Tips For Writing Melodrama

Melodrama is often used as an insult but, used properly, has its place in good storytelling. Here are some tips for writing melodrama.

What Is Melodrama?

Melodrama is the technique of revealing reality by concentrating on the ends of the spectrum rather than the middle: the remarkable rather than the ordinary.

Melodrama is about extremes of any kind. Melodrama is designed to:

  1. rouse strong emotions
  2. invoke implicit shared attitudes
melodrama from pretty little liars
A take-the-piss commentary of how melodrama is used (to great effect, I might add) in Pretty Little Liars

Pejoratively, melodrama refers to stories in which the writer tries to make the reader feel something but overdoes it and thus fails. This isn’t entirely fair use, because sometimes the writer WANTS the audience to enjoy the spectacle of characters getting all emotional without involving the audience in the drama. Melodrama can be harnessed deliberately in order to let an audience enjoy a story in a different way (from straight drama).

Why Use Melodrama In Your Writing?

Because of its heightened, exaggerated reality, melodrama lends itself easily to symbolism, allegory, and surrealism.

Surrealism is a different but related kind of exaggeration whereby the meanings implicit in objects, people, or events become more luminous and accessible than meanings normally are in the chaotic muddle of our everyday world.

Sometimes visionary, heightened reality is the most real of all, because all the transitory, trivial details have been stripped away to reveal the fundamental essence of things.

There’s a reason soap operas are shown in the middle of the day — no one needs genuine emotion at that time of day. Soap operas are melodramatic because they are designed to be a diversion, not a catharsis.

The Setting Of Melodramas

Melodramas make their heroes pawns in cities which symbolise the originating problem for the hero rather than the end of the hero’s activity. The hero is a conscious agent and a conflict between morality and the violation of established laws is developed.

Symbolism.org

A feature of melodramatic settings is often darkness contrasted with light. A lot of the scenes will probably take place at night.

Use of colour palette in the melodramatic TV series Riverdale promotional material makes the most of this contrast:

The dark/light thing is continued into the character building:
Riverdale beauty darkness light

The Problem With Melodrama: Believability

Because melodrama ignores the ordinary to concentrate on the unusual and unlikely, it often creates a credibility problem for readers who expect mimesis in storytelling.

melodrama film noir
Melodrama is a feature of film noir — a genre made up not by film makers themselves but by film critics.

Tips For Writing Melodrama

Tip 1: SHOW THAT THE MELODRAMATIC THING WORKS RIGHT AWAY

Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire starts out with a vampire talking into a tape recorder. Either way, you know pretty clearly what you’re in for from the beginning.

Each story demonstrates its central premise: modern vampires, or shoot-’em-up spaceflight. If you’re going to write melodrama, start with melodrama.

If your story will be playing by rules other writers have used before—that vampires exist, that faster-than-light travel is possible—melodrama may be the best way to go. work with the accepted convention. Introduce your premise with as little fuss as possible and get on with your story. Stephenie Mayer built her Twilight series on the accepted convention of vampires already established to modern readers by writers such as Anne Rice.

Tip 2: SHOW THAT THIS THING HAS WORKED IN THE RECENT PAST

Especially use this trick if you’re introducing an entirely new concept. 

There’s no arguing with the past — it’s over. Use this obvious bit of wisdom to have a character talk about the thing before it actually appears. Or you can write about a past event for which no satisfactory explanation has ever been found. The story then demonstrates the cause in the present, which also explains the past, retroactively.

Tip 3: USE A TRUSTWORTHY NARRATOR OR CHARACTER

Establish a reasonable character, and have them take the curse/magic/fantasy world seriously. Don’t have anybody doubting it, at least not for long.

This particular storytelling trick doesn’t always work well with the most savvy of young readers. Here’s a young adult who recently shared with the Internet why she doesn’t like YA fiction — one of her main points is that in real life nobody listens to teenagers. The fact that fictional adults listen to fictional young characters can either be a refreshing change or it can trigger annoyance, but now at least you see why writers do it.

Most readers are used to fictional conventions and are also appreciative of new and original fantasy worlds. They will accept anything if it is introduced correctly.

Tip 4: JUXTAPOSE THE EXTRAORDINARY WITH THE MUNDANE

Surround your curse with tangible everyday objects and activities, described in detail. I think this explains the popularity of magical realism. 

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe opens within the (historical) reality of war, in a house that could easily exist in the real world.

Tip 5: ONE IMPROBABILITY PER STORY

If there are a whole lot of odd goings-on they should all have, finally, a single cause. That one cause accepted, all the rest follows: the other oddities fall into place.

I feel writers underestimate readers sometimes, though. I fear this particular writing tip might be responsible for all those medieval fantasy worlds which are, when it all boils down, a retrograde white patriarchy. Perhaps writers think that they can only get away with the fantasy world itself, and that every other aspect of politics and 21st century social life must be laid upon this fantastical world otherwise we’re asking too much of readers.

Tip 6: NO UNDERCUTTING YOUR PREMISE

No waking up and it was all a dream. Don’t explain it away or make fun of it in any other way, either.

Tip 7: NO TALKING ABOUT THE IMPROBABILITY IN NARRATIVE SUMMARY

Especially at first, as you’re establishing its existence. These parts must be shown in scenes. Dialogue is more believable than summary. 

Lampshading has its uses, but be careful how and when you use it.

Tip 8: DON’T LET THE IMPROBABILITY TAKE OVER THE STORY

Write of the improbability sparingly. Don’t let it become commonplace. The amount of reality versus magic has to be balanced. A story in which literally anything can happen is a story in which nothing makes sense.

Make the magician or elf (or whatever) very normal and ordinary 99% of the time, but with the potential of being extraordinary once in a while. That builds credibility and also suspense, since the reader is always waiting for the specialness to come out.

If you’ve got a monster, don’t trot it out in every chapter or the reader will start to yawn. The monster you imagine, as a reader, is much more frightening than the monster you see.

 

Notes above are largely from Anson Dibell’s book on writing: Plot

Liars In Storytelling

secret-keeping pig the fibber

Liars are everywhere in stories. Stories themselves can be considered giant lies (which tell a deeper truth). The trope of the mask is a part of all this. Certain genres demand a ‘mask’, or, lying.

That’s because entire genres are about finding out the truth:

  1. Detective Crime is all about deciding whose version of a story is the truth. Our crime fighting heroes always care deeply about the truth.
  2. Mystery asks “How can we come to know the truth?” (By definition, a mystery is simply something that defies our usual understanding of the world.)
  3. Anti-Westerns critique the story given by classical Westerns and ask us to consider the truth about The Wild West (that it was a brutal, unjust, hellish place)
  4. In magical realism characters—especially the narrator—might not know what is happening any more than the reader, so they are discovering the truth of their reality as they go along.
  5. In a thriller, the perpetrator is known, but his guilt is not absolutely certain—or the hero wishes not to accept the truth of his guilt. (The uncertainty enhances the suspense.)
  6. Superhero stories are wish fulfilment fantasies in which everyone eventually ‘learns the wonderful truth about me’ (I am amazing when you unwrap my everyday clothes and put me in lycra).
  7. In many comedies a hero will be wearing some kind of ‘mask’ but eventually, after some sort of spiritual crisis, this mask will be ripped off and the other characters will learn who this hero really is.
  8. A parable illustrates a simple truth for teaching purposes.
  9. Absurdist stories focus on the experiences of characters in situations where they cannot find any inherent purpose in life, most often represented by ultimately meaningless actions and events that call into question the certainty of existential concepts such as truth or value
  10. Drama is often about the difference between a character’s public persona and what’s really going on underneath. We watch drama to learn about the lives we never find out about in our real-world acquaintances.
  11. Cinema in general

The cinema cannot show the truth, or reveal it, because the truth is not out there in the real world, waiting to be photographed. What the cinema can do is produce meanings and meanings can only be plotted, not in relation to some abstract yardstick or criterion of truth, but in relation to other meanings.

Movies and Methods: An Anthology Vol. 2

THE TRUTH DIFFERENCE BETWEEN FICTION AND REALITY

Fictional stories are make believe on the surface but true underneath. Real life, on the other hand, may be believable on the surface but is often unbelievable underneath. … In movies, screenplays and novels, we need to know the inner truths of the characters. Your characters’ actions in response to whatever incredible situation you’ve created must be reasonable, justified and believable.

— Michael Hauge, Story Mastery website

The most dangerous untruths are truths slightly distorted.
G.C. Lightenberg

TRUTH AND STORY STRUCTURE

Within a story structure, the truth will be revealed at the ‘Self-Revelation‘ stage. (After the Battle, before New Equilibrium.)

Sometimes the audience is let in on the truth of the situation at the beginning of a story. For instance, in some crime stories the reader knows who the villain is from the get-go. This type of detective story is no longer a whodunnit but a whydunnit.

TRUTH TROPES IN STORYTELLING

LIAR TROPE 1: NOBODY BELIEVES THE HERO

COMMON CHARACTER ARC: The underdog hero must take matters into their own hands, saving the day somehow. Only by proving themselves truthful will be finally be accepted by their community.

This is basically the plot of every episode of Courage The Cowardly Dog. It works. Frankly, how quick would you be to trust someone who said there was a flying saucer in the field next door? This initial disbelief is almost mandatory — a type of lampshading for the audience who would otherwise think, “Now who would believe that?”

In 1965, Susan Sontag wrote five steps in one kind of typical science fiction story. Her first two steps demonstrate this lampshading:

  1. The arrival of the thing. (Emergence of the monsters, landing of the alien space-ship, etc.) This is usually witnessed, or suspected, by just one person, who is a young scientist on a field trip. Nobody, neither his neighbors nor his colleagues, will believe him for some time. The hero is not married, but has a sympathetic though also incredulous girlfriend.
  2. Confirmation of the hero’s report by a host of witnesses to a great act of destruction. (If the invaders are beings from another planet, a fruitless attempt to parley with them and get them to leave peacefully.) The local police are summoned to deal with the situation and massacred.

When it comes to heroines, however, writers often add a little extra. Like mental instability. The 2012 film Gone, stars Amanda Seyfried as a damaged young woman who takes on the role of a vigilante cop after the actual cops think she’s fabricated a former abduction from which she managed to escape. Even the movie poster announces that ‘no one believes her’.

teenage girls in narrative are often portrayed as liars

LIAR TROPE 2: HERO LIES TO THEMSELVES

COMMON CHARACTER ARC: Over the course of events the character is liberated by accepting the truth of their circumstances.

In Strays Like Us by Richard Peck, the main character has been abandoned by her mother — a drug addict criminal who will never step up to the plate for her adolescent daughter. Over the course of one year in a settled environment with a new female role model, Molly Moberly must come to terms with this. Finally she gives away the notebook she has been using to create a fictional narrative about her mother.

Jacqueline Wilson also writes of a girl lying to herself about her mother in Starring Tracy Beaker.

The mother of these orphan girls with imaginative narratives about their hopeless mothers is perhaps The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson.

In Big Little Lies, Celeste (Nicole Kidman) lies to herself about the nature of her relationship with her husband. All of the supporting characters are keeping their own secrets.

 

LIAR TROPE 3: HERO LEARNS WHEN NOT TO LIE

COMMON CHARACTER ARC: The hero has learned not to lie as a child but as she enters adolescence she realises the world is not black and white, so she learns when to keep quiet in order to protect someone else.

Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk is an excellent example of this storyline in a children’s book.

 

LIAR TROPE 4: FAKE ALLY LIES TO HERO

COMMON CHARACTER ARC: In children’s books it is often the adult lying to the child ‘in order to protect’ them.

In Strays Like Us even sympathetic adult Aunt Fay lies to Molly by omitting the fact that her mother has checked herself out of rehab and has gone AWOL. Because Peck wants to keep Aunt Fay as a sympathetic character, he has Aunt Fay apologise to Molly for not telling her earlier.

Also in school stories there will often be a ‘bitchy teen girl’ trope who is ‘nasty nice’. Tina Fey’s Mean Girls is well-known for introducing this dynamic to the public consciousness.

Eventually the hero works out what the truth of the situation is, and this contributes to their character arc. Or, like Lindsay Lohan’s character on Mean Girls, she might be a trickster archetype who lies back to her opponent in order to exact revenge.

 

LIAR TROPE 5: THE FAKE OPPONENT BENEFACTOR

It comes from Jane Austen:

The obvious liar in Pride and Prejudice is Wickham, but the more interesting from a plot perspective is Darcy. Because Darcy does something immensely noble, which if she knew about it would make Elizabeth deeply grateful to him, but doesn’t tell her. Lies about it. She only finds out indirectly. It’s a heart-stirring and deeply effective device, so much so that it has spread, meme-style, through countless other stories ever since. There’s a legend in Bookworld that when Helen Fielding was considering turning her Bridget Jones columns into a book, she saw the Colin Firth-starring TV adaptation and decided to lift the plot from Pride and Prejudice. Virtually every romantic novel ever since has done the same, including Twilight.

The Guardian

Secret-Keeping And Lies In Children’s Literature

Many books for children explore the ideas of truth, lies and secret-keeping. Young characters commonly keep secrets from adults. Often (especially in portal fantasy) it’s because the adults simply wouldn’t believe the children (that there’s a world on the other side of the wardrobe; that there’s a creature who grants wishes that last for a day). This is a ‘plot level’ secret, and serves to keep adults out of the story. That’s one of the main challenges for children’s authors — keeping adults from solving all the kids’ problems.

In other stories, secrets are thematically and didactically explored.

It’s an accepted fact in child development that humans are not born liars. We do not have the capacity to lie until we have developed theory of mind. Once we have learned to lie, we usually do it badly. Gradually, over the course of childhood, we learn that — even if the rule books say differently — lying is at times necessary. There is good lying and bad lying, or at least, lying that will get you into trouble and lying that will get you out of trouble.

This is complicated stuff. It’s no wonder so many of the great works of children’s literature touch upon it. Some stories are all about the lying.

A Few Case Studies

Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce

Tom’s Aunt and Uncle tell him there is nothing in the yard except for a small area of pavement and some rubbish bins, so when Tom finds a vast, rich fantasy world after opening the back door at midnight, he is incensed that he was lied to. Tom already has a keen sense of right and wrong. When he has his Aunt and Uncle on about it, they have no idea what he’s talking about. When Tom shows them the other world it is no longer there.

In this way, Tom’s sense of reality, as well as his black and white sense of ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’, is challenged. Tom’s Aunt and Uncle aren’t lying, even though they can’t see the truth right in front of them, because that is just not their reality.

The Chronicles Of Narnia by C.S. Lewis

A similar event occurs in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, of course, when Lucy takes the other Pevensie children back to the wardrobe only to find the back has closed up. Lucy is heavily penalised for lying until it is proven otherwise. Edmond pays the greatest price for the greatest lie — knowing the world of Narnia exists without reporting the truth of it to Susan and Peter, redeeming Lucy in their eyes.

Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

The Dark Materials trilogy is all about shades of grey over black and white. She is smart and spirited and plucky and at times is a quick thinker but she is also naive and is still learning who to trust with the truth. Before she runs away from Mrs Coulter she is summoned by a man called Lord Boreal. He asks her questions.

“And is Mrs Coulter keeping you busy? What is she teaching you?”

Because Lyra was feeling rebellious and uneasy, she didn’t answer this patronizing question with the truth, or with one of her usual flights of fancy. Instead she said, “I’m learning about Rusakov Particles, and about the Oblation Board.”

The man presses her to tell him what she knows about that.

“Did Mrs Coulter show you a picture like [a photogram where you can see Dust]?”

Lyra hesitated, for this was not lying but something else, and she wasn’t practised at it.

As you can see, Pullman makes a distinction between run-of-the-mill lying and something deeper and unnamed — I’ll call it Preserving The Truth.

Lyra gets more worldly over the course of the story, as all main characters must in myth-structured stories. She naturally learns how to lie, sometimes to comic effect and sometimes because it is a matter of life and death.

After Lyra runs away she is approached by another suspicious man who tries to spike her coffee. To the delight of the reader, Lyra has already told the man that her name is “Alice” and that her father is “a murderer”.

“I told you, he’s a murderer. It’s his profession. He’s doing a job tonight. I got his clean clothes in here, ’cause he’s usually all covered in blood when he’s finished a job.”

“Ah! You’re joking.”

“I en’t.”

Further Examples of Secret-keeping In Children’s Stories

  1. Secrets are dangerous and should be shared with a trusted individual such as a parent, teacher or friend. This is a non-controversial message about secrets and a safe one to put in a book. No parent likes to think that their young child is keeping secrets from us. Parents are terrified of grooming and we no longer automatically trust teachers, coaches and bus-drivers. We like to think our children will tell us everything. Gatekeepers of children’s books therefore like books with this message.
  2. However, sometimes secrets are even more dangerous to share than to keep, and this danger can affect others as well as the secret-keeper.
  3. Even though it’s best to share your own secrets with friends, your friends‘ secrets should never be shared with others even if you feel you yourself need psychological support. Once you pass on a ‘secret’, it’s no longer a secret.
  4. Among groups of friends, secrets are swapped (even complete fabrications) as a mode of toxic bonding. Mean Girls features a Burn Book, for example, started by Regina George for two reasons: First it establishes a social hierarchy with herself at the top and second it bonds a small group of insiders together, using shared ‘knowledge’ as currency. People (mostly female characters) who use secrets and lies as social currency deserve every horrible thing that comes to them, and readers should never imitate this behaviour in real life. These stories exist to show readers that it happens, why it happens, and asks them to criticize the practice. There is also that wish-fulfilment of retribution in Mean Girls, when Regina George finds she’s met her match in the down-to-earth newcomer whose social gullibility turns out to be her strength. Machiavelli agreed that lies always hurt the teller, and Aesop agreed.
  5. Is lying by omission to help someone else a good secret or a bad secret? Not all secrets are the same. They come in different colours — black, white and grey. Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk does a good job of exploring this line of thought. The Case For Teaching Kids To Lie, Just Like Adults, from Fatherly.
  6. If you try to keep some horrible deed secret then get caught out, don’t deflect blame. Lying for your own gain and only your own gain means you deserve retribution. Pig The Fibber by Aaron Blabey is a humorous picture book example of this message.
  7. If you have suicidal thoughts or have been abused then you should never, ever keep that secret. That’s the message of 13 Reasons Why. The TV adaptation comes with messages about the existence of Lifeline, a mental health helpline.
  8. Perhaps the most famous liar in children’s literature is Pinocchio, whose nose grows longer whenever he tells a lie. The image of a growing nose has entered the public consciousness and idiomatic language, regardless of whether we’ve ever read the story or not. The messages about lying are complex in this classic. Pinocchio is not the only liar. Gepetto sells his winter coat (which he needs) in order to buy Pinocchio a school book but he tells Pinocchio the coat was too hot anyway. Presumably this lie is okay, because it’s a ‘white lie’, designed to avoid a child feeling bad and help him in the noble goal of getting an education. For more on lying in Pinocchio, see here: “Lies that have short legs are those that carry you a little distance but cannot outrun the truth. The truthful consequences always catch up with someone who tells a lie with short legs. Lies that have long noses are those that are obvious to everyone except the person who told the lie, lies that make the liar look ridiculous.”
  9. While children should never lie to parents, if (good) parents lie if it’s to protect children. 
  10. Beware ‘tricky’ adults. An example of a nasty-nice stranger who reels a child in with lies is the White Witch, who reels him in with Turkish delight than tells him to keep a secret. The secret-keeping leads to Edmond being ostricised by his family when they find out he’s been lying about the existence of Narnia. The message in C.S. Lewis’s Christian works is that lying is always bad and will always be found out. We are often told that lies will always be outed. This stems from the monotheistic view of the omniscient eye watching our every move, reinforced by the idea that all our bad deeds will be judged upon our death. But not everyone holds these views. Do lies really always come out? Is there some law of ‘physics’ which makes that happen? Or perhaps this is far, far from reality — many secrets and lies die everyday around the world, along with the people who’ve been keeping them. And were they right to keep them?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Notion of The Living Truth

Bonhoeffer argues that it is naive and misleading, perhaps even dangerous to suppose that the literal truth always or even typically conveys what we mean when we talk about telling the truth. Of course we often tell a straightforward lie, and for morally blameworthy reasons. But we also often make statements that are not literally true—that are in fact literal lies—while conveying a deeper truth that an honest statement of the facts could not communicate. So, for example, if Geppetto told Pinocchio, “I sold my coat in order to buy you a schoolbook,” he would be speaking the literal truth, but his meaning might well be (or be understood by Pinocchio as) “Look what sacrifices I make for you!” By telling Pinocchio that he sold his coat because it was too hot—a lie—he communicates to Pinocchio something like “My coat doesn’t really matter to me, and your schoolbook does, and I don’t want you to feel bad about the fact that I sold my coat.” This is a very nice example of what Bonhoeffer means by the living truth, the more important meanings in communication that may not, and sometimes cannot, be conveyed by strict reportage. So many of the stories we tell our children are of this kind—Santa Claus is the obvious example—and we should ask ourselves, as parents and also as lovers: How many stories might my child, or my boyfriend, or my partner, or my mom be telling me, not in order to mislead me but rather to tell me something that, if said outright, might be misunderstood or cause me harm?

The New Yorker

Apart from Pinocchio, can you think of some children’s stories which play with the concept of ‘the living truth’?

At what age can (neurotypical) children understand this concept? For many autistic children, development is atypical when it comes to social lying. When you live with an autistic child you realise the extent to which everyday communication runs on secrets, lies, omissions and short-cuts as social niceties. Autistic readers in particular can benefit hugely from children’s literature which explores the full gamut of ideologies around secret-keeping and lying.

What does the field of psychology tell us about the toll of secret-keeping?

Traditionally, scientists have studied secrecy as a social act, as the wilful hiding of information from others. According to this view, it’s the suppression of the secret—the keeping it in, the self-monitoring, and the tactical contortions that go with it—that exact a cost on the keeper. But Slepian argues that secrets cause suffering in other ways, too. Yes, there are occasions when you have to actively steer a conversation away from the rocks, like when you’re attempting to disguise from your office mates the fact that you’re looking for another job. But most of the time you’re by yourself with your secret, thinking about the many ways in which it could be discovered or you might accidentally let it slip. […]

It is established that keeping a secret can take a toll:

Secrecy, as they see it, is less an activity than a state of being. We don’t keep secrets; we have them. And what’s harmful about a secret isn’t the content so much as the mind’s need to keep revisiting it and turning it over—not the murder itself but the incessant beating of the telltale heart. […]

However, if the secret-keeper is able to avoid ‘dwelling’ on it — if the secret isn’t actually bothering them — well, no problem? We shouldn’t assume that keeping secrets is always going to be harmful for the keeper. It depends on the secret and on the person:

By a margin of two-to-one or more, people dwelled on their secrets on their own time far more than in social situations. And the dwelling, more than the concealing, hurt their sense of well-being. By constantly chewing over a secret, Slepian suggested, people remind themselves of their own deceptiveness; they feel “inauthentic, disingenuous.” […]

Other people, or the same people in different situations, might be better off sharing secrets to avoid letting it harm their sense of integrity. This may apply in particular to sharing with others who we really are. For example, living one’s whole life concealing sexual orientation/identity is going to take a very real emotional toll on a person:

Secrets are largely solitary creatures and can be tamed with company. “Talking about it with another person will really go a long way,” he said. Melissa Ferguson, the Cornell psychologist who studied the cognitive and physical effects of concealing one’s sexual orientation, added that we shouldn’t lose sight of the costs of social secrets.

The New Yorker 

On the other hand, for many young gay and transgender people around the world, coming out to their families and communities is more physically dangerous than the secret-keeping is emotionally dangerous. In which case, what is the answer for those readers looking for similar lives within books? Dan Savage, well-known gay sex columnist, often advises young people from bigoted communities be very careful about coming out, as it can lead to loss of educational opportunities, homelessness and physical harm. The time for coming out can occasionally be postponed a few years.

Alongside all those stories about unburdening, stories about secret-keeping — at least for a while — are also needed.

FURTHER READING ON LIARS AND LYING

1. The Tech of TV News Might Make It Easier for Pundits to Lie

2. Valuing Those Who Tell You The Bitter Truth

3. Amanda Knox: What’s in a face? from The Guardian

4. How To Be More Paranoid from The Hairpin, in which Pamela Meyer tells you how to spot liars.

5. Twelve Completely Foolproof And Not-At-All-Crazy Ways To Make Sure He’s Not Lying from Jezebel: Relationships

6. On Bullshit by Henry Frankfurt

7. How And Why Do We Deceive Ourselves from Freethought Blogs

8. Do People Really Want You To Be Honest? from HBR

9. Why We Don’t Always Tell The Truth, also from HBR

10. 12 Lies To Stop Telling Yourself from Marc And Angel Hack Life

11. Trust Me I’m Lying, interview with Ryan Holiday, who wrote a book about the media and ‘faux-troversies’.

12. Anatomy Of Lying, a book by Sam Harris

13. The ‘Pinnochio Effect’ Confirmed from Science Daily

14. Lying Is Common Age 2, Becomes Norm By 3, from BPS Research Digest

15. How Money Makes You Lie And Cheat from Time

16. Suppression of Incriminating Memories Can Beat Lie-Detector Tests. (I’ve always wondered that.) from Psych Central

17. The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves from Farnam Street

18. 10 Lies You Were Tricked Into Believing from Marc and Angel

19. The Lie Detector Paradox from Mindhacks

20. Dan Ariely on the Truth About Dishonesty, Animated from Brainpickings

21. Jeff Hancock and the Future of Lying from GMP

22. How can we make people more honest? a video.

23. How we teach our kids that women are liars, from Role Reboot. (And then I read this unrelated passage in a popular science book: Human females, unlike most of their primate relatives, do not tell the truth about when they are fertile. Female chimpanzees flaunt swollen backsides and genitals for the several days in each cycle when an egg is ready to be fertilised… Women, unlike chimpanzees, advertise their potential for copulation at all times, fertile or otherwise. Perhaps a false statement of fecundity means that a male will choose to stick with a particular mate in order to keep others at bay, rather than tomake a switch to a third party while his partner is unable to conceive.’ -page 151-152 of The Serpent’s Promise by Steve Jones. #CasualSexism

There are many songs dedicated to the idea that women are (sexy) liars.

24. Intricacies of Lying: False Descriptions Easier to Remember Than False Denials from Science Daily

She stabbed the butter lightly before spreading it on a scrap of French bread — ‘why, when I first met you and you told me about yourself, did your story end when you left your wife and went and lived in a flat somewhere? Why was that the end of the story when it wasn’t the end at all?’

‘How do you mean?’ He had stopped eating, though, she noticed that. ‘I did go and live in a flat when I left my wife.’

‘Indeed you did. But there was more to it, wasn’t there? You left your wife and you went and lived in a flat. Then you met someone else and got married again and went and lived in a large house somewhere else entirely.’

‘Oh that,’ he said. ‘Well, perhaps we got interrupted at that point. Perhaps I just forgot to tell you the rest and you never asked.’

– from The Lonely Margins Of The Sea by Shonagh Koea

25. Here’s What You Need To Know About Liars from Business Insider talks about two different kinds of liars: polite, everyday liars and ‘prolific’ liars. Given the dominant cultural narrative about how women lie (about being raped, about liking computer games, about liking sex etc.), I’d like to point out that men are statistically more likely to be prolific liars.

26. I love children who lie for no reason, by Elena Ferrante

Carrie Storytelling Techniques

This is a remake of a 1976 movie based on Stephen King’s 1974 (breakout) novel, Carrie. Critics don’t like this new one much. The criticism is mostly that it was unnecessary because the first adaptation was so good. The original has a slower, more sinister pace and the main thing the reboot did was to add the social media dimension and some modern SFX. However, this is — unfortunately — a timeless story of high school exclusion and bullying.

Carrie movie poster

 

PREMISE OF CARRIE

A shy girl, outcasted by her peers and sheltered by her religious mother, unleashes telekinetic terror on her small town after being pushed too far at her senior prom. (In the book it’s called the Spring Ball — a lot of the slang/words have been updated.)

DESIGNING PRINCIPLE OF CARRIE

Your own powers can be the end of you. Continue reading “Carrie Storytelling Techniques”

The Amazing Bone by William Steig

The Amazing Bone cover

Last year marked the 40th anniversary of William Steig’s The Amazing Bone. This is remarkable because it feels, in some ways,  like a much more modern picture book than that. This is all to do with Steig’s voice.  Pearl is at no point mortally afraid. We know and she knows that this is a storybook world in which good will always triumph. Steig writes knowingly to the reader — we all know this is a modern fairytale. So when he writes of the baddie, ‘He wore a sprig of lilac in his lapel, he carried a cane, and he was grinning so the whole world could see his sharp teeth’, he is holding nothing back from the reader.

Steig’s distinctive voice is also achieved by his choice of vocabulary, which is by turns highly specific against ‘fairytale familiar’ (as above:

On Cobble Road she stopped at Maltby’s barn and stood gawking as the old gaffers pitched their ringing horseshoes and spat tobacco juice.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE AMAZING BONE

Continue reading “The Amazing Bone by William Steig”

Absent Parents In Children’s Literature

One job for children’s authors is to get adults out of the way so child characters can solve their own problems.

How do you feel about adults helping children in children’s books?

Some time ago Francis Spufford, author of The Child That Books Built (among many others), spoke with Kim Hill on Radio New Zealand.

Spufford isn’t a fan of the hugely popular Tracy Beaker series by Jacqueline Wilson because he’d rather there wasn’t an ongoing series devoted to the continuing uselessness of adults. He argues that uselessness should be leavened with a bit of helpfulness here and there.

EVERY AGE HAS ITS CONVENTIONS

Kim Hill points out that a few generations ago there was a general absence of parental figures in children’s stories but now the adults are often present, and psychotic a lot of the time. Spufford says that there used to be plot contrivances to get parents out of the way. Now the adults are the problem. Every age has its conventions and adult depravity is presently one of the conventions. Spufford doesn’t like it because it’s unrealistic in the opposite direction. A world in which a child only knows about ‘stranger danger’ is bad.

When children’s authors want to get parents out of the way, how do they achieve this?

TECHNIQUE 1: PARENTS/CAREGIVERS TOO BUSY WITH WORK

absent parent in Pip: The Story Of Olive

In Pip: The Story Of Olive, an upper middle-grade novel by Australian Kim Kane, the mother of the main character is a busy and successful lawyer, left at home alone to tuck herself into bed with a hottie, but with full access to a credit card. When Pip tries to tell her mother (Mog) on the phone what’s been going on in her life, the mother gets interrupted by work colleagues, because they’re working on a big case, and so Olive is left to conclude that talking to her mother is a wasted effort. Continue reading “Absent Parents In Children’s Literature”

Symbolic Names In Storytelling

Generally speaking, a lot of thought goes into choosing character names. Sometimes a name is chosen because it is appropriate to the age of the character, culture and era. Sometimes the name is aesthetically pleasing. Sometimes the name is symbolic.

NEW NAME, NEW SELF

When Walter White changes his name to Heisenberg, he has created an entire alter ego. Breaking Bad is a modern superhero story. We are familiar with superheroes, ever since Super-man/Clark Kent. This is such obvious symbolism it doesn’t hold up to much more scrutiny than that.

breaking bad remember my name

LOSS OF NAME, LOSS OF TRUE SELF

This is a pervasive idea throughout literature, even though we obviously don’t subscribe to it in real life. Women in the West are still largely expected (and do) change surnames when marrying a man, yet we don’t believe she has lost a part of herself. When Chinese speakers immigrate to English speaking countries they quite often adopt a name which is pronounceable and memorable for native English speakers. Do those immigrants with several names feel they have lost a part of themselves? Or do they feel their name is simply the label they attach to themselves in certain contexts?

How many names do you have?

My name (Lynley) is a ridiculous tongue-twister to native Japanese speakers, so while I lived in Japan my name was switched to my last name (Stace). It’s common for even young Japanese people to go by their last name in Japan — it seems to be a bit of a lucky dip whether you’re known by your first or your last name, whereas in my home country (New Zealand) young people very rarely go by their last name, unless there’s a specific reason for doing so. (One of my brothers made friends with all of the Davids in his year so he, too, went by the name Stace for clarity purposes.) I have never gone by our last name Stace outside Japan, though I like to keep it for use online. I felt nothing about me changed when my moniker changed.

That doesn’t tend to be true when it comes to fictional characters.

Take the Hayao Miyazaki film Spirited Away. Chihiro becomes Sen — the Chinese reading of a shortening of her Japanese name — until she can escape from the enslaving world ruled by the bath woman.

After Yubaba steals part of Chihiro’s name, Haku warns Sen not to forget her former name or she will be trapped in the spirit world forever. Sen must remember the qualities that make her who she is and remain true to them, even though her name, the one word that defines her, has changed. Sen succeeds in keeping her identity and also helps Haku regain his, ultimately freeing them both. Haku is living proof of the dangers inherent in forgetting one’s true identity. Names are of fundamental importance in the spirit world, and those in power keep their control by stealing and changing names. Only those characters with the inner strength to hold onto their names and identities can free themselves.

— Spark Notes

After The First Death is young adult thriller from the 1970s by Robert Cormier. This story contains similar name symbolism — characters forfeit their names.

Part One opens with a first person narrator who feeds us his name in dribs and drabs.

Part Two switches point of view. These Middle Eastern terrorists have lost their names entirely, trained to forget them by means of dedicating themselves to the cause. Cormier is careful to emphasise that these terrorist, foreign boys have names — or had them. This turns them into individuals. The sociopathic terrorist among the group shows us his true colours by angering a waitress when he chooses to ignore her wishes to be called by her own name rather than one he has designated. By taking her name he demonstrates his ability to turn off empathy. This guy is therefore posited from the beginning as a cold-blooded killer.

“That will be all, Myra,” Artkin said.
“What did you say?” she asked.
“I said, ‘That will be all, Myra.”
“My name’s not Myra,” the girl said.
Artkin smiled at her. “Of course it isn’t,” he said. But his voice suggested the opposite, his voice and his smile. They hinted wickedly of deep secrets.
“Well, it isnt,” she said. “My name’s Bonnie, although the priest didn’t like it because there’s no Saint Bonnie.”
“Please give us the check, Myra,” Artkin said, voice cold now, uninterested.
“I said my name’s not Myra,” she muttered as she totaled up the bill.
“Myra’s a nice name. It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Artkin said.
Her face reddened, accentuating the acne, the pimples and small scabs. Artkin could do that to people, intimidate them, draw them into conversations they did not want to be drawn into, force the into confrontations.
“Think about it, Myra. How old were you when you were baptized? Two weeks, two months? Do you remember being baptized with the name Bonnie? Of course not. It’s what people have told you. Have you ever seen your birth certificate? Not he thing they give you when you go to City Hall for a copy, but the original? The one that says your name is Myra. You’ve never seen it, have you? But that doesn’t mean it does not exist. You have never seen me before but I exist. I have existed all this time. I might have been there when you were baptized, Myra.”
She stood there for a moment, the check in her hand, hesitant, doubtful, her eyes wary, and Miro knew that this was what Artkin had worked to do: create this split second of doubt and hesitation. He knew that he had reached his mark, drawn blood. Then the moment vanished. The girl flung the check on the table.
“You’re nuts,” she said, and turned away, shaking her head at all the strange people loose in the world.

After The First Death by Robert Cormier

NAMES AS CHARACTER SYMBOLS

symbolic names character symbols
The only way to view this image clearly is to download it, until I can work out the finer points of WordPress.

A symbol is a packet of highly compressed meaning. These symbols highlight and communicate different aspects of the characters/story world/plot. A subcategory of the literary symbol is the ‘character symbol’.

A character’s name is a children’s story is quite often symbolic. Symbolic names are also common in comedy, but are less frequently seen elsewhere, in stories that aim for mimesis (realism). In the real world, after all, people’s personalities are not connected to their names. (And even if your teacher is called Mrs Bellringer and your dermatologist is called Dr Healsmith, that isn’t useful in a suspenseful crime novel.)

Also known as:

  • a label name
  • allegorical name
  • When the name of a fictional character describes their personality or occupation, it is called an aptronym. Or sometimes aptonym (without the ‘r’)

mrs ticklefeather

SYMBOLIC NAMES IN CHILDREN’S STORIES
  • Enid Blyton loved label names — think Watzisname, Dame Washalot, Silky and Moonface. from The Magic Faraway Tree series. These names were very literal. Blyton steered clear of ironic symbolism.
  • The Seriously Extraordinary Diary Of Pig by Emer Stamp features some farmers called Mr and Mrs Sandal, who happen to be vegetarian. This is a symbolic name for the adult co-reader, as I’m not sure young readers would always know how heavily sandals are associated with vegetarianism — mostly because this was true back in the 1970s, I think.
  • The entire cast of Mr Men and The Smurfs
  • Beautiful Bella from the Twilight series

Some names are symbolic mainly because of the history of stories that precede them. In children’s literature, having Little before your name means chances are slim of you ever becoming Big. You’ll probably die.

DO SYMBOLIC NAMES COMPROMISE REALISM?

The middle grade novel A Long Way From Chicago by Richard Peck is filled with characters with colourful names. Early in the story we meet the Cowgills. The child narrator lampshades the symbolism of the name by writing: “It may have been just a coincidence that a family named Cowgill owned the dairy. I never knew.” This lampshading is necessary because Peck is basically going for nostalgic historical realism. It also leads to some humour.

It works because sometimes a real person does seem to have a symbolic name, in which case it’s comically coincidental. Donald Trump springs to mind. I do know a teacher called Mrs Bellringer.

A Slate culture writer makes a good case for avoiding subtlety, and he’s talking about stories for adults.

Writers of popular adult stories seem to subscribe to this view, though symbolic names for adult characters tend to take on a different form — the main characters in True Detective are called Hart and Cohle, which is symbolically linked (Heart and Coal) to their personalities and character arcs. This weaker connection is safer if you’re hoping to avoid metafiction.

Another very similar example occurs in The Sixth Sense, starring a main character called Malcolm Crowe. Crowe is dead, so one could argue Shyamalan is giving us a big clue in with the character’s name. Cole Sear: “Cole” compared to “coal” which is black like death. “Sear” compared to “seer,” someone who has keen insight. Of course, Cole has the insight that Malcolm is a ghost (“I see dead people”).

SYMBOLIC NAMES IN STORIES FOR ADULTS

Stories for adults also feature characters with symbolic names, especially if they are comedies. Will Freeman of About A Boy is one example. Tied down to no one, this man-child really does live under the illusion of free will.

 

RELATED

Why do people look like their names?

Lampshading in storytelling. What is that?

lampshading in storytelling

“Lampshading” is one of my favorite and least favorite writer tricks: It’s where you acknowledge a shortcoming in your plot through some dialogue, usually jokey, as a way of winking at the audience and moving on. Yes, I know this is a giant hole in my story, but I couldn’t come up with a solution, so let’s have characters make a meta-statement on it, and we’ll all feel clever then, because meta is fancy. An inoffensive lampshade would be when, say, Lost characters toward the end of season 1 remark on how strange it is that none of those other background people on the island seem to do much except follow the main characters from beach to cave and back again. An annoying lampshade would be if someone on Lost during the final season said, “Hey, too bad none of these plot strands that people have dedicated their entire lives to decoding will never amount to anything. Talk about lost! Ha ha!” Of course, no one really did that, but it wasn’t because it wasn’t true.

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

Lampshade a word used for situations in storytelling where the concerns, criticisms and arguments of the audience are answered in the text itself to assuage any disbelief and therefore frustration a reader or viewer might possess.

By underscoring points of possible contention, usually humorously, the suspension of disbelief is retained. Often used to account for implausible developments, ridiculous motivations, bizarre twists and illogical situations, a lampshade can also cover obviously cribbed plot elements by having the author acknowledge through a character that “This is just like…”A lampshade can be used to explain threads that may have lain dormant, and often prods at the fourth wall by having characters address the audience, or realities outside their own existence.

Also known as Spotlighting, sometimes as ‘Cousin Larry Trick’.

Here’s the Lampshade Hanging entry at TV Tropes.

 Lampshading In Comedy

This joke would fall under ‘jokes about jokes’, the eleventh category of Scott Dikkers’ taxonomy of humour. (Scott Dikkers runs The Onion.)

GUARD #1: What, ridden on a horse?

ARTHUR: Yes!

GUARD #1: You’re using coconuts!

ARTHUR: What?

GUARD #1: You’ve got two empty halves of coconut and you’re bangin’ ’em together.

Monthy Python and the Holy Grail, to lampshade the fact that production could not afford horses for a medieval movie.

And an example from science comedy:

“…If you’re wondering how he eats and breathes, and other science facts; Just repeat to yourself it’s just a show, you should really just relax…”

— From the theme song to Mystery Science Theater 3000, effectively ironing over the pesky scientific impossibilities.

 Hey, why don’t we just…

In the psychological thriller Panic Room starring Jodi Foster and the young Kristen Stewart, it isn’t until the end of the action, after Jodie Foster’s character has left the panic room and smashed all of the cameras that one of the bad guys says by way of lampshading, “Hey, why didn’t we do that?”
This is a bit of a hack, and I guess the screenwriters couldn’t see another way past this plot knot, because the last thing you want an audience to say is, “Why don’t they just…” If you’re going to hae a character say it, there had better be a good reason why the characters can’t just do that very thing.

Lampshading Unlikely Writing Skills In Non-Literary First Person Narrators

James Wood points out that lampshading is sometimes used by the canonical writers to explain why their heroes seem to have such a lyrical style. What he is describing is a type of lampshading:
Humbert Humbert [in Lolita] famously announces that he has a fancy prose style, as a way, surely, of explaining his creator’s overdeveloped prose. Bellow likes to inform us that his characters are “first-class noticers”.
How Fiction Works

Hey, why doesn’t she know that already?

In Carrie, Stephen King embarks upon some heavy lampshading before the reader will believe that his heroine knew nothing about periods, even at the age of 16. He talks about how fundamentally Christian the mother is, and prudish. In the 2013 movie we are told that Carrie has been homeschooled until recently.

Lampshading To Mask Inconsistencies In A Storyworld

Gregory Maguire lampshades in Wicked.

Even as he rejects Baum’s concepts, Maguire does an admirable job of explaining away the multiple inconsistencies in the Baum books—particularly in explaining how people can eat meat in a land where animals talk, teach and attend dinner parties, and in explaining the varied and completely contradictory histories of Oz. (As I’ve noted, these inconsistencies never bothered me much as a kid, and I expect that they can be waved away by “magic,” but they clearly at least nagged at Maguire.) In Maguire’s Oz, some Animals can talk, and some animals cannot, and the conflicting histories of Oz are woven into its religious practices and propaganda. This absolutely works for me.

Tor

The need to lampshade the fact animals eat meat is one faced by most (if not all) writers whose characters are in animal form. Most humans are happy to eat bacon and eggs for breakfast, but what if your characters are pigs and chickens? What do you do then? You either have them eat jam on toast, fruits and cheeses (see the illustration of a breakfast scene in Mercy Watson Goes For A Ride).

As for Maguire,  for some fans of The Wizard Of Oz, he didn’t do nearly enough explaining when he wrote Wicked. Here’s an excerpt from the most-liked review currently on Goodreads:

Things That I Really Wish Gregory Maguire Had Bothered To Explain That Might Have Made Wicked Worth Reading:
-Why Elphaba is green
-Why Elphaba cannot touch water
-The “Philosophy Club” which seemed to be some sort of bizarre sex club which was introduced towards the middle of the story, and then never mentioned again
-How it’s physically possible that Elphaba gave birth to a son, but may actually not have, because she doesn’t remember it. (Maguire’s explanation is that she was drugged up on sedatives for the entire pregnancy and therefore cannot tell if she actually had a kid. Um…listen, Greg, I know you’re a guy, but I assure you, there is no drug on this earth or on Oz that makes a woman unable to remember giving birth)
-What the hell the Clock of the Time Dragon was, and how it’s able to give puppet shows revealing the Deep Dark Secrets of characters’ pasts
-Why Elphaba wanted the magic slippers so much
-The backstory of the Scarecrow and why he hated the Wicked Witch of the West. (The Tin Man and Lion are explained, but I guess by the time he had to come up with a story for the Scarecrow, Maguire had used up all his creative juices. As a result, the Scarecrow just appears with the others at the witch’s castle, and even Elphaba can’t figure out why the hell he’s there)

 Lampshading For An Audience Overly Au Fait With Story and Narrative

In her werewolf novel The Gift, Anne Rice lampshades the fact that she is using tropes from older stories, while also taking the opportunity to complain about horrible werewolf stories in pop culture. (If you know what she had to say about Twilight, you won’t be surprised):

In most of the movies the gift didn’t have much of a purpose. In fact it was unclear exactly why cinema werewolves went after their victims. All they did was rip random people to pieces. They didn’t even drink the blood or eat the meat. They didn’t behave like wolves at all. They behaved as if… they had rabies. True, in The Howling they had fun making out but other than that what was the good of being a movie werewolf? You howled at the moon; you couldn’t remember what you did and then somebody shot you.
— Anne Rice, The Gift, p90

lampshading
Especially interesting when looking at the ideology of a work of fiction: ‘moral lampshading’. In this video essay, YouTube philosopher Natalie Wynn talks about violence in storytelling and you’ll hear her use the phrase ‘moral lampshading’.
Moral Lampshading