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:

Riverdale beauty darkness light

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

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.

Sometimes this advice runs to “Writers are allowed one big lie per story”. But there are diversity issues that you can run into if you follow this advice.

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.

Alfred Guillou - Farewell 1892
Alfred Guillou – Farewell 1892

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

Liars In Storytelling

Charles Haigh Wood - Fair Deceivers

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 Situation.)

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

In Tom’s Midnight Garden 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

 

Header painting: Charles Haigh Wood – Fair Deceivers

Carrie Storytelling Techniques

carrie film poster

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 the remake 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, Carrie is — unfortunately — a timeless story of high school exclusion and bullying.

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.

I don’t believe the designing principle of this film is its main strength. Instead it makes an emotional promise: Watch this film and you will be thrilled and entertained. It possibly aims to sadden. (I don’t feel saddened by this remake.)

It also makes an intellectual promise to a modern audience: Watch this and you’ll learn of a different, slightly off-kilter world than this.

Horror films require us to face the unknown — they allow us to face our fears and put them into context. They shape our belief system, and provide a safe space to explore. Carrie was notable for being one of the few to broach the topic of menstruation which, 40 years later, is still somewhat taboo. There is nowhere near as much menstruation in children’s literature as there are girls dealing with it in real life, outside a few standout books from authors such as Judy Blume.

GENRE BLEND OF CARRIE

drama, horror

The horror genre is one of the most highly symbolic forms (along with Westerns and science fiction). The origin of the horror in this story comes from demonic forces. Another example of this kind of horror is The Exorcist. Other horrors might come from whatever lies beyond death (Dracula) or from humans daring to fool around with nature (Frankenstein). Those are the big three.

Interestingly, the genre of the 1976 adaptation is simply ‘horror’ according to IMDb. This remake must have been aiming for a bit more character development with the addition of ‘drama’.

The horror film is a genre aimed largely at pubescent and adolescent youth — the same people who love to scream on roller coasters and look for out-of-control sensations elsewhere in their lives. Attracting people who are not part of this constituency is often difficult. The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby did so by dealing with families in a serious way — something the mostly young audience for horror films isn’t especially interested in seeing.

— Howard Suber

I don’t think Carrie manages to deal with family matters in any serious way. The mother is not a rounded character. This feels all horror, not much drama.

The Female Gothic

Stephen King’s Carrie is a descendent of the Female Gothic, invented by writers such as Anne Radcliffe, Mary Shelley and Charlotte Bronte.

Features of the Female Gothic Novel:

  • Gothic texts are based upon Medieval society.
  • Following a Gothic Bildungsroman-esque plot, the Female Gothic allowed its readers to graduate from adolescence to maturity along with its heroine. 
  • The readers of these novels didn’t lead very thrilling lives — many restrictions — this was their outlet
  • The Female Gothic is about the suppression of female sexuality, or challenges the gender hierarchy and values of a male-dominated culture.
  • The natural cause of terror is not the supernatural, but rather female disability and societal horrors: rape, incest and the threatening control of the male antagonist.
  • The female protagonists pursued in these texts are often caught in an unfamiliar and terrifying landscape, delivering higher degrees of horror.
  • The end result, however, is the explained supernatural, rather than terrors familiar to women such as rape or incest, or the expected ghosts or haunted castles.(For example, the female protagonist will think there’s a ghost in the dungeon but when she gets down there it’s actually a real man wanting to rape her.)

In Stephen King’s variety of the Female Gothic, we have an out-and-out evil boy pulling strings behind the scenes, but female characters feature as all shades of good/bad.

Carrie And Dracula

Dracula has the power to turn into a bat or a wolf, and he usually lives in ruins that are crawling with rats. He is a uniquely European character in that he is a count, a member of the aristocracy. Count Dracula is part of an ageing, corrupt aristocracy that parasitically feeds on the common people.

Dracula is extremely powerful at night. But he can be stopped if someone knows his secret. He shrinks at the sight of the crucifix and burns when sprayed with holy water.

Other classic horror stories that play with this symbol set are The Exorcist and The Omen. Carrie uses the same set but reverses its meaning. Here the Christian symbols are associated with bigotry and closed-mindedness, and Carrie kills her evangelical mother by teleporting a crucifix into her heart.

— John Truby. “The Anatomy of Story.”

STORYWORLD OF CARRIE

Symbolism

Many horror films could correctly be called “supernatural films” but this might reveal more than we care to acknowledge about the religious origins of so much horror.

— Howard Suber

She was alone with Momma’s angry God.

The blue light glared on a picture of a huge and bearded Yahweh who was casting screaming multitudes of humans down through cloudy depths into an abyss of fire. Below them, black horrid figures struggled through the flames of perdition while the Black Man wat on a huge flame-colored throne with a trident in one hand. His body was that of a man, but he had a spiked tail and the head of a jackal.

— Stephen King, Carrie

The setting of Carrie is very recognisable as our own but King includes supernatural elements.

Night journeys are a common element seen throughout Gothic literature. They can occur in almost any setting, but in American literature are more commonly seen in the wilderness, forest or any other area that is devoid of people. A prom, always held after dark, provides the perfect reason for a night journey.

Fantasy Elements

Stephen King writes what some have called ‘supernatural realism’. We might call it ‘magical realism‘ but I think ‘supernatural realism’ is a better descriptor. Carrie is set in the real world but there are supernatural elements. Carrie has the power of telekinesis and might be an ancestor of Roald Dahl’s Matilda in a sense. This is a world in which anything could happen.

There is a bit of a gothic vibe going on in this story, with the blue, cottage-like house looking peachy from the outside but once we get inside we’re shown cupboards used as prison, a dark and stifling atmosphere and a ‘mad woman in the attic’.

Era

The film is set in the USA in a mainly white suburban town in Maine called Chamberlain but the film is shot in Ontario. Here’s the house. Note that the creators of the remake decided to keep a general 1970s vibe in the setting — it’s also fitting that Carrie’s mother would have little money and therefore have to drive a car from that era. The original novel starts in 1966 and the main events happen 1979.

She continued to walk down the street toward the small white house with the blue shutters. The familiar hate-love-dread feeling was churning inside her. Ivy had crawled up the wests side of the bungalow (they always called it the bungalow because the White house sounded like a political joke and Momma said all politicians were crooks and sinners who would eventually give the country over to the Godless Reds who would put all the believers of Jesus—even the Catholics—up against the wall), and the ivy was picturesque, she knew it was, but sometimes she hated it. Sometimes, like now, the ivy looked like a grotesque giant hand ridged with great veins which had sprung up out of the ground to grip the building. She approached it with dragging feet.

 

Deaths In Schools

By the 1970s there had already been enough mass executions in American schools due to gun violence for the fear of a blood bath at a prom to be based upon a real, deep-seated fear. There have been many more school shootings since then. Unfortunately the terror of Carrie’s loner rampage still feels all too real.

STORY STRUCTURE

King wrote the novel as epistolary, using a combination of letters, news clippings, magazine articles, and passages from books. Sometimes when an epistolary story is adapted for screen some of that form is maintained, often with use of a storyteller narrator (the person who wrote the letters). But because I hadn’t read the book before watching the movie it was a bit of a surprise to find it was an epistolary novel. There’s nothing left of that. The reason for the epistolary form must have been to create a sense of realism for the reader.

SHORTCOMING

The desire to be known, to be seen, and to be powerful in your own sphere is a common desire in both real people and in the fictional realm. This particular desire seems to be having a moment in the West. The promotional material for the Carrie reboot reminds me very much of the posters which came out for Breaking Bad around the same time. Carrie and Walter White have the same psychological need.

Carrie’s problem is that she is an out-and-out social outcast. High schools are a great arena to show social exclusion — Vince Vaughn even sent Walter White back to school and made him the butt of some teenagers’ jokes in the pilot episode as they mock him washing cars — there’s something about mockery you get at school that stays with you your whole life, even when you engage your logical adult brain and realise your high school opponents had their own issues which had nothing to do with you.

The epistolary form of King’s novel allows for a variety of opinions on Carrie, leaving the reader with no ‘true’ impression of what she really looked like (and consequently, who she really was.) Described by the narrator as ugly, fat and blemished, she is described later as ‘pretty’. Carrie herself considers herself repulsive, especially her face, covered in blackheads and clusters of pimples. These various accounts of Carrie add to the gossipy, unreliable nature of the retelling:

Narrator’s description of Carrie, close-third-person viewpoint through the eyes of the girls in the changing room
Opinion of a minor character Stella Horan
From Tommy’s point of view Carrie is ‘far from repulsive’.

Carrie’s psychological shortcoming is that she needs to belong somewhere. She is totally alone in the world. Like any teenager (or adult), she wants to fit in.

Found written repeatedly on one page of a Ewen Consolidated High School notebook owned by Carrie White:

Everybody’s guessed/that baby can’t be blessed/’til she finally sees that she’s like all the rest….

— Stephen King, Carrie

In this movie adaptation she has been homeschooled until very recently, which is how the screenwriters get around the weird fact that Carrie doesn’t know what periods are. It’s hard for a modern audience to believe a 16 year old girl could not know anything about that. Stephen King had to lampshade that one quite heavily in his 1976 novel, especially since in the novel Carrie has been attending school all along.

At Ewan High School Carrie is shown hiding behind a pile of books, sneaking around as if hoping to become invisible.

Psychological overlay is an element connected to how characters within an American Gothic novel are affected by things like the night and their surroundings. In Carrie’s case, Carrie’s menstruation is connected to everyone’s general fear of blood. Blood symbolism can be seen throughout the film, culminating famously in the big struggle scene. 

Does Carrie have a moral shortcoming? Is she treating others badly? A fairytale victim character like this doesn’t need to show us that she is a fully rounded human being with flaws — Carrie is not a normal human being anyhow. She’s kind of the second coming, perhaps from the devil. In the films, at least, Carrie does not demonstrate any moral shortcomings. She is a Gothic Good Girl. (The virginal character in a Female Gothic.)

DESIRE

Carrie wants to go to the ball. This is intimately connected to her psychological shortcoming of course — her need to be part of something.

OPPONENT

In most horror stories, the hero is reactive, and the main opponent, who pushes the action, is the devil or some version of the devil’s minion. The devil is the incarnation of evil, the bad father, who will lead humans to eternal damnation if not stopped. The moral argument in these stories is always couched in simple binary terms: the big struggle between good and evil.

— John Truby

King has used a number of character archetypes from the gothic novel to create his setting:

  • Virginal maiden – young, beautiful, pure, innocent, kind, virtuous and sensitive. Usually starts out with a mysterious past and it is later revealed that she is the daughter of an aristocratic or noble family. (Carrie)
  • Older, foolish woman (Mrs White)
  • Hero (Sue)
  • Tyrant/villain (Chris and her boyfriend)
  • Bandits/ruffians (the cast of school girls who mock Carrie rather than standing up for her)
  • Clergy – always weak, usually evil (not present in the film adaptation — the clergy is the invisible force behind the uber-Christian Mrs White). In the novel we do have a modified ‘clergy’ stand-in in the form of Mr P. P. Bliss:

Mr. P.P. Bliss, who had written this hymn and others seemingly without number, was one of Momma’s shining examples of God at work upon the face of the earth. He had been a sailor and a sinner (two terms that were synonymous in Momma’s lexicon), a great blasphemer, a laugher in the face of the Almighty. Then a great storm had come up at sea, the boat had threatened to capsize, and Mr. P. P. Bliss had gotten down on his sin-sickly knees with a vision of Hell yawning beneath the ocean floor to receive him, and he had prayed to God. M. P.P. Bliss promised God that if He saved him, he would dedicate the rest of his life to Him. The storm, of course, cleared immediately.

Brightly beams our Father’s mercy
From his lighthouse evermore
But to us he gives the keeping
Of the lights along the shore

All of Mr. P. P. Bliss’s hymns had a seagoing flavour to them.

— Stephen King, Carrie

The watchful eye of the clergy is symbolised by the picture The Unseen Guest:

She walked up the hall and put her coat in the closet. A luminous picture above the coat hooks limned a ghostly Jesus hovering grimly over a family seated at the kitchen table. Beneath was the caption (also luminous): The Unseen Guest

— Stephen King, Carrie

On the other hand, the teachers at the school might be seen as the modern equivalent of the Gothic clergy, in charge of the virgin’s life, seeking counsel.

Carrie’s mother might as well be a mythical monster or a fairytale witch. The (semi) realistic setting allows us to read her as a woman with mental health challenges but her archetype predates such knowledge. American Gothic novels in particular tend to deal with a “madness” in one or more of the characters and carry that theme throughout the novel. In his novel Edgar Huntly or Memoirs of a Sleepwalker, Charles Brockden Brown writes about two characters who slowly become more and more deranged as the novel progresses. King’s novel The Shining is also about Descent Into Madness. Non-King examples include Sunset Boulevard, Black Swan, Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing and Apocalypse Now.

What Carrie lacks in complexity, Stephen King makes up for in his web of her opponents. In Carrie’s classmates we see all shades of bullying, from the out-and-out evil, dark-haired girl (Chris Hargensen) to the blonde* girl who wants to do the right thing but ends up making Carrie’s life worse (Sue Snell). Even the teacher (Miss Desjardin) has excellent intentions but inadvertently makes Carrie’s life worse by setting in action the suspension of Chris Hargensen, who because of this plots the blood in a bucket incident.

*In the novel Sue has dark hair.

King apparently wrote this book inspired by catty bitches he knew from school and from teaching high school. So I don’t kid myself that King is particularly sympathetic to the teenage girl at this point in his writing career. But in contrast to the ‘women are catty bitches’ reading, King turns Chris into a bullied victim herself.  Her boyfriend is truly bad; if she hadn’t had sex with him he planned to rape her; later, he does in fact rape her.

but it had all begun to slip out of her hands, and it made her uneasy. If she had not given in willingly on Monday, he would have taken her by force.

Chris is punished, partly for her willingness to have sex, partly for her short skirt and also, partly, for being really mean to people.

There are lots of people—mostly men—who aren’t surprised that I asked Tommy to take Carrie to the Spring Ball. They are surprised that he did it, though, which shows you that the male mind expects very little in the way of altruism from its fellows.

Here King is kinder on men.

Carrying the pails back to the trunk, his mind made a dim, symbolic connection. Pig blood. That was good. Chris was right. It was really good. It made everything solidify.

Pig blood for a pig.

The bad boys are playing a different, more basic game. The menstruation connection is from the girls; the boys think they’re simply insulting Carrie by comparing her to an animal.

MYSTERY

As we get to know the opponents and what they are capable of, we are also introduced to a mystery: What is the exact nature of Carrie’s newfound superpower? 

Revelation is important in any story containing a mystery. (TV writers call them ‘reveals’.) But a story doesn’t have to be ‘mystery’ or ‘detective’ genre to contain a mystery element.  Part of this story’s dynamic is to have Carrie find out/realise something that’s been true (latent) for some time: That she is a witch, and has inherited her powers from her grandmother. The story’s momentum comes from the finding out, and during the big struggle sequence we will see the full extent of Carrie’s superpowers. 

Much Gothic literature also includes a mystery of some kind. For instance, Jane Eyre has his first wife in the attic. Rebecca’s new husband Maxim went and killed his first wife in a re-telling of Bluebeard. Notice that these Gothic mystery novels are also named after the female leads.

King’s novel tells us near the beginning that Carrie has the powers of telekinesis, so the mystery there is in waiting to see how she’s going to use it.

PLAN

In King’s story it’s not Carrie who has the plan. In fact, Carrie is a co-star at best. Despite the character of Carrie carrying the title of the work, and huge images of the actress emblazoned across the posters, the person who undergoes the character arc is Sue Snell who, like the majority of empathetic readers following along, wants to do something to help the outcast underdog. However, we don’t see quite enough of Sue in this film adaptation to rightly call her the main character. Both these girls are the stars — mirror images of each other in many ways:

  • Carrie is an outcast/Sue is popular
  • Carrie is lacking in confidence/Sue is full of confidence
  • Sue has Tommy for a boyfriend/Carrie goes to the ball with him but knows he is very much not her boyfriend
  • Carrie starts the book with blood between her thighs/the book ends with blood between Sue’s

It is Sue who comes up with The Plan that sets the plot in motion. She will offer her popular boyfriend to Carrie as a companion to the ball. This is of course a condescending gesture and Carrie can see right through it — the only way any girl would offer her boyfriend to another girl for an important life event like this is because she knows she’s no competition whatsoever. However, the plan works. It is undermined by Chris and her pig-killing guy friends.

BIG STRUGGLE

In the book, Stephen King puts the entire big struggle sequence into a section called ‘Part Two’. It comprises almost half of the book.

Carrie and Tommy at the ball in a brief moment of bliss. As in many high school stories, the outcast female character undergoes a makeover.

The sequence beginning with the bucket of blood on Carrie’s head. The blood in the bucket sequence is of course the set piece of this film and even if you forget every other scene, this is the bit which eventually enters pop culture. In fact, you probably know this scene even without ever watching the film or reading the book. Part of what makes this so successful is the build up, in which we see Chris as a puppeteer, literally pulling the strings (but of the bucket) from above, as a symbol of omniscient evil against good. (Her own abusive boyfriend is using Chris as his puppet, and also as his non-consenting sex doll.)

Structurally speaking, I’m guessing this is the part which could have posed the biggest hurdle for the writer(s). Miraculous survivals are elements within American Gothic literature in which a character or characters will somehow manage to survive some feat that should have led to their demise. The problem is, with Carrie’s anger-fuelled telekinesis, Carrie is all powerful. She can stop an oncoming car and murder people without even touching them. This superpower means the opponent is fully at her mercy. Sure, the revenge is sweet to watch, but when a character is so much more powerful than their opponent this makes for a boring blood bath.

To create a satisfying big struggle sequence, King gave Carrie two separate big struggles, one after the other with a quiet moment in the middle:

  1. The big struggle on stage against everyone at school
  2. The big struggle against her mother, who has been proven to be a formidable monster and who stabs her quietly in the back.

Sue watches as the house is destroyed. The house can be considered a character in the story, or at least an extension of the women who live there. (In Gothic novels the setting is always a character in itself.)

The cold, heartless house turns to rubble. The difference between this shot and the blue weatherboard house is important. The setting is greatly influential in Gothic novels. It not only evokes the atmosphere of horror and dread, but also portrays the deterioration of its world. The decaying, ruined scenery implies that at one time there was a thriving world. At one time the abbey, castle, or landscape was something treasured and appreciated. Now, all that lasts is the decaying shell of a once thriving dwelling.
Sue watches the house being destroyed, and Mrs White with it, in the basement.

ANAGNORISIS

In the book, this marks the beginning of Part Three. I’m guessing King thinks (or thought) in terms of three act structure as a writer. (Other writers think in terms of five parts seven, or even 22.)

We see Sue Snell see her gazing at Carrie’s headstone. Her voiceover says, “You can only push someone so far before they break.” This is her revelation. It’s an anti-bullying message at its heart.

NEW SITUATION

Interestingly, we are shown the new situation before we’re shown Sue’s anagnorisis. Usually it’s not that way around. We know that she is pregnant with a girl and from the court scene we know that most of her friends are dead. We can extrapolate that Sue will give birth to a girl, and we might even wonder if Carrie has done something to that girl to imbue her with witchy superpowers, in the style of Rosemary’s Baby (1968).

This isn’t how the book ends. Somewhere else, a woman called Amelia Jenks is pregnant with a baby who turns out to have witch powers. It is implied that Tommy gets Sue pregnant, but the final scene is bookended with blood — Sue gets her period (which may actually be a miscarriage).

 

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



SHORTCOMING

Pearl the pig is an Anne of Green Gables character — dreamy and optimistic despite the hardships she endures.

Steig opens the story with, “It was a brilliant day, and instead of going straight home from school, Pearl dawdled.” This will remind you of Little Red Riding Hood, no doubt. The Grimm Brothers transcribed that tale at a time when, as properties of men, women and girls were required to be inside the house. If anything happened to them while they were enjoying the outdoors, it was their own damn fault.

As a pig, she is also delicious. Even in 2017 we’re getting a whole heap of ‘I Love Bacon’ memes through our feeds, so most people can relate to a pig’s predicament. Not that children will be thinking along these lines at all. But to this modern reader that is her main shortcoming in the story — she is delicious to foxes. She becomes a victim through no psychological or moral shortcoming of her own.

It does pay to remember, though, that this was not the intention in early iterations of the Red Riding Hood category of tales, which existed to punish girls for stepping outside, and blamed them for the evil predilections of men, while also being saved by them.

DESIRE

Pearl wants to enjoy her day outdoors. Steig gives us quite a lengthy introduction — longer than modern picture books allow for — in which we see her ‘dawdling home’ sequence.

Finally we see her at her most relaxed, sitting in the grass and dreaming.

Pearl in the forest The Amazing Bone

Note the pacing of this first section of the story (encompassing Pearl’s shortcoming and desire and her ‘normal life’ (which we know is about to be disrupted. We see one scene per page. In fact, this scene is a double spread. Later, as the excitement picks up Steig will put two pictures on each page. This is the illustration equivalent of using short sentences after long, languorous ones.

ALLY

Pearl’s ally is introduced before her opponent is introduced, which has the useful effect of creating tension in the audience, who will wonder if this amazing bone is really on her side or if it is a fake-ally opponent.

When we meet the bone we also meet the catch phrase of the story: “I don’t know, I didn’t make the world.” This is somewhat metafictive as Steig’s lampshading requires the reader to wonder about the origin of magic in the story. We are reminded not to worry about all that — Steig is taking overt artistic licence to do any unexpected thing he likes. This works very well because of the long history of fairytales. The ones which have survived are not all that ‘quirky’ — they are full of witches and forests and ogres and magic creatures, but not pieces of magic creatures. There is no logical reason for Steig to have written a story starring a magic talking bone and although readers will happily accept a magical witch or something, he gets quite a lot of mileage out of the fact that this bone can talk even though it doesn’t have lips.

PLAN

The bone explains that he has been dropped by a witch and would prefer to live with the youthful, optimistic Pearl, so they set off home. Pearl knows what her parents will say — they’ll say it’s ridiculous that she has a bone which can talk — more lampshading to humorous effect.

OPPONENT

Of course the opponents appear at this point from behind a rock. They are wearing masks from Japanese theatre, which I agree are the most freaky looking traditional masks out there.

The characters with the long  noses looks like tengu. They’re a kind of supernatural creature, part human, part bird or prey.

The middle creature in yellow might represent a hannya, This character is possibly the most ridiculously misogynistic of the Noh masks, expressing the fury of a woman turned demon through jealousy and anger and who revenges by attacking.

(These days I feel the V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes mask has supplanted traditional Japanese masks in the West when it comes to freak value. Ghostface is also very scary — perhaps we will not be seeing these in a picture book anytime soon.)

These masked creatures are not the main opponent, however. They are just part of the landscape, reminding Pearl and reminding readers that even in an environment which looks beautiful and safe, evil can jump out from anywhere. These characters are easily scared off by the talking bone in Pearl’s handbag, which they are trying to steal from her, and although we never see their identities, if you look closely at the illustration you’ll probably agree with me that these ‘highway robbers’ are meant to be dogs. Dogs, compared to canines from the wild, are usually fairly hapless criminals, both in real life and in storybooks.

This is when the real opponent turns up. This time the bone’s talking won’t spook him. We know it won’t spook him because of Aesop. Foxes are smart, unlike dogs.

The wily fox was not as easily duped as the robbers. He saw no dangerous crocodile. He peered into Pearl’s purse, where the sounds seemed to be coming from, and pulled out the bone. “As I live and flourish!” he exclaimed. “A talking bone. I’ve always wanted to own something of this sort.”

(Note that Pearl herself is an ironic Aesopian character. Traditionally, we expect pigs to be dirty and gluttonous, but Pearl is delicate and refined. Dr Seuss does a similar thing with Horton the elephant, who would normally break a tree by sitting in a nest. We see Horton’s bulk and don’t immediately expect him to be timid. Young readers learn not to judge characters based on their appearance.)

The fox is a smartness proxy for the audience. Indeed, when I read this story to my daughter she exclaimed, “Oh, I wish I had a talking bone!” just as the wily fox had done in the story.

The fox takes Pearl home for dinner, where he plans to eat her of course. He locks Pearl and her bone in the basement.

At this point we wonder how on earth Pearl and the bone are going to get out of their dire predicament. Plotting-wise, this is the difficult part for the writer. The writer must come up with some ingenious plan which surprises the reader.

Humour wise, this is the highlight of the story. Pearl and the bone whisper to one another, which gives a read-aloud narrator some welcome variety — not enough picture books encourage stage whispering — and their conversation is alternately melodramatic versus reminiscent of two girls sitting outside the principal’s office rather than about to meet their death:

“I know how you feel,” the bone whispered.

“I’m only just beginning to live,” Pearl whispered back. “I don’t want it to end.”

“I know,” said the bone.

At this tense point Steig uses a technique called the dynamic frame. The dynamic frame is film-making terminology butis even more common in picturebooks than it is in film. Filmmakers who use dynamic frame change the size and shape of the image on the screen. It has gone out of fashion in filmmaking. You still see it in contemporary films when shooting through doorways, for example, so hat the lighted area seen by the audience is shaped, even though the shape of the screen itself doesn’t change.

An example of the dynamic frame in a picturebook

For another example of this technique in a picture book see Hyman’s Sleeping Beauty, with views through the arches. In Where The Wild Things Are, the pictures gradually grow in size and then become smaller.

This part of the story will probably remind you of Hansel and Gretel more than Little Red Riding Hood, as the fox cranks up the stove ready for Pearl to go in.

BIG STRUGGLE

Rather lazily, in storytelling terms, Steig’s amazing bone can do magic. It comes out with a number of magical phrases and the fox gradually shrinks to the size of a mouse, retreating into a hole in the wall.

However, it totally works. Steig gets away with ‘rescued by magic’ because of the dialogue. The bone is just as amazed as Pearl at his ability to get them out of trouble, and the joke has been set up earlier with the gag that bones couldn’t possibly talk because they don’t have mouths.

“Well, what made you say those words?”

“I wish I knew, “the bone said. “They just came to me. I had to say them. I must have picked them up somehow, hanging around with that witch.”

It’s the haplessness and the understatement which leads to the humour.

ANAGNORISIS

“You are an amazing bone,” said Pearl, “and this is a day I won’t ever forget!”

This is an uninspiring line but a necessary one. Sometimes you need those lines in stories. I’m going to call it the ‘overt revelation’, but it’s not a genuine one. The fact is, humorous picture books don’t actually need a anagnorisis. We hope that Pearl will not suffer from PTSD. We hope that she will go on just as before, frolicking in meadows and enjoying herself.

The audience does have a small revelation — Pearl was absolutely right about what her parents would say about her bringing home a talking bone. Naive as she is, Pearl does have insight into human behaviour, at least when it comes to her own parents.

NEW SITUATION

The bone stayed on and became part of the family. It was given an honored place in a silver tray on the mantelpiece. Pearl always took it to bed when she retired, and the two chatterboxes whispered together until late in the night. Sometimes the bone put Pearl to sleep by singing, or by imitating soft harp music.

Anyone who happened to be alone in the house always had the bone to converse with. And they all have music whenever they wanted it, and sometimes even when they didn’t.

SEE ALSO

The Amazing Bone: Scrabboonit! from We Read It Like This