Moral Dilemmas And Children’s Stories

moral dilemma

When it comes to stories for adults and stories for children, there’s not much in it. But children are faced with different moral dilemmas.

What Is A Moral Dilemma?

First, Donald Maass explains the difference between a ‘dilemma’ and a ‘MORAL dilemma’:

A dilemma is a choice between two equally good or two equally bad outcomes. A moral dilemma elevates such a choice by giving two outcomes equally excellent, or excruciating, consequences not only for a protagonist, but for others. A dilemma is a situation in which none of us likes to be caught, but in which we all sometimes find ourselves. A moral dilemma is a situation nobody wants, and which few must ever face, but which is terrific for making compelling fiction.

— Donald Maass

Using Donald’s distinction, not many children’s books of MG level and below have moral dilemmas. The vast majority feature dilemmas, relatable because they are faced by all of us over the course of growing up: Do I sit with my old friends at lunch or with these shiny new friends? Do I follow my parents’ instructions or do I try something different? A story like Wolf Hollow has a moral dilemma, to do with telling the truth or not in order to protect someone. Interestingly, Wolf Hollow was originally written for adults, and revised for children when an editor saw a position for it on the children’s book market.

Everyday Dilemma, Or Impossible Choice?

Janice Hardy calls the moral dilemma the ‘impossible choice‘. Hardy advises writers to include at least one impossible choice per story, even if the story isn’t overtly about that (e.g. Sophie’s Choice). If we think in terms of ‘impossible choice’, then choosing to sit with new friends instead of old friends then sounds impossible: If you sit with your old friends you could squander a chance to make extra friends. But if you sit with your new friends you might lose your old ones, since childhood is tribal. If you follow the rules about being nice to everyone, how do you deal with that covert bully who is never nice to you? Ignoring won’t work. Childhood is chock full of impossible choices.

Moral Dilemmas Give Stories Emotional Impact

Karl Iglesias in his book Writing For Emotional Impact has this to say about moral dilemmas:

Dilemmas create emotional anguish for characters, which in turn challenges readers to consider what they would do if the dilemma were theirs. Our anguish may not be as acute, as we’re one step removed, but we twist our hands anyway. That is, we twist them if the dilemma is truly difficult.

Dilemmas, then, work best when the stakes are both high and personal. When one choice is morally right, it will win out unless it is offset by a different choice that is equally compelling in personal terms. Law versus love. Tell the truth or protect the innocent. Be honest or be kind. When there’s no way to win in a story, the winner is us.

The more difficult the decision your character has to make, the more you’ll engage the reader in thinking about it and therefore compel them to read on to find out how the story turns out.

Parables always feature a moral dilemma. The main character faces a moral dilemma, makes a bad decision then suffered the unintended consequences

To take the schoolyard bully example, it is morally right to ignore a bully. That’s what kids are told to do. But in reality, ignoring bullies doesn’t work. It may feel personally right to quietly take revenge, or at the very least, to assert your own position in the pecking order by doing something that displays your own strength.

Continue reading “Moral Dilemmas And Children’s Stories”

Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk Novel Study

Wolf Hollow cover with night sky and a huge yellow moon

Wolf Hollow (2016) is a middle grade novel by Lauren Wolk. This mid-20th century story is chock-full of symbolism which makes it great for a novel study. Here I focus instead on the writing techniques, for writers of middle grade.

Though moons tend to be massive in children’s books, this would have to be the most massive I’ve seen in a while!

I have previously taken a close look at a lesser-known picturebook called Wolf Comes To Town. Wolf Hollow is the literary, middle-grade version of that book in some ways.

Word count of Wolf Hollow is 60,000. Originally written as an adult book, marketed and edited as a children’s book.

STORYWORLD

West Pennsylvania, 1943, autumn. We’re told the year right away. It’s immediately clear that this is a war-aftermath story.

APPARENT UTOPIA

“Wolf Hollow” is a romantic, intriguing name reminiscent of something Anne Shirley would dream up. (Raccoon Creek and the Turtle Stone are other fetching names used in the book.) But unlike the world of (the original) Green Gables, this is no utopia. Instead, Wolf Hollow is an ‘apparent utopia’, where people grow ‘victory gardens‘ and residents are surrounded by nature. There is plenty of hygge — the peeling of apples, the large family table in their big, warm farm house.

By the time we got to the schoolhouse, it was raining in earnest. We three had worn oilcloth ponchos, hoods up, and boots, so we were plenty dry and warm, but many of the other children came in soaked and shivering.

SEASON

Like many stories with girl main characters, this story is closely connected to the seasons. Notice how the hygge is moderated by details that show this setting is not in fact utopian:

Each season meant a world refashioned inside its stalls and storerooms.

Pockets of warmth in winter, the milk cows and draft horses like furnaces, their heat banked by straw bedding and new manure.

In spring, swallows fledged from muddy nests wedged in crannies overhead, and kittens fresh and soft staggered between hooves and attacked the tails of tackle hanging from stable pegs.

Come summer, yellow jackets nested in the straw, old oats sprouted through the floorboards, Houdine hens laid eggs in odd places where they might yield chicks, and dusty sunlight striped the air like bridges to somewhere else.

TECHNOLOGY

This family has had electricity for a few years, introduced under President Roosevelt. Electricity had already become common in American homes during the 1930s but took longer to reach rural areas. This is one of the things which would’ve set a divide between ‘country kids’ and ‘city kids’ (Betty).

SCHOOL
The school house of Wolf Hollow probably looked like this
Alfred Eisenstaedt, Mining Town, Pennsylvania, April, 1943

Annabelle’s class would have looked something like as depicted above, but because of lack of resources the classroom is overcrowded, so that when everyone turns up most students have to share a seat.

Today, I would learn some arithmetic, no doubt, and a few state capitals, why we fought the wars we fought, what Anne of Green Gables would get up to next, and why I shouldn’t mix bleach with ammonia.

WAR

The futility, or the insignificance of war to these country children, is shown in the sentence above. War is listed in the same sentence as far more mundane things, including cosy fiction. The children don’t see the point of war.

FEMINISM

Annabelle realises she must do well at school. With two brothers she won’t have the opportunity to run the family farm. She has been told to study hard and get a career. Other girls of that era would have been told to marry well, but expectations were changing rapidly for women both during and after the war.

STORY STRUCTURE OF WOLF HOLLOW

WEAKNESS/NEED/PROBLEM

Annabelle is a likeable, ordinary girl. Her weakness is that so far she has lead a happy, sheltered life with no real calamity. At the magical (critical) age of 12 this is about to change.

Her happy, sheltered life exposes her weakness — she doesn’t yet know how to cope with adversity. Over the course of this story she must learn.

DESIRE

Overall, Annabelle wants to be left in peace to go to school and get a career.

In this particular story, Annabelle wants to stop Betty from bullying her and to keep her brothers safe. Later, this morphs into the intense desire for justice — to protect Toby.

OPPONENT

Betty

Betty is introduced on page 5. As newcomer, she is immediately interesting to both Annabelle and to the reader. We expect things of newcomers. She is a big, tough 14 year old girl from ‘the city’. She’ll be living with her grandparents, the Glengarrys.

Betty is a bit of a stock bully. But when she kills the bird (the inverse of Save The Cat) it becomes clear that she is more sociopathic than your typical middle grade bully. This girl has real issues. Partly to avoid problematic stereotypes, perhaps, Betty is blonde. (In the First Golden Age Of Children’s Literature you rarely met a blonde baddie.)

That said, Betty’s pretty blondness is partly what leads to her getting away with baldfaced lies. Her grandparents don’t believe she is violent and the adults don’t think to question if she really could see Toby on the hill from the belfry. The way adults discriminate based on complexion and pigmentation is brought to the fore when Annabelle asks her father who Hitler does like:

My father thought about his answer. “People with blonde hair and blue eyes,” he said.

“I would assign every lie a color: yellow when they were innocent, pale blue when they sailed over you like the sky, red because I knew they drew blood. And then there was the black lie. That’s the worst of all. A black lie was when I told you the truth. ”

Steve Martin

In this way, Betty is the local little Hitler. Like Swallows and Amazons, also set across war time, here we have a novel where the community battles fought by the children in some ways mirror what’s going on in the wider world. Similarly, Betty has targeted Annabelle because she perceives she is rich. One part of the reason for anti-semitism — irrational as it is — has historically been due to the perception that Jewish people accumulate an unfair amount of wealth owing to their sticking together and supporting each others’ businesses.

One sure sign that someone is an anti-Semite is if he agrees with the statement that “Jews have too much power in our country today.

Mark Weber

Annabelle is not Jewish, though she does have brown hair and brown eyes. (A ‘Betty and Veronica’ dichotomy.) She comes from a WASPish family.

Wolk makes clear exactly where Annabelle’s family sit in the economic hierarchy: as farmers they are neither poor nor rich, but exist outside the urban definition of ‘rich’ or ‘poor’. There is little to spare and the house is Spartan but being an old family with a large farm, they have been able to donate land for the school and church and are therefore rich by many standards.

However, the idea that you can look at someone from the outside and assume things about them is the critical idea here; Annabelle is not rich.

Andy

As Betty’s love interest, Andy is the romantic opponent. Andy, like Betty, is often compared to a dog. When he turns up late for school one rainy day he ‘tipped off his hood and shook all over like a dog as he looked around the schoolhouse.’

Aunt Lily

Annabelle’s parents are excellent parents, in danger of being Mary Sue characters, actually, so to disrupt the harmony at home we have Aunt Lily, another stock character who reminds me of two other fictional characters: Aunt Beryl from Katherine Mansfield’s most famous short stories, and from children’s literature, of Kate DiCamillo’s Eugenia from the Mercy the Pig series.

Wolf Hollow and Mercy Watson share a character trope of the skinny, elderly spinster

Aunt Lily is severe like Eugenia but also has a dreamy, romantic, thwarted-desire side to her, depicted with the small but telling detail that Aunt Lily goes to her room for Bible study, but can also be found listening to music and dancing at the end of her bed.

(Interestingly, Aunt Lily is a postmistress, which is the job L.M. Montgomery had, author of Anne of Green Gables. I wonder how closely L.M. Montgomery herself conformed to the severe postmistress trope.)

John and Sarah

Annabelle’s parents are loving and warm. Their response to the bullying situation is quite modern, in fact. An attitude fairly common in earlier eras was that children need to look after themselves, fighting back against bullies. Not so in this situation — when Annabelle tells her parents what’s been going on with Betty they tell her they’ll take care of it and that she should have told them sooner.

But the parents — owing to their goodness — are also opponents, in a way, because in any healthy parent-child relationship, the parents will never be completely on your side. Annabelle doesn’t want to worry them with her Betty issues so she hides the problems she is having. And here’s a storytelling problem — perhaps a problem for the modern child — “Why doesn’t Annabelle simply tell an adult immediately?” “Tattle-tales and ‘dirty dobbing’ weren’t part of my own school culture, but in the last 10-20 years schools have largely instituted zero tolerance for physical violence and I’m fairly confident that most children would tell an adult if they were left with a black welt. Wolk explains in several different places why Annabelle won’t tell her parents. First it’s because she’d like to deal with her own problems on her own — which is actually a rule for protagonists in children’s literature:

I wanted to see if she was a barker or a biter.

At the beginning of chapter four:

My mother gave me a funny look as I stood at the back door the next morning, readying myself, before setting off for school. When she said, “Something wrong, Annabelle?” I nearly told her about Betty. It wold have been a relief to put the whole thing in her hands.

But although there were only apples and potatoes, beets and a few winter squash left to bring in, and although she, of all women on earth, was capable and strong, I had it in mind to spare her this particular battle. I’d thought it through: If i told her, she’d have to go to her friends, the Glengarrys, and tell them that their granddaughter was a hooligan, something they surely already knew but would not want to hear from a neighbour.

And despite the fact that she’d been able to fix nearly every broken thing in our lives, my mother could not promise me that Betty would not come at me again, even angrier — or worse, go after my brothers — if I tattled on her.

I had learned what incorrigible meant. A scolding was not going to change anything, and so far Betty hadn’t done anything to deserve more.

Finally, however, Annabelle does tell her parents. This occurs after the third Betty incident, in fact, making use of the Rule of Three In Storytelling.

Toby

We are not immediately sure whether Toby has a dark side to him. He doesn’t want any food, but what does he want?

I’m reminded of the Galloway character in the Jennifer Lawrence film Serena, in which a weird dude walks around in an almost supernatural way. In the adult film the character didn’t work. Partly because of the Galloway character in my opinion, who is two-dimensional and not that interesting. He is two-dimensional precisely because we don’t know what he wants.

Wolf Hollow and Serena share the trope of the suspicious town wanderer

Lauren Wolk avoids this pitfall. Toby is introduced with a backstory in chapter three, after Annabelle’s first encounter with Betty. He soon proves his goodness to us, however, when he quietly intervenes in a bullying incident. (A true Save The Cat moment.)

PLAN

Wolk sets up a mystery. Although this is not a mystery novel per se, there are mystery detective elements as Annabelle sets about on her own fact-finding missions, determining of her own accord whether Toby could be seen from the belfry, and if Betty was even up there at the time of the rock incident.

BATTLE

The climactic incident, after the wire trap, after the lost eye, is when Betty and Toby both go missing. This happens Chapter 12, about p120 out of 290pp. A little less than halfway through.

SELF-REVELATION

Because this is a story retold by a storyteller narrator, after a distance of many years, the self-revelation is given to us at the very beginning, and even used on the yellow version of the book cover:

Wolf Hollow cover with writing
The year I turned twelve I learned how to lie. The year I turned twelve, I learned that what I said and did mattered.

(The first chapter is actually bookended by these two sentences.)

When it is clear that Aunt Lily believes Betty’s story that Toby pushed her into the hole in the ground, Annabelle realises that some people will believe anything so long as it suits their own preconceived view. She realises that there are good lies and bad lies — that the world is not black and white.

By the end of the story Aunt Lily has realised that she was quick to judge Toby. Of course, Aunt Lily’s self-revelation is a lesson to the reader not to judge hastily.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

This story has a classic fugitive arc. In children’s literature it’s often another child or an animal that the child rescues and nurtures. Courage The Cowardly Dog takes in the Hunchback of Notre Dame in The Hunchback Of Nowhere. In the case of Wolf Hollow, Annabelle is also harbouring a grown man in the hayloft. (Since this is literary and not horror comedy, the author did well not to make this sound creepy. I’m not sure it would work so well if it were set in 2017.) Haylofts are thought to be nurturing, comfortable places to sleep. At least, it’s always the case in stories.

“The loft will be fine,” he said. “It smells good up there. And I like the doves.”

I’m not sure about reality, though. I imagine it would feel scratchy and probably full of ticks. Here in Australia — snakes. However, a bed of hay is a common feature of utopian (or apparent-utopian) stories.

In the utopian world of Kiki’s Delivery Service, Kiki and Gigi sleep on a bed of hay and wake up to find they’re in someone’s breakfast.

An a fugitive arc the goodie eventually proves their goodness to the public. In this case Toby had to get into the hole and rescue the girl he supposedly harmed.

The problem with grotesques, though, is that in stories they don’t get happy endings. Experienced readers will have expected this as soon as we learned about Toby’s hand. It was inevitable from the set up that Toby would be shot.

However, it was not so inevitable that Betty died. The author avoided melodrama and achieved mimesis by having Betty die undramatically of systemic infection.

We can extrapolate that life will go on as before, but Annabelle is now an adult, or closer to it. That makes Wolf Hollow a coming-of-age story. Annabelle has been drawn into an adult world and there’s no going back. Aunt Lily may or may not be a tad kinder.

In America, lying can never be an act of caring. We find it hard to accept that lying would be protective, this is an unexamined idea. In some countries, not telling, or a certain opaqueness, is an act of respect.

Esther Perel

FURTHER CHARACTER NOTES

Ruth

Annabelle’s best friend Ruth is a dark-haired, red-lipped, pale girl with a quiet voice. We know immediately that she is not the star of the story. Such girls do not star in middle grade fiction. (They may find themselves viewpoint characters.) Instead, this girl loses an eye. I’m reminded of Mary and Laura from the Little House On The Prairie series. Laura is the spirited girl with gumption and attitude; Mary is expendable (plot wise) and sure enough, Mary too becomes blind. (The fact that Mary Ingalls became blind in real life is beside my point. It’s possible Mary’s subdued ‘personality’ was emphasised to fit how she became, by necessity, after losing her sight, and her freedom.)

Annabelle’s younger brothers, age 9 and 7, are repeatedly portrayed as existing in the world of childhood, in stark contrast to Annabelle who at age 12 is just starting to encounter adult problems such as prejudice and injustice. Henry and James run around gleefully, eat without self-consciousness and must be protected as the children they still are.

For a while, being included in these conversations had made me feel tall. Now I was ready to be eleven again and back up in bed like my brothers.

Townspeople

Other characters exist to flesh out the town and contribute to the plot — the kindly German man despised by town locals, the gossipy Annie Gribble. (Annie Gribble is somehow an onomatopoeic name. Perhaps because it contains the ‘gr’ consonant cluster, in common with ‘grumble’.)

Annie Gribble lived in a small house that we passed on our way to market. I’d only been there once, to drop off a bushel of peaches at canning time, but she’d invited us in for a glass of lemonade, my father and me, and I’d been fascinated by the switchboard that dominated her front room like a loom strung with thin black snakes.

With the snake simile in final position of that thumbnail character sketch, we are left with a very clear impression of Annie Gribble. She is not to be trusted.

The constable is a kindly fellow, big and strong, but not as good at detective work as Annabelle.

By the end of Wolf Hollow it’s clear that these minor characters were fleshed out for a reason. Annie Gribble is a very handy archetype to have in a story, for narrative purposes. As the town gossip she is an omniscient eye. In Anne of Green Gables we have Rachel Lynde who performs a similar purpose.

SYMBOL WEB

Wolves/Dogs

It is explained that Wolf Hollow no longer has wolves but used to be the place where wolves were trapped and shot. There were deep pits dug there, which the wolves would fall into. Another story with wolf in the title but not in the storyworld is “The Wamsutter Wolf” by Annie Proulx.

It is immediately clear that the character of Toby is the personification of a wolf — a wild creature roaming around suspiciously, misunderstood by humans. It is no surprise when something bad happens to him. The history of the wolves has foreshadowed the calamity which befalls the human-wolf. To be clear, there is nothing supernatural about this story. It’s not a werewolf tale. But this feels like a place of fantasy laid upon a real-world setting — the symbol web and the ‘evil’ newcomer and the poetic place names lend this feeling. Toby is compared to a farm dog numerous times throughout the story.

When Betty is found the ‘hunt’ for Toby intensifies.

Hollow

‘Hollow’ is a great word.

We might think of it romantically, as we are encouraged to do in Gilmore girls with the name ‘Stars Hollow’ — a genuine utopia, separate from the ills of the world by virtue of its being in a bit of a ‘hole’ (which has completely different connotations).

More generally, ‘hollow’ means ‘having a hole or empty space inside’. This describes the townspeople who so easily discriminate against those who are different from themselves.

It is eventually revealed that two of the three guns Toby hauls around are broken. ‘Hollow’ weapons, hollow threats — symbols of how Toby looks dangerous but actually isn’t.

Plot wise, it is significant that Betty falls into a literal hole in the ground. This is of course a form of retribution, and readers are encouraged to examine our own glee, especially when it’s revealed how close Betty came to death.

See also: Punishment in Children’s Literature.

But when Annabelle has her final idea she has it at the Turtle Stone, which is at a high point. In stories, characters have revelations in high places. Like Moses in the Bible.

See Also: The Symbolism Of Altitude

Toby’s Hand

Toby’s scarred and deformed hand is a distinguishing feature eventually used to prove his real identity. This trope is used to comic effect by Daniel Handler in A Series of Fortunate Events, with the tattoo of an eye on Count Olaf’s ankle.

It is significant that Toby’s hand is disfigured because the author is making use of the Red Right Hand trope.

Toby is a Grotesque (and grotesques often have Red Right Hands). A grotesque is ugly on the outside but good on the inside. (Or if they’re bad, it’s because they’ve been treated badly.) But because of his “Red Right Hand”, the townspeople (as well as the readers) have been trained to see Toby as evil. There are good deformities and bad deformities, and having a deformed hand is not a good one, in literature.

Though most people probably think of the Nick Cave song these days, the term originated in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Before that, there are references to red hands in the Bible. Toby is clearly a Jesus figure — ostracised by many for his difference, an aesthete, a long beard, a carpenter, intrinsically good, loves children.

In any case, the history of storytelling has taught us that characters with red hands might be supernatural and also very, very bad. So when Toby turns out to be a good guy, Lauren Wolf has subverted reader expectations, and hopefully the self-revelation for the reader is: Don’t judge people at first sight.

RELATED

Another novel, for slightly older readers perhaps, deals with questions of right and wrong, appearance vs reality. Big Mouth and Ugly Girl by Joyce Carol Oates.

 

Are Crime Shows Becoming Less Sexist?

 

 

Related: Why Do We Love Grimdark TV? from Bitch Magazine

Since so much horribleness goes on in the real world, I’ve reached the age where I have no time for stories about men whose motivations are spurred by the torture and murder of women. I can enjoy a good crime series, but if the crime is going to be against women, I want to see a certain amount of female agency. Sometimes this agency comes from the victim/survivor herself; at other times the focus is on the women who work to solve the crimes.

In my middle age I am sick to death of stories such as True Detective, hailed as ‘dark masterpieces’ which are about the way men deal with the rapes and gruesome murders of women in their jobs, and with the nagging, unreasonable, one-dimensional wives and girlfriends in their real lives. Even a great show such as Breaking Bad unwittingly, I believe, turns female characters into annoying, nagging sidekicks. (Vince Gilligan blamed the audience for hating Skyler; after watching that series three times I’m now sure there are things he could have done, or rather plot points he could have avoided, to make the female characters more empathetic, if that’s what he’d been going for.)

Crime writers who base their plots around the murder, rape and mutilation of female bodies need to be especially careful to go out of their way to present live women as rounded individuals. FFS, it should be part of the damn contract.

The following shows are not about the murder and rape of middle aged men. Far from it. There’s still that uncomfortable link between sex and violence in here, and crime drama isn’t for everyone.

If, like me, you would like to enjoy the suspense of a good crime show but you’d only sit through slightly more female-friendly crime, here are three series for your consideration.

THE FALL (Belfast)

the-fall-gillian-anderson

A lot has been said about The Fall, which is what made me watch it in the first place.

See: You Should Be Watching The Fall, a Serial-Killer Show Like No Other from Wired

The Fall: The Most Feminist Show on Television from The Atlantic

This is a story comprising two short series, both available now on American Netflix. Gillian Anderson plays the SIO (Senior Investigation Officer) looking for a serial killer of women. From the start, the audience knows who the serial killer is. He is not the serial killer of the popular imagination. Gillian Anderson’s character has some great lines, which show she isn’t wearing the rose-tinted glasses; she knows sexism when she sees it and she calls it out. This is immensely satisfying. Needless to say, I really enjoyed it. Continue reading “Are Crime Shows Becoming Less Sexist?”

Broadchurch Pilot Episode TV Writing

broadchurch-poster

Broadchurch is a TV murder mystery in which a village is a miniature for society. As one reviewer points out, “the death which happens at the beginning incites all sorts of unexpected human behaviour, with repercussions all around the town. Initially the show seems to be making the banal point that the residents of this bucolic town are not what they appear at first glance. But they are not what they appear at second glance either.”

Genre: Broadchurch takes the classic buddy detective template (she’s by the book, he plays by his own rules) and gives the procedural depth by showing the emotional aftermath of an unspeakable crime (drama).

22 (actually fewer) Steps In The First Episode (using John Truby’s movie steps from Anatomy of Story)

Self-revelation: This comes later in the series, no doubt. For now we see the set up. Ellie has compared herself to the more experienced Met guy and realised she may not have what it takes after all for the job she so wanted. She has probably overestimated her own abilities as a detective because she hasn’t been significantly challenged.

Ghost — Alec Hardy has a ghost which may or may not ever be revealed to us (it never was in Casablanca, in which we never really learn why the hero left America). But it’s only hinted at. (Later we’ll learn he’s hiding a serious health condition.) But Ellie on the other hand, has been living in a kind of paradise world, symbolised by her returning straight from holiday. In a paradise world, a ghost is not possible.

Ellie’s inciting incident: A friend of her son has been murdered. The inciting incident connects Ellie’s need with her desire: She needs recognition and she desires to help her friends to achieve justice by finding out the truth. This is a good place to put the inciting incident, because Ellie just thinks she’s had the worst day ever, not getting the job she wanted, but then that pales into insignificance when the murdered boy is found. This plunges her into the most harrowing career challenge of her life. (Another character asks if she’s ever done a murder case before — she says no.)

Storyworld

broadchurch looking out to sea

The town of Broadchurch in Wessex, England, is bracing itself for an annual influx of holiday tourists. This is a quaint village right next to the sea. The sort of place where even police officers can enjoy ice creams while in uniform.

broachurch icecreams pier

The story world is an outworking of your hero. Detective stories, crime stories, and thrillers often set up a close connection between the hero’s weakness—when it exists—and the “mean streets,” or world of slavery in which the hero operates.

— John Truby

The Sea

A walk along a clifftop leads to a steep drop onto the beach, which is the scene of the crime, and sets up this town’s relationship to the sea: 

The sea has both a surface and a depth, and just like the ocean, this little town has that dichotomy; there’s the 2-dimensional happy, safe, low-crime surface contrasted against the murky depths below — the ultimate 3D landscape where all creatures are weightless and live at every level. In this story, the ocean deep is not a utopia but a terrifying graveyard.

— see John Truby

The oceanic nature of the story world is echoed in the camera movement as the pilot episode opens. The very first shot is of a choppy ocean. Next we have a camera ‘swimming’ around the neighbourhood, zooming in on various houses, panning across rooms, as if all of this town is underground and we’re seeing it as a fish. The oceanic colour scheme is even used in Danny’s mother’s room, which is painted out in an oceanic theme. This colour blue is seen again in the grandmother’s shirt, in Danny’s lunchbox (which he is not there to collect.)

The fish movement camera is used again as Danny’s father walks along the main street. He’s talking about mundane things with friends and acquaintances, but the music tells us something terrible has happened. Who is following him? (Us.) Much use is made of juxtaposition, as his exchanges are cheerful and they’re talking about everyday things. We see a poster for the Broadchurch Fair, presumably a weekly, light, fun-filled event.

Broadchurch is an ‘apparent utopia’. This village appears to be perfect, but the perfection is only skin deep. Below the surface, the world is actually corrupt, rotten, and enslaving. Everyone is desperate to put on a good face to hide a psychological or moral disaster.

Character desire is clearly established in the first episode.

Ellie Miller comes back from holiday giving out souvenirs when she is called into her boss’s office and told she hasn’t got ‘the job’. She wants a promotion from detective sergeant to detective inspector. The job has gone to a man. Ellie wants recognition and respect and career advancement. We know this from the very first scene. Compared to solving your first murder mystery, this is a fairly low-level goal, as initial desires should be. Psychological weakness: We get the sense that while Ellie may be ready for promotion in her small town, she is not sufficiently in control of her own emotions to do a good job. She needs to be paired with her opposite in order to learn. Ellie wishes to be called Ellie rather than Miller — a symbolic difference in how each detective approaches the job. Ellie can’t work without putting her personality into it. Ellie is a motherly figure, asking for ‘all the gossip’, giving out presents like stuffed toys and lipgloss.

Alec Hardy — Hardy’s reasons for relocation are kept from us for now, but we know that he has been shifted from the Met to avoid the consequences of some kind of scandal to do with a previous, high-profile murder case. Moral weakness: Hardy has no people skills whatsoever, bossing people around to get the job done. But the audience will forgive him for this, as he is very good at his job and cares deeply about finding the truth. No doubt Hardy and Miller will each learn from the other. Alec Hardy will be a fake-opponent, and we can see that from the beginning because his skills and weaknesses line up so nicely with those of Ellie.

Alec and Ellie are almost like the mirror image of each other. Normally in a set up the audience gets a very clear picture of the main character’s psychological weakness as well as their moral weakness, but here Ellie’s psychological weakness is highlighted whereas with Alec we get his moral weakness.

Beth Latimer — the murdered boy’s mother. We see her in her natural environment, getting her family off to school for the day — she wants her daughter to attend a school event even though the daughter is trying to pull a sickie. Then her desire changes suddenly when she is told her son hasn’t turned up at school (he was supposed to be spending the night somewhere else) and she is hellbent on finding out where he is. Then she is hellbent on finding out whose is the dead body on the beach. In follow-up episodes we can predict that she will be equally hell bent on finding out the truth. Beth is a bit of a ‘rule breaker’, jumping over the boundary police line in a panic over her son. (If a character can’t do that then, when?) The audience wants to see her do just that.

Olly Stevens is introduced in his work office — he is a young journalist who has just been turned down from the last of the big newspapers and now he’s stuck here in this tiny town working on non-event stories. Olly wants excitement, and he needs to prove himself somehow to get his foot in the door of a major paper. Moral weakness: He needs to start respecting other people’s privacy. He leaks the name of the murdered boy to the press even though his police officer aunt has told him not to.

Trendy young vicar — Moral weakness: using the death of a boy to spread the word of God.

Ally/Allies — Ellie’s main ally is a fake opponent, the new guy from the Met. Her husband is her emotional support. She is friends with people on the staff, though her boss has things she is not telling her, as evidenced by a secret conversation with Hardy while they eat ice cream on the pier.

Opponent — We don’t yet know who the main opponent is, but it looks like it’s going to be a web of people, including her own son, who deletes files from his C-drive as soon as his mother tells him his friend has been found dead. In the village we’ve also briefly met a creepy newsagent and a middle-aged misanthrope who is always lurking off to the side.

Mystery — Ellie must first uncover her opponents THEN defeat them. As far as she’s concerned, the whole town is on her side. In the detective genre there must be a mystery to compensate for the missing opponent because these stories deliberately withhold the opponent until the end. So we need something to replace it: the mystery of who murdered the boy. In a different genre, this would be when the opponent is introduced.

Fake-ally opponent — We have the strong sense that Ellie is not yet aware of the extent of hidden allegiances and deceptions going on in this town (helped with the symbolism of the sea). Her son may fit into this category, even if he’s too young and naive to be deliberately oppositional. Ellie’s boss may be a fake ally — in this genre the boss often ends up making things difficult for the spunky underling. Since fake-ally opponents are usually revealed after the main opponent (or mystery) has been revealed, we’re likely to find out what the allegiances and alliances really are in the next few episodes.

Reveals — Reveals are things the hero learns as the story progresses, and each reveal is supposed to be more significant than the last. Since this is a TV series there will be significant reveals much later on, but there will be minor reveals right the way through. Ellie’s first reveal: She hasn’t got the job of DI. But the guy from the Met who botched that other murder did get it, and she’s going to have to work with him. This is great, because the best reveals are about the main character’s opponent. Ellie’s second reveal: That the death of the boy is suspicious. Ellie’s decision: Her decision to solve the murder with her new boss will help her to gain the respect she craves, which means her new desire is a ‘bend’ of the original desire rather than a completely new one, which is perfect. (A river changing course.)

Plan — The new DI speaks clearly to the family and to the camera — he promises to find the killer. Ellie is along for the ride with him. There are bound to be problems along the way, with the audience wondering how these two can possibly solve such a difficult mystery. They’ll have to change strategy several times along the way.

Opponent’s plan — we already see the son hiding information that may be helpful to Ellie. But we don’t yet know what else is going on behind the scenes.

Drive — this will come in subsequent episodes. For now, Ellie is in reactive mode, looking stunned.