Shapes of Plots In Children’s Literature

While this post started off with a focus on children’s literature, it is absolutely a post about all kinds of narrative, for any human audience.

The success of a novel is only five percent about the structure and ninety-five percent about the quality of the writing.

Elizabeth Lyons, Manuscript Makeover

THE LINEAR STORY

The linear story tracks a single main character from beginning to end.

It implies a historical or biological explanation for what happens.

John Truby, The Anatomy of Story
linear_600x600

The linear story is a traditionally Western story.

Linear Plots In Adult Film

Most Hollywood films are linear. They focus on a single hero who pursues a particular desire with great intensity. The audience witnesses the history of how the hero goes after their desire and changes as a result.

Linear Plots In Children’s Stories

As in film, the majority of children’s stories are basically linear. However, the plot doesn’t necessarily begin where the story begins. Home-away-home adventure stories are generally linear.

Dennis Butts, among others, has pointed out that in their use of formulaic elements and stereotyped characters, adventure stories owe a good deal to the structure of traditional folk- and fairy tales in which similar patterns tend to repeat themselves. [Also to myth.] Butts refers to the ideas of both [Vladamir] Propp and [Joseph] Campbell as possible instruments to examine the structure of adventure stories, and to those of [Bruno] Bettelheim* to show the appeal of these stories. He also discusses Treasure Island in terms of folktale.

Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear
*Bettelheim was an asshole who set psychology back a couple of decades. Look up his theories on the causes of autism. (tl;dr: Refrigerator Mothers)
  • The Epic Of Gilgamesh (the oldest known adventure story — 3rd millennium BC)
  • Tom Sawyer (‘master text’ for adventure story as the Narnia Chronicles are for fantasy), but is itself an off-shoot of The Odyssey
  • The legend of Saint George and the dragon
  • The Greek tale of Perseus
  • Robinson Crusoe (compared to Odyssean stories, the Robinsonnade keeps the characters in one place in order to focus on character development.)
  • King Solomon’s Mines (1885)
  • Jack and the Beanstalk
  • Treasure Island
  • Kim, Rudyard Kipling (1901)
  • Peter Pan
  • Sherlock Holmes
  • The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings
  • Doctor Who
  • Star Wars (a parody of the hero adventure story)
  • James Bond
  • Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
  • Cinderella, and any story using the ‘Cinderella Structure’ in which the hero can never go home again

For more on children’s adventure stories and their evolution, see The Centrality of the Adventure Story.

My sense is that if you go far enough in any stylistic direction, you can make a beautiful and complex representation of reality, although that representation may not be linear. God knows we’ve got enough linearity in our representations of our world. We’ve tremendously overvalued analytical knowledge, rationality, etc. To me, the process of writing is just reading what I’ve written and—like running your hand over one of those mod glass stovetops to find where the heat is—looking for where the energy is in the prose, then going in the direction of that. It’s an exercise in being open to whatever is there.

George Saunders
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Home Away Home Story Structure

Sidney Richard Percy - Road to Loch Turret 1868

The home away home story structure is common in stories worldwide, and is especially popular in stories for children. Developmentally, children are leaving to leave the house in preparation for leaving for good. But they need the security of the stable home.

“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”

Terry Pratchett

If you’re familiar with Christopher Booker’s 7 Basic Plots theory, the Home-Away-Home story corresponds neatly with his Voyage and Return category. According to Booker, this story structure comprises 5 main sequences:

  1. Anticipation Stage and “Fall” into the Other World
  2. Initial Fascination or Dream Stage
  3. Frustration Stage
  4. Nightmare Stage
  5. Thrilling Escape and Return

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I am a fan of John Truby’s seven step plot structure — mainly because it’s easy to remember and actually universal. The frustration stage maps onto the Opponent, the Nightmare Stage maps onto the Battle, the Thrilling Escape maps onto the very end of the Battle sequence. Escape and Return maps onto New Equilibrium.

The Ideological Problem With Home Away Home Stories

[T]he form of innocence described in many texts is one that suits adult needs. For instance, the small creatures in many generic stories leave home to achieve freedom, and then learn the wisdom of not doing so. Although they claim to be happy about their discovery that they are not capable of fending for themselves, their joyful acceptance of constraint seems to be wish-fulfilment on the part of adult writers who would prefer that children didn’t in fact wish for more independence.

The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Reimer and Nodelman
home away home the hobbit
‘There and back again’ is the subtitle of The Hobbit, and also the central pattern of movement in many children’s stories.

THREE PATTERNS FOR THE DESCRIPTION OF HOME IN CHILDREN’S FICTION

As categorised by Lucy Waddey:

1. The Odyssean pattern: Home is an anchor and a refuge, a place to return to after trials and adventures in the wild world. Home corresponds to Arcadia. This is the ‘here and back again’ pattern discussed below.

2. The Oedipal pattern: Found in domestic stories (Little Women, Little House etc.) These are stories where the child stays marooned in the home, but perhaps leaves imaginatively. This Oedipal pattern is also used in adult fiction when writing about women who, like children, are often confined to the home and can only escape in their imaginations. Katherine Mansfield’s female characters fit this pattern, with “How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped” as a stand-out example.

3. The Promethean pattern: There is no home at the beginning of the story but the main character creates one as part of their maturation (The Secret Garden)

But these categories are not mutually exclusive. The Wind In The Willows would be a mixture between all three patterns.

Nodelman and Reimer call such picture books ‘no-name stories’, because they are so generic. Here’s what generic, no-name home-away-home books have in common:

  1. A young creature/animal/object with human characteristics enjoys the security of a comfortable home until something happens to make it unhappy. 
  2. The small creature leaves home and has exciting adventures. 
  3. But the adventures turn out to be dangerous or as discomforting as they are thrilling.
  4. Having learned the truth about the big world, the creature finally returns to the security it at first found burdensome, concluding that, despite is constraints, home is best.

(The following are notes from the same book, with a few of my own examples.)

The Little Bus Who Liked Home Best by Lucy Prince Scheidlinger (1955)

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Genres In Children’s Literature: Lecture 19: Traditional Literature

David Beagley, La Trobe University, available on iTunes U

 

What is ‘traditional’?

  • A ‘tradition’ must follow a pattern that’s been set down and repeated over time. It can be traced through history.
  • Traditional ‘templates’ keep being used across generations and these templates are partly what make stories traditional.
  • The pattern must be ‘fixed’ in some way, which do not change over time. But there also must be elements which have changed. So tradition is a mixture of very old patterns and new variations. Without variations it’s not a tradition but a ‘repetition’.
  • Much of traditional literature derives from the oral tradition.
  • The printing press worked to fix a single version of a story, when in fact they tend to evolve. (In so many cases we think of the Disney version.) Modern marketing and publishing leads the audience to think of one particular version of a story.

Folksongs

  • Happy Birthday To You
  • He’s A Jolly Good Fellow
  • In Australia a lot of them derive from military songs. For example Melbourne’s Grand Old Flag is taken from an American song. Collingwood Forever was a marching song from the Boer War.
  • So many of these are a cultural marker, used to help define a particular group because they derive from a shared history. The Brothers Grimm collected a huge number of stories particularly from the Germanic countries (there was no country called ‘Germany’ back then. There were lots of separate Germanic states and each state was a separate country.) The Grimm brothers were trying to bring these groups together with a shared culture. Eventually they came together as Germany. [Was it the folktales, then? Ha ha]

 

Folktales

  • A folktale is the ‘generic’ tale that is used for all the tales/puns/jokes etc that can be lumped together, garnered from the oral tradition.
  • Folklore includes superstitions/remedies/old wives’ tales.
  • There are various categories of these.
  • Lots of beast stories.
  • Fools and Innocents: Jack and the Beanstalk, [Simple Simon], Brer Rabbit, Anansi (a spider in African lore)
  • Pourquoi Stories: how and why things happen. [pourquoi means ‘why’ in French]
  • Domestic Stories: The Elves and the Shoemaker
  • Human Traits: King Midas, Icarus, [The Emperor’s New Clothes]
  • Moral Warnings

Fairytales

  • Fairytales are a subset of folktales.
  • Fairytales include fantasy. Think of ‘faery’ as a place or a state, which was its original use. A fairytale is set in this parallel fantasy world.

Myths and Legends

  • A myth is a story that explains the world. Many derive from early religions because they were the best explanation people could come up with at the time, with the evidence they had. These are not for entertainment, originally made up to explain how the world came about.
  • A legend is usually about a single person (sometimes groups), but focuses on the lives of individual people. These people might not be real. Robin Hood, Joan of Arc, Ulysses are all characters who make certain groups proud to be a part of that group. In Australia we have The Man From Snowy River and similar, which perpetuates a particular image of Australia. Legends can be misused. (See: The Nazis.) [See again, Deconstructing The Hero by Marjery Hourihan.]
  • Myths and legends all derive from reality and all function to explain the world to a particular culture.
  • Related: See my post What Is Mythic Structure?

 

Nursery Rhymes

  • These are often a child’s first experience of literature. [But is that still the case? Do modern children still have old nursery rhymes read to them?]
  • There are now nursery rhymes which have been ‘authored’. (We know who wrote Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.)
  • Nursery rhymes are a huge mess of the created, adapted, the melodied. These exist for the purpose of play.