The Difference Between Story and Discourse

What Is Discourse?

‘Discourse’ is a conveniently loose term, and can refer to:

1. Linguistic Discourse — generally refers to specific discourse types such as the discourse of parent-child conversations, boss-employee conversations, dinner table conversations versus schoolyard conversations…

2. Narratological Discourse — the means by which a story and its significance are communicated. Aspects such as temporal sequencing, focalization, narrator’s relation to the story and audience come up when talking about this kind of discourse.

The Difference Between Story and Discourse

Focusing now on ‘narratological’ discourse (related to storytelling), I’ll offer explanations from several sources. See which one best makes sense.

EXPLANATION ONE

Whereas ‘story’ comprises what we might roughly think of as ‘what certain characters do in a certain place at a certain time,’ the word ‘discourse’ comprises the complex process of encoding that story which involves:

  • choices of vocabulary
  • syntax
  • order of presentation
  • how the narrating voice is to be orientated towards what is narrated and towards the implied audience
  • etc
EXPLANATION TWO

Story = the ‘what’ of the narrative.

Discourse = the ‘way’.

Seymour Chatman
EXPLANATION THREE

The theory of narrative requires a distinction between what I shall call ‘story’ — a sequence of actions or events, conceived as independent of their manifestation in discourse — and what I shall call ‘discourse’, the discursive presentation or narration of events

Jonathan Culler
EXPLANATION FOUR

Let’s take an example of a common plot. Well, this plot was super common 150 years ago, not so much now: The Harlot’s Progress narrative.

In the Harlot’s Progress narrative, the sequencing of ‘story’ goes like this:

  1. Girl loses chastity
  2. Falls into deeper and deeper vice
  3. Eventually dies.

That’s the story. But if we’re talking about the ‘discourse’ of the Harlot’s Progress narrative we’ll be talking about things like this:

  • The amount of narrative time between story elements (“boundaries of duration”)
  • How the narrative might open up at the point of death, at which point the narrator returns to memories of an innocent time many years before then finish by narrating the heroine’s fall into vice.
  • How closely the narrator’s voice emulates the girl’s voice
  • Whether the girl is viewed from other characters’ point of view (focalisation)

RELATED

FABULA AND SJUZHET

Terms ‘fabula’ and ‘sjuzhet’ are similar to ‘story’ and ‘discourse’. These terms were used by the Russian Formalists.

Fabula refers to the chronological sequence of events in a narrative. 

Sjuzhet is the re-presentation of those events (through narration, metaphor, camera angles, the re-ordering of the temporal sequence, and so on). 

The difference between story and plot.

Sequential Narrative Art In Picture Books

Sequential Narrative describes art which tells a story in a series of images making use of frames.

Let’s say there are 7 main categories of Narrative art. Narrative art is art which tells a story.

  1. Monoscenic — represents a single scene with no repetition of characters and only one action taking place
  2. Sequentialvery much like a continuous narrative art with one major difference. The artist uses frames. Each frame is a particular scene during a particular moment.
  3. Continuous — Continuous narrative art gives clues, provided by the layout itself, about a sequence. Like sequential narrative but without the frames.
  4. Synoptic — offers the synopsis of a bigger story. You must know a story before you can understand synoptic narrative.
  5. Simultaneous — has very little visually discernible organisation to those who are not acquainted with its purpose.
  6. Panoptic — depicts multiple scenes and actions without the repetition of characters. Think of the word ‘panorama’. ‘All-seeing’ (pan + optic)
  7. Progressive — a single scene in which characters do not repeat. However, multiple actions are taking place to convey a passing of time. A progressive narrative is not to be interpreted as a group of simultaneous events. Progressive narrative art is a sequence dependent on its location. Actions displayed by characters in the narratives compress present and future action into a single image.

These days you find continuous narrative art in comic strips, picture books and story boards.

SEQUENTIAL NARRATIVE IN PICTURE BOOKS

The scene below is from In The Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak. It looks like a blend between Continuous and Sequential narrative art, because although there is a frame to separate the pictures, the two frames almost seem to form a diptych (but only at first glance — there are two moons after all). I feel this is, overall, an example of Sequential narration.

nightkitchen121

Below, Shirley Hughes has used frames in a similar way. This scene might have been one large scene with no frames, but the frames emphasise the steps taken. She manages to get one smallish group of children from the top of the staircase to outside and down below, in time to see the flying hero do tricks in the air. Notice the teacher is visible at the top and at the bottom, showing that the girl is doing somersaults in the time it takes her classmates to go down the stairs.

Sequential narrative in Up and Up by Shirley Hughes
Sequential narrative in Up and Up by Shirley Hughes

Jan Ormerod is also a fan of sequential narrative in her illustrations. See Sunshine, Moonlight, Putting Mummy to Bed. Below Ormerod uses continuous narrative to depict a child getting undressed and dressed. I make use of this same technique to show a child getting ready for bed, but in an interactive picture book app, Midnight Feast.

Sun and Moon continuous narrative
Getting dressed scene in Sunshine
breakfast scene from Sunshine
Falling asleep Sunshine
Sunshine continuous narrative

SEQUENTIAL NARRATIVE IN MOVIE POSTERS

In the movie posters below, notice how the designer has used page divisions — two overlapping characters and then a straight line — to indicate separate scenes in some sort of sequence.

film noir sequential narrative
sequential narrative

Movie posters these days are rarely as complex, focusing instead on a monoscene. But when movies are marketed with complicated and busy designs, designers can be brutal.

Illustrator Sam Gilbey, who has produced pop culture artwork for properties including Marvel’s Avengers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Karate Kid and Flash Gordon, argues that the introduction of Photoshop may have harmed the industry by making it easier for inexperienced designers to put together collage-style posters without the design skills to back them up.

“Obviously you think of the masters like Richard Amsel, working pre-Photoshop, and you can see how marketing departments have often thought they can now produce something similar internally,” he explains.

Creative Bloq

The keys to achieving a successful busy narrative in a single piece of art:

  • Pay attention to where the characters are looking. If they’re all looking at something different for no reason, this will look ill-thought out (and probably is). Eyelines of characters influence eye lines of the viewer. We naturally follow the gaze of other people.
  • Pay attention to the colour scheme. This applies to any sort of collage work, but if you’ve copied and pasted art from all over the place (even if that art was created by yourself) you’ll need to use a few colour tricks to bring it all together. Atmospheric perspective and tone will be as important as colour palette.

Choric Figures In Contemporary Storytelling

Statler and Waldorf

WHAT IS A CHORIC FIGURE?

CHORIC FIGURE: Any character in any type of narrative literature that serves the same purpose as a chorus in drama by remaining detached from the main action and commenting upon or explaining this action to the audience. I’ve also seen ‘choral commentator’ and guess it means the same thing.

It may be useful to think of choric figures in terms of a continuum rather than ‘choric commentators’ and all the other characters. That said, a ‘normal’ character can morph into a choric commentator. See below for an example from Charlotte’s Web.

At the ‘very choric’ end of that continuum we’ve got Statler and Waldorf from The Muppets, who literally sit in the audience. Whenever we see them, they are spatially removed from the ‘show’, and they remind the real audience that we are watching a show. Their commentary is therefore meta.

DESIGNATED NORMAL CHARACTERS IN COMEDIES

Then there’s Stevie Budd from Schitt’s Creek, the designated ‘normal’ character in a cast full of oddballs. In the final episode of one season of Schitt’s Creek, Stevie says that she feels like crying. She says this to ‘no one’ in particular; she says it to us, and Stevie’s emotion successfully evokes pathos in the audience. Importantly, Stevie Budd very much has a personality of her own, but if anyone’s going to be offering sarcastic commentary, it’ll be Stevie (and also David).

Jerry Seinfeld is the designated normal character of Seinfeld, and what he says, what he observes (as part of his stand-up routine) is a choric commentary on the absurdity of life, embodied by his friends and their disastrous dating escapades.

Jim and Pam of the The Office are not-exactly-subtle choric characters because the structure of the comedy allows characters to break the fourth wall and address the audience directly.

The Designated Normal character of This Country is the Vicar.

Basically, these choric characters say whatever the writers expect the audience might be thinking, or giving the sensible advice the audience would likely give, if this were a real life situation. The designated normal character is inherently relatable and very useful. Oddball characters can be alienating, and when an audience sees there’s a ‘normal’ person who loves them, this helps us to love them, too.

The Designated Normal character is also useful for various types of lampshading. “Now WHAT are you planning? Isn’t that utterly ridiculous?” The Designated Normal thereby functions to highlight the warped logic of the screwball characters, who must nevertheless run according to their own internal logic. Their internal logic must somehow be made apparent to an audience.

The Designed Normal character is also used as a Straight Man, of course. But we all understand the importance of the straight man.

THE SUBTLE END OF THE CHORIC CONTINUUM

Now for some much more subtle examples of choric characters.

I consider the ‘new kid in town’ (or the ‘new dead kid’ an example of a choric character in the sense that they are new to the situation and as baffled as the audience. There’s a good narrative reason why stories often begin with a character moving to a new house or to a new school. The narrator can realistically observe and comment upon the things they are seeing all around them, things which would be normal and non-noteworthy if they were already acclimatised to this particular setting.

Sometimes with a story on screen, it’s not so much in the writing as in the acting. Chloë Grace Moretz is known among critics for an acting style which often makes her seem alien in her fictional environment, as perplexed as we are. Her performance in If I Stay, based on the young adult novel by Gayle Forman, is a good example of that. She looks bewildered at events playing out before her. (She’s the perfect choice; she’s newly dead.) Like her audience, she is trying to work out what’s going on.

Now for a completely different kind of subtle chorus. In Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White there are not Statler and Waldorf commentators but in his Annoted Guide, Peter Neumeyer points out two choral commentators.

The first is Dr. Dorian, who tells Fern’s mother (and also the reader) that we should believe in magic such as animals talking in a barn. Wise owls are often used in this way by children’s book writers, though sometimes their wisdom is subverted (e.g. in Winnie-the-Pooh).

Next Charlotte takes his place by morphing into a choric commentator, though it’s very subtle.

“What’s inside it?” asked Wilbur. “Eggs?”
“Five hundred and fourteen of them,” she replied.

E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web

Perhaps the shift in Charlotte’s narrative use is because she’s approaching death.

There’s this idea that people approaching death have achieved some kind of greater insight into life matters in general. Whether this is true in reality is debatable, but in storytelling writers milk this idea. Hence, as Charlotte sees her impending death, she achieves The Overview Effect and is able to see ‘the circle of life’ and be content with it, guiding Wilbur through his Being-toward-death enlightenment in the process. (Her egg sac will let her achieve immortality.)

Characters approaching death are perhaps more often used by storytellers as choral commentators, even when previously they didn’t seem to have any advantageous insight into life matters.

USEFUL TERM

Reaction shot. From the movies, a cutaway shift inside a bundle of narrative action which shows us the emotional or other responses of a character, usually a reader surrogate.

Glossary of Words Useful When Critiquing Science Fiction

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There are many ways of thinking about narration. Another continuum, oft talked about: the psychic distance continuum. In this post I’ve been talking about the distance between a particular, designated ‘audience/cast member’ character. This describes how that character emotionally aligns with the audience. (The relationship between character and audience.)

Psychic distance instead describes how fully a third-person, unseen narrator is inside a character’s head. (The relationship between narrator and character.) Psycho narration happens when a narrator is right inside a character’s head.

Commentators have used the words ‘dissonant’ and ‘consonant’ to describe the degree to which a narrator is inside a character’s head at any given moment, noting that it shifts as a story progresses. We might use those same words to describe the choric figure. Sometimes they seem like another ordinary member of the cast (dissonant), but the writer can jerk them partly off stage and use them as a proxy audience member if needs be (consonant).

I’m sure narratologists have talked about this but, heigh ho, this is how I think of it.

What Is Psycho Narration?

Haynes King - Jealousy and Flirtation 1874

Psycho-narration describes how writers make use of omniscient narrators to reflect their characters’ consciousness. Sometimes, authors use an unseen narrator, but use the language of the character they describe.

In other words, psycho narration is an ‘outside’ commentary of a character’s consciousness, but in the character’s own ‘words’. Because there’s no actual talking going on, some people say in the character’s own ‘mental language’. (This is an interesting concept in itself, because apparently some people think in words and others think in pictures, though it’s not as binary as that.)

Though subtle, in psycho narration there is no attempt to hide the narrator. We’re still dealing with an ‘overt’ narrator.

Imagine a narrator showing us a character in action by describing what they do and what they say. They then step back and talk to the audience about that character behind the character’s back.

Sometimes psycho narration goes from being ‘overt’ (not hidden) to ‘intrusive’ (in the way). Done well, psycho narration is subtle. Unless on the lookout for narrative techniques, the reader shouldn’t notice the difference between the character’s interior monologue and the narrator’s commentary.

A Brief History Of Psycho Narration

  • The term was invented by Dorrit Cohn in her book Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1978). Cohn was a scholar of German and Comparative Literature.
  • This mode of narration dominated fiction well into the 19th century but has been surpassed by close third person, and first person in young adult literature.
  • In classic children’s literature, the psycho narration has tended to be overtly didactic. The unseen narrator impresses the ‘correct reading’ upon the audience. This is no longer accepted in contemporary fiction for children, unless it is a parody of the overt, didactic voice e.g. A Series of Unfortunate Events.
Examples of Classic Literature With Psycho Narration
  • Tom Jones
  • Vanity Fair
  • Death In Venice
  • Emma
  • What Maisie Knew

Dissonant and Consonant Narration

From a technical point of view there are two essential things to solve or create when writing a novel. The first is the invention of the narrator. I think the narrator is the most important character in a novel. In some cases this importance is obvious because the narrator is also a central figure, a central character in the novel. In other cases, the narrator is not a character, not a visible figure, but an invisible person whose creation is even more complicated and difficult than the creation of one of the characters.

Mario Vargas Llosa

These are also Dorrit Cohn’s terms. She divides psycho narration into two main types.

DISSONANT: The narrator remains distanced from the consciousness they narrate. Dissonant narrators have a distinct personality. They make their opinions known.

Jane Austen’s narrators draw the narratee in, then we laugh at the characters together. These are known by writers as ‘intrusive narrators’, though that suggests it has not been well done.

Some contemporary authors have used dissonant narrators masterfully, e.g. Daniel Handler in his Unfortunate Events series. These books tend to feel like parodies of an older type of literature, even though those older works (I.e. Pride and Prejudice) weren’t taking their narrators seriously, either.

When narration is at its most dissonant you may notice the following features:

  • The use of ‘distancing appellations’ like ‘poor Catherine’ or ‘our heroes
  • Use of an abstract analytical vocabulary to describe an inner world, which feels removed from the psychic experience itself (you can’t experience a strong emotion and be articulate about it at the same time)
  • Speculative and explanatory commentary (maybe this will happen… this happened because…)
  • Yielding to figurative thoughts and feelings even as they are being reported to the reader

CONSONANT: The narrator remains close to the consciousness they narrate. Also known as figural (figurative) narration. The narrator is effaced (basically invisible). The reader can’t easily tell the difference between the narrator’s voice and the consciousness of the character being described. We learn nothing about the consonant narrator’s position/opinions because they’re barely visible. We get no impression of them as a separate character.

Consonant narrators concentrate on showing rather than telling, like the cinema verite documentary makers who avoid showing their own faces on screen, or making use of voiceover. “I’ve shown you what’s happening — now make up your own mind.” Of course, a consonant narrator is nonetheless guiding everyone’s opinion by choosing which scenes to show and which to leave out. So a consonant narrator cannot be described as impartial.

(Other commentators use ‘overt’ and ‘covert’ to describe the same scale.)

When Might You Choose To Write With Psycho Narration?

YOU HAVE A LARGE CAST OF CHARACTERS

Maybe you have a large cast of characters because you’re writing a story about a community rather than the trials and tribulations of a single main character. Psycho narration allows the narrator to deal with a multitude of characters and situations. For this reason, psycho narration is commonly seen in social novels (aka problem novels), in which a social problem is made manifest through its effect on individuals. In these stories, the inner life of individual characters expresses general truths about human nature.

In short, psycho narration allows for ‘head-hopping’, except it’s not really head-hopping if the narrator is distant from the characters, because the narrator is never truly inside the characters’ heads.

In the old days you’d have chosen to write with a plain old omniscient point of view, and you still might. Except the modern reader is unused to reading true omniscient narration, so your work will have an old-fashioned feel. This may not be what you’re going for.

YOUR MAIN CHARACTER IS NOT A REFLECTIVE SORT

Some fictional characters simply aren’t that reflective, as people. We’re never going to learn much of value from these types, who blunder and bluster and continue on their way haphazardly. They don’t understand themselves, let alone the people around them. As main characters they can be very interesting, but as narrators? Not so much. They’ll be unreliable in a non-useful kind of way.

In this case it’s useful to have a narrator commenting ‘backstage’, or gossiping to us, the reader, behind their back, giving us the true low down.

you don’t want to poke fun at your characters

To use ten dollar words, Cohn calls this advantage ‘verbal independence from self-articulation’. Consonant psycho narration is especially useful when writing from a child’s point of view, because children have a limited view of the world, and limited ability to understand their own emotions, let alone the vocabulary to describe them. If you use consonant psycho narration, you avoid double address.

(The problem with double address is that it seems the author is condescending to their more naive subject.)

The narrator in consonant psychonarration remains effaced and readily fuses with the consciousness they narrate. Consonance does not seem to leave the narrator a voice or contribution of his/her own. The character’s thoughts and reflections are rendered without any trace of criticism or rejection. The narrator’s consciousness almost seems to coincide with the characters, making it impossible for the reader to separate the two clearly.

This means that there’s little privilege on the narrator’s part. The narrator doesn’t know much that the child protagonist doesn’t either. In children’s literature, one author well-known for doing this well is Katherine Paterson, who wrote The Bridge To Terabithia.

Mark Haddon also does consonant psychonarration very well by making use of an autistic narrator. In The Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, the reader gets an insight into what it’s like to feel (this particular kind of) autistic, because readers are not given any clues about about the outside world, and therefore cannot use neurotypical advantages to interpret the wider situation.

The narration of Forrest Gump works similarly, but because it’s a film the reader does get visual cues about how to interpret the ‘veridical’ situation of the story.

YOU DO WANT TO POKE FUN AT YOUR CHARACTERS

In this case, an external narrator describes the character’s mental state. The narrator is prominent and focuses intently on an individual psyche, remaining emphatically distanced from the consciousness he/she is narrating. In this case, the narration moves back from a character’s perspective to allow for a sharper degree of commentary and analysis. From this position of distance, the narrator also functions as the vocaliser in relation to a character who appears only as a focalised.

Pride and Prejudice: “If Elizabeth, when Mr Darcy gave her the letter, did not expect it to contain a renewal of his offers, she had formed no expectation at all of its contents.”

Basically, this is the narrator winking at the reader. Double address has its political pitfalls — see this post on satire.

YOUR PLOT JUMPS AROUND IN TIME

Psycho narrators have almost unlimited temporal flexibility. The psycho narrator can jump around in time.

Header painting: Haynes King – Jealousy and Flirtation 1874

How To Write Like Alice Munro

Alice_Munro

Of course, no one but Alice Munro can write like Alice Munro. That is my disclaimer on each of my sporadic series of ‘How To Write Like…’ posts.

GENERAL NOTES ON ALICE MUNRO’S SHORT FICTION

Munro’s stories have grown more complex as she has grown older. Later stories are sometimes a more complex take on an earlier one.

Munro’s stories don’t cohere in the same way as chapters in a novel but together they form a unified work of art. Short stories may do a better job of highlighting certain aspects of her work than novels would have.

Something from page three will come and hit you on page thirty, but you had not registered the matter when you first read page three.

New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman



  • Munro reveals essential truths about ourselves in an unsentimental, yet deeply humane way.
  • Missed opportunities and lies are two themes that Munro approaches from many angles.
  • Consider Munro’s beginnings and endings as of a piece — the beginning will foreordain the ending.
  • Munro enjoys experimenting with the gothic.
  • Munro has said she sees stories architecturally, as a house whose various rooms one can roam in and out of, forgoing any prescribed order.
  • Munro has said that she admires writers of the American South, such as Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers.
  • Munro writes with black humour.
  • Julian Barnes states that Munro’s short stories ‘have the density and reach of other people’s novels’.
  • Some of her stories are unusually longer than typical short stories.
  • Munro stories show an interest in love and the often hidden intricacies of marriage.
  • A theme is often love, or perhaps romantic notions masquerading as love.
  • The complications and cruelties of age and time are other themes that Munro re-visits.

She reminds us that love and marriage never become unimportant as stories—that they remain the very shapers of life, rightly or wrongly. She does not overtly judge—especially human cruelty—but allows human encounters to speak for themselves. She honors mysteriousness and is a neutral beholder before the unpredictable. Her genius is in the strange detail that resurfaces, but it is also in the largeness of vision being brought to bear (and press on) a smaller genre or form that has few such wide-seeing practitioners. She is a short-story writer who is looking over and past every ostensible boundary, and has thus reshaped an idea of narrative brevity and reimagined what a story can do.

Lorrie Moore, The New Yorker

There is plenty of multivalent detail throughout Munro’s fiction, meaning a particular detail can be read at a literal as well as symbolic level. This is perhaps why Munro’s details seem, at first glance, ‘strange’.

Even when you are surprised by a shift in a character’s thoughts, it seems completely organic. We all make those kinds of transitions in our thinking processes, even though they don’t point to an end the way a story does.

An Appreciation Of Alice Munro

THE STORYWORLDS OF ALICE MUNRO

The ‘real worlds’ of Munro’s stories have settings dotted around Canada, focusing on Southwestern Ontario, where Munro has spent the majority of her life. During her first married she lived in West Vancouver and Victoria, so she knows the other side of Canada as well.

Munro’s sense of irony is invariably directed at herself more than at her characters. She has always regarded herself as an anachronism: an old-style writer, writing about a rural world she once knew, which has been transformed. Except that, although society has changed, human nature hasn’t, and this is why Munro’s understanding of life is so compelling.

Irish Times

The landscape of a Munro short story has been described as a consanguinity between the fictional and the real. (Meaning they both come from a common ancestor.)

The setting of the real is portrayed as affectively meaningless to us. (The fictional is as important, on a psychological level, as the imagined, or the hoped for.)

There’s been a lot of critical interest around the realism of her work, with some people making reference to magical realism.

Munro often creates a world that has all the illusion of external reality, but she pulls the reader deeper and deeper into what becomes a hallucinatory inner world which may include mystery, secrecy, and deception.

In many of Munro’s stories the willing of a destiny is overtaken by a fatality that is unnervingly spectacular. Characters are driven by something they cannot resist because they are certain they are a part of it. Munro explores fatality in many different ways across many of her stories.

TIME

A common Munro device is to begin in the now and hurtle back to the then.

Much has been said about how Alice Munro can write a novel in the space of a short story.

Alice Munro can move characters through time in a way that no other writer can. You are not aware that time is passing, only that it has passed—in this, the reader resembles the characters, who also find that time has passed and that their lives have been changed, without their quite understanding how, when, and why. This rare ability partly explains why her short stories have the density and reach of other people’s novels. I have sometimes tried to work out how she does it but never succeeded, and I am happy in this failure, because no one else can—or should be allowed to—write like the great Alice Munro.

Julian Barnes, The New Yorker

CHARACTERISATION

Most of Munro’s main characters are women, but not all of them. “Face” (2008) is from the point of view of a young boy.

  • Munro has the ability to recreate the mundanities of ordinary lives, but also to gently peel away the layers and reveal the raw emotions submerged beneath.
  • There is great poignancy in Munro’s description of individuals who don’t fit in and obvious pleasure in her revelations of their small triumphs.

Claire Thurlow

  • Alice Munro writes many stories about women in mid-life, caught between memory and reality. Throughout the narrative they reassess and reflect.
  • But occasionally she writes a child character, e.g. “Trespasses”, in which Lauren is a ten-year-old girl.
  • For Munro’s characters, to imagine something is to understand it.
  • Munro’s work is interested in men with menacing water, especially hoses. (Is this sexual?)
  • Munro’s women are perceptive guessers, quiet visionaries, fortuitous survivors.

FAMILY STRUCTURE

Families are usually complicated in Alice Munro stories. Families aren’t nuclear; marriages aren’t lifelong/faithful. In later stories, the wider network is populated with LGBT characters. This is, of course, like life.

Alice Munro’s mothers have been likened to clowns: Mothers and Other Clowns: The Stories of Alice Munro by Magdalene Redekop (a feminist work).

Is Alice Munro feminist?

Like Chekhov, Alice Munro never sets out to make a political point. She isn’t sexist, she has no axe to grind. She’s simply bearing witness to the human experience, reporting from the front lines. Yet she is making a political point, one that’s radical because it’s so enormous and so unsettling. The point is that girls and women, even those who lead narrow and constricted lives, those who wield no influence, who have a limited experience in the world, are just as significant and important as boys and men, those who take drugs, ride across the border, drift down the river, or hunt whales. Women’s lives, too, are driven by the great forces that drive all important experience. As it turns out, all those forces are internal: rage, love, jealousy, spite, grief. These are the things that make our lives so wild and dramatic, whether the backdrops are harpoons or swing sets. The great experiences can be set anywhere: a dentist’s office, a neighbor’s living room, a country road at night. It’s those propulsive, breathtaking, suffocating forces inside us that make those moments so vivid and shocking, it’s what’s inside us that cracks the landscape open, shocking and illuminating like a streak of lightning. She showed us that, Alice Munro.

Roxana Robinson

UNSENTIMENTAL WORLD VIEWS

Characters are lacking in sentimentality. Alice Munro has said in an interview regarding the death of her own daughter, soon after giving birth, that she went home and barely talked about it with her first husband because they were not a sentimental couple. This reminds me of my grandparents, who were probably the same after their own stillbirth experience in the late 1950s.

FANTASIES BUT NOT FANTASISTS

It is reality that awakens possibilities, and nothing would be more perverse than to deny it.

Robert Musil, The Man without Qualities

There are tales featuring out-and-out fantasists, like the short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and the film My Summer of Love, but Alice Munro’s characters are not fantasists. Instead, they are firmly reality based on the Continuum Of Imaginative Powers. Characters use imagination to explore alternate realities, to cope with grief and other uncomfortable emotions.

The difficulty of authentic and complete reconstructions of events in Munro’s fiction is not, on the whole, a problem of history, and much less of an exuberant postmodern sensibility, but of a general conviction that life is comprised of “disconnected realities. […]

Though Munro’s characters are grounded in reality, characters have fallible memories. When Munro takes the reader along on remembrances of the past, at no point are we encouraged to believe every single word. (Wrong) memory can influence someone’s present as much as the past reality.

‘Who Was It If It Wasn’t Me?’: The Problem of Orientation in Alice Munro’s ‘Trespasses’: A Cognitive Ecological Analysis

Memory, however, is fallible. It is incomplete. Munro does an excellent job of recreating how memory really works. Perhaps only older readers will appreciate this particular aspect of her stories; instead of remembering the ‘plots’ of past events, even big events, we tend to be left with resonant imagery. We forget people’s names, even if they were important to us. Minor characters become larger in hindsight. Significant characters can seem almost fictional in hindsight.

In creating  a sense of imperfect memory, Alice Munro makes much use of a technique I’ve seen described as ‘side shadowing‘. It’s especially useful to the short story writer because the story seems so much more expansive. Side-shadowing is used in various ways, and Munro has numerous reasons for using it.

Here’s how Ulrica Skagert puts it:

The phenomenon of possibility permeates Munro’s stories. An investigation of this phenomenon shows a curious paradox between possibility and necessity.

It’s not just fallible human memory which toys with the ‘reality’ presented to readers. Characters tend to have the following psychological and moral shortcomings:
 

Munro’s fiction most often suggests that a determinate set of events lies behind the text, but that the conflicting self-justifications of her characters undermine narrative certainty. Familiar motives and shortcomings—the everyday dishonesty fostered by self-interest; the inclination to suppress what is ugly and disturbing; and the failure to exhibit a systematic sense of responsibility in our dealings with others—animate the accounts of Munro’s characters.

‘Who Was It If It Wasn’t Me?’: The Problem of Orientation in Alice Munro’s ‘Trespasses’: A Cognitive Ecological Analysis

ANAGNORISISS

The Anagnorisis at the end of Munro’s stories tends to feature an event which offers a moment of release and an ‘epistemic certainty to the characters’ (Ulrica Skagert). Epistemic means ‘relating to knowledge’. Skagert argues that via this release and certainty the characters obtain a radical, audacious sense of freedom and intensity of life. So, more of an ‘epiphany’ than uninflected ‘anagnorisis’. Characters tend to move from entrapment to freedom.

Great stories are created by a nuanced sentence, a sudden realisation, a life-changing wrong choice; they are made in the description of a knowing glance, the angle of a character’s shoulders as they walk away, in the slow anger that destroys a love and shapes memory. Character, not plot, drives her art, which explores life as lived.

Irish Times

And here’s the difference between a good short story and an excellent one: In a great story, the reader also experiences a Anagnorisis. However, this is not spelled out for us. The reader must generally work for it. How does Munro lead us to our Anagnorisiss? Well, the trickery starts at the beginning:

As Munro brings conflicting interests and accounts to the fore, the desideratum of [desire for] factual accuracy loses authority as the reader focuses on ethical concerns and shapes a value- rather than event-based narrative account from the discrepancies. Not surprisingly, then, Munro’s preoccupation with accurate accounts is not merely thematic, but informs the structure of many of her stories, whose meandering beginnings challenge the reader’s basic efforts at orientation.

‘Who Was It If It Wasn’t Me?’: The Problem of Orientation in Alice Munro’s ‘Trespasses’: A Cognitive Ecological Analysis

THE INVERSE OF MELODRAMA

Munro includes details which prevent her stories from slipping into melodrama. The Irish Times describes her as a ‘coolly astute observer of the ordinary’. Alice Munro writes the opposite of melodrama. Instead, terrible and life-changing events happen alongside the mundane events, mostly. Instead, terrible and life-changing events happen alongside the mundane events, mostly. For instance, a husband dies suddenly while at the hardware store (in “Free Radicals”). Instead of the wife at home, wondering what’s happened to him, “She hadn’t had time to wonder about his being late.”

VOCATIONS OF CHARACTERS

Characters are often: teachers (especially music teachers), university lecturers (philandering), carpenters and doctors (often scoundrels, despite their social standing), pharmacists — not many people have really obscure sounding jobs, but maybe no one did last century?

Piano teachers, divorced professors, country doctors, solitary widows in the country—all those small and insignificant people lead lives of enormous drama. Women lead lives of enormous drama. She has made that into fact.

Roxana Robinson, The New Yorker

EMOTIONAL LABOUR

The women are shown performing emotional labour in a way you don’t tend to find in stories written by men, even when men are creating female characters. Most men simply don’t seem to get the extent to which women are acculturated in this area. The opening paragraph of “Free Radicals” is a perfect example of this:

At first, people kept phoning, to make sure that Nita was not too depressed, not too lonely, not eating too little or drinking too much. (She had been such a diligent wine drinker that many forgot that she was now forbidden to drink at all.) She held them off, without sounding nobly grief-stricken or unnaturally cheerful or absent-minded or confused. She said that she didn’t need groceries; she was working through what she had on hand. She had enough of her prescription pills and enough stamps for her thank-you notes.

ALCOHOL

If there’s drug use in her stories, it’ll be alcohol. When asked if she took drugs during the hippie era, Alice Munro replied maybe a little marijuana, but alcohol is the drug of her generation.

CHARACTER DESIRE

Munro has also talked about how women of her generation never developed their own personal desires until the hippie era hit them, and then it hit them with a force. Even at the age of 30, Alice Munro felt 18 again. Likewise, the younger versions of the women in her stories often seem quite passive. By the time these women are old ladies they’ve perhaps become a little more self-actuated, but young women are often propelled along by others, mostly men, who really did run that world. Women of Munro’s generation were expected to get married and have children. Any other kind of desire was considered unfeminine. Munro herself had exactly those desires. (Munro published her first book age 37, before her awakening. If she’d published earlier, we would’ve seen quite different work.)

YOUNG AND OLD TOGETHER

The cast of characters will most likely contain both young and old, and that’s aside from the narrator’s young and old self. For instance, a young woman will meet an old woman. This reminds her of her own mortality, perhaps, or the older lady from the past connects the main character’s older and younger self in a way that may not have been evident to the character herself. We are constantly reminded as readers that our age is not our identity; at some point we are young and, if we are lucky, at some point we are old.

CHARACTERS ARE SHAPED BY THEIR CIRCUMSTANCE

In this post I explain the difference between folk psychology and studied psychology: People do not have much in the way of enduring character — how we behave in any given situation depends largely on the situation.

A difference between genre fiction and good literary fiction — in literary fiction characters behave according to their circumstance, as people in real life would. Below, a reader explains this in a review of  Munro’s collection, The Love Of A Good Woman:

Loving Munro is … easy because her ethics of care and compassion for others [is] embodied by these stories, for example by Enid, the protagonist of [“The Love Of A Good Woman”]. Yet Munro refuses to paint an icon for worship: Enid can live as she does only because of her enabling circumstances, she experiences poisoned fantasies, and her goodwill is not unconditional. The same is true for other characters: each person in the book is carefully drawn as an individual shaped by histories, enmeshed in social structures that influence, constrain, oppress, enable, direct, oppose and support them in interconnected ways. They are at least partly responsible for their fortunes and failings, but Munro never victim-blames or hero-worships.

from a Goodreads reviewer

QUINTESSENTIAL THUMBNAIL CHARACTER SKETCHES

Here’s the problem with thumbnail character descriptions and why I shy away from writing them myself: By simply describing someone, we are actively encouraging the reader to fall back on stereotypes. Without existing prejudice, character sketches can’t do their job and are useless. Why does a writer give us a character’s BMI? Is it simply to paint a picture in our mind? Or are we meant to map society’s view onto characters?

Yet if writers avoid describing characters altogether, readers may fail to paint a picture. Moreover, they’ll come up with their own picture. I once wrote a short story, put it through critique. Halfway through the story I mentioned the main character’s beard. A critique partner said that I’d ‘sprung the beard’ on them. I found the imagery of that funny, but the reason they felt that way? I hadn’t started with any thumbnail sketch.

How to write character sketches without the inevitable downsides?

Well, Munro doesn’t shy away from telling us someone’s BMI and we can easily deduce where they would fall on the beauty spectrum. (Should we avoid talking about fatness and thinness at all? That’s a whole different issue with arguments both ways.)

Such information is offset by the fact that many of Munro’s character descriptions include a line about how the person we see is not the real person at all.

Mr. Travers never told stories and had little to say at dinner, but if he came upon you looking, for instance, at the fieldstone fireplace he might say, “Are you interested in rocks?” and tell you how he had searched and searched for that particular pink granite, because Mrs. Travers had once exclaimed over a rock like that, glimpsed in a road cut. Or he might show you the not really unusual features that he personally had added to the house—the corner cupboard shelves swinging outward in the kitchen, the storage space under the window seats. He was a tall, stooped man with a soft voice and thin hair slicked over his scalp. He wore bathing shoes when he went into the water and, though he did not look fat in his clothes, a pancake fold of white flesh slopped over the top of his bathing trunks.

Alice Munro, “Passion

  1. Mr Travers’ manner of speaking
  2. His special interests
  3. Physical description
  4. Voice description
  5. How he is different underneath (under his clothes)

Grace was wearing a dark-blue ballerina skirt, a white blouse, through whose eyelet frills the upper curve of her breasts was visible, and a wide rose-colored elasticized belt. There was a discrepancy, no doubt, between the way she presented herself and the way she wanted to be judged. But nothing about her was dainty or pert or polished, in the style of the time. A bit ragged around the edges, in fact. Giving herself Gypsy airs, with the very cheapest silver-painted bangles, and the long, wild-looking, curly dark hair that she had to put into a snood when she waited on tables.

Alice Munro, “Passion

  1. Grace’s clothing
  2. Her sexualisation of herself
  3. How she is different underneath (she doesn’t feel as sexual as she dresses)
  4. A description of her ‘falseness’, as viewed from a character’s POV rather than an objective narrator’s. (In the wider context, this would be how same-age men tend to see her.)
  5. A detail of her clothing (the snood) which marks the earlier era

Mrs. Travers, however, was barely five feet tall, and under her bright muumuus seemed not fat but sturdily plump, like a child who hasn’t stretched up yet. And the shine, the intentness, of her eyes, the gaiety that was always ready to break out in them, had not been inherited. Nor had the rough red, almost a rash, on her cheeks, which was probably a result of going out in any weather without thinking about her complexion, and which, like her figure, like her muumuus, showed her independence.

Alice Munro, “Passion

There was a change in his voice—a crack in it, a rising pitch that made her think of a television comedian doing a rural whine. Under the kitchen skylight, she saw that he wasn’t as young as she’d thought. When she’d opened the door, she had been aware only of a skinny body, the face dark against the morning glare. The body, as she saw it now, was certainly skinny but more wasted than boyish, affecting a genial slouch. His face was long and rubbery, with prominent light-blue eyes. A jokey look, but a persistence, too, as if he generally got his way.

Alice Munro, “Free Radicals

  1. Height
  2. BMI
  3. Usual clothing
  4. Comparison to a child
  5. Her eyes, as windows into her soul
  6. The way in which her appearance has been affected by her actions

She was a slim, suntanned woman in a purple dress, with a matching wide purple band holding back her dark hair. Handsome, but with little pouches of boredom or disapproval hiding the corners of her mouth. She left most of her dinner untouched on her plate, explaining that she had an allergy to curry.

Alice Munro, “Passion

  1. BMI
  2. Skin tone
  3. Clothing
  4. How her handsomeness does not match her attitude
  5. Her allergy to curry, which the reader is encouraged not to take seriously

His hands didn’t feel drunk, and his eyes didn’t look it. Nor did he look like the jolly uncle he had impersonated when he talked to the children, or the purveyor of reassuring patter he had chosen to be with Grace. He had a high pale forehead, a crest of tight curly gray-black hair, bright gray but slightly sunken eyes, high cheekbones, and rather hollowed cheeks. If his face relaxed, he would look sombre and hungry.

Alice Munro, “Passion

  1. How he is now different from how he presented at first
  2. His duplicitous way of talking, which is simply a matter of changing register — we all do it, but here we are encouraged to suspect him of something sinister
  3. The dimensions of his face
  4. The colour of his hair (indicating middle age)
  5. How the main character imagines his face might look different. She’s really observing him closely.

She is a lean eager-looking woman with a mop of pewter colored hair and a slight stoop which may come from coddling her large instrument, or simply from the habit of being an obliging listener and a ready talker.

Alice Munro, “Fiction

  • BMI
  • hair style and colour
  • pose
  • two lifestyle possibilities about why she may have adopted that pose, together telling us all we need to know about this character

NARRATION

Munro writes third person narratives, usually focusing on a woman, moving in and out of her head from close third person to omniscient.

TIME AND SPATIAL ORGANISATION

Time often spans a lifetime, from the point of view of a woman near the end of her life. She looks back on long-ago events as an extradiegetic character. Her younger self seems like a different person to her. After a lifetime of reflection, she is often more forgiving of her younger trespasses, understands why things happened the way they did. The younger woman is often without any particular desire of her own in the story, propelled along by men and expectations.

In these narratives which can span a lifetime, Munro moves seamlessly from the present to the recent past to the long distant past. This requires knowing when to make use of three verb tenses in the English language:

  • Simple past tense: At first, people kept phoning, to make sure that Nita was not too depressed
  • Past perfect tense: Rich had told her that he was going to the village, to the hardware store.
  • Present tense: Rich died in June. Now here it is midsummer.

The reader doesn’t notice she’s even doing this. She does it so well. Native English speakers create these tenses naturally, yet when writing a story you do have to make a decision when to use which tense, at least at some point, perhaps as part of the revision process.

At first we might think, okay, the distant past would obviously be simple past. The recent past would obviously be the past perfect. And the switch from iterative to the singulative would obviously cue a switch to the present. But look closer; it’s a bit more tricky than that.

I find it helpful to think of Munro writing a series of vignettes, each with their own entire timeline filling out the space. So, a flashback might start with the simple past, then within that same flashback it’ll switch to past perfect, so the reader feels we’re not reading a flashback at all. This is important because a constant stream of flashbacks can otherwise frustrate the reader, who is naturally more interested in the present. (Reading a flashback can feel like reading something enclosed in parentheses — we tend to skip through it, keen to get back to the ‘real’ text. See what I’m doing here?)

There’s another important reason why Munro encourages us to feel the past is inextricably tied to the present. In an Alice Munro story, the present never exists in isolation. Every life event is connected to what came before — the end of life often mirrors the beginning of life — and memories of the past absolutely influence a character’s experience of the here and now, influencing decisions which might, to outsiders, seem wacky or illogical.  Once we know the backstory that is affecting her, the reader understands why she behaves the way she does.

Stories unfold as if someone is speaking to us. If you’ve ever studied speech-making, you’ll know that an audience far prefers naturalistic speaking over a memorised script. Although you might falter, you might start a sentence then switch it for another, you add fillers… This is in fact easier for people to understand than a perfect stream of words. This is why conversations with friends are easier to follow than a literary audiobook. Munro absolutely has a sense of how humans grasp story, and she tells her stories as an oral storyteller might.

What is she actually doing, though? What does this mean and how do we replicate the technique?

We might say she’s making use of reveals and reversals. Going back to “Free Radicals”, the story opens with a woman in mourning. The reader naturally wonders: Why is she in mourning? Okay, we soon learn she’s lost her husband. The reader naturally wonders: How did he die? (I think we always wonder this, even if we have the courtesy not to ask, which we should not.) Munro then tells us how the husband dies.

Note that Munro could have completely inverted this in her storytelling. She could open with a man dying outside a hardware store. But she doesn’t, because she knows how reveals work. This is a term used by screenwriters, but it applies to everyday storytelling, as well, in a smaller way.

In the same story, we are told that Nita has buried her husband in a cardboard box. The reader wonders if the relationship was terrible. We are told that in fact they planned this together in advance. Reversal: Okay, so she didn’t bury him in a box because he was terrible. They are simply unsentimental. Further reveal: Nita had expected to die first because she has a cancer diagnosis. If she’s mad at her dead husband, it’s for ‘stealing her thunder’. See the minor reveals and reversals in there? It’s masterful. We think we know this character — we’re doing our best to understand her motivations. But small, unexpected pieces of information have us constantly on our toes, reevaluating our understanding of this character.

Alice Munro makes regular use of the writing technique of describing what is not as a way in to what is. The following is a description of recent bereavement:

She thought carefully, every morning when she first took her seat, of the places where Rich was not. He was not in the smaller bathroom, where his shaving things still were, along with the prescription pills for various troublesome but not serious ailments which he’d refused to throw out. Nor was he in the bedroom, which she had just tidied and left. Not in the larger bathroom, which he had entered only to take tub baths. Or in the kitchen, which had become mostly his domain in the last year. He was of course not out on the half-scraped deck, ready to peer jokingly in the window—through which she might, in earlier days, have pretended to be alarmed at the sight of a peeping tom.

“Free Radicals”

Ganette would describe this as the Pause on the continuum of narrative pacing. It slows the narrative down to a standstill, working like a freeze frame in a film. Think also of pillow shots, as Japanese film directors call them.

FAVOURITE SYMBOLS, MOTIFS & SUBJECT MATTER

Look for:

  • lightness — When we see women depicted in gloomy circumstances caused by patriarchal systems of repression, there is still a recurring moment of a peculiar feeling of lightness or newness that does not fit directly or simply into the condition of their social realities.
  • newness
  • sameness — Alice Munro’s fiction recognizes life as possibility in a moment when it shows itself in its own remarkable sameness.
  • absence — a focus not what is there but what is absent or delayed
  • possibility and fatality — Munro is fascinated by the surface reality of how things are.
  • liberation vs restraint
  • contingency and fatality

TRAINS

photo by Louis Moncouyoux

There are many trains — characters inside trains, train tracks going past a house, incidents on train tracks. This makes sense, as trains are a wonderful metaphor for the inevitable passing of time. Once you’re on a train there’s no stopping it — you’ll end up where you end up, and life often seems like this in hindsight.

Munro writes ‘character’ descriptions of houses, which depicts houses as characters in their own right, inextricably linked to their inhabitants. Houses remain even after the inhabitants have long since gone. A visit to a former house brings back many memories.

Like Annie Proulx, Alice Munro’s narratives are often about outsiders coming in to invade small towns. With Munro, an older character returns to former haunts to learn that everything has regrettably changed. Highways have been built, young people have moved in, often with their tacky play sets in the yards. There is regret on the part of the characters — why couldn’t things just stay the same? On the other hand, they don’t wish for that at all. Rather, their memories are rose-tinted. In a Munro story, reality and memory do not line up.

The house had a row of cedars on one side and a railway embankment on the other. The railway traffic had never amounted to much, and by now there were only a couple of trains a month. Weeds were lavish between the tracks. One time, when she was on the verge of menopause, Nita had teased Rich into making love up there—not on the ties, of course, but on the narrow grass verge beside them—and they had climbed down inordinately pleased with themselves.

“Free Radicals”

Later, in the same story, the train tracks give the impression that once a terrible situation is set in motion, there’s no getting out of it. An intruder has tricked his way into her house. Not, Nita must wait for fate to play out: Train tracks as fate.

“I was only going to get the keys.”
“You wait till I say. I walked the railway track. Never seen a train. I walked all the way to here and never seen a train.”
“There’s hardly ever a train.”

An affinity between the inevitable and the possible is central to Munro’s writing.

As shown in ‘Train’, Munro expertly analyses those sudden, irreparable choices in life that lead us away from our original track. The metaphor of train is repeated in ‘To Reach Japan’, where Greta’s sudden impetuous sexual liaison with another traveller leads to the disappearance of her young daughter. She is travelling to Toronto to house-sit for a friend and is due to return to the comfortable tedium of her marriage. Yet, another impulsive gesture – the sending of a letter to a man she barely knows – may take Greta away from the familiar tracks of her life.

Claire Thurlow

ABSENCE

In many stories, a character has gone missing. Perhaps they’ve dropped off the face of the planet, or another character thinks they have (e.g. “Jakarta“). A child grows up and cuts their parents off. Another form of absence is when two or more characters knew each other when young, fall mostly out of contact for decades, then reconnect when they’re old.

NARRATIVE PACING

Munro uses the full range of narrative pace in her stories. The pacing itself maps onto the emotions she evokes in the reader. She can skip over decades, then slow the pace down to a pause (freeze frame). She is an expert at summary. Here she summarises a long journey home:

Sally gets lost, then finds her way. The bank building again, the same or possibly a whole new regiment of loiterers. The subway ride, the car park, the keys, the highway, the traffic. Then the lesser highway, the early sunset, no snow yet, the bare trees, and the darkening fields.

Deep Holes

Alice Munro On Short Stories

The Canberra Times: Panorama, 2 January 2010

How To Write Like Paul Jennings

Paul Jennings books

Paul Jennings has been an influential children’s author in Australia and New Zealand since the 1980s.

A PUBLISHING SUCCESS STORY

The Un-series took off internationally, became a TV series, the rest is history. Many people my age grew up with Paul Jennings. Schools across Australia and New Zealand all have (or had) multiple copies, sometimes class sets for study in class. I have taught Paul Jennings stories myself. These are considered texts to draw the reluctant reader in.

After revisiting the tales this year, I realised something else. Jennings’ stories serve to uphold a system of misogyny and sexism typical of the 1980s. Paul Jennings stories served a specific purpose in a specific era, but it’s now time to retire these books from the classroom. Childhood is very short, in comparison to the sheer volume of reading material available. We desperately need contemporary, woke, diverse, feminist hi-lo readers with fun, twisty endings to fill the Paul Jennings space.

Jennings has recently written a memoir. He has this to say about his own work:

[T]he themes of his own childhood have crept into his work, even against his own will at times.

Bullies often get their comeuppance, for example.

Grifters, narcissists and conmen also cop it.

Perhaps more tellingly, parenting crops up a lot.

“There’s a theme which comes up all the time, which is the separation of the parent and the child,” Jennings says.

“And it’s an incredibly powerful thing, because the loss of a child is enormous to a parent. And the loss of a parent is enormous to a child.

“That theme, I realised after a couple of years, it was poking its nose up quite a bit. And I kept saying to myself, ‘I’m never doing that theme again’.”

ABC News

There is also a story Jennings wishes he hadn’t written. “No Is Yes”.

The fact is, culture changes, authors change. This is not the only story I personally wish Jennings hadn’t written.

All that said, Paul Jennings is a master storyteller who cracked the difficult knack of genuinely writing for children, not for a dual audience, nor for advanced middle grade readers only. There’s a lot to learn from Paul Jennings in that regard.

FEATURES OF PAUL JENNINGS SHORT STORIES

STORY STRUCTURE AND NARRATION

  • Titles often have a pun element, not obvious until after the twist.
  • Opening sentences often introduce intriguing high concepts.
  • Or, the story will open with a character in a scary/impossible situation e.g. perched high on a ladder (“Eyes Knows”). In other words, Jennings is making use of ‘in medias res’. We continue reading to find out how they got there.
  • Or, there will be a weird scenario (a character has a huge nose) and the backstory that follows will explain how this happened.
  • Or, the story will begin with a boy having just got himself into trouble with an authority figure (“UFD”).
  • Many of these stories are tall tales, and use the techniques of that genre.
  • Some are retellings of classic stories or a new spin on an old yarn. “Ice Maiden” = the Greek myth of Pygmalion. “Greensleeves” is a spin on “Jonah and the Whale”. “Know All” is a new spin on Pandora’s Box.
  • A lot of Jennings’ stories are bookended. He loves the story-within-a-story structure. To use the terms of narratology, Jennings makes use of two diegetic levels diegetic and metadiegetic. This conjures the ambience of a ‘storyteller around a campfire‘. Either an interesting adult tells a tall story to a child viewpoint character, or the child viewpoint character themselves launches into some wild backstory to explain the situation at hand. The stand-out example is the standalone story illustrated by Terry Denton, called Sucked In. The story’s title comes from the fact that a group of kids have been taken in by a tall tale… or have they?
  • The bookend story has a story structure all of its own. (Its own opponent, plan, big struggle etc.) Because we have two of everything, this packs a lot into a short story and creates a fast-paced reading experience.
  • The Battle sequences are especially fun for the audience of these stories, with massive high-octane, ridiculous hilarity and plenty of revenge against authority and outright villainy.
  • Stories are written in first person, unless there’s some reason to write in third. For instance, the story will be written in third person if the first person viewpoint character isn’t going to be sticking around for the entire story. (“One-shot Toothpaste”) Stories are also written in third person if there are two main characters instead of one (e.g. “Birdscrap”), or perhaps if the story is about an adult rather than a child (“The Velvet Throne”).
  • Jennings doesn’t care that his Chekhov’s Guns are wholly unsubtle. If a character mentions a valuable painting, you can be sure that valuable painting will be found at the end of the story (“Skeleton On The Dunny”). A young reader is in the moment. Unlike a more sophisticated audience, they are not picking up the Chekhov’s Guns and making predictions.
  • It’s interesting to see which dots are joined for the young reader. Paul Jennings likes the reader to piece together their own endings. But everything else is handed to them on a plate. For instance, if there is a ghost, the reader is told there is a ghost. There’s no doubt about it (to my mind) because Jennings is using all the ghost tropes. But Jennings never forgets: He’s writing for eight year olds. Eight year olds haven’t got a long history of hearing ghost stories. Eight year olds don’t have a long history of anything. They’re eight. This is why, in a story like “Lighthouse Blues” we have sentences like ‘It had to be ghosts. The ghosts of Captain Rickard and Alan Rickard’. Any adult reader has already worked this out by section five. And so have the young readers, probably. But young readers like this confirmed. They were right! They feel smart. In a story for older readers, this sort of explanation might be considered ‘overexplanation’, and edited out.

Don’t play it too cool. Don’t trust us to figure it out if you can’t trust us to figure it out. Always try to think of any other interpretation that your reader may have. When in doubt, spell it out.

Matt Bird
  • Paul Jennings doesn’t lampshade coincidence. He makes the most of it. That is a feature of the tall tale. Almost all of his stories contain an element of unbelievable coincidence. Or, to be kind, we could call it ‘non-mimetic’ coincidence. (Events in a story don’t even try to emulate how the real world works.) The events of “Greensleeves” rely heavily on comical levels of coincidence, reminiscent of a fairytale.
  • Jennings is using “fairytale logic” and also fairytale archetypes. Mothers are often dead. The boy main character is most often reminiscent of the underdog third son. Virtue is richly rewarded by some unseen force.
  • Oftentimes the Battle sequence is a prearranged competition (“Birdman”, “Wunderpants”, “Little Squirt”) in which boys big struggle for prestige and dominance. The underdog will win after previously stumbling upon some magic. It might be a speech in front of the class rather than a competition (“Without A Shirt”), but the story structure is the same.
  • Ticking clocks come in various forms, but Jennings likes to make use of a magical piece of equipment which only lasts for a certain number of times or a certain length of time. (Super glue which only sticks for two hours; a lie detector that only works seven times.) This, too, is from fairytales. A genie grants three wishes, etc.
  • If a ghost is going to appear, often there’s a character who appears first to explain the backstory of the ghost. (The police officer in “A Good Tip For Ghosts”, the annoying girl classmate in “Cracking Up”.) This utilises the trick of having characters talk about an intriguing character before that character appears on the scene.
  • In a Paul Jennings story the planning step isn’t necessarily an obvious step in the direction of fulfilling the main character’s desire. For instance, a boy wants to prove a flying dog exists. Instead of making a plan to that effect, he goes along with his father to buy ice-cream. A boy wants to get out of trouble for ruining his mother’s precious notebook. The grandfather just happens to turn up so he goes along on a frog-finding mission with him. This goes against how most writers cover the plan phase of a story. But in a way, it’s more mimetic for a child audience. A low mimetic child hero doesn’t have great executive functioning, and neither does the typical reader. Kids like this aren’t up to making plans. Instead, everything fits together as if by fate. The boys in these stories fulfil their desires, but often it’s through no good planning of their own. These white boys get what they want through sheer ‘dumb luck’, as Professor McGonnagal might say. (And I do say ‘white boy’ for a reason. We accept that kind of privilege in white boy characters.)
sheer dumb luck

SETTING OF PAUL JENNINGS SHORT STORIES

  • Magical items appear without explanation. Magic simply is. In common with fairytales, we are given the very basics, then left to imagine the rest. In “Birdscrap”, Jennings doesn’t bother going into backstory of why a pair of rubies are significant. They just are. We know they are special precisely because the main characters are looking for them. The item with magic attached is common in fairytale and children’s stories but we sometimes see it in stories for adults, such as Annie Proux’s “A Pair of Spurs”.
  • A magical item will help the main character achieve their goal, but first they need to learn how to use it. The magical item will lead them through a series (probably two) humiliating gag scenes before helping with the goal. (“Birdman”, “The Mouth Organ”, “Spaghetti Pig-out”). This avoids the trap of magical items all writers need to skirt around the character needs to save the day, not the magic. This magical item might be a machine typical of 1980s technology, like the VCR of “Spaghetti Pig-out”. A modern audience may not have seen the rewind function in action. More to the point, many modern remote controls (e.g. PS4) don’t need to be pointed directly at the machine.
  • Fantasy creatures appear, special rubies exist, and mundane objects have a fantastical backstory. In this respect, Paul Jennings is the kiddie equivalent of Stephen King. For instance, both Jennings and King made use of a monster inside a drain, around the same time. The everyday world is simply a veneer masking terror below. They both make use of the snail under the leaf setting.
  • Jennings tends to give a ‘standout detail’ rather than creating a rounded picture. One of the more lengthy examples is the description of the annoying little helper called Snookle, who turns up inside a milk bottle. ‘All I could see was a large pair of gloomy eyes. He must have had a body but it was nowhere to be seen. The eyes simply floated in the air about fifteen centimetres above the bottom of the bottle.’
  • Overall, there’s a distinctly Australian feel to the settings (of course). This mapped equally well onto my New Zealand childhood, with its strong beach culture and houses which tend to be near the sea. Beaches hide buried treasure. Where the land meets the sea is often used in stories to evoke that liminal sense of where fantasy meets reality.
  • A form of magic beloved of Paul Jennings is the magic which takes over control of a boy’s body. (“Without A Shirt”, “Birdman”)
  • A similar form of magic is when a boy feels compelled to do as a magic item tells him. (“On The Bottom”, “Eyes Knows”)

CHARACTERISATION

  • The typical reader is an 8-10 year old, and the typical age of a main character is 14-16. This affords the characters more freedom. Some characters are younger than that. It seems to depend on whether there’s a romantic element. If Jennings needs a romance plot, he’ll age the main character up.
  • Wish fulfilment in Paul Jennings stories cover a large repeating territory: the wish to be respected (especially by girls), the wish to have money or treasure, to fly, to solve a mystery by your very own detective work, to have super powers, to find a magic item which solves a large problem.
  • Main characters are overwhelmingly boys. These boys are low-mimetic heroes according to the scale proposed by Northrop Frye. These boys are slightly more hapless, stupid, unobservant than the reader. This creates empathy, and we also laugh at them. We feel smarter than they are for working things out before they do.
  • Paul Jennings gets the parents out of the way and he doesn’t care how he does it. (The parents in Come Back Gizmo have gone out and haven’t even told their son where they’ve gone.) Jennings can get rid of adults suddenly with a one-sentence explanation. Or, we simply accept that parents aren’t there. In fairytale tradition, parents might have died in a car crash.
  • Adult opponents are often authority figures (principals, teachers, mean nurses, cranky neighbours). The meanest will receive punishment at the end, with vengeful plot ‘twists’.
  • Nasty opponents are both nasty and illogical. For instance, a nasty teacher has a precious plant, yet entrusts the care of it to his students each night so it doesn’t get covered in dust while the cleaners are doing their jobs (“Cracking Up”).
  • Jennings likes the archetype of the “little man” (described thus) who appears out of nowhere to serve whatever purpose Jennings sees fit. The “little man” in Come Back Gizmo appears to say the main character’s dog has been found. The “little man” in “Box Strap Flyer” appears as a trickster to outwit another trickster. Why does Jennings describe these men as “little”? Because they are meant to work mostly invisibly, behind the scenes, popping in occasionally to interfere with the machinations of a mystery.
  • When girls appear, they are most often girl archetypes (beautiful bitches, blonde sexual objects, wimpy, annoying sisters). They are therefore most often an opponent, romantic or potentially romantic, despite lack of interest on their part. When there are no girls at all in the story (“The Paw Thing”) Jennings doesn’t have the opportunity to muck it up.
  • Even adult women are a continuation of the female maturity principle, in which men and boys embark on these wacky, dangerous plans while the women tut-tut, oblivious to the fantasy world around them. In “Birdman” the mother is in a strop with the father because she thinks the flying competition is too dangerous. In “Spaghetti Pig-out” the mother gets into a strop because the father has bought a dodgy video down at the pub, but the father is always vindicated, because these machines and tricks always turn out to fix a big problem. Crazy dads are rewarded. Sensible mums are proven wrong to be sensible, every time.
  • Because this is the 1980s, the mothers are the ones calling their kids in for tea. The dads are the ones going out to work. This is believable for the 1980s, but my own mother went out to work in the 1980s, and so did the mothers of most of my friends. So Jennings was still behind in his parental gender roles.
  • Characters are often symbolically named e.g. a dog called Ripper who rips holes in your pants, or Chomper, a ghost who (it is revealed) searches the tip each night in search of his false teeth. The big, bad opponent in a story is most likely to be symbolically named in this way. The Every Boy gets more of a classic white boy name.
  • The son or daughter of the mayor is likely to be corrupt.

IDEOLOGY

  • Inversions are utilised as gags. For instance, a boy and dog switch bodies (Gizmo Come Back) or a father and dog switch bodies (“Birdman”). (See also: Inversion does not equal subversion.)
  • Typical of men of his era, Jennings fails to subvert some troubling, misogynistic tropes. Instead, his stories serve to keep girl characters subdued and under control. Yet he is able to subvert other kinds of authority by making the most of the carnivalesque. (“Lucky Lips” is perhaps the worst of the lot, with a carnivalesque, gross-out and also rapey set of scenarios leading to a disturbing climax, not dissimilar to the controversial pilot episode of Black Mirror.)
  • Paul Jennings uses fat kids as the bully character. This was very common in the 1980s. Fat boys were either enemies or pathetic. In modern stories, the fat boy is still sidekick to the main character Every Boy, though he’s often a nicer person than everyone else. This isn’t really an inversion until fat boys get to be the stars of their own stories, which aren’t about the experience of being fat. In The Cabbage Patch Wars, two dads with beer bellies engage in a weight loss competition, in an era before Biggest Loser was a thing.
  • There’s a disproportionate number of redheaded kids in Paul Jennings stories. Like most children’s writers, he tends to use red hair as a ‘stand out’ attribute by giving a kid red hair he is saying ‘keep an eye on this character’. Jennings uses a red headed kid for the bully in “A Good Tip For Ghosts” but the red headed kid is a main character in “Ice Maiden”, and despite hating red hair himself, he ends up falling in love with a red headed girl. Also, his red hair saves his life. So Jennings is trying to tell us that red hair isn’t so bad in one story, yet uses red hair however he sees fit in other stories.
  • If an evil person is introduced, and that evil person is mistreating others you can bet Paul Jennings will exact punishment on that character, even if it requires a final section of the story to do just that. In other words, he ties off every other strand in the story, and it might end there, but then he goes back in for the punishment. These stories are famous for being about anarchy and fun, but they are conservative in their values.
  • Look closely at these stories and you’ll find they are basically very conservative, and sometimes clearly didactic. “The Busker” is about how you can’t buy friendship. Yet in “Spaghetti Pig-out”, the main character buys friends with a magical device. So stories contradict each other in their moralism.
  • The idea that bad people do bad things and also get away with it is not part of the Paul Jennings setting, although it is part of real life.
  • Stories which revolve around a reordering of hierarchy are so common, not just in the Paul Jennings oeuvre, that we rarely stop to think about how to completely subvert the hierarchy itself. As Matt Bird says about Battle sequences in general, at first the main character is socially challenged (usually via humiliation). This is absolutely true of Paul Jennings stories. We are lately starting to see a pushback on this fundamental idea. Australian feminist philosopher Kate Manne says it best in her critique of Jordan Peterson’s viral “12 Rules For Life”:

Critiquing these hierarchical structures and finding, when possible, a way to live outside of them in more co-operative ways are obvious alternatives for human beings about which Peterson says little.

  • I have exactly the same thing to say about Paul Jennings, who has nothing to say about how to live outside hierarchies, or about dismantling the hierarchies altogether. Instead, story after story fulfils the wish to move from underdog to king pin, often by dumb luck and with magical help rather than by achieving any special insight.

WRITING STYLE

  • The writing style is conversational rather than literary.
  • A strong 1980s, 1990s Australian voice comes through, in emulation of the ‘True, blue Aussie’ which certain politicians like to emulate, even today. This voice is in itself a kind of fictional caricature, which isn’t to say that certain people don’t make full use of it as a character gag. Mick Gould who stars in Australia’s 2019 Married At First Sight also uses this distinctly Australian larrikin persona for enduring comic value and audience empathy, so it hasn’t gone away. This voice is full of idiomatic expressions, mixed metaphors for comic effect, telling it like it is, positioning oneself as hapless and unpretentious, and making use of borderline inappropriate language (insofar as a children’s book will allow, hence “Birdscrap”, which can be explained away as “Bird Scrap” rather than its real meaning of “Birds’ Crap”).
  • Emotions are described matter-of-factly in a single sentence e.g. ‘I felt embarrassed,’ ‘I felt silly‘.

HUMOUR

  • A useful taxonomy of humour in children’s stories. Paul Jennings makes heavy use of slapstick.
  • Physiological reactions are comical they could easily happen in a Cartoon Network show. Knees knocking, obvious blushing, teeth chattering.
  • Titles such as “Birdscrap” are word play and also taboo.
  • Readers take delight in upending authority. This kind of carnivalesque humour is utilised across many picture books, which makes these hi-lo readers a natural progression for young readers. This type of humour is still very popular here in Australian children’s publishing, with the Treehouse creators saying that children crave ‘irreverent’ humour. Irreverent is another way of saying the same thing. Terry Denton and Andy Griffiths also talk about the importance of ‘anarchy‘, and this applies equally to Paul Jennings, who has surely been influential on their work.
  • Humour has been classified into ‘positive’ and ‘negative’. Men and boys are more likely to use ‘negative’ humour to belittle, to humiliate etc. Paul Jennings stories are far more likely to belittle and humiliate, with a few exceptions e.g. “The Mouth Organ” (in which, no coincidence, he chooses a girl for his narrator).
  • Jennings makes use of gross-out elements. (A sea of bird poo, a creature picking a boy’s nose for him, being stuck in a skip full of rubbish, a dug up skeleton etc.)
  • In tall story tradition Jennings plays around with scale and size. (This is also a feature of myths e.g. Greek myth.) For example, a shack is surrounded by a sea of seagull poo, a tooth grows bigger than the man to whom it belongs. Jennings understands that by playing around with scale, he creates resonant imagery for the reader. Other examples: ‘A pumpkin so big it took four men to lift it’, ‘peas as big as golf balls’, ‘beans were as long as your arm’, so many flies they black out the sun. Extreme stench is utilised in several different stories. In the humour taxonomy, this is gross-out overlaid with hyperbole.
  • Related to big things as small, small things as big, creatures and things operate in the way we don’t expect. Oftentimes, it’s a simple inversion. For instance, in Sucked In, we are led to expect that a cat is about to eat the escaped appendix. The illustration shows a massive cat (so massive the cat is partly off the page) with the much smaller appendix in a vulnerable position beneath the cat. But turn the page and the appendix eats the cat. This is man bites dog’ humour, funny because it subverts expectations.
  • Bad smells are a common feature of Paul Jennings stories, especially if they overwhelm an entire town. (“Greensleeves” is one example)
  • Humiliation of the main character is often a large component of the humour. We empathise with the main character because he is in an underdog embarrassing situation. He comes up trumps at the end, not because of his own superpowers coming to the fore, but because the gods are smiling upon him. He remains a low-mimetic hero (Northrop Frye’s classification).
  • Disembodied body parts are commonly utilised throughout Paul Jennings stories. False teeth are the star of several different narratives (“A Good Tip For Ghosts, The Cabbage Patch War). In Sucked In, an appendix in a jar is the star. We have a dismembered finger in “On The Bottom”.
  • Nudity is both funny and humiliating (cringe humour). Bums especially so (“On The Bottom”). Mention of exposed genitalia would be considered inappropriate for this age group, but we do have an entire story about a pissing contest.

HOW DOES JENNINGS TWIST HIS TALES?

The big selling point of a Paul Jennings collection is the twist-in-the-tale. You’ll find this promise on the advertising copy. This seems to be what impresses readers the most.

Some of the stories contain two twists: One in the Level 0 story, another in the Level 1, meta story.

Some of the ‘twists’ only work on a child audience. The sophisticated adult reader sees them a mile out. Paul Jennings does not attempt a dual audience, and that largely explains his success: His stories for kids are really for kids. On the other hand, sometimes the reward is in knowing exactly what’s coming. There’s a visceral delight in that.

Christopher Vogler has pointed out that ‘twist endings’ are most often sardonic, bitter, wry and I would add ‘vengeful’. It is much more difficult to write a twist ending that does not invoke these negative (but satisfying) emotions in us. A rare exception is the famous short story by O. Henry, “The Gift of the Magi”. Paul Jennings doesn’t do ‘kind’ twist endings. (Twist endings which say something lovely about humankind are very hard to pull off.)

Another twist Paul Jennings does NOT do: The scary supernatural creature turns out to be no such thing. Once Jennings creates his scary opposition, that opposition is real within the setting. The ‘and it wasn’t really real’ twist is not satisfying. It’s a close cousin of ‘And then I woke up and it was all a dream‘.

  • Jennings reveals that an authority figure has the same desires as the kids, proving himself not so high and mighty after all. (“Pink Bow Tie”). This is a carnivalesque trick because it upends the adult-child hierarchy.
  • A storyteller spins a yarn which the young viewpoint character fully believes. The twist is that the storyteller is full of yarns, and the existence of the second yarn disproves the veracity of the main yarn. (“One Shot Toothpaste”.) This is a tall tale trick.
  • A character with a certain strong character trait (e.g. fearlessness) goes through an experience which serves to invert that trait (e.g. he is now scared of not scary things) (“Inside Out”). This draws on the mechanism of irony. The reader expects a character arc to be: Child learns to conquer his fears.
  • A mysterious storyteller who tells his tale in third person is revealed to have been telling the story about himself all along. (“The Busker”)
  • A fantastic tale is not fantasy at all, then leaves off with a detail or explanation that suggests the fantastic tale might be fantastic, or it might not. (“Souperman”)
  • A situation is resolved, seemingly forever, but then it is revealed in the final paragraph that this is a repeating story and is likely to happen again. Paul Jennings gets a lot of mileage out of this one. (“One Shot Toothpaste”, “The Gum Leaf War”, “Come Back Gizmo”, Sucked In) Often, the first and main story happens to a boy, then the next (untold) story is about to happen to a girl. DreamWorks did the same in its movie adaptation of Boss Baby. (They probably think this counts as gender diversity.)
  • A Holy Grail object of desire is revealed to have been right there, staring them in the face all along. (“Birdscrap”)
  • A villain opponent is revealed to be more of an ally, and ends up helping the young character get with they want. Sometimes this is a ghost, who seems scary at first but is revealed to be kind. (“Birdscrap”, “Skeleton On The Dunny”)
  • An opponent with a formidable reputation turns out to be much less scary once met face to face (“A Good Tip For Ghosts”).
  • An opponent for the child viewpoint character turns out to be an ally for another character, because everyone’s needs are different. (“Snookle”)
  • A weird situation is revealed to be supernatural in origin, and has a classic horror story resolution (“Without a shirt”)
  • A smart trickster outwits an evil trickster (“Box Strap Flyer”, The Paw Thing)
  • The reader thinks the worst that could happen has already happened, but then something outrageous and unimaginable is about to happen next. This scene may be so risqué it is left entirely for the reader to imagine. (“Lucky Lips”). This is a popular type of humour shared by many comedians, e.g. by Oliver Jeffers in his picture book Stuck.
  • An object which is terrible turns out to have a silver lining for the main character. (“Cow Dung Custard”)
  • A character accomplishes something using a certain trick which is not revealed to the reader until the final sentence. (“Wunderpants”) This is how heist stories work. The character makes plans behind the scenes. The character has a realisation midway through the story and this is not related to the audience.
  • Rather than a twist, Jennings sometimes uses the inverse: Everything in the story leads to an expected and satisfying payoff… or rather, payback. In “Birdscrap”, the story ends at the point where the highly unempathetic opponent is about to land headfirst in manure. In “Spaghetti Pig-out” we wait for the magic remote to work against the bullies.
  • After a psychological horror sequence, a character realises what they need to do to get themselves out of a horrible situation, so they do it and it works via off-the-page magic. (“The Velvet Throne”)
  • To emphasise his twist, Jennings sometimes gives us the ‘twist’, swiftly followed by the answer to a mystery he has set up. This feels extra satisfying, and can make up for a less-than-stellar twist. He does this in The Cabbage Patch War. We learn in quick succession that the person accused of stealing the cabbage is not the real thief. Then we learn that one character won a weightloss competition by removing his false teeth.
  • A character is killed, then brought back to life with hitherto unseen magic (“Frozen Stiff”).
  • Sometimes a main character works something out before the reader does, then sets about to fix a situation. (Russell works out his mean teacher’s smile has been stolen before we do in “Cracking Up”, “Know All”.)

Stone City by Annie Proulx

stone city

“Stone City” is a short story by Annie Proulx, first published 1979, collected 20 years later in Heart Songs. Some of Proulx’s short stories are like compacted novels, and “Stone City” is one of those. The story of the humans is wrapped by the story of a fox, looking in from a slight distance. “Stone City” is a good example of what some literature academics call ‘delayed coding’.

For writers, “Stone City” makes a good mentor text:

  • If you’re building a story which is partly from the point of view of an animal. The fox is linked to a human character, Noreen Pineaud, who is described as like a fox. “Stone City” is therefore a good example of how to make use of animal imagery and, more importantly, how to link this imagery to the Anagnorisis part of a story.
  • For description of a setting which is a character in itself:

It was an abandoned farm vine between two ridges, no roads in or out, only a faint track choked with viburnum and alder. The property, shaped like an eye, was bordered on the back by a stream. Popple and spruce had invaded the hay fields, and the broken limbs of the apple trees hung to the ground.

The buildings were gone, collapsed into cellar holes of rotting beams. Blackberry brambles boiled out of the crumbling foundations and across a fallen blue door that half-blocked a cellar hole.

  • A storyteller narrator, who tells a story within a story, jumping back and forth in chronology, with events linked thematically rather than by time.
  • Related to the storyteller voice, in this story Proulx is especially economical with language. Instead of saying, ‘A bell tinkled and Brittany came into the field to pick [the birds] up. Banger followed close behind. Then he said  said…’ Proulx leaves out the ‘Banger followed close behind’ detail. We infer that if Banger has started talking, Banger is now on the scene.
  • Perhaps this is only noticeable because I recently read all the first and second volume of Grimm fairytales back to back, but there are subtle fairytale elements in “Stone City”. For instance, the way Banger’s dog sleeps behind the stove. This is where old people almost about to die spend their days in Grimm fairytales. Then of course there’s the Hansel and Gretel plot of finding an unexpected dwelling in the middle of the wilderness, the ‘sugarhouse’ of Banger is almost reminiscent of the gingerbread house. When Banger turns off ‘accidentally’ and takes the narrator home for dinner, was that really an accident, or on purpose? The nearby fox, circling the town, waiting for a chance to pounce/trick.

WHAT HAPPENS IN “STONE CITY”

The following provides a summary of what happens from Karen Lane Rood. I’ve emboldened the parts which give a clue as to the narration and structure:

“Stone City” examines several acts of revenge that have wider consequences than in “On the Antler,” as the narrator, a newcomer to Chopping County, gradually comes to understand the complex interrelationships of the people in the community. He learns that the abandoned farm everyone calls Stone City was once the property of the first settlers of the county — a “real old family, and a real bad family”. During the lifetimes of the current residents, old man Stone was known as the “meanest bastard” and his children shared a reputation for being wild and mean. One of those children, Floyd Stone, finally brought the wrath of the community on the whole Stone family when—after waiting for a seventy-three-car train to pass—he shot and killed the man standing on the caboose. Several hundred law men converged on Stone City and tore down a flimsy house to get Floyd and arrest him. Then the local starred and feathered the rest of the Stone men. Old man Stone retaliated by burning out Banger, one of the leaders of the mob, killing Banger’s wife and child in the process.

Floyd was eventually electrocuted, and by the time the narrator arrives in town, the Stones seem to exist only as a fearful memory. The narrator hears much of the Stones’ story from Banger, a talkative man known for his skills as a hunter. He lives alone with his much=loved hunting dog and seems to have been motivated for his part in the mob by an earlier act of violence. While hunting with the narrator in the abandoned Stone City, Banger explains that he used to hunt there as a child, and that once old man Stone chased him away “with number six birdshot. Still got the little pick scars acrost my back”.

When Banger’s dog is found dead in a trap set for foxes near Stone City, Banger blames old man Stone. In fact, the trap belongs to the son of Floyd Stone’s illegitimate son, a teenager who might have found the dog in time to save it if he had tended his trapline more diligently. After Banger moves away, the narrator discovers that Banger had bought Stone City for back taxes years earlier. Still, the narrator concludes, “The Stones owned it and they always would”. Proulx, however, suggests the vanity of any concept of human land ownership within the larger context of geological time. The story is punctuated with a series of vignettes about a fox whose range includes Stone City. Too smart to be caught in a trap, the fox survives to father another generation in a new den built under a cellar foundation in Stone City.

Understanding Annie Proulx by Karen Lane Rood
NARRATION

“Stone City” is one of very few stories that Proulx has written in the first person voice. Significantly, the narrator is an outsider who cannot comprehend the complexities of the life he has adopted.

Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News: A Reader’s Guide by Aliki Varvogli

In narratology terms, “Stone City” is a story within a story, within (or alongside) the story of the fox. Annie Proulx employs this method for other stories in this collection, including “On The Antler”, though in that case the narrator seems to be a long-time resident of Chopping County. This time she’s chosen a newcomer, which makes sense for this particular narrative. Both stories feature a storyteller character aside from the narrator storyteller themselves, but in the case of Stone City, the newcomer status of the narrator allows for realistic revelations which delve into the dark underbelly of the community. When the narrator is a newcomer to an arena, this allows the reader to sit on the shoulder of the narrator and make discoveries in a simulation of real time.

Metadiegetic (Level 1): The story of the fox who finds a new home.

Diegetic (Level 0): Without any awareness of the omniscient fox, the narrator moves to Chopping County and gradually comes to understand the complex interrelationships of the people in the community. A narrator who exists — in full or in part — on a different story level from the other characters is more commonly known as a ‘storyteller’. This narrator will tell us the story of Banger, who tells us the story of Stone City…

Hypodiegetic (Level -1): Refers to the embedded narrative in which Banger tells the narrator (and us) the history of Stone City. Any character who produces a further narrative within a narrative is a hypodiegetic narrator. Banger is the hypodiegetic narrator.

OTHER STORYTELLING TECHNIQUES

FORESHADOWING

“Stone City” is one of very few stories that Proulx has written in the first person voice. Significantly, the narrator is an outsider who cannot comprehend the complexities of the life he has adopted. As in The Shipping News, family secrets and hidden traumas emerge only gradually, so that the truth is revealed to the narrator in fragments, which he has to piece together. In that respect, the outsider may also be seen as an image of the reader, to whom Proulx assigns a great responsibility. Because these stories, as well as Proulx’s novels, do not rely on a strong plot, the reader has to be on her guard at all times, since what appears to be a descriptive passage, for example, may turn out to be the key to a mystery that unfolds as the story progresses. At the same time, the reader cannot know which of the story’s elements will turn out to be clues, nor is it certain that all mysteries will be solved by the end.

Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News: A Reader’s Guide by Aliki Varvogli

In writing terminology, Annie Proulx is using the techniques of foreshadowing and a take on the good ole red-herring. By giving us extra descriptive information she is lulling us into enjoyment of the language. I have to read her stories at least twice before I understand what’s going on — she tricks me into enjoying the descriptions, and then I’m surprised. I have to go back and check why. This mirrors the experience of the narrator, who has come into the community, probably attracted to the landscape, and only afterwards thinks, oh hang on, something’s not right here and why did I not pick it up?

In order to get away with this you really do have to be a master of the descriptive passage. I feel this is Proulx’s greatest strength.

But scholars have pointed out that Proulx’s exact method of foreshadowing takes a specific form. They call it…

DELAYED DECODING

In Heart Songs Proulx also introduces a technique that she has used to great effect in most of her writing. She very often presents the readers with the effect long before she reveals the cause, so that various elements in each story appear inexplicable until the moment of revelation. A similar technique was used to great effect by Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness, and following Conrad scholar Ian Watt. I will be referring to it as “delayed decoding”. Delayed decoding is a realistic narrative device to the extent that it mirrors the way in which we may be aware of things whose causes we have yet to discover. As such, it creates both suspense and a sense of bewilderment when used in narrative. At the same time, however, it is also an indication of the fact that the author has control over her creation, and chooses to manipulate her material in such a way as to suggest that characters’ lives are unfolding in front of our eyes, when the truth is that their fate had been decided before the author began to write. Delayed decoding may assert the author’s power, but…it also allows the reader to interpret the text more freely.

Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News: A Reader’s Guide by Aliki Varvogli

Stories employing this technique do require more work from the reader. When the reader is invited to ‘interpret the text more freely’, we are invited to participate in the creation of the story ourselves. We need to ask ourselves:

  • Whose truth is true here, in the world of this story?
  • How do I want it to end?
  • But how would it realistically end?

Annie Proulx has been called a ‘fatalistic’ writer. She gives us the impression that once a setting is set in place and peopled with characters, their lives are set in motion and there’s no changing their path. I believe this particular technique is what gives us that sense of fatalism, or at least contributes to it.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “STONE CITY”

There are three different main characters in this story:

The viewpoint character, also the unnamed narrator. Most of what we know of the viewpoint character we deduce by the way they notice things — as usual (though first person narration is not usual for Proulx), we have an ambiguously gendered (though masculine sounding) character with enough world-weariness to be middle-aged or older. He likes to go hunting, though is entirely self-taught. His aim is to get a local to show him. In this regard, this could be the character of Earl in “The Unclouded Day“. (But these stories are not obviously interlinked, so I’m not arguing that, exactly.)

Banger, a local personality who tells the story of yet another character, Old Man Stone.

Banger was about fifty, a heavy man, all suet and mouth. At first I thought he was that stock character who remembered everybody’s first name, shouting “Har ya! How the hell ya doing’?” to people he’d seen only an hour before, giving them a slap on the back or a punch on the arm—swaggering gestures in school, but obnoxious in a middle-aged man. I saw him downtown, talking to anybody who would listen, while he left his hardware store to the attentions of a slouchy kid who could never find anything on the jumbled shelves.

We, along with the narrator, soon learn that Banger has a significant ghost — “His place burned down and the wife and kid was fired right up in it. He got nothing left but his dog and the goddamn hardware store his old man left him and which he was never suited to.”

Old Man Stone, the main character of the hypodiegetic level.

Next question: Who undergoes the character arc? Who get the anagnorisis? That’s who I focus on here.

SHORTCOMING

The narrator is new to the area, dependent on local knowledge and equipment (such as a dog) to help him hunt.

DESIRE

To hunt — that’s the conscious desire. Underneath — as judged by the reader given the information — he sees through pretensions of rural toughness but at the same time he is susceptible to the same himself. He wants to be part of this world. Ideally he wants a hunting companion to feel more at home in this world, but he has trouble finding a companion when he makes an out-of-sorts comment about the local hunting expert with the sorry backstory.

OPPONENT

When Banger takes the narrator to his house to eat birds it’s not clear whether Banger is an ally or an opponent.

PLAN

Narrator tries to find a companion, can’t. Goes hunting by himself. Once shot, he can’t find his bird, which puts him off that part of the woods. So he finds a new hunting area, which happens to be where the local hunting expert also hunts.

BIG STRUGGLE

There is a big struggle scene in the story-within-a-story, in which Banger describes the memory provoked by finding the knife. The state police turn up for the arrest of Floyd Stone ‘for the murder of whoever he was’. (To Banger and the story, the victim is not important.)

The narrator’s own big struggle is similar to the big struggle scene in another story from the same collection, “In The Pit” — one man goes to another man’s abode and accuses him of something he hasn’t done.

ANAGNORISIS

Even to the bastard descendants the Stones were predators. They could not help it any more than Banger, fluttering in suspicious apprehension, could help being their victims.

There’s a fatalistic outlook to that epiphany. The epiphany itself turns humans into animals — hunted and preyed, and explains why Proulx turned a human character into a fox/chicken (alternately — with a fox face and a feather stuck to her cheek). Humans live like animals out here, where everything is wild and dangerous.

NEW SITUATION

I heard that Banger moved to Florida, to Arizona, to California, all earthly paradises to Chopping County.

In the spring I sold my house to a retired couple…

There’s nothing in Chopping County for Banger now, and the narrator, having immersed himself in Banger’s narrative, feels the same.

But the story closes as it opens, with the fox. The fox has taken up residence inside Banger’s abandoned sugarhouse with the distinctive blue door. This underscores the Anagnorisis of the narrator (that humans are animals).

Narration and Storytelling: Focalisation vs Head Hopping

FOCALISATION

Every narratologist has their own set of terminology. It gets a bit overwhelming. Pick and choose the terms that are useful; discard the rest. Here’s one way of looking at narration in stories. Focalisation comes courtesy of French narrative theorist, Gérard Genette.

When thinking about focalisation, we consider the following:

  • Who speaks (narrative voice)
  • Who sees (focalisation)
  • Who is seen

Writers tend to think in terms of point of view, as in, “Do I write this story in first person or third person?”

That’s a big question and does the job, mostly. Orson Scott Card’s book on point of view is excellent (though the author himself is a renowned homophobe). Paula B’s podcast on point of view is also excellent. Listen to that and you’ll know pretty much all you have to know in order to write a story.

That said, no matter how much you school up on ‘point of view’, the concept of ‘point of view’ will never distinguish between:

  • narrative voice
  • focalisation

And ‘focalisation’ can be important.

TYPES OF FOCALISERS



Focalisation refers to who is doing the seeing. Who sees the story (in order to report back on it)?

External Focalisers

  • External focalisers exist outside the story.
  • They are also known as ‘narrator focalisers’ or, to writers, simply as ‘narrators’, because the focus of perception seems to be that of someone narrating the story.

Internal Focalisers

  • Perception of the story comes to the audience via a character in a story.
  • In narratology these are known as ‘character focalisers’.

You may have heard different terminology to describe these aspects — extradiegetic vs intradiegetic, anyone? Diegesis (vs. mimesis) has been discussed since Aristotle’s time.

Anyway, back to focalising. Let’s focus.

WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A FOCALISER AND A NARRATOR?

  • A narrator is the character telling the story.
  • The focaliser is the character who ‘sees’ the story taking place.
  • A focaliser is not necessarily a narrator. Contemporary adult fiction is often written in ‘close third person’. That third person is not a narrator, but they are the focaliser. The narrator in a close third person story isn’t necessarily even noticed by the reader. They are most often invisible, or conflated with ‘the author’.
  • But does it work the other way around? Is a narrator always a focaliser? Nope. The narrator can choose to tell a story through a certain character’s point of view, effectively functioning in the same way as an author does.
  • Narration tends to be more fixed. Even in a book with multiple narrators, authors will usually telegraph when they’re switching narrators, e.g. by alternating chapters. But when it comes to ‘focalisation’, focalising can shift almost imperceptibly over the course of a single paragraph, moving like a camera on a dolly, first offering a wide shot, zooming closer for the long shot, in closer for a head shot. We see a character looking at a cake, then the camera zooms in on the cake. At that point, if we’re ‘seeing’ the cake from a particular character’s point of view, then they are the focalising character.
  • The Great Gatsby is often used as an example in discussions of narration. Written in first person point of view from the perspective of Nick Carraway, the story is told through his voice but his extreme focus on Gatsby means that Gatsby is the focaliser. (We might also say that Gatsby is the ‘main character‘, but that’s a little different again.) Not all the chapters in The Great Gatsby use Gatsby as the focaliser. Gatsby is the focaliser when Nick Carraway goes into his backstory.

THE HEAD HOPPING CHESTNUT OF WRITING GROUPS

One thing I’ve noticed about writing groups is the tendency to search for head-hopping, and some search for violations of point-of-view as voraciously as they hunt down spelling errors and inconsistent syntax.

There’s nothing wrong with this kind of critique – fussy ones, I mean. Genuine cases of head-hopping need to be fixed in a later draft. But I think the criticism of ‘head-hopping’ is regularly misapplied.

Consider the following passage, from Revolutionary Road (Richard Yates). April and Frank Wheeler have just decided to go to France. This is a description of the new household. We start in Frank Wheeler’s head:

…sometimes late at night when his throat had gone sore and his eyes hot from talking, when he hunched his shoulders and set his jaw and pulled his necktie loose and let it hang like a rope, [1] he could glare at the window and see the brave beginnings of a personage.

[2] It was a strange time for the children, too. [3] What exactly did going to France in the fall mean? And why did their mother keep insisting it was going to be fun, as if daring them to doubt it? For that matter, why was she so funny about a lot of things. [4] In the afternoons she would hug them and ask them questions in a rush of ebullience that suggested Christmas Eve, and then a minute later she’d be saying “Yes darling, but don’t talk quite so much, okay? Give Mommy a break.”

[5] Nor did their father’s homecoming do much to help: He might throw them high in the air and give them airplane rides around the house until they were dizzy, but only after having failed to see them altogether during the disturbingly long time it took him to greet their mother at the kitchen door. And the talking at dinner: It was hopeless for either child to try and get a word in edgewise. [6] Michael found he could jiggle in his chair, repeat baby words over and over in a shrill idiot’s monotone or stuff his mouth with mashed potato and hang his jaws open, all without any adult reproof; Jennifer would sit very straight at the table and refuse to look at him, feigning great interest in whatever her parents were saying, though afterwards, waiting for bedtime, she would sometimes go off quietly by herself and suck her thumb.


[1] Yates’ novel is about Frank — the narration is told through Frank Wheeler’s eyes. In other words, Frank is the focaliser. But if you’ve seen the movie you’ll know that Sam Mendes decided to give quite a bit more air-time to the character of April. If we imagine the novel, too, as a series of camera shots, Richard Yates sometimes moves his ‘camera’ outside Frank’s head, higher in the ceiling, looking down upon a scene to capture it in a new light. At [1]  we are definitely in Frank’s head.


[2] marks the shift from close third-person to true omniscient narration. Yates is about to explore this familial experience as it was for the children. But are we actually inside their heads? No, I don’t think so. To move inside their heads, telling the story from the children’s point of view would be a true case of head-hopping. Instead, Yates simply pans out, to a scene which includes the children as well as Frank.


[3] This question is very definitely inside the children’s heads. Or is it? Is this what Frank imagines his children to be thinking? Is this what the young Frank would have thought himself, if he were in his own children’s shoes?


[4] Here we touch upon a small injustice: Even though April involves her children in her own excitement, she doesn’t want to hear them get excited. I’m sure the children would have felt this injustice — children always do — but would they have been able to articulate it? This observation — picked because of its irony — is either the observation of Frank, looking on from afar, or of an omniscient narrator.


[5] Again, even though Frank is here referred to as ‘their father’, this observation could well come from Frank himself, in the kind of hindsight that follows much reflection. Are we to take as a given that novels written in the past tense are the product of much reflection and insight, whether that be from the character or some unnamed narrator? It think this is the main benefit of writing in past-tense (as opposed to present tense), or rather, that is one limit of writing in present-tense; that the narrator does not have the benefit of hindsight, so opportunities for philosophical musing are lost.


[6] Now we are ostensibly inside Michael’s head, but this is really the observation of Frank himself (in hindsight) or of the omniscient narrator.

Yates’ scene may, upon critical inspection, seem to break the Rules of Point Of View, but no one could argue he didn’t know exactly what he was doing. The reader glides smoothly from one character to another. This adds variety to the narrative method and insight into the Wheeler’s family life. Switching from close third-person to omniscient narration is not easy to get right, but if writers timidly avoid it, these advantages are lost.

Take-home points:

  • When a writer ‘pans out’ in order to convey a wider scene, this is not a case of head-hopping. Changing focalisation is a widely used technique.
  • Deviation into the heads of minor characters is not always head-hopping. The writer may be making deliberate use of temporary omniscient narration. Perhaps we are still inside the narrator’s head, witnessing a scene in its entirely with the benefit of hindsight, even though it doesn’t seem like this at line-level (as in the dip into Michael’s head, above).
  • The rules of head-hopping are actually more pliable than many writing guides suggest. We should be wary of pouncing upon head-hopping in other writers’ drafts – as well as when editing our own – because there is really only one question to ask: Does it work?
  • Bear in mind that modern readers seem to have a much lower tolerance for switches in focalisation. Take this article for instance, in which Peter Selgin says the deadliest first page sin is when the point of view is slippery. So if we’re going to play with focalisation and would like to get published traditionally, it’s probably best we don’t do it on the very first page. I do wonder what has led to this shift, and I think it might be TV and film. Audiences are so used to ‘seeing’ stories through a camera that it affects the way we read novels. We all have these little movies playing in our heads now. This is just a theory and I have no idea if it’s true, because I don’t know how readers ‘saw’ novels 100 years ago.

Narration and Storytelling: Diegetic Levels

diegetic levels

When discussing ‘diegetic levels’ of a story, imagine a ground floor. Level zero. All events and characters featured on this level are part of the story. Level zero is the normal, basic narrative level in a text. A story may not have any other levels, but it will at least have a ground floor. This happened, that happened, the end.

As for the other levels, think of ‘meta’ as above and ‘hypo’ as below the ground floor (level zero).

It can get even more complicated than that — in which case a story will be called ‘experimental’. Technically a story might have a meta-metadiegetic narrator, or a hypo-hypodiegetic narrator beyond the hypodiegetic narrator etc.

Writers don’t think in terms of diegetic levels. This is a set of terms scholars of literature use. It’s up to the person studying texts to decide which level is level zero. In some stories this is pretty obvious; in the experiemental texts, not so much. The cycle of the Arabian Nights are famous for their narration which extends in both meta and hypo directions, in which level zero (primary) narratives are embellished with a vast variety of myths and also with historic and daily events. When discussing these texts, scholars can use these diegetic levels to help convey how the narratives (fabula) relate to each other.

When writers talk about all this, they tend to talk about ‘framing‘. A frame is any structure which puts boundaries on a story about to be told.

Metadiegetic Narration

Metadiegetic narration refers to a secondary narrative wrapped around the primary narrative. The secondary narrative can be a story told by a character within the main story or it can take the form of a dream, nightmare, hallucination, imaginary or other fantasy element.

This kind of narration is typical of idyllic fiction. e.g. Winnie The Pooh. In the Pooh stories, there is a metafictive father telling these stories to a metafictive son over and over again. This wraps the level zero (ground floor) story, set in The Hundred Acre Wood. (In general ‘metafiction’ is fiction which draws attention to the fact that it’s fiction.)

A contemporary example: George and Harold are the metadiegetic narrators (and illustrators) of the Dogman adventures by Dav Pilkey.

The story within a story was common in certain fairytales. “The Wee Bunnock” (from Scotland, of course) is a variation on The Gingerbread Man and opens like this:

[LEVEL ONE STORY] “Grannie, grannie, come tell us the story o’ the wee bunnock.”
“Hout, bairns, ye’ve heard it a hunner times afore. I needna tell it owre again.”
“Ah, but, grannie, it’s sic a fine ane. Ye maun tell’t. Just ance.”
“Weel, weel, bairns, if ye’ll a’ promise to be guid, I’ll tell ye’t again.
But I’ll tell you a bonny tale about a guid aitmeal bunnock.

[LEVEL ZERO STORY] There lived an auld man and an auld wife at the side o’ a burn…

Many of the Grimm fairytales don’t open with a metadiegetic storyteller, but they do close with one, sometimes obliquely. That’s because these tales come from an oral tradition, and the ‘oralness’ of the storyteller hasn’t been one hundred percent omitted in the earliest writing-down of it:

  • Now my cat’s run home, for my tale is done.
  • But I don’t know how the two little demons were able to free themselves.
  • And whoever doesn’t believe me must give me a gold coin.

Stories with embedded stories sometimes serve to give the audience a helping hand in figuring out what the story’s about. The narrator is figuratively holding the audience’s hand. “I’m telling you a story, and I’ll also tell you how to make sense of it.” Embedded stories from the oral tradition tend to work like this because the oral tradition is good for conveying moral messages, which it prioritises over character conflict, scene-setting and so on.

But sometimes, the interpretation of an embedded story is left up to the audience. A writer may offer up an embedded story to serve as a contrast for moral values, or something like that.

Hypodiegetic Narration

Hypodiegetic narration is Story Within A Story narration, also known as Embedded Narrative or Show Within a Show at TV Tropes. Any character who produces a further narrative within a narrative is a hypodiegetic narrator.

The hypodiegetic level is the storey aboe the groundfloor, whereas the hypodiegetic level is first floor underground. Stories with these extra layers to them will feature an “extradiegetic” narrator who appears on a different level of the story.

Hypo narratives (sometimes called hypo fabula, to use the term of the Russian Formalists) are sometimes used to create an effect of ‘mise en abyme‘, a favourite feature of postmodernist storytellers. (Think of two mirrors facing each other in a dressing room.) Experimental stories can hypothetically extend forever in each direction: a story within a story within a story within….

Dummies for Dummies For Dummies

Examples of Hypodiegetic Narration

I’m sticking to obvious examples here, avoiding the complicated and experimental.

  • Anne Shirley is a hypodiegetic narrator when she tells Marilla about her visit to the concert.
  • “Come, Sam, tell us a story,” said I, as Harry and I crept to his knees, in the glow of the bright evening firelight; while Aunt Lois was busily rattling the tea-things, and grandmamma, at the other end of the fireplace, was quietly setting the heel of a blue-mixed yarn stocking. —The Ghost in the Mill, Harriet Beeecher Stowe, first sentence.
  • The Canterbury Tales and Arabian Nights — A tells a story about B who tells a story about C and so on.
  • The Book Of The Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison is a modern post-apocalyptic novel with a Canterbury Tales structure to it. A main character meets others on her journey and they either tell her their stories or she steals their diaries.
  • In The Thousand and One Nights, Scheherazade’s stories keep the Sultan from killing her. In the end he marries her because she’s such a good storyteller.
  • In a crime novel or courtroom drama, a surprise witness may have a tale that solves the case.
  • A child in a story asks an adult to tell them a story. The adult telling the story is the hypodiegetic narrator.
  • Mary Alice is the hypodiegetic narrator in Desperate Housewives, although when she is shown in the story (in flashbacks before she had died), she is a diegetic narrator.
  • In Fortunately, The Milk by Neil Gaiman, a father goes to the shop. When he comes home he tells the children a tall tale. The father is the hypodiegetic narrator.
  • In The Tale of Johnny Town-mouse, Beatrix Potter keeps the Battle scene off the page by having one mouse character tell another. (It would be heinous to show a cat killing a canary.)

The Influence of The Lovely Bones on Modern YA

The Lovely Bones cover

The emphasis in the First Golden Age [of children’s literature] was very much on being healthy in mind and body – if a child became sick, he or she usually got well as part of their story. Today’s reader has no such encouragement. There is an alarming trend in what has been termed “sick-lit” which seems to wallow in the idea of a child self-harming, being ill, dying, or even committing suicide. I trace this back to a novel which was not written for children at all, Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, but it has spread into best-selling books like Ways to Live Forever, Before I Say Goodbye, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and many more.

Amanda Craig

Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones wasn’t just influential on the subgenre of YA known derisively as ‘sick-lit’, but which continues to prove super popular with the 2017 release of John Green’s Turtles All The Way Down. It has now been a full sociological decade (15 years) since The Lovely Bones was published. As Sophie Masson writes in an article in the latest edition of The Looking Glass:

In the last fifteen years, fiction set in or about the afterlife has become a popular and critically acclaimed sub-genre within contemporary speculative fiction for young adults especially, but not only, in English language publishing. These narratives, where the main characters die at the beginning of the story and find themselves in an alien world, the world beyond death, have developed into a fertile ground for imaginative and intellectual challenge and discovery, as a means both to depict the ultimate culture shock and a challenging exploration of otherness and alienation.

I highly recommend a read Sophie Masson’s article as it’s free to access. The following are my own takeaway points.

afterlife young adult paranormal fiction

A BRIEF HISTORY OF AFTERLIFE FICTION

Its roots come from:

  • Mythology
  • Religion
  • Classic literature
  • The Gothic mode
  • The Victorian Ghost Story

Writers and thinkers have always been exploring the afterlife. Afterlife stories can be divided into their own subcategories. For example, there’s a related subgenre of Grim Reaper plots. An example of the grim reaper plot is On a Pale Horse by Piers Anthony. On a Pale Horse is a fantasy novel from 1983. A feckless young man is about to shoot himself when the Grim Reaper appears. He kills the Grim Reaper instead, and then has to take the Grim Reaper’s place. However, this seems quite different from the modern afterlife story kickstarted by Alice Sebold.

Here’s something to bear in mind about YA readers: these days (in Australia, at least) more young people believe in an afterlife than believe in god. Readers will happily accept it.

FEATURES OF AFTERLIFE FICTION

  • Modern YA afterlife stories are a subgenre of paranormal YA fiction, which can include vampires, fairies, trolls and so on
  • The afterlife story is kind of like a portal story
  • They are usually but not always set in a fantasy setting
  • This afterlife world is a ‘liminal’ space, not the final end point. They are not the absolute territories of Heaven/Hell, but more closely resemble Purgatory/Limbo
  • The idea of Purgatory in these novels isn’t linked to religion — it’s there for the narrative
  • There’s still much mundane detail about the real world — what characters are eating, how much money they have. However there tends to be little mention of class.
  • The afterlife world might be a ghostly copy of the real place on Earth. The landscapes and townscapes of the afterworlds are more solid than the portals but are prone to unexpected changes and reversals which makes it hard for characters to carry out their quests
  • Characters in the afterlife tend to be unable to taste food
  • The genre blend is most commonly fantasy adventure
  • Rich narrative and prose styles
  • Strong plots
  • Interesting characters
  • High sales as well as critical acclaim
  • Absence of moral judgement
  • The main characters of modern afterlife YA have either died violently or after illness, which links this genre to the wider sick-lit movement.
  • There may well be monsters to defeat. These may be supernatural beings. These monsters and beings are often transformed by their encounters with the newly dead young characters.
  • There is probably a romantic subplot.
  • There’s fancy terminology to describe narration which takes place outside the world of the story: extradiegetic. (It helps to know that ‘diegetic’ refers to something that occurs within a setting: ‘Inside-universe’.) Extradiegetic basically means ‘out-of-universe’. By making a character dead, that character is outside the main world of the story. There are other ways authors can create extradiegetic characters. For instance, they can create an elderly person looking back on an earlier part of their life. However, if you’re doing this, you’re probably not writing YA.
  • An extradiegetic character is closer to the audience than they are to the other characters within the story, because an audience (in narratology terms) is also extradiegetic. The audience exists outside the world of the story. (We are ‘extradiegetic narratees’, to be exact.) Therefore, a story with a dead narrator can achieve emotional closeness with the reader. This sounds counterintuitive at first — you’d think a dead person would be hard to relate to!

THE ADVANTAGE OF A DEAD NARRATOR

  • There’s a very good reason: The thing that marks YA out from adult fiction is its immediacy of voice. The narrator hasn’t aged much before their story is told. But when the narrator is full on dead, that character is afforded omniscience and wisdom which would otherwise feel unnatural, while maintaining the immediacy.
  • Many stories for young people are about displacement and feeling like you’re ‘the other’. That’s because you’re trying to find your place at this age. By being dead, the main character is very much The Other.
  • If there’s a romantic subplot, it’s the job of the author to keep two lovers apart for the duration of the adventure. Making one of them dead is a really efficient way to keep two characters apart. Or, they may both be dead but of vastly different Earthly ages. Or, the afterlife might be kinder to one than the other.

do you believe in life after death every time i leave this theatre muppets

OTHER EXAMPLES OF AFTERLIFE FICTION

The authors of these works are themselves from diverse backgrounds.

  • The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas (1881) — the narrator of Brazilian author Machado de Assis’ novel dedicates his memoir to “the worm who first gnawed on the cold flesh of my corpse.”
  • How The Dead Live by Will Self
  • My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk — published the same year as The Lovely Bones and begins, “I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well.”
  • Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan
  • His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman (sort of)
  • Everlost by Neal Shusterman and sequels
  • A Certain Slant of Light by Laura Whitcomb
  • More than This by Patrick Ness
  • Afterworld by Lynnette Lounsbury
  • Ferryman by Claire mcFall
  • The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo
  • The Afterlife by Gary Soto
  • When We Wake by Karen Healey
  • Me and Death: An Afterlife Adventure by Richard Scrimger
  • Memor: le monde d’apres by Kinga Wyrzykowska
  • The Ghost Squad by Sophie Masson
  • If I Stay by Gayle Forman — First person narrator Mia dies in a car crash then follows her friends and family as a kind of ghost, watching their reaction and writing about her life before she died.
  • I Stop Somewhere by T.E. Carter was pitched as Asking For It meets The Lovely Bones. The narrative viewpoint comes from The Lovely Bones — the main character is basically wandering around telling what happened before she died.

An earlier outlier and not really connected to anything that has come since: The Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren. In this story:

  • This is a story about brotherly love in a Narnia-like world.
  • Two brothers die at the beginning.
  • They find themselves in the afterlife world of Nangiyala, a place of campfires and sagas.
  • The brothers have no trouble fitting into the new world.
  • They are happy to be there.
  • There’s no mention of the grieving mother left behind.
  • It’s possible to die again in this afterlife world.

THE AFTERLIFE IN WIDER POP CULTURE

  • Futility by Morgan Robertson (1898) — a fictional account of the Titanic disaster which was written 14 years before the Titanic sank. Futility tells the story of the world’s biggest ocean liner and how, on its maiden voyage, on a freezing April night, it strikes an iceberg and sinks, carrying its cargo of fabulously wealthy passengers to the bottom of the Atlantic. It was penned by a struggling sci-fi writer named Morgan Robertson. The name of his fictional doomed passenger ship? The Titan. 
  • Sunset Boulevard, classic film (American) — the man lying face down in a pool turns out to be none other than William Holden, whose voiceover narrates his story and who is indeed dead.
  • Lost, the TV series (American)
  • The Returned, a French series called Les Revants (and all the other franchises based on this storyline)
  • Resurrection (American)
  • The Glitch (Australian)

PROBLEMS WITH AFTER LIFE FICTION

It’s not hard to find people who dislike dead narrators. But why?

  • It can feel like the author cheated — ‘a little too easy, a little too glib’.
  • In Peter Selgin’s words, it requires suspension of all four laws of thermodynamics. Some readers are fans of mimesis, so this won’t suit them.

THE AFTERLIFE IN ADULT FICTION

Specialists in young adult literature have noticed over the decades that literary trends start with YA and work their way ‘up’ into adult fiction. As they expected, The Lovely Bones influenced adult fiction which is coming through now, a decade later. Take Lincoln in the Bardo for instance, an experimental novel by George Saunders. The ‘bardo’ refers to an intermediate space between life and rebirth. Though this book wins a Man Booker Prize and is hailed as ‘experimental’, it also owes a lot to less critically celebrated trends which started a decade ago in YA.

In Saunders’s conception, the “ghosts” that inhabit the bardo are “disfigured by desires they failed to act upon while alive” and are threatened by permanent entrapment in the liminal space.[20]They are unaware that they have died, referring to the space as their “hospital-yard” and to their coffins as “sick-boxes”.

Wikipedia

RELATED TO AFTERLIFE FICTION

Might we count The Book Thief by Marcus Zuzak as afterlife fiction?

This book takes the dead narrator concept a step farther, with the Grim Reaper himself narrating, though some would argue that his “Death” is nothing but Omniscience wearing a hooded cloak and carrying a scythe.

Peter Selgin

FURTHER READING

  • Afterlife in Contemporary Fiction by Alice Bennett, a groundbreaking study in the afterlife as depicted in fiction for adults.
  • Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination by Greg Garrett, who doesn’t talk much about YA in particular.
  • Dead Narrators by Peter Selgin at Janet Friedman’s blog
  • Why almost everyone believes in an afterlife — even atheists from New Scientist