dangle worms in water on the end of a fishing line
  4. Catch minnows
  5. Take minnows home to cook for dinner

He gets as far as 3.

BATTLE

The Battle is beautifully set up, because Potter’s unseen narrator (Potter herself) tells us before the dire moment that the situation would have been dire had he not been wearing his macintosh. This leads us to expect less than what happens: We think he’s going to get terribly splashed.

SELF-REVELATION

Plot revelation: In fact Jeremy’s almost eaten. He is only spat out because the big fish doesn’t like the taste of the macintosh. This would feel like a shock to the young reader.

Jeremy’s Self-revelation is that he’s not safe down near the water and he won’t be going fishing again.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

But we’re given a nice cosy New Equilibrium, with the three friends enjoying a (disgusting) meal together around Jeremy’s dinner table. The original plan didn’t work out, but Jeremy came up with a modified menu.

Mrs Tiggy-Winkle by Beatrix Potter

Beatrix Potter wrote Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle specifically to appeal to girls. She thought that Lucie’s feminine garb, with its emphasis on the lost clothing items (o, calamity!), would appeal to girls especially.

Even today, authors and publishers are creating children’s books for the gender binary* e.g. this book will appeal to boys because X; this will appeal to girls because Y.

*Gender binary is not an ideal term, though it’s used widely. We don’t live in a gender binary — that suggests two categories which are equal. We live with gender isomorphism, in which there are ‘men’ and ‘failed men’.

 

Potter’s concept was a hard sell — publisher Norman Warne (about to become her fiancé) couldn’t see the appeal but he must’ve conceded he wasn’t a girl himself so Beatrix would know better, and Beatrix won (as she often did).

But Beatrix was wrong about the appeal of Lucie. Everyone who sets out to write ‘boy books’ and ‘girl books’ is always completely wrong, of course. Lucie didn’t garner much of an audience at all — everyone preferred the character of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle.

Norman hadn’t been keen on a ‘hedgehog book’, either. He didn’t think dirty hedgehogs would appeal to kids — probably because they’re not fluffy. (The spines are modified hairs, Norman.) Perhaps it was Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle herself who paved the way for an entire raft of animal children’s books featuring non-cute creatures. Now we see reptiles, naked mole rats, fish, likeable insects and almost anything you can think of in picture books. Continue reading “Mrs Tiggy-Winkle by Beatrix Potter”

The Scary Kitchen in Children’s Stories

In The Night Kitchen Maurice Sendak

Most often, kitchens in children’s literature serve as metonyms of familial happiness, but every so often you do find a scary kitchen in which not all is well. The kitchen is the perfect place for a scary scene because it is at once close to home (in fact the hub of the home) and contains dangerous items such as knives.

The ultimate scary picture book kitchen is, in my opinion, one created by Maurice Sendak — In The Night Kitchen.

And here are a couple of shots of the kitchens our story app Midnight Feast. I illustrated the story in two colour schemes — the ochre one is the main character’s reality. The colour illustrations are her imagined, improved take on reality, in which there is not enough to eat due to climate change.

I now find the prospect of climate change so terrifying I’d never spend a year and a half making another climate change story.

midnight feast kitchen

magical restaurant kitchen

I made Midnight Feast deliberately terrifying. (My illustration style doesn’t exactly lend itself to light and fluffy.)

But sometimes I wonder if kitchens are accidentally creepy. Below is a bird’s eye view of Doctor Snuggles’ kitchen. His housekeeper is grumpy and hates him messing up his space. The top down view makes Snuggles look small and somewhat vulnerable. The illustrator has skewed perspective a little to give the reader more of his face.

doctor-snuggles-and-the-lavender-lullaby_800x602
from Doctor Snuggles and the Lavender Lullaby created and written by Jeffrey O’Kelly, illustrated by Nicholas Price, 1982, ABC Television

The kitchen in Courage The Cowardly Dog can be scary or welcoming depending on the camera angle and colour scheme. Purples and blues mean something scary is going down.

from Courage The Cowardly Dog: The Shadow Of Courage
from Courage The Cowardly Dog: The Shadow Of Courage

A comically terrifying kitchen-centred story is a Wallace and Gromit film.

Downlighting and horror film techniques make for a spooky kitchen in Wallace and Gromit: A Matter Of Loaf And Death

Do you know which classic story the following scary kitchen is from?

This house was something between a cave, a prison, and a tumbledown pig-stye. There was a strong door, which was shut and locked.

The setting sun made the window panes glow like red flame; but the kitchen fire was not alight. It was neatly laid with dry sticks, as the rabbits could see, when they peeped through the window.

Benjamin sighed with relief.

But there were preparations upon the kitchen table which made him shudder. There was an immense empty pie-dish of blue willow pattern, and a large carving knife and fork, and a chopper.

At the other end of the table was a partly unfolded tablecloth, a plate, a tumbler, a knife and fork, salt-cellar, mustard and a chair—in short, preparations for one person’s supper.

It is from The Tale of Mr. Tod by Beatrix Potter. Some of those sentences would fit perfectly in a horror novel, don’t you think?

A Country Where You Once Lived by Robin Black

“A Country Where You Once Lived” by Robin Black (2010) is a great example of a short story in which the present story plays out alongside the backstory of a stand-out inflection point (“fulcrum”) which happened 13 years earlier. Two separate time periods merge into one. Whenever this happens in a story we are reminded that no single moment in time stands in isolation — the present is inevitably affected by the past.

The symbolism of trains, and their connection to the irreversible march of time, and the unforgiving nature of bad moral decisions, is fully mined in “A Country Where You Once Lived”. Continue reading “A Country Where You Once Lived by Robin Black”

“Pine” Short Story by Robin Black

“Pine” is a short story from a collection called If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This published 2010, written by Robin Black. This is a wonderful example of a contemporary story loosely based on an old fairytale — this time it’s Bluebeard.

“Pine” is also an excellent example of a story which centers a homophone in which several of its meanings have been extracted for narrative purposes: Pine as in wood and pine as in longing. This serves to unify the story. Importantly, Heidi’s kitchen is NOT made of pine. This would be perhaps too trite and convenient. The narrator thinks the kitchen SHOULD have a pine floor rather than a hard marble one.

Look out for how Robin Black uses the symbol of the beach chair in winter to show that the main character is out of sync with other people’s perception of time. Continue reading ““Pine” Short Story by Robin Black”

The Thrill of the Chase in Storytelling

In the spoof Thriller Concept Generator below, cartoonist Tom Gauld captures the centrality of the chase sequence in the thriller genre.

THE ENDURING APPEAL OF CHASE SEQUENCES IN STORY

Pretty much every modern storytelling technique can be found in the Bible. As for chases, there are plenty. Moses fleeing Egypt springs to mind.

There are the chase scenes in fairytales, which often have a dream-like quality, ignoring the physics of real time and space:

The children saw her coming from afar and the maiden threw a brush behind her. The brush changed into a huge mountain of bristles with thousands and thousands of thorns. The nixie had great difficulty in climbing over them. When the children saw her, the boy threw a comb  behind him that changed into a huge mountain with thousands and thousands of spikes, but the nixie was able to grab hold of them and climb over the mountain. Now the  maiden threw a mirror behind her that formed a glass mountain that was so very, very slippery that the nixie couldn’t climb over it. So she thought: “I’d better go home and fetch my axe and split the mountain in two.” However, by the time she had returned and had smashed the glass, the children had long since made their escape, and the water nixie had to return to tread water in her well.

— “The Water Nixie”, from the first Grimm collection

I suspect the chase nightmare precedes humanity. When my dog sleeps he twitches his feet as if running. I’ll never know for sure, but when he emits those half-hearted barks in his sleep, I bet you he’s being pursued. Or perhaps he’s running after me, thinking I’ve abandoned him.

WHY THE CHASE WORKS SO WELL IN STORY

A story isn’t a story until the main character wants something, and chase is a certain kind of Desire — one character wants something from another. And that desire is externalised. It is also high in suspense. A chase scene will be fast-paced. It is therefore almost mandatory in certain genres, like thriller and action.

FURTHER STORYTELLING TERMS

THE DOUBLE-CHASE

In Secrets of Story, Matt Bird talks about the ‘double-chase’. This is when the main character is both hunter and hunted. This is often what sets off the ticking clock.

Bird also points out that when the double-chase begins, this often forces a decision. The example he offers is when David offers marriage in An Education.

The double-chase is often a feature of what TV Tropes calls the Stern Chase:

The protagonist is being pursued and must stay in motion, usually moving to a different Adventure Town each episode. There will be ploys to delay the pursuit. Some will work, some won’t. Frequently the protagonist must complete a hunt of their own, to bring the pursuit to an end.

The term “stern chase” comes from the navy cliche, “a stern chase is a long chase”, which comes from the old days of sailing ships.

TV Tropes

CHASE-AND-ESCAPE VS. CHASE-AND-CAPTURE

In Writing for Emotional Impact, Karl Iglesias advises juxtaposing scenes — positive charge followed by a negative charge and so on. Positive charge means things are going well for the character.

Chase-and-escape, chase-and-capture also describe scenes, specifically how they end. Iglesias is using the term ‘chase’ more broadly than a literal running-race type pursuit.

Because a scene usually involves a character wanting something from another (the chase), there are only two ways it can end: The character gets what they want, either outright or in a compromise (capture), or they don’t (escape).

— Writing for Emotional Impact

 

Header image by Geran De Klerk

Satire, Parody and Farce

What’s the difference between satire, parody and farce? What about the difference between satire and irony? I frequently conflate these terms, so I looked up some definitions and examples.

SATIRE

Satire is the comedy of beliefs, especially those on which an entire society is based.

Satire has been around for as long as complex human hierarchy has been around — probably since the age of agriculture. Satire was flourishing at the epoch of the Renaissance. Satire was the most important genre of the epoch. This makes sense — the Renaissance was all about change, and satire is all about mocking the old and ushering in the new.

But the following five forms of satire were most common during the Middle Ages (all related to folklore):

  1. The fool satire — popular also throughout Europe from the 15th to the 17th century. Starred the fool or jester who represented the weaknesses, vices, and grotesqueries of contemporary society. Mr Bean would be a modern example. The fool tries to get away with stuff but is found out (unmasked). See also the IT Crowd.
  2. The rascal satire — often interchangeable with the fool satire. But the rascal is not so much ridiculed and unmasked. He serves as a touchstone for the surrounding world. He is trying to gain entrance to organisations and estates of the medieval world.
  3. The satire of greediness and drunkenness — often depicted by a character with a fat belly. This character is linked to fertility, rebirth and universal excess. Greedy characters have two sides to them (as in any carnivalesque tale) — the mocking of greed and idleness are combined with a positive and joyful accentuation of the very material-corporeal principle.
  4. The estate satire — the three estates were the clergy, nobility and peasantry. (Women weren’t included — women were a separate class.) Estates satire praised the glories and purity of each class in its ideal form, but was also used as a window to show how society had gotten out of hand.
  5. Satirical sirventes  ‘service songs’ — a genre of Old Occitan lyric poetry practised by the troubadours, written from the perspective of servicemen.

The satirical element also found expression in other genres of medieval literature, including in church drama and street performance.

Persistent Forms: Explorations in Historical Poetics by Ilya Kilger et al

Comedy in general tends to say something pessimistic about the nature of humankind, and satire is the most effective way of transmitting that message.

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SATIRE AND IRONY

Satire and irony are not the same, but they commonly go together. Satire is the comedy of beliefs, especially those on which an entire society is based.

Irony is a form of story logic in which characters get the opposite of what they want and takes action to get. When it’s used over an entire story and not just for a moment, irony is a grand pattern that connects all actions in the story and expresses a philosophy of how the world works.

Irony also has a bemused tone that encourages the audience to laugh at the relative incompetence of the characters.

In the satiric-ironic form, you make the moral argument by constantly setting up a contrast between a character who thinks they are being moral — supporting the beliefs of the society — and the effects of those actions and beliefs, which are decidedly immoral.

— John Truby

PARODY

Parody – a form of satire that imitates the characteristic style of a particular writer, musician, artist, speaker or genre using deliberate exaggeration for a comic effect.

(Though the epoch of the Renaissance was all about satire, it was also full of parody.)

FARCE

Think of ‘farce’ as ‘broad satire’. And by ‘broad’ we mean satire that isn’t very subtle. A farce will make use of certain over-the-top techniques:

  • physical comedy
  • unlikely situations
  • over-the-top gags

When we’re not talking about comedy, ‘farce’ describes a real life situation which started off serious but has now devolved into ridiculousness.

OTHER SIMILAR WORDS?

Perhaps these words don’t adequately cover contemporary humour.

Header photo by Scott Webb

Comedy Techniques In “This Country”

This Country is a fly-on-the-wall mockumentary sitcom with two series so far (2017-2018). The story centers the misadventures of two cousins marooned in a small village in the Cotswolds. Most of their peers have moved on. Kerry and Kurtan are stuck in adolescence. They behave like typical Year 10s, despite being in their late 20s, early 30s.

Critics have said that the strength of this show is the ‘winning mix of heartfelt moments and punchy belly laughs’. Continue reading “Comedy Techniques In “This Country””