Hotels and Motels In Stories

Photo by Jake Stark on Unsplash

Hotels and motels, it seems, are inherently scary.  My theory is that they fall into the uncanny valley of attempting to emulate home without actually being our home. Hotels and motels mimic the dream version of home, like when you ‘know’ withiin a dream that you’re ‘at home’, but the dream home is nothing like your real home. Continue reading “Hotels and Motels In Stories”

Freedom & Slavery In Storytelling

In stories, characters change. The change may be tiny; it may be massive. Apart from ‘range of change’, there is another way of thinking about the nature of your main character’s arc: Do they end up free at the end?

Yuval Noah Harari writes in 21 Lessons For The 21st Century that all stories are basically about the victory of mind over matter. Howard Suber says something similar in his book on film: That every movie could be called ‘Trapped’.

I’d like to build on this idea because although it describes most stories, it doesn’t describe all.

Here’s what we can say for sure: All characters desire freedom, in fiction as in real life. And if they seem to crave imprisonment, like the main character in King Rat, for instance, that’s because they’ve ironically found their own kind of freedom within a state of imprisonment.

Continue reading “Freedom & Slavery In Storytelling”

Types Of Invisibility

How To Disappear

As a teenager I loved Fade by Robert Cormier. Fade is a creepy story about a teenage boy who learns he has inherited the superpower of invisibility. If I read it again today I’d probably find it even more creepy than I did then — stalking is sexualised, women are objectified, etc. Time puts a new spin on that story.

Fade is an example of literal invisibility in storytelling. This is invisibility as a kind of wish fulfilment; what would you do if no one saw you do it? Personally, I would enjoy walking at night in summer, free from high UV, harsh Australian sunlight and street harassment.

When women on Twitter were asked what they’d do if men had a curfew in October 2018, many answered the same: We’d go outside and enjoy the freedom. Turning invisible would be similar, and I think it serves the same basic wish fulfilment: The wish to move freely in the world.

In storytelling, invisibility is a fairly common trope, but it doesn’t always serve this exact purpose. Writers use it in a variety of different metaphorical ways.

Weird and Hilarious Anti Smoking Ads - Please Don't Smoke
Invisibility is used in this anti-smoking ad like a horror trope

Continue reading “Types Of Invisibility”

City As Ocean Symbolism

a night scene with a city across a stretch of ocean

Today I make the case that the city, in storytelling, often gets the ocean treatment. The city equals the ocean.

This was first pointed out to me in The Anatomy of Story. You probably already know that mountains and cities are metaphorically linked. The ocean is a less well-known metaphor.

A more powerful natural metaphor for the city than the classic but predictable mountain is the ocean. With this metaphor, the writer usually begins on the rooftops, which are gabled so that the audience has the impression of floating on the waves. Then the story “dips” below the surface to pick up various strands, or characters, who live at different levels of this three-dimensional world and are typically unaware of the others “swimming” in this sea.

— John Truby, The Anatomy of Story

The following music clip is an excellent example of what we’re talking about. The very slow zoom makes us feel as if we are swimming through water.

https://youtu.be/lan-Pjv99Xk

Mary Poppins — who floats down from the sky. (I’m talking about the original film adaptation.) In the house next door, a ship captain stands on the roof (deck of his ‘ship’), along with his first mate. From Mary, the children learn that you can float if you love to laugh the day away. Bert and the chimney sweeps dance on the rooftops, which he calls the ‘sea of enchantment.’ With bursting energy, they prance on the waves (the gables) and defy gravity until the caption fires a shot from his cannon and the sweeps all disappear under the ocean’s surface until it is time to dance once more.

Broadchurch — the opening sequence of the pilot episode shows an eerie but cosy seaside little town, and the camera floats along the main street of this village in a smooth, floating, creepy fashion, as if a ghost. Or a fish.

Panic Room — the camera floats through the house, first along the floorboards then up and over, through objects and walls, waiting for the Jodi Foster character to discover her dangerous intruders. The story opens with the camera floating around New York City, establishing the location as Manhattan.

The trailer of Panic Room gives an idea of how the camera moves.

And here’s the ‘camera fish’ moving from a scene in the film:

But ocean as city is not all doom and gloom. The ocean is good like that — storytellers can use it to both scary and happy effect.

The city as ocean is also the key metaphor when you want to portray the city in its most positive light, as a playground where individuals can live with freedom, style, and love.

You can often pick a film using the city as ocean metaphor because film-makers often rely on the eye of the camera, with the camera gliding along gabled rooftops then dipping down below the “ocean’s surface” and into an open window.

— John Truby, Anatomy of Story

Sponge-bob Squarepants uses the ocean as a playground. So does Ponyo, in places.

CITY AS OCEAN IN PICTURE BOOKS

Numerous picture books have taken a child’s bedroom and turned it into a night-time playground. The most famous in Australia is undoubtedly There’s A Sea In My Bedroom by Margaret Wild.

Others have done similar:

scene from One Of Those Days by John Heffernan and Gwyn Perkins
scene from One Of Those Days by John Heffernan and Gwyn Perkins

The Night-fish by Helen McCosker is another more recent one, because the child brings a piece of the ocean into the bedroom. (With disastrous consequences.)

These stories, in which the child enters the depths of the ocean, even metaphorically, are quite different to stories in which the character travels over the surface of the ocean, as in Where The Wild Things Are or Theodore Mouse Goes To Sea. Consider the ‘sea surface’ a different setting from ‘sea depths’. The sea depths are analogous to outer space in storytelling.

Artist Nicoletta Ceccoli has a series of paintings with girls interacting with fish who float through rooms.

a fish comes in through a window. A girl almost kisses it.

I’ve written a separate post on Ocean Symbolism in Children’s Stories. For other symbolic archetypes in children’s literature, see this post. And for more on the country/city dichotomy, I offer you this post.

Don’t mistake the ocean for the beach, either. Consider them separate, as metaphors. (Naturally, they may be linked.)

What is a detective story?

The Mystery of the Fire Dragon detective story

A detective story is a type of mystery told through the eyes of law enforcers. Crime stories, in contrast, are often told through the eyes of the criminal. An example of a crime story is The Sopranos.

Detective stories relate the solving of a crime, usually one or more murders, by a main character who may or may not be a professional investigator. This large, popular genre has many subgenres, reflecting differences in tone, character. It always contains criminal and detective settings.

Though a typical audience probably doesn’t have a firm idea of the differences, from a writer’s point of view detective, crime and thriller are three very different forms and structures. Detective stories are often marketed as mysteries, perhaps with mystery in the title.

Detective stories are super popular. The detective story, specifically the police procedural, is far more popular than crime, worldwide. Continue reading “What is a detective story?”

All About The Thriller Genre

writing thriller

Below, I list a collection of thought-provoking tips on writing the thriller genre. It’s not that easy to pinpoint what a thriller is, because a lot of descriptions focus on the tone. But this doesn’t help writers much. From a writing point of view, the thriller must contain certain things, otherwise it’s not a thriller.

Thriller is a hybrid genre of mystery and horror with crime and action elements. Each thriller story will have its own balance of these things. This explains why we can still be surprised by a thriller, even though the genre conventions are so strict.

The thriller is difficult to write. You’re writing characters who don’t tend to act as people do in real life, yet the audience has to believe they could behave like that, given the same outlandish circumstances. So when writing a thriller you have to come with all the reasons why the hero doesn’t just call the authorities. Continue reading “All About The Thriller Genre”

A Rose For Emily by William Faulkner

A Rose For Emily William Faulkner

“A Rose For Emily” is a short story by Mississippi born William Faulkner, first published 1930. I didn’t know of the short story when I listened to the podcast Shit Town.

The theme song to Shit Town is A Rose For Emily by The Zombies. There’s exists a disturbing ironic distance between the sadness of the narrative and the upbeat tune. Now I’ve read the short story and also listened to the podcast, I can see why this song was chosen.

As for the short story itself, “A Rose For Emily” is often returned as an excellent example of naturalism.

William Faulkner‘s A Rose for Emily, a story about a woman who killed her lover, is considered an example of a narrative within the naturalism category. This story, which also used Gothic elements, presented a tale that highlighted the extraordinary and excessive features in human nature and the social environment that influences them. The protagonist, Miss Emily, was forced to lead an isolated life, and that — combined with her mental illness — made insanity her inevitable fate. The environment in the forms of a class structure based on slavery and social change, together with heredity, represented the forces beyond her control.

— Wikipedia, Naturalism

FEATURES OF LITERARY NATURALISM

  • Naturalism is a movement from late 1800s to early 1900s.
  • Realism came after Romanticism. (See Wikipedia’s list of literary movements.) Naturalism is basically ‘extreme realism’.
  • Naturalism is all about exploring common values of the ordinary individual, whereas movements which came before included a lot of symbolism, idealism and even supernatural treatment.
  • In naturalism there’s an emphasis on the storyworld and an exploration of how setting shapes character.
  • Naturalism is based around the idea that science (rather than supernatural explanations) account for all social phenomena.
  • Darwin pretty much changed everything, and naturalism is his influence on art.
  • How do humans interact with nature to become who we are? Naturalist writers explored this question via stories about: natural law, evolution, atavism, and degeneration.
  • We’re now in a ‘post-naturalism’ literary period,

POST GOTHIC

Rather than a ‘gothic‘ tale per se, “A Rose For Emily” might better be described as a callback to a twisted Southern Gothic tale. Faulkner borrowed tropes from this movement without belonging to this earlier movement himself.

STORYWORLD OF “A ROSE FOR EMILY”

Emily’s house is your classic house-as-character. Faulkner uses words that more ‘correctly’ describe a human, not an edifice:

It was a big, squarish frame house that had once been white, decorated with cupolas and spires and scrolled balconies in the heavily lightsome style of the seventies, set on what had once been our most select street. But garages and cotton gins had encroached and obliterated even the august names of that neighborhood; only Miss Emily’s house was left, lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps-an eyesore among eyesores. And now Miss Emily had gone to join the representatives of those august names where they lay in the cedar-bemused cemetery among the ranked and anonymous graves of Union and Confederate soldiers who fell at the battle of Jefferson.

We learn about Emily’s house before we learn about Emily. Emily = her house.

The local history of this Deep South town is the Civil War, and what John Truby would call the ghost of “A Rose For Emily”. The war is off the page, but influential nonetheless.

At least one scholar has placed Jefferson in Faulkner’s native Mississippi due to an obscure reference. The narrator mentions many cedars in the cemetery. There are no true cedars in North America, but the misnamed Atlantic White cedar, which is actually a cypress, is native and common to Mississippi. There are few to none Atlantic White cedars in the neighboring states.

TV Tropes

Faulkner talks about Emily’s lineage — her great aunt and so on, and achieves what Annie Proulx also aims for in her short stories — to paint a portrait of a collection of people living in a community, not just one individual. This is based on the idea that individuals never exist in isolation and are therefore pretty uninteresting on their own.

Faulkner plays around with time as if it doesn’t move like an arrow through space. Miss Emily cuts her hair short, ‘making her look like a girl’ once more.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “A ROSE FOR EMILY”

WEAKNESS/NEED

The story opens with Faulkner’s narrator describing men as feeling the appropriate emotions around any dead person (respectful affection) and the women as feeling the inappropriate, unfeeling state of ‘curiosity to see the inside of her house’. Immediately I feel more empathy for the men, but also a little irritated at the gender binary summary. Is this going to be an irritating woman-hating tale? This is literally the first I’ve ever read of Faulkner.

I don’t dig far before finding a thesis which suggests Faulkner wrote women according to four main types:

  1. The Unvanquished — Black and white women who kept the plantations going during the Civil War, or those who held their families together amid disruption.
  2. Ghosts — De-sexed women, usually spinsters, who have lived the greater part of their lives as barren ‘ladies’. Their puritanical backgrounds have caused them to live these unnatural and tragic lives.
  3. Earth Mothers — women who scorn traditional codes and allow their primitive female urges to take over.
  4. Rebels — The inverse of the chaste Southern lady. These women openly reject Southern ideals of womanhood.

Each of these types has her own stock weakness. Emily is clearly depicted as belonging to the second category of Faulkner’s women. But she is revealed to be a Rebel.

That was two years after her father’s death and a short time after her sweetheart–the one we believed would marry her — had deserted her. After her father’s death she went out very little; after her sweetheart went away, people hardly saw her at all.

Faulkner is writing a variation of the Madwoman In The Attic trope:

As they recrossed the lawn, a window that had been dark was lighted and Miss Emily sat in it, the light behind her, and her upright torso motionless as that of an idol.  […] We did not say she was crazy then.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins is another example of this trope.

There is a full list of tropes used in “A Rose For Emily” at TV Tropes.

But is Emily the main character? The town is the main character really. Emily is an interesting artifact of it. Their weakness is that they crave drama, pretend to themselves that they care when they’re really just curious. Worst, their curiosity is misplaced. The narrator describes Emily as looking like an ‘idol’ (as in a statue that doesn’t move) without realising that Emily has created an actual statue of her own. The townsfolk have misjudged and underestimated this woman, thinking her pathetic and ‘mad’ when really she is dangerous and Machiavellian.

DESIRE

It’s more about what Emily does not want.

She does not want to leave her house. She’s a shut-in. She does not want to pay her taxes. We can safely assume she can’t at this stage.

OPPONENT

The new aldermen and mayor, who want Emily to start paying her taxes.

The townspeople want her place cleaned up because it smells bad.

PLAN

Four men break into Emily’s house and scatter lime to get rid of the smell. This does get rid of the smell and they consider their job done. They don’t look beneath the surface, to find whatever’s making that smell.

BATTLE

The Battle scene is in section five, which returns to the beginning of the tale (with seconds two, three and four existing as backstory).  The townspeople make the gruesome discovery.

SELF-REVELATION

Not all horror has to be directly bloody or violent with its language. For example, William Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily” is a good example of a violent story which avoids being directly bloody and violent. Faulkner offers subtle cues and creates an air of mystery without truly revealing Emily’s dark side until the end of the tale—

The man himself lay in the bed. For a long while we just stood there, looking down at the profound and fleshless grin. The body had apparently once lain in the attitude of an embrace, but now the long sleep that outlasts love, that conquers even the grimace of love, had cuckolded him. What was left of him, rotted beneath what was left of the nightshirt, had become inextricable from the bed in which he lay; and upon him and upon the pillow beside him lay that even coating of the patient and biding dust.

 In this passage, Faulkner tells the audience what happened to a man that disappeared from Emily’s town (and the story) years before. He has been found—or rather, his skeleton, which is subtly revealed through the language: a “fleshless grin.” The reader learns that there has been a murder, who the murderer is, and that Emily is more disturbed than anyone ever could have imagined.

The plot reveal also explains the title. The ‘rose’ in the title is the gay man who Emily took for herself, killing him for her own purposes.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

With her Black servant escaped and Emily herself dead, all that’s left of the family is a good story for the townsfolk to tell and retell over and over. The storyteller narrator may have embellished parts of it, but we’ll never know.

Stories We Tell About Women Who Kill

Monster Movie Poster women who kill

There is a strong audience appetite for women who kill men. Storytelling seems to be going through the Age of the Woman Killer right now, with the popularity of Dirty John (podcast and TV series) and a much publicised movie about the Lorena Bobbitt case, which originally happened in the early 1990s. On Netflix you’ll find many TV series about murderers, as well as some about specifically female murderers. (Killer Women with Piers Morgan, Deadly Women.) In these shows, of course, the gender of the killer is presented as her defining attribute.

Among the many reasons why we love crime stories in general, I have wondered if stories about killer women serve to offer men the rare opportunity to consider what it might be like to be scared of a woman. But actually, my theory doesn’t hold up. The stories we tell about women who kill tend to reposition dangerous women back into the role of victim. Very few truly scary women are permitted to remain in our stories without a narrative arc which puts her safely back into her meek, feminine role.

However, I think the discussion around the #metoo movement is finally starting to change the way we tell stories about women who kill.

Continue reading “Stories We Tell About Women Who Kill”

Why ‘Toxic Masculinity’ Is A Problematic Phrase, Grammatically

A few weeks ago Gillette dominated social media for producing an advertisement criticising what is now more widely known as ‘toxic masculinity’. Many responded negatively to this message, arguing various versions of:

  • Masculinity is not toxic
  • Not all men are toxic
  • Masculinity is wonderful, actually, and needs to be celebrated

Counterarguments largely contained an explanation of what ‘toxic masculinity’ means, or is supposed to mean: That toxic forms of masculinity are toxic.

Though I feel uncomfortable with this part of the phrase myself, I’ll leave aside the etymology of ‘toxic’, and how the scientific definition remains different from the pop psychological usage. That’s a different conversation. ‘Toxic’ in this context means ‘deadly’ at worst, ‘damaging’ at best.

Fast forward a few weeks and Donald Trump Jr. is at a rally. He uses the phrase ‘loser teachers’:

“I love seeing some young conservatives because I know it’s not easy. Keep up that fight. Bring it to your schools. You don’t have to be indoctrinated by these loser teachers that are trying to sell you on socialism from birth. You don’t have to do it. Because you can think for yourselves. They can’t.”

Note that I’ll also leave aside the various interpretations of ‘socialism’, except for a meme:

socialism never works

Donald Trump Jr’s use of ‘loser teachers’ is an interesting counterexample because ‘toxic masculinity’ is a phrase generally used by progressives, mostly defended by progressives, whereas the phrase ‘loser teachers’ was used by a conservative, and is mostly defended by conservatives.

In case you missed that analog, here is a comment on a post by School Library Journal’s Facebook feed after SLJ posted an article refuting that ‘teachers are losers’. The poster self-identifies as a teacher, but does not consider herself a ‘loser teacher’.

loser teacher

ADJECTIVES, NOUNS AND WORD ORDER

  • ‘Toxic masculinity’
  • ‘Loser teachers’

Both are identical in their construction: An adjective modifying a noun.

There are many ways linguists talk about adjectives, and one major distinction is between ‘attributive’ and ‘predicative’ adjectives. Attributive adjectives are placed before the noun they describe:

  • blue fish
  • tall person
  • swimming dolphins

Predicative adjectives are placed later in the sentence, after a verb.

  • The fish is blue
  • The person, who is tall
  • Those dolphins that were swimming

As you can see, there are various ways of joining an adjective phrase to a noun phrase… when the adjective is in predicative position.

Adjectives in predicative position afford the speaker more nuance. When an adjective comes after the noun in this way, we are able to make use of a comma (in written English) and of pauses + intonation (in spoken English).

This allows us to distinguish between a ‘restrictive’ adjective phrase and a ‘non-restrictive’ adjective phrase.

Restrictive adjective phrase:

  • We need to get rid of masculinity which is toxic.

Non-restrictive adjective phrase:

  • We need to get rid of masculinity, which is toxic.

The first sentence, sans comma, conveys the idea that there are various forms of masculinity, but in this case we’re only talking about a certain kind of masculinity — that which is toxic. Subtext: The speaker believes other forms of masculinity are fine.

The second sentence, with a comma, conveys the idea that there is one broad form of masculinity, and that broad category is toxic. Subtext: The speaker doesn’t approve of masculinity in general.

Another useful word is ‘appositive’. An appositive adjective appears right beside the noun it describes. ‘Toxic masculinity’ and ‘loser teachers’ are both appositive adjectives. (These adjectives are also attributive, but attributive adjective phrases can be very long, e.g. super-duper hairy-ass poo-bum twit. Only ‘poo-bum’ is appositive, because it’s right next to the noun it describes.)

Linguists have noticed that appositive adjectives tend to be heard as non-restrictive, whereas relative clauses and prepositional phrases coming after the noun (postnominal PPs) tend to be heard as restrictive.

In other words, when we say ‘toxic masculinity’, the listener is likely to infer that masculinity, in general, is toxic.

When Donald Trump Jr. says ‘loser teachers’, the listener is likely to infer that all teachers, in general, are losers.

This is a feature of language, before personal politics even come into it.

PESKY PRAGMATICS

This chart is a useful breakdown of linguistic fields, which I found somewhere on the net:

linguistic structure

Pragmatics muddy the waters, because unfortunately, people are not computers. No matter how careful we are with our language, the other person (the interlocutor) will bring their life experiences to its interpretation. Sadly for cross-political communication, we interpret a sentence according to information we already possess, or according to politics to which we already subscribe.

When a progressive person hears ‘toxic masculinity’, we expand that in our head to ‘toxic forms of masculinity’. When a conservative hears ‘toxic masculinity’ they expand that in their head to ‘masculinity is toxic’.

When a progressive person hears ‘loser teachers’, we expand that in our head to mean ‘teachers are losers’. When a conservative hears ‘loser teachers’, they might choose to hear ‘specific teachers who also happen to be losers’.

WHAT CAN SPEAKERS DO ABOUT THIS?

Two critical concepts:

  1. If someone says ‘loser teachers’, or ‘toxic masculinity’, or any adjective + noun combo, listeners will interpret that as ‘all nouns are adjective’ unless their existing personal politics intervene. If Donald Trump Jr. did not mean to convey the message that teachers in general are losers, he picked his words badly. (Whether he was indeed speaking of a small sector of teachers is another question, and I remain skeptical.)

Unfortunately for progressive feminists like me, the phrase ‘toxic masculinity’ has the exact same problems, to do with the intersection of syntax and pragmatics. I fully acknowledge there are aspects of masculine indoctrination which need to change, yet I feel the phrase ‘toxic masculinity’ shuts down the conversation rather than opens it up. The exact cohort who needs to be talking about these problems only hear ‘all masculinity is bad’, ‘I am bad’, ‘I am ashamed’, ‘I’m not allowed to feel ashamed — the only negative emotion I’m allowed to feel is anger’. That anger is directed back on the speaker. Everyone remains miserable.

The linguistic fix should be an easy one: We could replace ‘toxic masculinity’ with ‘toxic forms of masculinity’.

2. Unfortunately this rubs up against another universal fact about human language and its evolution — speakers convey ideas using the fewest words possible. But when aiming to persuade, good communicators will occasionally resist this tendency to abbreviate and condense. Sometimes, briefer is not better. ‘Toxic forms of masculinity’ may seem wordy, but is a better place to begin the conversation. As for ‘losers’? Donald Trump Jr. is right. It does seem America’s teachers are losing out. But calling anyone a ‘loser’ is a very broad, deliberate insult, and nothing good can come of it.