Burlesque In Storytelling

Charles Green - Her First Bouquet

Burlesque is a type of entertainment that caricatures serious works. It is an extreme form of parody. Burlesque can be used as a verb i.e. to burlesque something.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF BURLESQUE

The word derives from the Italian burlesco, in turn derived from burla – mockery. Starting in early 1700s Europe, ‘burlesque’ described musical works which juxtaposed and combined serious and comic elements. This achieved a grotesque effect.

‘Burlesque’ as a literary term became widespread in 17th century Italy and France, and later England. In literature, it was most popular during the Victorian era.

Today ‘burlesque’ is still used in music to indicate a bright or high-spirited mood, sometimes in contrast to seriousness.

Burlesque overlaps in meaning with caricature, parody and travesty and, in its theatrical sense, with extravaganza.

In modern usage, it can also mean a kind of striptease. What has this on-stage striptease got to do with the original meaning of the word? This form is more properly called ‘American Burlesque’, a genre of variety show popularised in the late 1800’s. The style was derived from the ideas of Victorian burlesque, but by the 1900s it had evolved into a combination of satire, comedy, striptease, and musical theatre. It seems the striptease was the most popular part of this ‘variety show’, and now it’s the main thing left.

In modern popular culture, the most commonly represented form of burlesque in film and television is the parody. In fact, parodies have a massive presence in the popular film industry, especially films which parody older films.

WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF BURLESQUE?

Burlesque has two distinct functions: to elevate or denigrate. 17th and 18th century burlesque was divided into two types: high and low. One elevates — the other denigrates.

High Burlesque

A literary, elevated manner is applied to a commonplace or comically inappropriate subject matter. A high burlesque ‘elevates’.

Low Burlesque

Low burlesque applies an irreverent, mocking style to a serious subject. It denigrates its subject. Also known as ‘Mocking satire’.

Burlesque literature is much more than entertainment. It has been a major literary and dramatic technique for social activism and commentary for thousands of years; using humour to attract attention to serious and unresolved issues in society. 

Burlesque can be used as a way to deliver opinions and messages to encourage change and awareness, all by presenting information through comedy that is often outrageous, unusual, and vulgar.

HOW DOES BURLESQUE HUMOUR WORK?

Burlesque makes audiences laugh because of the gap between the content and the form (the style and the substance).

Burlesque relies on the audience having prior knowledge about its subject—the writer assumes that the audience will understand the context and the theme.

EXAMPLES

Note that stories featuring cannibalism are often an indicator of burlesque sensibility.

Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey
  • A parody of gothic fiction
  • Heroine Catherine Morland is a young woman with a vivid imagination. The author suggests this is caused by her love of gothic novels.
  • Austen is mocking the popular Victorian view that literature could cause unrealistic ideas as a result of reading fiction (especially in young women).
  • Today, Jane Austen’s work itself is parodied e.g. Pride, Prejudice and Zombies  (2009) by Seth Grahame-Smith. 
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
  • A parody of the 1978 cult classic Dawn of the Dead
  • Makes fun of the zombie flick genre by mimicking its style in an exaggerated way.
Not Another Teen Movie
  • This movie takes teen movie tropes and plays them for laughs.
  • There’s an entire category of film spoofs, spoofing other movies: Epic Movie, Austin Powers, Tropic Thunder.
  • Scary Movie makes fun of serious but unrealistic teen horror films like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer.

MYTHOLOGICAL BURLESQUE

This term refers to Greek and Roman 4th century comedy. These comedies burlesqued traditional Greek mythical stories. They did very well in the Athenian theatre, especially between 400 and 340 BCE.

FEATURES OF THE MYTHOLOGICAL BURLESQUE
  • Comedians refashioned well-known mythical tales according to the model of their contemporary Athenian society. This is now known as “Atticisation).
  • The marvellous motifs of myths were given the rational treatment
  • If marvellous motifs were kept, they were placed in a fully urbanised environment. This produced ludicrous incongruity.
  • Comedians applied standard genre story structures to mythical material, so now mythical beings were seen as stereotyped stage figures in comic love plots. They were given happy endings.

 

Header painting: Charles Green – Her First Bouquet

The Symbolism of Broomsticks

Henry Meynell Rheam - A Maid Sweeping

Broomsticks are useful storytelling symbols that serve double duty — they are a symbol of female oppression (tied to the house and the drudgery of housework) but also, by leap of imagination, turn into a vehicle by which to escape. Broomsticks may keep a woman housebound, but also afford the imaginative freedom to fly.

This is how broomsticks became associated with witches. There is another theory about why broomsticks became connected to witchcraft. (It’s not safe for work, possible paywall.)

For those of us with vacuum cleaners, it’s hard to imagine the amount of time once tied to brooms, brushes and dustpans. The task of keeping dirt and dust from the home was constant — and necessary — because without constant attention the home would attract rodents. At certain times in history, rodents in the house meant death.

For this reason, in Ancient times brooms in a temple were considered sacred. You had to have clean hands to use one.

There are plenty of superstitions concerning brooms, because the act of sweeping is inherently metaphorical.

One version of ‘correct’ sweeping looked like this: Start by the door and sweep inwards. If you sweep your dust outwards towards the front door you will sweep your luck away. (I’ve been doing it wrong my whole life.)

Brooms have had both indoor and outdoor uses, all resulting in hard work.

Weeding the Pavement 1882 George Henry Boughton 1833-1905 Presented by Sir Henry Tate 1894 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N01539
Weeding the Pavement 1882 George Henry Boughton 1833-1905

Brooms have phallic associations (and doesn’t everything?). According to one old superstition, if a single woman stepped over a broom lying on the floor, she would become pregnant out of wedlock. The degree to which people imagine stuffing things inside women to control us will forever baffle me.

It wasn’t just women who have been symbolically tied to brooms. Victorian era British art often depicts boys alongside brooms, as a shorthand symbol of poverty. These are working class boys, some are perhaps chimney sweeps.

The boy below is sitting outside in the dark. Darkness and brooms don’t go luckily together. In Europe it considered unlucky to sweep your home after dark.

Augustus Edwin Mulready - A London Jo - the end of the day 1884
Augustus Edwin Mulready – A London Jo – the end of the day 1884
Augustus Edwin Mulready - The Little Spies 1886
Augustus Edwin Mulready – The Little Spies 1886

The broom does another double duty — in the pleasant and calming scene depicted below, the broom seems to simply add balance to the composition, and also act as another feature of the home, alongside gardens and pets.

Charles Edward Wilson - Feeding the Pets ca. 1890
Charles Edward Wilson – Feeding the Pets ca. 1890

Here’s a similar bucolic composition from the same painter:

Charles Edward Wilson - Louisa - The Rabbit ca. 1920
Charles Edward Wilson – Louisa – The Rabbit ca. 1920
George Bernard O'Neill - The Surprise
George Bernard O’Neill – The Surprise
William Henry Lippincott - Farm Interior - Breton Children Feeding Rabbits
William Henry Lippincott – Farm Interior – Breton Children Feeding Rabbits
William Hahn - Forbidden to go Sleigh Riding
William Hahn – Forbidden to go Sleigh Riding

The outdoors equivalent of the hygge broom is the garden rake:

Charles James Lewis - Mother and Child
Charles James Lewis – Mother and Child
 
George Sheridan Knowles - Summer's Fun
George Sheridan Knowles – Summer’s Fun
John Burr - Waking Dreams 1869
John Burr – Waking Dreams 1869

In the painting below we may wonder at the inclusion of the broom. We see a pretty girl admiring herself in the mirror — what’s with the broom edging into the scene?

It all becomes clear when we learn the title of the painting: Borrowed Plumes. A plume is a long, soft feather or arrangement of feathers used by a bird for display or worn by a person for ornament, or anything that spreads itself out as a bird plumes its feathers.

So these are not her clothes. This is a little brown bird dressing up as a fancier bird. The broom nearby tells us she’ll never be free of her mundane duties though, significantly, the broom isn’t positioned to appear in the mirror image.

George Goodwin Kilburne - Borrowed Plumes
George Goodwin Kilburne – Borrowed Plumes

Below, children dress up for play. A broom is a mandatory accoutrement when dressing as Cinderella.

Charles Hunt - Cinderella
Charles Hunt – Cinderella
 
BROOMSTICK WEDDINGS

Broomstick weddings were common term during the 18th and 19th century England and referred to weddings not regarded legal.

In America slaves who lived on plantations were often refused the right to marry. Naturally they fell in love and yearned to commit themselves to the love of their life. When two lovers jumped over a broom together they were considered married. This tradition is related to the metaphorical act of ‘sweeping away’ — and fresh beginnings.

Others claim the stick on the ground represented a division between their old home and the new. Lovers thereby jump into their new home together, this time as a couple.

 
The Old Plantation, attributed to John Rose, Beaufort County, South Carolina, probably 1785–1790
The Old Plantation, attributed to John Rose, Beaufort County, South Carolina, probably 1785–1790

Supernatural Creatures

Brooms can be used to get rid of unpleasant things from the house — other than just dirt and dust. According to Chinese folklore, you can get rid of a vampire (jiangshi) by sweeping it out with a broom.

Where do I find my inciting incident?

John Ritchie - An Expected Rise in Stocks

The term ‘inciting incident’ is one of those writing words which means different things to different people. Some writers don’t think in terms of inciting incident. To others it is key to a good story beginning.

All good stories have inciting incidents, but if you’re having trouble finding yours, that might be because they don’t look as we might expect. An inciting incident isn’t always a bomb going off.

THERE IS NO SINGLE INCITING INCIDENT

First, know the difference between story and plot. This is what Peter Selgin’s talking about in the first paragraph below:

Where to begin? Of all the questions that harass novelists and others with a story to tell, it has to be the peskiest. The question comes down to structure. Not what happened, i.e. the series of events that make a story, but the order in which those events are conveyed. Should we start with the beginning, or at the end? Or should we cherry-pick a dramatic scene from somewhere in the middle, and backtrack from there, filling in all the things that lead up to that dramatic moment, then continue to the end?

Assuming we’ve chosen to tell a story from the beginning, what beginning do we start with? Writing guides often use the term inciting incident, meaning the event or incident that propels a character or characters out of their status quo existence, igniting the plot.

But locating that inciting incident isn’t always that simple, since often there’s more than one. In fact there’s always more than one, with an inciting incident lurking behind every inciting incident, a breadcrumb trail of inciting incidents leading back to the birth of the protagonist and beyond, to her conception, and the birth of her parents, and the birth of their parents, and, finally, ultimately, by logical extension, the Creation of the Universe.

Hansel and Gretel follow the bread crumbs
Inciting incidents are like bread crumbs.

One famous story that doesn’t have another inciting incident lurking behind its inciting incident begins, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and Earth.” No back-story to that story.

But unless you’re writing the Bible (or a James Michener novel), you probably want to begin your story as close as possible to the event that sends your protagonist off on her dramatic journey—a journey of exceptional struggles and fresh opportunities.

Peter Selgin

Noting that narratologists and writers have long stressed that there are always related events prior to the start of a formal narrative, Brian Richardson concludes that “there is no ready formula for ascertaining the actual beginning of the story,” and that judgements about where a narrative begins proceeds on a case-by-case basis.

‘Who Was It If It Wasn’t Me?’: The Problem of Orientation in Alice Munro’s ‘Trespasses’: A Cognitive Ecological Analysis

INCITING INCIDENTS MAY BE VERY SUBTLE

As received by the audience, the inciting incident might be barely noticeable. We might call these ‘soft inciting incidents’. We see soft inciting incidents in works such as Madame Bovary and Lost In Translation.

What is the Inciting Incident in Thelma & Louise? Depends who you ask. Most people would probably say it’s the scene where Louise shoots a man. But in his writing book Hooked, Les Egerton tells us that, for him, the inciting incident is the scene where Thelma makes the decision to go on a trip with her best friend, defying her husband for the first time ever. This happens in Thelma’s kitchen as soon as she hangs up the phone. Daryl has just told her he’s going to be working late. The audience knows he’s seeing another woman. We know something has changed in Thelma because she decides not to tell him Daryl what the audience already knows: She has been invited to go on a trip with Louise. She then makes preparations to leave.

TWO TYPES OF INCITING INCIDENTS

Others have divided inciting incidents into categories. Shawn Coyne does it like this:

CAUSAL INCITING INCIDENTS

A Causal Inciting Incident is the result of an active choice—a wife leaves her husband, a man enlists in the Marines, a dentist molests a patient he’s put under anesthesia.

COINCIDENTAL INCITING INCIDENTS

A coincidental Inciting Incident is when something unexpected or random or accidental happens—a simple man wins the lottery, a woman takes the wrong suitcase at an airport, a piano falls out of a window and kills a man’s dog.

— Coyne, Shawn. The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know (p. 160)

In Thelma & Louise, the Causal Inciting Incident happens in Thelma’s kitchen. The Coincidental Inciting Incident happens in the carpark of the bar.

Some people call The Coincidental Inciting Incident a ‘turning point’.

The best inciting event of this kind is one that makes your main character think she has just overcome the crisis. Louise knows she’s just overcome one crisis (she saved Thelma) but now the police will be after her.

CASE STUDY: ORDINARY PEOPLE

Sometimes an inciting incident isn’t immediately clear because an audience isn’t always aware from the start what the character’s journey is going to be. Robert Redford’s film Ordinary People tells the story of how teenager Conrad Jarrett, traumatized by the death of his brother, seeks psychiatric help. The journey into the woods — and thus the moment that kick starts it only becomes apparent when one realizes it’s a journey towards healing. What catalyzes that journey? The first stage of the first act ends when Conrad is thrown into a new trauma by his mother trashing his breakfast before him; this in turn sparks a journey of introspection, culminating in a flashback of his brother’s death. For Conrad, it’s a choice continue to suffer, or seek help. If the inciting incident is the what, then the flashback is clearly Conrad’s motivation for seeking help, the how that will eventually enable him to find peace. In truth, all three parts are related as they should be but question and answer, the root of all structure, is inherent in the crisis and climax of the act.

In this formulation an inciting incident gives us two elements. The act one crisis point poses a question: will the protagonists make a break with their old selves? And, as we’ve already noted, for the story to really kick off, the protagonist is now required  to make a decision how to respond. The ‘explosion’ and the desire it creates often occur in the first act, embodied in crisis and climax. It can be useful to look at these points as the what and the how. The crisis becomes the what “What’s the problem?” And the climax the how “This is how I’m going to deal with it.

Into The Woods, John Yorke

TIPS FOR WRITING INCITING INCIDENTS

From Shawn Coyne, John Truby and others. These tips show how Inciting Incidents connect so closely to Desire.

  1. Something must happen at the very beginning of the Story—an event that throws the lead character’s life out of balance.
  2. That something is the Inciting Incident. Either a good thing happens or a bad thing happens.
  3. The event can be a random coincidence [aliens attack] or a causal occurrence [your main character’s partner leaves her].
  4. A positive change or a negative change in the life of the character unsettles their world and requires that the character do something to get back to “normal.”
  5. This event gives rise to an object of desire in your lead character’s conscious and often subconscious mind, a tangible object (a conscious want) and something intangible (a subconscious need). Perhaps they want to stop the aliens from destroying earth (conscious) while needing to prove to their family that they’re worthy of their love (subconscious). John Truby calls this surface desire vs deep desire.
  6. Depending on your choice of Genre, the balance of these desires (which one dominates and which one is underneath the telling of the Story) varies. The key thing is that the lead character believes if they attain their conscious object of desire (want), all will right itself in his world.
  7. Whether or not that is true is a different thing.
  8. Doing nothing about an inciting incident is doing something.
  9. Build in a subconscious object of desire. So what could be the subconscious/intangible object of desire for this lead character? It could be a lot of things.
  10. After an Inciting Incident that throws your character’s life out of balance, they will go on a quest to achieve their objects of desire. They’ve got to make plans and execute the plans. But once they take up the quest, forces of antagonism ally against him. Plans go wrong. Character adjusts. Their next plan goes wrong. They adjust. The stakes escalate until they’re at the point of no return. Life will never be the same if they achieves or doesn’t achieve his goals.
  11. Soft inciting incidents can and do work but the trick is to make the incidents escalate after that. Perhaps you have a Causal Inciting Incident (soft) but haven’t included a big, unexpected or random incident that feels interesting for the audience.
  12. Load every beat, scene, sequence, and act with tantalizing Inciting Incidents to keep the reader turning pages or to keep the viewer in their seat.
  13. Mix up your Inciting Incidents. Don’t make them all causal or all coincidental. When the reader is expecting a causal event, swap in a coincidence and vice versa.
  14. Many Genres have conventional Inciting Incidents that set up obligatory Battle scenes (climaxes). If you’re writing a murder mystery, the Inciting Incident must be the discovery of a dead body. The climax of the mystery will be the solving of the crime.
  15. If you’re writing a love Story, the Inciting Incident will be when the lovers meet. The climax of the love Story will be the answer to whether the couple stays together.
  16. If you’re writing a horror, the Inciting Incident will be an attack by the monster, which sets up the obligatory climax, which is the ultimate confrontation between your lead character victim and the seemingly indestructible monster from your Inciting Incident.

 

Header painting: John Ritchie — An Expected Rise in Stocks

The Ideology Of Wealth In Stories

Money Lender and Wife

Wealth brings out the worst in people. This is the overriding message we get from stories in general, be they for children or adults. However, sometimes by working hard a hero can become rich. In a Cinderella story goodness leads naturally to riches. This is thought to be Cinderella’s rightful place — after all, Cinderella is not a rags to riches story. It’s a riches to rags to riches again story. The high born are thought to be worthy due to their superior bloodline.

In an attempt at subversion, characters in some stories are eventually revealed to be nice people despite being rich. Continue reading “The Ideology Of Wealth In Stories”