Slinky Malinki by Lynley Dodd

Slinky Malinki is a picture book by New Zealand author illustrator Lynley Dodd.

Slinky Malinki cover


Sometimes it is difficult not to resent their apparent success, and they are good or evil according to their creator’s feelings. […] Perhaps Kipling was right, and cats are neither for nor against us, but both or neither, as they wish or feel*. As characters they have great possibilities and depths that few writers, with the possible exception of Paul Gallico, have made use of. Their long history of connection with witchcraft has suggested tales of magic cats such as Barbara Sleigh’s Carbonel, 1955, or, in a more down to earth setting, Rosemary Weir’s Pyewacket, 1967; and their urbanised versatility (dog stories are more usually about country life) is categorised unforgettably in T.S. Eliot.

— Margaret Blount, Animal Land

* When creating the character of Slinky Malinki Lynley Dodd absolutely makes use of this historical duplicitousness: Slinky is one thing during the day, another thing altogether come nightfall. The werecat, in other words.

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Wolf Children Japanese Anime


The Japanese anime Wolf Children is my seven-year-old daughter’s favourite film of all time. When she first watched it, several years ago, she decided that she herself must be half wolf. She has since developed an almost monomanical interest in wolves, and she’s not the only kid I’ve heard of to be affected thusly after watching this film: Wolf Children is an inspiring and engaging film for miniature nature lovers. I have recommended this film to people completely forgetting that it is basically a very sad story though, so consider yourself warned!

I wonder if the author of Wolf Children was inspired by the story of Amala and Kamala, two “feral girls” from Bengal who are alleged to have been raised by wolves.

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Olivia by Ian Falconer And Other Pigs

Starting with the cover, here we have a static picture of Olivia the pig, our main character. In picture books, the very best illustrators are able to depict motion very well, but you often get a character in ‘pose’ position when they are first introduced, or when the reader is meant to be contemplating the character rather than focusing on the action.

Olivia cover

The other thing you may notice is that Ian Falconer’s name does not appear on the cover. This is out of respect for his own minimalist style. He doesn’t want any extra clutter.

I feel like this book has been around forever, so it’s hard to believe the first in the Olivia series was published in 2000.


Falconer thinks of the fictional Olivia as a “suburban pig but within driving distance of Manhattan.”

In other words, Olivia is from a pretty well-off family. They do cultural activities such as visiting the art museum. I guess this drawing style is the picture book equivalent of one of those white, minimalist, architecturally designed homes that I’ve only ever seen on Pinterest. Even when reading this book to your child in a room full of strewn toys, there’s something satisfying about picking up this minimalist book, imagining that, like Olivia’s family, you have an invisible housekeeper who comes into your home while you’re out, keeping toys off the floor.

Or maybe the mother pig does it all. Maybe that’s why she’s ‘worn out’.

Character Names

There’s something about naming fictional families after real world families who actually exist: The Simpsons family are named after real people and for some reason their names are both funny when applied to generic cartoon faces and oddly specific in a ‘you couldn’t make those names up’ kind of way. Likewise, the characters in Olivia are named after a real human family — Ian Falconer’s niece and nephew.

Like The Simpsons, these children never age.

When animal characters are given human names and live in human houses, readers are encouraged to see them as entirely human.


Since this is the very first in a series, Olivia’s personality needs to be set up in this book, but as in the first of any series, there also needs to be a story in its own right. This is a particularly interesting case study in how to achieve both in the same book.

Falconer spends the first few pages describing Olivia and her family (which Nikolajeva calls the ‘iterative’) then switches to the story at hand (the singular) at: “Last summer when Olivia was little, her mother showed her how to make sand castles.” Interestingly, he doesn’t stay with the singular for long and we’re very soon back to the iterative: “Sometimes Olivia likes to bask in the sun. When her mother sees that she’s had enough, they go home.”

Later, however, I feel we almost need another description apart from ‘iterative’ and ‘singular’ to describe Falconer’s writing style:

But there is one painting that just won’t do. “I could do that in about five minutes,” she says to her mother.

As soon as she gets home she has a go.

Falconer is now describing a singular event, we presume, but this event fits seamlessly into the story because it’s written in the present tense, as are all the iterative descriptions. The sentence “As soon as she gets home she has a go” could be either iterative or singular, and seems to fit in a nebulous place between the two categories.

Dual Audience Appeal Of Olivia

Falconer says the grown-up touches are “as much for my amusement as anyone else’s. But I think they’re good for the parents, especially if they’re trapped reading the book night after night.”

Olivia loves to be read to. In the first book, she announces, “Only five books tonight, Mommy.”

“No, Olivia, just one.”

“How about four?”



“Oh, all right, three. But that’s it.”

After they read a book about opera star Maria Callas, Olivia’s mother tells her, “You know, you really wear me out. But I love you anyway.”

Olivia replies, “I love you anyway too.”

USA Today

The other thing I appreciate about this book is that although the mother is probably what I’d describe as a ‘career mother’ — in which I mean she treats her parenting as a job and seems willing to sacrifice her own energy levels by taking her exhausting children out to art galleries and whatnot — she does at least have the honesty to tell her daughter how she really feels. Yet we probably shouldn’t. At least, that’s the cultural vibe — that even when we’re sick to death of our kids, we should make sure we love them without any reservations whatsoever. When the mother tells Olivia a version of “I love you but”, after an especially trying day this is something parents are able to relate to.

Pigs In Children’s Books

Pigs are shaped like little kids. Their bodies are smaller than their heads. Pigs are supposed to be intelligent, smarter than dogs, but they’re a bit awkward. Their trotters are like little kids’ arms that don’t work very well yet.

— Ian Falconer

The huge advantages I can see for an illustrator turning a little girl into a pig:

  • Pigs don’t need to have skin colour. Technically, any middle-class kid could see themselves in Olivia, though it would be interesting to know if black girls consider pink pigs ‘white’, or if we need a black pig to achieve the job of self-reflection. The part where Olivia goes to the beach and turns pink (from monochrome) kind of means Olivia gets coded as white, so in this particular instance, the issue of skin-colour is perhaps not avoided after all. (Black kids don’t turn pink after a day in the sun.)
  • Falconer can depict Olivia with no clothes on at all and avoid charges of inappropriate content and censoring. Yet little kids very often do prance about with no clothes on, or just a hat, and these scenes are indeed shown in this book. Another picture book (this time Australian) in which toddlers prance around naked is Rudie Nudie by Emma Quay, but in this case the sensitive areas are always discreetly covered — an amazing achievement when depicting carefree, uninhibited body language while at the same time covering the crotch.
  • We are familiar with Olivia now, so it’s hard to remember that pigs in children’s books are typically not like Olivia in personality. They tend to be Wilbur types (from Charlotte’s Web), in which they sort of know they’re human food and have this worried aura to them, or they stand in for the messy/greedy/uncouth side of little kids. Olivia doesn’t have these aspects to her character at all — she is a young fashion-designer who attempts to be graceful but is trapped inside the limitations of her pig’s (toddler’s) body. Her exuberance means she’s the opposite of lazy.

Here’s a list of fictional pigs.

The pig Olivia reminds me of most is Peppa Pig. Olivia precedes Peppa Pig by four years, and I suspect the creators of Peppa Pig used the success of Olivia as somewhat of a guide.

This blogger lists the main differences between Olivia and Peppa Pig as a way of saying something about wider cultural differences between American and British children’s stories.


Here’s the thing about characters in children’s books who get into trouble: Some parents believe their own children will read these books and be corrupted by the moral weaknesses of the empathetic characters. Here’s an example, in a post in strong defence of Peppa Pig, ironically:

In my opinion, if you want spoilt pigs, look no further than the ghastly Olivia, who has to always be the best & get all the attention, and her mum & dad find her oh-so adorable for doing so. Or that incredibly irritating Angelina Ballerina. Both a big pair of brats, if you ask me.

Growing My Family Tree blog

The author of that post has mentioned:

  • Olivia
  • Angelina Ballerina

Given how many shows there are which in fact star male characters who are constantly getting into and out of scrapes, it sticks out to me that the two examples of ‘irritating’ protagonists are both female.

It’s worth asking: Do parents have higher standards for female behaviour, even in story books? Would we judge Olivia so harshly for being naughty if she were a boy? Others call Olivia ‘narcissistic‘, but would she be accused of being so if she were a little boy dressing up in pirate clothes, or is there something specific about dressing up in ballet costumes and pretty dresses that leads to the gender-specific accusation of this particular mental disorder?

(On a slightly different note, next time you see an article on ‘the narcissism epidemic’ take a look at the stock photo that accompanies it and tell me if it’s not a woman posing for a selfie. We are being trained to regard narcissism as a specifically feminine trait, yet more males are clinically narcissistic than females.)


I’ll break this story down to the 7 story steps a la John Truby. My mnemonic for remembering the seven steps conveniently links to pigs, just by the by: Why Do Oinky Pigs Behave So Nicely?


Moral Weakness: “She is very good at wearing people out.”

Psychological Weakness: “She even wears herself out.”

She needs to learn how to get on with her little brother Ian even though “Sometimes Ian just won’t leave her alone”.


The high angle view of Olivia gazing at the painting and the words: “What could she be thinking?” tell the reader that Olivia wants to be an artist of some kind. We assume a ballet dancer AND a painter (because when you’re a toddler you can do any combo of things, right?) She wants to show her mother how good she is as a legitimate artist.


Olivia’s mother, who is also her ally, responsible for keeping Olivia safe but also from doing fun things.


She plans to do an abstract painting on the wall when she gets home. We don’t see her forming the plan. We just see her having done it.


The real naughty thing that happened that day was painting on the wall, but the battle scene in stories is often deferred: The battle scene we see played out is the funnier one in which Olivia and her mother negotiate how many books are going to be read before bed.


On the stairs, Olivia realises she isn’t actually a good abstract painter and can’t go about painting the walls of her home and hope to be appreciated for it.

New Equilibrium

Olivia and her mother will continue wearing each other out but loving each other anyway.



The illustrations are done in charcoal and gouache.

White Space

Falconer starts with the idea for a plot but does the drawings before writing the words. “I tell the story first in pictures, which is how kids, who don’t know how to read yet, will see it.”

USA Today

The first thing you notice about Ian Falconer’s illustrations is all that white space. Why all the white space? Ian Falconer says he was inspired by Dr Seuss.

And here’s the academic explanation:

[W]here circumstantiation is absent, the focus is necessarily simply on the character and/or the process displayed. This is the default choice… in Olivia’s dizzying series of behaviours, with just a few circumstantial elements indicated here and there — a mirror and basin for cleaning her teeth, a few waves as she builds a sandcastle, an artwork on a wall as she looks intently, a set of stairs for her to sit on when ‘cooling off’. The point is not to create her material world, but to build a picture of her energy and activity.

— Reading Visual Narratives by Painter, Martin and Unsworth

But sometimes, Falconer adds the entire background, for ambience. I guess if he never did this we would feel as if Olivia and her family were living in some kind of dream world where everything is floating.

Olivia bedroom illustration

Color Palette

The other thing you notice about the illustrations is the limited colour palette: Monochrome with red as an accent colour.

Sometimes illustrators are so well-recognised for their colour palette that they stick to it, presumably for brand recognisability. Here’s Falconer’s 2006 New Yorker illustration.

Ian Falconer New Yorker illustration author of Olivia

But he doesn’t just use red as an accent colour. Below you see the other primaries, yellow and blue.

Falconer chose to draw uncluttered images in black and white with the occasional splash of red, along with the insertion of real artwork by famous artists — Degas and Pollock, for example. Each book in the series explores the use of another signature color in addition to the original black, white and red images.

— Wikipedia

Olivia and the Fairy Princesses
from Olivia and the Fairy Princesses

How To Structure Any Story

“Story is very close to liturgy, which is why one’s children like to have the story repeated exactly as they heard it the night before. The script ought not to deviate from the prescribed form.”
–Hugh Hood

‘Once upon a time, in such and such a place, something happened.’ There are far more complex explanations, of course. […] Jack discovers a beanstalk; Bond learns Blofeld plans to take over the world. The ‘something’ is almost always a problem, sometimes a problem disguised as an opportunity. It’s usually something that throws your protagonist’s world out of kilter — an explosion of sorts in the normal steady pace of their lives: Alice falls down a rabbit hole; Spooks learn of a radical terrorist plot; Godot doesn’t turn up.

— John Yorke, Into The Woods

Though John Yorke’s definition of ‘story’ is a wide one, the following is John Truby’s seven step structure for creating memorable stories which feel complete — not like mood pieces, not like character sketches, not descriptions of setting but complete narratives we remember for a long time.


What’s psychologically wrong with the hero?

How is the hero treating others badly? (Moral weakness)

What does the hero need in order to live a better life?

Sometimes these needs are called ‘dramatic needs’.

You may have heard the term ‘lack’ to describe this portion of characterisation. That’s Russian Formalist Vladimir Propp’s word. Another word commonly used is ‘flaw’. But I really like John Truby’s breakdown of the lack/flaw into both moral and psychological weakness because it’s really easy to forget the moral weakness, and so much better when you don’t.

Do children’s stories always feature a main character who treats others badly? You probably already know the answer to this: No, no they do not. In a series like A Series of Unfortunate Events, for instance, the main characters function as avatars for the young readers (both boy and girl readers, notice), and the characters around them are full of weaknesses — and are also much more interesting than they are.


What does the hero want? (In this particular story… not in general.)


The opponent is the character who stands in the way of your hero getting what they want.


The hero makes a plan. In longer stories like feature films or novels the initial plan falls flat, then they have to change the plan a bit, or a lot, as things go increasingly wrong.


They might kill off their old self. Or, they might choose to return to their former selves. This rarely happens, and it very rarely happens in children’s literature. It does happen in Larry McMurtry’s Hud, and I did choose this for my picture book app, Midnight Feast.

The main character far more often chooses to confront their innermost fears, overcome them and are rewarded for that.

There’ll be a battle scene in every story. Not literally a fisticuffs showdown, or a gunfight (though in certain genres that will definitely happen too). But there will be one big scene — there’ll be arguments or extreme peril, or witnessing someone else have a fight, which the hero will have had a role in provoking.

If we distinguish between ‘crisis’ and ‘battle’ at all, it’s a very small difference: the ‘crisis’ comes right before the battle. A crisis point always embodies the worst possible consequence of the decision taken when the initial dramatic explosion occurred. This decision brings the character face to face with their worst fear. Their worst fear is represented by the obstacle that is going to force them to face up to their underlying flaw. e.g. If a character is wary of commitment then the crisis will force them to face losing someone they love. If a character is selfish they are brought face to face with what they might lose by being so. If a character is timid they will have to face up to what timidity might cost. Sometimes it’s easier to think of the structure in question-and-answer form, and as writer you will have done this earlier under ‘weakness/need’:

Question: What are the worst possible consequences of my main character’s decision to…?

Answer: [Whatever the answer is, that’s your battle sequence, which leads to a climax.]

(By the way, this question and answer doesn’t just open the story and lead to closure, but is found within every ‘act’.)

TV writers in the United States call the crisis the ‘worst case’. BBC writers call it ‘worst point’. If it’s TV we’re talking about, on a commercial station, it’ll be the bit that happens right before the last commercial break. It’s also where TV writers leave the ending in continuing series, knowing the audience will want to come back to find out if the characters escaped alive.

Others call this stage the ‘crisis’. The bit where the main character comes close to death, often. The worst happens to them. Bad things happen, worse things, now the worst. The crisis is a kind of death. It usually isn’t the hero who dies, of course. We want them to stick around for the next bits. The most dangerous thing to be is the hero’s best buddy. There’s a high mortality rate with those guys.

Sometimes no one actually dies, but hope passes away.

Perhaps, if you think in terms of narrative climax, you’re wondering which part that would map onto. Think of the ‘climax’ as the bit where the main character finds release from their seemingly inescapable predicament. I’ll slot the climax in right between battle and new equilibrium. It’s a useful concept in terms of criticism, but for writers? I prefer to think in terms of battle followed by new equilibrium. The climax is what the audience feels. It’s not a story stage per se. The climax is the part which is the ‘obligatory scene’, set up by the inciting incident. For instance, when Louise murders the rapist in the inciting incident, the climax must be the confrontation between the women and the law.


The hero will learn something about themselves. Importantly, the character makes a choice. They find out what sort of person they really are.

This new self-awareness usually comes with struggling, pain, and even suffering, especially in modern realistic YA. Characters are really put through the mill.

Characters…should not always get what they want, but should — if they deserve it — get what they need. That need, or flaw, is almost always present at the beginning of the [story].

— John Yorke, Into The Woods

New Equilibrium

The hero’s life will be different from now on. The audience generally needs a scene or two in which we get a glimpse of how things are going to be from here on in, though sometimes writers offer a truncated story, leaving out this bit, so the audience can decide for themselves what happened. Lots of people don’t like having to do this though.

*Short stories don’t always follow this pattern. For example, Chekhov often leaves out the self-revelation, hoping for the revelation to happen for the reader rather than for the character. Make Way For Ducklings is missing the Weakness/Need and Plan steps, leading to the criticism of ‘weak characterisation’. But really there are few popular exceptions existing outside this basic structure.

Extrapolated Ending

I am adding an extra step which applies to a few stories, not most. Sometimes the writer leave the ending open. In this case it’s up to us to work out what happened next. This isn’t going to be a scene as such, but an accumulation of details garnered from all the scenes which lead us to our conclusion.

Story Structure Mnemonic


If you’d like to use my mnemonic above (it works for me!), you might like to watch this video of a little pig very politely sharing his dinner with a woman.

You’ll hear this same advice everywhere.

…give us a hero facing a challenge or a goal that changes their near-time life, launching them on a quest to solve the problem or attain the goal, with something opposing that objective (usually the villain, but sometimes a force; in either case, the story works best when that opposition is external rather than an exclusively internal demon), with meaningful stakes hanging the balance.

Brian Kiems, Confessions of a Story Coach

Tom Gauld has a different way of explaining the same rules. Here is one of his New Yorker comics:


Box one shows that a hero must take action otherwise it’s not a story.

Box two shows that there must be conflict otherwise it’s not a story.

Box three shows that the hero must constantly redouble efforts (and modify plans) in order to achieve the goal.

Box four shows that a hero needs a strong desire line, and by desire ‘line’, we mean that it lasts until the end of the story.

Does this structure work for children’s stories also?

Yep. Every single time. But I’ll add a few points:

  • Picture books (at least, the kind with a narrative — not typical abecedaries, concept or toy books such as Where’s Wally books — are excellent for showing this structure because the structure is so clear. The steps will even be marked clearly.
  • An especially clear example of storytelling structure can be found in This Moose Belongs To Me by Oliver Jeffers.
  • If a story is ‘once upon a time something happened’, then the inciting incident is the ‘something’ that kick-starts a story.
  • There’s a rule that picture books for  young readers need a non-tragic ending (I won’t say happy, since we do have Jon Klassen’s Hat books, in which the main character dies.) The majority of picturebook stories are home-away-home structure. Books designed to be read before bed require the main character to make it home safely, in general.
  • The ‘opponent’ is often also an ally. For example, well-meaning parents and teachers. This is true of realistic stories for adults, too, of course.
  • When the main character is an animal, there’s sometimes a parallel subplot in which a human character is the one with the clear desire and plan. An excellent example of this is Kate diCamillo’s Mercy Watson Goes For A Ride, in which the old lady next door is the human proxy for the pig. This applies to animals who are not fully humanized (and would never be necessary in a book such as Olivia, in which the pig is for all intents and purposes a little girl.)
  • The hero in a children’s book does not need to have a moral weakness. In other words, the reader does not need to see how the hero is treating others badly. That said, a character such as Olivia, who is very wearing on her mother, is more rounded and ‘human’ precisely because of her annoying habits. There is more tolerance for Pollyannas in children’s literature (at least among adults), no doubt because the gatekeepers of kidlit still like heroes to be models of behaviour, and always punished for their misdemeanours.
  • In the self-revelation stage of children’s fiction, the protagonist usually reaches a higher level of maturity and a greater sense of self-awareness by the book’s end, but has not achieved adulthood. There will be some sense that they have much more yet to learn. No Awareness >> Growing Awareness >> Full Awareness

The W-question Method

Every storyteller has their own way of looking at story structure. Time and again, no matter the words used, it comes back to the seven-step structure (and occasionally it’s shortened into six steps, or broken further into eight).

As an example, take screenwriter and story supervisor, Jason Katz, of Pixar fame.

Jason Katz advises storytellers to ask the story questions in the right order.

Katz orders his answers to those questions as follows: who, when, where, what, why, how. According to him, the “who, when, where” is easy. That’s where you’re establishing the setting for your story and identifying your main character. He goes on to say that answering the “what” is the thing that will drive your story. He calls it the “engine of your story” and one of the critical steps to answering the “what” question is asking two more: “what does your character want?” and “what does your character need?”

No Film School

Easy, according to Katz:

Who: The list of characteristics of your main character, the character web, the opponent, the allies, the fake-ally opponents etc.

When: The era of the setting, which will affect things like technology and social values.

Where: The geographical part of the storyworld, the scope of the arena, the seasons, the altitude and all those other symbolic things

Harder, according to Katz:

What: This is where Katz plonks character ‘weakness’, ‘need’ (to borrow John Truby’s terminology).

Why: Ghost/fatal flaw

How: The plan


As you can see, the W-question way of thinking about story matches up perfectly with Truby’s, and all the other story gurus out there. Only the words are different.

Tom Gauld Story Structure

Three Ways Of Understanding Story Structure Compared

The reassuring thing about learning story structure is that the more you read, the more you hear the same thing over and over. That said, different story experts use different terminology. Today I compare the terminology used by John Truby in his book Anatomy of Story with that of screenwriting teacher Michael Hauge, whose story breakdown can be found in his own words at his own website. John Truby, too, has shared his 7-Step Structure in various places, including on podcasts which can be found on iTunes.

The thing both experts have in common when teaching story structure is that they have a ‘basic’ version and a ‘complex’ version. In both cases the basic version applies to pretty much every narrative out there in whatever format (advertisements, narrative poems, short stories), whereas the more complex structure applies most closely to popular and memorable big-budget Hollywood movies.

Novelists have more leeway in applying the more complex structure and are not bound ‘to the minute’, but even novels tend to conform to the basic steps.

I have noticed that picture books do, too.


With annotations as I compare to John Truby. Note that Truby uses a 7-step structure whereas Hauge uses a 6-step structure. Hauge has compressed the last two steps into one. TP stands for ‘turning point’. Truby doesn’t tend to use the phrase ‘turning point’.


TP: The Opportunity

Truby calls his setup: NEED/DESIRE (Truby’s step 1), in an attempt to help writers remember that we need to connect the desire to the need, which is itself broken down into ‘psychological’ and ‘moral’ need. In other words, what’s wrong with the hero that is ruining their life, and how are they hurting other people?

Hauge calls the ‘psychological weakness’ a ‘wound’. I’ve also heard it called a ‘(fatal) flaw’.

I have noticed that in children’s stories and in some more uplifting, gentle stories for adults, the hero doesn’t always have a moral need. The main character is a genuinely good person.

But I do think that Truby’s point about connecting the hero’s need with the desire is important. It seems the DESIRE (Truby’s step two) is part of Hauge’s step two, below, in which circumstances change the the hero now wants something.


TP: The Change Of Plans

Somewhere around here Truby advises to introduce an OPPONENT (step 3). Some story experts say that the opponent can be something like ‘nature’ (e.g. a disaster story) while others argue that the best opponent must have their own moral code which is in conflict with the hero’s. This explains why disaster movies often have a human opponent as well as ‘forces of nature’. Then there are movies like Gravity, where the only opponent seems to be ‘tech breaking down in a hostile environment’. Gravity was nevertheless a box office hit.


TP: The point of no return

This equates to Truby’s ‘First Revelation and Decision’ step in Truby’s 22-step structure. In his simple structure it is simply THE PLAN (Truby’s step 4), and in stories it seems to be a rule that characters can’t go back on their plans. In fact, Truby specifies that characters cannot ‘change their desire’, not without it turning into a different story. Two desires = two stories. We know the story is over when the desire has been accomplished (or not).


TP: The major setback

Truby specifies that plans never go smoothly in stories, otherwise the middle sags or the story is too short. In this part Truby also recommends that your opponent ups the ante. Though Truby doesn’t talk about this in his basic 7-step structure.


TP: The Climax

Truby refers to the BATTLE (Truby’s step 5) rather than the climax, perhaps because he’s not a fan of the three-act structure, which he argues was never a thing even in Aristotle’s day. And the word ‘Climax’ is irrevocably linked to that way of thinking about story. A battle isn’t necessarily a literal scrap (although it often is in movies, because you need something visual to symbolise inner turmoil). It can be a purely psychological thing.


Truby breaks this step into two separate parts: SELF-REVELATION (Truby’s step 6) and NEW EQUILIBRIUM (Truby’s step 7), but Hauge does specify that the writer needs both those steps, with the exception of stories such as Thelma and Louise, in which the aim of the ending is to leave the audience stunned, in which case we never see the ‘new equilibrium’ (though it must be assumed).



1.    Stasis – The “everyday life” in which the story is set. [WEAKNESS/NEED]
2.    Trigger – Something beyond the control of the protagonist.
3.    The quest — The trigger results in a quest. [DESIRE]
4.    Surprise – Pleasant events, but more often means obstacles, complications, conflict and trouble for the protagonist. [OPPONENT]
5.    Critical Choice — A decision by the character to take a particular path – not just something that happens by chance. [PLAN]
6.    Climax – The highest peak of tension in story. [BATTLE]
7.    Reversal – The reversal should be the consequence of the critical choice and the climax [SELF-REVELATION]
8.    Resolution –  Return to a fresh stasis. [NEW EQUILIBRIUM]

Planes Trains and Automobiles

I’m not usually a fan of movies in which Steve Martin appears, but Planes, Trains & Automobiles is one exception, partly because of the wonderful John Candy who co-stars. In this story, Steve Martin plays the straight guy, who gets infrequent opportunities to play slapstick, which he is very good at.

Planes Trains Automobiles Steve Martin angry

Planes Trains Automobiles Movie Poster
Written and directed by John Hughes

[Hughes] is not often cited for greatness, although some of his titles, like “The Breakfast Club,” “Weird Science,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “Home Alone,” have fervent admirers. What can be said for him is that he usually produces a real story about people he has clear ideas about; his many teenage comedies, for example, are miles more inventive than [more] recent sex-and-prom sagas.

— Roger Ebert

Like John Candy, John Hughes also died young of a heart attack.
Like John Candy, John Hughes also died young of a heart attack.


This is a very much a movie of the 80s, and the reuniting scene at the end with the tearful wife is a bit eye-rolly to me, but the comedy is still relevant today: If anything, more of us are travelling more often and can relate well to travel delays with annoying co-passengers.

Good stories don’t need to be complex. E.T. is another example of a film which has a simple story line but which was very popular in the 1980s.

The movies that last, the ones we return to, don’t always have lofty themes or Byzantine complexities. Sometimes they last because they are arrows straight to the heart.

— Roger Ebert

This film is a good example of a holiday movie that works. It probably works because the holiday itself is not the main action. Instead, we see a man who learns the ‘true meaning of Thanksgiving’. The holiday itself is simply the ticking-clock.

Ticking clocks are often used in other genres such as thrillers and action movies, but the device is also used (less commonly) in comedy journey stories. As Truby writes, any journey story is inherently fragmented and meandering. A comic journey makes the story even more fragmented because the forward narrative drive stops every time you do some comic business. Jokes and gags almost always take the story sideways; the story waits while a character is dropped or diminished in some way. By telling the audience up front that there is a specific time endpoint to the story, you give them a forward line they can hang on to through all the meandering. Instead of getting impatient to know what comes next, they relax and enjoy the comic moments along the way. Other examples of this can be found in The Blues Brothers and Jacques Tati’s Traffic.


Public transport is the ideal setting for a narrative because when you’ve got a hero and a main opponent, you have to find a way, as writer, to force them together into the same space. Howard Suber, in The Power of Film, wrote that almost every popular film could be justifiably called Trapped, and this film is no exception. Here we have a well-off white guy, who is basically living The American Dream, trapped first in his workplace as his boss hems and haws in a board meeting, then we see him trapped in a variety of locations as his transportation continues to let him down.

Continue reading “Planes Trains and Automobiles”

The Others Film Study

Written by Alejandro Amenábar, The Others is an old-fashioned ghost story but done very well. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s one of those films that can be ruined in one fell swoop (like Sixth Sense), so leave the building now!

How To Write A Horror Film The Others


The Others class

The Others


Amenábar is also well known for Open Your Eyes, and he started in filmmaking very young. He both wrote and directed The Others. (Screenplay)

This is a ‘haunted house movie’ (see here for an extensive list of many others) of the genres thriller and horror.

Remember that horror is one of the most metaphorical of genres, so there will be messages behind the story that you have to dig for a little bit.

Tagline: A woman who lives in a darkened old house with her two photosensitive children becomes convinced that her family home is haunted.

On Twist Endings

Now that you know this film has a twist ending, it’s worth noting that just be telling someone to expect a twist ending, you change the story experience. You’re always better off not knowing that a twist ending is coming. Take a look at the movie poster compared to the DVD collector’s edition, in which it is assumed that anyone buying the DVD will have already seen the film and know the twist. Note that, even though twist endings might at first glance make a great selling point, that information is kept off movie posters:

The Others movie poster
The Others movie poster

The Others dvd

Other films with twist endings:

  • Seven
  • The Others
  • Signs
  • The Village
  • Saw
  • The Stepford Wives
  • Terminator 3
  • Flightplan

Agatha Christie mastered the art of twist endings. Twist endings are almost mandatory in mysteries such as those she wrote. She managed this by setting up false villains. This is the trick employed by Amenábar here, too. Something which has been done so often that it’s almost cliche is when the audience finds out the main hero is already dead. This is done here too, after a fashion, but because we’ve also been tricked into thinking the villains are the troupe of house servants, the story still offers surprise: We probably suspect the house servants are ghosts, but we’re less likely to think the mother and her children are also ghosts. And even if we do guess that (because we’re super literate and have experienced a lot of stories), it is probably still a revelation to learn that it was the mother who killed her own children. Being a wartime setting, we probably assumed they died from some sort of war tragedy, or the Spanish flu (which killed more people during the war than did the battlefields.)

In short, the surprise twist in this story work because there is a layering of reveals — there is not just the one surprise.

This is difficult to pull off because it requires the writer to predict the audience’s response in order to confound it.

Tagline: A woman who lives in a darkened old house with her two photosensitive children becomes convinced that her family home is haunted.

Genres: Thriller, horror. Remember that horror is one of the most metaphorical of genres, so there will be messages behind the story that you have to dig for a little bit. The story opens with a mother telling her children the story of Genesis. According to her religious (Catholic) world view, the afterlife is divided into parts: heaven, hell and purgatory. She believes this all the while failing to understand her reality within the story: Life on earth is likewise divided into parts — the living and the dead. Earth has its own kind of limbo, and it turns out to have nothing to do with whether someone has been baptised or not (as she has told her daughter, Anne.)

The Others is influenced by German Expressionism, an art movement dating from around 1900 until the early 1920s. German expressionist artists had often been to war, and came back a little world weary. The art they made was about the wretchedness of modern urban life, the solace of nature and religion, the naked body and its potential to signify primal emotion, and the need to confront the devastating experience of WW1. German expressionist art aims to startle the viewer. It is frank and direct. If you watch a German expressionist film you’ll find:

Chiaroscuro lighting — extreme contrasts of dark and light can be seen in this film as the characters move between dark/light rooms, often illuminated by only a kerosene lamp.

Lots of mirrors, glass and other reflective surfaces — in this film mirrors and windows come to the fore

the others window

the others curtains window

the others mirror

Anthropomorphism — in this ghost story we have a similar thing — possession. (Little girl turns into old woman.) In a haunted house movie the house itself often functions as a character in its own right. The puppet Anne (and the old woman) play with is an anthropomorphised visual representation of this double world, where one has a hold over the other. But which world is more influential? In the end, the spirit world win out — the real world people drive away, unable to get rid of the ghosts.

what have you done with my daughter

22 Steps Analysis

I had a bit of trouble applying the steps to the film — partly perhaps because I need to see it again to be sure, but also because I think (as Roger Ebert pointed out) this story is a ‘waiting game’. Unlike some of the most popular and memorable films, this one has a largely passive protagonist, whose only real motivation is to do nothing and keep the status quo. This was perhaps the writer’s biggest challenge. The writer also had to be very careful about the reveals, saving the one big reveal right until the very end. This meant that there could be no dramatic irony or anything like that — the audience has to be kept in the dark for as long as the protagonist is kept in the dark. This suspense bored Roger Ebert, who no doubt could guess what was going to happen due to having seen so many films; other fans absolutely loved the atmosphere regardless.

Why do some critics think this story drags? It became clear to me when I realised I was having trouble with the 22 steps, and I think the story might seem slow because both Grace and her fake-opponent ally Mrs Mills were both waiting for each other to reveal themselves. Usually, you’ve got a driven hero and an equally driven opponent. The real opponents, who are very driven to rid their house of ghosts, are unseen by the audience, which is another problem the writer had to overcome.

Self-revelation, need, desire

At the end of this story Grace will realise she is dead. She thinks she is still alive. She needs to realise she is dead before she can begin to ‘live’ her death. But the death is really a metaphor for the one terrible thing she did to her children — the killing could be compared to anything which damages a relationship irreparably, from which there’s no going back.

At the end Grace will also realise that she killed her own children as well as herself. This is part of her mending her relationship with them in their shared death. (They’re going to be stuck here, in this house, forever together… When I realised this I felt terribly sad for those child ghosts! Though apologies from parent to child can mend relationships, saying sorry cannot mend psychological damage.)

But here at the beginning of the story Grace thinks she is alive. She can’t work out why her servants left without so much as collecting their pay cheque, and she thinks that although she got mad and smothered her children with pillows, that she did no lasting damage, because all she remembers is that she walked  back in on them and they were playing happily with said pillows.

Why are the servants surprised when Grace says she’s expecting them? Is it because they realise for the first time she doesn’t know she’s dead? Because they’ve been here the whole time and she’s never seen them before? In which case, why do they wait at the front door? Don’t ghosts just come and go as they please, through walls and suchlike?

Ghost (backstory)

This is the perfect story to use when illustrating the concept of the ‘ghost’ in storytelling, because this is literally a ghost story, but even if the main character hadn’t happened to have died, there is still the issue of that one day: We’re not told immediately (only after the father comes back — we learn he has asked the daughter about ‘that day’) but something terrible happened right before this story timeline began. By the time we’re told what it was we’ve already sensed it. The ‘ghost’, of course, is that Grace went mad and smothered her children to death with pillows before killing herself with the shot gun. We’ve already seen by that point in the story that the mother is controlling and mean, and that she owns a rifle. (Chekhov’s actual gun.)

The first question the audience has (although I personally forgot about it altogether until I went back): Why does Grace scream?

the others initial scream


The post-wartime Isle of Jersey setting works very well for this particular story, partly because modern technology would prove a big problem for the basic plot. This is a family who needs to exist in a big house with no electricity. The darkness of the house is explained away at the beginning when Grace explains to the house servants that there were so many electricity cuts during the war that they just ‘learned to live without it’. There’s also the photosensitivity issue to get around the other problem — children generally play outside, and these ones don’t.

This era was also the height of the ghost story, sometimes called ‘The Golden Age of the Ghost Story’ (between the decline of the Gothic novel in the 1930s until the start of the first world war.)

There’s also a convenient reason for the father to be absent, and for him to be dead. He needs to be dead if he is to appear as a character in the story, and wars are great for that. Or is he just in a coma? The father’s semi-comatose state in this movie suggests that maybe he is lying injured somewhere on a battlefield, and when he leaves it’s because he’s returned to the land of the living. (In which case, is he the next person to arrive at the house? Will the children be haunted by the ghost of their own dad?)

For a 2001 audience, the wartime setting feels sufficiently ‘old-timey’ to suit the ghost story’s mood — after that even aristocratic families in and around England were no longer living in gothic castles on the misty moors — they were starting to open up their homes to the public in order to pay for maintenance on their historic homes, and the English aristocracy had changed to the point where the super rich could no longer live as they had been.

Another problem the writer had to overcome was: How to limit the arena to just this castle and the surrounding forest? He did this by use of mist. (A widespread belief concerning ghosts is that they are composed of a misty, airy, or subtle material.) Grace mentions at one point that ‘The fog has never lasted this long before’. In the ghost world that this writer has created, ghosts are surrounded by a white gloom, and can never escape beyond the place where they have an emotional attachment. This works really well. This boundary is tested of course, when Grace tries to leave and gets disorientated. (She finds her husband at that point, who seems to have been wandering around in a fugue state looking for home.)

Isle of Jersey

John Truby has this to say about stories set on islands:

The island is an ideal setting for creating a story in a social context. Like the ocean and outer space, the island is both highly abstract and completely natural. It is a miniature of the earth, a small piece of land surrounded by water. The island is, by definition, a separated place. This is why, in stories, it is the laboratory of man, a solitary paradise or hell, the place where a special world can be built and where new forms of living can be created and tested.

The separate, abstract quality of the island is why it is often used to depict a utopia or dystopia. And even more than the jungle, the island is the classic setting for showing the workings of evolution.

As for this island in particular, it has a long and interesting history, and would therefore have interesting ghosts. (Its recorded history extends over 1000 years. Jersey was part of the Duchy of Normandy, who’s dukes went on to become kings of England from 1066. Although it’s closer geographically to France than to England, it has remained attached to the English crown.)

Other problems the writer would have had to think about in this particular story: How to supply a family of ghosts with food? If ghosts don’t eat, wouldn’t they notice this fact? He gets around this by including a breakfast scene early in the story in which the daughter, Anne, eats toast but says it tastes funny, not like before. We — and the new housekeeper — interpret this to mean that the previous cook made better toast, and that Anne is simply having trouble adjusting to the change of personnel. But on second viewing, this is foreshadowing — she’s having trouble adjusting to being dead in general.

The Others tea and water

Other supplies such as Grace’s migraine tablets and kerosene are conceivably in generous supply at the house and haven’t run out over the course of the storytelling.

Haunted houses have a long history in literature, which is referred to throughout the film by Anne, literature in such tales, who has therefore concluded that ghosts walk around in chains. She would have been influenced by stories such as:

  • The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole
  • The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) by Ann Radcliffe
  • “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1845) by Edgar Allan Poe
  • The House of the Seven Gables (1851) by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • The Turn of the Screw (1898) by Henry James
  • The House on the Borderland (1908) by William Hope Hodgson
  • The Rats in the Walls (1924) by H. P. Lovecraft

This house is Victorian in style, just as the mother has Victorian values about child-rearing and a literal interpretation of the bible.

Notice again we have a reflection -- a double house in a double world.
Notice again we have a reflection — a double house in a double world.

Weakness & Need (Problem)

Psychological Weakness: Grace is unable to relate warmly to her own children (or indeed to anyone else) and, as it turns out, she sometimes goes over the edge into insanity. We see this when Anne is possessed by the old lady from the other side.

Moral Weakness: Grace is controlling and mean — she is the trope of the cold, pre-war English mother who believes children should be seen and not heard. She is motivated by the Bible and doesn’t question even its most disturbing parts. She believes all evil will be punished in hell and using this as her motivation she can be unjustly cruel on her children, particularly on her daughter Anne. We see this when she makes Anne sit on the stairs for three days reading from the bible. The housekeeper questions the severity of the punishment. (Anne has been seeing ghosts.) Grace also treats her servants harshly, and doesn’t believe that she herself might have made a mistake such as leave a door open. She doesn’t believe people even when they’re telling the truth.

Need: Grace needs to put aside the bible and experience spirituality for herself — there’s no telling this woman.

Inciting Incident

Anne has seen some ghosts and draws pictures of them — not that Grace believes this. She punishes her daughter for making up stories.

This inciting incident connects need and desire by showing the audience how Grace can’t accept experience — this contrasts with her reading the bible (in the very opening sequence) — she is a woman of words but not of experience. She can’t ‘feel’ anything.


Grace’s goal in this story is to live in this big, dark house undisturbed by the outside world, protecting her (supposedly) photosensitive children from sunlight. She is the perfect character to become a ghost without knowing it because all she wants to do is keep her children locked up in the dark. (I suspect the mother was actually agoraphobic, otherwise she would have surely memorised the names on the graves right outside her own house and realised who the servants were as soon as they turned up. I suspect Grace impressed this agoraphobia onto her own children by telling them they were photosensitive when they weren’t.)

The importance of this desire increases over the course of the story due to the ‘ghosts’ making this impossible, escalating of course when they’ve taken down the curtains altogether. (Probably because they were freaked out by them — the actual ghosts were always going around closing them during the day.)


The housekeeper Mrs Bertha Mills is a fake-opponent ally. Her desire in this story is to show Grace the truth and provide her support when she comes to her realisation that she is dead. But she seems to Grace (and also to the audience) to be deliberately undermining Grace’s efforts to keep her children shielded from light.

the others mrs mills


Grace’s main opponent is her own daughter who is beginning to enter the defiant years. She won’t do as her mother tells her to do. If Grace’s main desire is to keep her children hidden from the light (from the truth), Anne’s desire is to live, and to live authentically. She cannot ignore evidence of strange happenings, even if she isn’t fully cognisant of the truth.

Other opponents are the unseen living people who have moved into the house. Mainly, it’s the clairvoyant who has the power to get rid of them, and the main desire is to stay in the house.

the others clairvoyant


The mystery is: Whose version of the truth are we to believe — is Anne making stories up? What are those noises? Are they still surrounded? Are the noises real? Are they coming from anywhere at all, or is Mrs Mills playing some sort of psychological trick on Grace? Who is the victim here? What is Mrs Mills’ motivation? The mystery thickens when we learn that Mrs Mills has served in this house before. Why has she come back?

Fake-ally opponent

The returning husband almost fits this description: Does he know that he is dead? Is that why he took off, to heaven? It seems he has worked out the truth of ‘that day’ from Anne, and perhaps he feels bad for his wife but does not want to spend the rest of forever with her. He makes love to her and leaves. So during that scene I suppose he’s a fake-ally. Or perhaps his real life experiences on the battlefield have made more of an impression on him than his house, and so his permanent otherworld arena is the battlefield rather than one of domesticity. (In ghost lore, ghosts hang around places when they feel a strong connection to that place.)

Changed desire and motive

Grace’s desire doesn’t waver throughout this story — her only motivation is to keep the house dark.

Even when faced with evidence to the contrary, Grace turns back to the bible, refusing to believe in supernatural things. But she realises she’s going to have to get the priest in to help.

First revelation and decision

The first big reveal is that Anne has been telling the truth — there do seem to be ghosts in the house. We see a bit of emotional growth when Grace apologises to Anne. Grace realises this for herself when she locks the piano lid then goes back to find it open seconds later. Curtains are drawn when they shouldn’t be.


More bible lessons for the children.

Opponent’s plan and main counterattack

This is a waiting game. (As Roger Ebert wrote:It’s not a freak show but a waiting game, in which an atmosphere of dread slowly envelops the characters–too slowly.) Mrs Mills knows that eventually the other side will provide enough evidence to provide Grace with her revelation.


Grace realises the house is indeed haunted so she runs out into the fog to find the priest who will supposedly bless the house and fix everything. If my theory about the agoraphobia is right, it would take desperation for Grace to run out like this.

Attack by ally

Mrs Mills gently challenges Grace at various points by dropping hints about her being dead, but she as she tells Mr Tuttle, she must come to the realisation on her own, because she won’t accept being told the truth. This is part of the religious theme of the story; in some ways it seems to contradict the Roman Catholic teachings, but in other ways it has a religious message: You have to experience spirituality for yourself; you can’t really accept spiritual things simply by being told.

Apparent defeat

It seems Grace has lost everything when her daughter is defiant. Grace can’t control the lighting in her house, doesn’t know who the intruders are (suspects they’re war criminals) and even begins to suspect the house servants of wrongdoing. She has no one as an ally. She is especially defeated when her husband leaves for a second time. Could anything else be worse for this character?

Obsessive drive, changed drive, and motive

Grace is so obsessed with protecting her house and children that she takes out a gun. There’s a great scary moment when she is holding the gun and opens a door. (If you saw it in a theatre you may well have jumped!)

Second revelation and decision

Grace realises she needs to be a little softer on Anne. This comes after the scene in which she attacks her when dressed in her confirmation dress. Grace is starting to question her own sanity. She is able to say sorry to her daughter thinking her daughter is asleep. This is the very beginning of her new psychological state. The former Grace was not the sort of woman who could ever apologise to her own children.

Audience revelation

The audience is shown that there are gravestones in the yard, and that they are being covered by  leaves. We’re likely to guess that the house servants are dead. (The graves look old, covered in moss.) Perhaps we know one party is dead, but we’re not sure who. (It all depends on how many ghost stories you have read.)

Third revelation and decision

I lose count of the various revelations, but this is the point where the hero usually works out the opponent’s true identity. I suppose the third revelation takes place in the seance scene. Surely Grace realises she’s the ghost right there. (These steps really need to be shuffled round a bit to be put into the correct order.)

Gate, gauntlet, visit to death

The removal of the curtains is the throwing down of the gauntlet. If sunlight means death to her children, it means a kind of death to Grace also.


Grace scares the house servants off the property with a gun, convinced that they are playing mind games with her. They’re not surprised that the curtains have gone missing, so she suspects them of taking them down.

the others battle scene

the others battle scene 2

Grace realises the servants are ghosts when she is finds the book of the dead (which of course has come up earlier in the film — Grace asked for it to be removed from the house). This is a wonderful prop to use in film because it’s so visual. If this were a novel, such a visual revelation probably wouldn’t be quite so necessary. The servants turn up again after the children have made the same discovery via their grave stones. The ghost servants tell Grace she had better go and talk to ‘them’. (On the other side, the new owners of the house are holding a seance.) Grace is furious about this and creates a bit of a poltergeist scene.


It’s only when she’s huddling with her children after this battle that the events of ‘that day’ come back to her and she realises she, too, is dead. It is at this point the audience may remember how the story opened — with Grace screaming and then sitting up in bed. What had caused that scream? Now we know.

Moral decision

Now that Grace has ‘experienced’ spirituality she probably won’t stick so rigidly to the bible, and we can believe she’s not going to continue to bring her children up in strict, Victorian fashion. Now that she has had several self-revelations she will probably be a different kind of mother. (Though the past is the best predictor of the future…)

New equilibrium

The family now has the house to themselves, though Mrs Mills says others will come — sometimes they’ll feel them, other times they won’t.

the others bars
Grace watches the new occupants leave. The audience sees a real estate agent put another For Sale sign on this gate.

The Story Of The Little Mole Who Knew It Was None Of His Business by Holzwarth and Erlbruch


The Story of the Little Mole who knew it was None of his Business is a very popular picture book originally published in German. You can tell if a story is popular when you see the plush toy version of the hero!


Although The Little Mole Who Knew It Was None of His Business is all about pooh, this avoids being a typical ‘gross out’ story because of an overriding gentility in the language. The onomatopoeia has retained a foreignness about it — perhaps retained partly from the original German? — and because this is a picture book rather than a chapter book (as many gross-out books are), the language can be a little more sophisticated due to the fact that adults are likely to be reading this aloud to their children. The goat poo, for instance, is compared to ‘toffee’, which the little mole finds ‘almost appealing’.

So, does this narrative have all the basic components of a complete narrative, as described by John Truby in his book Anatomy of Story? According to this theory, even the shortest of works has at least the seven basic steps. Let’s continue our investigation…




The little mole can’t be at peace until he finds out who dropped a turd on his head.


He is vengeful.


To find out who committed the crime of dropping a turd on his head. (This is basically a mystery story. In fact, an alternative title is:The Story of the Little Mole Who Went in Search of Whodunit.)


The dog. (Oops — spoiler alert!)

(There are two allies — the flies — they are experts in poo and are able to solve his mystery for him by landing on his head.)



The little mole will question every animal in the vicinity until he finds the culprit. He will examine the turds to find a match for the one on his head.


There is no single great battle in this story, in which the mole must endure encounters with a number of animals. But the encounters do escalate — each pooh is worse than the last one, with the cow pancake being the worst of the lot. He does get spattered in poo, which can be likened to wounds in a battle.




He finds out who dropped the turd on his head.


None. He remains a vengeful little bastard.


“Satisfied at last, the little mole disappeared happily into his hole underground.” (And presumably continued on with his mole doings uninterrupted.)


Storytelling Tips From Juno (2007)

I’m no great fan of many traditional rom-coms, but I do love this off-beat romantic comedy drama blend precisely because it takes the regular, conservative storyline of: mother almost loses her baby and then reunites (to live happily ever after), and the usual movie tropes (geek = Bleeker, but he’s also an athlete, stepmother is not wicked) and inverts them at every opportunity. The dialogue of Juno is witty, in keeping with Diablo Cody’s distinctive voice, seen also in The United States of Tara and in her books.

For more stories about kind stepmothers, see this Goodreads list.


Notice the orange and white banding which make up the main colour scheme of the Juno movie poster. See this article which is an interesting insight into colour and movie posters. Rom-coms are generally white whereas the colour orange tells an audience we won’t know quite what to expect.

Since this is a comedy there is a happy ending, and a uniting rather than a separation, but the happy ending is not necessarily what we expect. This is a satisfying story.

Where does Juno fit in the taxonomy of rom-coms?

Juno Taxonomy

Unsurprisingly, Juno pretty closely follows the 22 steps of great storytelling as outlined by Truby. More surprisingly, Juno also follows the script of a 1960s ‘Preggers Novel’. For more on that, see here.

Juno’s Crisis

At the beginning of the story Juno already knows she’s pregnant. In fact, she’s already been to the convenience store and peed on several sticks, leading to comedy about ‘etch a sketches’ and how pee sticks can’t be erased. We see her walking about with a huge container of juice. We soon find out why she’s been drinking so much juice — she needs to make pee for the pregnancy tests.

Weakness & Need Of The Hero

Juno’s moral weakness is that she is sardonic — this is part of her sense of humour, but it needs to be tamed a bit, because she is going through life connecting with no one in particular. She apparently had sex with Beeker because she was ‘bored’. If she had any feelings for him she refuses to admit it. Bleeker is just the sort of boyfriend she needs to grow emotionally, because for all his vagueness, Bleeker comes from a loving family and is himself quite emotionally mature.

Juno’s psychological weakness is that she doesn’t know who she is yet. In fact, when her father tells her he thought she was the sort of girl who knows when to say when, she replies, ‘I don’t know what sort of girl I am.’

i don't really know what kind of girl i am

She’s drifting through life trying things on. She’s not quite as mature as she seems. In some ways she has an acidic wit and precocious insight. On the other hand, she can’t see what her step-mother sees about Mark Loring — that he is unreliable and flirty and that going around to his house to ‘rock out’ with him is going to cause problems and is inappropriate. In short, Juno is immature, and this is her coming-of-age story.

In order to have a better life, Juno needs to grow up (preferably without the noose of a baby to care for), find a boyfriend who fully accepts her for who she is (as her father explains in his fatherly advice) and take time to explore her passions (singing and song-writing). This being a comedy, there is a happy ending, and she indeed has achieved these things as the credits roll.

Ghosts and Backstory

Juno’s ghost is that her mother abandoned her, sending her a cactus every year as the only point of contact, and she seems to be on medication, probably for ADHD. (“I can sell you some of my Adderall.”)

Characters around Juno have ghosts: Her father doesn’t have a good track record with relationships (though he’s in an excellent relationship now, and has been for the last 10 years.) The most significant ghost plot wise is that of the Lorings — an adoption arrangement has fallen through for Vanessa in the past, which explains her nervousness, and Mark has a history of being flaky, and perhaps of getting with other young women (implied), which would explain why Vanessa is uncomfortable with Juno and Mark rocking out together in private. Sure enough, details of the ‘ghost’ are withheld from the audience. It’s not until the second half of the movie that we learn the Lorings have been let down before, and that we get a glimpse of Mark coming on to Juno.

Juno herself is no stranger to all things sexual — her best friend has been having sex and her peers have been having abortions. This film takes the usual high school girl story and inverts everything possible. Instead of this story being about the moral outrage of teenage sex (or ’sexual intercourse’ — a phrase that is repeatedly mocked by Juno and Leah), this is puts all the outrage into the background and shifts the story beyond the drama of procuring an abortion, confessing to parents, being scorned by the community.

juno confession to parents

The scorn is depicted by one interaction between Juno and the office lady, who is giving her a late pass or something. The parental outrage we expect is not there — Juno’s stepmother (another inversion — the step mother is as loving as a mother) immediately jumps into practical caregiver mode (we later see her up late sewing new waistbands on jeans). The story leads us to believe Juno is going to keep her baby when she gets back together with Bleaker and when Vanessa breaks up with Mark, but that would be too trite: Vanessa gets the baby anyhow.

Storyworld of Juno

The story world is suburban Minnesota: two different kinds of suburbs — Juno lives in a more chaotic, non-traditional household whereas the Lorings live in a new development, St. Cloud.

St. Cloud is more of a “small town grown into a large town”, with a friendly Midwestern feel but an expanding role as a commercial and educational center and commuter suburb to the northwestern reaches of Minneapolis-St Paul.

In a series of cuts we see that all of the houses around the Lorings are new, well-maintained and manicured, but we also see that everyone who lives here is basically the same. We expect (and soon have it confirmed) that Vanessa is the sort of woman who takes her life advice from What To Expect When You’re Expecting (the white middle class mother’s bible)and her main problem seems to be what shade of cheesecake to paint the baby’s room. She is pretty much the opposite of who we expect Juno will turn out to be. Juno, at this point, looks more likely to live in a converted office block decorated with industrial waste. Juno lives an hour’s drive away from St Cloud, which is just far enough to be in a separate world, but which allows her to see the Lorings. Minneapolis is a typical American mid-western town with generally conservative attitudes, though abortion is indeed possible in this part of America. It would be a different sort of story again if this were set in, say, Texas, where an abortion wouldn’t necessarily have been an option for Juno.

Juno’s world revolves around school, home and the odd outing to necessary places such as the pharmacy.

Juno looks here, in her red hoodie, a bit like a modern-day version of Little Red Riding Hood, a reference which was used in another movie -- horror -- that Ellen Page starred in.
Juno looks here, in her red hoodie, a bit like a modern-day version of Little Red Riding Hood, a reference which was used in another movie — horror — that Ellen Page starred in.

Stories set in American schools almost always have a number of locker/hall scenes. I guess that’s because where the school’s true hierarchy is seen best, with the corridor functioning like a forest. Juno is shown several times battling against the flow of students walking from the opposite direction, symbolising her alternative personality.

juno school hall

We also see Juno and Bleeker interacting as science lab partners, and this couple is contrasted against the annoyingly immature couple they share a table with. By comparison, Juno and Bleeker look like a great couple, and this is probably the point where we start to root for them working out, and is why we’re disappointed — as Juno is — when we learn that Bleeker is going to the prom with someone else.

juno physics lab

The story follows the seasons, which is a ‘feminine’ way of storytelling — stories for girls, for example, tend to be cyclical in nature.

The seasons can be seen in a graphic of the film’s colours.

Juno film colours
Juno film colours

Since this story is about a pregnancy, breaking scenes down by seasons in which they occur is a convenient way of signalling to the audience how close we are to the climax: Will Juno give the baby to the Lorings or not? And when is the baby due?

juno seasons

Some details of the setting: We see the track and field boys running in their gold and maroon uniform no matter what the season. This adds some humour, especially when we see a close up on their shorts, with Juno’s comments about their penises jumping around, accompanied by a slo-mo close up — an inversion on the usual objectification of female characters in coming-of-age movies. The athletes’ training is almost a metaphor: things keep happening. Seasons don’t stop for anyone. The baby is definitely happening, and it’s as sure as the track and field athletes keep on truckin no matter the weather.

Juno and her friend Leah are often seen together in unusual places, signalling their ‘weird’ status and general confidence. They eat lunch in the ‘prize nook’, where you’d expect them to be told off by a teacher in a different kind of high school movie.

juno huge lunch

Juno’s bedroom is introduced (like most teenagers’ bedrooms are) with a slow pan and zoom — we see she has decorated her room with some very unusual objects, and the point of comedy is that she’s calling up for an abortion on a hamburger phone, leading to the juxtaposition between pregnancy and eating, which seems to be inherently funny.

juno bedroom

The food/pregnancy is an extended gag throughout: “I don’t know, it’s not seasoned yet”, the huge big gulp type drinks she’s carrying around to emphasise how big her belly is compared to her usual stature, the ‘food baby’ response she gets when she tells Leah she’s up the duff…. She even has to shake the hamburger phone mid-call in order to get it to work — shaking is another gag. (She has also been seen shaking the pee stick — another riff on the etch-a-sketch joke made by the Rainn Wilson character who works in the pharmacy.)

hamburger phone

Juno is surrounded by props which add humour and convey her eccentricity.

juno chair pipe

Inciting Incident

This would have been a very simple story if Juno had simply called up for an abortion and got one. But Juno has a bit of a moral crisis when she is told by Su-Chin that her baby already has fingernails. This leads to subsequent problems: if she’s not going to have an abortion, what is she going to do? This is an excellent crisis because Juno thinks she has just overcome the crisis incited at the very beginning of the film. In quirky Cody style, this moral crisis is camouflaged a bit by witty dialogue:

juno moral crisis


Juno’s new desire is to find the perfect loving family for her baby. Not just a ‘loving’ family, though. She wants to find a ‘cool’ family, by her teenage definition of cool. 

She tells Leah that she basically wants parents just like her idealised version of her older self, but in the end, she will realise that a woman quite different from her original idea of cool will do just as nicely, if not better. This is a perfect example of a desire line, because the desire doesn’t change completely (that would lead to a new story), but veers off course a little after a revelation.


Juno’s father, step-mother and friend Leah are all her allies. Each of these characters at some point have a conversation with Juno in which we see Juno’s weaknesses challenged. Leah play the main confidante, in which we learn what Juno is thinking.


Bleeker is both ally and opponent, being the love-interest in a romantic comedy. He doesn’t actively stand in her way, but he does start seeing another girl and Juno gets jealous. Rather than Bleeker being an opponent there is the issue of Bleeker’s mother, who doesn’t want to see them together because she finds Juno too alternative for her own conservative tastes. Bleeker’s mother’s desire: For her son to find a nice, conservative girl, like the one with the ‘permanent stink eye’ (who he plans to go to the dance with.)

This one line of dialogue lets us know that Juno doesn't think all that much of Carol.
This one line of dialogue lets us know that Juno doesn’t think all that much of Carol.

The community itself is an opponent. Though we don’t see the kick-back Juno gets for being pregnant, we do have a few insights: “They call me the cautionary whale.” We see the way the school office lady looks her up and down with disgust, and then there’s the argument with the woman doing the ultrasound, who stands in for every middle class person looking down on teenage mothers. (This scene also allows us to see the extent to which the step-mother is an ally.)

The audience, too, is possibly Juno’s opponent, and in this film we’re being asked to consider what a good family really looks like. The traditional idea of the nuclear family with two parents in the suburbs is challenged at various points. When Juno gives her friends the middle finger, she is really giving us the middle finger in a good-humoured fashion.

juno middle finger

Fake-Ally Opponent

Mark genuinely enjoys Juno’s company but he isn’t admitting to himself or to her that he doesn’t really want her baby, and he isn’t emotionally mature enough to even tell her, let alone his own wife, about his misgivings. Juno’s about to give birth, which functions in the plot like a ticking clock (often used in thrillers) to add a bit of tension. The plot turns at the point when Mark conveys his misgivings after their slow 80s dance: Juno then has a crisis about whether she really does want to give her baby to the Lorings. They’re not as perfect as she imagined.

Revelation and Decision

Juno lies on the hood of her car, obviously thinking about something. She drives back to St Cloud and leaves a note on Vanessa’s doorstep. She doesn’t find out what the note says until the end of the movie, when Vanessa has framed it and put it on the baby’s wall, but Juno has said that she’ll still give Vanessa the baby even if she’s a single mother. Juno has seen Vanessa at the mall interacting with a friend’s child and knows Vanessa will make a good mother no matter what.


Juno realises, after feeling her jealousy, that she really does want to be Bleeker’s girl friend so her plan is to get him back. She buys 100 boxes of his favourite orange tic-tacs and leaves them in his letterbox. Then she apologises to him on the track and tells him she really does love him.

juno declaration of love

Opponent’s Plan and Main Attack

This film doesn’t seem to have this. There is no obvious line of attack against Juno. Unless we count Mark’s plan — he’s going to break up with Vanessa. Perhaps this is the worst thing that could happen for Juno, even worse than Bleeker not accepting her back, because in this story Vanessa and Juno are linked by being ‘mothers’ to the unborn baby.


Juno’s decision to give her baby to Vanessa despite Mark’s abandonment means she has won out against Mark’s immaturity. He’s going to be alone and single and middle-aged and living in a loft.

Attack By Ally

An attack-by-ally scene is the conversation between Juno and her step-mother about Juno going around to Mark’s unannounced. Juno reveals her callous side by dissing her stepmother’s hobby of making collages out of dog pictures when she ‘doesn’t even have a dog’. 

ally confrontation juno
Junos’ massive drinks symbolise the big issues she’s dealing with. Yet the actress is tiny. The juxtaposition is therefore both thematic and humorous.

Juno attacks her back for cutting out pictures of dogs even though she doesn’t have a dog (because of Juno’s allergy). This is probably the conversation which helps Juno to understand who Mark really is, though she doesn’t realise it immediately. Only after he expresses his misgivings about taking her baby, in which case her step-mother’s advice probably was at the back of her mind.

Apparent Defeat

It seems for a while as if Juno giving her baby to a couple breaking up is not going to happen. She’s going to be stuck with this baby because she’s due to give birth very soon. Sure enough, there is only one apparent defeat. Up until now, Juno has been sure that she wants Mark and Vanessa to have her baby.

In the plotline where Juno wants to be with Bleeker (subconsciously at first) she is also defeated when she finds out Bleeker is going to the prom, and then to someone’s log house, with another girl. The argument they have tells the audience that Juno still likes Bleeker, and that Juno herself doesn’t yet realise it. We also realise how great Bleeker is when he tells her the absolute truth  about the other girl (comically using the exact words Leah did).

juno bleeker argument

Obsessive Drive, Changed Drive and Motive

Juno has the obsessive drive to find good parents for her baby. We know that Juno keeping the baby is not the best outcome. She’s very much a young, free spirit who isn’t at the point where she takes life seriously. Although Juno initially wanted a couple, she has decided that a single mother is fine, if that single mother happens to be Vanessa. Until recently Juno has connected far more with Mark (because they’re on the same maturity level) but she has garnered enough human insight now to know that the cool guy isn’t going to make as good of a parent as the anxious woman.

Steps are sometimes used as a metaphor -- here Juno sits on the bottom step near the beginning of the movie, signifying her as-yet immature status. Unlike Mark, Juno grows.
Steps are sometimes used as a metaphor — here Juno sits on the bottom step near the beginning of the movie, signifying her as-yet immature status. Unlike Mark, Juno grows.

Audience Revelation

juno born to be a mother
Earlier in the film we see Vanessa *say* she’ll make a great mother but an audience is naturally suspicious of such a perfect-looking suburban couple. What is the rot that lies underneath every single suburban story?

This is the part where the audience learns something Juno does not, but mostly in this story we’re right there alongside Juno for the ride. For example, we realise how good a mother Vanessa will make at the same time Juno does — when we see her in the mall playing with the toddler. But we do realise before Juno does that all is not well in rich-happy-married-couple land. We see Mark and Vanessa at a stalemate over the colour of the paint for the baby’s room. Mark thinks it’s ‘too early’ to be worrying about that, and we learn he hasn’t been reading the baby books Vanessa has been asking him to read.

Juno cheesecake scene

Third Revelation and Decision

This is the bit where Juno realises Mark is a fake-ally opponent: He tells her he isn’t ready to be a father and he’s thinking of breaking up with Vanessa (though doesn’t have the balls to have actually done that yet).

Visit To Death

Shown by Juno lying on her car bonnet late that night, trying to decide what to do. This is a modern story, so the visit to death is psychological. She’s in turmoil: can she bear to give her baby to a single mother?


The audience, along with Juno, is witness to the big explosive argument between Mark and Vanessa. We see how much better Vanessa would be at parenting than Mark. We may have suspected Vanessa of being a fake good person — that in fact she’ll be a terrible mother — over anxious and obsessive. But now we see that whatever her faults are, she’s a hell of a lot better than Mark. Interestingly, Juno is a lot like her main opponent — Mark. They are both not ready for a baby.

We’ve already seen that Vanessa has a lot more maturity than Juno.

juno difference in maturity levels vanessa juno


Juno perhaps realises that, like Mark, she is not ready for a baby, even if she is with the father as a young couple. She realises that Vanessa will still make a great mother, that a typical nuclear family isn’t the be all and end all — that relationships end all the time, but babies come along despite this sad fact. We see her making these revelations in the comical talk with her father, in which the father thinks she’s asking about him, but she’s really thinking about Mark and Vanessa.

juno dad advice

Moral Decision

The two courses of possible action: Give her baby to Vanessa or keep it.

The audience has been expecting Juno to keep her baby, or at least find a new couple at the last minute. The traditional ‘happy ending’ is seeing babies with their natural mothers, loved and adored and brought up beautifully. The revelation is that Juno has decided to give her baby to Vanessa despite her recently broken relationship. The film withholds this information by refusing to show us what’s on the note. The thematic revelation is that babies don’t need a typical happy rich couple in order to thrive. Alternative family set ups can be just as fulfilling, as evidenced by Juno’s own family set up, in which her relationship with her stepmother is as good as any typical relationship between mother and teenaged daughter.

New Equilibrium

This is pretty hokey in any other genre, but we see Juno together with Bleeker playing the guitar outside a picturesque suburban house. Perhaps Juno has left home — her step-mother has got a dog, which Juno is allergic to. There has been a reference earlier in the movie about how the step-mother can’t have a dog until Juno leaves home because of her allergy to dog saliva. Bleeker and Juno are singing a duet, suggesting they are a very happy couple. In fact, they’re becoming the very couple Juno looked for in Vanessa and Mark.

Shapes of Plots In Children’s Literature

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

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

It implies a historical or biological explanation for what happens.

— John Truby, Anatomy of Story


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 his desire and is changed 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 Propp and Campbell as possible instruments to examine the structure of adventure stories, and to those of 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.

YouCan'tGoHomeAgain cover

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