This month I’m blogging a series aimed at teaching kids how to structure a story. This seven-step structure works for all forms of narrative. It works for picture books, songs, commercials, films and novels. Today I take a close look at The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson to show how universal structure exists behind all good stories. The Gruffalo is an example of mythic structure, which has been super successful as a story structure across cultures for the last 3000 years.
Julia Donaldson is a master at taking old folktales and rewriting them in rhyme for a contemporary audience. The Gruffalo draws heavily from Alexandra the Rock-eater: An old Rumanian tale, retold by Dorothy Van Woerkom and published in picture book form in 1978. Julia Donaldson uses the same device of tricking a formidable creature into thinking you’re much stronger than you are.
In the Romanian tale, an underdog hero convinces a dragon of her own considerable might. This is a familiar device in many folk tales. (For example, you might squeeze cheese but persuade a formidable opponent that you’re really squeezing buttermilk from a stone.) She’s trying to get rid of the local dragon in return for a gift of animals. She needs animals because she has 100 children to feed (all magic results from having wished for them.)
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE GRUFFALO
For more on mythic structure, see this post. Basically, a character goes on a journey, meets friends and foes, changes as a person (or animal, in this case), and returns home. Sometimes they find a new home. In any case, they’ll be different for their experiences than they were at the beginning. This is called a ‘character arc’.
WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?
What’s wrong with Mouse? They’re small and therefore vulnerable.
But Mouse’s great strength is that they are a trickster character. The trickster is a super popular archetype in stories from every era. For a successful story (or scene), a trickster character is your absolute best bet. Go ahead and create characters who play tricks to get what they want. You may not approve of what your characters do morally, but readers love tricksters and their tricks.
What is she wrong about?
She thinks monsters aren’t real.
WHAT DO THEY WANT?
Mouse is off on a journey. We don’t know where s/he is going, but Mouse tells everyone along the way that they are off to see the Gruffalo. Obviously, this is not the mouse’s real desire. Mouse doesn’t think Gruffalos really exist. We’ll never know where Mouse is really going. I’d say they’re off to find nuts, with no particular destination in mind.
Mouse encounters only baddies on this trip — no true helpers/mentors. Mice tend to have a lot of enemies because they are small. That puts them near the bottom of the mammalian food chain. Mice are popular characters in children’s stories because both mice and children are small. So the mouse is a natural stand-in for the child.
Because Mouse is a trickster, s/he quickly turns the Gruffalo into an ally, even though s/he didn’t even believe in Gruffalos until meeting one.
WHAT’S THE PLAN?
The plan is to walk through the forest freely by telling opponents that s/he’s off to meet a Gruffalo, scaring everyone off.
In lots of stories, the initial plan doesn’t work and has to be changed. Our quick-thinking Mouse does not disappoint. When she realises the Gruffalo is real she decides to trick the Gruffalo into thinking s/he herself is fearsome by having Gruffalo walk behind.
Julia Donaldson has done something masterful here, pulling off what writers call a reversal. The reader now knows that the reason all those other animals were scared of the Gruffalo isn’t just because they’re easily duped — it’s because the Gruffalo really does exist. Perhaps Mouse heard about the Gruffalo but didn’t believe it was real… until this story.
In stories with mythic structure, there won’t be just the one big struggle. There will be a series of them, increasing in intensity until the final showdown. There is a minor standoff every time Mouse meets a creature who wants to eat them. When Mouse is surprised to see the Gruffalo, that’s another. Then the story works in reverse, very similar to what Roald Dahl did with The Great Big Enormous Crocodile. With The Gruffalo right behind them, Mouse meets all of those animal opponents again, this time scaring them.
So what’s the Big Struggle? It doesn’t consist of much — it’s that ending scene — we might call it the climax. Mouse doesn’t need The Gruffalo anymore, so talks about Gruffalo Crumble, scaring The Gruffalo away.
Mouse has won.
WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?
At a surface level, Mouse has learned that Gruffalos really do exist.
At a deeper level, Mouse has learned that wits can overcome size in any big struggle. Pessimistically, the reader is reminded that size really does equal scary, and if you’re not big enough yourself, you can use your wits to rope in someone bigger.
At an even deeper level, we might posit all sorts of psychological theories about how if you pretend for long enough, pretence will become your reality. Bluster over substance can work. Fake it til you make it…
HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?
The final page shows Mouse eating nuts and everything is good. For Mouse, life will continue as before.
WHAT I BRING TO THE STORY
I imagine Mouse is a little more confident about their abilities as a trickster now, and even when hearing scary stories, will know that scary situations can be turned to her benefit.
SETTING OF THE GRUFFALO
Axel Scheffler’s illustrations are well-suited to Julia Donaldson’s stories because although many of the stories feature scary characters in forests, over boggy marshes (Room On The Broom) and on lonesome highways (The Highway Rat), the colour palette Scheffler uses is colourful and bright even when the atmosphere is raining and dark.
Forests and fairytales go together. If you want to add danger and intrigue to your story, you can place your cast in the middle of a forest, or if they live in a town, put that town right next to a forest. That way, there’s always the threat that something will come out of the forest. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. Doesn’t matter if you use the forest in this way. The existence of a nearby forest is enough.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST
A picture book writer very similar to Julia Donaldson is New Zealand’s Joy Cowley, who also writes rhyming picture books using ancient tales as inspiration. If I told you Nickety Nakkety Noo Noo had been written by Joy Cowley, or that Joy Cowley had written The Gruffalo, you’d probably believe me.
All complete narratives feature a big struggle scene. No, that doesn’t have to be a literal big struggle scene, Lord of the Rings style. In fact, we should be thinking outside that box altogether. One thing I love about Larry McMurtry’s anti-Western novels (especially Lonesome Dove) is that he condenses the gun big struggles and torture scenes in favour of character conflict.
I often feel the big struggle sequence in a movie goes on too long. I feel this way about the children’s animation Monster House and also about the Pixar animation Inside Out. The former happened because the plot was too thin in general, the latter because a big struggle-free myth structure should more naturally be shorter.
WHAT IS THE BIG STRUGGLE SEQUENCE?
More commonly it’s known as the climax.
When your character reaches the climax, everything is stacked against them. They think fast, piecing together clues in their head. Usually, those clues are tidbits of knowledge you’ve placed earlier in the story, along with hints the main character observes in the moment. The protagonist assembles these clues into an important realisation. Then they use their newfound understanding to win the day.
Do you have a black moment—a point near the end of the manuscript where your character has lost something or someone extremely important to him/her and all appears to be lost and failure seems inevitable? This usually happens right before he/she has a revelation or a breakthrough of some sort and throws him/herself back into the intensified conflict with a new determination, leading into the climax.
The big struggle sequence can also look like not much at all. As Captain Awkward says in a post about running into family after estrangement, “anticlimax— a good outcome on paper, since it means nothing escalated — can hit some of us as hard emotionally as anything we feared would happen.” A non-big struggle, when expected, is also a ‘big struggle scene’.
The big struggle sequence looks quite different in the big struggle-free myth form. Namely, the fight will be internal, externalised as a representation of the main character’s psychology. These stories avoid sturm und drang.
Torture your protagonist.
The writer is both a sadist and a masochist. We create people we love, and then we torture them. The more we love them, and the more cleverly we torture them along the lines of their greatest vulnerability and fear, the better the story. Sometimes we try to protect them from getting booboos that are too big. Don’t. This is your protagonist, not your kid.
THE BIG STRUGGLE SEQUENCE IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE
A child’s main shortcoming is that they are small and without power, so a lot of children’s stories have historically relied on an adult stepping in to help. The child’s main job was to find someone more powerful. Victorians preferred the version of “Little Red Riding Hood” in which the adult male woodcutter saves the day, and alternatives of that era have basically been forgotten.
The hero or heroine of a fairy tale usually cannot kill the dragon or marry the princess without help. This, of course, is contrary to the American tradition that if you go it alone and work hard enough, you will get to the top. In fairy tales, characters who refuse help, or refuse to help others, end up covered with tar or talking frogs and snakes.
Alison Lurie: Don’t Tell The Grown-up: The subversive power of children’s literature
Not all fairy tales follow this general rule, of course. That’s because the fairy tales which we read today have been edited by Victorian men who seemed to harbour their own fantasies of stepping in to save women and children. Fairy tales such as “The Gallant Tailor” and “Mollie Whuppie” feature protagonists who save themselves, but it’s unlikely you were exposed to those as a child.
In contemporary children’s fiction, children fight their own big struggles. However, they very often call in someone more powerful/older to help them in the pre-big struggle stage. That helper might be just a little bit older, or they might be eccentric (powerless in their own way).
In Monster House the children call on the help of the guy who plays computer games down at the arcade.
Or the helper might be very old e.g. a grandparent, neighbour, wizard/witch or realistic equivalent.
These days help may come from the Internet. Courage the Cowardly Dog was one of the first children’s shows to do this — back when the Internet was very new and therefore novel. Courage would regularly consult the personified PC in the Bagge family attic. 25 years on, children’s writers seem less enthused about having The Web solve children’s problems. Now writers of realistic contemporary fiction might have to contrive ways to keep phones out of their characters’ hands all the time.
The people who regularly help children in real life rarely help them in stories. Therefore, you’ll rarely see a parent or a teacher helping a fictional child in any useful way. They may try to help, but inadvertently make the situation worse. This is to do with wish fulfilment — the wish to be independent. Or rather, the first step towards independence.
WHAT DOES A BIG STRUGGLE LOOK LIKE IN CHILDREN’S STORIES?
In books for the very young, you’re not going to find many guns, bows and arrows, fisticuffs and arguments (though you will sometimes). Still, picture books definitely feature ‘big struggles’.
Oftentimes, the big struggle phase seems to comprise about half the entire book.
The big struggle scene may be a ‘culmination’ of ridiculousness (followed by calm after the page turn, perhaps with more white space and calming rhythm.)
Therefore, the ‘big struggle scene’ in a picture book might also be called the ‘Culmination’.
It might also be called ‘The Fright‘.
The big struggle isn’t necessarily between the child and the main opponent. Rather, another opponent will often step in.
Obviously, the climax/low point maps onto the big struggle. (I love the term ‘wink’. For me, the broad concepts of set up and escalation aren’t quite specific enough.)
What form does this so-called big struggle sequence take in picture books? I’ve been breaking down the story structure of picture books for some time now. Now it’s time to take a look at the picture books on my shelf and those studied on this blog.
AN ACTUAL GUN BIG STRUGGLE
Hunters with guns are switched out for the lesser opponents (the animals residing in Thidwick’s antlers) to create a more dramatic big struggle scene.
You can see an oversized bodily function in The Three Little Pigs in which the wolf huffs and puffs and blows the houses down. However, in The Three Little Pigs, the sneezing is not the main big struggle scene. The main big struggle scene (at least in less bowdlerized versions) is the wolf falling splash into the pot.
In Wake Up Do, Lydia Lou! by Julia Donaldson all the animals in the story sneeze together and wake up a sleeping toddler.
In Yertle the Turtle by Dr Seuss, the king turtle is toppled off his perch when the turtle on the bottom of the stack burps.
TRICKSTER HERO WINS BY SAPPING THE OPPONENT’S STRENGTH/POWER
Our hero is a trickster archetype who challenges the opponent to perform things which will eventually lead to their own downfall. We see tricksters in classic tales such as The Emperor’s New Clothes.
In a mythically structured narrative our protagonist defeats a dragon as an archetypal trickster, tiring him out until he’s fast asleep by challenging him to perform tiring feats. (The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch)
A SCARY CHARACTER SUDDENLY POUNCES AFTER A LONG LEAD UP
This kind of story has its origins in oral narrative such as Little Red Riding Hood. The young listener/reader KNOWS what’s going to happen — the thrill is in the waiting.
In Wolf Won’t Bite by Emily Gravett wolf has enough of performing circus tricks for three show-off little pigs and eventually bites them.
THE CULMINATION OF RIDICULOUS, ESCALATING (POSSIBLY NEAR DEATH) EXPERIENCES
This often happens in a tall tale or in a comic classic/carnivalesque plot.
In The Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Huchet Bishop a city tries to murder a man but they can’t do it because he has four brothers and each has a secret superpower. Battle scenes: an attempted drowning, an attempted execution, an attempted burning at the stake, an attempted burning in the oven.
In And To Think I Saw It On Mulberry Street, Inside a boy’s imagination, a simple horse and cart becomes an entire procession of motley scenarios. The illustration starts simple then becomes more and more detailed until nothing more will fit on the page. The big struggle scene, in other words, is extreme chaos.
In Stuck by Oliver Jeffers there are so many things stuck in a tree that it’s impossible to imagine anything bigger or more ridiculous.
THE MAIN CHARACTER HAS A TANTRUM
Most common in comedy picture books. The childlike character isn’t getting what they want so they just lose it. These stories work if the main character’s shortcoming includes impatience and treating others badly. Young readers will identify well with this particular shortcoming, as their frontal cortexes aren’t fully developed — they know exactly what it feels like to not get what you want and to lose control as a result.
THE MAIN CHARACTER GETS CAUGHT UP IN THEIR OWN TERRIBLE PLAN
This kind of big struggle happens when the character is ‘their own worst enemy’.
A brilliant example of this kind of inner big struggle occurs in This Moose Belongs To Me by Oliver Jeffers, in which a boy on a journey literally gets entangled in the yarn he draped about precisely to help him find his way home.
In Neil Gaiman’s middle grade book Coraline, the big struggle sequence is a chapter straight out of a gothic novel, in which the main character must work her way out of her imaginary household before it morphs into such a shape that it will somehow enfold her within its clutches.
THE MAIN CHARACTER SHOWS KINDNESS AND WINS THE ENEMY OVER
During the climax of the story, your hero shows an astounding level of kindness to the enemy. It might come in the form of unconditional acceptance, unusual empathy and understanding, or an actual gift with a great deal of personal significance. The hero might even give away the very thing the villain was trying to steal. This gesture of goodwill causes a change of heart. The villain decides to stop doing harm, at least for now.In The Lego Movie, all the lego realms are terrorized by Lord Business. He plans to glue all the lego pieces permanently into place, freezing everyone exactly how he wants them. The main character, Emmet, is supposed to be a special person with the power to stop Lord Business, but toward the end, he discovers that he’s no more special than the next lego. To stop the fighting and gluing, Emmet meets with Lord Business. Emmet explains that Lord Business is also special, and that he has something unique to contribute to the world. Because of this conversation, Lord Business abandons his evil plans. The gesture of goodwill is a good match for a character-focused story. But like other character-based conflicts, it’s important to set things up ahead. You’ll want a sympathetic villain with a motivation the audience understands. However, you don’t have to tell their whole backstory in a flashback. Your hero can piece together the villain’s backstory and motivation, and then use that information in making their gesture.
If you think in terms of ‘climax’ rather than ‘big struggle’ followed by ‘anagnorisis’ and ‘new situation’ you may prefer to break climax into further parts:
The climax of a novel actually has four components:
The run-up to the climactic moment (last-minute maneuvering to put the pieces in their final positions)
The main character’s moment of truth (the inner journey point toward which the whole story has been moving)
The climactic moment itself (in which the hero directly affects the outcome)
The immediate results of the climactic moment (the villain might be vanquished, but the roof is still collapsing).
— Writer’s Digest
Moment of truth = anagnorisis Climatic moment itself = near-death big struggle moment
Matt Bird of Cockeyed Caravan breaks down the Battle stages according to which part of the main character is being challenged. I have noticed he’s right on the money for the vast majority of stories:
In the best stories, no matter what the genre, the hero is first challenged socially (often in the form of a humiliation at the beginning), then challenged physically (often in the form of a midpoint disaster), then challenged spiritually, as the hero is forced to either change or accept who he or she really is (often around the ¾ mark).
The pilot of Breaking Bad is exactly like this, starting with Walt’s humiliation as a lowly car washer serving his own students, followed by the diagnosis of lung cancer, then the moral dilemma — does he follow that idea to become a drug lord or doesn’t he?
For pantsers who haven’t decided on the big struggle beforehand, here’s some tips on how to come up with one.
The title suggests this may be a retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk but it’s not really — it’s an original tale based on mythic structure with elements of Little Red Riding Hood (the sick grandma) and pirate adventures (the big seas, the small boat). Like any good fairytale, this story makes use of the rule of threes.
This is also a carnivalesque story, in which the opponents are friendly, easily distracted, and very happy to join the children in their hi-jinks.
This picturebook has the usual problems found right throughout the kidlit world. This is another story about a white boy. He has two sidekicks. One of the sidekicks is a girl dressed in pink. The other is a black boy. Two boys and one girl consistently comes back in educational research as the ratio at which boys feel comfortable — 1:1 boy-girl teacher attention in the classroom will give boys the impression that girls are dominating. So it is in children’s stories, from Harry Potter to Monster House.
Is this in the illustrator’s wheelhouse? If so, a call to illustrators — why not make Jack the black kid for a change, with a white boy as his sidekick? And to writers: Why not write some more trios of two girls and one boy?
Well, we know why.
How does everyone feel about the phrase ‘Don’t get your knickers in a twist?’ which is repeated as a refrain throughout the story?
In this book both the boy and the girl are assumed to be wearing ‘knickers’, but in my dialect of English — and I assume most modern dialects — knickers refer specifically to female underpants. The assumption is therefore that getting (unnecessarily) shitty about something is a specifically feminine trait, and when the instruction is dished out to a male character the effect is to feminise him and strip him of his power. The phrase has always grated with me.
Jack needs to go on a long journey without adult supervision in order to mature.
He wants to save his granny from her purple spots disease by finding her fruit that grows on the rare and distant Flumflum tree.
Nature is against them — the ocean, mainly, and everything in it: namely sharks, leaks and man overboard.
But nature isn’t a very satisfying opponent. A ‘humanesque’ opponent appears once they get to the island in the form of a mischievous monkey who steals the precious Flumflum fruit.
At each of the three calamities at sea Jack works out a use for each of the items granny provided in the patchwork sack.
Jack turns into a trickster with the monkey, giving him or her some wooden spoons. The monkey can’t resist playing the drums with them on the tom-tom drum, so the children are able to retrieve the stolen Flumflum.
Each of the items in the bag had a use. That’s what the young reader will learn at the end of the story.
As for Jack, he has learned that he is quite capable of saving the day.
There have been various editions of A Squash And A Squeeze in its 20+ year history of reprints.
Here is a slightly more ominous sky:
Note that Donaldson is working with tropes here, as she almost always does. Witches, chimeras, rats, mice, and here: a mentor archetype, and a trope most often found in fairytales and in picture books: an old woman who lives alone on a simple small plot of land in the country. This woman will probably have a close relationship with her animals (and if she doesn’t, she’ll be forced to, here!)
STORY STRUCTURE OF A SQUASH AND A SQUEEZE
The old woman feels her little house is too small for her. The four walls make her feel ‘squashed and squeezed’.
She wants a bigger house, we guess.
The Wise Old Man is a secret-ally opponent. He at first seems to be making her situation worse, but there’s method in his madness.
She asks the local Wise Old Man what to do.
The big struggle scenes are slap stick set pieces as the Wise Old Man tells her to bring her farm animals into the house. He starts her off on the smallest farm animals and ends with the cow.
Compared to having a house full of farm animals, a cottage with just her in it no longer seems so small.
The animals live happily in the yard and the old woman lives happily in her cottage, no longer feeling it’s too small.
This book was first published in 1993 and the publishers released a red edition to make the 20 Years edition. I don’t know. The blood red sky makes it look a bit ominous, though it fits the brief of seeming quite different: