Hud is a 1962 black and white film based on Larry McMurtry’s first novel, Horseman, Pass By. There is a connection to children’s literature here — Patricia Neal who plays the housekeeper was Roald Dahl’s wife. Neal had a severe stroke not long after this film was made. Her recovery meant she had problems with language. The made-up vocabulary of The BFG was inspired by Patricia Neal’s strange communication style after her stroke.
Hud is in many ways similar to Deliverance, appearing in American cinemas ten years later.
Both are films based on novels
Written by white American men concerned with themes of masculinity
They both feature a stereotypical macho man whose bravado is also his downfall
Both feature a small group of men in a terrible situation, wrestling verbally with each other to make a moral decision
Each man of the group falls on a continuum from ruthless to morally upstanding
The morally upstanding character is destroyed by his compassion and ends up in the grave
While the macho man continues to ‘live’ but he has lost a part of himself, and his victory in getting his way is a pyrrhic one.
Both are anti-Redemption Stories: “Hud was certainly a unique picture in many ways, but, most significantly, it dared to portray a central character who was a “pure bastard”—and who remained totally unredeemed and unrepentant at the end of the picture.” (William Baer)
Stories of this type continue to intrigue writers and readers.
Jeffrey Eugenide’s first book of short stories, published 2017, is also about men struggling with how to behave:
It’s sort of, you’re caught in the middle of this thing, you want to redefine what it means to be a man in our time, and then going along with that has to involve a lot of self-exposure, and a lot of recrimination and regret for your behavior. At the same time, there’s maybe some resistance to being told how you’re supposed to behave. So the characters are caught between being good and being bad. That makes for more energetic fiction, when you have someone of two minds trying to figure out a problem, as opposed to being really sure about his way and his conduct.
Hud is not really a blend at all. Hud is a straight drama. You don’t find many of those on IMDb these days — most big films are a mixture of thriller/action/adventure and often with drama thrown in because of the character development.
At the time of release, Hud was said to be a contemporary Western. But here’s what the screenwriter’s response is to that:
BAER: Although Hud is clearly set in contemporary Texas, it’s often cited as one of the films that began the “demystification” of the American Western. It came out a year after The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, in which John Ford began to re-examine the Western hero, and it predated the so-called “revisionist” Westerns of the later sixties, like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) and The Wild Bunch (1969). I wonder how you feel about that?
RAVETCH: To be perfectly honest, I never thought of Hud as a Western. Never. I always thought of it as a domestic drama. Whenever I see Hud listed with Westerns, I wince. Not because I don’t admire Westerns—I wrote a number of them in my earlier days—but because I don’t feel the film is appropriate to that category.
The screenwriter, of course, is absolutely right. Hud is not a Western, nor is it even an anti-Western:
It doesn’t use the metaphorical symbol web of a Western and nor does it subvert those symbols to make an anti-Western.
It’s not about the taming of wilderness in order to build a home.
It’s not about expansion of a nation, or the destruction wreaked under said expansion.
On the other hand, I can see where people might get to thinking this is an anti-Western.
A Western has a lone warrior hero, leading a group of people to build a new village, and Hud seems like the ironic opposite of that guy.
It’s set in cowboy country, where death is all around them
There’s a category of Westerns set on a ranch, and the ranch comes under siege from outside forces.
There’s a life and death struggle and a pyrrhic victory.
Paul Newman starred in a bunch of Westerns and came to be associated with the genre. Larry McMurtry, too, also wrote anti-Westerns (later), as well as comical Western parodies, so was obviously influenced by the Western he grew up with when writing Horseman, Pass By.
Sometimes when you find out a story used to be called something different right up until the marketing team stepped in, the original name can offer extra insight. Kings of Summer was originally called “Toy’s House”. The main character is called Joe Toy, and I did spend a bit of time wondering if this is a symbolic name. The boys build themselves a house in the woods and set about pretending that they’re living off the grid. And it really is a pretence, because all the while they’re using a sum of stolen money to buy roast chickens from a nearby fast food restaurant.
After learning the original name I realised this is basically a Doll’s House Story, in which characters play out a scenario in a form of play that becomes quite serious.
Here’s the premise of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove: Two Texas Rangers decide to move cattle from the south to Montana running into many problems along the way.
Detail a legendary journey while including the harsh realities of Wild-Western life to show that the ‘legends’ of the Wild West were ordinary men working in unglamorous conditions.
Pulitzer Prize winners may have a reputation for being dense and requiring much work, but if that’s the case, Lonesome Dove is an exception. This is what you’d call ‘super readable’. A page-turner. Which is just as well, because you could build a house with these bricks.
If you would like to know what it feels like to be a cattle man in the Wild West in the mid 1870s, and you don’t like the idea of getting kilt or drinking black coffee for breakfast or hoiking up black phlegm from all the dust or using your saddle for a pillow while sleeping on the hard, cold ground; if you aren’t the owner of an actual time machine, then this is the book for you. McMurtry does an excellent job of detailing the day-to-day realities of being a cowboy in the Wild West.
And few authors would be more qualified. Larry McMurtry’s own father was a cattleman, along with every one of his eight uncles. McMurtry himself obviously absorbed a lot of the dialect, grammar and vocabulary of cattlemen, putting it to good use in his Western novels.
Story is very close to liturgy, which is why one’s children like to have the story repeated exactly as they heard it the night before. The script ought not to deviate from the prescribed form.
‘Once upon a time, in such and such a place, something happened.’ There are far more complex explanations, of course. […] Jack discovers a beanstalk; Bond learns Blofeld plans to take over the world. The ‘something’ is almost always a problem, sometimes a problem disguised as an opportunity. It’s usually something that throws your protagonist’s world out of kilter — an explosion of sorts in the normal steady pace of their lives: Alice falls down a rabbit hole; Spooks learn of a radical terrorist plot; Godot doesn’t turn up.
John Yorke, Into The Woods
Though John Yorke’s definition of ‘story’ is a wide one, the following is John Truby’s seven step structure for creating memorable stories which feel complete — not like mood pieces, not like character sketches, not descriptions of setting but complete narratives we remember for a long time.
How is the hero treating others badly? (Moral weakness)
What does the hero need in order to live a better life?
Sometimes these needs are called ‘dramatic needs’.
You may have heard the term ‘lack’ to describe this portion of characterisation. That’s Russian Formalist Vladimir Propp’s word. Another word commonly used is ‘flaw’. But I really like John Truby’s breakdown of the lack/flaw into both moral and psychological weakness because it’s really easy to forget the moral weakness, and so much better when you don’t.
Do children’s stories always feature a main character who treats others badly? You probably already know the answer to this: No, no they do not. In a series like A Series of Unfortunate Events, for instance, the main characters function as avatars for the young readers (both boy and girl readers, notice), and the characters around them are full of weaknesses — and are also much more interesting than they are.
What does the main character want? (In this particular story… not in general.) There is a surface desire as well as a deeper desire. Your character probably knows what they want on the surface, but may not realise this stands for something much deeper e.g. the wish to solve a mystery may reveal a deeper desire to be taken seriously.
The main character might kill off their old self. Or, they might choose to return to their former selves. Avoiding a character arc rarely happens, and it very rarely happens in children’s literature. It does happen in Larry McMurtry’s Hud, and I did choose this for my picture book app, Midnight Feast.
The main character far more often chooses to confront their innermost fears, overcome them and are rewarded for that.
There’ll be a battle scene in every story. Not literally a fisticuffs showdown, or a gunfight (though in certain genres that will definitely happen too). But there will be one big scene — there’ll be arguments or extreme peril, or witnessing someone else have a fight, which the hero will have had a role in provoking. Importantly, the battle that you see on screen or on the page isn’t necessarily the battle that they’re fighting. It may just exist to represent inner turmoil.
If we distinguish between ‘crisis’ and ‘battle’ at all, it’s a very small difference: the ‘crisis’ comes right before the battle. A crisis point always embodies the worst possible consequence of the decision taken when the initial dramatic explosion occurred. This decision brings the character face to face with their worst fear. Their worst fear is represented by the obstacle that is going to force them to face up to their underlying flaw. e.g. If a character is wary of commitment then the crisis will force them to face losing someone they love. For example, if a character is selfish they are brought face to face with what they might lose by being so. If a character is timid they will have to face up to what timidity might cost. Sometimes it’s easier to think of the structure in question-and-answer form, and as writer you will have done this earlier under ‘weakness/need’:
Question: What are the worst possible consequences of my main character’s decision to…?
Answer: [Whatever the answer is, that’s your battle sequence, which leads to a climax.]
(By the way, this question and answer doesn’t just open the story and lead to closure, but is found within every ‘act’.)
TV writers in the United States call the crisis the ‘worst case’. BBC writers call it ‘worst point’. If it’s TV we’re talking about, on a commercial station, it’ll be the bit that happens right before the last commercial break. It’s also where TV writers leave the ending in continuing series, knowing the audience will want to come back to find out if the characters escaped alive.
Others call this stage the ‘crisis’. The bit where the main character comes close to death, often. The worst happens to them. Bad things happen, worse things, now the worst. The crisis is a kind of death. It usually isn’t the hero who dies, of course. We want them to stick around for the next bits. The most dangerous thing to be is the hero’s best buddy. There’s a high mortality rate with those guys.
Sometimes no one actually dies, but hope passes away.
Perhaps, if you think in terms of narrative climax, you’re wondering which part that would map onto. Think of the ‘climax’ as the bit where the main character finds release from their seemingly inescapable predicament. I’ll slot the climax in right between battle and new equilibrium. It’s a useful concept in terms of criticism, but for writers? I prefer to think in terms of battle followed by new equilibrium. The climax is what the audience feels. It’s not a story stage per se. The climax is the part which is the ‘obligatory scene’, set up by the inciting incident. For instance, when Louise murders the rapist in the inciting incident, the climax must be the confrontation between the women and the law.
The hero’s life will be different from now on. The audience generally needs a scene or two in which we get a glimpse of how things are going to be from here on in, though sometimes writers offer a truncated story, leaving out this bit, so the audience can decide for themselves what happened. Lots of people don’t like having to do this though.
*Short stories don’t always follow this pattern. For example, Chekhov often leaves out the self-revelation, hoping for the revelation to happen for the reader rather than for the character. Make Way For Ducklings is missing the Weakness/Need and Plan steps, leading to the criticism of ‘weak characterisation’. But really there are few popular exceptions existing outside this basic structure.
I am adding an extra step which applies to a few stories, not most. Sometimes the writer leave the ending open. In this case it’s up to us to work out what happened next. This isn’t going to be a scene as such, but an accumulation of details garnered from all the scenes which lead us to our conclusion.
Story Structure Mnemonic
If you’d like to use my mnemonic above (it works for me!), you might like to watch this video of a little pig very politely sharing his dinner with a woman.
You’ll hear this same advice everywhere.
…give us a hero facing a challenge or a goal that changes their near-time life, launching them on a quest to solve the problem or attain the goal, with something opposing that objective (usually the villain, but sometimes a force; in either case, the story works best when that opposition is external rather than an exclusively internal demon), with meaningful stakes hanging the balance.
Tom Gauld has a different way of explaining the same rules. Here is one of his New Yorker comics:
Box one shows that a hero must take action otherwise it’s not a story.
Box two shows that there must be conflict otherwise it’s not a story.
Box three shows that the hero must constantly redouble efforts (and modify plans) in order to achieve the goal.
Box four shows that a hero needs a strong desire line, and by desire ‘line’, we mean that it lasts until the end of the story.
Does this structure work for children’s stories also?
Yep. Every single time. But I’ll add a few points:
Picture books (at least, the kind with a narrative — not typical abecedaries, concept or toy books such as Where’s Wally books — are excellent for showing this structure because the structure is so clear. The steps will even be marked clearly.
If a story is ‘once upon a time something happened’, then the inciting incident is the ‘something’ that kick-starts a story.
There’s a rule that picture books for young readers need a non-tragic ending (I won’t say happy, since we do have Jon Klassen’s Hat books, in which the main character dies.) The majority of picturebook stories are home-away-home structure. Books designed to be read before bed require the main character to make it home safely, in general.
The ‘opponent’ is often also an ally. For example, well-meaning parents and teachers. This is true of realistic stories for adults, too, of course.
When the main character is an animal, there’s sometimes a parallel subplot in which a human character is the one with the clear desire and plan. An excellent example of this is Kate diCamillo’s Mercy Watson Goes For A Ride, in which the old lady next door is the human proxy for the pig. This applies to animals who are not fully humanized (and would never be necessary in a book such as Olivia, in which the pig is for all intents and purposes a little girl.)
The hero in a children’s book does not need to have a moral weakness. In other words, the reader does not need to see how the hero is treating others badly. That said, a character such as Olivia, who is very wearing on her mother, is more rounded and ‘human’ precisely because of her annoying habits. There is more tolerance for Pollyannas in children’s literature (at least among adults), no doubt because the gatekeepers of kidlit still like heroes to be models of behaviour, and always punished for their misdemeanours.
In the self-revelation stage of children’s fiction, the main character usually reaches a higher level of maturity and a greater sense of self-awareness by the book’s end, but has not achieved adulthood. There will be some sense that they have much more yet to learn. No Awareness >> Growing Awareness >> Full Awareness
The W-question Method
Every storyteller has their own way of looking at story structure. Time and again, no matter the words used, it comes back to the seven-step structure (and occasionally it’s shortened into six steps, or broken further into eight).
As an example, take screenwriter and story supervisor, Jason Katz, of Pixar fame.
Jason Katz advises storytellers to ask the story questions in the right order.
Katz orders his answers to those questions as follows: who, when, where, what, why, how. According to him, the “who, when, where” is easy. That’s where you’re establishing the setting for your story and identifying your main character. He goes on to say that answering the “what” is the thing that will drive your story. He calls it the “engine of your story” and one of the critical steps to answering the “what” question is asking two more: “what does your character want?” and “what does your character need?”