Diary of a Wombat by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley

Diary of a Wombat cover

This month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story. Today I continue with a selection of mentor texts to help kids see how it works. Yesterday I analysed the structure of an Australian bush ballad. Today I stay in Australia, with the modern picture book classic Diary of a Wombat by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley.

Like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Diary of a Wombat is a parody of a diary. We expect that if someone has taken the trouble to write something down then it must be something important. But wombats don’t really do much and have little to report. Jackie French could have anthropomorphised the wombat and taken her off on an adventure to save the world, but this wombat is inspired by the wombats around French’s own house. Bruce Whatley illustrates animals in a mostly realistic style, with only a few modifications to make the facial expressions more human, making the pairing perfect.

Tuesday Diary of a Wombat

STORY STRUCTURE OF DIARY OF A WOMBAT

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

The wombat.

Unusually for a children’s book, the wombat is female yet has not been given any typically feminine markers, such as a big pink bow. This is partly to do with the realistic style of art. (There is no obvious sexual dimorphism in wombats — you can’t easily tell the sex of a wombat unless you’re an expert.) I wonder if you assumed the wombat was male until “For Pete’s sake! Give her some carrots!” A study by Janet McCabe told us that unless animal characters are given obvious female markers then we tend to read them as male.

The wombat hasn’t been given a name. Often this is because a character stands in for a group. In this case, she stands for your typical wombat, doing typical wombatty things.

A standout feature of the wombat is the distinctive round bottom, which may be why Bruce Whatley chose to depict the wombat from behind in a number of illustrations. This is surprisingly uncommon for picture books, in which we’re more likely to see ‘posed for a photo‘ characters. Bruce Whatley doesn’t vary the top-bottom angle of the wombat, keeping to one-point perspective throughout, without making use of high/low angles. This allows the reader to remain right alongside the wombat as an equal at all times. His choice to depict the wombat in various cardinal directions may partly be to do with the need to vary each illustration from the others. But when wombat sits and stars at the boarded-up door, we really feel her petulant patience for carrots, even though we can’t see her face.

The choice is masterful.

Diary of a Wombat back view

What is wrong with her?

Since our main character a wombat she is unable to communicate what she wants to the humans. This is one of the reasons animals are so common in picture books. They are like young children, also unable to communicate what they need in words.

She is also capricious and according to typical human work ethic, she’s comically lazy.

This is an oblivious character who doesn’t see the havoc she wreaks behind her. She doesn’t realise the humans filled up her hole because they didn’t want a hole. Unlike Peter Rabbit, she doesn’t realise the carrots in the garden have been planted there by someone and that she thieved them. She thinks she happened upon them.

WHAT DOES SHE WANT?

The wombat has simple needs and lives in a wombat utopia — a rural human environment with a large supply of carrots growing in the garden, good soil for digging holes and everything else she could possibly want. The wombat’s stand-out feature is that she wants for nothing. But for narrative drive, a story requires that the main character want something.

Jackie French has fulfilled this story step by giving our wombat the strong desire for carrots. Not only that, she is endlessly greedy for carrots and even when given carrots, she still wants more. This desire drives most of the story but, comically, she eventually has enough of carrots and decides she wants rolled oats instead. This is where her main shortcoming comes in: she is unable to tell the humans that she now wants rolled oats.

By the way, comic characters often have insatiable appetites. In a comedy ensemble you’ll usually get one who is obsessed with food.

  • In Kath and Kim, Kim is always eating. (Sharon stress eats as well.)
  • In Seinfeld it’s Kramer who is always going to Jerry’s for cereal and whatnot. He is shown to be a fruit connoisseur, and in another episode the big gag is that Kramer could have won a lot of money after being scalded by hot coffee, but he is delighted with a lifetime’s supply of free coffees instead.
  • In The Simpsons, Homer is the character who represents the stomach.

Characters are also funny if we can laugh at their stupidity. The obliviousness of the wombat means that Jackie French created her loosely  based upon the classic Dolt character. There are many different comedy character archetypes. Here are a few more.

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

The human family are in opposition to the wombat not because the humans are trying to get rid of her, but because they have different goals which cannot coexist:

  • Family wants a front door, wombat wants to gain their attention so chews the nice front door.
  • Family wants carrots for dinner so grows carrots in garden; wombat digs them up.
  • Family buys carrots from shop; wombat sits in back seat of car and eats them out of the bag.
  • Family wants a nice garden bed; wombat wants to dig holes where garden bed is.
  • Family wants to dry washing on the line; wombat doesn’t want things dangling onto her nose, so chews washing on line.

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

With a lazy, roly-poly character like this wombat, you aren’t going to get a complicated plan. The plan is simple: to walk to the family’s front door and make a nuisance of oneself until food is provided.

The family’s plan is to work around the  mischief of the wombat, filling in holes once they’re dug, buying more carrots once the home store is depleted.

BIG BIG STRUGGLE

Though it’s not obvious at first sight, Diary of a Wombat has a mythic structure. Rather, this is a parody of a classic story with a mythic structure. In myths, a hero goes on a very difficult journey to achieve a goal, meets lots of challenges along the way and finally gets what he wants (or not, in a tragedy). The hero then either returns home a changed person or finds a new home wherever he ends up.

The journey of the wombat is down the garden path to the front door. Sure enough, she meets obstacles along the way, but these obstacles are no more fearsome than a bush or a pair of wet pants which tickle her nose. Her ‘big big struggles’ are therefore ironic.

Okay, so until now I’ve been saying the same things, which are general rules but rules can be broken. So far I’ve told you that in a story with mythic structure the big struggles increase in intensity until one massive life-and-death big struggle. This is seen clearly in the Solla Sollew picture book by Dr. Seuss, which is why I included it in this series.

Jackie French shows us that there doesn’t need to be any big big struggle. In fact, in a parody, where nothing much happens by design, the story wouldn’t cope with one.

So what did the author do instead, to lead us gently towards a conclusion? She used a trick I’m going to call ‘accumulation’. This is exactly what it sounds like — various things from the story come together. By ‘things’, most often I mean ‘objects’. Another (really obvious) example of an ‘accumulation big struggle’ occurs in Stuck by Oliver Jeffers in which a boy gets something stuck in a tree. He keeps throwing more and more things into the tree hoping to get the other things down. The story gets more and more ridiculous as the things accumulate in the tree.

In Diary of a Wombat, the gag doesn’t rely on the accumulation plot, so it’s much more subtle. You can see it in the line, ‘Demanded oats AND carrots’. Oats and carrots have been the important twin desire lines throughout the story and they come together at the end.

WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?

Wombat learns that if she makes a big enough nuisance of herself then the humans will give her exactly what she wants.

The reader learns, comically, that animals can train humans, not just the other way around!

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

In this mythic journey the wombat finds a new home, even closer to the humans than before, burrowed under the house.

We can extrapolate that things will continue as they did before, but this time the wombat’s life is even more convenient as she doesn’t even have to walk up the garden path to get fed.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

  • I’ve already mentioned Stuck by Oliver Jeffers as another example of an accumulation plot. Another example of an accumulation plot is Let’s Go For A Drive! an Elephant and Piggie book by Mo Willems. In this early reader, two characters collect all sorts of things they’ll need for a drive. These things pile up on the floor. They eventually realise they haven’t got a car so they have to play make believe instead.
  • Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins has other subtle similarities. The hen in Rosie’s Walk (Rosie) is unaware that a fox is trying to catch her. She walks happily through a farm. Rosie’s Walk has been heavily influential as a story in which the text says something completely different from the pictures. Jackie French’s wombat is similarly oblivious, though her life is not in danger. Like Rosie’s Walk, there is a big gap between the pictures and the text. The text is first ‘person’, from the wombat’s point of view, but only the reader knows how much of a nuisance she’s being to the humans she lives with.

The Gingerbread Man Story Structure

The Gingerbread Man Little Golden Book

Yesterday I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story. Now for some mentor texts to help kids learn how it works. Picture books are perfect for this purpose, no matter the age of the student because they are brief. In ten minutes you get an excellent overview of a complete and satisfying story. As my first example this month I’ll use The Gingerbread Man, because almost everyone has access to this folktale in one form or another.

For comparison you might take Julia Donaldson’s Stick Man, which I have already analysed in detail. Donaldson is a master at remixing old stories into rhyming texts for a contemporary audience. Stick Man is a remix of The Gingerbread Man.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE GINGERBREAD MAN

The Gingerbread Boy

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

In stories this isn’t always obvious, but it is in this one. The main character is The Gingerbread Man! We see him the most, we want him to succeed in getting away and he is in every single scene.

Next question before moving on: What is The Gingerbread Man’s great shortcoming?

Well, he’s a bit of a show off, isn’t he. He’s also a bit naive. Fresh out of the oven, he doesn’t realise that fairytale foxes are wily. If only he’d read a few fairytales he’d know what we already know about foxes in picture books!

WHAT DOES THE GINGERBREAD MAN WANT?

Freedom.

The Gingerbread Man, illustrated by Gerald Rose
illustrated by Gerald Rose

Or does he?

What he really wants is to prove how fast he is at running. Over and over again he says, “You can’t catch me!” His haughtiness eventually catches up with him. It’s like he’s taunting everyone to catch him. If he’d just run without all that singing, he wouldn’t have drawn attention to himself and he would’ve probably got away.

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

The Gingerbread Man is a classic example of mythical structure. This has nothing to do with being an actual myth. A myth is a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining a natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events. The Gingerbread Man is a pretty old tale, but it’s not a myth. I’m talking about how many more modern stories borrow the plot from those old myths.

I’ve written about mythic structure here. Basically, your main character goes on a journey, meets a bunch of characters — some helpful, some mean — ends up fighting a big big struggle then returns home again a changed character. Or if he can’t make it home, he finds a new home. That’s mythic structure. It’s still very popular. The Lion King, Diary of a Wimpy Kid The Long Haul and Beauty and the Beast all have mythic structure. Or you might have seen The Incredible Journey, or Where The Red Fern Grows. In all of these stories the main character goes on a journey.

In fact, any boardgame where you need to go from square to square to reach a goal is making use of mythic structure. Along your ‘route’ you’ll slide down snakes (opponents), be helped by ladders (mentors), go back three squares, go forward two squares and so on.

Gingerbread Man Game

The Gingerbread Man also goes on a journey, though he has no idea where he’s going. He’s just running. Everyone he meets wants to eat him (we assume), so everyone is his enemy. (It’s partly his own fault for being so delicious!) Usually in a mythic structure our main character encounters ‘helpers’ or ‘mentors’, but The Gingerbread is such an annoying character he doesn’t meet any of those.

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

The Gingerbread Man, Illustrations by Bonnie & Bill Rutherford, 1963
Illustration by Bonnie & Bill Rutherford, 1963

Sometimes other characters have more plans than the main character. In this story, the old lady had a reasonably complicated plan to bake and decorate a gingerbread man, then to eat him.

But this is not about her.

The Gingerbread Man demonstrates that plans don’t have to be complicated. It’s true that in most stories plans are a BIT more complicated than JUST RUN REALLY FAST. It is also true that in most stories original plans don’t work and they need to be modified. This is a simple tale, known as a ‘cumulative’ story. Another example is There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly. Young kids love these stories and they are great for language development. The adult co-reader is left reading the same sentences over and over. That’s what happens here, too. Fortunately, it’s pretty fun to say, “Run, run as fast as you can! You can’t catch me, I’m The Gingerbread Man!” If that wasn’t catchy this story wouldn’t have entered mainstream culture. So if you’re going to write a cumulative story like this one, make sure you’ve written something run to read aloud.

tl;dr: The Gingerbread Man plans to run. Until he is free, I suppose.

BIG BIG STRUGGLE

Gingerbread Man fox

The fox!

Notice the nice lead up? The Gingerbread Man sits first on the fox’s tail. The fox slowly coaxes him towards his nose and then SNAP!

WHAT DOES THE GINGERBREAD MAN LEARN?

Well, he’s dead so he doesn’t learn anything.

The Gingerbread Man is therefore a tragedy.

BUT! If he had lived another day, he would have learned not to hitch rides from foxes, and if he did hitch a ride from a fox, he’d know not to sit on the fox’s SNOUT.

Except that’s not really what the story’s about, right? That’s the most surface level of the messages.

Don’t be cocky. That’s what The Gingerbread Man would’ve learnt. And that is hopefully what we learn, as readers. We might think we’re the fastest runners in the whole world, but there’s always someone who can outwit us.

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

Gingerbread Man card Found at Etsy
Found at Etsy

Well, he’s dead.

BUT NORMALLY characters aren’t dead at the end of the story. So we get to see our heroes sitting around the fire enjoying wolf stew (like in The Three Little Pigs) or reunited with their father (in Hansel and Gretel).

I haven’t yet seen a picture book version of The Gingerbread Man who has been pooped out. There he is, sitting like a Hersheys chocolate, propped up on a clump of grass.

I haven’t seen that, but I’d like to.

Elephant and Piggie Comedy Techniques

The Elephant and Piggie books, invented by Mo Willems, are favourites of my 9-year-old daughter, who is otherwise long past beginner readers. She has asked for more Elephant and Piggies for her tenth  birthday. She feels a lot of similar level stories are ‘too babyish’ for her but an enduring interest in the Elephant and Piggie series demonstrates the extraordinarily wide age appeal of these stories. As adult co-reader, I enjoy them as much as she does. These books are more than ‘dual audience’. Dual tends to refer to ‘one developmental phase of childhood plus the adults who read alongside’, but in this case the appeal is young childhood, middle childhood, right through.

I listened to an interview at The Yarn, with Travis Jonker and Colby Sharp, in which Willems says: There is no formula when it comes to writing picture books.

There is no ‘formula’, because ‘formula’ suggests ‘low quality’ a la R.L. Stein’s Goosebumps series. But there is a certain structure that all good stories share. The Elephant and Piggie stories do conform to this structure. This structure provides a coat hanger for the originality that Willems and his writing team bring to each story in the series. Willems describes this structure as ‘a trellis’. He describes himself as a structuralist, ‘but more of a formalist than other people’  in the way he writes and constructs his stories. He says this comes from his time working in television. Television writers have to understand structure in order to get ideas out on time, and when your task is to create something exactly eleven minutes long it becomes even more important.

STORYTELLING NOTES FROM MO WILLEMS

  • The rule of ‘yes and…’ is really useful to writers, especially when writing first drafts. This is a concept from improv theatre. Whatever happens, the actors are obliged to build on that — immediately, in front of a live audience. I can see how this is useful, because with each Elephant and Piggie story I get three quarters of the way through it and I wonder how he’s going to end it. Anyone who has written a picture book knows that beginnings are relatively easy. It’s tying them up (and going that extra bit further) that distinguishes genius from mediocre.
  • You’ll learn what is ‘not funny’ rather than what is funny. So write and then edit out all the not funny stuff. Hopefully, what remains is funny.
  • When Mo Willems was working at Sesame Street the staff did a session on child development every week. I guess that means children’s writers would benefit from the same! (Lucky for me I did a university course on child development, but I wish I hadn’t gotten rid of my textbooks.)
  • Elephant came before Piggie. He’d been sketching elephants for a long time.
  • He’s a glass half full of poison misanthrope.
  • Willems wanted to do early readers because he’d been told it was the hardest.
  • He did a ‘casting cool’ — he considered a whole bunch of animals to be Elephant’s buddy. But when Piggie came she was a great foil, allowing them to work very well.
  • He knew he could write a lot of books with these two characters. The challenge was in keeping them as ‘open’ (universal?) as possible, to leave them room to grow.
  • There were gags about elephant’s glasses and trunks that he didn’t think he’d use.
  • Willems had only been published for two years before he came up with these characters.
  • He was told early readers don’t really sell but Willems felt strongly that early readers would be his life’s work. (He knew his strength obviously, and I’m glad he knew this rather than go with ‘what sells’.)
  • P.D. Eastman is an inspiration. Willems used to work with Eastman’s son and heard stories about how Eastman worked.
  • Unlike Eastman’s poodle, he wanted to create animals who had their own emotional lives. He wanted to show friendship on the rocks, then making up again. These are things that real kids go through often.
  • An inner emotional life was a guiding principle in the beginning, but as the series progressed he realised that every book was a question that he didn’t know the answer to. Why share? When share? What does it mean to be a friend? What happens when a new partner comes in? He realised the story was worth writing if he didn’t know the answer to his question, which meant the audience wouldn’t know either, and that would make for a worthwhile story. This is in line with what others have said regarding moral dilemmas. There should be no easy answers. Even in easy readers!
  • Easy and simple are opposites. Easy goes quickly, simple takes time. This plays a role in all his books. Willems is a minimalist. The less he puts in the more the audience has to put in. That way they have co-written the book with him.
  • If you read one of his manuscripts and it makes sense, it has too many words. If you look at his drawings and the drawings make sense on their own, it has too many drawings. I think this is why most of my favourite picture books are created by writer illustrators. The way publishing houses keep writers and illustrators separate from each other during the creation process makes this hard to achieve if you are just a writer or just an illustrator.
  • He aims for ‘one level away from abstraction‘.
  • The weaker the structure, the ‘truer’ the story is. This series requires the reader, in a very deep way. (By ‘structure’, I think Willems is talking about scaffolding here, or something other than ‘story structure’.)
  • Nowadays other creators collaborate to make Elephant and Piggie books. Mo Willems keeps creative control. He works on a new one every six to eight months.
  • How do you know which ideas to pursue? What is the thing that matters to you? And how can you create characters yelling about that in a funny way?
  • Willems finds that his ideas always sound terrible when presented at the idea stage. It’s only when the idea is presented in a semi-finished form that his team says, “Oh, now I get it!” Sounding terrible at the idea stage is how he knows he’s onto something.
  • Writers are often advised to keep abreast of what’s out there, being published in your category/genre. Willems doesn’t keep up with what others are producing, and refers to it as ‘noise’. “I just want to keep making weird stuff.” He doesn’t want to be influenced by other people’s ideas. (I do think you have to be at a certain stage of your career before you can do this. While we’re still learning, we have no choice but to look at what’s out there. I also find this admission strangely condescending and insular. Why not read what peers are doing for the pure enjoyment, if nothing else?)
  • Good picture books are all individual. Television doesn’t work like that. Television inevitably feels formulaic by its nature. A writer or illustrator can really be themselves when creating books.
  • While Mo Willems likes all of his Elephant and Piggie ideas, not all of them make it to book stage. (This was also true of Dr Seuss.)

Always start your illustrations in the middle (to kind of warm up) and save the cover and opening spreads for the end (when you’re in the zone and it’s flowing) – because those are the first ones people will read!

keynote summary at SCBWI

OVERALL OBSERVATIONS

  • Elephants are great to draw because they have expressive trunks. This made me wonder if elephants really do have expressive trunks, or if our personification of them is rather more, ahem, human in origin. Turns out this trunk quirk does come from elephants themselves:

Elephants “kind of wear their hearts on their trunks. Their trunks are extremely expressive of their mood,” says Caitlin O’Connell. She should know. By closely observing elephants at Etosha National Park in Namibia part of each year for the past 20 years, O’Connell has become bilingual in a way.

How To Speak Elephant

  • The Elephant and Piggie series is described by reviewers as ‘theatrical’. They make excellent ‘read-aloud-togethers’. My daughter likes to take the part of Piggie and she makes me do Elephant. (Probably because she doesn’t want to play the straight guy.) For the parts where they both say something together, the speech bubbles become a colour blend. Normally, elephant’s speech bubbles are grey and Piggie’s speech bubbles are pink, but when they say something together, the speech bubble is dusky pink. It was my daughter who pointed this out to me. It’s so subtle otherwise. I realised that these books have been designed for ease of shared reading, using colours as cues.
  • Elephant and Piggie are excellent physical comedians, often in action, sometimes in midair, defying physics.
  • Teeth are shown or hidden judiciously. Ditto with their tongues. When the tongue appears above the lip the character is concentrating — below the lip and they are tired or disgusted.
  • As is the case for almost every personified picture book animal, eyebrows are essential to their expressions, even though pigs and elephants don’t have eyebrows.
  • Elephant and Piggie don’t wear clothes. Elephant does wear glasses, in accordance with his know-it-all disposition. Lack of clothes contributes to the minimalist style. But according to the story, certain clothing is used as props. Piggie wears a chef’s hat in I Really Like Slop, which is just as expressive as Elephant’s trunk, bowing in disappointment.
  • Features from comic books are utilised where necessary — motion lines, dotted lines to show directionality. Diamond shaped lines to show a character has had an idea.
  • Onomatopoeia and mimesis is also used e.g. ‘Fling!’ and ‘Plop’ in Watch Me Throw The Ball, and ‘Sniff’, ‘Pop’ ‘Gulp’ and ‘Eek’ in I Really Like Slop.
  • Shadows are used only to show that the characters are in mid air. There’s not even a line to show where the ground is. (Except on the front covers.)
  • The colour palette is a shared by the Pigeon books, also by Mo Willems, and apart from the distinctive orange bands of colour (subconsciously indicating to the consumer that these are early readers), the illustrations are pastel colours with a slightly sketchy, dark black outline and a little shadow on the bodies. When something strange happens to the characters they can change colours (like when they try awful slop and keel over).

STORY STRUCTURE OF I REALLY LIKE SLOP

I Really Like Slop is the modern version of Green Eggs and Ham by Dr Seuss.

I Really Like Slop Elephant and Piggie

SHORTCOMING

In order to do this exercise I need to pick one of the characters to be the ‘main’ one. In this story it is Elephant who has the more obvious anagnorisis so I’ll go with Elephant.

Elephant’s shortcoming is that he feels negatively towards his best friend’s slop. Slop is very important to Piggie because ‘It’s part of pig culture’. Unless Elephant is able to identify with this part of Piggie, their friendship is in peril.

DESIRE

Elephant is averse to trying the slop. He wants Piggie to take it away because it stinks.

OPPONENT

Piggie’s desire is in direct opposition — Piggie wants Elephant to try it. If he won’t try it, the friendship is over.

PLAN

The plan is for Elephant to try at least a little bit. If he still doesn’t like it, they will still be friends, but he has to at least give it a go.

BIG STRUGGLE

The big struggle scene is the trying of the slop itself, depicted in a series of increasing close ups on Elephant’s face. Elephant is so bowled over by the spicy flavour that it really is as if he’s going through a physical big struggle, with a tiny bit of slop. (The tiny bit of slop is depicted as a green pea.)

ANAGNORISIS

“I do not really like slop. But I am glad I tried it. Because I really like you.”

NEW SITUATION

Pleased with her victory, Piggie now wants Elephant to try ‘dessert’ (a fish skeleton). At this point Elephant reclaims his boundaries and says, “Don’t push it, bub.” They will remain friends, but Elephant will continue to set limits and Piggie will continue to push them, as the playful personality.

STORY STRUCTURE OF WATCH ME THROW THE BALL!

Watch Me Throw The Ball Elephant and Piggie

SHORTCOMING

Because this is a series starring the same (mostly two) characters in every story, their basic characters remain the same. That said, each story is a slightly different take on the same shortcomings.

Piggie is very confident. Over confident. She thinks she rocks, even when she has failed. But this constant shortcoming is also her strength, because it allows her to enjoy whatever she tries. This makes for a carnivalesque story each time, in which the main point — the only point — is to have a bit of fun.

This contrasts directly with Elephant’s personality. He takes things very seriously. He worked very hard learning how to throw. He can’t enjoy Piggie’s experiment in throwing because he is worried. What is he worried about? That his ball will get lost? That she won’t throw correctly? This is never stated. Elephant’s exact worry is left to our imaginations, but is shown on his face.

DESIRE

Piggie wants to have fun with a ball she has found.

Gerald wants Piggie to make a good job of throwing his ball, since things must be done properly or not at all.

OPPONENT

Since their life philosophies are so different, they make good natural opponents. Piggie wants to have fun. Gerald wants the job done properly. In order to be opponents, you only need to put two characters in opposition. You don’t need a massive fight or an argument. At its most basic level, it comes down to opposition of values.

PLAN

Piggie will throw the ball. The thing about Piggie is, she’s not one for plans. She’s impetuous and spontaneous.

Elephant has obviously planned to deliver a mini lecture on how ball throwing is properly done.

BIG STRUGGLE

The big struggle is the part where Gerald yells at Piggie that she has not thrown the ball all around the world — it landed right behind her with a splat.

ANAGNORISIS

This is the weakest part of the story, in my opinion, but still strong enough to work. Piggie says, “You are right, Gerald. I did not really throw the ball very far.” Now it seems that Piggie knew this all along, and perhaps she did. This does model good sportsmanship for children, but part of me wishes Piggie had a witty comeback.

NEW SITUATION

The New Situation phase of this story more than makes up for a hasty, unconvincing anagnorisis, because this is where we find out that the author has pulled off something very tricky in storytelling — both main character and opponent have their own character arc, including anagnorisis. (A recent film which does this very well is Lady Bird.)

When we see that Gerald has decided to throw like Piggie did, he has come around the idea that he can have fun by pretending that he, too, is a great thrower who can throw a ball all around the world.

From now on, Gerald will have a little more fun than before. Though he can’t really change permanently, because this is a series. Next time we see him he’ll need to be reminded, and learn the same lesson again, or a related one.

STORY STRUCTURE OF I’M A FROG!

I'm a Frog Elephant and Piggie

The plot of I Am A Frog is very similar to  Watch Me Throw The Ball!

SHORTCOMING

Piggie is having fun. The shortcoming here belongs to Gerald, who needs to learn to have fun. Gerald is more naive than Piggie, who doesn’t know the world ‘pretending’.

DESIRE

Piggie wants someone to join in her game of imagination. Gerald wants to remain being an Elephant. He is terrified at the idea that he might become a frog and eat flies.

OPPONENT

Once again, the fun/serious opposition is utilised.

PLAN

Piggie persuades Gerald to try pretending.

BIG STRUGGLE

They have an argument in which Gerald is adamant that he cannot pretend to be something he is not. This culminates in the double page spread with words tangled all across the page.

ANAGNORISIS

Gerald’s anagnorisis is that he can do this thing called pretending, and thereby learn to enjoy himself. The revelation to the young reader: It’s not that Gerald doesn’t understand the concept in the end — it’s that he wants to be a cow, not a frog.

NEW SITUATION

Piggie will continue to be a frog and Gerald will be a cow. They’ll play together like this (and then Gerald will forget how to have fun in time for the next book).

STORY STRUCTURE OF LET’S GO FOR A DRIVE!

Let's Go For A Drive Elephant and Piggie

In this story, Elephant and Piggie share a goal, but because they both have the same shortcoming (lack of foresight), their plan doesn’t work.

SHORTCOMING

Lack of planning ahead. Gerald tells us he is very good at planning ahead, which makes us laugh at him later.

DESIRE

Elephant and Piggie want to go for a drive.

OPPONENT

There is no human-esque opponent in this story but it still works, because each was relying on the other to come through with the goods. (The car)

PLAN

They’ll pack everything they could possibly need for a nice drive. Then they’ll go on their drive.

BIG STRUGGLE

There’s a revelation (but not a anagnorisis) that neither owns a car. This is an important point in understanding story structure, because ‘learning something big’ doesn’t equal ‘learning something about yourself’. The big struggle scene in an Elephant and Piggie book is easy to spot because Elephant will throw back his head and yell (in massive font). “What are we going to do now!” he yells.

ANAGNORISIS

The anagnorisis is that Elephant and Piggie can still have fun if they only modify their plans. This is not the same kind of ‘self revelation’ you get in a serious drama aimed at an adult audience, but better described as the part of the story where the childlike characters learn a valuable life lesson to put in their toolbox.

NEW SITUATION

Elephant and Piggie won’t go for a drive. They’ll use their equipment to play pirate instead.

STORY STRUCTURE OF MY FRIEND IS SAD

This story has a big reversal right in the middle, breaking it into two distinct parts, kind of similar to The Enormous Crocodile and The Gruffalo. The main character remains naive.

My Friend Is Sad Mo Willems

SHORTCOMING

Who is the main character in this story? Elephant, or Piggie. At first I thought it was Elephant, because he goes from sadness to happiness, but this is a simple change in emotional state.

Elephant is sad because he doesn’t have a friend, then he does have a friend.

But it’s Piggie (and the reader) who learn something.

DESIRE

He wants a friend to share experiences with and hang out with.

OPPONENT

In general, stories don’t work when the main character’s only opponent is ‘himself’. But in this story it does work, because this is comedic structure (which, by its very nature, can only be sustained for a few minutes). Piggie wants the same thing as Gerald — to hang out together, only Gerald doesn’t realise they ARE hanging out together.

PLAN

Gerald is too morose to concoct any sort of plan to have a friend, so it’s up to Piggie to be proactive. Piggie decides to cheer Gerald up by dressing up as different characters. She thinks Gerald is sad because of an absence of comedy in his life. Turns out she’s wrong about that — Gerald needs company more than he needs comedy.

BIG STRUGGLE

Rather than a big big struggle scene, the comedic equivalent of the big struggle is the turning point in which Piggie apologises to Elephant. “I’m sorry. I wanted to make you happy. But you are sad.” This sounds like the anagnorisis phase, but Piggie has not learned anything yet. She’s still in the dark about how she failed to cheer Elephant up. Now the story will take the readers past all the dress-up characters again.

ANAGNORISIS

Piggie (and the reader) learn that sometimes you just need to be with someone. If you go out of your way to cheer them up, you can fail miserably. This is a quite profound message, even though it’s presented here in a light-hearted way.

NEW SITUATION

Just when we think the story is over, there’s another double spread in which Piggie breaks the fourth wall (as she did at the beginning) and whispers to the reader that Gerald needs new glasses. Because this is a comedy series, I doubt Elephant will be visiting the optometrist anytime soon — his inability to correctly assess his situation may come in handy for subsequent stories.

STORY STRUCTURE OF PIGS MAKE ME SNEEZE!

This is one of the few Elephant and Piggie books where I was able to predict the ending. This isn’t a negative, by the way. Kids (and also adults) love to predict endings correctly. Surprise comes from the details.

Pigs Make Me Sneeze Mo Willems

SHORTCOMING

Elephant keeps sneezing.

His underlying psychological problem is that he jumps to conclusions. He’s self-diagnosed as ‘allergic to pigs’.

DESIRE

This is tough. What does Elephant want? I believe he wants to enjoy his own melodrama for a while. The melodrama comes through in his body language, in which he’s thrown his arm across his face. He declares that he and Piggie can no longer be friends.

OPPONENT

Elephant turns Piggie into his imaginary opponent.

Piggie is baffled by this. She wants something different. She wants them to remain friends. She also wants Gerald to not keep sneezing and knocking her over. The pair go through a physical big struggle in which Piggie ends up wearing a helmet with a plastic visor.

PLAN

There is no proactive plan but Elephant happens to meet a cat who is a doctor. In a less minimalistic picture book, Elephant would probably make a plan to go to the doctor. But we don’t see that here.

BIG STRUGGLE

Although we’ve seen a physical comedy in the sneeze big struggle earlier, the big struggle scene (in narrative terms) actually occurs after the medical examination. Notice how Elephant is flat on the floor. The ‘Battle’ involves a near-death experience. Although it’s psychosomatic, Elephant concludes that he is allergic to cats, too, and is basically therefore dead.

ANAGNORISIS

The big reveal, for both reader and Elephant, is that he is not allergic to anything. He has simply caught a cold.

NEW SITUATION

And now Piggie has caught the cold, too.

Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx

Brokeback Mountain movie colours

“Brokeback Mountain” is a heart-wrenching short story in part because of its density and one-sitting experience. This is an amazing feat. I mean, it’s so short, right? Normally you need the build-up of an entire novel to induce such strong reactions in readers. Or at least the soundtrack, cinematography and expert acting of a film. Annie Proulx’s short stories have the wordcount of short stories but the emotional resonance of epics.

Brokeback Mountain
You can no longer buy a Brokeback Mountain collection without being reminded that there is also a film adaptation.

 

“Brokeback Mountain” was published in the New Yorker in 1997, but came to most people’s attention in 2005 when it was adapted for screen and won critical acclaim.

Read the full text at The New Yorker.

What Kind Of Story Even Is This?

Australia’s SBS social media team recently Facebooked a re-screening of the film Brokeback Mountain, describing it as, and I quote, ‘Ang Lee’s tender love story’. I didn’t write the thing but even I have two problems with that. First of all, for all a screenwriter/director brings to a story, the story ‘belongs’ to the person who created it. Ang Lee adapted it but bear in mind, Annie Proulx made something from nothing at all. Once a story gets adapted for screen, kudos tends to transfer to the people who brought it to screen and the original author probably gets some extra visibility too, but compared to the self-congratulatory movie industry, writers are basically invisible.

Second, nothing about “Brokeback Mountain” is ‘tender’, unless you forget the beating and murder of the gay man, or the almost-maybe-anal-rape of the wife. ‘Tender’ is not a word generally associated with the work of Annie Proulx. Unforgiving, brutal, tragic… now those are adjectives I can go for.

I suspect this is all part of why Annie Proulx wishes she’d never written Brokeback Mountain:

[T]he problem has come since the film. So many people have completely misunderstood the story. I think it’s important to leave spaces in a story for readers to fill in from their own experience, but unfortunately the audience that “Brokeback” reached most strongly have powerful fantasy lives. And one of the reasons we keep the gates locked here is that a lot of men have decided that the story should have had a happy ending. They can’t bear the way it ends — they just can’t stand it. So they rewrite the story, including all kinds of boyfriends and new lovers and so forth after Jack is killed. And it just drives me wild.

This says something wider about our expectations for movie endings. It’s baffling, because although we think Hollywood loves happy endings, although we expect happy endings, when you take a survey of Hollywood stories, actually there are far fewer genuinely happy endings than you probably think. The truth is, audiences don’t need happy endings, even the most basic of Hollywood consumers who go for the popcorn:

Down-ending films are often huge commercial successes….For the vast majority doesn’t care if a film ends up or down. What the audience wants is emotional satisfaction–a Climax that fulfills anticipation….Who determines which particular emotion will satisfy an audience at the end of a film? The writer. From the way he tells his story from the beginning, he whispers to the audience: “Expect an up-ending,” or “Expect a down-ending” or “Expect irony”. Having pledged a certain emotion, it’d be ruinous not to deliver. So we give the audience the experience we’ve promised, but not in the way it expects.

– Robert McKee

In the same interview, Proulx tells us what “Brokeback Mountain” is intended to be about:

They can’t understand that the story isn’t about Jack and Ennis. It’s about homophobia; it’s about a social situation; it’s about a place and a particular mindset and morality. They just don’t get it. I can’t tell you how many of these things have been sent to me as though they’re expecting me to say, Oh great, if only I’d had the sense to write it that way. And they all begin the same way — I’m not gay, but … The implication is that because they’re men they understand much better than I how these people would have behaved. And maybe they do. But that’s not the story I wrote. Those are not their characters. The characters belong to me by law.

Annie Proulx has astutely picked that gender is playing a part here. I think gender plays a part in who gets plaudits and accolades in Hollywood, too. Rarely does a film adaptation of a film come out in which the audience is not hyper-aware that the story belongs to Stephen King.

Stephen King’s The Mist

Where is Annie Proulx’s name, named by some critics America’s greatest writer?

On the subject of gender:

At the time, “Brokeback” was as stunning as it was heartbreaking.  Was it more stunning that it had been written by a woman?  Or perhaps less?  It seemed that the editors, or Proulx herself, wanted us to consider the question: in the center of the second page of the opening spread, we saw a cartoon portrait of Proulx, gender-ambiguous at first glance, with the following caption:

The author’s first stories, twenty years ago, were all about hunting and fishing – “hook-and-bullet material” – written for a men’s-magazine editor who thought he couldn’t publish a contributor called Annie.  He suggested “something like Joe or Zack, retrievers’ names,” the author recalls.  The compromise was initials: E.A. Proulx.  The “E” somehow stuck.  (The author won the Pulitzer Prize as E. Annie Proulx.)  The author is now sixty-four, and “Brokeback Mountain” is the first story published by just Annie.

In the late 1970s, Proulx had to pretend to be a male author to publish stories for a male audience; in 1997, writing an erotic gay-male love story for the intellectual set, she came out, officially, as a woman.  Was October 1997 a moment when we decided that a woman could write whatever she damn well pleased (because look how well she’s doing it)?  Or was the revelation of Proulx’s gender a way of making a groundbreaking story (for the New Yorker, anyway) go down easier?

Do we ever really “forget” the author?  Does she ever truly recede when we are reading gender-crossing works?  Do we necessarily want her to?

The Great Divide: Writing Across Gender from The Millions

STORY WORLD

  • 1960s Wyoming. Jack and Ennis meet in 1963
  • Their first job together is at a sheep operation north of Signal. Signal is a fictional place. The movie was filmed in Cowley, Alberta. “The summer range lay above the tree line on Forest Service land on Brokeback Mountain.”
  • Jack Twist raised in Lightning Flat up on the Montana border
  • Ennis Del Mar was also raised on a small, poor ranch but from around Sage, near the Utah line
  • There’s no real safety net for poor kids. Ennis is unable to finish highschool due to losing his parents and poverty.
  • Life-shattering levels of homophobia
  • Hyper-masculinity is revered
  • These two men, used to living as closeted gay men, have been given a job which requires them to leave no trace of themselves. While tending the sheep and keeping ‘predators’ (read: violent homophobics) away they must light no ‘fire’ (read: keep their true feelings to themselves). “Roll up that tent every morning in case Forest Service snoops round.”
  • Rodeo life is a big part of the culture. Jack in particular is fascinated with this. From “The Mud Below” we know that Annie Proulx considers the rodeo symbolic of hyper masculinity. But rodeo life is changing. It’s turned into a highly competitive sport — much like rugby went from being a pastime to an industry in my home country at around the same time. This means you need money behind you to make any money out of it yourself.
  • A Basque American guy helps the white men load up the mules. Today there are about 60,000 Basque Americans. Wyoming is not a particularly likely place to find someone of Basque descent — most have settled in other states.

 

STORY STRUCTURE

When analysing the structure of a story, the first thing I usually do is work out who the main character is. But every now and then you don’t get a main character — as Proulx explained above, this is about a society, not a single person. Nevertheless, to say anything about a society a writer needs to zone in on individuated characters. Here we have co-heroes Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist.

SHORTCOMING

Being gay in a homophobic society is pretty much all that needs to be said here.

DESIRE

Terrified of living true to themselves, Ennis and Jack want to live as straight manly-men but their wishes are scuppered by the inconvenient reality of falling of love with each other.

OPPONENT

In any love story, the love interest is the number one opponent, but I don’t want to call this a love story first and foremost. This is a hate story. Ennis and Jack’s biggest opponents are the unnamed men who would kick the shit out of them if they knew what they’d been up to up there in those mountains.

Ennis’s main opponent is his dead father, who he suspects of beating a gay man to death and showing it to him and his brother many years ago when they were very young and impressionable.

There are also living representations of his hate-filled father, such as the employer who saw them through binoculars and John Twist. These people represent a hostile wider society, which is the over-riding opponent.

PLAN

Jack can’t leave his wife Alma and two young daughters. He is also terrified of being killed.

Ennis wants them to both leave their families (he’s happier to leave his wife and their son — it seems he’s married her mainly for the prospect of inheritance). He has plans for them to run a ranch together. He’ll use the money he’s sure to get out of his father-in-law to buy one and they can lead a good life together running it.

Jack’s counter plan is for them to meet regularly on the mountain whenever they can get away from their regular lives.

BIG STRUGGLE

The confrontation, where Ennis and Jack finally voice their dilemma. One of them is prepared to sacrifice physical safety to live with his male lover; the other is not.

ANAGNORISIS

There is no anagnorisis. Not in the sense that Ennis finally breaks free of his fear and lives a happy, fulfilled life.

NEW SITUATION

Convinced that Jack has been killed in a hate crime, he continues to live closeted and in fear.

 

TECHNIQUES OF NOTE

Thumbnail Character Sketches

At first glance Jack seemed fair enough, with his curly hair and quick laugh, but for a small man he carried some weight in the haunch and his smile disclosed buckteeth, not pronounced enough to let him eat popcorn out of the neck of a jug, but noticeable.
Brokeback Mountain

– Annie Proulx, quoted in Super Easy Ways To Create Characters For Short Stories, because Proulx is a master of the thumbnail character sketch.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

If you want a tender love story try Mary and Max, an Australian claymation film about a blossoming pen pal relationship.

Lonesome Dove stands out these days for its absence of the homoerotica which would surely be present in an outback environment with only men around. There is some similarity between “Brokeback Mountain” and Lonesome Dove, though, because it’s about two men whose relationship with each other eclipses anything else in their lives.

For another film about a forbidden same-sex relationship which spans years of absence, there’s also Lovesong (2016) directed and written by So-yong Kim. While outwardly similar to Brokeback Mountain, the intensity of feelings assumed to exist in the characters never crosses over into the audience. This is largely due to the passivity of one of the women.

 

The image in the header is a visual of the colours from the film adaptation, from The Colours of Motion.