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. 

But you must be careful with this technique. It can reduce the story to a mere vehicle for plot, and very few stories can support such domination by the plot. O. Henry gained great fame using the reversal technique in his short stories (such as “The Gift of the Magi”), but they were also criticized for being forced, gimmicky, and mechanical.

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

STORYTELLING TECHNIQUE: THE ‘REVEALS PLOT’

When a story relies on reveals as its main source of interest for its audience, this is known as a ‘reveals’ or ‘revelations’ plot. Another name for this is the ‘big plot’, not just because there are so many surprises but also because they tend to be shocking. Although still immensely popular today—especially in detective stories and thrillers. Mysteries are required to include a big revelation, but other kinds of stories make use of revelation also. (Lord Of The Flies: Who is the beast?)

Came from: The heyday of the reveals plot was the 19th century e.g. Dumas (The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers), Dickens, The Portrait Of A Lady

How It Works:

  • The hero generally stays in one place, though it is not nearly so narrow an area as unity of place requires. For example, the story may take place in a town or a city. Desperate Housewives is a great example of a reveals plot. Characters don’t leave the suburbs except to visit hospitals/schools/workplaces which are themselves a part of suburban life. 
  • The reveals plot almost always covers a longer time period than unity of time allows, even up to a few years. 
  • The hero is familiar with his or her opponents, but a great deal about them is hidden from the hero and the audience. In Desperate Housewives, the mysterious newcomers have secrets. Characters and audience learn about them as each series progresses.
  • These opponents are very skilled at scheming to get what they want. This combination produces a plot that is filled with revelations, or surprises, for the hero and the audience.
  • These plots tend to start en medias res, then take the audience backwards and forward through time. We’re not just talking flashback here. One set of scenes might unravel a secret in the forward direction. Another set of scenes might move us backwards from the ‘beginning’ to the source of the mystery itself. In a detective story the plot begins in the middle of the story — the point at which the investigation gets going. In this kind of story, the plot progresses by going backwards in time. The biggest revelation will coincide with the moment of the deepest penetration into the past.

The inverse* of the ‘reveals’ plot is the ‘journey’ plot.

  • In the journey plot, surprise is limited because the hero dispatches a large number of opponents quickly.
  • The reveals plot takes few opponents and hides as much about them as possible. Revelations magnify the plot by going under the surface.
*Dickens actually blended the reveals plot with the journey plot. This shows what a master he was of plotting, since the two approaches are in many ways opposites.

Advantages Of The Reveals Plot

  • The reveals plot is organic because the opponent is the character best able to attack the weakness of the hero, and the surprises come at the moments when the hero and the audience learn how those attacks have occurred. The hero must then overcome his weakness and change or be destroyed.
  • The reveals plot maximises surprise. (Since plot basically equals ‘surprise’, surprises are always good.)

Plot in this kind of story comes from digging deeper and deeper into the same world, with each new level providing a whole new batch of reveals, and thus plot, for the audience.

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

John Truby advises writers take some time to separate the reveals from the rest of the plot and look at them as one unit. Tracking the revelations sequence is one of the most valuable of all storytelling techniques. You’re checking to see if the sequence builds properly.

1. The sequence of revelations must be logical. They must occur in the order in which the hero would most likely learn of them.

2. Reveals must build in intensity. Ideally, each reveal should be stronger than the one that came before it. This is not always possible, especially in longer stories (for one thing, it defies logic). But you want a general buildup so that the drama increases.

3. Reveals must come at an increasing pace. This also heightens the drama because the audience gets hit with a greater density of surprise.

4. Start the hero’s desire low and raise it with each “reveal”. It’s pretty typical in a story for the hero to be ambling along not wanting anything much and then something happens and they are forced into action. Then, at about the midway point the hero will really, really want that thing, doing everything in their powers to achieve the thing they never really wanted in the first place. The reveals are what drive the hero’s increasing intensity of desire.

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 setupHome 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. Continue reading “Make Way For Ducklings by Robert McCloskey 1941”

The difference between story and plot

Plot is not ‘what happens next’. It makes sense that writers would think this, because that’s really how we describe ‘story’ but if you think that way you won’t create a good plot. […] Plot is an intricate choreography of actions by the hero and the opponents designed to surprise the audience.

– From The Anatomy of Story by John Truby

STORY

Story is the chronological series of incidents that make up a narrative. Story is much larger than plot. Story is all of the subsystems of the story body working together: premise, character, moral argument, world, symbol, plot, scene and dialogue. Story is a “many-faceted complex of form and meaning in which the line of narrative [plot] is only one amongst many aspects.”

PLOT

Plot is the under-the-surface weaving of various lines of action or sets of events so that the story builds steadily from the beginning through the middle to the end. More particularly, plot tracks the intricate dance between the hero and all of his opponents as they fight for the same goal. It is a combination of what happens and how those events are revealed to the audience.

The ordered narration of those events, but that order isn’t necessarily chronological. The plot controls the way ini which the questions readers ask about the story are answered, what information is given immediately and what information is deferred. As well as altering  the order of the events in the story, a plot can manipulate the story by the duration of events–the amount of attention it gives to particular events–and by the frequency of events–the number of times it tells about them. Plots are made up of summaries and scenes. A summary might condense five months into a paragraph. A scene might cover five pages.

In other words, story is the chronological order readers discover when they ask “what happened next”?  And plot is the order readers experience when they pay attention to what happens next as they read.

Suspense is what you call the tension between discovering the story and experiencing the plot?

Not all stories have plots. Plots are highly encouraged if you’re writing for a wide audience, but as Michael Foley writes in his book The Age of Absurdity, stories with plots have a downside:

Plots are effective–everyone wants to know what happens next–but the denouement of plot-driven novels is often implausible and disappointing. Is that all it was? This is because there are no plots in real life — only a complex web of continuum and connexity — so the reader has the unpleasant sensation of having been conned. And plots are instantly forgettable. Try explaining the plot of the thriller you read only last week. The pleasure of plot is all expectation and sensation, illusory and short-lived, so plot-driven novels leave no residue of beauty. Whereas a novel that reproduces the texture and feeling of life will be harder to read, but provide richer satisfactions and live longer in the memory. The bad news is that such novels are rare. Proust and Joyce showed how to succeed triumphantly without plot but this lesson has been forgotten by the age of potential. It is common now for reviewers to rate novels as ‘well-plotted’ or ‘poorly plotted’, as though plot is an essential feature, and to express astonishment and consternation at the absence of plot.

 

How To Structure A Subplot

writing subplot

A subplot is a minor story within a larger work. It exists to give the main plot more depth.

1. The subplot must affect the hero’s main plot, or it shouldn’t be there at all. If the subplot doesn’t serve the main plot, you have two simultaneous stories that may be clinically interesting to the audience, but they make the main plot seem too long. To connect the subplot to the main plot, make sure the two dovetail neatly, usually near the end.

2. The subplot character is usually not the ally. The subplot character and the ally have two separate functions in the story. The ally helps the hero in the main plot. The subplot character drives a different but related plot that you compare to the main plot. Most Hollywood movies today have multiple genres, but they rarely have true subplots. A subplot extends the story, and most Hollywood films are too interested in speed to put up with that. Where we see true subplots most often is in love stories, which is a form that tends to have a thin main plot.

To Subplot Or Not To Subplot?

Benefits
  • Improves character, theme and texture of story.
  • In a dark story, a subplot can lighten the mood (or vice versa).
  • A subplot can serve to make it more difficult for the main character to reach their goal.
Downside

Decide whether the texture of the story or the speed is more important.

Because the subplot exists to expand on the theme and character, you may need to write a first draft of your main story before realising the sort of story that would make for a good subplot. In other words, if the subplot exists to expand upon the theme, the theme must first reveal itself.

Alternative Opinion: Subplot Is Not A Useful Concept

‘Subplot’ is a misnomer. A good one that works is actually a story plot of its own with its own complete structure.

A more accurate term might be ‘side story’. But we can keep calling it ‘subplot’, because that’s what it’s widely known as.

I actually don’t even like talking about subplots. Whenever someone asks me “how do I write subplots?”, it makes me incredibly squirmy. I don’t have a good simple answer, for the simple reason that subplots are not a good way to think about story.

In fact, I recommend you stop thinking about subplots altogether. Instead, just think about plot.

K.M. Weiland

Writing Tips

If you are going to use a subplot, you only have enough time to give it the seven most basic story elements. Don’t try to get any more fancy than that. Because of the limited time you have to tell a complete subplot, introduce your subplot early. The main plot begins and ends the novel. Sub-plots should begin and end within the main plot.

Don’t stray from the main plot for too long because then you risk the story collapsing.

Lots of subplots exist to complicate the plot and make it difficult for the main character to get what they want. A particularly useful type of subplot, however, does something more than just complicate the quest. It makes the main character question what they want entirely.

Sub-plots add layers and texture to your novel, because they:

  1. Show different perspectives of the central conflict in the story
  2. Test your main characters’ motivations and abilities to achieve their goals
  3. Show different aspects of the protagonist’s personality

If your sub-plot does not do at least one of these, it will feel like a stand-alone story within your novel.

— from Writers Write

Case Studies

Pulp Fiction

Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction tells two stories. One is about how Jules comes to believe that God has a mission for him. At the Showdown, he doesn’t shoot the robber because he’s going through a “transitional period.” In the other story, Butch refuses to throw a prizefight and comes to terms with his boss while escaping with his life.

Each of the two stories has a beginning, a middle and an end, but the events are not presented in exact chronological order.

Tootsie

For a close look at the subplot in Tootsie, see The One Subplot You Really Need from Cracking Yarns

 

How Do Writers Deal With Phones In Fiction?

hands holding a mobile phone

Phones have not been good for fiction. Phones counteract every storytelling guideline.

  • Throw your character into peril, we’re told.
  • Endanger their very lives, we’re told.

But if this character has a phone, or should have a phone, the audience asks, “Why don’t they just…?” and that is about the last thing you want your audience to ask.

As others have said, the phone shouldn’t solve the problem. In this way phones are like magic. Even before mobile phones existed writers knew that magic shouldn’t solve the problem.

The same few tricks get old pretty fast:

  • The character’s phone is out of range (legit if it’s the wilderness, maybe not so legit if it’s at our neighbours’ house even though they don’t get mobile reception for real — and we do.) The nice thing about horror movies is, ghosts can mess with mobile reception.
  • The phone is out of battery. This feels like an out and out hack.
  • The character is a hipster type who doesn’t carry a phone. An example is Juno McGuff in the film Juno, who uses an iconic burger phone.
  • The phone has just been stolen
  • Or broken

More believable:

  • The entire story is set in the past, before people had mobile phones
  • The main character is pre-adolescent, which means they wouldn’t necessarily be carrying a phone

PHONES IN STORIES FOR CHILDREN

MIDDLE GRADE AND OLDER

Even in stories for children, phones can make everything harder, as articulated by Robert Lanham:

I find it impossible to write fiction that’s set after 2002. Not because I’m a Gen-Xer waxing nostalgic about relaxing to Morcheeba on a distastefully stained sofa I found partially torn apart by a dog in an alley. (Oh, the glamour.) It’s just that it’s inconceivable to depict contemporary times authentically without including interludes where characters stare at their cell phones instead of advancing their plot lines – their lives – towards some conclusion. Which is, as a thing to read, mind-numbingly dull. Unless I write “and then his Galaxy 4’s battery died” no one can ever get lost, forget an important fact, meet a partner outside of a dating site, or do anything that doesn’t eventually have them picking up a phone. So I’m stuck writing about an era where Ethan Hawke was considered the pinnacle of manliness.

– from Your Phone Is Ruining You For Us at The Awl

A recently published middle grade novel struck me immediately for its heavy use of phones. The Carnival of Wishes and Dreams (2019) by Jenny Lundquist is about girl relationships. They pass notes in class, and the note feature is necessary because the entire point is that it is an anonymous note. But they also ‘pass notes’ via phone. This mixture of notes (‘pumpkin-grams’) combined with texting creates a storyworld which is partly grounded in reality, part magical.

You can check out the first few pages of The Carnival of Wishes and Dreams with the Look Inside feature on Amazon or similar.

PICTURE BOOKS

One privilege of creating picture books is that very young characters are not expected to carry phones or other connected devices. In contemporary fiction for adults, authors must now completely reimagine traditional plot lines.

In fact, reality looks slightly different for a lot of preschoolers, many of whom are using touch screens daily. Parents are also using phones a lot more than is depicted in the more utopian picture book storyworld.

PHONES IN MOVIES AND TV

Movies are a descendent of stage, and there’s absolutely an imperative for writers to put characters together in a single space.

A technique we see quite often now is a character who texts, and the content of the text appears across the screen similar to a subtitle. A film which does this is Lady-Like. Even in the trailer, you can see how much phones are a part of this story — an inevitability, given the age of the characters.

In the trailer alone you see:

  • Characters holding their phones while talking to others in the same space
  • A variety of screens, not just phones but use of laptops, even as part of a conversation in person
  • A character talks on the phone while another jumps around beside her in the background (on the bed) which means the phone scene is less boring for the audience. (A character talking on the phone is basically a Tea Drinking scene, and must be accompanied by something else.)
  • Little screenshots of the character’s phone superimposed on the main picture, hovering in 3D near the character

Jane The Virgin is a romantic comedy which satirizes the telenovela. Jane The Virgin was one of the first big hits to really play with the text messaging on the screen thing which has been much emulated since. I’ve heard some people saying they love this aspect of Jane The Virgin, whereas others have said it is used with ‘mixed results’. Satires can get away with more over-the-top elements than other genres, so I think it works well. In the scene below it is especially spoofy since the characters are sitting in the same room together.

ADVANTAGES OF PHONES

But am I being a negative Nelly?

Phones have huge advantages in real life, so they must have advantages in fictional lives, too.

  • Characters don’t get lost if they have GPS, but honestly if my GPS drops out I am in deep because I no longer have a map in my car. (Do they still print paper maps?) This can legitimately create some dicey situations.
  • Cyber bullying. Unfortunately the psychological aspects of bullying have been amplified by phones and the Internet generally. Unfortunately this needs covering in fiction as well. From a storytelling perspective, a character cannot get away from the villain. The Netflix series You wouldn’t exist as it does without phones (and social media). Often in these stories, the empathetic character knows something’s going down, but not exactly what. It’s the note-passing in class but amplified, 24/7.

RELATED LINKS

Things We No Longer Need Because We Have Smartphones from Laughing Squid

Oh, and what have Kindles killed?

Plot In Children’s Literature

There has…been a notable shift in Western children’s fiction, beginning in the 1960s, toward a more profound interest in character, toward psychological, character-oriented children’s novels. In many contemporary novels for children, we observe a disintegration of the plot in its traditional meaning; nothing really “happens.” There is no beginning or end in the usual sense, no logical development toward a climax and denouement; the story may seem to be arbitrarily cut from the character’s life, or is even more often a mosaic of bits arbitrarily glued together.

– Maria Nikolajeva, Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature

This isn’t to say plot is no longer of central concern.

From What Publishers Look For In A Children’s Book: An Editorial Perspective from Tina Nichols Coury

Is my plot compelling? Why will my readers want to turn the page?

  • The story has “a great beginning,” “a well-crafted narrative arc,” and “a satisfying ending.”
  • The story is built on “conflict,” “friction,” “tension.”
  • The story has “internal logic,” “believability.”
  • The story is “artful,” “crafted,” “rhythmic.”
  • The story “invites the reader to turn the page.”
  • The story creates urgency in the reader: “Must…find…out…what…happens!”
  • The story is full of “clever twists.”
  • The story is “exciting,” “compelling,” “fast-paced.”
  • The story “is not didactic.”

I don’t want to lift too much, but if you go to the article and read the bit about ’emotional impact’, it’s clear — without it being named as such — that character development is also important in modern kidlit.