Reversals and reveals are vital for creating momentum and suspense in a story. Certain genres are required to be more page-turny than others, and all children’s literature must be page-turny. So you’ll find reversals and reveals everywhere in children’s literature.
‘Oh darling, [story is] just two or three little surprises followed every now and again by a bigger surprise.
– Peggy Ramsay, agent
A revelation is basically a surprise.
Revelation is seen by the audience as motion, even if nothing has changed but knowledge or insight.
WHAT ARE ‘REVERSALS’?
‘Reversals’ are ‘big reveals’. The audience’s understanding of everything in the story is turned on its head. They suddenly see every element of the plot in a new light. All reality changes in an instant. ‘Reversal’ is a term writers use. Audiences tend to just say ‘plot twist’, but that often just means a sequence they weren’t able to easily predict. For example, when Andy escapes in Shawshank Redemption, that’s not a reversal. It might qualify as a twist because we generally expect life-prisoners to stay where they are.
The Sixth Sense, however, includes a genuine reversal because the famous revelation requires us to regard the entire story until that point in a completely different light. The big reversal reveal comes right at the end of the story. This has the advantage of sending the audience out of the theater with a knockout punch. It’s the biggest reason this movie was a hit. (M. Night Shyalaman didn’t come up with the idea of the psychologist being dead until well after his first draft. Though he managed to make it feel very new, Shyalaman was borrowing from a long tradition of Dead All Along characters.)
An example of a reversal is when the audience finds out who A.D. is on Pretty Little Liars. A mistake the writers of that show made was waiting seven seasons to give that information to the audience. Desperate Housewives, the writer’s mentor series, wrapped up mysteries at the end of each season, not at the end of the entire series. This is called a ‘reveal’ but is also a reversal because we realise A.D. was in front of us the whole time. We are asked to think back on everything we’ve seen so far and consider in a new light.
The Greeks called this ‘peripeteia’. A classic example is Oedipus Rex — it’s the bit where he finds out about his parents. Fast forward a few years we have Luke Skywalker finding out who his father is.
A story can have more than one reversal. While minor reversals can occur in every scene, bigger ones tend to divide the work into specific acts.
A reversal reveal is most common in detective stories and thrillers.
A subversion is not a modern invention but peripeteia itself. it is the tool that catapults the hero into the opposite of their present state — from thesis to antithesis, from home to a world unknown.
That’s what inciting incidents are too — they are ‘explosions of opposition’, structural tools freighted with all the characteristics the characters lack; embodiments, indeed, of everything they need. Cliffhangers, inciting incidents and crisis points are essentially the same thing: a turning point at the end of an act; the unexpected entry point for the protagonists into the new world; bombs built from the very qualities they lack which explode their existing universe, hurtling them into an alien space of which they must then make sense.
The best reversal is the kind that creates the biggest surprise without ruining the established logic.
Create suspense by providing the audience with a certain amount of information, then leave the rest to their own imagination.
Give the audience just enough to see it coming but not enough to expect it. How to test if the plot twist works or not: The story is rewatchable/re-readable. It should be just as fun if not more fun to go back and see where the writers hint at that twist. This explains why studies show that spoiling a book before a subject reads it makes the reading more enjoyable. The path towards the reversal is more exciting, even though the reader has lost the enjoyment of the surprise. Perhaps this is why lots of stories spoil the ending at the very beginning.
Gone Girl has a big reversal when we realise the victim is bad.
Victimised women who are actually evil in their own right may be a trend started by Gillian Flynn. In the b-grade horror/thriller movie Pet (2016) a stalker captures a woman he’s interested in and keeps her in a cage in ‘the tunnels’ of a dog shelter where he works. Halfway through the movie the young woman is discovered by the security guard. The reversal is that instead of wanting to be saved, the captured woman encourages her captor to murder him brutally. The big reveal is that she is a psychopath and the reason the stalker creep has captured her is because by stalking her he has realised this about her.
Safe Haven is a movie based on a Nicholas Sparks novel, which is fun to watch if you enjoy predicting romantic cliches. The minor conflict, the handsome widower, the woman who kids fall in love with. The downpour of rain, the first kiss… Eventually, however, just when there is nothing left (because they’ve fallen into bed), Sparks gives us the first major revelation: He tells the audience why his main character is being followed. All this time we weren’t sure if she’s a baddie, but now we know she’s the victim, abused and stalked by her cop ex-husband. But another supernatural revelation occurs right at the end, when we realize the woman who has befriended our main character has been a ghost all along. This is a reversal, because it causes us to see the entire progression of the relationship in a new light — this coupling hasn’t happened organically at all; it’s been ‘ordained’ by a higher power.
REVERSALS AND REVEALS DONE BADLY
The Rug Jerk
Any gratuitous plot or character twist tossed in solely to jerk the rug out from under the reader for the sake of surprise or shock, without sufficient foundation, foreshadowing or justification (retroactive or otherwise). Essentially any story twist that violates Chekhov’s principles: “If you fire a gun in Act III, it must be seen on the wall in Act I; and if you show a gun on the wall in Act I, it must be fired in Act III.” The Rug Jerk fires the gun without showing it first or explaining where it came from afterwards.
The Reset Switch, aka The Reboot
Any device that allows a writer to completely erase any already-occurred events of a story and bring the characters back to a predefined starting point, with little or no changes to them or their universe. Time travel (“It never happened”), parallel universes (“It never happened *here*”), unconscious duplicates (“We’re all just clones/simulations/androids of the REAL characters!”) and dream-sequences (“It was all a dream!”) have all been used this way. To be avoided unless the existence of such a phenomenon is, itself, the story’s or series’ central plot point (as in *The Man Who Folded Himself* or *The Left Hand of Darkness*).
A misperception I run into a lot: if a reader is not SHOCKED by your big twist, it’s a failure. This isn’t true! Here’s why…
First, guessing a surprise twist beforehand (as long as it isn’t insulting obvious) can make readers feel smart and vindicated to see they guessed right.
Second, when you use a trope where a certain plot twist/reveal is expected, knowing that reveal is coming ADDS to the tension, it doesn’t detract from it. We’re looking forward to him discovering *gasp* his gf is actually the empress! The anticipation is part of the experience.
So: a plot twist can have value not only in being surprising, but also in being anticipated. How to set up plot twists so they’ll delightfully surprise readers OR add to our breathless anticipation when we guess them early: foreshadow adequately, but don’t make it blindingly obvious (unless you don’t mean for it to be a reveal to us, only to another character).
Try to ensure that your reveal will escalate the stakes and/or evolve at least one conflict (the main external one, an internal conflict, or a conflict between characters) in a new way. If it doesn’t change things in some relevant way, it won’t impact readers.
Types of Reveals
A few main types of plot twists/reveals:
1. those that surprise us but not the character (this type is used often for unreliable narrators; can be super fun, but can also make a reader feel lied to, so use carefully).
2. The type of plot twist that surprises a POV character but not us. Often used in dual POV stories where one character has a secret that we’re in on, but the other POV character isn’t. Great for driving up tension and anticipation as you build toward the reveal.
And finally, 3. The type of plot twist that surprises (or is meant to surprise; refer to earlier tweet about readers guessing it early not necessarily being a bad thing) both readers and the POV characters. Often happens at midpoint &/or climax.
Planning and Editing A Reveals Plot
Further questions to ask:
Are these revealed secrets worth knowing? There must be a direct impact on the immediate situation.
Does the audience have enough context for this revelation to be meaningful?
Is the secret simple? If it needs heaps of explaining it won’t have any punch when revealed. (“Luke, I am your father.” Not, “Luke, I am your cousin thrice removed.”)
Have you foreshadowed but not telegraphed?
Like endings, reversals should feel both inevitable and surprising at once.
Is this so-called revelation simply one of two possible alternatives considered from the beginning? If so, the answer won’t be much of a ‘revelation’ — more like when you’re expecting a baby it’s probably going to be a boy or a girl. The surprise is pretty minimal in that regard. If you’re stuck with this problem, consider audience misdirection or hint at something different but related.
First, some ideas from storytelling gurus who are not writing specifically about children’s stories but about stories in general. Lena Dunham has noted that female characters, like female people, are held to a higher standard when it comes to niceness:
“I sort of object to the notion that characters have to be likeable. I don’t like most of my friends, I love them. And that’s the same way I feel about most of the characters I write. So often, women are sort of relegated to sassy best friend or ingenue or evil job-stealing biatch, and it’s really nice to work somewhere in the middle.”
from Lena Dunham talking about Girls, quoted here.
People are used to seeing females portrayed as one of two mutually exclusive stereotypes. They want a sweet, down-to-earth protagonist pitted against a conveniently evil, bitchy foil. That way they know which one they’re supposed to “identify with.”
I have nothing against lovable characters; there are a great many wonderful ones out there, and no one ought to go out of his or her way to deny a character’s best qualities for the sake of being called “uncompromising, hard-edged.” But our first obligation is to create interesting, suggestive, realistic, possibly even challenging situations, set our characters down in them and see where they go. Which may not be the way you wish they could; rather it is the way, given who they are, they must go.
Here’s John Yorke, from his book Into The Woods:
If it’s difficult to identify a protagonist then maybe the story is about more than one person (say East Enders of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts) but it will always be (at least when it’s working) the person the audience care about most.
But already we encounter difficulties. ‘Care’ is often translated as ‘like’, which is why so many writers are given the note (often by non-writing executives) ‘Can you make them nice?’ Frank Cottrell Boyce, a graduate of Brookside and one of Britain’s most successful screenwriters, puts it more forcibly than most: ‘Sympathy is like crack cocaine to industry execs. I’ve had at least one wonderful screenplay of mine maimed by a sympathy-skank. Yes, of course the audience has to relate to your characters, but they don’t need to approve of them. If characters are going to do something bad, Hollywood wants you to build in an excuse note.’
Next, Yorke talks about what we might call the character’s shortcoming or moral flaw:
We don’t like Satan in Paradise Lost — we love him. And we love him because he’s the perfect gleeful embodiment of evil. Niceness tends to kill characters — if there is nothing wrong with them, nothing to offend us, then there’s almost certainly nothing to attract our attention either. Much more interesting are the rough edges, the darkness — and we love these things because though we may not consciously want to admit it, they touch something deep inside us. If you play video games like Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (and millions do), then you occupy literal avatars that do little but kill, maim, destroy, or sleep with the obstacles in your path. We are capable of entering any kind of head. David Edgar justified his play about the Nazi architect Albert Speer by saying: ‘The awful truth — and it is awful, in both senses of the word — is that the response most great drama asks of us is neither “yes please” nor “no thanks” but “you too”? Or, in the cold light of dawn, “there but for the grace of God go I”.
The key to empathy, then, does not lie in manners or good behaviour. Nor does it lie, as is often claimed, in the understanding of motive. It’s certainly true that if we know why characters do what they do, we will love them more. However, that’s a symptom of empathy, not its root cause. It lies in its ability to access and bond with our unconscious.
Robert McKee makes a distinction between empathy and sympathy, though I don’t personally find this distinction useful when it comes to creating a fictional character. However, he reassuringly agrees with John Yorke’s idea that the audience must bond with the audience on a deeper level:
The protagonist must be empathetic; he may or may not be sympathetic.
Sympathetic means likeable. … We’d want them as friends, family members, or lovers. They have an innate likeability and evoke sympathy. Empathy, however, is a more profound response.
Empathetic means “like me’. Deep within the protagonist the audience recognises a certain shared humanity. Character and audience are not alike in every fashion, of course; they may share only a single quality. But there’s something about the character that strikes a chord. In that moment of recognition, the audience suddenly and instinctively wants the protagonist to achieve whatever it is that he desires.
The unconscious logic of the audience runs like this: This character is like me. Therefore, I want him to have whatever it is he wants, because if I were he in those circumstances, I’d want the same thing for myself.” Hollywood has many synonymic expressions for this connection: “somebody to get behind,” “someone to root for,” All describe the empathetic connection that the audience strikes between itself and the protagonist. And audience may, if so moved, empathise with every character in your film, but it must empathise with your protagonist. If not, the audience/story bond is broken.
And this from an expert in the children’s literature world. On likeability in children’s literature, Maria Nikolajeva writes:
Some contemporary characters in children’s fiction efficiently alienate the reader by being unpleasant and thus offering no clear-cut subject position. While Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden, repeatedly described by the author as “disagreeable” in the beginning, quickly gains the reader’s sympathy, being an orphan and exposed to the adults’ indifference; a character staying unpleasant throughout the story may leave the reader concerned and even frustrated.
Nikolajeva also writes, “…children’s writers most often wish, probably for didactic purposes, to offer their readers a psychologically acceptable identification object.”
Children’s literature is different from adult literature in one main way: It has many gate keepers who are not the target audience. While publishers of children’s literature most often very open to characters with strong psychological flaws (understanding the way story works), books then have to make it past parents, librarians and teachers, who may hold the view that young readers blindly follow in the footsteps of naughty fictional children. Unfortunately, these (often conservative) gatekeepers have a very real effect on what actually sells, which no doubt influences what is published to some extent.
Another difference between stories for children and stories for adults: There are perhaps more Great Gatsby books in the children’s literature arena. By that I mean, they ‘star’ a main character who is actually the least interesting person in the story. They walk around as avatars for the reader, and because readers are all different, this avatar is as featureless as possible.
The brother and sister who star in A Series Of Unfortunate Events are almost completely featureless. Daniel Handler even avoided telling us anything much about how these children looked. They are instead surrounded by very quirky characters.
Bella Swan of Twilight is The Every Girl — white girl kind of pretty, who likes nothing out of the ordinary, and who mooches along causing no real trouble for anyone. Along with the Unfortunate Events children, Bella Swan is surrounded by a supernatural, unfamiliar world full of evil and suppressed desires.
Greg Heffley is arguably one of the least interesting characters in Diary of a Wimpy Kid. His diary is a commentary on what everyone else is like rather than a psychoanalysis of himself. Greg is The Every Child. (The every American mid-Western heterosexual able-bodied white boy.)
Anyone can see from reading reviews at Amazon and Goodreads that there is a swathe of the reading and book-buying public who do not like to read books with unlikeable characters. If they’re going to spend 300-600 pages with someone they want that someone to be the kind of character they’d happily invite over for a cup of tea. Their reasons for reading: To enjoy the experience. Unlikeable characters are more safely contained to shorter forms. We can better accept the company of a truly horrible character across 20 pages of short story. Would we stick with Mary Gaitskill’s “The Girl On The Plane” if it were a novel rather than a short story?
Another type of reader doesn’t have this requirement. This kind of reader can sound a bit more hi-falutin because, after all, you can’t read a lot of the classics if you start with the requirements that your characters have to be likeable.
Here’s a brainstorm of what I personally ‘like’ in a character. It isn’t kindness, shared values and being a good listener:
James Wood makes clear his own position, criticising the type of reviewer who seems to think that:
Artists should not ask us to try to understand characters we cannot approve of — or not until after they have firmly and unequivocally condemned them.
A MASSIVE PROBLEM WITH ACTIVELY WRITING LIKEABLE CHARACTERS
I believe one of the keys to writing fully realised characters is to refrain from judging them as an author. I don’t want the reader to feel as if I’m telling them which characters are good or evil, which ones they should like or hate. I want to get out of the way. I think my job is to tell the story almost like a good documentary filmmaker—with structure and style and good editing—but to let the characters and their actions speak for themselves. Every one of them has reasons for who they are and what they do.
Sometimes when a writer sets up big flashing arrows that say THIS IS THE BAD GUY or THIS IS THE HERO, I can sense that the author is trying really hard to make the reader like or dislike a character because of how THEY feel about that character. A character can be a coward, a killer, a tyrant, or have any number of unsavoury characteristics, but it’s not your job as the author to judge them. It’s only your job to tell the story. Are you using words like “evil smile” or “brave composure” that show your author’s hand?
This is why I disagree with the idea of characters having to be “likeable” because “likeable” is judgmental on the author’s part. A character is inherently more interesting and relatable to readers if they are not easily so pinned down and judged.
I consider it a big success when readers argue about my characters. When a character I’ve created has both fierce admirers and fierce detractors, it means they’re a lot more like real people. Try to write real people and not judge them. That’s all you need to do.
That said, if you’re writing a truly despicable character, or a character who does despicable things occasionally, you will need to go out of your way to use likeability tricks.
IN WHICH LIKEABILITY ABUTS FEMINISM
A few years after James Wood published How Fiction Works, novelist Claire Messud was asked by a journalist to comment on why the main (female) character in her novel The Woman Upstairs isn’t very likeable. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that her response to Publishers Weekly sounded so well-thought through it was almost prepared; after all, James Wood and Claire Messud are married. I think they may have discussed this issue together, with Messud adding to the conversation that female characters are judged more harshly for being unlikeable, as are women in real life.
Lena Dunham spoke on the issue of likeability after criticisms that her characters in Girls are unlikeable:
I sort of object to the notion that characters have to be likeable. I don’t like most of my friends, I love them. And that’s the same way I feel about most of the characters I write. So often, women are sort of relegated to sassy best friend or ingenue or evil job-stealing biatch, and it’s really nice to work somewhere in the middle.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has since shown her in-depth understanding (garnered from her own real life, I bet) of how tropes work in tandem, and against women. In reference to a misogynistic article from the NY Post, Ocasio-Cortez tweeted:
This reinforces lazy tropes about women leaders in media: – Older + seasoned, but unlikeable – Passionate, but angry – Smart, but crazy – Well-intentioned, but naive – Attractive, but uninformed or gaffe-prone
It’s unoriginal, lazy, and men don’t get the same either/or coverage.
These same paradoxes exist when crafting female characters for fiction.
If we take the enduring success of books such as Lolita, it’s clear that in literary works — the kind that take years or decades to write — the kind that will get reviewed in major publications, writers don’t need to create likeable main characters in order to make a mark.
If you are a self-published author on Amazon, however, the nature of user reviews suggest that likeable main characters sell more copies.
And if you aspire to be a popular author for children, that likeable hero rule is even tighter… for better or for worse. In fact, even in popular Hollywood films heroes have to have a ‘moral shortcoming’. In other words, they have to be treating other people badly in some way (too tied to their job to spend time with family etc). But this does not seem to be a rule in children’s books, especially in stories for very young readers. Heroes for children only need a ‘psychological shortcoming’ (shyness, anxiety, hyperactivity, a tendency to blurt out uncomfortable truths, trouble handing in homework, etc.)
I think it’s important to tell your story truthfully. And I think that’s a difficult thing to do, to be truly truthful, because it’s only natural to be concerned about offending people, or possible consequences. . . . Forget about likeability. I think that what our society teaches young girls, and I think it’s also something that’s quite difficult for even older women, self-confessed feminists, to shrug off, is this idea that likability is an essential part of the space you occupy in the world. That you’re supposed to twist yourself into shapes to make yourself likeable, that you’re supposed to kind of hold back sometimes, pull back, don’t quite say, don’t be too pushy because you have to be likeable. And I say that is bullshit. . . . If you start off thinking about being likeable you’re not going to tell your story honestly. Because you’re going to be so concerned with not offending. And that’s going to ruin your story.
Rashida Jones was fired from the Toy Story 4 development team. She had this to say:
Women are taught to be nice. Men are taught to be powerful.
“When I was writing ten years ago, I took what is typically considered a male character and would give it to the woman,” Jones said. “I’d get feedback saying, ‘She’s not likeable.’ I would think, ‘So fucking what. Every guy isn’t likeable, until he is.’ Women are taught to be nice. Men are taught to be powerful. I want to find a way to tell stories from a woman’s perspective that doesn’t feel like it’s been put in the mouth of a woman by a guy.”
The story becomes even worse for female characters (and actual women) whose femaleness intersects with other things:
“i’m just so tired of watching how people talk about morally gray boy characters vs morally gray girl characters.
the boys get praised & coddled. the girls get torn down & judged. if your dark prince can be a secret cinnamon roll, why not the bloody princess?
i could write an entire academic paper, by the way, on how this is just symptomatic of how men—especially allocishet white men—are coddled/forgiven in real life, and women are punished.
i will not tone myself or my female characters down to fit some arbitrary, impossible “likeability” mould.
also, everything that diverts a female character from the white, skinny, traditionally attractive, abled, allocishet mould just makes them even MORE harshly evaluated. stacks the stakes even higher against them.
and hey, hmm, while you’re here, maybe think about how you’re judging the in real life women in your communities based on these standards. who do we come down hardest on? who do we watch most, waiting for a “mistake”?
The sit-com Fleabag is a concerning window into how likeable female characters need to be self-hating before we like them:
TheYoung Millennial Woman – pretty, white, cisgender, and tortured enough to be interesting but not enough to be repulsive.
One of the few things associated with millennials to have received a positive public reception is a particular form of millennial art. This art revolves around an archetypical Young Millennial Woman – pretty, white, cisgender, and tortured enough to be interesting but not enough to be repulsive. Often described as ‘relatable,’ she is, in actuality, not. The term masks the uncomfortable truth that she is more beautiful, more intelligent, and more infuriatingly precocious than we are in real life. But her charm lies in how she is still self-hating enough to be attainable: she’s an aspirational identifier. She’s often wealthy, but doesn’t think too much about it.Her life is fraught with so much drama, self-loathing and downwardly mobile financial precarity that she forgets about it, just as we are meant to. Her friends, if she has any, are incorrigible narcissists, and the men in her life are disappointing and terrible. Try as she might, her protest against the world always re-routes into a melancholic self-destruction.
Likeable vs unlikeable characters are subject to fashion. In the 1990s there were a lot more unlikeable main characters, particularly in comedy.
An audience’s perceived wish to be around a likeable main character also varies according to region. It’s pretty clear that a British audience has a higher tolerance for unlikeable characters than an American audience. An interesting case study there is the character of David Brent, who is a thorough turd in the British version of The Office, but played in a more doofus, loveable fashion by Steve Carrell in the American series. The unlikeable British comedic character goes back further than Ricky Gervais’ creation — take Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers, or Penelope Keith’s character in To The Manor Born, who treats everyone around her with disdain and was even quite pleased when her first husband died.
Morally corrupt is on an entirely different spectrum from ‘likeable’
In the 2000s, Tony Soprano is the archetypal antihero, neither likeable nor unlikeable in my view but interesting nonetheless — and definitely morally corrupt. Morally corrupt is on an entirely different spectrum from ‘likeable’.
Don Draper is not a guy I’d like to know, and I believe he was written to be unlikeable, but on the screen handsomeness counts for a lot and I got the impression many heterosexual female fans of Mad Men didn’t mind Don Draper as much as they were perhaps meant to.
Breaking Bad ushered in a new wave of stories about ordinary, decent men who get sick of the system and decide to go full crim. More recently we’ve had Ozark, which is similar to Breaking Bad in many ways.
Bad Santa is an example of an unlikeable, disgusting person, but even he has his posse — people who will follow him around. This makes him a little more likeable.
Will Ferrell in Anchorman, and quite a few Will Ferrell characters are also unlikeable.
AS FOR CHILDREN’S LITERATURE SPECIFICALLY
There are few genuine distinctions between what sells in children’s literature and what sells to adults, not least because adults buy all the children’s books.
Children’s literature expert Maria Nikolajeva writes:
Some contemporary characters in children’s fiction efficiently alienate the reader by being unpleasant and thus offering no clear-cut subject position. While Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden, repeatedly described by the author as “disagreeable” in the beginning, quickly gains the reader’s sympathy, being an orphan and exposed to the adults’ indifference; a character staying unpleasant throughout the story may leave the reader concerned and even frustrated.
Nikolajeva is perhaps offering a rather cynical view when she also says, “…children’s writers most often wish, probably for didactic purposes, to offer their readers a psychologically acceptable identification object.”
THE REQUIREMENTS OF SHITTY TV SHOWS
This is where there’s a place for unlikeable characters.
Irredeemable, flawed characters
You feel like you’re in a position to judge the people you’re watching. “Whatever I’ve got going on, it’s not that.”
Desperate Housewives ran for eight seasons from 2004 to 2012. This show is a great example of a ‘cozy mystery’.
Taglines are for the marketing copy.
Season One: Everyone has a little dirty laundry…/Secrets. Romance. Murder. All On One Street.
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
Suburgatory is another show aimed at teens using the suburbs as a horror arena, though it is heavier on the comedy.
Desperate Housewives was created by Marc Cherry, who had already achieved huge success with Golden Girls (1985). You may or may not already know that he then went on to create a show called Devious Maids (2013). Cherry apparently came up with the idea one day when watching the news with his mother. They were watching a clip about a mother of five who drowned them all one day. Cherry said, “Who could do something like that to her own kids?” and was surprised to hear the response from his own mother, “Oh, I’ve been there.”
Devious Maids, by the way, looks similar but with an Upstairs, Downstairs flip. I’m not sure if the Cherry-Lifetime collaboration achieved a Desperate Housewives vibe, and its cancellation suggests they didn’t, but judging by the intro sequence, it seems that’s what they were aiming to reproduce:
The Black Widows has been marketed here in Australia as the Nordic Desperate Housewives.
But in my opinion nothing has come close to Desperate Housewives, yet. Love it or hate it, it does what it does really well. The following is a close look at Season One.
STORYWORLD OF DESPERATE HOUEWIVES
How to describe the vibe? This Nancy Drew cover seems to epitomise the inspiration. Many in the target audience will have grown up reading such books — groups of nice girls wearing sensible, pretty clothing, surrounded by mystery and light horror. Everything is not how it appears.
Desperate Housewives has a fairytale vibe, and because fairytales have been read by children since the era of the Grimms, fairytales put an audience in mind of storybooks for children. There is plenty Desperate Housewives shares in common with children’s books:
The utopian facade, though in a children’s book the utopia is often a genuine idyll. Desperate Housewives is filmed on a set, not on a real street so absolutely everything we see on Wisteria Lane is ‘fake’, as well as carefully planted there. The creators describe Wisteria Lane as ‘hyper-real’.
The calm, all-knowing narrator, explaining truisms to the audience in a soothing, before-bed kind of way
Though it’s not a strictly followed rule, episodes tend to open in the morning and are drawing to a close once we start to see conversations at bedtime, even if the episode itself spans several days. Many picture books work on a 12 hour clock, starting with the child getting out of bed, ending with them back in bed and ready for sleep.
Suburbia makes an excellent horror arena. The more perfect the lawns, the more things are rotten beneath. Audiences have learnt to expect that.
A great part of our day in the writers’ room is spent saying, ‘We’ve done that…’ We did towards the end start to think, ‘Are there any natural disasters left? We’re not really in the right climate for volcanoes and floods.’ […] Faced with the challenge of volume Desperate Housewives found itself, like many, grasping for sensation. The annual ‘disaster’ episode became a ritual and over eight seasons a tornado, a fire, a plane crash and a riot all hit Wisteria Lane.
Bob Daily, Executive Producer
Which brings me to Biblical allusions, because whether intended or not, these massive disasters are reminiscent of the deadly plagues of Egypt.
BIBLICAL ALLUSIONS IN DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES
It becomes clear as the seasons progress that the series is an exploration of the seven sins, though it should be obvious from the start that the apple is symbolic. This is Eve being tempted in the Garden of Eden. Eden, of course, is the perfect suburbs, and if these women were not each plagued by her own fatal flaw, Wisteria Lane really would be an idyll.
AD/HD DRUGS = THE POTIONS FROM A FAIRYTALE
Lynette’s storyline focuses quite a lot on the politics of AD/HD, drug abuse and education in America. The real world background to this plot line is that during the 1990s there was a lot of scaremongering in the media about the dangers of AD/HD medications for children. This came almost entirely from a single religious group. You can probably guess which one. Yes, it was Scientology. But like the vaccination ‘debate’, the debate over the ethics and safety of stimulants for children gained much coverage and scared a lot of people. If a child genuinely has an AD/HD neurology, there is a 95% chance that child will be helped by taking the right drugs. The literature doesn’t give such a high statistic because there are also children who are medicated who do not have a genuine AD/HD profile. (I get that stat from my wonderful AD/HD daughter’s pediatrician.)
At the time Season One of Desperate Housewives was written, the creators were cashing in on the scaremongering of the Church of Scientology. The audience doesn’t need any real reason for Lynette to just decide not to medicate her boys. We all know why she doesn’t because we’ve all seen the same media. If it weren’t for the realworld scare campaign, audiences would see no good reason for Lynette not to medicate her children. Of all the drugs given to children, AD/HD medication is the most heavily researched. It is an old drug, and several generations of children have been lucky enough to benefit so far. Giving AD/HD medication to a child with AD/HD is similar to giving a child glasses, and the effect is just as stark. AD/HD does not make a creative child less creative, turning him/her into a type of zonked out zombie; it allows naturally exuberant and creative AD/HD children to focus for long enough to put that creativity to good use. However, when we see Lynette tire out her boys by having them dig a massive hole, we see them subdued and lifeless for their observation visit to the fancy private school and we get a strong hint of what medication is meant to do to them.
Desperate Housewives has not been helpful in the fight to get kids who need drugs properly medicated. For instance, the writers make no distinction between ADHD and ADD, which are two separate neurologies. The dialogue between Lynette and the Ritalin-popping supermom does accurately convey that if an adult without AD/HD takes the drugs it’s like drinking an entire pot of Turkish coffee.
The public school teacher who threatens to kick the twins out of the entire public school system exemplifies how many assume teachers approach a parent whose children are short on executive functioning, though this character is good for drama. The boys themselves seem not just like children with AD/HD, but actively scheming and mischievous, whispering to each other in the back of their mother’s car. Generally, children with genuine AD/HD are trying their hardest to be compliant. The writers are doing one of two things: Either they’re suggesting AD/HD are true horrors, or they are showing us that Lynette is an ineffective parent whose six-year-old boys already see her as the opponent.
As the season progresses, the fairytale element of the Ritalin becomes clear. Lynette is a trickster who arranges a playdate with a medicated AD/HD child’s mother, then goes to the bathroom to steal his meds. Later, she goes for a session of acupuncture. When the Chinese acupuncturist pulls down a jar of herbs from the top shelf to help Lynette with her sleep and stress it is clear that the acupuncturist is a stand in for a girl’s trip to the knowing witch who lives in the middle of the forest.
STORY STRUCTURE OF DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES
An interesting thing I started to notice about Desperate Housewives is that after every recap of the previous episode we get a mini-story before the main one, much like in the Pixar film Up. The writers call it the ‘teaser’.
Example from Season One, Episode 7:
The story opens with a fully-formed short story about Martha Huber’s garden. Jealous [PSYCHOLOGICAL WEAKNESS] of the perfectionist Bree’s [OPPONENT] lawn next door, it doesn’t matter what Mrs Huber does, whether she water it diligently or cover it in smelly but potent fertilizers [PLAN], she cannot get it looking as good as Bree’s. One day [SWITCH FROM THE ITERATIVE TO THE SINGULATIVE], a jogger dies on Mrs Huber’s lawn. Mrs Huber has an idea for revenge. She secretly drags the dead body into the middle of Bree’s beautiful garden of hydrangeas. [BIG STRUGGLE] When Bree discovers the body she calls an ambulance. When medicos arrive to pick up the body, their gurney destroys both garden bed and beautiful lawn. We see from the looks on their faces that Bree is disappointed and bewildered while Mrs Huber is smug and avenged [NEW SITUATION].
In Episode 8 we don’t so much get a fully formed story as intro so much as a backstory of Bree’s early life. This is to show us that Bree has been brought up to be a Good Girl, and now that her son has run over a neighbour’s mother-in-law, her morality will face the ultimate test.
Bree — Bree is the most closely connected to the setting. She is at first presented as the archetypal Stepford Wife. Just like the perfect suburb they all live in, Bree keeps her house perfect. She can turn her hand to anything related to the house and children. She is undoubtedly a conservative Republican Christian. Hints are dropped to that effect. Bree avoids absolute cliche — or perhaps she epitomises it — by the fact she is a gun nut, a member of the NRA and owner of three weapons. As her husband points out, she is capable of looking after her own self. But Bree is held hostage by her own perfectionist tendencies. Like Chekhov’s planted gun, when we learn she owns not one but three, we know she is capable of snapping. She points out to her friends, “Who really knows what’s going on behind closed doors?” which of course makes us wonder what’s going on behind hers.
Gabby — Gabrielle is bored. As she explains to her teenaged gardener toy boy, Carlos gives her everything she wanted. She just didn’t want the right things. She doesn’t realise it herself but she needs to be kept occupied. She can’t even really enjoy shopping, since Carlos buys her expensive gifts and there is no challenge in it.
Lynette — Lynette is not so much ‘bored’ as harried. She is the mirror reflection of Gabrielle. We picture Lynette when Gabby’s mother-in-law advises her to fill her days up with children, then she won’t have any time to wonder whether she’s happy or not. Lynette is harried and unfulfilled. She didn’t realise until it was too late that she doesn’t really like the job of mothering. But Desperate Housewives can only go so far with this. They have to show that Lynette really does love her boys, and the Mama Bear comes out at times, such as with the clueless traffic officer who tells her that her job is to control her own kids. She does bend over backwards to get them into private school, though it could just as easily be argued that she sees this as a personal challenge. Lynette needs to find fulfilment doing something other than wiping, mopping and breaking up fights.
Susan — Susan is an adorable klutz. Bella Swan has similar attributes. This seems to be a surefire way to garner the sympathies of some of the audience. In fact, Susan comes across calamities so often there is almost a supernatural element to her misfortune, as if she were cursed at birth by the thirteenth witch. Despite the fact that she must be a hugely successful children’s book illustrator to continue living in that big house, she is presented as an ineffectual divorcee. She uses her teenage daughter as a confidante in what would be, in real life, called emotional incest. The relationship between Susan and her daughter is quite similar to that between the Gilmore girls. The daughter is far more together and sensible than the needy mother, who doesn’t seem to have a best friend other than her daughter. If anyone needs a man to ground her, Susan does.
For maximum narrative drive the hero in each plot line must overcome extreme odds to accomplish a specific and difficult goal. There are four heroes in this drama and each of them has her own distinct desire line.
Bree — Bree wants to live a Pinterest life (though Desperate Housewives predates Pinterest). Let’s just call it a picture book life. (It’s no accident she lives on the same street as a picture book illustrator.) More than that, Bree wants to appear perfect. If she appears perfect to others, that is basically the same as being perfect. She would be happy with that. However, her husband is not. He craves a relationship with a rounded person with flaws, not with the cardboard cutout of a Campbell’s Soup commercial.
Bree is my favourite character, though I do not share her outlook on life in the slightest. I think I respect her because unlike the other main characters, she’s living true to her own moral code. (This will be sorely tested, but even then, we can still understand her motivations.)
Bree’s goal of appearing perfect moves further away when: Her husband announces he is not happy and he wants a divorce.
Gabby — Gabby manufactures a challenge; her challenge is to continue having sex with the gardener behind the back of the macho, violent Carlos. This is her desire line for season one.
Gabby’s goal of meaningless sex moves further away when: Her mother-in-law comes to stay. With her middle-aged-woman’s sixth sense she realises Gabby is having an affair with someone, so chaperones her everywhere. This leads to much comedy and friction as Gabrielle thinks of increasingly ingenious and underhanded ways to get rid of the woman.
Lynette — wants to get her boys a good education but absolutely definitely does not want to homeschool. That’s the outer goal. Her inner desire is to find fulfilment. Lynette finds fulfilment by looking competent in the eyes of other adults. If she can’t be the CEO, she can at least find her place at the top of the private school mom pecking order.
This goal moves further away when: The public school system threatens to kick her children out of school unless she medicates them for ADHD. She makes clear to her husband that she’s not up to homeschooling them for fear of killing them, so the next goal is to get them into a fancy private school. She manages this by hook and by crook. Lynette is now plunged into the fascinating and uber-bitchy world of snobby private school mothers. Her new goal is to keep the boys there, and because she does not believe in medicating their boys for their ADHD
Susan — When the handsome and available Mike moves into the neighbourhood in the pilot episode, Susan sets her sights on him — or rather, her daughter does, since Susan isn’t really capable of making any goals on her own. (This character trait is later ignored when she sets upon the mission of finding out the mystery of Mary Alice’s death, in which case she’s like a dog with a bone.)
Susan’s goal of finding happiness with Mike moves further away when: The brassy neighbourhood ‘slut’ sets her sights on Mike, and set up an unspoken rivalry, turning the man into the pawn in the middle. Since the pursuit of Mike isn’t a very meaty plot line, even with Edie as opponent, Susan’s klutziness sees her burn Edie’s house down. She now has another opponent in the nosy, manipulative middle-aged neighbour who finds her measuring cup as evidence and tries to blackmail her with it.
An opponent refers simply to the character who stands in the way of a hero’s desire. Opponents differ from episode to episode. Some come and go; others are sustained over the entire season and beyond. Each main character has at least two main opponents.
Bree — Bree’s husband, next her own son. The daughter seems to be an ambivalent peacemaker for the most part. The psychologist isn’t helping her cause either.
Gabby — Gabby’s husband is shown to be a violent man who could easily turn his violence upon her. The mother is also a bit of a gangster mother and makes an excellent comical opponent.
Lynette — At times her husband Tom, who stupidly suggests she homeschool, Lynette finds a more sustaining opponent in the private school queen bee.
Susan — It’s perhaps strange that a klutz like Susan Mayer has the largest number of opponents, but remember this is partly because the romance between her and Mike isn’t quite meaty enough, and there need to be many reasons why she and Mike can’t simply get together right at the start of the season. Therefore, consider Mike Susan’s ‘love opponent’, in a very similar dynamic to any found in a rom-com film. Susan’s ex-husband and the young, new girlfriend present as opponents at first, but when Lynette suggests Susan let go of her baggage and move past stupid can kicking rivalries the audience is no doubt relieved to see Susan take that advice. The audience has seen ex-husband rivalry before, and besides, the issues between Bree and her husband make for a far more interesting take on the divorce story because we get to see a break up from its embryonic stage. There’s Edie of course, who is a fun opponent because she treats man-hunting as a game. It’s hard not to like Edie. Many probably like Edie more than they like Susan. Likewise, Susan has a knack for getting the fictional older ladies off-side. Several of them are not charmed by her klutziness. One bribes her; another won’t let her borrow her car.
We don’t see the characters making plans, or even talking about them very much. They are all trickster characters. We watch a scene and realise, “Ah, I know what you’re doing here.” It is satisfying to watch this even if we morally disapprove. Especially if we morally disapprove.
Bree — As far as she can understand, if she keeps a perfect home and garden, no one has the right to complain about anything. Her plan is always to do more and better. Bree is always wearing a mask. We see her try on a different mask in the bedroom, because she (correctly) senses that her husband is secretly kinky. As soon as the hotel date goes wrong, Bree switches from her Tiger In The Bedroom persona back into her Perfect Housewife persona. Bree’s plan is not working and she loses her family. This is Bree at her lowest, but the camera doesn’t show us that. We are shown circumstances conspiring to bring her children back to her. Andrew wants his mother the night he runs over Mrs Solis the elder.
Gabby — Gabby has no problems getting her mother-in-law back into gambling so she can steal one ‘last’ moment with her gardener.
Lynette — We realise as soon as Lynette wants to use the bathroom that she is planning on stealing another child’s Ritalin. We also understand in that moment that she has planned this playdate for the express purpose of stealing it.
Susan — Susan is the least successful trickster. She is really, truly bad at it. She is the mirror image of Bree on this point. Bree would never fall through a ceiling while snooping — we have already seen Bree successfully snoop at the psychologist’s office.
Bree — Even when in big struggle, Bree looks her best and remains calm. Dinner at the fast food place where she learns her husband is leaving her, being affronted at the psychologist’s office, a cringe-worthy dinner party with the neighbours in which she gets the upper hand, an unsuccessful attempt at sex with her husband, locking her own children out of the house in a well-coordinated plan to get them back.
Gabby — Gabby’s big struggles are both ridiculous and real-world serious. When her husband assaults her, it’s serious. But most of the time even the arguments she has with Carlos is somewhat funny, as these characters declare they love each other while scheming and manipulating the other in a high-stakes game of chess.
Lynette — Having a bust up with the PTA Bitch, arguing with her husband about his suggestions she homeschool, losing it with the traffic officer, and memorably, coming down off Ritalin and hallucinating. She ends up sitting in a football field, a space we most closely with her archetype, The Frazzled Soccer Mom. Lynette’s big struggles are linked to child-rearing in most instances, and it’s almost always with other mothers. For instance, I’m reminded of the big struggle scenes from Courage The Cowardly Dog when Lynette bounces on an inflated castle while in a showdown with another mother about who brought head lice into the school. In Courage, also, big struggles often take the form of childhood games — squash, food fights, a train heist with a toy train. This allows us to find the big struggles funny.
Susan — Accidentally setting Edie’s house on fire, a big argument with her neighbour, then with Mike, falling over before making it onto the mechanical bull; Susan Mayer’s big struggle scenes are sometimes borne of ‘unpractised’ bitchiness and at other times occur as a result of her clumsiness. Susan is an inconsistent character, though the writers have created Susan knowingly. Edie points this out (lampshades this set of traits) for the audience when she accuses Susan of being adorably klutzy but actually pretty scheming. Susan’s flaws are also pointed out by Edie’s guy who ends up sitting on the side of the road with her after a second flat tyre.
In a long-running comedy series it is impossible for the characters to learn from their own mistakes. If they did, Susan would no longer put herself in calamity’s path, Bree would loosen up, Gabby would become genuinely altruistic and Lynette would somehow find a successful work-life balance.
Why does almost every series that doesn’t regularly refresh its characters have a life span of only two to three years? […] Characters have only one story, and all attempts to counter that are a lie. Soaps and series are lies — great and glorious ones if the lies are well told, but lies nonetheless. Soaps and series are partly a product of market economics, born from a desire to attract viewers and sell to them — but equally, like sequels, they tap into an audience’s desire to prolong the lives of characters they adore. As with those we love in real life, we want our fictitious friends to live forever. Authors and television executives recognize this and acknowledge too that it’s much easier to attract people to the readily familiar, the tried and the tested. And so the lie is told again.
Drama demands that characters must change, but the audience by and large — ‘we’, let’s be honest — insist they stay exactly the same. […] Deep down we expect film franchises to wane, but drama series are by definition a returning medium; they must reproduce to survive. Series characters can’t get to the end of their journey or the story is over, so their creators face the same dilemma as Hollywood but massively amplified. […] Stubbornly two-dimensional, they exist outside time and space […] Most of us have been frustrated by long-running shows were ingenue characters never seem to learn from their experiences, or equally annoyed when they do learn and stop being the character we first fell in love with.
John York: Into The Woods
Though I haven’t watched subsequent seasons I hear Bree does in fact have quite a character change — the most stark of all the women, which makes her the most ‘main’ of the main characters.
But generally, the characters of Wisteria Lane do not learn from their mistakes. If they did, show over. However, in true fairytale form, these characters and their flaws exist to teach the audience a lesson. In other words, in fairytale form the viewer is the one meant to have the anagnorisis. Not in this spoof version, however. It’s expected the audience already knows these life lessons. Despite the storybook structure the audience are not children. At the end of each episode the dead storyteller narrator explains the Moral Of The Story. A viewer who takes this seriously will feel talked-down-to — it’s important to regard this as fairytale satire.
Mary Alice Young = Charles Perrault
It isn’t easy giving up power admitting that we might need help from friends and neighbors, deciding that a loved one might know what’s best for us, giving up our better judgment for a slightly darker agenda, but for some the hardest kind of power to give up is the power to control their own desires.
Mary Alice Young
In fact, if you take a look at the storyteller narrator’s quotes all in a row, you’ll be struck with how trite they sound. The Mary Alice opening and closing lines are outlining, as if for an English literature class, the morals of age-old fairytales. If you’ve ever read the fairytales as transcribed by Charles Perrault, you’ll know that Perrault literally spent the last paragraph of a story outlining the moral in exactly this way.
These moral lessons are conservative, each and every one of them.
Keeping secrets is a lonely business. That’s why we all search for someone to confide in: an ally who will understand, an advisor who we can trust, a friend who will never judge.
Mary Alice Young
Generally in straight (non-satirical) adult fiction we’ll be asked to consider whether that’s really true. A common ideology of children’s stories is that secrets are always bad. (One exception to that is a recent book called Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolkwhich, interestingly, she initially wrote intending an adult audience.)
The quotes from Mary Alice also function as a teaser, and are therefore broken into four parts:
Yes, we often learn our most important lessons outside the classroom. The painful truth about the state of a relationship , the ugly cost of challenging authority , the sad fact that life’s colors aren’t always rosy , then are those who refuse to accept these important lessons. They simply wait to teach a lesson of their own .
Mary Alice Young
Since this is a continuing series, the final episode of Season One must both satisfy and intrigue.
We are satisfied because the mystery of narrator Mary Alice becomes completely clear in the final episode. Everything is explained regarding this enduring mystery. The character we knew was going to die does die.
It also intrigues because there is a brand new family on the street and they obviously have a secret of some kind. Each of the four main characters has a new beginning ahead of her and we want to know what will happen to them.
Bree — Bree is about to enter a new phase of her life now that her husband is dead.
Gabby — So is Gabby, pregnant and about to say goodbye to her jailbird husband.
Lynette — Lynette is being pushed back into the workforce. How’s that going to go?
Combining my study of film, novels, children’s literature and lyrical short stories, I’ve come up with a nine part story structure. This is universal.
Not all stories are ‘Complete Narratives’. Mood pieces, character sketches, experimental short stories (such as those by Lydia Davis and descriptions of setting/paintings have more in common with poetry, which become complete narratives only at Step Nine, when the audience completes the arc in an imaginative, collaborative process.