Boring Mrs Bun by Juliet Martin and David Johnstone (1986)

What sort of story is Boring Mrs Bun?

boring mrs bun cover

Almost every story in the world is structured like this.

But #NotAllStories

Rather, not all books we’d call stories. Not all picture books are stories. Some are abecederies. Others function simply to introduce the young reader to new concepts.

Every now and then you get a mood piece.

Boring Mrs Bun is a character sketch.

There is an inevitable problem that comes with character sketches, at least of the thumbnail kind. Spending an entire novel delving into the psychology of a character is a completely different matter, but the best authors avoid thumbnail character sketches.

You may notice that picture book authors avoid them completely. This isn’t because of the common prejudice that children do not like descriptions, preferring scenes and dialogue (because it has been shown empirically that actually children enjoy the pauses in picture books as much as adults do) but comes down to something else:

  1. The wish for reader to see themselves in the character (the Everyboy and the Everygirl)
  2. The wish to avoid stereotyping.

It’s impossible to describe a character without that description meaning something, possibly something you don’t intend at all.

Let’s take a look at Boring Mrs Bun as a case study.

The book opens with this image:

boring-mrs-bun

Mrs Bun works behind the counter of a cake shop. She always looks the same.

She wears a long grey overall that buttons to the neck.

She scrapes her hair back from her face and knots it in a bun.

People look at Mrs Bun and think that she is BORING.

But we know better…

Overleaf:

fun-mrs-bun

We know that when Mrs Bun gets home from work, she rips off her uniform and rummages through her wardrobe for clothes she wants to wear.

She finds jaunty denim dungarees, a sunny yellow tee-shirt and purple running shoes. She shakes her hair loose from its bun and styles it into spikes.

“Ah!” says Mrs Bun. “That feels better.”

And we think she looks COOL.

Already you can guess at the author’s message: Don’t look at an old lady and assume that’s all there is to her. In fact, don’t look at anyone and assume that what you see is what you get — there is always much more to people than the part you see.

Using the same structure, the book goes on to contrast the boring image of Mrs Bun at work with the woman who:

  1. lifts weights in leotards behind the garage
  2. does splits on the kitchen floor
  3. goes snorkelling at the beach
  4. drives a sports car
  5. has a colourful and wild garden
  6. paints abstract art
  7. is in a band and plays drums
  8. wears orange footless tights and goes out dancing
  9. rides a motorbike through the city at night

Finally we are told:

So next time you see Mrs Bun behind the cake shop counter, be brave enough to look into her sparkling blue eyes.

Catch the twinkle… watch her smile… listen for the bubbles in her laughter as they fizz up like lemonade.

BECAUSE WE KNOW THAT MRS BUN IS NOT BORING, DON’T WE?

The unintended consequence of this message is that the grandmother trope is not actually subverted, because having tea parties with your friends, watching TV and then turning in early and ‘scraping’ your hair back off your face and wearing grey clothes done up to your neck is — for women — the undesirable version of ageing.

This is a celebration of youth over age, because the behind-the-scenes Mrs Bun does youthful things and is full of unlikely energy.

The youthful Mrs Bun has her lips and eyelashes emphasised, because she is dressing in an acceptably feminine way.

The youthful Mrs Bun smiles, whereas the old lady Mrs Bun feels no need to smile for your benefit.

Whichever version of ageing you aspire to, it’s clear that the book comes down heavily on one side over the other. A different author/illustrator team might well come up with a story with the exact opposite message — that old lady Mrs Bun feels no need to subscribe to your narrow ideas of acceptable ageing and is past the emotional labour of smiling in a bakery, thank you very much.

And that is the problem with writing character sketches. Sometimes you want your ideology to shine through but other times you don’t. Even if you do, the reader might not get what you want out of it. Also, it’s almost impossible to describe a character without the stereotypes and prejudices of the era shining through.

CHARACTERS AND DETAILS

There are lots of ‘character details templates’ floating around on the web. Writers can download these and fill these out. They can be a very useful part of the writing process, but that doesn’t mean all those details should end up in the final product.

Pretty much every writing teacher warns against giving too many character details.

In reading for character, readers conventionally use their knowledge of the way people in the world around them usually behave to assign traits to characters, to guess about their motivations, to reconstruct their past, or even to predict what they might do after the end of the story.

Reading in this way implies that fiction is a kind of gossip. It assumes that authors say a little bit about the characters they describe so that readers can have the fun of guessing about all the aspects of character and experience they are not told about. […] But, like gossip, guessing about literary characters can misrepresent them by fitting them into categories readers already possess. Readers who want the pleasure of perceiving something more than or something different from what they already know or believe about human nature have to work with a different assumption: that authors carefully select what they choose to say, and that their choices–both what they say and what they don’t say–define what they wish readers to understand.

The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Perry Nodelman and Mavis Reimer

 

I’ll go into detail about how a character looks if I think it’s really important to the storytelling. For instance, Butch the T-Rex, I wrote him to have scars and be very large.

— From interview with Pixar writer

 

Only spend time describing what it’s important to describe, what’s going to matter in the rest of the story. That may be what your characters look like; then again, it may not. You decide.

And even if your characters’ appearance is important to you and your story, the story’s very beginning may not be the best place to go into any great detail about it. You want your readers to be able to imagine your characters, not describe them for a robbery report. Have your people talking and doing: that will make the stronger impression.

— Anson Dibell

Attributes are those elements of character that people have little or no control over because they have been received as part of genetic inheritance or socialisation…Aptitudes, similarly, are largely beyond conscious intention or control, and thus part of our ‘fate’…Memorable characters are those that go beyond their attributes and aptitudes — they are defined, not by what they are, but by what they do. … Aptitudes, similarly, are largely beyond conscious intention or control, and thus part of our “fate”. … Memorable characters are those that go beyond their attributes and aptitudes — they are defined, not by what they are, but by what they do.

— Howard Suber

Be mindful of the difference between ‘characterization’ (age, looks, IQ, job etc.) and ‘true character’ (that behind the mask).

— Robert McKee

 

The Problem With The ‘One Big Lie Per Story’ Advice

There’s a rule of writing fantasy which all professional writers are familiar with. (No, I’m not talking about the dangling preposition.)

Fantasy writers are allowed one big lie per story.

As Michael Hauge writes at his Story Mastery website:

The quality that gives every movie its emotional appeal: It isn’t the fantasy element of a story that is interesting, exciting, romantic or funny. It’s the REACTION of the everyday world to that fantastic situation. Therefore you are only allowed to introduce that single incredible element into your story; everything else must be logical and believable.

— Michael Hauge, Credibility (Part 1)

Robert McKee advises the same thing in his well-known screenwriting book Story:

[O]f all the genres Fantasy is the most rigid and structurally conventional. We give the fantasy writer one great leap away from reality, then demand tight-knit probabilities and no coincidence–the strict Archplot of THE WIZARD OF OZ, for example.

– from Story, page 70, in a chapter about setting

Susan Cooper writing quote

I believe the writing advice ‘One Lie Per Story’ is generally sound. What I worry about, however, is that writing teams may be using this axiom as an excuse to avoid examination of their own biases.

Ratatouille Characters

Take a film like Ratatouille. That’s a story starring a talking rat. Yet when feminists point out the dearth of female characters, apologists rebut with the fact that ‘in real life, professional kitchens are staffed mainly by men.’ But Ratatouille is a story about a talking rat. The writers could have written that story any which way they liked. Except the one ‘lie’ is the talking rat. Everything else, in their justification, would have to ‘ring true’ in order for audiences to accept that talking rat, including the typical gender breakdown of a professional kitchen.

But McKee also has this to say about verisimilitude, as he describes a common feature of failed screenplays:

The “personal story” [one kind of failed screenplay] is understructured, slice-of-life portraiture that mistakes verisimilitude for truth. This writer believes that the more precise his observation of day-to-day facts, the more accurate his reportage of what actually happens, the more truth he tells. But fact, no matter how minutely observed, is truth with a small ‘t’. Big “T” Truth is located behind, beyond, inside, below the surface of things, holding reality together or tearing it apart, and cannot be directly observed. Because this writer sees only what is visible and factual, he is blind to the truth of life.

– Story, by Robert McKee

A truly masterful storyteller is indeed able to tell a story which casts females in traditionally male roles, yet it still feels believable.

Some storytellers are even able to write futuristic worlds in which women have equality, and they still manage to tell a truth; not only truth, but Truth. That’s because they are masterful storytellers.

Storytelling Is A Metaphor For Life

McKee continues:

[F]acts are neutral. The weakest possible excuse to include something in a story is: “But it actually happened.” Everything happens; everything imaginable happens. Indeed, the unimaginable happens. But story is not life in actuality. Mere occurrence brings us nowhere near the truth. What happens is fact, not truth. Truth is what we *think about* what happens.

– Story, Robert McKee

From a master storyteller himself: Everything happens. Sexism happens. And there is absolutely no excuse at all for the reproduction of outdated, anti-female and outright nasty portrayals of girls or white people in any work of fiction, especially for children.

Consider also the following concepts of storytelling:

‘THE WORLD OF THE WORK’

In talking about what Paul Ricoeur calls “the world of the work”, we assume, of course, that the work offers up a world of its own. Literary works summon such a world through their arrangement and adherence to formal rules; through their use of tradition and genre; through their intent and use of language. We might say that it is through style that literary works become more than the sum of their sentences. Literary works create new worlds by replacing the world itself and it is the metaphorical statement that reveals this operation. “Metaphor’s power of reorganizing our perception of things,’ Ricoeur writes, “develops from transposition of an entire ‘realm'”. Ricoeur calls this realm a “new referential design”, which I specify as the work’s metaphorical design.

– from Goth: Undead Subculture

In other words, a writer can invent any kind of world they want to. Let’s not pretend otherwise. Imagining only worlds full of white boys with a token girl and a token black child is simply a failure of imagination on the part of the storyteller.

THE ‘REAL-FICTIONAL DICHOTOMY’

…literary scholars tend to divide characters in terms of what I will call the real-fictional dichotomy.  According to this notion, fictional characters, by definition, are “unreal” and human beings “real.” … we “construct an image of a person” by “fabricating [the image] in consciousness.”

Believable FictionsOn the Nature of Emotional Responses to Fictional Characters  by Howard Sklar

Sklar argues that: ‘We bring many of the same intuitions and forms of evaluation to our encounters with fictional characters that we use with real people.  With this in mind, I attempt to show that our emotional responses to fictional characters more greatly resemble real-life emotions than some aesthetic theorists would like to concede.’ This argument makes it all the more important that we’re exposing children to a diverse range of characters, if children are indeed reacting to fictional characters in the same way they would react to a person in real life.

CARNIVALIZATION

I came across the term carnivalesque when reading Maria Nikolajeva*, who finds this concept very relevant to children’s literature.

  • Children’s book are often criticised for being not true to life.
  • In fact, verisimilitude (the appearance of being real) should not be confused with reality.
  • ‘Carnivalization’ is a means to achieve a distance from cruel aspects of reality.
  • An example of ‘carnivalization’ common in fiction for younger readers is use of allegorical names for people and places, which would never occur in real life, but  say something meaningful about the story at hand. (Gogol and Evelyn Waugh do this also.)
  • An example of an author for adult readers who has perfected the use of carnivalization is Franz Kafka. The technique is strangely accepted in the work of Kafka, but often questioned by critics when the same thing appears in children’s books.
  • The Wikipedia entry on the genre of Carnivalesque
*who quotes Bahktin, initially describing the work of Dostoyevsky and Gogol

IN SUM

There is no possible narrative excuse for failing to include more female characters and characters of colour in children’s films.

Storytellers must do away with the idea that in a work of fantasy (e.g. one with talking planes), that no other deviation from reality is possible. Verisimilitude is a robust beast.

‘truth’ is not ‘Truth’, and the slavish duplication of human reality in film indicates a failure to make use of story as metaphor for life.

An audience is able to cope with ‘unreal’ situations in fiction because we understand intuitively the ‘real-fictional dichotomy’. Audiences understand that ‘the world of the work’ is different from ‘the real world’. We get it. We can cope.

The reason these concepts are ‘intuitive’ to an audience is due to a long history of storytelling which makes use of devices such as carnivalization (and metaphor and other figures of speech…)

There is no reason, other than unchallenged sexism/racism, why established storytelling techniques cannot be utilised in big-budget children’s films to reimagine an inequal world.

Credibility

INTERESTING LINKS ON VERISIMILITUDE IN STORYTELLING

Based on a “true” story: expecting reality in movies Oxford University Press blog points out that ‘our emotional involvement with a movie depends on the degree to which we expect or “appraise” the events to be real.’  In other words, we expect different things from a story that is based on reality, even though such stories are a blend of fact and fiction. Scientists have measured things like palm sweat and found that viewers are even more affected by, say, a disaster movie, when they know the story is based on true events. The Coen Brothers utilise this when they tell viewers at the beginning of the film Fargo that the story is based on true events (even though it is completely fabricated).

Why newsworthy events do not lead to newsworthy novels from Nathan Bransford advises writers not to expect their story to be more sellable because their story aligns with what’s happening in the news.

Only fiction can be about the trivial without being trivial and more quotes along this line from Explore

The Beautiful Creatures authors give us the rules for creating a believable fantasy from io9. Beautiful Creatures is a fantasy romance based on a book. It’s a story set in a small town and includes witches and devils. Margaret Stohl explains that the co-authors were able to come up with a believable universe because they ‘came out of old school world building, we had a Bible for our universe. We knew histories of characters you’ll never meet. That was a part of it. Obeying your own rules is a huge part of it. things have to matter, laws cause and effect.’

Making Use Of Juxtaposition In Writing

Juxtaposition Of Scenes John Truby

John Truby points out that TV dramas make excellent case studies for working out how to achieve narrative juxtaposition, and offers a case study of ER. I would suggest also Six Feet Under, in which the narrative juxtaposition running throughout the series is, of course, a metaphor for life and death.

Each scene in a juxtaposed TV drama will be variations on a single problem. Each strand/plotline will have an underlying unity.