Powers by Alice Munro

abandoned hospital powers_1000x666

“Powers” is the final story in the Runaway collection by Alice Munro, published 2004. I find this story the most challenging of the lot — as in, what in holy heck was that all about? I’m going to have to write about “Powers” in order to understand it.

Here goes my best shot. What can we learn about storytelling from this novella? About life?

If this is not an easy story to read, nor was it an easy story to write. This from her editor:

On her own, Alice did eight revisions of “Powers”. Then we worked on that ending because it was hard to finish off the story part of it and give Nancy her due.

An Appreciation Of Alice Munro

The New York Times reviewer did not consider “Powers” a success:

“Powers” devolves into a melodramatic tale about a provincial Canadian woman, blessed or cursed with psychic abilities, and her exploitation by a charming but feckless man on the make.


‘Melodramatic’ is an unusual word to ascribe to Alice Munro — a decidedly realist writer. Why would they have said that? I put it to you that this story is melodramatic if read at a more literal level. My own interpretation is highly metaphorical, as in, I don’t think Ollie is a real person. I think he’s a creation of Nancy’s imagination.

Hear me out.



Set in a small Ontario town after the First World War, the story spans about 50 years of Nancy’s life, starting as she’s about to get married, and skipping over the middle, child-rearing years.


There’s a hint of fabulism in this one, which may partly explain accusations of melodrama. Except I don’t for one moment believe Tessa genuinely has clairvoyant powers — I read this as a metaphor for people who sit on the fringes of life in general.

When Nancy takes Ollie to see her clairvoyant friend they go through a tunnel. This tunnel feels like a fantasy portal. Even when the other side of a tunnel is in ‘the real world’ (rather than some high fantasy landscape), a tunnel within a story often indicates an other-world of some kind. Hayao Miyazaki loves a good tunnel. He uses tunnels in Spirited Away (reality > fantasy), in Ponyo (reality > magic tinged reality), and in My Neighbour Totoro (reality > magic tinged reality). Since one of the ‘rules’ of portals is that the characters must pass quite slowly through them, tunnels as portals tend to feature characters walking through them, on foot. (A car would be too fast.)

The world on the other side of this particular tunnel is perhaps leading to a heterotopia; perhaps it’s simply a separated place where the rules work differently, or where inhabitants are different and ostracised.

Perhaps this tunnel is, for Nancy, a portal into her own imagination? This is at the heart of my thesis.

Could we go even further? Does Tessa exist? Both Tessa and Ollie could be part of a paracosm Nancy creates for herself to cope with an un-companionable, aloof and vocationally-oriented marriage partner. After much thought, I think Tessa does exist, though with fantasy add-ons. Tessa is possibly a disabled person who Nancy imagines has superpowers. I think it’s just Ollie she’s made up as an alter ego.


When “Powers” turns to the psychiatric institution, Munro takes us into a gothic setting. This is where Munro starts to play with scale — ‘”Gothic” biomedical models rely on a metonymic process of substitution of the person for increasingly smaller cellular and ultra cellular units’ (Forgotten: Narratives of Age-Related Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease in Canada by Marlene Goldman). In the dream sequence we’ll have a character dreaming of a character (mise en abyme effect) examining a pile of dead flies on a windowsill. It is noted that Nancy (subsumed by Tessa via a dream) doesn’t have a microscope, yet her eyes seem to zoom in on these iridescent fly wings. (She’s just met Ollie — perhaps imaginatively — and Ollie has trouble reading a menu. Equally old herself, it’s unlikely Nancy’s eyes would be capable of examining the detail of fly wings in real life.)


When considering the setting of a story, we can’t ignore the major cultural forces which shape the characters. One dominant aspect of early 20th century misogyny involved the idea that women are prone to hysteria.

Freud’s “discovery” of hysteria was both anticipated by, and grounded in, 19th-century realist fiction. …the dark continent that Freud called femininity was brought to life by these realist novelists. The hysterical character, she argues, conceives of every relationship as tragic, imaginatively doomed — hence the warning which forms the title of this book. Yet this character speaks for everyone. The insights of Anna Karenina, Gwendolen Harleth, or Cassandra give to them a dignity beyond pathology or their social position. They are not merely literary “femmes fatales”. It is part of being civilized, the author argues, to fear the people and things we love, particularly when they are intimate to us. Knowing this, each person is responsible for the form this apprehension takes — whether awe or panic, respect or protest, desire or denial. […]  Balzac, George Eliot, Charlotte Bronte, Tolstoy and Florence Nightingale […] are rich sources for understanding hysterical states of mind because they offer scope for interpretation that involves everyone as readers.

The blurb of Never Marry A Girl With A Dead Father: Women’s Troubled Relationships in Realist Novels

It is known that Balzac expressed his admiration for Dante. So when Munro’s character Nancy wants to delve into Dante, what is she really wanting? Insight into her own human condition? Wilf encourages against that, instead arranging a ‘useful’ life for her — one of choosing wallpapers and childbearing and mothering. This is exactly how misogyny works.

Patriarchy is what’s upheld.
Sexism is why it’s upheld.
Misogyny is how it’s upheld.

While reading “Powers”, look for the ways in which fiction is portrayed as fraudulent, i.e., fiction has the power to obscure the truth.

Back to my enduring hypothesis of Ollie as imaginary character: A character you invent yourself won’t necessarily tell their inventor the truth. Not immediately, anyway, though even invented characters can help their inventors discover something about themselves.

[“Powers”] explores … the ramifications of the increasing dominance of biomedical approaches to mental illness and ageing on Canadians from the perspective of patients and their caregivers.  […] “Powers” repeatedly emphasizes the ethical limits of fictive consolation — by that I mean the consolation provided by fantasy and, by extension, literature.

Forgotten: Narratives of Age-Related Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease in Canada by Marlene Goldman

But an imaginary world can eventually reveal as well as obscure, because people use imaginary worlds in all kinds of different ways. In the end, Tessa’s conversation with Ollie (whether real or imagined) takes place on two different levels of her mind: There’s the story he tells her and the story she knows lies underneath. Nancy teeters on that interstial space between conscious fantasy and unconscious fantasy.

Of course, this story was written later than it is set. Is Munro writing of hysteria as if it’s a quirk of the past? No, she is not, and this is what makes her a feminist writer. That old ‘women are crazy’ chestnut is still influential today and can be seen in statistics as simple as how men are prescribed more pain killers, because when men say they’re in pain, men are more likely believed.

With Freud’s claims about the female psyche mostly discredited and the advances in treatment of mental illness over the years lauded, the average bystander might conclude that we’ve come a long way from labelling a normal reaction to sexual assault “hysteria.” But a long legacy of prescriptive and sexist science remains at the foundation of psychiatric medical treatment for women. From the first diagnosis of hysteria to the present-day disparities in mental health treatment, the tradition of medicating women’s emotions has held constant. Within this context, the line between empirical treatment and medicating the lived experiences of women grows dangerously thin.

Sophie Putka, The New Enquiry

Could Tessa’s clairvoyance be an analogue for hysteria? Or rather, not for hysteria itself, but how hysteria has been viewed by the medical establishment? Early in the story, Tessa’s clairvoyance is taken somewhat seriously. It is later shown to be part of her mental illness. Or is it? In Nancy’s dream at the end, Tessa might actually know telepathically what’s in Ollie’s pocket. Despite clairvoyance clearly not being a thing (within the world of the story), despite science debunking that whole thing, there’s always a lingering what if? Science from the past continues to influence the present, and has a very real impact on women’s lives.

Some critics consider this aspect one of the most interesting of “Powers” — Munro’s exploration of dementia and hysteria, united in the power they have over us as a culture — women used to fear hysteria; now more likely fear dementia:

Whereas Tessa’s mysterious powers of consolation lie in recuperating what has been lost, Ollie’s power seemingly lies in dissociating from his own vulnerability, and reducing women — most obviously Tessa — to scientific specimens. Ollie’s strategy recalls late nineteenth and early twentieth century biomedical approaches to both hysteria and dementia, which entailed locating the disease processes in women’s minds and bodies and using them as scientific material.

Forgotten: Narratives of Age-Related Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease in Canada by Marlene Goldman

After World War I, when the return of thousands of disabled servicemen forced disability onto the political agenda, disabled people were hidden from history, shut away behind the walls of asylums with their voices silenced.

Disability discrimination endures into today, though its exact nature morphs over time. Today epilepsy is much better understood. But in the early 20th century and prior, people who had fits were cast out as those with lepers were cast out. The following images offer some context:

sorry references show you are an epileptic not a police station but an epileptic colony needed they won't play with me aw she has fits

When a disease is not well understood, people worry that it may be contagious or that it may be a moral problem, or possibly even a supernatural one. This story deals with the supernatural misunderstanding of fits.


Every life in this story is marked and decided by accidents and the unforeseen.  Hence the clairvoyance thread.

Munro juxtaposes two women, the brisk, self-absorbed Nancy, and Tessa, a strange girl with extraordinary, fragile powers [MIRROR CHARACTERS]. Yet it is Nancy, the skeptic and rationalist, who succeeds in peeling back the obscuring film over the past. She protests that she doesn’t want to live the past – she only wants to “open it up and get one good look.” That glimpse has such a weight of truth that though it may be dream or imagination, it is real and meaningful – like Munro’s own work.

Quill and Quire

At the beginning of “Powers” she has just finished high school. Nancy’s diary entries portray her as capricious and full of life — her youth and lack of maturity shine through. I’m reminded of Kelly Kapoor from the American version of The Office, whose focus on weddings is all-consuming — she hasn’t thought about what it will be like to be married.

But Nancy has more empathy for others than Kelly, who is utterly self-absorbed. By Nancy’s own admission, she marries Wilf because he has already been turned down, and she doesn’t want to embarrass either of them by saying no.

Nancy has been brought up in a culture in which a woman’s needs are subsumed by that of a man — she makes it a goal to find out more of Wilf’s interests so that they’ll have something to talk about. (At no point does she expect him to be interested in her — and he is not.) She becomes pregnant soon into their marriage and we learn later she has had multiple children. These children are not mentioned — the early childhood years are skipped over.

Much later, with childcare done and dusted, she is now caring for her husband with dementia. Now Nancy is asked by the psychiatric institution if she would also care for Tessa. The emotional burden heaped upon women is a thread across the stories of Alice Munro. Take for example “Deep Holes”. There is a scene early on in which the reader is made fully aware of the effort that has gone into preparing a picnic to suit the individualised tastes of each family member. These efforts go unrewarded. Her ungrateful son cuts ties with her after he grows up, and as an older woman, the main character must find a way to live with this ingratitude.

Nancy visits Tessa in the psychiatric institution. Facing a painful moral dilemma, Nancy must decide if she has it in her to care for the both of them. Don’t forget, she’s been taking care of other people her whole adult life.

The moral dilemmas throughout “Powers” revolve around balancing Nancy’s own needs against caring ‘responsibilities’ the culture has instilled in her. A lot of woman readers in particular will identify with this.

Older Nancy has undergone a character arc in the parts left out of the story. She doesn’t have the spoons to care for anyone else. She leaves Tessa at the institution and returns to her own home.

To this end, I think Ollie is an imaginary invention to help Nancy assuage her own conscience. When you’ve been brought up to put the needs of others before your own, and then you suddenly can’t, or don’t, you need to find a way to justify your own actions to yourself. Imaginary Ollie helps her with that.

Of course, none of this would explain how Tessa ended up in America. I don’t think it matters which parts of the story occur within the ‘real world’ of the story and which occur in the ‘imagined world’ of the story. It’s all highly mutable. The whole story exists is a dream space, after all.


Wilf is the thirty-year-old town doctor, who asks much younger Nancy to marry him. He’s just asked someone else and been turned down. He is portrayed as a very distant, self-contained character.

Unlike in “Tricks”, the previous story of this collection, the reader has no sense that Nancy and Wilf will be a good match. There is no “I understand you” moment” (as Matt Bird calls it).

Alice Munro has said in an interview that marriage was different when she was young — young people of marriage age just sort of picked someone and went along with it. In contrast, dating today is a game of enormous choice, made all the more confusing by the illusion of online choice, and it would now appear foolish to ‘settle’ on someone without going through an extended period of dating many partners first. Nancy and Wilf both belong to this older generation who expect different things from marriage (not friendship, for instance) and who would like to get married so they can get on properly with their adult lives.

Wilf seems to want a uterus more than he wants a partner — he tells Nancy to ‘give Dante a rest’. He doesn’t want someone who is a deep thinker or an equal in conversation. He doesn’t respect that Nancy may really enjoy more difficult things. And he knows he can mould Nancy into whatever he wants her to be. The era makes this easy — an era in which wives did as their husbands instructed. They had no other real choice.

Towards the end of “Powers” we learn that Wilf lives with dementia later in life. Nancy has faithfully served as his wife and caregiver.


As noted above, Ollie may be Nancy’s invented, male alter ego.

Ollie is supposedly Wilf’s younger cousin, Nancy’s own age (by no coincidence).

Ollie starts out wanting to be a science journalist. Perhaps if Nancy were a man that’s what she’d like to do. Her interest in Dante suggests a youthful interest in deeper things than wallpaper and mothering.

Ollie is mercenary and capitalist. He could be the human embodiment of all that is wrong with modernisation (“getting and spending”). When he thinks Tessa has psychic powers he marries her in order to exploit her for money. He runs off to America with Tessa but sticks her in a dodgy institution which is not approved by the authorities.

Why does Ollie treat Tessa the way he does? Shouldn’t he know what it’s like to be so vulnerable? Well, that’s not how lateral violence works.

Pain that is not transformed is transferred.
— Fr. Richard Rohr

Readers learn that prior to visiting with Wilf and Nancy, Ollie spent three years in a TB sanatorium. As a patient he was subject to protracted, invasive treatments. Wilf, who is portrayed as an extremely dispassionate and detached physician, explains that doctors collapsed one of Ollie’s lungs so that they could treat the infection. While Wilf calmly recounts Ollies’ treatment, the latter puts his hands over his ears. As Ollie confesses, he prefers not to think about what was done to him. Instead, as he admits to Nancy, he “pretends to himself he is hollow like a celluloid doll”. Ollie’s experience as a TB patient is relevant for several reasons. First, it recalls Sontag’s discussion of the dread that attended TB — a dread that currently haunts Alzheimer’s disease. Second, Ollie’s traumatic experience may have motivated him to pass on this sense of dread. Ollie’s response is significant because it offers insight into the predicament of the elegist, who, confronted with the death of the other, recognizes his own vulnerability and mortality. In the masculine elegy, the poet responds by deifying the deceased and, at the same time, celebrating his own survival. […] Ollie’s treatment of Tessa echoes this patterns.

Forgotten: Narratives of Age-Related Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease in Canada by Marlene Goldman

I find Ollie and his backstory unlikely, which is why I consider him a character inside Nancy’s imagination. Conversations she puts down to Ollie could easily be conversations she has with herself, or when other characters seem involved, what Ollie says could easily be what Nancy says, or what she would like to say.

Naturally, we can read any literary character in this way. Here’s the list of reasons why I suggest this guy be coded as Nancy’s creation:

  1. Nancy’s diary demonstrates she wants more from life than she gets, and inventing a parallel, peopled life would be one way of getting that.
  2. Ollie might be an invention to assuage Nancy’s own guilt — guilt that she doesn’t have it in her to care for both her own husband, own children as well as her childhood friend who winds up in a horrible institution. She can imagine she’s cared for by Ollie.
  3. Ollie may also be an invention to help Nancy cope with loneliness within marriage.
  4. Ollie’s hinted-at bisexuality may be more of a gender fluidity, in which Ollie is partly made up of Nancy, partly made up of Wilf (she’s made him Wilf’s cousin, after all). What she doesn’t get from Wilf (companionship and conversation) she is getting from Ollie, more or less. That said, Ollie doesn’t exactly tell her the truth. Why not invent a fictional character who at least tells you the truth? Because you may not even know the truth yourself. You can’t have an imaginary character tell you the truth until you’ve wrestled with the real situation yourself.
  5. Imaginary worlds come and go throughout a person’s life — busy with young children, it would seem natural Nancy had no time to even conjure Ollie for all those years, explaining the time jump. It’s at the ends of her life that she has the space to invent, and think, and overthink, and blame herself, and to try and make amends.
  6. Wilf clearly knows little about his own cousin. I accept that he’s an inward looking man, but still.
  7. Ollie ends up on Texada island. Islands are highly symbolic other spaces — especially in other Alice Munro stories. For example in “Cortes Island” the island is an imaginary space for main characters — imagined as a way of coping with day-to-day life.
  8. Ollie took Tessa around the vaudeville circuit. The vaudeville world itself is another fictional arena — perhaps a fictional world within a fictional world. It’s not exactly a run-of-the-mill way to live a life — more likely to occur in fiction than in reality.

The reader is not afforded a look into Tessa’s mind, except perhaps at the end as Nancy’s dream lets her look through Tessa’s eyes.

Tessa is Nancy’s childhood friend. She dropped out of school when she was 14 due to an unnamed illness, later revealed to include seizures. She is small in stature, as if illness has caused lack of growth.

Nancy cryptically explains to the reader that Tessa is “not in the world that the rest of us are in”. (This may give them something in common, if Nancy has this really rich imaginative life.)

We are eventually told that Tessa is a clairvoyant. Tessa uses these so-called psychic powers to help the townspeople find hidden or mislaid objects, sometimes even dead bodies.

Vulnerable, childlike Tessa marries Ollie, who has written an article about her, sending many people to her house. (This minor celebrity creates some havoc.) As Nancy has passively accepted her own entry into wife- and motherhood, Tessa seems to passively accept all this, and goes along with Ollie who transplants her to America.

But Ollie is a man and his caregiving capacities are limited. He puts her in an institution, which eventually closes in the late 1960s.

Like Wilf, Tessa also suffers memory loss as an older person. Dementia may combine with mental limitations caused by a lifetime of seizures — the difference is unclear and unimportant to the story.


The Guardian’s view of Nancy is less kind than my own:

“Powers”… is a little masterpiece of impersonation, an uncanny inhabiting of the mind of a meddling, egotistical girl and of a distinct historical period. The long range of Munro’s stories is only made possible by her apparently effortless possession of decade beyond decade of the past, her technique being the opposite of so much information-bolstered fiction of the present: she knows that life in the past was unhampered by any sense of its future quaintness, so she doesn’t explain. She gives us a past as unselfconscious as today. […] The sweep of the thing, the unfolding picture of the unforeseen life, the interlocking strangeness and ordinariness, the unravelling narrative of Nancy’s own consciousness, together make a deep impression.

The Guardian review


“Powers” is divided into five parts each with chapter names:

Give Dante a Rest

TIME: Spring, 1927
NARRATION: first person diaries of an unnamed character

Nancy, fresh out of high school, is convinced that she is destined to live a life of importance.

She has a joking, trickster side. She startles the town doctor, Wilf, on April Fool’s Day by rocking up at his house pretending to have a sore throat.

He does not share her sense of humour at all and tells her to get out. (He’s probably a good 12 years older than she is, which would be intimidating. This scene is the inverse of an “I understand you” moment. The reader can see that these two are wrong for each other.

Rather than blaming the doctor for his lack of humour, she feels really stupid. She was only having some fun, and perhaps trying to get his attention. The difference in maturity (borne of age difference) is also a factor here.

She sends a note of apology and hears nothing back, but when she’s trying to get through a novel by Dante, the doc turns up at her door, takes her out to see some ice breaking, and completely out of the blue offers his hand in marriage.

Nancy accepts his proposal, not because she feels affection for him, but because she can’t think of a good reason to say no — she doesn’t want him to feel bad, because her friend has already turned him down.

In her diary she seems disappointed that her life has turned out so mundane after all. Like all the other eligible young women she knows, she’s going to get married. (And she’s about to marry a doctor — financial stability for life.) Her path is set now. She’ll have his babies. He assumes so, too. She’s not going to have the special life she dreamed of.

This reminds me of Angela Hayes from the film American Beauty. Angela’s biggest fear is to be ordinary.

One of the worst criticisms that can be levelled at a young woman: “She thinks she’s all that.” She has ideas about herself.

In fiction, young women with aspirations above their station will invariably have rich imaginative lives. Of course they do, right? These characters have the ability to imagine how their lives might be, and that in itself requires imaginative power.

[NANCY’S PSYCHOLOGICAL WEAKNESS] Imagination itself can be a liability when you start to recast yourself. Safer, indeed, to invent a paracosm with a wholly original cast. Keep yourself right out of it, stories tell us, time and time again. In American Beauty, Angela’s story about herself (as a sexually experienced ingenue) seeps into the real world, making the actually virginal Angela highly vulnerable in the presence of her best friend’s sexual predator father.

Alice Munro doesn’t let us in on the exact nature of Nancy’s fantasies about herself. Or does she? (Cue the invention of Ollie. Perhaps she wants to be a science journalist, freed of the burden of caring for others, living on an island.)

Girl in a Middy

TIME: several months after Give Dante A Rest
NARRATION: third person

Nancy and Wilf are engaged and preparing for their wedding. Wilf’s cousin Ollie is in town to attend the ceremony. Nancy becomes fascinated by his worldly affectations.

In an attempt to impress him, she takes Ollie to visit Tessa, Tessa correctly identifies all of the items in Ollie’s pockets. Ollie seems to dismiss her, but Nancy fears he has ulterior motives.

Nancy writes to Tessa, warning her to avoid Ollie. Tessa responds, revealing that she and Ollie have already eloped to the United States. They intend to get married and test her abilities scientifically. Tessa ignores Nancy’s cruel but shrewd injunctions that Ollie only wants to exploit her gift for commercial ends.

Here’s a feature seen across Alice Munro’s short stories: There is a revelation, we expect the story can close now, but no — Munro is just cranking up. Each of these sections contains its own mini anagnorisis.

One might have thought the climax of the story occurred with the revelation that a couple had run away together at the end of “Girl in a Middy”. It is certainly a surprise, though one ushered in with little pomp, right at the end of the segment.

But if one identifies the climax of the story as falling in the third “act”, one must choose a moment other than this one, something in “A Hole in the Head”. (Well, that seems like an obvious moment, doesn’t it, but in fact that hole already existed, or never existed, or still exists. In typical Munro-fashion, each of these scenarios seems possible.)

Perhaps the moment in which one woman realizes that the other is operating under the assumption that her lover is dead, the moment at which she chooses not to correct the misunderstanding, the moment at which she turns her back on her and leaves her there, isolated and confined.

Buried In Print
A Hole in the Head

TIME:  forward into the 1960s

Nancy is now an ageing woman visiting an American mental hospital. Along with many such facilities of this era, the ward is shutting down. Nancy has received a letter asking that she retrieve Tessa, who has lived there for some time.

When Nancy and Tessa meet, Nancy tries to learn about Ollie and his life with Tessa. Tessa, however, cannot remember anything. Perhaps electroshock therapy has ruined her memory. Tessa claims that someone may have strangled Ollie, but recalls nothing else. Tessa then guesses that Nancy plans to abandon her at the facility. This is true. Feeling guilty, Nancy promises to write her letters. She never does.

A Square, A Circle, A Star

TIME: moves forward a few more years.

Wilf has died from the complications of a stroke (suggesting he had vascular dementia). It’s only now that Wilf is dead that Nancy has the spoons to consider her obligations to Tessa.

Nancy’s friends have filled in where Wilf left off, urging her against getting too invested in her own demons. They tell her to get out and about, to get involved in social activities. As she has done her whole life, despite seeming capricious in her diary entries, Nancy does as she’s told. She goes on a ghastly geriatric cruise at their behest. But now it seems she’s done with people telling her not to go deep into her own mind. Though this part is summarised rather than shown, her experience on the cruise ship seems to have switched something over in Nancy — she will no longer fill up the rest of her life with frivolities that keep her entertained on the surface.

So she visits Vancouver. What a coincidence. She bumps into Ollie. (Not a coincidence at all if you’re with me here and Ollie isn’t real.)

She and Ollie go to a Japanese restaurant, then to a coffee shop, where they continue their long discussion. Ollie discusses his travels with Tessa in the United States. He says that funding for research disappeared after World War II, forcing he and Tessa to work on the vaudeville circuit.

Vaudeville a type of entertainment popular chiefly in the USA in the early 20th century, featuring a mixture of speciality acts such as burlesque comedy and song and dance.

The only way to make any money that they discovered was to go with the travelling shows, to operate in town halls or at fall fairs. They shared the stage with the hypnotists and snake ladies and dirty monologuists and strippers in feathers.

Focusing on the burlesque aspect, I see older Nancy as a burlesque witch. (Better to click through on that to know what I mean.) The modern burlesque witch tends to view herself as a younger woman trapped in an old woman’s body. The following passage demonstrates this exact experience in “Powers”:

It happens only a few times in your life—at least it’s only a few times if you’re a woman—that you come upon yourself like this, with no preparation. It was a bad as those dreams in which she might find herself walking down the street in her night-gown, or nonchalantly wearing only the top of her pajamas [FEAR OF DEMENTIA OR ACCUSATIONS OF HYSTERIA].

During the past ten or fifteen years she had certainly taken time out to observe her own face in a harsh light so that she could better see what makeup could do, or decide whether the time had definitely come to start coloring her hair. But she had never had a jolt like this, a moment during which she saw not just some old and new trouble spots, or some decline that could not be ignored any longer, but a complete stranger [SHE HAS HAD A MAJOR ANAGNORISIS, OR REVERSAL].

Somebody she didn’t know and wouldn’t want to know.

The strain of performing gave Tessa headaches and gradually eroded her powers, but they developed a system to deceive their audiences. (Much as Nancy has ‘developed a system’ to deceive herself — the invention of Ollie.)

Eventually, Ollie tells her, Tessa died. Nancy does not contradict him but feels all through the conversation that he has not been telling the truth. Ollie drives her back to her hotel, and she is about to invite him to spend the night in the other bed of her motel room. This is because he appears to have nowhere to stay but inside his jalopy. Before she speaks, however, Ollie turns her down, as if he possesses a less magical form of clairvoyance himself. Or perhaps there’s no clairvoyance, so much as Ollie being literally of Nancy’s own mind.

Nancy feels complicit in Ollie’s lies to the point where she feels she is lying herself in not protesting at it. (If Ollie is an invented character than she is indeed lying to herself, via Ollie.)

To make things right, Nancy decides to find Tessa and bring her to Ollie. However, she does not succeed.

Flies on A Windowsill

TIME: decades later

Nancy’s grown children have been kept off the page, but now we learn they worry that Nancy is living in the past. In other words, they worry she’s living inside her imagination, not in the real, current world. (I suspect ‘living in the past’ is an accusation levelled at older people, whereas a young person would be accused of living ‘inside her head’.)

The story closes with a dream. Nancy falls asleep and dreams about Tessa and Ollie. They are staying at a motel. Tessa suffers from a terrible headache. In the dream, Tessa sees a messy little pyramid of flies hidden on the sill behind the curtain. Excited that her psychic powers have returned, she awakens Ollie and they embrace. As they embrace Ollie worries that Tessa can sense the papers in his front pocket, which will commit her to a mental hospital. It is implied that Tessa does indeed sense the paper’s presence. But she no longer cares what happens to her. Nancy then dreams that Ollie decides to spare Tessa. As she does so, a feeling of reprieve lights up her dream. Nancy is pulled out of it as her consciousness disintegrates around her.

It is a bold choice to end a story with a dream sequence. Do you consider this a successful short story? What did you get out of it?

Header photo by Hoshino Ai

The Haunted Tea-Cosy by Edward Gorey

Edward Gorey was an American writer and illustrator who died in the year 2000. The Haunted Tea-Cosy: A Dispirited and Distasteful Diversion for Christmas is a picture book for adults, based on the cartoons first published in the December issue of the New York Times Magazine, 1997. Bloomsbury picked it up in an early-Internet era to introduce Gorey to British readers. This was therefore Gorey’s second-to-last book.

In the preface to “A Christmas Carol,” Charles Dickens wrote that he tried “to raise the Ghost of an Idea” with readers and trusted that it would “haunt their houses pleasantly.” In December 1997, 154 Christmases later, the “New York Times Magazine” asked our Edward Gorey, “the iconoclastic artist and author, ” to refurbish this enduring morality tale. What is Gorey’s moral? Don’t eat fruitcake? Don’t look for morals? Don’t mess with the classics? Whatever. You decide. But don’t think too hard, and have a Merry Christmas.

marketing copy


I wonder if Gorey ever had the experience of enjoying a cup of tea only to find himself swilling a beetle. My father still speaks of the time he had a cockroach in his mouth. I had my own taste of this medicine when I recently found an earwig in mine. Unfortunately for me, I was drinking tea at the house of a new acquaintance and had to deal with this episode discreetly. (I believe I managed it.)


Edward Gorey’s work tends to be described as:

  • Surreal (that word may not mean what you think it means)
  • Gothic
  • Metafictive
  • Victorianist (A Christmas Carol was published in 1843 and takes place in the early 1800’s.)
  • Whimsical (yes, both gothic and whimsical)
  • Absurdist

Up front, I’d get more out of it if I could be bothered reading the source of the spoof from cover to cover — A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. For reasons I’ve yet to palpate, I find that story and all movie adaptations immensely boring, but it’s such a tentpole narrative that I’ve absorbed the general gist: A miserly old man fails to enjoy Christmas, is visited by three scary ghosts and after this trauma learns not to be miserable — because it’s Christmas, after al, and Christmas is based on the old carnivalesque tradition and you are going to hav fun at dinner with the rellies, dammit. Perhaps it’s the didacticism that repels. Perhaps it’s the unscary ghost which fails to entice?

In any case, A Christmas Carol is ripe for parody because by the end of the 20th century, audiences were no longer down with such moralising works, not even for kids. But in other ways Charles Dickens remains fun — no one surpasses him for character names. Edward Gorey certainly had fun with that in “The Haunted Tea-Cosy”. (The man himself had a remarkably symbolic name, also known as an aptronym.)


Does this series of cartoons have a classic story structure? Does it build to anything? At first read it feels deliberately random — an integral part of its humour — the so-called anti-plot. This is a consciously non-didactic story — the grandiose moral of ‘don’t be a miser’ is demoted.

Gravel and his companions found themselves at a great distance somewhere to the north.

Why are they in the north? No reason given. None needed. But Gorey is well aware of the symbolism of the North — North equals desolate and cold.

The marketing copy suggests ‘don’t eat fruitcake’ as a moral but there is really nothing to learn — any takeaway message is this: The world is bizarre. Revel in life’s inherent absurdity. Don’t even bother looking for connections. If you see any cause and effect relationships, well, that’s on you.

Gorey was also well-attuned to heart-rending melodrama, exhibited best in the graveyard scene:

A small orphan called Nub and a large stray dog named Bruno huddled against a tombstone whose inscription was worn away.

Nothing says pathetic like orphans and stray dogs. Read Grimm versions of Cinderella and you’ll find, quite often in the German fairytales, the main character found herself weeping beside her dead mother’s grave.

But even melodramatic parodies need something to hang it together:

Edmund Gravel sits down for tea on Christmas Eve, cuts a slice of fruitcake, and is immediately visited [INCITING INCIDENT] by the Spectre of Christmas That Never Was, the Spectre of Christmas That Isn’t, and the Spectre of Christmas That Never Will Be. Guided on his spectral [MYTHIC] journey by the Bahhum Bug, Edmund is taken through his village of Lower Spigot and shown [METAFICTIVE] Affecting Scenes, Distressing Scenes, and Heart-Rending Scenes.

Goodreads reviewer, links are mine

The thread running through this story is a crime plot — the case of the missing wallpaper (wholly unconnected to the teapot, which is your classic McGuffin.

Alberta Stipple has her wallpaper stolen; it is subsequently found buried in a graveyard when grave diggers are excavating a misplaced coffin; detectives turn up to inform Lady Snaggle at her ancestral home that ‘her husband’s brains’ (note the funny phrasing) were behind an international gang of wallpaper thieves.

The story of Gravel and his bug are a mock-framing story, meaningfully disconnected (from what I can tell) from that crime plot, though perhaps someone will enlighten me on that.

The ending is abrupt, a relative of the Shaggy Dog ending, in which we realise we’ve been strung along with a non-story and its anticlimax. But! We are left with a satisfying sentence:

Giggling, dancing and shrieking prevailed and, as the evening wore on, were carried to the very edge of the unseemly.

The final word of that sentence, ‘unseemly’ is ironically underwhelming, as the ending is itself.



“The Haunted Tea-Cosy” is designed to emulate a printing era in which colour was expensive and illustrations were separate from text (recto vs verso). A Christmas Carol was published in the Edwardian era, though it’s set ambiguously in the Georgian or Victorian era.

Edward Gorey drew using a combination of techniques. He makes metafictive reference to ‘stippling’ in one of the character names of The Haunted Tea-Cosy. If you’re logged in to Pinterest, there’s a collection of his techniques here. Gorey was well-known for pen and ink — no gradations of shading. In “The Haunted Tea-Cosy” he depicts the semi-transparent ghosts with a series of short lines in the shape of a person — the gap between the lines symbolises the overall transparency. (If he were making use of, say, pencil, he could’ve pressed more lightly, but that was not his tool.) This is how Gorey created the full range of values — by leaving varying amounts of space between the lines. This would have been very Zen, I imagine.

The composition of the illustrations is, however, that of a modern comic picture book such as Mo Willems often creates. Even the limited, dusty pastel colour palette is similar.

A man and his fruitcake, a massive knife, and nothing else.

Gorey is using the same sentence structure over and over, which serves to make it stand out. It includes commas used like parentheses to incorporate detail which is funny but also diverting (in the literal sense) because while these details are being described, something massive is happening:

The tea-cosy suddenly twitched and from beneath it leapt a creature many times the size of the space within, even if it had not already held the teapot.

Emphasis on the dimensions of the teapot are beside the point, sort of, because how on earth could something that big come out of there? We accept such things in stories though, so Gorey is making fun of our willingness to suspend disbelief, metafictively pulling us out of such inclinations.

I’m sure I don’t get half the jokes in subsequent scenes involving the subsequent ghosts, who are switched out for some reason I don’t understand because I’ve not read Dickens’ version. They visit one house after another and find each household involved in their own trivial disputes:

Next door but one the Edgar Grapples, Senior and Junior, had an argument as to what day of the week it was.

(Oblivious to the fact that they are accompanied by a visiting ghost.)

The third makes his first visit to Alicia Grumble:

Alicia Grumble woke in the night unable to think where she had put her Bible.

The illustration says it, but why is she looking for her Bible? This part of the story has been elided from the text: She is looking for her Bible to pray the ghost away, who has just turned up in her room. Or maybe not. Maybe that’s just me, making too much of connections.

The vocabulary of “The Haunted Tea-Cosy” is deliberately hifalutin, similar to how short story writer Saki made use of big words in a comical manner. Douglas Adams, to a lesser but noticeable extent, and various other comic writers.

  • ‘Alfreda Scumble was abstracted from the veranda’ (notice also use of the passive — contemporary writers are encouraged to avoid it where possible, probably because we’ll end up sounding like a Victorian parody)
  • The ghosts are described as ‘subfuse but transparent personages’. I had to look up ‘subfuse‘. It means dirty and swampy — ironically, you wouldn’t except ‘dirty’ on something ‘transparent’. Hence the ‘but‘.
  • ‘at which the Bug declared in a minatory tone…’ (minatory means expressing or conveying a threat)
  • ‘the bug declared in an admonitory tone’ (this is why writers are urged to stay away from non-ironic adverbs in dialogue tags)
  • cynosure — a person or thing that is the centre of attention or admiration. ‘The cynosure was a cake taller than anything else in the room…’ But Gorey does not reward the reader by SHOWING us this cake, supposedly the centre of the wrapper story. No, he leaves it off the page. The characters are looking to the right upper corner. Those of us accustomed to picture books turn the page expecting to be rewarded for our time but nope, still no cake. Instead, they are dancing. (The dance is clearly an expressionist dance rather than a jovial one.)


Gorey influenced various modern artists such as Tim Burton, who has in turn been emulated e.g. the creators of ParaNorman. Less directly, Gorey has also been an influence on Gary Larsen (via B. Kliban) whose comic panels you’ll know as The Far Side.

Gorey himself was influenced by Dracula, which he came across at a very young age.


Gregory Maguire is another modern author sometimes asked to re-vision old tales for Christmas. I enjoy “Matchless“, a take on “The Little Match Girl“.

How Edward Gorey Illustrated Three Classic Fairytales from io9

If you like Gorey, check out Ivor Cutler.

Home » melodrama

Tips For Writing Melodrama

Melodrama is a widely misunderstood term but has its place in good storytelling. What is melodrama, and how do we write it?

Melodrama In Everyday Usage

In everyday English, if we describe a person as ‘melodramatic’ we are probably describing a high drama individual.

The High Need For Drama checklist

We’re probably talking about what we consider ‘too much emotion’. When talking about storytelling, though, melodrama is a legitimate, widely-enjoyed art form with a long, successful history. There’s no inherent pejorative meaning in the terminology ‘melodrama’.

Triumph for Inspector West John Creasey tingling melodrama
Triumph for Inspector West John Creasey tingling melodrama

A Brief History Of Melodrama

Melodrama emerged around the time of the French Revolution, which marks the beginning of capitalism and a shift towards commodification. Societies were moving from mercantile to market based economies.

Commodification had special relevance to women, because women were themselves commodities. Women and girls were married off for their family’s gain, with no autonomy. In the early modern era, women were not legal individuals, subsumed first by their fathers, next by their husbands.

Melodramatic stories are about what happens to an individual when they are faced with a difficult circumstance. Early melodramas asked questions such as, What is it like to be married off to a man you don’t know or like? Things happened to these main characters. In real life as in melodramatic fiction, these main characters had little agency. Pride and Prejudice is classic melodrama.

Like gothic fiction, melodrama has always been a popular form of storytelling rather than considered high art. No coincidence there: both types of story are about and enjoyed by women, and whatever concerns women is historically considered niche and frivolous.

In earlier times, melodramatic stories were interspersed with musical numbers, though didn’t quite fit the definition of musical theatre. This convention affected how melodramatic works were plotted; with more airtime taken up by the music, there was less time available for the main narrative. When storytellers are faced with telling a story in a very limited time, they have no choice but to rely on character archetypes and plot tropes. Audiences are already familiar with these things and need nothing by way of introduction.

For this same reason, the first cinematic productions also relied on melodrama. With no words in the silent era of film, anything other than reliance upon archetype was impossible.

The 1940s required stories that appealed to women, so stories emerged around the different and proper roles of women in society.

The 20th century gave us the soap opera, a low form of melodrama. They’re not functioning as true melodramas, though. There’s a reason soap operas are shown in the middle of the day — audiences are not craving genuine emotion at that time of day. If soap operas are melodramatic, it’s because they are designed to be an emotional diversion, not a catharsis.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and the way television series are funded. The makers of TV rarely know how many seasons they will be funded for. If they don’t know how long they will have to complete a story, they have no choice but to move away from the quest narrative, in which the story is over once the quest has been achieved. Instead, writers create a large cast of characters and move the camera between characters, between families, setting up a highly unusual situation and then letting the audience watch individuals’ responses to that situation by way of exposing different moralities. That’s what melodrama is.

Not all ‘prestige (episodic) TV’ is melodramatic. Breaking Bad is more quest than melodrama. The writers have previously spoken about one of the most challenging tasks of writing Breaking Bad: The cast of characters is very small, not to mention the writers’ strike that happened part way through season one and never knowing from season to season whether the show would be renewed. (Given the challenges around bringing that story to screen, they did a fantastic job.)

The Sopranos sits further toward the melodramatic end of the scale. The cast of characters is much larger. This is a violent, gangster world, so highly unusual (and shocking) events happen on the regular. Characters respond to that event in various ways.

Big Love, Six Feet Under and The Handmaid’s Tale are melodramas. Each of those shows places main characters in a very difficult, impossible situation. Due to their entrapped status, autonomy of the main characters is limited.

Desperate Housewives is perhaps what many people think of when they think ‘melodrama’. In fact, Desperate Housewives is a satire of soap opera (and wasn’t sold until ‘satire’ was inserted into the pitch).

Young adult stories with a mainly female audience are often described as ‘melodramatic’, with melodrama used as a pejorative. For instance, Rotten Tomatoes says of the film adaptation of If I Stay, “Although Chloë Grace Moretz gives it her all and the story adds an intriguing supernatural twist to its melodramatic young adult framework, If I Stay is ultimately more manipulative than moving.”

So What Is Melodrama?

In everyday English, ‘melodrama’ suffers from the same problem as ‘surreal‘. Generally, speakers use both of these words to describe something that is not realistic or unreal, when in fact the terms properly describe works of art which are more real(istic) than other works of art.

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

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

So how is melodrama more real than, say, drama? Melodrama is the technique of revealing reality by concentrating on the remarkable rather than the ordinary. Melodrama is about extremes, especially extremes of circumstance and emotional reaction to that circumstance.

Melodrama is a storytelling paradigm rather than a genre. For that reason, different genres, and different stories within those genres, each have their own analogue switch relating to melodrama. Some genres tend to be more melodramatic than others. If we consider war movies a genre (they’re actually a blend of action and drama in a wartime setting), then some war movies are melodramatic (Hurt Locker), but some are quest stories instead (Saving Private Ryan, Apocalypse Now).

Many stories aimed at children (especially teens) are high in melodrama.

We might think of melodrama as the inverse of ‘quest’ arc. This is a continuum rather than a binary division. Some stories are more quest-like, some stories are more melodramatic.

When determining the extent of melodrama in any given story, ask the following: Is there a strong moral question that drives the story? Melodrama is about groups of people (families and family stand-ins), and how massive, unusual outside forces change interpersonal dynamics.

Melodrama is not about twists and turns. Melodrama won’t be using many of the techniques required by, say, thriller, which aims for suspense and perhaps for horripilation but avoids pathos.

What is melodrama for?

  1. Melodrama rouses strong emotions in its audience. These are stories which intend to invoke pathos. Storytellers want to make you cry. First they make you identify with their characters, then they put them through the mill.
  2. Melodrama invokes implicit shared attitudes.
  3. Melodrama presents a cast of characters — typically a family, or family stand-in — gives them an impossible dilemma and then shows how each of those individuals respond to it. Melodramatic stories are therefore domestic in nature. Also, by definition, melodrama requires a clear moral dilemma. A melodramatic story asks the audience to consider what they might do in the same situation, and to ask big, psychological questions such as, How much am I prepared to endure? How much am I prepared to risk? Am I seeing the situation correctly? Is it me that’s the problem here, or is it the world?

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 Write Melodrama ?

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.

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.


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 incorporated into the character building, as shown by the taglines of Riverdale below:

Riverdale beauty darkness light

Desire and Need In Main Characters of Melodramas

In traditional (quest) stories, people tend to rise to a challenge in a superhero kind of way. In real life, people are mostly victims of circumstance. Since melodrama is ‘realistic’, it goes for ‘victims of circumstance’ characterisation.

People working in film and TV (and less so in children’s literature) are told constantly that their characters require a desire (surface and underlying), and a shortcoming/need (moral and psychological). Next they’ll need to make a plan, then keep changing the plan as things go wrong for them.

These elements are present in almost all compelling stories, but because writers are told they must have them, this creates a loop in which other types of stories don’t get made.

In real life, there are people who don’t have much agency. That describes all of us at some point of other; something big happens to us and we had no say in the matter. That gives us more in common with the romantic hero than with Walter White, whose plan is to cook meth and provide for his family. The melodramatic main character does not start out with a strong desire. They may wish to simply keep going in their highly restrictive lives. They may not have the executive functioning required to make plans (this is especially true of child characters). They may not have the freedom of gender, or of race.

In melodrama desires are muted; plans are reactionary. I’ve seen the term ‘out-of-whack’ event used to describe the external force that skicks off the melodrama:

Out-of-whack event. In Aristotelian drama, the story concerns a character whose stable life is knocked out of whack by an external force. The remainder of the story concerns his attempts to put his life back into whack, and his success or failure. The out-of-whack event inaugurates the struggle.

Commonly the out-of-whack event occurs at the novel’s opening (e.g. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land, Valentine Michael Smith is brought to Earth; or Zelazny, Nine Princes in Amber, Corwin recovers his powers but not his memory). It may already be in the past (e.g. Silverberg, The Man in the Maze, the aliens tamper with Muller’s brain to broadcast evil emotions).

Glossary of Terms Useful When Criticising Science Fiction

(I’m also noticing that the term ‘Aristotelian Drama’ basically describes ‘melodrama’. But Aristotelian gives a story street cred, whereas the word ‘melodrama’ confers a whole lot of negative connotation.)

Comedy doesn’t lend itself to melodrama. Comedic heroes tend to be low mimetic. Comedy derives from their own shortcomings — they don’t know enough, they are full of hubris, they are always making mistakes. But comedic main characters have drive, they make plans. Terrible plans, but plans nonetheless. Comedy evokes laughter; melodrama evokes tears. Melodrama goes deeper into character than comedy, which relies on archetype, sometimes with tweaks, but archetypes as base. (This is also why Breaking Bad is less melodramatic than The SopranosBreaking Bad contains a lot of dark comedy, and the two don’t play well together.)

Opponents in Melodrama

In a melodrama, an event happens which robs your character of their power. Their struggle is to regain their power, and thereby achieve freedom. Whoever stands in the way of them regaining their power functions as the opponent. These opponents don’t tend to be arch nemeses and archetypal villains, but spoilt brat offspring and overprotective parents — people with their own understandable wants and needs.

The Unoriginal Plots of Melodramas

Melodrama requires a strong, tried and tested plot. That’s why melodrama tends to correlate with genre fiction.

The external events that happen in melodramas won’t be original. Audience interest derives from the characters’ various reactions to these events. Melodramatic plots are therefore routine and expected.

When plot becomes less important, character becomes more important.

Whatever happens in your melodrama, make sure it is absolutely central to the lives of your main characters. These should be people in crisis. If they’re not in crisis, you’re probably writing drama, not melodrama.

There’s nothing like impending death to rouse you from existential boredom.

Roger Ebert

Bridges Over Madison Country is melodramatic because a woman falls in love with a man who is not her husband, in a culture where leaving her husband is not possible or okay. How does she deal with this over the course of a lifetime? She knows she’ll never love anyone like this again. The story explores how this chance encounter makes her feel, and how it makes her children feel once they discover their deceased mother’s secret life. Brief Encounter is another story with the same basic plot, yet these are clearly two very different stories. It’s not the plot that makes them different.

Young adult melodramas I Am Not Okay With This and Never Have I Ever both start with identical set ups: A teenage girl has recently lost her father. Her interiority is revealed via trips to the school counsellor, who encourages her to open up in a journal. There are other similarities because these plots are not what sets them apart; its all about the character, and these young women’s responses to the loss of their fathers.

Six Feet Under started every episode with a death, followed by the Fisher family meeting with the family to plan a funeral, more or less. The plots themselves would not have soon lost novelty if it weren’t for the highly interesting treatment of character, including dream sequences which hadn’t been seen on television before.

There are many, many stories about a city woman who faces a crisis and returns to her roots in a rural area, where she opens a cafe/bed and breakfast/etc, exposes a secret about her past, then meets the love of her life. Again, there is nothing unique about the plot. This opens up plenty of storytelling room to character development, crisis and… melodrama.

Notice how each of these stories listed above appeal to largely female audiences. There is a bias at work when evaluating stories from a cerebral angle: Original plots get elevated to high art, whereas varied emotional reactions in characters and audiences are criticised for being ‘tearjerkers’, lacking in originality and so on.

The Problem With Melodrama: Believability

Melodrama ignores the ordinary to concentrate on the unusual and unlikely. Ironically, it often creates a credibility problem for readers who expect mimesis in storytelling. (Many true stories are nonetheless unbelievable when transferred to the realm of fiction.)

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


Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire begins 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 Meyer built her Twilight series on the accepted convention of vampires already established to modern readers by writers such as Anne Rice.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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. 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.


Don’t explain the big event which kicks off the story. Don’t explain it away or make fun of it in any other way, either. (Once you’ve made fun of it, you’re writing comedy, a melodrama killer.)

Melodrama can be ruined in other ways, too. No waking up and it was all a dream.


Especially at first, as you’re establishing the event. The improbable events must be shown in scenes rather than explained in narrative summary. Show don’t tell is not always good advice, but it’s good here.

Dialogue is especially useful when showing rather than telling, because well-rendered dialogue feels believable to an audience.

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


Write of the improbability sparingly. Don’t let the big weird event become commonplace. The amount of reality versus ‘improbably, magical thing’ has to be balanced. A story in which literally anything can happen is a story in which nothing makes sense.

In Big Love, the situation of the polygamous family living undercover is normal and ordinary 99% of the time, but has the potential to become extraordinary once in a while, which culminates when Bill runs for office. The normal, domestic scenes build credibility and also suspense, since the reader is always waiting for the secret to come out.

In other words, if you’ve got something functioning as a storytelling monster, don’t trot it out in every chapter or the reader will start to yawn. The monsters audiences imagine are more frightening than the monsters they see.

Alfred Guillou - Farewell 1892
Alfred Guillou – Farewell 1892

Notes above are from Anson Dibell’s book on writing: Plot and a Draft Zero podcast from Stu and Chas with Stephen Cleary.

The Others Film Study

Written by Alejandro Amenábar, The Others is an old-fashioned melodramatic ghost story but done very well. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s one of those films that can be ruined in one fell swoop (like Sixth Sense), so leave the building now!

How To Write A Horror Film The Others
The Others class
The Others

Amenábar is also well known for Open Your Eyes, and he started in filmmaking very young. He both wrote and directed The Others. (Screenplay)

This is a ‘haunted house movie’ (see here for an extensive list of many others) of the genres thriller and horror.

Remember that horror is one of the most metaphorical of genres, so there will be messages behind the story that you have to dig for a little bit.

On Twist Endings

Now that you know this film has a twist ending, it’s worth noting that just telling someone to expect a twist ending changes the story experience. You’re always better off not knowing a twist ending is coming. Take a look at the movie poster compared to the DVD collector’s edition, in which it is assumed that anyone buying the DVD will have already seen the film and know the twist. Note that, even though twist endings might at first glance make a great selling point, that information is kept off movie posters:

The Others movie poster
The Others movie poster
The Others dvd
Movie poster with a spoiler

Other films with twist endings:

  • Seven
  • Signs
  • The Village
  • Saw
  • The Stepford Wives
  • Terminator 3
  • Flightplan

Agatha Christie mastered the art of twist endings. Twist endings are almost mandatory in mysteries such as those she wrote. She managed this by setting up false villains. This is the trick employed by Amenábar here, too. Something which has been done so often that it’s almost cliche is when the audience finds out the main hero is already dead. This is done here too, after a fashion, but because we’ve also been tricked into thinking the villains are the troupe of house servants, the story still offers surprise: We probably suspect the house servants are ghosts, but we’re less likely to think the mother and her children are also ghosts. And even if we do guess that (because we’re super literate and have experienced a lot of stories), it is probably still a revelation to learn that it was the mother who killed her own children. Being a wartime setting, we probably assumed they died from some sort of war tragedy, or the Spanish flu (which killed more people during the war than did the battlefields.)

In short, the surprise twist in this story work because there is a layering of reveals — there is not just the one surprise.

This is difficult to pull off because it requires the writer to predict the audience’s response in order to confound it.


A woman who lives in a darkened old house with her two photosensitive children becomes convinced that her family home is haunted.

Genres: Thriller, horror. Remember that horror is one of the most metaphorical of genres, so there will be messages behind the story that you have to dig for a little bit. The story opens with a mother telling her children the story of Genesis. According to her religious (Catholic) world view, the afterlife is divided into parts: heaven, hell and purgatory. She believes this all the while failing to understand her reality within the story: Life on earth is likewise divided into parts — the living and the dead. Earth has its own kind of limbo, and it turns out to have nothing to do with whether someone has been baptised or not (as she has told her daughter, Anne.)

The Others is influenced by German Expressionism, an art movement dating from around 1900 until the early 1920s. German expressionist artists had often been to war, and came back a little world weary. The art they made was about the wretchedness of modern urban life, the solace of nature and religion, the naked body and its potential to signify primal emotion, and the need to confront the devastating experience of WW1. German expressionist art aims to startle the viewer. It is frank and direct. If you watch a German expressionist film you’ll find:

Chiaroscuro lighting — extreme contrasts of dark and light can be seen in this film as the characters move between dark/light rooms, often illuminated by only a kerosene lamp.

Lots of mirrors, glass and other reflective surfaces — in this film mirrors and windows come to the fore

the others window
the others curtains window
the others mirror

Anthropomorphism — in this ghost story we have a similar thing: possession. (Little girl turns into old woman.) In a haunted house movie the house itself often functions as a character in its own right. The puppet Anne (and the old woman) play with is an anthropomorphised visual representation of this double world, where one has a hold over the other. But which world is more influential? In the end, the spirit world win out — the real world people drive away, unable to get rid of the ghosts.

what have you done with my daughter

I think (as Roger Ebert pointed out) this story is a ‘waiting game’. Unlike some of the most popular and memorable films, this one has a largely passive main character, whose only real motivation is to do nothing and keep the status quo. This was perhaps the writer’s biggest challenge. The writer also had to be very careful about the reveals, saving the one big reveal right until the very end. This meant that there could be no dramatic irony or anything like that — the audience has to be kept in the dark for as long as the main character is kept in the dark. This suspense bored Roger Ebert, who no doubt could guess what was going to happen due to having seen so many films; other fans absolutely loved the atmosphere regardless.

Why do some critics think this story drags? I think the story might seem slow because both Grace and her fake-opponent ally Mrs Mills were both waiting for each other to reveal themselves. Usually, you’ve got a driven hero and an equally driven opponent. The real opponents, who are very driven to rid their house of ghosts, are unseen by the audience, which is another problem the writer had to overcome.

Anagnorisis, need, desire

At the end of this story Grace will realise she is dead. She thinks she is still alive. She needs to realise she is dead before she can begin to ‘live’ her death. But the death is really a metaphor for the one terrible thing she did to her children — the killing could be compared to anything which damages a relationship irreparably, from which there’s no going back.

At the end Grace will also realise that she killed her own children as well as herself. This is part of her mending her relationship with them in their shared death. (They’re going to be stuck here, in this house, forever together… When I realised this I felt terribly sad for those child ghosts! Though apologies from parent to child can mend relationships, saying sorry cannot mend psychological damage.)

But here at the beginning of the story Grace thinks she is alive. She can’t work out why her servants left without so much as collecting their pay cheque, and she thinks that although she got mad and smothered her children with pillows, that she did no lasting damage, because all she remembers is that she walked  back in on them and they were playing happily with said pillows.

Why are the servants surprised when Grace says she’s expecting them? Is it because they realise for the first time she doesn’t know she’s dead? Because they’ve been here the whole time and she’s never seen them before? In which case, why do they wait at the front door? Don’t ghosts just come and go as they please, through walls and suchlike?

This is the perfect story to use when illustrating the concept of the ‘ghost’ in storytelling, because this is literally a ghost story, but even if the main character hadn’t happened to have died, there is still the issue of that one day: We’re not told immediately (only after the father comes back — we learn he has asked the daughter about ‘that day’) but something terrible happened right before this story timeline began. By the time we’re told what it was we’ve already sensed it. The ‘ghost’, of course, is that Grace went mad and smothered her children to death with pillows before killing herself with the shot gun. We’ve already seen by that point in the story that the mother is controlling and mean, and that she owns a rifle. (Chekhov’s actual gun.)

The first question the audience has (although I personally forgot about it altogether until I went back): Why does Grace scream?

the others initial scream

The post-wartime Isle of Jersey setting works very well for this particular story, partly because modern technology would prove a big problem for the basic plot. This is a family who needs to exist in a big house with no electricity. The darkness of the house is explained away at the beginning when Grace explains to the house servants that there were so many electricity cuts during the war that they just ‘learned to live without it’. There’s also the photosensitivity issue to get around the other problem — children generally play outside, and these ones don’t.

This era was also the height of the ghost story, sometimes called ‘The Golden Age of the Ghost Story’ (between the decline of the Gothic novel in the 1930s until the start of the first world war.)

There’s also a convenient reason for the father to be absent, and for him to be dead. He needs to be dead if he is to appear as a character in the story, and wars are great for that. Or is he just in a coma? The father’s semi-comatose state in this movie suggests that maybe he is lying injured somewhere on a battlefield, and when he leaves it’s because he’s returned to the land of the living. (In which case, is he the next person to arrive at the house? Will the children be haunted by the ghost of their own dad?)

For a 2001 audience, the wartime setting feels sufficiently ‘old-timey’ to suit the ghost story’s mood — after that even aristocratic families in and around England were no longer living in gothic castles on the misty moors — they were starting to open up their homes to the public in order to pay for maintenance on their historic homes, and the English aristocracy had changed to the point where the super rich could no longer live as they had been.

Another problem the writer had to overcome was: How to limit the arena to just this castle and the surrounding forest? He did this by use of mist. (A widespread belief concerning ghosts is that they are composed of a misty, airy, or subtle material.) Grace mentions at one point that ‘The fog has never lasted this long before’. In the ghost world that this writer has created, ghosts are surrounded by a white gloom, and can never escape beyond the place where they have an emotional attachment. This works really well. This boundary is tested of course, when Grace tries to leave and gets disorientated. (She finds her husband at that point, who seems to have been wandering around in a fugue state looking for home.)

Isle of Jersey

This island has a long and interesting history, and would therefore have interesting ghosts. (Its recorded history extends over 1000 years. Jersey was part of the Duchy of Normandy, who’s dukes went on to become kings of England from 1066. Although it’s closer geographically to France than to England, it has remained attached to the English crown.)

Other problems the writer would have had to think about in this particular story: How to supply a family of ghosts with food? If ghosts don’t eat, wouldn’t they notice this fact? He gets around this by including a breakfast scene early in the story in which the daughter, Anne, eats toast but says it tastes funny, not like before. We — and the new housekeeper — interpret this to mean that the previous cook made better toast, and that Anne is simply having trouble adjusting to the change of personnel. But on second viewing, this is foreshadowing — she’s having trouble adjusting to being dead in general.

The Others tea and water

Other supplies such as Grace’s migraine tablets and kerosene are conceivably in generous supply at the house and haven’t run out over the course of the storytelling.

Haunted houses have a long history in literature, which is referred to throughout the film by Anne, literature in such tales, who has therefore concluded that ghosts walk around in chains. She would have been influenced by stories such as:

  • The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole
  • The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) by Ann Radcliffe
  • The Fall of the House of Usher” (1845) by Edgar Allan Poe
  • The House of the Seven Gables (1851) by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • The Turn of the Screw (1898) by Henry James
  • The House on the Borderland (1908) by William Hope Hodgson
  • The Rats in the Walls (1924) by H. P. Lovecraft

This house is Victorian in style, just as the mother has Victorian values about child-rearing and a literal interpretation of the bible.

Notice again we have a reflection — a double house in a double world.
Notice again we have a reflection — a double house in a double world.
Shortcoming & Need (Problem)

Psychological Shortcoming: Grace is unable to relate warmly to her own children (or indeed to anyone else) and, as it turns out, she sometimes goes over the edge into insanity. We see this when Anne is possessed by the old lady from the other side.

Moral Shortcoming: Grace is controlling and mean — she is the trope of the cold, pre-war English mother who believes children should be seen and not heard. She is motivated by the Bible and doesn’t question even its most disturbing parts. She believes all evil will be punished in hell and using this as her motivation she can be unjustly cruel on her children, particularly on her daughter Anne. We see this when she makes Anne sit on the stairs for three days reading from the bible. The housekeeper questions the severity of the punishment. (Anne has been seeing ghosts.) Grace also treats her servants harshly, and doesn’t believe that she herself might have made a mistake such as leave a door open. She doesn’t believe people even when they’re telling the truth.

Need: Grace needs to put aside the bible and experience spirituality for herself — there’s no telling this woman.

Inciting Incident

Anne has seen some ghosts and draws pictures of them — not that Grace believes this. She punishes her daughter for making up stories.

This inciting incident connects need and desire by showing the audience how Grace can’t accept experience — this contrasts with her reading the bible (in the very opening sequence) — she is a woman of words but not of experience. She can’t ‘feel’ anything.


Grace’s goal in this story is to live in this big, dark house undisturbed by the outside world, protecting her (supposedly) photosensitive children from sunlight. She is the perfect character to become a ghost without knowing it because all she wants to do is keep her children locked up in the dark. (I suspect the mother was actually agoraphobic, otherwise she would have surely memorised the names on the graves right outside her own house and realised who the servants were as soon as they turned up. I suspect Grace impressed this agoraphobia onto her own children by telling them they were photosensitive when they weren’t.)

The importance of this desire increases over the course of the story due to the ‘ghosts’ making this impossible, escalating of course when they’ve taken down the curtains altogether. (Probably because they were freaked out by them — the actual ghosts were always going around closing them during the day.)


The housekeeper Mrs Bertha Mills is a fake-opponent ally. Her desire in this story is to show Grace the truth and provide her support when she comes to her realisation that she is dead. But she seems to Grace (and also to the audience) to be deliberately undermining Grace’s efforts to keep her children shielded from light.

the others mrs mills

Grace’s main opponent is her own daughter who is beginning to enter the defiant years. She won’t do as her mother tells her to do. If Grace’s main desire is to keep her children hidden from the light (from the truth), Anne’s desire is to live, and to live authentically. She cannot ignore evidence of strange happenings, even if she isn’t fully cognisant of the truth.

Other opponents are the unseen living people who have moved into the house. Mainly, it’s the clairvoyant who has the power to get rid of them, and the main desire is to stay in the house.

the others clairvoyant

The mystery is: Whose version of the truth are we to believe — is Anne making stories up? What are those noises? Are they still surrounded? Are the noises real? Are they coming from anywhere at all, or is Mrs Mills playing some sort of psychological trick on Grace? Who is the victim here? What is Mrs Mills’ motivation? The mystery thickens when we learn that Mrs Mills has served in this house before. Why has she come back?

Fake-ally opponent

The returning husband almost fits this description: Does he know that he is dead? Is that why he took off, to heaven? It seems he has worked out the truth of ‘that day’ from Anne, and perhaps he feels bad for his wife but does not want to spend the rest of forever with her. He makes love to her and leaves. So during that scene I suppose he’s a fake-ally. Or perhaps his real life experiences on the battlefield have made more of an impression on him than his house, and so his permanent otherworld arena is the battlefield rather than one of domesticity. (In ghost lore, ghosts hang around places when they feel a strong connection to that place.)

Changed desire and motive

Grace’s desire doesn’t waver throughout this story — her only motivation is to keep the house dark.

Even when faced with evidence to the contrary, Grace turns back to the bible, refusing to believe in supernatural things. But she realises she’s going to have to get the priest in to help.

First revelation and decision

The first big reveal is that Anne has been telling the truth — there do seem to be ghosts in the house. We see a bit of emotional growth when Grace apologises to Anne. Grace realises this for herself when she locks the piano lid then goes back to find it open seconds later. Curtains are drawn when they shouldn’t be.


More bible lessons for the children.

Opponent’s plan and main counterattack

This is a waiting game. (As Roger Ebert wrote:It’s not a freak show but a waiting game, in which an atmosphere of dread slowly envelops the characters—too slowly.) Mrs Mills knows that eventually the other side will provide enough evidence to provide Grace with her revelation.


Grace realises the house is indeed haunted so she runs out into the fog to find the priest who will supposedly bless the house and fix everything. If my theory about the agoraphobia is right, it would take desperation for Grace to run out like this.

Attack by ally

Mrs Mills gently challenges Grace at various points by dropping hints about her being dead, but she as she tells Mr Tuttle, she must come to the realisation on her own, because she won’t accept being told the truth. This is part of the religious theme of the story; in some ways it seems to contradict the Roman Catholic teachings, but in other ways it has a religious message: You have to experience spirituality for yourself; you can’t really accept spiritual things simply by being told.

Apparent defeat

It seems Grace has lost everything when her daughter is defiant. Grace can’t control the lighting in her house, doesn’t know who the intruders are (suspects they’re war criminals) and even begins to suspect the house servants of wrongdoing. She has no one as an ally. She is especially defeated when her husband leaves for a second time. Could anything else be worse for this character?

Obsessive drive, changed drive, and motive

Grace is so obsessed with protecting her house and children that she takes out a gun. There’s a great scary moment when she is holding the gun and opens a door. (If you saw it in a theatre you may well have jumped!)

Second revelation and decision

Grace realises she needs to be a little softer on Anne. This comes after the scene in which she attacks her when dressed in her confirmation dress. Grace is starting to question her own sanity. She is able to say sorry to her daughter thinking her daughter is asleep. This is the very beginning of her new psychological state. The former Grace was not the sort of woman who could ever apologise to her own children.

Audience revelation

The audience is shown that there are gravestones in the yard, and that they are being covered by  leaves. We’re likely to guess that the house servants are dead. (The graves look old, covered in moss.) Perhaps we know one party is dead, but we’re not sure who. (It all depends on how many ghost stories you have read.)

Third revelation and decision

I lose count of the various revelations, but this is the point where the hero usually works out the opponent’s true identity. I suppose the third revelation takes place in the seance scene. Surely Grace realises she’s the ghost right there. (These steps really need to be shuffled round a bit to be put into the correct order.)

Gate, gauntlet, visit to death

The removal of the curtains is the throwing down of the gauntlet. If sunlight means death to her children, it means a kind of death to Grace also.


Grace scares the house servants off the property with a gun, convinced that they are playing mind games with her. They’re not surprised that the curtains have gone missing, so she suspects them of taking them down.

Grace realises the servants are ghosts when she is finds the book of the dead (which of course has come up earlier in the film — Grace asked for it to be removed from the house). This is a wonderful prop to use in film because it’s so visual. If this were a novel, such a visual revelation probably wouldn’t be quite so necessary. The servants turn up again after the children have made the same discovery via their grave stones. The ghost servants tell Grace she had better go and talk to ‘them’. (On the other side, the new owners of the house are holding a seance.) Grace is furious about this and creates a bit of a poltergeist scene.


It’s only when she’s huddling with her children after this battle that the events of ‘that day’ come back to her and she realises she, too, is dead. It is at this point the audience may remember how the story opened — with Grace screaming and then sitting up in bed. What had caused that scream? Now we know.

Moral decision

Now that Grace has ‘experienced’ spirituality she probably won’t stick so rigidly to the bible, and we can believe she’s not going to continue to bring her children up in strict, Victorian fashion. Now that she has had several anagnorises she will probably be a different kind of mother. (Though the past is the best predictor of the future…)

New situation

The family now has the house to themselves, though Mrs Mills says others will come — sometimes they’ll feel them, other times they won’t.

the others bars
Grace watches the new occupants leave. The audience sees a real estate agent put another For Sale sign on this gate.

Creators of picture books also utilised this trope, most often by creating a creature who roams around at night but is adorable.

Jitterbug Jam Barbara Jean Hicks, Alexis Deacon night noises
Jitterbug Jam Barbara Jean Hicks, Alexis Deacon

Realism In Fiction For Children


There is a spectrum of how real-world a story feels. At one end we have naturalism, all the way through to about ‘speculative realism’, after which we’re in speculative fiction realm:

  1. NATURALISM — This term is often used interchangeably with realism, but if you want to talk about realism as a group of terms, naturalism is at the MOST realistic of these different types of realisms. Basically, any hint of romanticism is completely stripped away. The subject is neither idealised nor flattered. God is also kept out of it. The tone is generally pessimistic. Realism/naturalism emerged in the 1800s. Sometimes the difference between naturalism and realism depends on the subject matter. In realism the main focus is on the middle class and its problems. Naturalism often focuses on poorly educated or lower-class characters, and on themes involving violence and the taboo.
  2. SOCIAL REALISM — ‘Kitchen sink realism’. Draws attention to the middle class and its problems. Use the term ‘social realism’ when you want to be clear that you’re not talking about naturalism.
  3. SURREALISM — Describes the ‘super real’. See this post for more.
  4. MAGICAL REALISM — Lately there is a movement among Latinx people from South America to keep the term magical realism specifically for South American writers using magical realism to write stories about the South American experience of colonisation. The argument is that another word exists which we can use for every thing else — fabulism. While I have some sympathy for this view, literary gurus point out that magical realism did not begin in South America, and there are many reasons for making use of magical realism in storytelling. I don’t know. I’d be happy to call it fabulism myself, if people knew I meant the same thing as ‘magical realism’, only not from South America. Here is a list of fabulist children’s books. Fabulism is especially popular in literary middle grade fiction, and I’ve noticed literary agents and editors are constantly on the hunt for it, and keep complaining that true examples of magical realism rarely cross their desk.
  5. ‘DIRTY’ REALISM — This is a concept coined by the Granta Magazine guy, who is actually an American who moved to England. So the term is used in England, whereas Americans might call it ‘minimalism’. Dirty realism describes a specifically North American way of writing in which the author focuses on the seedier, mundane, nasty bits of everyday life. A lot of these writers are white men — Richard Ford, Cormac McCarthy, Raymond Carver. But there are also some women. Take Carson McCullersAnnie Proulx. When you find dirty realism in a short story, it’s often called Kmart Realism.
  6. METAPHYSICAL REALISM — There is a reality independent of humans’ conscious perceptions of it. The world is as it is and what humans think of it is irrelevant. If this describes your worldview, here’s your metaphysical realist card.
  7. SPECULATIVE REALISM — Okay, so are we still talking about realism now? This is a term suggested by a guy called Ramón Saldívar (an American professor and author) to describe work which is a hybrid between speculative genres and any of the different levels of realism. In children’s literature, the book American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang is a contender for speculative realism. American Born Chinese is an experiment in discussing minority racial identity through metaphor made possible through genre blending. The experiment leaves us ultimately with a parallel between a monkey god from folklore and a young adult American-born-Chinese in a realistic context. For more on that, see here.


Bear in mind, children’s literature is a recent form of literature and emerged with the establishment of realism.

Many of the notes below are from Professor David Beagley, La Trobe University, Genres In Children’s Literature: Lecture 13: Realism In Fiction For Children, available on iTunes U


Set reading for this lecture: Bridge To Terabithia and The Naming of Tishkin Silk

My Girl (the film) is an interesting work to contrast with Bridge To Terabithia because the plot is very similar, and is about a girl and boy the same age. But the intended audience is adult.

Helicopter Man is another example of realism, aimed at upper primary school rather than high school aged reader.

Throughout the 20th century, British children’s literature is thought to have produced better and more lasting classic fantasy series than North America, which has leaned towards realism for longer.

Right around middle school, the fun books suddenly disappeared. Dreary realism replaced fantasy.Read Hatchet. Read ShilohRead Sounder. Read The House of Dies DrearRead about kids in the Great Depression, whose dogs always die. Read about the gruesome fact of slavery. Read about Anne Frank in the attic. Today, class, we’ll be reading a graphic novel! […] it’s called Maus. No wonder I kept my nose buried deep in Dragonlance novels and The Collected Calvin & Hobbes. Eventually I accepted that the mark of serious, grown-up books was joy turning into woe. Merry old Gatsby is really a huge fraud who bites it in a swimming pool and no one cares but his neighbour. The end. Jake Barnes is living it up in Paris with Brett Ashley, but he got injured in the war and they can’t have sex, so… the end. The older I got the more books seemed to skip the joy part altogether—they just went from woe to more woe. The Joads are starving in the Great Depression so they head West but find that everyone else is starving too and then somebody dies in the back of a truck… the end. Frank and April Wheeler are hopeful suburbanites who dream of moving to Paris but then she gets pregnant and dies trying to give herself an abortion. The end!

Why Children’s Books Matter

There is a certain kind of magic about realism in middle grade books, which is not magical at all, and not magical realism, either, but magic.

I think there’s a kind of kid for whom an adventure based in realism — even if it’s stretched almost to the breaking point of plausibility — is so much more satisfying than pure fantasy. Because I knew for sure that I was never going to end up communing with a gang of bugs inside the pit of a ginormous peach — and I loved that book, I did. I loved the Narnia books, too, and the Wrinkle in Time series. But I had a special fondness for stories that could actually happen. Which explains, I think, something about the plot of One Mixed-Up Night. It is certainly unlikely that two kids would spend the night alone in a massive Swedish furniture store. But it is not impossible. And I had spent enough time listening to my son Ben and his best friend Ava leafing through the IKEA catalogue to know that having the run of the place was high on their list of fantasies. Were they ever going to spend a semester at Hogwarts? Of course not. But IKEA! That was an actual place where we actually went. What if they ditched their parents? What if that stylish and birch-patterned world became their oyster? I mean, it wasn’t likely to happen. But it could…

Catherine Newman

Realism tends to be aimed at the high school reader. It began in earnest with J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye (1951). Be wary of conflating ‘social realism’ with ‘universal realism’:

In a 2009 BBC article, it’s mentioned that The Catcher in the Rye is unique in “the way in which a young affluent white male has come to stand for a universal experience of adolescence.” I don’t think it’s unique – I think it’s what society has forced the “universal experience” to be. Opinions and experiences of minorities are attributed to being that of the minority group. What if Holden was a girl? At least part of her angst would be attributed to some sort of weak womanly temperament, or her period. What if Holden was poor? Would he have even been able to get the money to go back to New York? What if Holden was a POC? Had a disability? Was gay?

No, he couldn’t be anything but a white, middle class, teenage boy, because he would’ve had more issues to deal with along with phony people.

Starchy Thoughts

This tentpole novel has been followed by work from authors such as:

  • S.E. Hinton
  • Robert Lipsyte
  • Paul Zindel
  • Richard Peck. Peck sometimes writes realism, sometimes historical realism (e.g. The River Between Us), sometimes realism with a humorous, exaggerated touch (e.g. A Long Way From Chicago), sometimes he writes fantasy (e.g. his mouse stories).
  • Norma Klein lived from 1938 to 1989 and wrote about ‘the things real kids cared about’.
  • M.E. Kerr couldn’t find an agent for her realistic stories so became her own agent. She ended up with a lifetime award for her contributions to children’s literature. She wrote under a variety of different pen names.
  • Norma Fox Mazer and Harry Mazer. Norma lived between 1931-2009. The husband/wife couple had four children and were teacher/writers.  Although they both wrote the same sort of thing, they didn’t work together. Each has their own books. Harry was born in 1925 and died recently, in 2016.
  • Robert Cormier. The Chocolate War initiated a new level of excellence in young adult literature but also unleashed a storm of controversy. (Cormier didn’t intend a YA audience, actually. He wrote it for a general audience and it was marketed as YA.) Gatekeepers felt the subject matter was too dark. Cormier followed up with I Am The Cheese and After The First Death, in the same vain, ignoring the naysayers. He continued to get darker over the 26 years of his writing career. He definitely influenced other authors, who started to do the same.

If you notice more realism coming out of America, that’s because realism in children’s literature is largely American, whereas a lot of the most beloved fantasy comes out of Britain.

Australia has its own examples of realism in children’s literature. Australian literature for adults tends to be described as ‘gritty realism’. Take Helen Garner for instance, or the work of Christos Tsiolkas, who sometimes writes about young adulthood. The TV adaptation of Barracuda has a distinctly YA feel about it — more so than the novel upon which it is based.

The Valley Between by Colin Thiel is about the author’s own life, growing up in the Barossa Valley.

For more examples of realistic books themselves, search for Books in the category ‘Real Life’ e.g. at the Reading Matters website.


Only Connect. Sheila Egoff died in 2005 but was an enthusiast for the proper intellectual consideration of children’s literature. Being Canadian, she had a huge impact in Canada. (A Canadian literature prize has been named after her.)

John Foster, Ern Finnest, Maureen Nimon: Australian Children’s Literature, an Exploration Of Genre and Theme, 1995 looks at family stories and the ‘problem’ novel.

Perry Nodelman’s book The Hidden Adult is about adults who read children’s literature without reminiscing, for the reading experience. Nodelman looks at what the adults can find in the children’s literature and the serious intellectual ideas that are there for children to discard.

See also Literature and the Child and Give Them Wings, by Maurice Saxby. Most general books about children’s literature include a chapter about realism.

From Romance To Realism by Michael Cart was published 1996. The author is an expert in YA literature.


In a binary, the two things represented each require the other. For example, evil needs good. Light needs darkness. Each defines the other.

There is an ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ reality. In realism, this idea of the inner world and outer world revolves very much around you as the reader. Whereas primary and secondary worlds are based around the text itself, inner and outer realities rely on the reader and what the reader knows about him or herself. Your inner reality is yours. No one can take it from you. Others can influence it, but only if you let them. The outer reality is anything you share with family, friends, people you know — the settings in which you find yourself, the actions that happen to you, the noises you hear, the dialogues you have with other people.

Fiction on the realism spectrum aligns the inner and outer realities and exposes them. In our real life interactions we rarely get a glimpse at the inner realities of other people because sharing inner realities depends on a lot of trust. But in a book you can share someone else’s inner reality — how they think, what they want, why they choose to do the things that they do.


In fantasy we start with the fantasy but then move strongly from the probable to the extraordinary. The extraordinary dominates. In fantasy, the inner reality is best related to the probable (primary world). The fantasy is related to the outer world.

In fantasy, a character’s outer reality is the focus of the story. A fantasy story is not so much about the actions of the fantasy world, but about the ideas that we have in our probable world. All fantasy works describe reality.

You’ll still read ‘probable’ and ‘extraordinary’ elements in a realist story, but in realism, readers will be able to imagine encountering these problems themselves. (Maintain the distinction between ‘possible’ and ‘probable’. In a realist story, something isn’t necessarily ‘probable’, but it must be ‘possible’.)


In a realist story, something must happen to disrupt the ordinary. This something must not leave the realm of likelihood. Characters have to be the sort of people you could know in real life.

The setting must be somewhere you could go. Bridge To Terabithia takes place an hour of two’s drive from Washington DC. The town in which they live may not be a real town, but it feels familiar. (Lovettsville, Virginia?)

The plot itself is often character driven.

But if the story is too mundane the reader is going to wonder what the point is. The Famous Five are a good example: These stories are now very dated. How come these kids are always on holidays? How do kids this age get so much freedom? Even young readers are now used to the realist tradition and have come to expect mimesis unless the setting is obviously fantastic.

Realist books can be didactic (not in a negative sense) in that we can ‘vaccinate’ our children by giving them a little dose of hardship in a fictional environment where they still have the safety of coming back out of the story. But this can lead to books which are so heavily didactic that they are a sermon: This is the way you ought to feel/behave, and if you don’t, the problem lies with you, the reader.

The problems in the stories must not be solved by adults. In fact the adults are quite often the cause of the problem, especially in YA. If not the direct cause, adults are opponents, setting the boundaries, setting the situations, causing the situation or by keeping information to themselves, leading to the children to jump to conclusions.

Rugrats’ problems are caused by the adults. The plots are based upon the misinterpretation by the babies of what the adults say.

Plot: The sequence and plot structure of a realist story is pretty much the same as a fantasy story. That’s because all stories share an underlying basic structure.

The Hero: The main character is often a lonely outsider. A child hero might be new at a new school or looking for a friend or something like that. These stories are often formed around separation of some kind.

Theme: Justice is another common idea explored in realist fiction. What’s right? How do we decide what’s right? A big subset of the justice idea is, “When is it okay to lie?

Voice: Realist stories are dramatic, but not melodramatic.

Tiff and the Trout is an Australian story set in Mount Beauty (not called that in the story). The main character’s parents are splitting up. The father is a mountain person and the mother is a beach person. This symbolises their separation and Tiff is caught between. This story is neither melodramatic nor especially traumatic. There is one moment where the mum’s new boyfriend takes her fishing. She almost drowns. Apart from that, it’s ordinary, everyday stuff but is a very good exploration and discovery of how Tiff feels, not how the parents feel. In the end Tiff must choose which of her parents she goes to live with.

Endings: There is also a reasonably positive resolution, but not necessarily happy-ever-after. Characters are able to move on.



If a reader hasn’t experienced a situation herself, the plot may feel a little bit exotic. ‘That’s not really going to happen to me’. The author can also accidentally promote stereotypical attitudes. In the case of Josie Alibrandi, it might be easy for readers to conclude, ‘This is how all people of Australian Italian background behave’. Likewise, when reading Parvana’s Journey, if would be easy to assume girls in Afghanistan are all like that.

In Looking For X, the main character’s brothers are both autistic. The girl tries to find another homeless person who witnessed something that happened so that her mother can keep the boys. Is that a little too far from a reader’s experience? Are all Canadian homeless people like this one?


When including modern slang/attitudes/brand names and so on, these things will date quickly compared to details in completely made up fantasy worlds. 15 years ago Specky McGee was a popular Australian series, but now the footballers mentioned in the stories are all retired. How current to make a realistic story? [Dated stories can make for very interesting historical documents.]


How ‘problematic’ must the problem be? If a story is about sexuality or drugs or other grim realities, do the readers really need to know all about that just yet?

Perhaps this is because children tend to emulate the behaviours of viewpoint characters in books:

The findings from the study reinforce the idea that young children have an easier time exporting what they learn from a fictional storybook to the real world when the storybook is realistic. The leap from a fictional human to a real one is simply smaller than the leap from an anthropomorphic raccoon to a human.