I Know Your True Name Trope

Rumpelstiltskin Monro S. Orr

There’s a really old storytelling trope: A trickster girl — and it is usually a girl — overcomes an Opponent with word play rather than physical tousle. Oftentimes the ‘word play’ is simply guessing the opponent’s real name.

Contains Breaking Bad spoilers. But hopefully you’ve already seen that if you wanted to. Continue reading “I Know Your True Name Trope”

The Unclouded Day by Annie Proulx Storytelling

grouse

“The Unclouded Day” is a short story by Annie Proulx, first published 1985, included in the Heart Songs collection. Rich and poor, city and rural bump up against each other. This story is an excellent example of two narrative techniques in particular:

  1. Santee has both an outside opponent and one from within his own group. (Earl most obviously, but also his wife.)
  2. The revelation comes early for Santee, but the story has to conclude with Earl’s ‘fake’ self-revelation before we’re done. If you’d like to write a trickster story, “The Unclouded Day” provides a successful template.

WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE UNCLOUDED DAY”

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Fairytales and Modern Storytelling

fairytale study

This is my collection of fairytale links. I’m interested in fairytales from a writing perspective — how do fairytales help us to create new, contemporary stories?

TWO OF THE MOST IMPORTANT ELEMENTS OF FAIRYTALES

  1. the “serene, anonymous” voice in which it’s told
  2. the “conventional, stock figures” who inhabit it.

This is according to American poet James Merrill , as described at the opening of “The Book of Ephraim”.

THE ENDURING APPEAL OF CERTAIN FAIRYTALES

A lot of fairytales are harrowing. Nothing written fresh today would get published and heavily marketed for children if it included cannibalism and other child abuse. Yet many of us still read Hansel and Gretel to our children before bedtime. Perhaps my real question is: Why are popular fairytales so awful, and why are they still here?

Conservative Ethics

Fairytales do not become mythic unless they are in almost perfect accord with the underlying principles of how the male members of society seek to arrange object relations to satisfy their wants and needs.

— Jack Zipes

The ethics of a fairytale are not completely static; they do evolve somewhat with the times.

As they spread, folktales evolve like biological species, from The Conversation

Pacing

Celerity: swiftness is a great virtue in the fairy tale. A good tale moves with a dreamlike speed from event to event, pausing only to say as much as is needed and no more. The best tales are perfect examples of what you do need and what you don’t: in Rudyard Kipling’s image, fires that blaze brightly because all the ashes have been raked out.

The opening of a tale, for example. All we need is the word ‘Once . . .’ and we’re off

[…]

The speed is exhilarating. You can only go that fast, however, if you’re travelling light; so none of the information you’d look for in a modern work of fiction – names, appearances, background, social context, etc – is present.

Philip Pullman

Comfort

Modern publishers know how most picturebooks are read: at night, by parents, to put their children to sleep. Harrowing as the content may be, a home-away-from home structure is considered essential for putting young kids to sleep, and fairytales provide just that. (At least, the enduring ones that get published over and over again.)

FAIRYTALE ANALYSIS AT THIS BLOG

 

MODERN FAIRYTALES

Myths and folktales are assumed to be the very first stories in the history of humankind, closely related to rites of passage. Thus, a fairytale becomes a travel instruction for a young person on the way toward adulthood, directions on exactly how to behave in various situations. […] The hero’s task in a folktale is totally impossible for an “ordinary” human being, it is always a symbolic or allegorical depiction. Allegories (like Dante’s Divina Commedia or Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress) are also travel instructions. But the addressee knows that you cannot die and then rise from the dead, nor be eaten by a whale and then come out again, nor descend into the realm of death, and so on. When the March sisters try to follow Bunyan’s instructions for a journey, they have to “translate” the allegory into more everyday conditions. […] The modern version of a travel instruction is formula fiction in all its forms: crime novel, science fiction, horror, romance, soap opera, and so on. The addressee of these texts also knows that the story has very little to do with life. On the contrary, the text is based on detachment, especially through its exotic settings and incredible events. Many scholars have noted the similarities between fairytales and formula fiction. As early as the 1920s Propp suggested that his model for folktale analysis could be applied to novels of chivalry and other texts with fixed narrative structures.

–Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in Children’s Literature

What is a fractured fairytale?

Maleficent film poster fractured fairy tale

A fractured fairy tale is a story which makes use of a traditional fairy tale but restructures and reimagines, with the aim of greater nuance and with a contemporary sensibility in mind. The writer might be offering a critique of the ideas in an earlier version. This makes some of them subversive. Fractured fairy tales are often aimed at an adult audience.

Sometimes called parodies or transformed tales, fractured tales are humorous or exaggerated imitations of an author, a particular traditional tale, or a style. Fractured tales are currently popular in picture book format. Beginning with The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs (1989). Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith began a trend that shows no sign of abating. Traditional tales from “Little Red Riding Hood” to the “Three Little Pigs” to “The House That Jack Built” have been retold in a humorous vein in picture book format. Picture book examples are The Dinosaur’s New Clothes (1999), illustrated by Diane Goode; Little Red Riding Hood: A New Fangled Prairie Tale (1995), illustrated by Lisa Campbell Ernst; The Little Red Hen Makes a Pizza (1999), illustrated by Amy Walrod: and Beauty and the Beaks: A Turkey’s Cautionary Tale (2007), illustrated by Mary Jane Auch. — A Picture Book Primer: Understanding and Using Picture Books By Denise I. Matulka
Bear in mind that classic tales are always, forever undergoing evolution, even when the re-teller doesn’t intend any changes:
Retelling stories is about as old as storytelling itself. Each generation’s storytellers takes elements from stories they heard as children. They’ll mash those elements with their own ideas and suddenly the story becomes something completely new. No story has survived untouched throughout the ages – even the so-called “classic” fairy tales do this. If you’re familiar with the Greek story of Cupid and Psyche there are an awful lot of similar elements from that tale in the French story “Beauty and the Beast” as well as in “Cinderella.” And elements of “Beauty and the Beast” also turn up in the Norse tale “East of the Sun, West of the Moon.” Storytellers love to take familiar plots and give them a twist. When you take an existing story and adapt it for your own you are making a connection – a connection with every storyteller who told their own version of that story, and a connection with every audience that has loved some variation of that story. It allows the writer to create a kind of shorthand with the audience – if you like “x,” then you’ll find familiar things in this new version of the story. We take comfort in the familiar and relish the new that’s mixed in, and something fresh and original is created from that mixture. — Christina Henry
Fractured fairy tales can be of any genre, written for any demographic:
  • Fantasy — Most recently we’ve had a lot of dark fantasy
  • Horror — Horror has gone hand-in-hand with the dark fantasy. In horrors, villains such as witches don’t tend to have a back story — they serve as the evil force.
  • Dramatic musical
  • Thriller
  • Comedy
Fractured fairy tales are very popular at the moment, for YA and adults. In film and television there was a proliferation between 2010 and 2016, and many of these are available on Netflix, for example.
  • Into The Woods — a stage play running for two years from 2002 by Steven Sondheim which weaves Grimm and Perrault tales together; produced for screen during the ‘proliferation’ period.
  • Once Upon A Time
  • Grimm
  • Shrek — This franchise takes a classic monster from a fairytale (the ugly ogre) and turns him into a sympathetic character.
  • Descendents
  • Beastly — a retelling of the fairytale Beauty and the Beast and is set in modern-day New York City.
  • Maleficent —  a retelling of Sleeping Beauty from the evil fairy’s point of view.
  • Hansel and Gretel — horror
  • Witch Hunters — horror
  • Snow White and the Huntsmen — horror
  • Half Baked — horror

Three Types Of Fractured Fairytale

The Cross-over Narrative

Cross-over fractured fairytales intersect various fairy tales to create one big story. Examples are Into the Woods, Once Upon a Time and Grimm.

The Subversive

Subversive fractured fairy tales force the viewer to look at a familiar story from a unique perspective. Examples are Beastly and Maleficent. Often these subversive tales take on the narrative point of view from a different angle — perhaps the viewpoint character is the villain, recast as a sympathetic character. It’s rare for witches to have backstories in the traditional tales, but modern fractured retellings often give us the witch’s perspective. Many tales which aim to be subversive nevertheless uphold traditional ideas:
  • Youth is beauty
  • Age is ugly and to be avoided
  • It’s not so bad being ugly, but your ugliness still prevents you from marrying someone beautiful (Shrek)
Moral relativism is the view that moral judgments are true or false only relative to some particular standpoint (for instance, that of a culture or a historical period) and that no standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others. Subversive fractured fairy tales tend to take this view. Sure, Maleficent is evil, but once we know her back story, the morality changes. A common technique in retelling old tales from different perspectives is to name previously unnamed characters.
Naming has primary importance as a way of determining a being’s subjectivity. [A character’s namelessness] reinforces his lack of an existence, his lack of agency. — Roberta Seelinger Trites, Waking Sleeping Beauty
So wicked witches are named, Cinderella is known to us by her more familiar name, Ella and so on. Subversive tales can be juxtaposed against another type of ‘re-visioning’, described by Jack Zipes:
There are literally hundreds of publishers who produce and market cheap versions of the Grimms’ tales as pretexts to conceal their profit-making motives. These duplications merely reinforce static nations of the nineteenth-century fairy tales and leave anachronistic values and tastes unquestioned. Whatever changes are made in these duplications–and changes are always made–they tend to be in the name of an ignorant conservatism that upholds arbitrary notions of propriety, for many people believe that there is such a thing as a “proper” Grimms’ fairy tale. In contrast, the reversions of the Grimms’ pre-texts, to use the terms coined by Stephens and McCallum, adulterate the Grimms’ tales by adding ingredients, taking away some elements, and reconstructing them to speak to contemporary audiences in different sociocultural contexts. – Jack Zipes, Sticks and Stones

The Inspired

Inspired fractured fairy tales are only loosely based on traditional stories. Examples are Hansel and Gretel (the film), Witch Hunters, Snow White and the Huntsman. 

Nice Does Not Equal Good

The Nasty Nice character Nom Nom from We Bare Bears

A lesson we must all learn at some point: ‘nice’ person does not equal ‘good’ person. I use these words as shorthand for ‘outwardly amenable’ and ‘morally generous’. Defining morality is a mammoth task in its own right and a nihilist might argue there’s no such thing as morality. I take the view that there is a shared cultural view of morality. Stories for children conform to that shared view. Banned books are usually at the vanguard of social change, which is why they are banned in the first place. Most banned books are tomorrow’s classics, their authors upheld as yesterday’s soothsayers.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE NICE?

naughty is not the opposite of nice

Classic fairytales explore the difference between niceness and goodness, though with problems: In fairytales, if a character was good-looking they were also unquestionably good. However, they did get into duplicitous behaviour, and the way people conceal their true motivations by acting in a friendly way. In classic fairytales the characters are archetypes, so there is no possibility of starting out nasty and later becoming nice.

In Snow White, the wicked stepmother dresses as a door-to-door pedlar woman. She is ‘nice’ to Snow White, offering to sell her a shiny, red apple. Snow White falls for the niceness. The audience learns she should have looked harder. Significantly, in most versions the step mother is illustrated as an ugly old woman with missing teeth and a face of wrinkles. This is her ‘true nature’, using the visual fairytale shortcut that ugliness equals bad character. The stepmother is most ugly at the moment her ugliness comes out.

The field of psychology doesn’t find ‘nice’ useful as a concept, and breaks different behaviours into two main types:

‘Nice’ can define various personality traits that are linked to specific areas of the brain, like agreeableness, politeness, and compassion.
One who is a good citizen is called nice, and another is nice when he or she is empathetic or has good manners.

Business Insider

One type of nice refers to a person’s agreeableness.

Another refers to politeness.

Then there’s compassion, which is different again.

Fun fact: Nice once meant foolish.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE GOOD?

Even after centuries of fairytales, we must all learn at some point that

  1. Looking good doesn’t mean being good
  2. Behaving nicely also does not mean being good.

The first is the easier lesson. The #metoo movement is highlighting the extent to which contemporary adults are still wrestling with the distinction between nice and good.

monsters nice not good

It’s hard to deal with the fact that nice people can be sexual predators or, rather, that sexual predators are most often very nice.  A boss who is nice to you may be very not nice to someone else, in private. An unwillingness to believe victims when they speak out is partly an unwillingness to believe women (because abuse is gendered), but is also an unwillingness to acknowledge that we are not as good at discerning character as we previously believed. Once you learn, really learn, that nice does not equal good, that skilled people with good jobs and families of their own can be terrible, you must embark upon the lifelong work of not turning into a complete misanthropist.

In adult literature, Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies does a great job of portraying an abuser who is also ‘nice’. But during promotion of the American TV adaptation, various commentators showed a fundamental misunderstanding of how abuse works by saying it was really interesting to see a successful family man also be an abuser, as if those things don’t usually go together.

But when is it developmentally appropriate for children learn this lesson? That’s another question altogether. If we teach children too early that the nice people in their lives might just as easily be terrible behind closed doors, are they able to deal with that in their vulnerable positions?

Only parents can decide. If you would prefer your children to learn this sooner rather than later, there are children’s books which touch on big issues in a gentle way.

NICE DOES NOT EQUAL GOOD: HOW TO WRITE IT

CREATE NICE BUT NASTY CHARACTERS AND CONTRAST USING ‘SHADOW IN THE HERO’

Terry Pratchett writes for an adult/YA crossover audience. His Tiffany Aching series (starting with Wee Free Men) features elves who are beautiful and magical and give children candy, but they are incapable of compassion or caring. The witches who watch over the people are petty, argumentative, difficult and always have a sharp word on the tip of their tongue. However, they do what’s right even when it’s the harder choice. Pratchett uses various ways of approaching this message,  but overall, Tiffany isn’t learning to be nice. She’s learning to do what’s right. Via the viewpoint of Tiffany, the reader is also asked to consider appearance vs morality.

Different in voice but similar in theme we have The Girl Who Drank The Moon. The characters are complex and our understanding of them evolves as the story progresses, with the character initially perceived to be evil/not nice (Witch) ultimately being revealed as good, while the character initially perceived as good/nice (Grand Elder) is ultimately revealed to be evil. Perception and deception are emphasised.  Superficial judgements may not accurately reflect true character. This makes it a more modern fairytale — in traditional tales, nice and nasty are inherent, immutable traits.

CREATE A MAIN CHARACTER WHO IS ASKED TO DO THE RIGHT THING EVEN IF IT MEANS SACRIFICING SOCIAL CAPITAL

Joyce Carol Oates creates such a character in her YA novel Big Mouth and Ugly Girl. ‘Ugly’ refers to the way the heroine is seen, and how people in general (particularly girls?) are perceived by others whenever they stand up for what’s right. There’s no way of standing against the status quo without facing criticism from peers who are too afraid to stand up themselves.

I suspect female characters are more commonly used in these types of stories. We’re moving through a social period in which girls — for the first time ever — are properly taught to respect their own feelings and to reject social conditioning which teaches female people to prioritise others’ feelings over their own.

Similarly, witches have been used in many ways throughout the history of storytelling but the witch has turned — modern fictional witches may look nasty but their warts and hooked noses belie upright morals. Who’s in a better position to recognise injustice than witches, after all?

See also Gregory Maguire’s reimagining of the Wicked Witch Of The West in his novel Wicked.

CREATE A FAKE-OPPONENT WHO TURNS OUT TO BE AN ALLY

J.K. Rowling used this trick in her characterisation of Snape. The message?  Teachers who are the most scary are sometimes also the most ‘good’. Appearances can be deceptive. Not just how someone looks, but their lack of social graces or unwillingness to ingratiate.

It’s impossible to give further examples of this technique without also spoiling stories, because the true intent of the ‘villain ally’ is utilised as a major reveal.

In any case, this ‘villain who’s actually an ally’ plot encourages readers to reconsider who are the real opponents and who are the real allies in their own life. At their best, these stories ask readers not to judge others too soon.

The inverse ideology would be: Trust your gut about people. This is also an ideology worth exploring.

Birds In Children’s Literature

 

Birds occupy a special place in children’s stories, as they do in the Bible, in folklore and in fairytales. Are they good or are they evil? No other creature has so successfully been both, equally. If you’re writing a children’s story, you can do what you like with birds.

evil fairytale bird
The hooked beak of this bird is undoubtedly evil.

BIRDS IN THE OLD TESTAMENT

Remember that dove which Noah sent out, to see if the waters had subsided elsewhere? Everyone knows of that dove, because we see it depicted in art holding an olive leaf in its beak. Less memorable, for me at least, is the raven. Remember that? Noah sent out the raven first but it never came back. He only sent that dove out a week later. When he sent the dove out again and it didn’t come back this time, he knew waters had subsided enough for the bird to find somewhere on land.

I wonder what was supposed to have happened to that raven. Ravens today are super smart birds. I think maybe the raven was smarter than the dove and found dry land more easily. That’ why it never came back!

There’s more to this literary symbolism, of course. The raven is black and that dove is white. Ravens = bad, doves = peace. This is seen over and over again throughout our history of storytelling.

The Old Testament is all about ‘clean’ birds versus ‘dirty’ ones. When Noah gets off the ark he thanks God for the clean birds he took onto the ark with him. What’s the difference between a clean bird and a dirty bird? (Okay, ‘unclean’.) Dirty birds eat carrion. The clean birds mostly have a diet of grain, fruits, and vegetation. Humans are safer when eating ‘clean’ birds than birds who eat dead meat themselves — less chance of getting sick. However, when all the birds of the Old Testament are taken as a group, there is no clear-cut line we can draw between a clean and an unclean one. To our modern taxonomies, some of the birds on the unclean list seem a bit random.

CATS AND BIRDS

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Symbolic Archetypes In Children’s Stories

These symbolic archetypes are very old. The earliest written record we have is often in fairy tales.

Light vs. Darkness

Light usually suggests hope, renewal, or intellectual illumination. Darkness implies the unknown, ignorance, or despair.

Pure black is rare in children’s illustration but Jon Klassen makes use of matte black in The Dark, which is about a young boy’s fear of the symbolic house at night.

the dark jon klassen

In general, Jon Klassen makes much use of shadows to subtly frame the focal points of his illustrations. This is a technique reminiscent of 1960s illustration, found in animation such as 101 Dalmatians. Below, a scene from 101 Dalmatians contrasts blues (darks) against pinks  (warm and light), and the flame from a fireplace casts a frame within a frame as our villain creeps towards the door. Continue reading “Symbolic Archetypes In Children’s Stories”

Rapunzel The ur-Story Of Young Female Sexuality

Rapunzel Michael Foreman

THE HISTORY OF RAPUNZEL

Girls locked inside towers, women locked in attics; missing girls, dead mothers. The life of a fictional woman hasn’t changed all that much over the years.  Rapunzel is not the only girl who was locked up — take the Irish myth of Ethlinn, for instance. Ethlinn was a moon goddess whose father imprisoned her in a tower so that she could not produce the son prophesied to kill him. Kind of like a cross between Oedipus and Rapunzel, don’t you think?

It seems so obvious it’s not even worth mentioning: The girl locked in a tower thing is a metaphor for how family members would gather around to protect a young woman’s virginity. The fertile woman’s body has historically (and into the present) never been considered her own.

Patrisonella — ‘Neopolitan Rapunzel’ by Giambattista Basile (1630s)

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Desperate Housewives Storytelling Tips

Desperate Housewives ran for eight seasons from 2004 to 2012. This show is a great example of a ‘cozy mystery’.

TAGLINES

Taglines are for the marketing copy. 

Season One: Everyone has a little dirty laundry…/Secrets. Romance. Murder. All On One Street.

 

THE LOGLINE/PREMISE

For maximum narrative drive the premise should be all about the plot. A premise that works will contain some sort of contrast.

“Secrets and truths unfold through the lives of female friends in one suburban neighborhood, after the mysterious suicide of a neighbor.”

The contrast in this logline is that ‘friends’ have ‘secrets’ in the ‘suburbs’, an arena we generally associate with ‘knowing everybody’s business’ and ‘nothing interesting ever happens’.

GENRE BLEND OF DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES

drama, mystery, satire

When Desperate Housewives first aired in 2004 it was the tone which drew me in. I hadn’t seen anything with quite that balance of 1950s housewife satire, comedy and mystery. It’s easy to forget that now because we’ve since seen a number of TV dramas with a similar vibe: Pretty Little Liars for one was pitched as ‘Desperate Housewives For Teens’. Like Desperate Housewives, there is a cast of four distinct female archetypes who are friends. There is also a slight supernatural overtone to the story, with a dead person pulling strings/narrating omnisciently.

The women on this show aren’t real women — nothing like it. An excellent example of the ‘unreality’ of the characters can be heard in the audio commentary to episode 15, season one. Marc Cherry is especially proud of his writing of this episode (and it was the first time they shifted to their new, more expansive set), so he guides DVD owners through the episode they called Impossible.  In this one, John’s roommate Justin blackmails Gabrielle into having sex with him by becoming their new gardener. Gabrielle turns the gardener down, both for sex and for free garden work with obvious strings attached, but her husband lets him in and he surprises her while she’s in her own bathroom upstairs. The male writer and producer tell us on the audio commentary that actress Eva Longoria did an excellent job of ‘taking control of the situation’ but was ‘rooted to the spot’ for the first few takes, terrified at the prospect of finding a well-muscled young man confronting her for sex in her own space. The scene is meant to be played as comedy. Longoria’s acting made it somewhere there, but I did watch this episode the first time thinking that it’s not good comedy material, and a ‘real woman’ would not react with Gabrielle’s bravado — not with genuine bravado — in that particular situation. From my perspective, the male writer on this occasion simply did not understand how terrifying this scenario would be for a woman, and seemed a bit mystified about why Eva Longoria had trouble acting her part in it.

The men are archetypes, too. Even the children are preternaturally scheming/mature/creepy, harking back to a time before the concept of childhood existed. In this ways and many others, Desperate Housewives is a series of fairytales.

The show was originally pitched with ‘comedy’ in its genre blend but none of the networks were interested. When it was re-pitched as ‘satire’ suddenly it found a home. Networks had assumed it was just another soap. But they realised the audience was ready for a ‘self-aware’ version of the daytime soap, and changing the genre from ‘comedy’ to ‘satire’ did the trick.

OTHER SHOWS SIMILAR TO DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES

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