Tips For Writing Melodrama

Melodrama is a widely misunderstood term but has its place in good storytelling. What is melodrama, and how do we write it?

A Brief History Of Melodrama

Melodrama emerged around the time of the French Revolution, which marks the beginning of capitalism and a shift towards commodification. Societies were moving from mercantile to market based economies.

Commodification had special relevance to women, because women were themselves commodities. Women and girls were married off for their family’s gain, with no autonomy. In the early modern era, women were not legal individuals, subsumed first by their fathers, next by their husbands.

Melodramatic stories are about what happens to an individual when they are faced with a difficult circumstance. Early melodramas asked questions such as, What is it like to be married off to a man you don’t know or like? Things happened to these main characters. In real life as in melodramatic fiction, these main characters had little agency. Pride and Prejudice is classic melodrama.

Like gothic fiction, melodrama has always been a popular form of storytelling rather than considered high art. No coincidence there: both types of story are about and enjoyed by women, and whatever concerns women is historically considered niche and frivolous.

In earlier times, melodramatic stories were interspersed with musical numbers, though didn’t quite fit the definition of musical theatre. This convention affected how melodramatic works were plotted; with more airtime taken up by the music, there was less time available for the main narrative. When storytellers are faced with telling a story in a very limited time, they have no choice but to rely on character archetypes and plot tropes. Audiences are already familiar with these things and need nothing by way of introduction.

For this same reason, the first cinematic productions also relied on melodrama. With no words in the silent era of film, anything other than reliance upon archetype was impossible.

The 1940s required stories that appealed to women, so stories emerged around the different and proper roles of women in society.

The 20th century gave us the soap opera, a low form of melodrama. They’re not functioning as true melodramas, though. There’s a reason soap operas are shown in the middle of the day — audiences are not craving genuine emotion at that time of day. If soap operas are melodramatic, it’s because they are designed to be an emotional diversion, not a catharsis.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and the way television series are funded. The makers of TV rarely know how many seasons they will be funded for. If they don’t know how long they will have to complete a story, they have no choice but to move away from the quest narrative, in which the story is over once the quest has been achieved. Instead, writers create a large cast of characters and move the camera between characters, between families, setting up a highly unusual situation and then letting the audience watch individuals’ responses to that situation by way of exposing different moralities. That’s what melodrama is.

Not all ‘prestige (episodic) TV’ is melodramatic. Breaking Bad is more quest than melodrama. The writers have previously spoken about one of the most challenging tasks of writing Breaking Bad: The cast of characters is very small, not to mention the writers’ strike that happened part way through season one and never knowing from season to season whether the show would be renewed. (Given the challenges around bringing that story to screen, they did a fantastic job.)

The Sopranos sits further toward the melodramatic end of the scale. The cast of characters is much larger. This is a violent, gangster world, so highly unusual (and shocking) events happen on the regular. Characters respond to that event in various ways.

Big Love, Six Feet Under and The Handmaid’s Tale are melodramas. Each of those shows places main characters in a very difficult, impossible situation. Due to their entrapped status, autonomy of the main characters is limited.

Desperate Housewives is perhaps what many people think of when they think ‘melodrama’. In fact, Desperate Housewives is a satire of soap opera (and wasn’t sold until ‘satire’ was inserted into the pitch).

Young adult stories with a mainly female audience are often described as ‘melodramatic’, with melodrama used as a pejorative. For instance, Rotten Tomatoes says of the film adaptation of If I Stay, “Although Chloë Grace Moretz gives it her all and the story adds an intriguing supernatural twist to its melodramatic young adult framework, If I Stay is ultimately more manipulative than moving.”

So What Is Melodrama?

In everyday English, ‘melodrama’ suffers from the same problem as ‘surreal‘. Generally, speakers use both of these words to describe something that is not realistic or unreal, when in fact the terms properly describe works of art which are more real(istic) than other works of art.

Surrealism and melodrama are related. Surrealism is a different but related kind of exaggeration. The meanings implicit in objects, people, or events become more obvious and accessible than meanings normally are in the chaotic muddle of our everyday world.

Because of its heightened, exaggerated reality, melodrama lends itself easily to symbolism, allegory, and surrealism.

So how is melodrama more real than, say, drama? Melodrama is the technique of revealing reality by concentrating on the remarkable rather than the ordinary. Melodrama is about extremes, especially extremes of circumstance and emotional reaction to that circumstance.

Melodrama is a storytelling paradigm rather than a genre. For that reason, different genres, and different stories within those genres, each have their own analogue switch relating to melodrama. Some genres tend to be more melodramatic than others. If we consider war movies a genre (they’re actually a blend of action and drama in a wartime setting), then some war movies are melodramatic (Hurt Locker), but some are quest stories instead (Saving Private Ryan, Apocalypse Now).

Many stories aimed at children (especially teens) are high in melodrama.

We might think of melodrama as the inverse of ‘quest’ arc. This is a continuum rather than a binary division. Some stories are more quest-like, some stories are more melodramatic.

When determining the extent of melodrama in any given story, ask the following: Is there a strong moral question that drives the story? Melodrama is about groups of people (families and family stand-ins), and how massive, unusual outside forces change interpersonal dynamics.

Melodrama is not about twists and turns. Melodrama won’t be using many of the techniques required by, say, thriller, which aims for suspense and perhaps for horripilation but avoids pathos.

What is melodrama for?

  1. Melodrama rouses strong emotions in its audience. These are stories which intend to invoke pathos. Storytellers want to make you cry. First they make you identify with their characters, then they put them through the mill.
  2. Melodrama invokes implicit shared attitudes.
  3. Melodrama presents a cast of characters — typically a family, or family stand-in — gives them an impossible dilemma and then shows how each of those individuals respond to it. Melodramatic stories are therefore domestic in nature. Also, by definition, melodrama requires a clear moral dilemma. A melodramatic story asks the audience to consider what they might do in the same situation, and to ask big, psychological questions such as, How much am I prepared to endure? How much am I prepared to risk? Am I seeing the situation correctly? Is it me that’s the problem here, or is it the world?

Pejoratively, melodrama refers to stories in which the writer tries to make the reader feel something but overdoes it and thus fails. This isn’t entirely fair use, because sometimes the writer WANTS the audience to enjoy the spectacle of characters getting all emotional without involving the audience in the drama. Melodrama can be harnessed deliberately in order to let an audience enjoy a story in a different way (from straight drama).

Why Write Melodrama ?

Sometimes visionary, heightened reality is the most real of all, because all the transitory, trivial details have been stripped away to reveal the fundamental essence of things.

The Setting Of Melodramas

Melodramas make their heroes pawns in cities which symbolise the originating problem for the hero rather than the end of the hero’s activity. The hero is a conscious agent and a conflict between morality and the violation of established laws is developed.

Symbolism.org

A feature of melodramatic settings is often darkness contrasted with light. A lot of the scenes will probably take place at night.

Use of colour palette in the melodramatic TV series Riverdale promotional material makes the most of this contrast:

The dark/light thing is incorporated into the character building, as shown by the taglines of Riverdale below:

Riverdale beauty darkness light

Desire and Need In Main Characters of Melodramas

In traditional (quest) stories, people tend to rise to a challenge in a superhero kind of way. In real life, people are mostly victims of circumstance. Since melodrama is ‘realistic’, it goes for ‘victims of circumstance’ characterisation.

People working in film and TV (and less so in children’s literature) are told constantly that their characters require a desire (surface and underlying), and a shortcoming/need (moral and psychological). Next they’ll need to make a plan, then keep changing the plan as things go wrong for them.

These elements are present in almost all compelling stories, but because writers are told they must have them, this creates a loop in which other types of stories don’t get made.

In real life, there are people who don’t have much agency. That describes all of us at some point of other; something big happens to us and we had no say in the matter. That gives us more in common with the romantic hero than with Walter White, whose plan is to cook meth and provide for his family. The melodramatic main character does not start out with a strong desire. They may wish to simply keep going in their highly restrictive lives. They may not have the executive functioning required to make plans (this is especially true of child characters). They may not have the freedom of gender, or of race.

In melodrama desires are muted; plans are reactionary.

Comedy doesn’t lend itself to melodrama. Comedic heroes tend to be low mimetic. Comedy derives from their own shortcomings — they don’t know enough, they are full of hubris, they are always making mistakes. But comedic main characters have drive, they make plans. Terrible plans, but plans nonetheless. Comedy evokes laughter; melodrama evokes tears. Melodrama goes deeper into character than comedy, which relies on archetype, sometimes with tweaks, but archetypes as base. (This is also why Breaking Bad is less melodramatic than The SopranosBreaking Bad contains a lot of dark comedy, and the two don’t play well together.)

Opponents in Melodrama

In a melodrama, an event happens which robs your character of their power. Their struggle is to regain their power, and thereby achieve freedom. Whoever stands in the way of them regaining their power functions as the opponent. These opponents don’t tend to be arch nemeses and archetypal villains, but spoilt brat offspring and overprotective parents — people with their own understandable wants and needs.

The Unoriginal Plots of Melodramas

Melodrama requires a strong, tried and tested plot. That’s why melodrama tends to correlate with genre fiction.

The external events that happen in melodramas won’t be original. Audience interest derives from the characters’ various reactions to these events. Melodramatic plots are therefore routine and expected.

When plot becomes less important, character becomes more important.

Whatever happens in your melodrama, make sure it is absolutely central to the lives of your main characters. These should be people in crisis. If they’re not in crisis, you’re probably writing drama, not melodrama.

There’s nothing like impending death to rouse you from existential boredom.

Roger Ebert

Bridges Over Madison Country is melodramatic because a woman falls in love with a man who is not her husband, in a culture where leaving her husband is not possible or okay. How does she deal with this over the course of a lifetime? She knows she’ll never love anyone like this again. The story explores how this chance encounter makes her feel, and how it makes her children feel once they discover their deceased mother’s secret life. Brief Encounter is another story with the same basic plot, yet these are clearly two very different stories. It’s not the plot that makes them different.

Young adult melodramas I Am Not Okay With This and Never Have I Ever both start with identical set ups: A teenage girl has recently lost her father. Her interiority is revealed via trips to the school counsellor, who encourages her to open up in a journal. There are other similarities because these plots are not what sets them apart; its all about the character, and these young women’s responses to the loss of their fathers.

Six Feet Under started every episode with a death, followed by the Fisher family meeting with the family to plan a funeral, more or less. The plots themselves would not have soon lost novelty if it weren’t for the highly interesting treatment of character, including dream sequences which hadn’t been seen on television before.

There are many, many stories about a city woman who faces a crisis and returns to her roots in a rural area, where she opens a cafe/bed and breakfast/etc, exposes a secret about her past, then meets the love of her life. Again, there is nothing unique about the plot. This opens up plenty of storytelling room to character development, crisis and… melodrama.

Notice how each of these stories listed above appeal to largely female audiences. There is a bias at work when evaluating stories from a cerebral angle: Original plots get elevated to high art, whereas varied emotional reactions in characters and audiences are criticised for being ‘tearjerkers’, lacking in originality and so on.

The Problem With Melodrama: Believability

Melodrama ignores the ordinary to concentrate on the unusual and unlikely. Ironically, it often creates a credibility problem for readers who expect mimesis in storytelling. (Many true stories are nonetheless unbelievable when transferred to the realm of fiction.)

melodrama film noir
Melodrama is a feature of film noir — a genre made up not by film makers themselves but by film critics.

Tips For Writing Melodrama

Tip 1: SHOW THAT THE MELODRAMATIC THING WORKS RIGHT AWAY

Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire begins with a vampire talking into a tape recorder. Either way, you know pretty clearly what you’re in for from the beginning.

Each story demonstrates its central premise: modern vampires, or shoot-’em-up spaceflight. If you’re going to write melodrama, start with melodrama.

If your story will be playing by rules other writers have used before—that vampires exist, that faster-than-light travel is possible—melodrama may be the best way to go. Work with the accepted convention. Introduce your premise with as little fuss as possible and get on with your story. Stephenie Meyer built her Twilight series on the accepted convention of vampires already established to modern readers by writers such as Anne Rice.

Tip 2: SHOW THAT THIS THING HAS WORKED IN THE RECENT PAST

Especially use this trick if you’re introducing an entirely new concept. 

There’s no arguing with the past — it’s over. Use this obvious bit of wisdom to have a character talk about the thing before it actually appears. Or you can write about a past event for which no satisfactory explanation has ever been found. The story then demonstrates the cause in the present, which also explains the past, retroactively.

Tip 3: USE A TRUSTWORTHY NARRATOR OR CHARACTER

Establish a reasonable character, and have them take the curse/magic/fantasy world seriously. Don’t have anybody doubting it, at least not for long.

This particular storytelling trick doesn’t always work well with the most savvy of young readers. Here’s a young adult who recently shared with the Internet why she doesn’t like YA fiction — one of her main points is that in real life nobody listens to teenagers. The fact that fictional adults listen to fictional young characters can either be a refreshing change or it can trigger annoyance, but now at least you see why writers do it.

Most readers are used to fictional conventions and are also appreciative of new and original fantasy worlds. They will accept anything if it is introduced correctly.

Tip 4: JUXTAPOSE THE EXTRAORDINARY WITH THE MUNDANE

Surround your curse with tangible everyday objects and activities, described in detail. I think this explains the popularity of magical realism. 

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe opens within the (historical) reality of war, in a house that could easily exist in the real world.

Tip 5: ONE IMPROBABILITY PER STORY

If there are a whole lot of odd goings-on they should all have, finally, a single cause. That one cause accepted, all the rest follows: the other oddities fall into place.

Sometimes this advice runs to “Writers are allowed one big lie per story”. But there are diversity issues that you can run into if you follow this advice. I fear this particular writing tip might be responsible for all those medieval fantasy worlds which are, when it all boils down, a retrograde white patriarchy. Perhaps writers think that they can only get away with the fantasy world itself, and that every other aspect of politics and 21st century social life must be laid upon this fantastical world otherwise we’re asking too much of readers.

Tip 6: NO UNDERCUTTING YOUR PREMISE

Don’t explain the big event which kicks off the story. Don’t explain it away or make fun of it in any other way, either. (Once you’ve made fun of it, you’re writing comedy, a melodrama killer.)

Melodrama can be ruined in other ways, too. No waking up and it was all a dream.

Tip 7: NO TALKING ABOUT THE IMPROBABILITY IN NARRATIVE SUMMARY

Especially at first, as you’re establishing the event. The improbable events must be shown in scenes rather than explained in narrative summary. Show don’t tell is not always good advice, but it’s good here.

Dialogue is especially useful when showing rather than telling, because well-rendered dialogue feels believable to an audience.

Lampshading has its uses, but be careful how and when you use it.

Tip 8: DON’T LET THE IMPROBABILITY TAKE OVER THE STORY

Write of the improbability sparingly. Don’t let the big weird event become commonplace. The amount of reality versus ‘improbably, magical thing’ has to be balanced. A story in which literally anything can happen is a story in which nothing makes sense.

In Big Love, the situation of the polygamous family living undercover is normal and ordinary 99% of the time, but has the potential to become extraordinary once in a while, which culminates when Bill runs for office. The normal, domestic scenes build credibility and also suspense, since the reader is always waiting for the secret to come out.

In other words, if you’ve got something functioning as a storytelling monster, don’t trot it out in every chapter or the reader will start to yawn. The monsters audiences imagine are more frightening than the monsters they see.

Alfred Guillou - Farewell 1892
Alfred Guillou – Farewell 1892

Notes above are from Anson Dibell’s book on writing: Plot and a Draft Zero podcast from Stu and Chas with Stephen Cleary.

A Long Way From Chicago By Richard Peck

A Long Way From Chicago by Richard Peck is a Newbery Honor book from 1998, set in the era of The Great Depression. An adult narrator looks back and remembers his wily trickster grandmother. This book is one of the most moving and well-written children’s books I’ve read, at once comical and resonant.

THE COVER OF A LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO

A Long Way From Chicago

On all the various covers of A Long Way From Chicago the image of Joey in the plane features strongly. In one of the chapters Grandma finagles Joey a ride on a plane at the country fair but the plane ride itself is very much secondary to the chapter, in which we and the child characters learn the extent of Grandma’s cunning — as well as how tricks can somehow backfire.

So what’s with the centrality of the plane illustration?

Rumours are things with wings, too.

A Long Way From Chicago, p 118

Later in the story, a few years after Joey has ridden in that plane at the circus, Grandma shows him the power of rumour and gossip. It can be used for good, or it can be used for evil. Most often, it’s somewhere in the middle.

The car Joey loves to drive, not coincidentally, is called a ‘terraplane’ (a vehicle that ‘flies’ across terrain). The terraplane was a type of automobile produced by the Hudson Motor Company, previously called Essex. This particular type of car was designed to be more affordable, for families.

The Terraplane automobile A Long Way From Chicago
The Terraplane automobile

The Terraplane and I were becoming as one.

Historically literate readers will be keenly aware that Joey will come of age just as WW2 breaks out. I read this story without really acknowledging that fact, but in the final chapter we realise it is so, and of course he wants to fly planes. The experiences of his childhood summers with Grandma have lead to his wish to be a fighter pilot.

For more see The Symbolism Of Flight In Children’s Literature.

NARRATION AND TRUTH

The boy narrator is Joey Dowdel, a first person storyteller. His sister is Mary Alice Dowdel, two years younger. 

Because there is a full year elapsing between each story, the children change a lot. While each summer with Grandma teaches Joe something elemental about life, a lot of the change happens off the page, in the way that kids of that age change a lot year by year, regardless of what they’re doing.

The ageing of the children is the thread propelling the story forward in a linear direction. This line gives shape to the separate incidents taking place each summer. Without this narrative thrust the incidents would suffer the same problem as any journey story — the various characters and incidents would seem disconnected and the story as a whole would seem scattered.

Is this a coming-of-age story, then? Yes, but only insofar as any story about kids this age is a coming-of-age story. But this story isn’t about Joey and it’s not much about Mary Alice, either. Like The Great Gatsby, this is a bystander narrator entering a community and the star of this story is the grandmother he spends summers with. Eventually, the grandchildren learn all the tricks of their grandmother, picking people’s shortcomings to do what they feel is good in the community.

Truth is a popular topic when it comes to middle grade literature, and the same applies here. When you were little you were told to never lie. But now you’re in middle childhood you’re starting to realise that good people lie for good reasons. Look and learn. That’s what’s happening in this book.

The choice of narration is an excellent vehicle for this kind of theme:

“Are all my memories true? Every word, and growing truer with the years.”

This is a twisted spin on unreliable narration — Joey is old enough now to have a deeper understanding of the things he experienced as a child. Whereas we might expect old Joe’s memory for exact details to have faded somewhat, we are to trust his general interpretation of events, and the wisdom he brings to this long-ago story.

“We knew kids lie all the time, but Grandma was no kid, and she could tell some whoppers. Of course the reporter had been lied to big time up at the cafe, but Grandma’s lies were more interesting, even historical. […] What little we knew about grown-ups didn’t seem to cover Grandma.”

“[The ghost — actually cat — in the coffin] was a story that grew in the telling in one of those little towns where there’s always time to ponder all the different kinds of truth.”

STORYWORLD OF A LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO

When these scenes take place it is always August — the hottest time of the year.

That first summer it is 1929.

THE WIDER WORLD

This is the America of:

  • Al Capone, Bugs Moran
  • The St Valentine’s Massacre
  • Prohibition — alcohol is banned, which achieves little but serve to make bootleggers rich.
  • Joey and Mary Alice’s family in Chicago has no car telling us they don’t need one due to living in a city but also that they’re from an ordinary middle class family.  By 1931 the Great Depression hasn’t yet ‘bottomed out’ but is heading that way.

THE COUNTRY/CITY DIVIDE

In Chicago there are characters such as the real life John Dillinger, who robbed banks with two female accomplices. Richard Peck makes reference to these in part to contrast Chicago with this small town.

John Dilinger as mentioned in A Long Way From Chicago

Once in the country, Joey is the ingenue narrator, describing the town as an outsider. (This is a useful trick because readers are also outsiders.) Joey tells us that back then, Chicago has an ‘evil’ reputation.

  • Prairie chickens can still be seen waddling about
  • Horses are still common in the rural towns, though the rich family in town drives a Hupmobile.  
  • Fireworks — baby-wakers, torpedoes, bigger one is called a Cherry bomb
  • Snowball bushes grow in Grandma’s yard, which later come in handy for breaking a fall. I doubt they’re all that soft to land on, but they certainly have that image.
  • Grandmother lives in a small town ‘the railway tracks cut in two’. We know how sleepy and unexciting it is because we are told that people stand out under their verandahs to see the train pass by. This town is somewhere between Chicago and St. Louis.
  • “The Coffee Pot was where people went to loaf, talk tall, and swap gossip.” Story arenas need some local meeting place for the community. Gilmore girls also has a coffee house, as does Twin Peaks, Friends, 13 Reasons Why and many other stories about a community of people. Especially cosy stories. 
  • There is a local Holy Rollers church — ragtime and tambourines in the church at night. A Holy Rollers church refers colloquially to Christian churches of the Pentecostal or Holiness type — the kind where there is a lot of singing, standing up, moving about and falling down. It can be used derisively but has also been reclaimed by members of these churches themselves. There’s also the more staid United Brethen Church, where they have the rummage sale.
CHARACTERS IN THIS STORYWORLD

Fictional small towns where nothing much usually happens almost always have a town gossip. Effie Wilcox is the town gossip in A Long Way From Chicago, “whose tongue is attached at the middle and flaps at both ends.” Cosy mysteries need town gossips because the (usually old ladies) who solve the mysteries don’t have easy ins at the local police station (though they’re often related somehow to a copper.) Likewise, kids benefit hugely from a town gossip — being kids, their main insight into the adult world comes from hearing adults talk. A variety of mysteries happen in each of these chapters and I initially expected Effie Wilcox to feature more prominently, but as it happens, Grandma herself somehow has her own ear to the ground.

Wolf Hollow also has a town gossip, as does Anne of Green Gables, in Rachel Lynde.

Also like Anne of Green Gables, A Long Way From Chicago features  a mouse in the food (milk, though planted). This must have been a reasonably common occurrence in rural areas before fridges and modern housing. The grandmother is a trickster archetype — a common character archetype beloved by audiences. She’s getting up to tricks like a character out of a Roald Dahl novel, putting the mouse in the milk. I’m reminded of The Twits.

FOOD

They eat things like green beans and fatback for dinner followed by layer cake. For breakfast: pancakes and corn syrup, fried ham and potatoes and onions. See also: The Evolution Of Fictional Breakfasts.

Nehi is a type of orange pop sold for a nickel a bottle. There are also grapettes, Dr Peppers. 

nehi orange soda

Lack of refrigeration affects what they can eat. Food is home cooked and homegrown, especially at Grandma’s house, as she abhors spending money.

ENTERTAINMENT
  • Mary Alice is reading The Hidden Staircase by Carolyn Keene (a Nancy Drew mystery novel). The Nancy Drew stories are themselves mysteries, and Mary Alice’s interest in helping people out may have influenced her decision to harbour a runaway.
  • Tom Mix movies — an American actor well-known for his cowboy movies. Westerns were popular at this time — it wasn’t until after the world wars that Westerns turned into anti-Westerns.
  • Skipping ropes, skipping chants about presidents, puzzles of famous people. 
  • Tap dancing is popular with girls due to Shirley Temple.
DIALECT

Some of it is regional, some owing to the era.

  • Working like bird dogs
  • You’uns instead of y’all.
  • Throwed instead of thrown
  • Lit running means ‘started running’
  • Chilrun
  • Pecks of potatoes
  • Dagnab it
  • Stir yer stumps
  • ‘Specialty house’ equals a privy equals an outside toilet
  • Skin to the church and get their maw and paw.
  • One of the characters is called ‘Miz’, which at first looks like an unnecessary call to attention of the woman’s unmarriageability, but it’s no such thing — at that time in that part of America women were called ‘Miz’ So-and-so, and it was simply a respectful generic used traditionally. This applied to the American South and places like St Louis.

Family means what you need it to, here. Though Aunt Puss is no blood relation of Grandma’s, the grandchildren are, yet Grandma does not acknowledge to Aunt Puss that they are her own.

TIME

Peck’s treatment of time in this novel borrows from the Gothic tradition.

There are still people alive in this story who fought in the Civil War. It is clear from The River Between Us that Richard Peck’s reason for writing for children (or at least part of it), is to connect young readers to generations they’ve just missed out on knowing. As an older writer, this is something he can do for us. 

In A Long Way From Chicago, Aunt Puss exists as a link to this earlier era. Aunt Puss has dementia and hasn’t noticed the passing of time. She thinks Grandma, Joey and Mary Alice are all the same age.

This does something for the reader’s appreciation of time. A Long Way From Chicago was first published in 1998, so the young reader is about 3 generations younger than Joey, 5 younger than Grandma and 6 younger than Aunt Puss.

But here we all are, each of us a child at some point, each of us connected by this story. Scholars would use the word ‘chronotope’ to describe the treatment of time in literature. Below we have a good explanation of why the Gothic chronotope is particularly well suited to coming-of-age stories like Peck’s:

The Gothic chronotope is often a place, very often a house, haunted by a past that remains present. As a child grows, more and more experiences, good and bad, displace into memory, forming the intricate passages where bits of his or her past get lost, only to re-emerge at unexpected times. The child’s mind becomes a crowded, sometimes frustratingly inaccessible place at the same time as his or her body morphs in uncomfortable ways. […] Gothic motifs of the uncanny are particularly apt for the metaphorical exploration of the vicissitudes of adolescent identity. The uncanny emerges in the adolescent novels they explore to both highlight change and trigger it. It becomes a complex metaphor for the transition the characters undergo with respect to their place in their families and their family history. […] the Gothic also offers fertile ground to explore beyond the conventions of the family to the adolescent’s place in larger social and cultural constellations of identity The results can affirm psychological models of development of they can open those models of development up to scrutiny and critique.

The Gothic In Children’s Literature: Haunting The Borders

The expedition into the past is further extended in the Centennial Summer chapter, when the town lives in the past for a week and dresses in old-fashioned clothes. This is when Joey meets the very old man who apparently fought in the Mexican War. Joey can hardly believe it — the Mexican War was so long ago. Joey himself will be fighting in a war when he gets older. These experiences, where he meets people who have lived through similar events before him, will contribute to his understanding of why he is fighting.

STORY STRUCTURE OF A LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO

This novel could be considered a series of interconnected short stories. I wasn’t surprised to read that the first chapter began as a short story, but Richard Peck realised he could get a lot more mileage out of Grandma Dowdel, so continued writing. Because each chapter is a short story in its own right, it’s possible to break down the structure of each one separately — each has its own desire/plan/big struggle/self revelation sequence. Instead I’ll make some general observations.

SHORTCOMING

Grandma Dowdel comes across — at first — as a misanthropist. She keeps to herself, doesn’t seem to have any friends in town and is so good at lying and tricking that she seems to be on the sociopathic spectrum. Her mistrust of people seems her main shortcoming, shown in the first chapter by the Cowgill boys picking on her as a target, first shooting her letterbox, next hoping to steal her gun.

DESIRE

Grandma Dowdel is gradually revealed to be not a misanthropist but a kind-hearted person who fights for the little guy. She is probably something like INTJ on the Myers-Briggs.

Grandma wants to make the world a better place. At least, her little town. She does not want glory for doing so — she wants to be left alone to do her good deeds. These deeds in themselves give her purpose. Her reasons for doing these things come from within. Unlike the vast majority of rural Americans at that time, Grandma Dowdel is wholly unconnected to the local (Holy Roller) church.

Although Grandma is the main character of interest in this story, Joey himself undergoes the classic ‘doubling down of desire’ that you often see in stories when the main character is required to do something against their will. Joey does not want to spend summers with his grandmother in hillbilly county.

Is Illinois really hillbilly country?
‘Hillbilly’ towns are found in Appalachia (Upstate New York, Western Pennsylvania, East Central and Southeastern Ohio, Western Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama).
However, another hillbilly region could be considered people residing in the Shawnee Forest region of Southern Illinois, or the Illinois Ozarks as they are called, and also South Central Missouri. This area starts around Rolla then heads southwest to Springfield and south into the Northern 2/3 of Arkansas.
The Ozarks and Appalachia are what make up the primary region of “hillbilly” country. Note that hillbillies are therefore not exclusive to the South, as they reside in a good chunk of Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Upstate New York.

But sure enough, when we get to almost the middle of the book, both he and his sister have changed their mind. They now both actively want in on these adventures with Grandma:

I don’t think Grandma’s a very good influence on us,” Mary Alice said. It had taken her a while to come to that conclusion, and I had to agree. It reconciled us some to our trips to visit her. Mary Alice was ten now. I believe this was the first year she didn’t bring her jump rope with her. And she no longer pitched a fit because she couldn’t take her best friends, Beverly and Audrey, to meet Grandma. “They wouldn’t understand,” Mary Alice said.

We weren’t so sure Mother and Dad would either. Since we still dragged our heels about going, they didn’t noticed we looked forward to the trip.

— A Long Way From Chicago, Page 61 (out of 148 pages total).

This change in desire is marked with the odd snippet of dialogue in which Joey accidentally comes out with regional dialect.

In each chapter Richard Peck sets up the desire without telling us that’s what he’s doing. For instance, in The Phantom Brakeman the story opens with Joe and Mary Alice at The Coffee Pot enjoying a Nehi soda. We’re told these drinks cost exactly a nickel. We’re also told how hot it is, and that there’s no air-conditioning, and just plunging one arm into a barrel of water provides relief. Later, when Joe is asked to do something for a nickel, it’s very clear to us just how much Joe wants that drink. We didn’t know that the heat of summer and the price of the drink were going to be significant — at the time it seems like Peck is simply setting the scene.

OPPONENT

Everyone in town is against Grandma Dowdel.

There is the town gossip, the Cowgill boys in the second chapter, the policemen who want to keep drifters out of town, whereas Grandma wants to provide them with a good feed. Then there’s the comical opponent Rupert Pennypacker, who has made an excellent gooseberry pie.

“The Day Of Judgement” chapter also has Joey wanting something badly for the first time — to go for a ride in the plane at the Country Fair. He really wants his grandmother to win the pie competition because then he’ll have the opportunity.

PLAN

Each chapter is a new summer and a new vignette in which Grandma comes up against someone and wins the big struggle by hard work and wits.

Grandma is described as ‘a little grey shape, mouselike’. Mice are smart tricksters themselves. They may be depicted in children’s books as weak and helpless — most often as child stand-ins — but Richard Peck takes the reality of the mouse here when he compares the grandmother to one. Mice are small but they are very brave, and extremely resourceful. They’ve learnt to thrive around people, living on the edge of civilisation. The mouse is an extended metaphor for the grandmother.

As well as mice, Grandma is also associated with gooseberries. Being a sour fruit, the gooseberry is a motif for Grandma’s general demeanour. When Grandma dresses up for the fair, this is the human equivalent of adding sugar to a gooseberry pie to make it palatable.

This is Hillbilly county and from what I learnt reading Hillbilly Elegy, Grandma works by ‘Hillbilly justice’. She’ll lie, thieve, threaten, trick and practise hard to get what she wants. Since the law has their own selfish agenda, she’ll happily take things into her own hands.

BIG STRUGGLE

While each chapter has its own big struggle, the big struggles do not ascend in any approximation to a dramatic arc. Peck has used a variety of big struggle scenes, including slapstick falling from a window to threats with actual guns, but often it takes a less deadly tone.

ANAGNORISIS

Joey realises that he wants to become a fighter pilot, that his sister is growing into a woman, that things change even though children don’t want them to.

NEW SITUATION

Joey sees his grandmother (perhaps for the last time?) as his army train zooms past her house in the middle of the night. She has lit up her house like a Jack-o-lantern even though she is normally really stingy with lighting.

The full meaning of the title now becomes clear. “A Long Way From Chicago” refers to all the international places Joe will visit via plane during the war.

 

Unreliable Narration In Storytelling

Atkinson Grimshaw - The Trysting Tree

This post more than any other contains spoilers. Sometimes it’s a spoiler just to know that you’re dealing with an unreliable narrator.

Unreliable narration is a storytelling technique which requires some work on the part of the reader, trying to work out how much of the story is true and how much is subjective, or an outright lie.

The most fallible, most consistently clueless narrator you could hope to meet might be Ford Madox Ford in the novel The Good Soldier (1915).

How To Read Literature Like A Professor
a famous liar from fiction

Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

THE UNRELIABLE CONTINUUM

Almost every story fits somewhere on the ‘unreliable continuum’. Let’s exclude omniscient narrators, who we should take at face value, but truly omniscient narration is rare.

I’ve always found the concept of the reliable versus the unreliable narrator peculiar, because I think all narrators are unreliable [laughs]. People tell you what they saw or what they think or what they felt, and they may be telling you the truth, but it might not at all be what someone else saw happen. Like, people always call Humbert Humbert an unreliable narrator. He’s very reliable. He’ll tell you exactly what he thought and felt in a lot of detail. And you also get a very clear sense of what Lolita is experiencing through him. But I don’t think of it as unreliable. I think more in terms, and this sounds really corny, I think more in terms of, Do I care what this narrator thinks and feels? Can he engage me? With students, the problem I see most often is that I don’t get a sense of what their narrators care about. What they want. What matters to them. That’s a bigger issue to me than whether or not they’re reliable in some way.

Mary Gaitskill

Far more common is close third person point of view. Harry Potter fans have had fun arguing about how much of his story is objectively true versus how much is subjectively conveyed owing to Harry’s own biases. For example, in The Philosopher’s Stone, Hermione is depicted as ‘annoying’ but as the series progresses, she is no longer so presumably she has undergone a character arc. But who’s to say that Hermione was ever objectively an irritant? Could it be Harry’s sexist response towards a girly swot who knew more than he did which lead readers to conclude the same?

The following explains, in part, why true omniscient narration may have gone the way of the dodo. It is no longer culturally accepted that there is any such thing as objective truth:

W.G. Sebald once said to me, “I think that fiction writing which does not acknowledge the uncertainty of the narrator himself is a form of imposture which I find very, very difficult to take. Any form of authorial writing where the narrator sets himself up as stagehand and director and judge and executor in a text, I find somehow unacceptable. I cannot bear to read books of this kind.” Seabed continued: “If you refer to Jane Austen, you refer to a world where there were set standards of propriety which were accepted by everyone. Given that you have a world where the rules are clear and where one knows where trespassing begins, then I think it is legitimate, within that context, to be a narrator who knows what the rules are and who knows the answers to certain questions. But I think these certainties have been taken from us by the course of history, and that we do have to acknowledge our own sense of ignorance and of insufficiency in these matters and therefore to try and write accordingly.

For Sebald, and for many writers like him, standard third-person omniscient narration is a kind of antique cheat. But both sides of the division have been caricatured. […]

Even the apparently unreliable narrator is more often than not reliably unreliable. Think of Kazoo Ishiguro’s butler in The Remains of the Day, or of Bertie Wooster, or even of Humbert Humbert. We know that the narrator is being unreliable because the author is alerting us, through reliable manipulation, to that narrator’s vulnerability. A process of authorial flagging is going on; the novel teaches us how to read its narrator.

James Wood, How Fiction Works
Charles Haigh Wood - The Tryst
Charles Haigh Wood – The Tryst

WHY USE AN UNRELIABLE NARRATOR?

Unreliable narrators are useful for achieving an epiphany in the reader. Chekhov makes the most of this in his later works, in which the reader has an epiphany while the character goes on without one, unchanging.

The unreliable narrator breaks down into at least three different types:

1. The narrator that purposefully leads you astray

2. The narrator whose view of the world is so strident that by sheer force of will they are attempting to lead you astray

3. The narrator who does not attempt to lead you astray but does by dint of their youth and inexperience: Room, Catcher In The Rye

Fuse8 blog

The Importance of the ‘Ghost’

When creating an unreliable narrator the narrator has to have

1. A secret (“ghost” from their background)

2. A reason for keeping this secret/ghost from us.

Somebody else will be trying to expose that secret. Why does this other character want the secret exposed? Without these things going on in your story, you probably don’t need to make use of an unreliable narrator.

The Grandmother Genre Of Modern Unreliable Narration

Look to gothic literature.

Our modern imperilled (or seemingly imperilled) female protagonists calls to mind the gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe and her heirs. From Emily St. Aubert, the heroine of Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, who is kept prisoner in an Italian castle, to the narrator of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper who is confined to a room with bad interior decorating, these women have to sort out the mysteries of their situations to find the truth. Jane Eyre has to find out who’s in the attic. The second Mrs. de Winter has to figure out what happened to her predecessor, Rebecca.

Trapped in a duplicitous world, is it any wonder that they retreat into their own versions of reality? Jane Eyre admits to opening “my inward ear to a tale that never ended—a tale my imagination created, and narrated continuously.” The narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper begins to see figures in the walls. The second Mrs. de Winter is so insecure (maybe because she doesn’t get a name!) she believes Mrs. Danvers’ version of the truth and misreads her husband’s feelings about his dead wife.

Bookish

Unreliable Narration And Feminism

The gothic tradition started something which has continued to this day: A gender imbalance in unreliability. When women are constantly utilised as unreliable, women become intertwined with liars. There is a long history of disbelieving women.

For centuries the testimony of women has been held up to scrutiny and frequently dismissed on the grounds that our biology makes us prone to neurosis, hysteria, irrational subjectivity, and that our judgment can’t be trusted. It’s also a favourite cliche of fiction and drama: the heroine who is repeatedly told by men that she is imagining things, until she starts to question her own sanity. McGowan has repeatedly used the word “gaslighting” of her treatment by men in the industry, a term taken from the 1944 film Gaslight, in which a husband attempts to convince his wife she is going mad in order to cover up his own criminal activity.

It’s curious, then, that in our more enlightened times, when women are no longer routinely incarcerated as hysterics, that we should remain so obsessed with the idea of the female narrator who can’t be relied upon to know her own mind, or even what she saw from the window of her train or apartment. The obvious example is Paula Hawkins’s multimillion-selling The Girl on the Train, in which the narrator’s judgment was impaired by her drink problem. There’s SJ Watson’s bestseller Before I Go to Sleep, which also became a blockbuster film and features a female narrator convinced that something sinister is going on in her marriage, but who struggles to prove it because she suffers from memory loss.

Stephanie Merritt, The Guardian

Examples Of Unreliable Narration In Picture Books

Dr Seuss is the standout example of a picture book author with unreliable narrators. Subversive retellings of fairytales can also ask readers to question the truth.

  • And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street
  • McElliot’s Pool
  • If I Ran The Zoo
  • If I Ran The Circus
  • The Wolf’s Story: What Really Happened to Little Red Riding Hood by Toby Forward, an example of a picture book in which the pictures tell a different story.
  • The True Story Of The Three Little Pigs byJon Scieszka and Lane Smith
  • Seriously, Cinderella Is SO Annoying!: The Story of Cinderella as Told by the Wicked Stepmother by Trisha Speed Shaken — from the perspective of the stepmother and stepsisters who accuse her of being an insipid little twit
  • My Cat, the Silliest Cat in the World by Giles Bachelet — the words tell a story about a cat but the pictures show that the ‘cat’ is actually an elephant.
  • Dear Mrs. LaRue: Letters From Obedience School by Mark Teague — has two stories — the black and white imaginings of a dog narrator which match his melodramatic letters home, compared to coloured illustrations depicting ‘the truth’. (There’s a whole series of them.)
  • Poor Puppy by Nick Bruel  “Poor, poor Puppy. Poor, poor, poor, poor, poor Puppy!” The book then becomes a counting/alphabet book to demonstrate that Puppy isn’t really poor—in fact he has many playthings at his disposal
  • Emma Kate by Patricia Polacco  That adorable Emma Kate has an imaginary friend. They walk to school together every morning and sit together in class. They sleep over at each other’s houses and do their homework side by side. They even have their tonsils out and eat gallons of pink ice cream together. The twist is that the stuffed elephant is imaginary but looks to be inspired by an item in the “real” friend’s possession.
  • Green Wilma by Tedd Arnold Green Wilma is about a girl who wakes up green. Her mother is fussy because she doesn’t feel as thought a green child should go to school. When Wilma gets on the bus the ruckus begins. In art her classmates think its pretty cool to be green. And again more ruckus. She is hungry and finds that flies are what she desires the most. When she spots one on the teachers nose the chase is on. Again, more ruckus. The fly eventually leads her to Millers pond. She jumps in after it and comes face to face with a hungry fish. She immediately wakes up from her dream and relaizes that she is still a little girl and the entire dream was fantasy.
  • Olivia Saves The Circus by Ian Falconer Olivia is a wonderfully unreliable narrator, and this one is a great example in which Olivia the pig tells a tall story. When all of the performers at the circus are out sick with ear infections, it’s up to Olivia to save the day! That’s no problem for Olivia, of course, because she knows how to do everything. From lion taming to trampoline jumping, unicycling to tight-rope walking, Olivia is the ultimate performer (according to Olivia). Olivia is supposed to be telling her classmates about her holidays and spins a tale which revolves around her single-handedly substituting all artists and clowns and animal tamers of a huge circus show, because the entire performing staff suffered from an ear inflammation and – certainly – because Olivia already knew how to do these things.
  • When I Went To The Library
  • Make Way For Ducklings by Robert McCloskey — “Some of the purest examples of irony are found in children’s literature, which often needs to allow a child— or the child’s proxy, an animal — to see the world through limited eyes, while alerting the older reader to this limitation. In Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings, Mr. and Mrs. Mallard are trying out the Boston Public Garden for their new home, when a swan boat (a boat made to look like a swan but actually powered by a pedal-pushing human pilot) passes them. Mr. Mallard has never seen anything like this before. McCloskey falls naturally into free indirect style: “Just as they were getting ready to start on their way, a strange enormous bird came by. It was pushing a boat full of people, and there was a man sitting on its back. ‘Good morning,’ quacked Mr. Mallard, being polite. The big bird was too proud to answer.” Instead of telling us that Mr. Mallard could make no sense of the swan boat, McCloskey places us in Mr. Mallard’s confusion; yet the confusion is obvious enough that a broad ironic gap opens between Mr. Mallard and the reader (or author). We are not confused in the same way as Mr. Mallard; but we are also being made to inhabit Mr. Mallard’s confusion.

Examples Of Unreliable Narration From MG Fiction

Probably because truthful children of this age are upheld as morally better people, unreliable narrators in middle grade stories are a bit harder to find. I’m sure it’s to do with the lack of pictures, too. The ironic distance between text and pictures creates unreliable in picture books, whereas the pictures in ‘illustrated books’ serve to help reading comprehension.

  • Once by Morris Gleitzman
  • Story Of The Treasure-Seekers by E. Nesbit
  • Moominpappa’s Memoirs by Tove Jansson
  • Pale Fire
  • Diary Of A Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney Greg is an unreliable narrator as well as not a great role model. This is attractive to kids. Greg is similar to Bart Simpson or Dennis the Menace in that young readers know exactly what Greg is meant to be. They’re not going to hold him up as a role model. (That said, my daughter has tried to get away with things because Greg does them!)
  • Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made by Stephen Pastis, in the Wimpy Kid tradition
  • Millicent Mee, Girl Genius — the Asian-American female version of Timmy Failure
  • Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead
  • Fortunately, The Milk by Neil Gaiman a father goes out for milk. When he arrives home he spins a tall story for his children about what happened while he was out.

Examples Of Unreliable Narration From Film

  • The Usual Suspects
  • American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis Patrick Bateman is a psychopath living the high life in 1980s Manhattan. He is also a murderer who tortures and rapes. But when Bateman tries to confess to these crimes, he is told he didn’t commit any. So is he a psychopath or does he have some sort of schizophrenic disorder?
  • Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk later adapted for film. This is one of those stories that can definitely be ruined because the reversal is massive. We eventually realize that Durden isn’t our narrator’s new best friend he’s his cooler, crazier alter-ego.
  • The Killer Inside Me directed by Michael Winterbottom was widely panned by critics for its almost unbearable violence against women. You see the main man violently abusing women, then the women would turn around and smile and seem to want it. For people who already have enough violence in their real life, this is indeed unwatchable. For those who can make it to the end of the film, it turns out to have an anti-violence message, because we learn that the violent killer has only been imagining in his own mind that the women are somehow enjoying his violence. This film is an interesting study into how much a writer can or can’t get away with when trying to write a story ‘against’ something, but for most of the story seems to be ‘for’ it.
  • Fallen
  • The Sixth Sense
  • From Goth Girl to Gone Girl: Unreliable Narrators in Literature from Bookish

Examples Of Unreliable Narration In Novels For YA And Older

  • The Turn Of The Screw by Henry James The reader doesn’t know if this is a ghost story or not. The story is the self-reported manuscript of a governess who comes to take care of two orphans, Miles and Flora, at a country house in Essex. After she arrives at the estate, the governess encounters the ghosts of two former employees who have died. She’s the only person who can see the ghosts, but she’s convinced that they’re real. Is this a ghost story or a portrait of a woman’s mental breakdown? This trick whereby the reader isn’t sure if a character is a ghost or not was used by Robert Cormier many years later in In The Middle Of The Night.
  • Here Lies Daniel Tate  Daniel is a magnetic, talented, and desperate con artist who has stumbled into the scam of a lifetime. Assuming the identity of long missing boy, Daniel Tate, he is no longer at the mercy of the foster care system, and gains the security of a home and a family that loves him. But he soon discovers his new home is more sinister than it seemed on the surface…and the Daniel he has replaced might not be missing at all.
  • Lolita Can make the reader feel empathy for a pedophile, which makes us examine how much of Humbert Humbert is inside us, and also makes us realise that even badly behaved people are not all bad. People who do bad things are not monsters they walk among us.
  • Life of Pi by Yann Martel Is Pi adrift on a lifeboat with those animals or is he stranded with other humans, with the animals being allegory?
  • The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin the female narrator has PTSD after a car accident that killed all her friends.
  • Liar by Justine Larbalestier it’s right there in the title.
  • The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger
  • Atonement by Ian McEwan Briony Tallis is unreliable because she is only 13 years old and doesn’t understand how the world works.
  • Dangerous Girls by Abigail Haas
  • If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson
  • Dead To You by Lisa McMann
  • Perks Of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
  • We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn Amy and Nick Dunne is an example of not one but two unreliable narrators. The stand out example of modern unreliable narration.
  • The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins the other standout adult psychological suspense novel of our time.
  • In A Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware
  • The Woman In Cabin 10, also by Ruth Ware
  • The Widow’s House by Clare Goodman   a couple moves into a deteriorating estate in the Hudson Valley, hoping to revitalize their marriage and careers. However, shortly after moving in, the wife, Clare, begins having visions of strangers walking their property and she starts to hear wailing. Could the house be haunted, or is it all in Clare’s mind?
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz  Oscar De León  is an overweight, sci-fi loving Dominican kid growing up in Paterson, New Jersey. But the narrator is his best friend, Yunior de las Casas. Yunior acts as an omniscient narrator, populating the story with details that he couldn’t have known and admitting that he changed some names between “drafts.”
  • Notes On A Scandal by Zoe Heller Barbara Covett is a lonely history teacher who jumps at the chance to be friends with Sheba, the new art teacher at her school. Barbara falls in love with Sheba but Sheba is heterosexual and not interested. Feeling rejected, this affects Barbara’s ability to remove herself from the situation and report reliably. Barbara paints Sheba as manipulative, but we eventually realise Barbara is her equal in that characteristic.
  • The Remains Of The Day by Kazuo Ishiguro Stevens is the head butler of Darlington Hall. He is loyal, precise and hard-working but his blindness to the world is a brilliant example of dramatic irony. He can’t see the slow demise of the great house where he works. Nor can he acknowledge his feelings for a fellow servant.
  • The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters The story would have been easier to tell from third person point of view, so why does Sarah Waters choose to write it from the point of view of the family doctor? I believe it’s because he’s the murderer, writing the story down to try and absolve himself.

50 Must-read Books With Unreliable Narrators from BookRiot

Header painting: Atkinson Grimshaw The Trysting Tree

The Long Haul by Jeff Kinney Story Structure

The Long Haul (2014) by Jeff Kinney is the ninth book in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. I wrote about Jeff Kinney’s writing process in this post, after reading various interviews with him around the web. Kinney tells everyone the same thing he writes the jokes first, finds a way to string them into some sort of story, then does the illustrations in a single two-month flurry of industry. In short, the jokes come first, story a distant second.

However, when Kinney wrote The Long Haul, he already knew it was going to be turned into a movie, and if middle grade novelists can get away with a ‘jokes first’ approach to story structure, Hollywood scriptwriters can’t.

I was writing it with a movie in mind—this is the first book that I’ve written in three acts and with cinematic set pieces. So I really had a different hat on when I was writing this book.

Mental Floss

The Long Haul Jeff Kinney cover

ROAD TRIP STORIES

Road trip stories are an established  genre, especially in America, where car ownership also has a long history. The road trip story also seems to have come out of Westerns, in which characters traversed large swathes of land with the hope of finding something better ultimately themselves.

A long tradition of road trip stories meant Kinney had an established structure to work with when writing The Long Haul. He only had to fit his jokes around that. (Yep, easier said than done, of course.)

Here’s what the author has to say about his (lack of?) personal inspiration for The Long Haul:

Q: Some of your childhood experiences inspired the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books. Is that the case in this book? Do you have a crazy road trip with your family that you were drawing from?

A: I long ago tapped out my own childhood experience. There’s very little of what I went through in this book.

I’ve always had road trip fantasies, and I’d love to rent an RV, a really souped-up RV, and go cross country with my family. But on the book tour I’ve really gotten to see a lot of the country in buses and I’ve realized that it’s nice to have a driver. I think it’s very impractical—it’s not very likely that I’ll end up on a road trip with my family with me in the driver’s seat.

Mental Floss

If you go to IMDb you’ll see that The Long Haul film has garnered a miserable rating of 3.6. I can’t say whether the film structure was a success, but the producers are fighting against another big struggle: The original characters have now aged out of their roles so brand new actors are playing beloved characters. This has not pleased the established audience.

What Is Meant By Mythic Structure?

Jeff Kinney does what others have done to avoid that fragmented feeling you can get from road trip stories:

  1. The whole family is in the one big car. The family members themselves are each other’s main opponents. Greg himself has his brothers (each quite different in the nature of their opposition). The male family members are in constant opposition to the mother’s feminine wish to create a happy family situation by turning into the uber-Mom, over-organising everyone, enthusing over activities but coming up short. The scriptwriters packed even more characters in the car by bringing Rowley along for the ride. (Rowley is absent in the book.) Along the way they are joined by a baby pig.
  2. An enduring opponent is the Beardo family aptly named by Greg because the father has a beard and Beardo rhymes with Weirdo. The illustrations show this family to be a rather hapless ‘white trash’ sort of family off on a very similar family adventure. Sure enough the Heffleys keep running into them. The Beardos are the enduring opponent. Interest and comedy ensue, since this Beardo family does literally nothing to the Heffleys, but Greg gets it into his head that they are mastermind criminals basically following them about to steal all their stuff. This single family who they keep comically running into means fewer disparate opponents are needed overall. This helps avoid story fragmentation.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE LONG HAUL

The Shapes Of Plots In Children’s Literature

The Long Haul is a home-away-home structure but with lots of little self-contained stories scattered along a linear-circular shape.

The Long Haul story shape

Although Kinney wrote the novel with a mind to movie-levels of character shortcoming/desire/opponents and so on, the screenwriters seem to have changed a few things. (Bear in mind I’m not putting myself through actually watching it):

  1. In the book it is the mother who has the desire. Greg passively goes along with his mother’s plans, garnered from a cutesily named ‘Family Frolic’ magazine. In the film, however, the family has the more specific goal of attending Meemaw’s 90th birthday party, and Greg has his own concrete goal to derail the route, ending up at a gaming convention.
  2. The birthday party is assumed to be a sombre gathering, due to the birthday person being female and also extremely old. When the boat flies into the swimming pool we are to derive carnivalesque enjoyment from seeing a staid event livened.
  3. In a movie length feature there needs to be more happening. In the book ‘everything that can go wrong has gone wrong’ but in the film there is even more drama e.g. Dad gets the van stuck in mud and ends up spattering everyone trying to push the vehicle out.

Within this overall structure of a comic journey, Jeff Kinney’s books function more like comic books. The Long Haul can also be regarded as a series of vignettes, each following its own complete story structure, linked together by the overarching comic journey of the road trip. If you read with that in mind, you’ll find every single one of the ‘skits’ follows 7 part structure beautifully. I’ll take just one to illustrate. This is the skit starting on page 68, where the family have stopped at a motel. Greg is trying in vain to get to sleep.

WEAKNESS/PROBLEM

Greg is stuck in a cheap motel when he would rather be at home in his own room in his own bed. He is tired. He needs to sleep.

DESIRE

To go to sleep comfortably and with peace and quiet.

OPPONENT

Mom and Dad have the bed. (They are also snorers.) Manny has the sofa. These characters have taken the best sleeping positions. The kids from the hot tub also disturb his sleep.

PLAN

When Greg has a plan, the first plan doesn’t work. Something always goes slightly wrong, which leads him to his next plan. Greg’s problem solving abilities lead him to comic places:

  • Greg and Rodrick check the closet for a cot of an air mattress but there is nothing.
  • Rodrick gatehrs up the sofa cushions and makes a bed for himself, turning him into another opponent. (If Rodrick hadn’t got the cushions Greg could have them.)
  • Greg decides to sleep in the closet, on top of a pile of towels. However, there is a TERRIBLE smell in the closet. He looks around to check a mouse hasn’t died in the vent.
  • He covers his nose with a washcloth but the smell gets WORSE.
  • He hears snoring so tries to put in earplugs. But it is dark and he can only find one.
  • The kids from the hot tub wake him up from the corridor. They are playing on a cleaning cart.
BIG STRUGGLE

Greg steps out of the motel room to get the kids a piece of his mind. One runs away in tears. The father comes out. Greg runs back into the motel room and chains the door.

anagnorisis

There are no ‘self’ revelations in ongoing comedy series. Only audience and character revelations, for example “Oh, he got out of the scrape due to the opponent’s lack of wits. Good.”

Greg has made a successful escape because the father hasn’t worked out which door Greg ducked into.

NEW SITUATION

The father eventually stops pounding the door next to Greg’s and goes back to his own room. Greg hangs up a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on his door in case he comes back. Greg worries all night and does not get a good night’s sleep.

FURTHER TECHNIQUES

  1. Greg’s unreliable narration and thirst for drama where there is none is one good source of comedy.
  2. Rodrick’s general stupidity provides a lot of comedy, for example locking dinner inside a safe after mistaking it for a microwave. Rodrick’s general stupidity is later subverted when he comes up with a wonderful idea. The technique: Setting Rodrick up as stupid but upending expectations by affording him random strokes of genius. all comic characters can be used in this way. We feel we’ve gotten to know them, and then they surprise us.
  3. Ticking Clock technique. The screenwriters had a big birthday to get to and they couldn’t be late for it. That provided an overarching ticking clock for the film. In the book, Mrs Heffley is taking her boys on a largely unscripted tour of the country, guided only by the low stakes Family Frolic suggestions. To increase tension, there are several gags in which Kinney puts a time limit on a goal. For example, when the father takes an important call from a client and everyone has to be quiet, Manny loses his dummy. Greg knows exactly how long he’s got before Manny starts hollering, shattering the illusion that the father is in his office and not on a family road trip.
  4. This book includes what academics may call ‘intertextuality’ and publishers may call ‘great marketing’ with the mother’s idea to take along a cut out character which is clearly from Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants series, but which in the book is ‘Underpants Bandits’ by Mik Davies (a close enough palindrome for middle grade readers to get).