Where do I find my inciting incident?

John Ritchie - An Expected Rise in Stocks

The term ‘inciting incident’ is one of those writing words which means different things to different people. Some writers don’t think in terms of inciting incident. To others it is key to a good story beginning.

All good stories have inciting incidents, but if you’re having trouble finding yours, that might be because they don’t look as we might expect. An inciting incident isn’t always a bomb going off.



THERE IS NO SINGLE INCITING INCIDENT

First, know the difference between story and plot. This is what Peter Selgin’s talking about in the first paragraph below:

Where to begin? Of all the questions that harass novelists and others with a story to tell, it has to be the peskiest. The question comes down to structure. Not what happened, i.e. the series of events that make a story, but the order in which those events are conveyed. Should we start with the beginning, or at the end? Or should we cherry-pick a dramatic scene from somewhere in the middle, and backtrack from there, filling in all the things that lead up to that dramatic moment, then continue to the end?

Assuming we’ve chosen to tell a story from the beginning, what beginning do we start with? Writing guides often use the term inciting incident, meaning the event or incident that propels a character or characters out of their status quo existence, igniting the plot.

But locating that inciting incident isn’t always that simple, since often there’s more than one. In fact there’s always more than one, with an inciting incident lurking behind every inciting incident, a breadcrumb trail of inciting incidents leading back to the birth of the protagonist and beyond, to her conception, and the birth of her parents, and the birth of their parents, and, finally, ultimately, by logical extension, the Creation of the Universe.

Hansel and Gretel follow the bread crumbs
Inciting incidents are like bread crumbs.

One famous story that doesn’t have another inciting incident lurking behind its inciting incident begins, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and Earth.” No back-story to that story.

But unless you’re writing the Bible (or a James Michener novel), you probably want to begin your story as close as possible to the event that sends your protagonist off on her dramatic journey—a journey of exceptional struggles and fresh opportunities.

Peter Selgin

Noting that narratologists and writers have long stressed that there are always related events prior to the start of a formal narrative, Brian Richardson concludes that “there is no ready formula for ascertaining the actual beginning of the story,” and that judgements about where a narrative begins proceeds on a case-by-case basis.

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

INCITING INCIDENTS MAY BE VERY SUBTLE

As received by the audience, the inciting incident might be barely noticeable. We might call these ‘soft inciting incidents’. We see soft inciting incidents in works such as Madame Bovary and Lost In Translation.

What is the Inciting Incident in Thelma & Louise? Depends who you ask. Most people would probably say it’s the scene where Louise shoots a man. But in his writing book Hooked, Les Egerton tells us that, for him, the inciting incident is the scene where Thelma makes the decision to go on a trip with her best friend, defying her husband for the first time ever. This happens in Thelma’s kitchen as soon as she hangs up the phone. Daryl has just told her he’s going to be working late. The audience knows he’s seeing another woman. We know something has changed in Thelma because she decides not to tell him Daryl what the audience already knows: She has been invited to go on a trip with Louise. She then makes preparations to leave.

TWO TYPES OF INCITING INCIDENTS

Others have divided inciting incidents into categories. Shawn Coyne does it like this:

CAUSAL INCITING INCIDENTS

A Causal Inciting Incident is the result of an active choice—a wife leaves her husband, a man enlists in the Marines, a dentist molests a patient he’s put under anesthesia.

COINCIDENTAL INCITING INCIDENTS

A coincidental Inciting Incident is when something unexpected or random or accidental happens—a simple man wins the lottery, a woman takes the wrong suitcase at an airport, a piano falls out of a window and kills a man’s dog.

Coyne, Shawn. The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know (p. 160)

In Thelma & Louise, the Causal Inciting Incident happens in Thelma’s kitchen. The Coincidental Inciting Incident happens in the carpark of the bar.

Some people call The Coincidental Inciting Incident a ‘turning point’.

The best inciting event of this kind is one that makes your main character think she has just overcome the crisis. Louise knows she’s just overcome one crisis (she saved Thelma) but now the police will be after her.

CASE STUDY: ORDINARY PEOPLE

Sometimes an inciting incident isn’t immediately clear because an audience isn’t always aware from the start what the character’s journey is going to be. Robert Redford’s film Ordinary People tells the story of how teenager Conrad Jarrett, traumatized by the death of his brother, seeks psychiatric help. The journey into the woods — and thus the moment that kick starts it — only becomes apparent when one realizes it’s a journey towards healing. What catalyzes that journey? The first stage of the first act ends when Conrad is thrown into a new trauma by his mother trashing his breakfast before him; this in turn sparks a journey of introspection, culminating in a flashback of his brother’s death. For Conrad, it’s a choice — continue to suffer, or seek help. If the inciting incident is the what, then the flashback is clearly Conrad’s motivation for seeking help, the how that will eventually enable him to find peace. In truth, all three parts are related — as they should be — but question and answer, the root of all structure, is inherent in the crisis and climax of the act.

In this formulation an inciting incident gives us two elements. The act one crisis point poses a question: will the protagonists make a break with their old selves? And, as we’ve already noted, for the story to really kick off, the protagonist is now required  to make a decision how to respond. The ‘explosion’ and the desire it creates often occur in the first act, embodied in crisis and climax. It can be useful to look at these points as the what and the how. The crisis becomes the what — “What’s the problem?” And the climax the how — “This is how I’m going to deal with it.

Into The Woods, John Yorke

Header painting: John Ritchie — An Expected Rise in Stocks

Reversals and Reveals In Storytelling

Reversals and reveals are vital for creating momentum and suspense in a story. Certain genres are required to be more page-turny than others, and all children’s literature must be page-turny. So you’ll find reversals and reveals everywhere in children’s literature.

the mountain of reversals and reveals
A picture of a mountain because in stories, character revelations often take place on one.

WHAT ARE ‘REVEALS’?

‘Reveal’ started out as a verb, but is now commonly used by writers as a noun. This happened when novelists turned to TV, apparently.

‘Oh darling, [story is] just two or three little surprises followed every now and again by a bigger surprise.

– Peggy Ramsay, agent

A revelation is basically a surprise.

Revelation is seen by the audience as motion, even if nothing has changed but knowledge or insight.

WHAT ARE ‘REVERSALS’?

‘Reversals’ are ‘big reveals’. The audience’s understanding of everything in the story is turned on its head. They suddenly see every element of the plot in a new light. All reality changes in an instant. ‘Reversal’ is a term writers use. Audiences tend to just say ‘plot twist’, but that often just means a sequence they weren’t able to easily predict. For example, when Andy escapes in Shawshank Redemption, that’s not a reversal. It might qualify as a twist because we generally expect life-prisoners to stay where they are. 

The Sixth Sense, however, includes a genuine reversal because the famous revelation requires us to regard the entire story until that point in a completely different light. The big reversal reveal comes right at the end of the story. This has the advantage of sending the audience out of the theater with a knockout punch. It’s the biggest reason this movie was a hit. (M. Night Shyalaman didn’t come up with the idea of the psychologist being dead until well after his first draft. Though he managed to make it feel very new, Shyalaman was borrowing from a long tradition of Dead All Along characters.) 

An example of a reversal is when the audience finds out who A.D. is on Pretty Little Liars. A mistake the writers of that show made was waiting seven seasons to give that information to the audience. Desperate Housewives, the writer’s mentor series, wrapped up mysteries at the end of each season, not at the end of the entire series. This is called a ‘reveal’ but is also a reversal because we realise A.D. was in front of us the whole time. We are asked to think back on everything we’ve seen so far and consider in a new light.

An example of the frustration experienced by viewers when information is withheld across years.

The Greeks called this ‘peripeteia’. A classic example is Oedipus Rex — it’s the bit where he finds out about his parents. Fast forward a few years we have Luke Skywalker finding out who his father is.

A story can have more than one reversal. While minor reversals can occur in every scene, bigger ones tend to divide the work into specific acts.

A reversal reveal is most common in detective stories and thrillers. 

A subversion is not a modern invention but peripeteia itself. it is the tool that catapults the hero into the opposite of their present state — from thesis to antithesis, from home to a world unknown.

That’s what inciting incidents are too — they are ‘explosions of opposition’, structural tools freighted with all the characteristics the characters lack; embodiments, indeed, of everything they need. Cliffhangers, inciting incidents and crisis points are essentially the same thing: a turning point at the end of an act; the unexpected entry point for the protagonists into the new world; bombs built from the very qualities they lack which explode their existing universe, hurtling them into an alien space of which they must then make sense.

John Yorke, Into The Woods

The final pay off must follow the internal logic established at the beginning of the story. Scooby Doo is hokey, but did this very well. Now You See Me (the film) has a twist which doesn’t follow the established logic and is considered a failure. It’s not interesting for an audience to see a 100% change of a character’s personality that has been built up throughout the whole movie.

The best reversal is the kind that creates the biggest surprise without ruining the established logic.

Create suspense by providing the audience with a certain amount of information, then leave the rest to their own imagination.

Alfred Hitchcock

Give the audience just enough to see it coming but not enough to expect it. How to test if the plot twist works or not: The story is rewatchable/re-readable. It should be just as fun if not more fun to go back and see where the writers hint at that twist. This explains why studies show that spoiling a book before a subject reads it makes the reading more enjoyable. The path towards the reversal is more exciting, even though the reader has lost the enjoyment of the surprise. Perhaps this is why lots of stories spoil the ending at the very beginning.

For more on writing a twist ending, see this post.

EXAMPLES OF REVEALS AND REVERSALS

Gone Girl has a big reversal when we realise the victim is bad.

Victimised women who are actually evil in their own right may be a trend started by Gillian Flynn. In the b-grade horror/thriller movie Pet (2016) a stalker captures a woman he’s interested in and keeps her in a cage in ‘the tunnels’ of a dog shelter where he works. Halfway through the movie the young woman is discovered by the security guard. The reversal is that instead of wanting to be saved, the captured woman encourages her captor to murder him brutally. The big reveal is that she is a psychopath and the reason the stalker creep has captured her is because by stalking her he has realised this about her.

Safe Haven is a movie based on a Nicholas Sparks novel, which is fun to watch if you enjoy predicting romantic cliches. The minor conflict, the handsome widower, the woman who kids fall in love with. The downpour of rain, the first kiss… Eventually, however, just when there is nothing left (because they’ve fallen into bed), Sparks gives us the first major revelation: He tells the audience why his main character is being followed. All this time we weren’t sure if she’s a baddie, but now we know she’s the victim, abused and stalked by her cop ex-husband. But another supernatural revelation occurs right at the end, when we realize the woman who has befriended our main character has been a ghost all along. This is a reversal, because it causes us to see the entire progression of the relationship in a new light — this coupling hasn’t happened organically at all; it’s been ‘ordained’ by a higher power.

REVERSALS AND REVEALS DONE BADLY

The Rug Jerk

Any gratuitous plot or character twist tossed in solely to jerk the rug out from under the reader for the sake of surprise or shock, without sufficient foundation, foreshadowing or justification (retroactive or otherwise). Essentially any story twist that violates Chekhov’s principles: “If you fire a gun in Act III, it must be seen on the wall in Act I; and if you show a gun on the wall in Act I, it must be fired in Act III.” The Rug Jerk fires the gun without showing it first or explaining where it came from afterwards.

The Reset Switch, aka The Reboot

Any device that allows a writer to completely erase any already-occurred events of a story and bring the characters back to a predefined starting point, with little or no changes to them or their universe. Time travel (“It never happened”), parallel universes (“It never happened *here*”), unconscious duplicates (“We’re all just clones/simulations/androids of the REAL characters!”) and dream-sequences (“It was all a dream!”) have all been used this way. To be avoided unless the existence of such a phenomenon is, itself, the story’s or series’ central plot point (as in *The Man Who Folded Himself* or *The Left Hand of Darkness*).

Critters.org

A Common Misperception

A misperception I run into a lot: if a reader is not SHOCKED by your big twist, it’s a failure. This isn’t true! Here’s why…

First, guessing a surprise twist beforehand (as long as it isn’t insulting obvious) can make readers feel smart and vindicated to see they guessed right.

Second, when you use a trope where a certain plot twist/reveal is expected, knowing that reveal is coming ADDS to the tension, it doesn’t detract from it. We’re looking forward to him discovering *gasp* his gf is actually the empress! The anticipation is part of the experience.

So: a plot twist can have value not only in being surprising, but also in being anticipated. How to set up plot twists so they’ll delightfully surprise readers OR add to our breathless anticipation when we guess them early: foreshadow adequately, but don’t make it blindingly obvious (unless you don’t mean for it to be a reveal to us, only to another character).

Try to ensure that your reveal will escalate the stakes and/or evolve at least one conflict (the main external one, an internal conflict, or a conflict between characters) in a new way. If it doesn’t change things in some relevant way, it won’t impact readers.

@NaomiHughesYA

Types of Reveals

A few main types of plot twists/reveals:

1. those that surprise us but not the character (this type is used often for unreliable narrators; can be super fun, but can also make a reader feel lied to, so use carefully).

2. The type of plot twist that surprises a POV character but not us. Often used in dual POV stories where one character has a secret that we’re in on, but the other POV character isn’t. Great for driving up tension and anticipation as you build toward the reveal.

And finally, 3. The type of plot twist that surprises (or is meant to surprise; refer to earlier tweet about readers guessing it early not necessarily being a bad thing) both readers and the POV characters. Often happens at midpoint &/or climax.

@NaomiHughesYA

Planning and Editing A Reveals Plot

Further questions to ask:

  • Are these revealed secrets worth knowing? There must be a direct impact on the immediate situation.
  • Does the audience have enough context for this revelation to be meaningful?
  • Is the secret simple? If it needs heaps of explaining it won’t have any punch when revealed. (“Luke, I am your father.” Not, “Luke, I am your cousin thrice removed.”)
  • Have you foreshadowed but not telegraphed?
  • Like endings, reversals should feel both inevitable and surprising at once.
  • Is this so-called revelation simply one of two possible alternatives considered from the beginning? If so, the answer won’t be much of a ‘revelation’ — more like when you’re expecting a baby it’s probably going to be a boy or a girl. The surprise is pretty minimal in that regard. If you’re stuck with this problem, consider audience misdirection or hint at something different but related.

The Technique of Ticking Clocks in Storytelling

The very first episode of The Narrative Breakdown podcast is about a plot device which helps to amp up the tension in a story: Sometimes it even comes with a ticking clock sound effect — more often it doesn’t — and it describes a story which has time as a pressing issue. If there’s a bomb in the story you have an especially clear example of a Ticking Clock Plot Device e.g. the movie Speed.

The_Cat_in_the_Hat_Comes_Back_Dr_Seuss_Cover

(Here are many more tropes associated with Cat In The Hat, though ‘race against the clock’ isn’t one of them.)

A Trick Older Than The Hills

The ticking clock device has been used in storytelling to increase narrative drive for many generations. It is used in Cinderella, who must escape from the ball before midnight, before her carriage turns back into a pumpkin. Often, the device is implied rather than stated outright. In Hansel and Gretel, we know the witch will eventually eat the children. That could happen at any moment, though she’s waiting for them to fatten up.

Other Examples Of Ticking Clocks In Movies

  • Die Hard 2 — a plane running out of fuel
  • Speed — a bomb is set to go off if the bus goes under 50 miles per hour
  • Se7en — a cop must stop a serial killer before he kills his next victim
  • The Fugitive — an innocent man must prove his innocence before being caught again
  • Dumplin — Performances always give a story narrative drive because they provide a ticking clock. Without that, Dumplin would’ve been in great danger of losing momentum.

Ticking Clocks In Picture Books

Hilda Bewildered stars a petrified young princess, charged with the task of delivering a speech to open winter. As the live broadcast draws near, the princess concocts a story in her head to help her through the task.



TV Tropes refers to this as ‘Race Against The Clock’ and offers plenty of examples.

Variations of the ticking clock device can be found in a wide variety of genres — not just in thrillers — such as in Little Miss Sunshine (a road trip with a beauty pageant as deadline) and Planes, Trains and Automobiles, in which a man wants to make it home in time for Thanksgiving with his family in his warm, cosy house.

On the podcast, Cheryl’s first example of this device happens to be a children’s book: The Cat In The Hat, in which an unwelcome visitor makes a mess of the place, which must be cleaned up again by the time the mother gets home.

In picture books with ticking clocks, it is often the parent(s) who have made some rule, and it is universally understood that if the rule is broken there will be terrible consequences.

Aside from our own Hilda Bewildered, another picturebook that combines ticking-clock and the snowy, dreamy atmosphere of a mood piece is Home By Five, by Ruth Wallace-Brodeur, illustrated by Mark Graham.

Home By Five cover

As you can see, this is a gentle, dreamy book, beautifully illustrated in pastels.

But to contrast with the dreamy mood (and the dreamy Rosie), here on the first page a ticking-clock urgency is set up, as Papa instructs Rosie to be home by a certain time. He helps her to get ready for her ice-skating session. This is a handsome, nurturing dad who we don’t want to disappoint.

Home By Five setup

Home by Five setup2

So we get a little antsy when we see Rosie dilly-dally along the way home, despite her best intentions. She stops to swing around the poll and to look inside the bakery window, and all the time the reader can see she’s not hurrying. But it’s a little frustrating because we aren’t given access to the time, either. This book sets out to be a mood piece, with evocation descriptions of the wintry landscape. But there’s that confounded ticking clock, ruining it for us as it’s ruined for Rosie…

Rosie dilly-dallies

We don’t know what time it is until Rosie arrives home. The clock tells us she’s pretty late. Her parents discuss what to do.

Home By Five clock

On the final page we see their decision: The 1992 option is to buy their daughter a wristwatch.

In two of our story apps I make use of the ticking clock device: In Midnight Feast we have Roya’s excitement of the lead up to Midnight, though I invert this device by drawing her evening out.

midnight feast ticking clocks

Jeff Kinney also makes use of the ticking clock in several of his Diary of a Wimpy Kid The Long Haul gags.

Make Way For Ducklings by Robert McCloskey 1941

Make Way For Ducklings by Robert McCloskey is an American classic which serves as an excellent example of unreliable narration in picture books.

Make Way For Ducklings

 

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION IN MAKE WAY FOR DUCKLINGS

LIFELIKE DUCKS

McCloskey’s devotion to mimesis reminds me of the lengths the Hayao Miyazaki studio goes to when animating naturalistic movements.

Many people know Make Way for Ducklings, but they might not know the lengths to which Robert McCloskey went to get the beloved Mallard family to look just right. […]Itching to begin the illustrations, McCloskey went down to the Washington Square Market, bought a crate of ducks and brought them back to his Greenwich Village studio apartment. He washed the ducklings off in the bathtub, put them in a pan and got to work.

Mental Floss

SEPIA

We see sepia drawings quite a bit now, but it was unusual at the time:

Illustrated with sepia drawings rather than the traditional black-and-white pictures found in most children’s books of the day, the book, which received the 1942 Caldecott Medal for its illustrations, has continued to garner praise years after its first publishing. The drawings of Boston represent a duck’s eye view of the city.Each of the individual ducklings is “bored, inquisitive, sleepy, or they are scratching, talking over their backs one to another, running to catch up with the line”. Children identify with the ducklings because they behave as children do. The comforting message shows parents as caretakers, protectors, and teachers. According to fellow Caldecott winner Paul O. Zelinsky, “I realized that if the action in the drawings were to move from left to right, the ducks could not have been shown passing the Corner Book Shop, which is a wonderful detail in the story … He clearly knew these streets very well.”

“‘Robert McCloskey’s unusual and stunning pictures have long been a delight for their fun as well as their spirit of place.’— The Horn Book

Wikipedia

PAGE BREAKS AND PACING

[A] critic has positively commented on McCloskey’s use of page breaks as a pacing technique. McCloskey’s use of one-sentence pages forces the reader to quickly turn the page, enhancing the sense of motion, especially during the home search and when Mrs. Mallard teaches the ducklings their basic skills. McCloskey also employs this page break method to heighten surprise. When searching for a home, Mr. and Mrs. Mallard seem to have found a home on page eleven.

 

— Wikipedia

Make Way For Ducklings inner image

STORY STRUCTURE OF MAKE WAY FOR DUCKLINGS

Shortcoming/Need

In this picture book, McCloskey’s first, it did not go unnoticed by certain critics who understood story structure very well, that this part of the story is left out altogether.

One critic says the “loosely plotted” story gives no true explanation for why Mr. Mallard leaves the island in the Charles River or why the Mallards did not simply stay on the lagoon island in the first place and avoid the bicyclists on the shore. However, McCloskey has stated himself that he thinks of himself as an artist who writes children’s books and not vice versa. One critic also find the characterisation lacking, that is, the Mallards represent “rather stereotypically concerned parents”, often showing the same facial expressions and rarely showing expressiveness.

 

— Wikipedia

The moral of the story is that you can break the rules of story structure, but if you do, people will say it is ‘loosely plotted’ and if you don’t give your characters a ‘need’, your characterisation will be described as ‘lacking’ and you’ll end up explaining that you’re really more of an illustrator than a writer anyhow… The other part of this story is that you can still win a Caldecott medal for your subpar storytelling efforts.

Desire

This is where McCloskey decides to begin his story: ‘Mr and Mrs Mallard were looking for a place to live.’

Opponent

The deadly Boston traffic.

Plan

‘Come along children, follow me,’ says Mrs Mallard, swimming across the pond to the highway. This is where the anthropomorphised mother duck becomes more ducklike — in real life we sometimes see mother ducks leading their ducklings into perilous, built-up areas for what seems like no reason. And no reason is given here, hence the accusation of ‘weak characterisation’. The mother duck wants to cross the road, and so she does.

Battle

Whereas the bulk of the first part of the story is illustrated from a bird’s eye view, now we see the enormous 1940s vehicles from the ducks’ perspective on the ground, and they look terrifying. The big struggle is represented with the ‘HONK! HONK!’ coming out of the cars. These drivers have no time for ducklings, and it’s only a matter of time before some driver comes along happy to mow them down flat.

Anagnorisis

‘The ducklings liked the new island so much that they decided to live there.’

New Situation

‘All day long they follow the swan boats and eat peanuts. And when night falls they swim to their little island and go to sleep.’

NARRATION AND IRONY IN MAKE WAY FOR DUCKLINGS

In picturebooks there is always an ironic gap between the pictures and the words; if there were no gap at all the picturebook is no longer a picturebook but simply an ‘illustrated story’.

James Wood describes the narration that accompanies this ironic gap as ‘free indirect style’:

Some of the purest examples of irony are found in children’s literature, which often needs to allow a child— or the child’s proxy, an animal — to see the world through limited eyes, while alerting the older reader to this limitation. In Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings, Mr. and Mrs. Mallard are trying out the Boston Public Garden for their new home, when a swan boat (a boat made to look like a swan but actually powered by a pedal-pushing human pilot) passes them. Mr. Mallard has never seen anything like this before. McCloskey falls naturally into free indirect style: “Just as they were getting ready to start on their way, a strange enormous bird came by. It was pushing a boat full of people, and there was a man sitting on its back. ‘Good morning,’ quacked Mr. Mallard, being polite. The big bird was too proud to answer.” Instead of telling us that Mr. Mallard could make no sense of the swan boat, McCloskey places us in Mr. Mallard’s confusion; yet the confusion is obvious enough that a broad ironic gap opens between Mr. Mallard and the reader (or author). We are not confused in the same way as Mr. Mallard; but we are also being made to inhabit Mr. Mallard’s confusion.

— James Wood, How Fiction Works

Free indirect style describes a type of third person narration that slips in and out of a character’s consciousness. It’s like, half narrator writing, half character’s thoughts.

This free indirect style allows for unreliable narration, which is common in picture books (though far less common in middle grade books)

UNRELIABLE NARRATION IN MAKE WAY FOR DUCKLINGS

1. The narrator that purposefully leads you astray

2. The narrator whose view of the world is so strident that by sheer force of will they are attempting to lead you astray

3. The narrator who does not attempt to lead you astray but does by dint of their youth and inexperience: Room, Catcher In The Rye

Fuse8 blog

Other notable examples of unreliable narration in picture books:

A lot of Dr Seuss books
  • And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street
  • McElliot’s Pool
  • If I Ran The Zoo
  • If I Ran The Circus
A lot of switched-up fairy tales
  • The Wolf’s Story: What Really Happened to Little Red Riding Hood by Toby Forward, an example of a picture book in which the pictures tell a different story.
  • The True Story Of The Three Little Pigs
  • Seriously, Cinderella Is SO Annoying!: The Story of Cinderella as Told by the Wicked Stepmother by Trisha Speed Shaken — from the perspective of the stepmother and stepsisters who accuse her of being an insipid little twit

A lot of picture books in which the child reader knows more than the naive animal or child protagonist

  • My Cat, the Silliest Cat in the World by Giles Bachelet — the words tell a story about a cat but the pictures show that the ‘cat’ is actually an elephant.
  • Dear Mrs. LaRue: Letters From Obedience School by Mark Teague — has two stories — the black and white imaginings of a dog narrator which match his melodramatic letters home, compared to coloured illustrations depicting ‘the truth’. (There’s a whole series of them.)
  • Poor Puppy
  • Emma Kate by Patricia Polacco
  • Green Wilma by Tedd Arnold
  • Olivia, especially the one about the circus
  • When I Went To The Library

SETTING OF MAKE WAY FOR DUCKLINGS

This is a book with a very specific, real-life setting: Boston’s Public Garden. These days there’s a statue there in honour of this best-seller.

What was going on in the world at this time, particularly in Boston?

Well, everywhere war was about to break out. That was the main worry. That didn’t stand in the way of much building going on in Boston at the time: museums, universities, landmarks. The city itself had a population of 770,816 in 1940.

If you look for images of 1940s Boston you’ll see that it looked exactly as it did in Make Way For Ducklings. People really drove those cars, people really wore hats everywhere they went. (Though I’m guessing it wasn’t always quite as busy as the street depicted below, in which people line up for some sort of department store sale:

1940s Boston as in Make Way For Ducklings

Even the lamppost is the same:

Make Way For Ducklings policeman

PRE-FEMINISM

Make Way for Ducklings was published in the 1940s. Many books of the time portray a male dominated society, a trend which Make Way for Ducklings does not follow. In context, the story takes place during wartime as fathers were being drafted and sent to Europe, requiring more social support for single parent families. McCloskey presented Mrs. Mallard as an “independent and nonsubmissive female character.”

When Mr. Mallard leaves on questionable purpose, Mrs. Mallard is charged with raising their ducklings alone. McCloskey portrays Mrs. Mallard as a capable woman who does not need the support of a male character. This strong portrayal has led one critic to label the book as “pre-feminist”.

— Wikipedia

OTHER WORK BY ROBERT MCCLOSKEY

Robert McCloskey is exceptional in being a recognized author [as well as an illustrator]. (He wrote Homer Price and Centerburg Tales.) The broad humor and short but strong story-lines of his Make Way for Ducklings (1941) and Blueberries for Sal (1948) have kept these two cheerful books popular through the decades. The text of Time of Wonder (1957), a description in words and pictures of a vacation in Maine, is possibly a shade overwritten, but this is a lovely picture book, full of light and air and water, and with a sense of wonder that justifies the title. At the time of writing, unfortunately, McClosky has published nothing for 30 years.

Written for Children by John Rowe Townsend

Of course, McCloskey has since died (2003, age 88) so I don’t think we will be getting any more picture books out of him after all. It is interesting that some picture book creators do all of their work while relatively young, retiring at the age any other workers have done in the past few generations at around age 60; others work their entire lives, perhaps entering the very young picture book market again when grandchildren come into their lives.

Blueberries for Sal by author of Make Way For Ducklings

HomerPrice

Lentil cover

Rooftop Centerburg Tales

One_Morning_in_Maine

Time Of Wonder

Burt-Dow Deep Water Man cover

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

James Wood compares Make Way For Ducklings to What Maisie Knew by Henry James (also made into a movie).

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What happens when a novelist wants to inhabit a character’s confusion, refuses to make clear what a state of nonconfusion would look like? We can walk in a straight line from McCloskey to Henry James. There is a technical connection…between Make Way For Ducklings and James’s novel What Maisie Knew. Free indirect style helps us to inhabit juvenile confusion, this time a young girl’s rather than a duck’s.