A Taxonomy Of Humour In Children’s Stories

There are thought to be 3 main theories of humour.

  1. Superiority Theory — Hobbes — about the “sudden glory we feel when we see an eminence in ourselves compared to an inferiority in someone else.” This is the guy slipping on a banana peel. But of course misfortune does not lead to humour, otherwise we’d laugh at homeless refugees.
  2. Relief Theory — Freud, of course — we’re a cauldron of desires/sexuality/aggression. We suppress the aggression to express the sexuality and so on. By this theory, humour acts as a means of releasing excess emotion or arousal. Freud’s theory was that jokes are a way of overcoming the censorship of certain taboo thoughts. Humour is the release of the repressed energies they caused.
  3. Incongruity Theory — Something that doesn’t fit is made to fit.

But none of these theories on its own is helpful if you want to go about writing humour yourself. The fact is, humour is the most technical of all writing styles. Treat it like learning magic tricks. Dissect it, emulate the humour you love, get into the zone. Comedy writing is a skill that takes a lifetime to learn.

Founding editor of The Onion wants to help with the job of learning the write comedy. Stephen Johnson argues that every joke falls into one of 11 categories. At first glance this sounds like the ‘Seven Basic Plots’ idea, which is a pretty unhelpful way of looking at story if you’re harbouring hopes of telling one — forget whether there’s some elemental truth to it or not. That said, I am a fan of The Onion — they get humour right the vast majority of the time — so I decided to take these 11 categories and apply them to some popular humorous children’s books. Is Scott Dikkers right? Are there really only 11 categories of humour.

Also, can we apply these same categories to humour written for children?

“There are no lengths to which humorless people will not go to analyze humor.”

Robert Benchley

1. IRONY

First, a refresher: What even is irony exactly? The Onion’s definition: Intended meaning is opposite of literal meaning. Honestly, I’m sure from the outset — if a joke doesn’t fall into any of the other categories, the definition of ‘irony’ is so broad that I predict it can be shoved into this one.

Humour often lies in the gap between what is said and what is meant. […] In relaxed, friendly talk, speakers collaborate in talking about one thing while meaning something else, thus maintaining a play frame.

Jennifer Coates

I’ve heard it said that we can’t rely on children to pick up irony until the age of about 8, give or take according to individuals. The thing about children’s books is, we never know the exact developmental stage of each individual reader, so there’s always a chance irony will be taken literally. On the surface this doesn’t matter. If the kid doesn’t get the joke they don’t get the joke, right? But what if ‘not getting the irony’ means seeing straight up sexism/meanness/racism or something like that? We need to be careful here, especially when it comes to ‘hipster irony’ -ie. being mean, but not really being mean, because everyone knows we’re not mean people, right?

This irony thing is important because a lot of children’s stories (especially films) are written with the ‘dual audience’ in mind, especially in film and in picture books, where the adult is sitting alongside the child.

  • Rosie’s Walk is the classic example of a picture book demonstrating an ironic distance between picture and text. The words say something completely different from the text. Today there are many more examples of ironic distance in picture books.
  • In A Long Way From Chicago, the grandmother is a comical character but the humour is often understated irony which involves nothing more than our narrator pointing it out: ‘She said she never slept but she had to wake herself up to go to bed.’ 
  • Dramatic irony is describes a gap between what the audience knows and what the character knows. Sometimes the audience knows more than the character. This kind of dramatic irony is called ‘reader superior position’. In The Seriously Extraordinary Diary Of Pig, Pig sees a funny looking farmer at the fair. From the illustrations, the reader understands immediately that this is no farmer. She looks like an archetypal villain. But Pig simply says, “She is the most ugly farmer I’ve ever seen” and describes an archetypal villain without putting two and two together himself. Then there’s reader inferior dramatic irony. This is less useful in comedy, but is especially common in certain genres such as heist, where the audience is constantly two steps behind the characters and their plans.
  • Another excellent example of dramatic irony can be seen in I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen. The reader sees the red hat long before the main character does. The younger the reader, the more you should make use of reader superior irony. Young kids are still working out the world and they need to feel smart. I can’t think of an example of reader inferior irony in humorous picture books.
  • In a story with no pictures, dramatic irony can come from an unreliable narrator, who is not telling the reader the full story. This might be because they don’t understand what’s going on. (But the reader does.) Unreliable narrators are useful for many reasons, and sometimes, in the hands of an expert storyteller, can lead to humour.

spongebob squarepants ironic distance
Here we see an ironic distance between what is illustrated and what the characters are saying. Funnier because both characters are duped, perhaps by each other. Perhaps because they can’t count that high.



ironic distance humour from Courage The Cowardly Dog
ironic distance humour from Courage The Cowardly Dog

Less specifically, ironic jokes would include:

  • A character tries to fix something but ends up making it worse. For instance in the We Bare Bears pilot a spider hanging from a tree is dealt with by kicking the tree. Hundreds of other spiders fall down from the tree. Ironic because the character aimed for one result but got the (exaggerated) opposite. (Irony combined with hyperbole.)
  • In teen stories irony is often sarcastic.

This scene from 90210 is ironic because the speaker is saying something nice and awful at the same time. Also an example of juxtaposition.

2. CHARACTER HUMOUR

Comedic character acting on personality traits

In order for this to work, the audience needs to think in terms of stereotypes or, more kindly, in terms of archetypes. Alternatively, the audience has to know (or feel they know) a character so well that they are able to think, “How very typical of [Character].”

  • In the Wimpy Kid books, the older brother Rodrick is set up as a dimwit but every now and then he says or does something really smart. This is both a ‘character’ and an ‘irony’ joke.
  • We feel we know Pig The Pug as soon as we meet him — he is the kid who hogs all the toys. We love it when he gets his just desserts.
  • This Moose Belongs To Me by Oliver Jeffers relies on the reader identifying the boy in the story as a self-involved bossy pants.
  • Scarface Claw by Lynley Dodd is an archetypal villain but with a soft side. This relies on irony as well as character humour.
  • Z Is For Moose stars a moose who has a meltdown because he isn’t given the opportunity to be the centre of attention for a minute. The stereotype is familiar — the narcissist stage actor.
  • In The Extraordinary Diary of Pig, character humour comes from a pig doing human-like things with his pig’s body, e.g. crossing his trotters for luck. This kind of humour is common in humorous stories featuring humans in animal bodies, and is one of the reasons animals are so often used instead of people in children’s stories.

This cartoon from Poorly Drawn Lines takes the animal character joke one step further, blending the category of ‘misplaced focus’.

  • Some character humour can tip into plain meanness. In Dog Days (Wimpy Kid series), Greg goes to the local pool and notes in his diary that someone should tell one of the neighbourhood women not to wear a swimsuit at eight months pregnant (due to its being too grotesque). While a kind reader puts this down to Greg’s character flaw — he is on the verge of adolescence and terrified of adult bodies, including the hairy bodies of the men in the changing room — this kind of humour matches (and models) schoolyard body shaming and bullying. I prefer to avoid books with this kind of humour. Which leads to the problem: If you want to write a mean-spirited character, how do you do it without promoting/triggering unpleasant memories of mean-spiritedness? It’s a fine line. Bear in mind that Jeff Kinney originally wrote Wimpy Kid for adults, aiming for a Wonder Years type story. It was his publisher who repurposed it for children. Meanspirited but funny characters are a surefire hit with kids, who see far more insulting interactions in their day at school than any typical adult.
  • In children’s stories as well as in playground chants, teachers and other adult figures of authority are often the butt of the joke. In a picture book such as The Book Without Pictures by B.J. Novak, the joy comes from hearing the adult reader saying ridiculous things.

3. REFERENCE HUMOUR

Common experiences that audiences can relate to

Romantic Rejection. A lot of the Wimpy Kid humour is about rejection from girls that Greg Heffley sees as potential girlfriends.

Parental Wishes Conflicting With Child Wishes. The Wimpy Kid stories are also about the conflict that arises when you want to play on your computer all day in your own room but your mother wants you to do family bonding exercises and force you into ‘fun’ activities that are fun for her but not for you. A lot of adolescents can surely relate to this. Less specifically, kids can really identify with lack of freedom.

Obviously, stories for toddlers and preschoolers must refer to experiences shared by children of that age.

  • Chatterbox is a familiar story about waiting and waiting for a baby to learn to talk, then wishing they’d shut the hell up as soon as they start.
  • Harry The Dirty Dog plays on a childhood dislike of baths.
  • Z Is For Moose is funny because we’re watching a toddler (Moose) having a massive tantrum after being left out of a show.

That said, picture books sometimes appeal to a distinctly adult experience. Mr Chicken Goes To Paris relies on the incongruity of a large chicken doing all the typical touristy things in Paris. Adults will recognise the type of holiday, as well as the tedium of sitting through someone’s photos of it. The story’s interest comes solely from the fact that our tourist is a big chicken. This is hat on the dog type humour and because adults identify with the experience of tourism, Leigh Hobbs appeals to a dual audience.

Another type of reference humour is cultural. In the pilot of We Bare Bears, the brown bear (Grizz) suggests that the panda knows kung-fu, something he has in his favour when it comes to dating. The panda says that actually he does not know kung-fu. We are thus reminded of the Kung-fu Panda franchise of children’s films from DreamWorks. We feel ‘in’ on the joke for getting that cultural reference. Grizz’s comment is also funny because we recognise he is relying on stereotypes. It’s the fictional equivalent of people with Asian faces and glasses always being asked if they’re good at maths.

A similar joke is used repeatedly in the British comedy series Fresh Meat, in which other characters assume Howard is a Lord of the Rings fan because he is a nerdy type who looks like he’d be schooled up on the finer points of high fantasy. As Howard keeps insisting, he’s never even read Lord of the Rings, and has no interest in reading it. He gets increasingly irritated by accusations of having read it. This is a triple layered joke: (cultural) reference + character humour + irony.

When a story makes a cultural reference to itself, it’s now called a ‘callback‘. This relies on the audience having seen earlier episodes of the show. Each Simpsons episode has about 10-20 callback jokes in it, counted separately from other cultural references, which are even more numerous. Groups of friends cement friendships by swapping injokes that only those friends would get. Callback humour is how you get yourself a fanbase.

The converse of reference humour would be the non sequitur, a feature of absurdist/surrealist humour. The audience is exposed to situations they’ve never experienced before themselves. I wonder if this form of humour is not included in The Onion List for the reason that modern audiences don’t find absurdist humour laugh-out-loud funny. This is the humour of Edward Lear, Alice In Wonderland, Waiting for Godot… It’s clever, it can be interesting, it can highlight important political truths, but is it still funny? More recently, works such as A Series of Unfortunate Events and Far Side comics have been described as surrealist, so perhaps surrealism has not died, but evolved.

The humour in children’s literature is common to sitcoms for adults. The same rules apply. Characters feel awkward or humiliated. It’s difficult to think of comic heroes who don’t have significant flaws. Georgia Nicholson is obsessed about her looks, a little bit selfish, mean to her friends. Greg Heffley is that as well. You would think this is a reason not to like these heroes but in fact children relish these portrayals. They like finding their own shortcomings in comic heroes. [Do these flawed heroes really remind adolescents of themselves? I suspect that would feel too cringe-worthy to enjoy. I suspect they see their friends and school enemies in these characters rather than themselves, but I’ve yet to read research on that.]

4. SHOCK HUMOUR

Surprising jokes typically involving sex, drugs, gross-out humour and swearing

How to get away with more shocking things in comedy for kids? One popular trick: Make it look terrible at first but the reveal is that it’s benign.

adventure time humour
scene from Adventure Time

Something common in children’s stories but less common in adult stories: Bum jokes and gross-out humour (poo, vomit, snot and other bodily excretions). For adults gross-out humour is sexual.

Kids can also be shocked by post-pubescent bodies. The Greg Heffley (Wimpy Kid) example of Greg being disgusted by grown men in the showers (mentioned above) is also an example of gross-out humour. Greg is terrified of his imminently changing body. For good reason, this particular fear is often explored in coming-of-age comedies. Morphing into an adult is terrifying.

The Disgusting Sandwich is a picture book for young readers and a very mild form of gross-out humour. The humour of this story relies on the shared experience of dropping food on the ground but still sort of wanting to eat it.

The Mole Who Knew It Was None Of His Business is another fairly tasteful example of a story about poo, and is made more tasteful by the use of quite literary language and the German language onomatopoeia. The poo itself does not feel disgusting because of the countryside setting. Wholesome poo.

For slightly older kids (pre-adolescence is the golden age of gross-out humour), we have the work of Andy Griffiths, e.g. The Day My Bum Went Psycho and a whole raft of similar stories from the same Australian author.

Most humour has its origins in bad taste. Then, when the joke’s been done enough times, it no longer has shock value. The shocking thing has become part of the culture. This primitive side of humour comes out of aggression and fear, and is a way of dealing with that. This explains why comedians often go beyond the line of acceptability. Perhaps, like me, your favourite comedian offends you sometimes. The comedians don’t know where that line is either, because it’s constantly shifting. The comedian’s job is to find that line. That’s their raison d’etre. They inadvertently cross it from time to time, so we all know where it is.

5. PARODY HUMOUR

Mimic a character, trope, genre as closely as possible

This type of humour relies on your audience having sufficient experience in the original character/trope/genre itself that they recognise the parody. Along with irony, parody might therefore be lost on the youngest readers. In the past I have written about popular ‘children’s films’ which should probably more accurately be described as films for adults or adolescents due to the advanced irony — which ordinarily might float on by younger audiences without consequence, but may convey pretty disturbing messages when taken at face value. Children (and adults) tend to assume that animated film and claymation is for children, but that’s no longer the case.

Genre Parody

The 2012 film ParaNorman relies on the audience’s understanding of the zombie horror genre. Or, we might be expecting a Cinderella story, for instance, but the character ends up even poorer than they were before. Or, as Babette Cole wrote in Princess Smartypants — we might be expecting the princess to find her prince charming, but she decides in the end to remain single, upending the classic romantic fairytale. This joke is a kind of cross between ‘misplaced focus’ (we’re thinking this is a love story) and ‘parody’ (of the archetypal love story).

That Is NOT A Good Idea by Mo Willems defies our expectation of a fable in which the duck gets eaten by a wily fox. It’s a parody of a fable, though also a form of irony — we don’t expect the cute little duck to be so wily. An understanding of Aesop comes in handy here, too. Aesop set up the animal character tropes for us and we’re still using them and subverting them to this day.

parody humour
Spongebob Squarepants speaks to introverts everywhere while also parodying the musical fantasy genre. We expect this wonderful place to be somewhere like Never-never Land or Oz.

spongebob parody humour
Here we have a parody of fairytales such as The Ugly Duckling.

Character Trope Parody

The Fantastic Mr Fox film relies on the audience’s understanding of a stereotypical 1950s breadwinner father, as well as the dominant culture’s fictional nostalgia associated with that period. The first generation of readers who grew up with Fantastic Mr Fox are now my age — middle aged. The 1980s was The Golden Age of Roald Dahl. This film is mostly for them.

6. HYPERBOLE AS HUMOUR

Exaggeration to absurd extremes

Unlike irony and parody, this type of humour is safe for the youngest of audiences. Hyperbole is super common in picture books.

  • Stuck by Oliver Jeffers is an excellent example. There’s no way all those things would get stuck in a tree. Jeffers knows how to take a joke to its conclusion. This book is a masterclass in hyperbole.
  • The Biggest Sandwich Ever features a massive sandwich followed by a massive dessert — everything in carnivalesque oversize.
  • The Cat In The Hat by Dr Seuss is perhaps the stand-out example.

Melodramatic Humour

Melodrama comes under the category of hyperbole. Melodramatic characters are sometimes funny because of their uber-pessimism or optimism.

Spongebob hyperbole
‘The problem’ = entire life.

  • Similar to the Squadward scene above, a client of the mother from Freaky Friday (Lindsay Lohan version) is particularly needy. “How’s your day been so far?” asks the daughter in her mother’s body. “Fine. Then I got up.”

Litotes

I’m not sure where to put hyperbole’s opposite: understatement, or litotes. I guess it goes in here.

  • The Seriously Extraordinary Diary Of Pig “We don’t want to be handbags!” (Not — We don’t want to be slaughtered!)
  • From Spongebob Squarepants: “I don’t want to be peeled! I’m not a banana!” (Ditto)

Understatement often occurs when the main character is near death, but because this is a series we know (and the characters know, in a meta kind of way) that they are not going to actually die. Therefore their reactions to near death are often understated. In the examples above they are unrealistically articulate, for instance, calling to mind the plaintive cry of a toddler who doesn’t want to carry a bag, or doesn’t want to eat a banana.

7. WORDPLAY HUMOUR

Puns, rhymes, double entendres, etc.

Children take a special delight in odd or pretty sounds. Given the chance to write, they are very playful with the sonic side of language. Experts say their learning of new words is a process of wonder, laughter, and punning. What children may lack is a developed sense of artistic judgment, so that their poems often include startling successes in sound right next to bland or awkward passages. They tend to accept whatever comes into their heads.

The Poetry Foundation

Between the ages of six and ten we begin to riddles and puns and jokes based on the tricks and confusions of language. The attraction of the riddle is that the person who asks it demonstrates her or his mastery of the ambiguity that is built into language. For instance:

What has four legs and can’t walk?
A table.

A riddle can also be a device for proving the other person stupid — in some cases, stupid because he or she takes riddles seriously.

What’s the difference between a mailbox and a hole in the ground?
I don’t know.
Well, I certainly wouldn’t send you to mail a letter.

Eventually children learn that words can be used to excuse misbehaviour, and even as a way of trapping a victim into a  kind of complicity with his or her persecutor — which is something a lot of adults do with children, getting them to agree that they’ve been bad and deserve a to be punished, for instance. This use of language seems to be behind a familiar catch-riddle:

Adam and Eve and Pinchme went out in a boat to swim. Adam and Eve got drowned, and who was left?

The correct answer maneuvers the victim into asking to be hurt. But there is more to this joke. Its three characters, Adam and Eve and Pinchme, suggest primal, innocent man and woman — or boy and girl — and someone who represents evil, violent impulse, knowledge of good and evil: the serpent in the garden.

As children get older they discover other tricks of language. They become fascinated with tongue twisters, with secret languages like Pig Latin, and with simile and metaphor. Some years ago, for instance, there was a whole cycle of jokes about a character called the Little Moron; the point of the joke was always that he misunderstood metaphors and took them for reality:

Why did the Little Moron throw the clock out the window?
Because he wanted to see time fly.

In telling this joke the child asserts that he is not a little moron; he knows what a metaphor is and no longer takes it literally. But the joke also, like a lot of folklore, allows the vicarious expression of forbidden impulses: in this case, the rage children feel when some adult points to the clock as a reason for going to bed, or not having lunch. “No, dear; see, the clock says it’s not time yet.” No wonder the child wants to throw the clock out the window, to make time fly.

Often the mastery of metaphor is used against adults — even against unknown adults. This happens with the telephone jokes that are played by girls and boys when they begin to acquire a more adult voice — or at least the ability to imitate one. They can then spend happy hours calling up numbers at random and saying, for example: “Good afternoon, ma’am. This is the electric company. Would you please check to see if your refrigerator is running?” The hope is that the person on the other end of the line will hurry into their kitchen to check, hurry back, pick up the phone again, and confirm that it is. Then the reply is: “Well, you’d better catch it before it runs away out the door.” If the joke works, the caller has the satisfaction of making the adult follow a child’s directions and look silly.

Alison Lurie, Don’t Tell The Grownups: The subversive power of children’s literature

  • Jack and the Baked Beanstalk takes a classic tale and gives it a modern twist. Even the title has been modernised — ‘bean’ is universal, but ‘baked bean’ is comically specific, which I’d actually add as another category of humour. (Comic Specificity.) The story itself is not humorous. (The title may therefore be a little misleading.)
  • From A Long Way From Chicago: “The cherry bomb had scared them witless, except for Ernie, who was witless anyway.” More specifically, this is an example of metalepsis — taking an idiomatic expression then turning it into something more literal.
  • The whole book of The Seriously Extraordinary Diary Of Pig is written in a naive kind of dialect reminiscent of the speech of Roald Dahl’s BFG (which, it’s worth noting, was based on Patricia Neal’s mixed-up language as she partially recovered from a serious stroke.)
  • Symbolic names might also be considered a type of wordplay — i.e. someone’s name is in itself funny either because it’s so apt or so ironic.
  • Alliteration can make serious things sound funnier due to alliteration’s usual association with light-heartedness. In The Seriously Extraordinary Diary Of Pig Cow is captured. The villain chants “Mince them on Monday, tan them on Tuesday…” (Do you recognise this joke from The Tawny Scrawny Lion, a classic Little Golden Book?)
  • Sometimes the wordplay element forms the entire basis of a plot. In The Incorrigible Children Of Ashton Place, the children have been raised by wolves. Literally.
  • Wordplay humour presents issues for picture books (in particular) that could otherwise be translated. There are probably books which cannot be successfully translated, for example funny books which relies on rhyme. The Gruffalo doesn’t really take off outside its English language version [because what makes it so good is its rhyme and rhythm.]

catdog wordplay humour
This dual audience joke from Catdog is designed so that only those old enough to get it will get it.

The following from Spongebob Squarepants is not only dual audience humour but is also in-group humour, understood only by people from a particular culture. It includes an explanation, for those of us not in the know when it comes to hipster cafes in a particular moment in history and place:

spongebob hipster cafe parody wordplay humour

The following gag from another Cartoon Network series, Ed, Edd n Eddy, is childlike humour but no doubt appealed to young adults who know what it’s like to hang out with stoned people:

from Ed, Edd n Eddy

The following example from Freaky Friday appeals to teenagers who are often stuck with the job of trying to decipher their teachers and parents. The words make no sense at all, so wordplay is layered with recognition and also character humour (the teacher is vindictive and has a vendetta).

freaky friday humour

While it takes on a different form, wordplay is just as popular for a young adult audience.

Wordplay from 90210
Wordplay from 90210

8. ANALOGY JUXTAPOSITION

Comparing two disparate things (perhaps by flipping them completely)

Although Scott Dikkers of The Onion talks about ‘analogy’, when it comes to children’s humour, I prefer ‘juxtaposition’. Analogy emphasises what’s similar; juxtaposition emphasises difference. Similarity isn’t that funny; difference is.

gilmore girls humour
Humour comes from recognition (being so bowled over by a kiss you do something unthinking) but also from the juxtaposition between something sweet — a first kiss — and something slightly criminal.

Others — such as Robert Mankoff — have called ‘incongruity’ the basis of humour. There has to be some deviation from the normal. The incongruity can’t be just any old thing — it has to be fitting.

In children’s humour, might we instead call it nonsense? See: The Good Sense of Nonsense: Why nonsense is so important to children by Jerry Griswold.

In logic something is either X or not X. In humour, it’s both X and not X.

From an academic paper:

McGhee (1979) proposes that incongruity is a central cause of humor. Indeed, Oring (2010) goes so far as to claim that “humor cannot be appreciated without the perception of an underlying appropriate incongruity” (p. 12). Incongruity humor occurs when an element of a story or situation is established as unexpected, exaggerated, or inappropriate and is then resolved. McGhee (1979) separates incongruity humor into two parts: Discovery of the incongruity and its resolution. In agreement with McGhee (1979), Dean & Allen (2000) state that the two essential elements of a joke are the set-up, which includes the minimum amount of information to establish an initial assumption, and the punch line, a reinterpretation that reverses the initial assumption. Polimeni & Reiss (2006) discuss Veatch’s theory that incongruities in humor must contain one “socially normal” element and one element that violates the “subjective moral order,” or as Veatch defines it, the “rich cognitive and emotional system of opinions about the proper order of the social and natural world”.

In children’s humour juxtaposition is the ‘hat on the dog’ thing. Putting two unlikely things together. This is why my year three daughter thought it funny when her year three teacher did a cartwheel in the playground — a teacher doing a childhood thing. This was the most newsworthy event of her day.

The Mercy Watson series involves the juxtaposition of a pig in a house — the pig not quite human, but treated as a child. There’s a lot of madcap humour in the Mercy Watson stories, too, since Mercy the Pig loves life. (As you’d expect, there is a juxtaposed character who is dull and no fun at all.)

However, in a lot of stories for a middle grade audience the juxtaposition often involves that old sexist joke of a boy dressing up as/being mistaken for a girl. This is not as benign as the ‘hat on a dog’ joke you’ll more likely see in picture books, as it says something terrible about girls, even when the boy is ostensibly the butt of the joke. At first glance it looks like the boy is the butt of the joke, because he has lost his power owing to behaving/dressing/being mistaken for a girl. But it is girls who lose out here. If being a girl means ‘losing face’, what is that saying about girls? Sometimes it’s not the boy dressed as the girl who is the butt of the joke — sometimes it’s the girly girl getting her comeuppance for being too feminine. Feminine as equivalent for prissy, annoying, swotty and self-absorbed. Too many middle grade novels make use of these jokes.

The Status Flip

First we have the socioeconomic status flip.

Juxtaposing upper class with lower class folk is another source of humour, though only if we’re making fun of the rich people and not the other way around.

In A Long Way From Chicago we have the richest woman in town talking to the most down-to-earth, spade’s-a-spade woman in town:

“What a nice, moist consistency your pie filling has, Mrs Dowdel. I’m sure it will be noted. How much water did you add to the mixture?”

“About a mouthful,” Grandma replied.

This is a nice bit of character humour (the characters have already been established — Grandma is anti-pretention, say-it-like-it-is). It is also funny because of the (possibly intended) image of a hillbilly grandma spitting water into the pie, later meant to be eaten by important people. A similar gag is used in The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. In American stories, pies are good for hiding things in because they look delicious and benign. That particular joke is an example of juxtaposition of class combined with character humour and a bit of gross-out humour, too.

The following gag from The Simpsons might be Bart being a smartass, flipping the insult from the bullies, but he may also be oblivious to a classic wind-up line:

bullying flip joke from The Simpsons

This kind of joke works well in stories for teens when it’s being used as a deliberate evasion. Hanna is that smart ass character in Pretty Little Liars.

Is Hanna a smart ass or is she the stupid blonde trope, pitted against the smart brunette? It depends. The writers use Hanna as they see fit.

stupid blonde trope

The Child/Adult Flip

In the pilot of We Bare Bears, the bears with adult male voices turn out to be more enthusiastically childlike than the actual children at the party, who are only wearing their party hats ‘ironically’, so they tell us. In other words, the adult/child relationship has flipped. This is common in children’s stories. Oftentimes it’s the grandparents or the father who is shown to be less responsible and knowing than the child, who is then charged with saving the day. The antics of this older person themselves are designed to be funny, partly because old people are thought by children to be staid and lacking in movement.

Here’s Hanna again, flipping status with her gym teacher. She’s using irony but the irony works because of the status juxtaposition.

Hanna again, from Pretty Little Liars

Boss Baby by Marla Frazee is an excellent example of an adult/child status flip.

The Book With No Pictures by BJ Novak is also an example of a status flip.

The Classic Trickster Flip

I don’t know what else to call this gag from Spongebob Squarepants:

trickster flip humour

9. MADCAP

Crazy, wacky, silly, nonsensical

There’s a different word used by academics to describe ‘the madcap’ in children’s literature: ‘carnivalesque‘.

As I said, with young kids, ‘putting a hat on a dog’ is enough to tickle their sense of humour.

What if you dress up an animal and put them in a house? Is that still funny? When Beatrix Potter created Peter Rabbit, that had not been seen before. Potter’s animal stories aren’t overtly humorous, but would have delighted audiences at the time. Do children still see dressed up animals as funny? I will argue that no, they don’t. That’s not to say animals dressed as humans don’t hold their interest, because they obviously do. An animal behaving as a human says to the kid, “Hey, this story is probably for you!” There are many reasons for writers of children’s books using animals as stand-ins for humans. As for ‘humour’, we’re now at a point where there has to be some meta element to the talking animal before it’s funny. As an example, an episode of We Bare Bears sees the optimistic adventurer Grizz leading the other two bears into the forest to survive like natural bears, with no mobile phones and no processed food. Over the course of this jaunt the bears devolve into angry, ferocious, actual bears. Until now, humans in the series have treated the bears as humans without batting an eyelid. Now suddenly they are terrified. By the end of the episode the wild bears have made it through a fast food drive-thru, have refuelled on burgers and shakes and are now behaving like teenage boy humans. The juxtaposition is now funny. They look like animals but don’t act like the real world animals they represent. The viewer holds both versions of ‘animal’ in mind.

Some carnivalesque stories can have a strong plot. Others put plot in the background.

  • The Tiger Who Came To Tea is a great example of the carnivalesque. (The title gives away the plot.)
  • Fortunately, The Milk by Neil Gaiman is a carnivalesque tale for slightly older readers, in which the father comes back from the corner shop with a tall tale. It’s no coincidence that the father tells the tall tale while the mother has been removed from the story. The tall tale is an historically masculine tradition. At its base, the tall tale is probably used to establish and maintain hierarchy — who is the best storyteller around this campfire, and who is taken in by my story? Boys are especially likely to use humour to establish and maintain hierarchy.
  • Iconic New Zealand children’s author Margaret Mahy wrote madcap tales for middle grade readers, such as The Pirates’ Mixed-up Voyage.
  • Alice In Wonderland is a sort of madcap adventure, though I feel the main interest comes from the wordplay. Alice In Wonderland has a meandering plot, much like Ulysses, and the earlier Wimpy Kid books (before Jeff Kinney started writing with movie script adaptations in mind).
  • The Madeline books by Ludwig Bemelmans are carnivalesque. Madeline gets herself into some unlikely adventure where the reader has fun along with Madeline herself.

There are many, many examples of madcap humour in children’s literature. A lot of it involves slapstick, physical comedy:

  • Falling down and breaking things
  • Tripping/kicking/punching someone else by accident
  • Landing in something disgusting (puddles, poo, mud)
  • Landing on top of other creatures in pile-ups
  • Falling over cliffs, down hills, into bodies of water
  • Accidentally starting machinery, which springs into action and does something unexpected
  • Provoking a wild creature by accident
  • The list is endless

There is a trick writers often use to make madcap/slapstick/absurd behaviour even funnier:

Give funny characters an audience within the setting itself.

In the pilot of We Bare Bears, we are shown that the bears get around by two of the hopping onto the bottom bear’s back. “I’ll drive,” says the bottom bear. Next we see them on a commuter train, still on top of each other. The bears are largely ignored, because these creatures are accepted as part of the world of the story, but an old lady looks at them with interest. “Wassup?” says the top bear nonchalantly, and the scene ends. There is also something meta about this. The audience wonders, are these bears really a part of the setting, or are these strangers on the train the same audience as we are? The audience on the train exists not only for humorous purposes, but also to establish the ‘rules’ of the setting — humans accept these bears (so long as they behave like humans with a few animal quirks).

The audience effect is also used a lot for important monologues. I have noticed American audiences/writers really like to include an audience within a story. This must say something interesting about American culture, and is possibly related to the American Culture of Celebrity. A post for another time.

Perhaps in the category of Madcap Humour we can include any kind of surrealist/absurdist humour.

10. META-HUMOUR

Jokes about jokes, or about the idea of comedy

Meta-humour is a subcategory of metafiction: What is metafiction, anyway?

  • This Book Just Ate My Dog! This picture book by Richard Byrne combines irony (dogs eat books, not usually the other way around) and metafiction. The dog disappears into the gutter of the book. Readers are not normally meant to regard a book’s gutter as part of the reading experience.
  • Press Here by Herve Tullet makes fun of digital books by turning an actual book into a fake book app.
  • In Powerpuff Girls the main characters are often called ‘bug-eyed freaks’, ‘pumpkin heads’ and other insults which actually make accurate reference to the way they have been character designed — drawing attention to the fact that these are cartoon people.
  • Wolves by Emily Gravett is another excellent picture book example.
  • Dogman: Lord of the Fleas has a running gag about humour itself. What is it with you and POOP? Look, you can’t just tell the same joke… over and over… and expect it to still be funny! You can’t do the same things… again and again… and expect to get a laugh! Ya gotta avoid repetition…shun redundancy…eschew reiteration… resist recapitulation… and also, stop telling the same joke over and over! […] Why do you keep telling these stupid jokes? Because it’s distracting. Distracting from what? […] Ya just gotta switch expectations! The story itself includes many jokes about poop, repeated over and over. The story itself is metafictive, supposedly written by the two boys from Captain Underpants. This gag seems to poke fun at adults and teachers who would call this kind of humour facile.

There’s another type of joke which can probably fit in here: When the writer very specifically names something which would not be called that in the real-world, because it is far too on-the-nose.

  • The Incorrigible Children Of Ashton Place gets a nanny from an institution called ‘the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females’. This not only harks back to a time when things were more often called exactly what they were ‘orphanage, sugar diabetes’, ‘crippled’, but is a wink and a nod to the reader — this is what the place is called because it is fictional, and I, the writer, am giving you everything you need to know about this nanny up front.

The following from Pretty Little Liars is slightly meta because the audience has been pulled into this supernatural world where anything is possible. Then, we’re reminded sarcastically that not everything in this supernatural world is necessarily magical and evil.

meta humour from Pretty Little Liars

11. MISPLACED FOCUS

Attention is focused on the wrong thing

This category of humour is often a subcategory of irony. In picture books there is almost always some ironic distance between the text and the illustrations. This allows for dramatic irony, in which the reader knows something before the main characters do.

spongebob squarepants humour
misplaced focus humour from Spongebob Squarepants

  • The stand-out example of this joke, sustained throughout the course of the entire story is Guess Who’s Coming For Dinner? A hapless goose and pig think they’ve been invited to a wolf’s mansion to share a feast but they are in fact intended as dinner. These delicious dinner guests are so focused on gorging themselves that they miss the numerous clues (conveyed only in the pictures) that the reader is picking up. They avoid death only by pure chance.
  • Wolf Comes To Town is funny because the people of the town don’t realise there’s a wolf among them, dressed as a human. Wolves are commonly this kind of trickster in children’s literature — this too comes from Aesop. Foxes are also cunning tricksters.

At a line level, this sort of joke can often be expressed as ‘metalepsis’. Metalepsis is a figure of speech in which a word or a phrase from an idiomatic expression is used in a new context.

Related to metalepsis (or perhaps a subset of it?), a commonly understood concept or phrase is interpreted over-literally. This is why it’s so handy to have a stoopid character in the ensemble of a comedy cast. In Spongebob Squarepants it’s Patrick. In The Simpsons it’s Homer. In We Bare Bears it’s Grizz. In Seinfeld it’s Kramer. Seriously, there’s one in every comedy series. (As a side note, every stupid character needs a smart counterpart to bounce off.) 

Avoiding mean-spiritedness, the stupid character also often comes up trumps precisely because of their stupids. For instance, their stupid remark will come across like a witty comeback. Or, the baddie will attempt to eat them, but because they’re stupid they end up escaping their fate entirely by accident. The stupid/naive trickster is beloved of young audiences.

stupid character humour taking something literally

  • In The Seriously Extraordinary Diary Of Pig by Emer Stamp, our main character (Pig) is more naive than the reader. Commenting on his owners’ decision to grow ‘organik’ vegetables, he says, “Duck says the Sandals now grows a special kind of veggie what is called organik. He says this means they is super expensive so the Sandals gets lots more money when they sells them. Why would anyone wants money more than they wants veggies? Money doesn’t taste anywhere near as nice as veggies.”
  • Later, when Duck says they’ve only just got back into the Sandals’ ‘good book’, Pig takes Duck literally, imagining an actual book with ‘Good Book’ as its title. Taking things literally is one common way of getting a laugh in children’s books and is, coincidentally, also the origin of most Dad jokes, in which the Dad deliberately misinterprets what has been said in order to raise ire.

CONCLUSION SO FAR?

When you’re a parent or a librarian or a teacher or a bookseller who reads a lot of children’s books, you sometimes wish for fun. Children’s books are often by their very nature “fun”. But there’s fun that’s strained and trying to appeal to everyone and then there’s fun that appears to be effortless. You read a book, are transported elsewhere, lose track of time, and never want the story to end.

Betsy Bird, from her review of The Incorrigible Children Of Ashton Place

  • You can indeed shove almost everything into these 11 categories if you use your imagination.
  • As Scott Dikkers says in his book expanding on this topic, jokes can be ‘layered’ by using more than one of these categories at a time. This is also very much true for the humour in children’s stories. The cleverest of the jokes fit three or four categories at once.
  • As I suspected, irony is a common catch-all for anything that doesn’t fit the other categories. Irony blends with all and any of the others.
  • Certain types of humour such as wordplay, madcap and hyperbole are very common in books for young readers.
  • As children get older they are expected to recognise more subtle character humour, irony and eventually parodies. However, even the youngest of readers are able to pick when the picture says something different from the words. This in itself is a kind of ironic distance.
  • Also, writers of children’s comedies don’t avoid, say, parody jokes just because the youngest members of the audience wouldn’t understand it, yet. They’ll most often include jokes for the older co-audience.
  • Even if a children’s story isn’t comedy, almost all popular children’s fiction is funny in places. Even something like Pretty Little Liars, which might be mistaken for taking itself too seriously.
  • Stories for and about girls are in general more earnest. The stars of funny stories are most often boys. (This is why Betsy Bird created the book Funny Girl — a collection of the moment’s funniest female writers.) While it’s perfectly possible to line your daughter’s bookshelves with funny stories for and about girls, the big-name most dominant funny stories in our culture are about boys.
  • This is particularly noticeable in the cinema. Feisty princesses don’t need to improve the world in serious fashion a la Brave. There’s no reason, Pixar et al, why you can’t make a film starring a girl who is genuinely, consistently funny. Where are the stories starring girls in which humour is the main point? Frozen is a big name movie for/about girls but it is not all that funny. The funniest bits involve the male characters. The girls get a bit of slapstick. (NPR explained that Frozen is a bit different from most similar films in that the jokes are not all jammed into the start — the film does in fact become more funny as the film progresses. However, it’s interesting to note that the men on that podcast didn’t think it was sufficiently funny.) Inside Out, likewise, does not give preference to humour. Maybe this is the real reason why boys apparently don’t want to watch films starring girls? (So it’s said.) If you go to a popular TV show for and about girls (take Pretty Little Liars as an example again) you’ll find that the fandom does a great job of inserting their own humour by sharing memes with their own one-liners.
  • Because The Onion is all about verbal humour — if we exclude the stock photography that accompanies the text — funny mainly because it looks so normal and serious — the categories above don’t do justice to the visual humour found in picture books, cartoon shows and illustrated books for children.
  • The bestselling books for children contain humour aimed at adults (bookbuyers). David Walliams’ books are about 50/50 adult humour/kid jokes. Walliams is the contemporary Roald Dahl.
  • Are Funny Books Taken As Seriously? In 2008 Michael Rosen set up the Roald Dahl Funny Prize to reward authors and books which otherwise get looked over in the major awards. Funny books are easier to read, garner a wider audience and by definition are not ‘serious’ books, so not ‘taken seriously’. They don’t challenge readers in the same way. This isn’t true, but is a common view. The body of scholarship on Pippi Longstocking (very light and funny) in Scandinavian is astonishing and shows that this story is taken seriously despite being funny. Pippi Longstocking is one of the few books that challenges authority. This is a rare example of a classic which, despite its status as a funny book, garners a lot of respect. So maybe things aren’t as bad as they look, and that after a book has acquired status as a classic makes people wonder what is being said about deeper issues. Wait a generation or two and funny books are then taken seriously.

EXTRA CATEGORIES SPECIFIC TO CHILDREN

12. VISUAL HUMOUR

What category is it when a polar bear crashes a child’s birthday party and ends up with jelly all over its fur, making it look like it just murdered one of the children? (From the pilot of We Bare Bears.) It’s not shock exactly, because it is funny rather than shocking — there’s no real taboo that’s being broken, and the reader knows the bear is harmless. Shared symbolism is important here. The audience interprets this humour with the understanding that red equals blood. This is visual humour.

13. EDUCATIONAL HUMOUR

People in children’s literature world like educational texts and that even applies to jokes. Educational value is not something adults look for when we seek our own comedy.

And like a lot of my favourite children’s fiction, [York] has jokes that are going to lead to kids looking up further information, just so that they can stay in the know. For example, at one point a kindly therapist asks why Tess draws crows over her heads when she sketches and her reply is, “That’s not a crown… That’s a nimbus of outrage.” My favourite, however, may be Theo’s shirt that says “Schrodinger’s cat is dead” on the front and then a zombie cat on the back with the line, “Schrodinger’s cat is ALIIIIIIVE.” I will be seeking this t-shirt out to buy presently. And for the record, I’m pretty sure there are a lot of references in this book I wasn’t getting.

— from a review of York by Betsy Bird

14. KID LOGIC JOKES

Is there such a thing as kid logic jokes?

[Louis] Sachar builds kid-logic jokes into his stories—in 1989, he published a book of absurdist math problems called “Sideways Arithmetic from Wayside School,” in which, for example, a girl named Sue proves that her dog Fangs is a good dog by the equation “good” + “dog” = “fangs.” The letters correspond to numbers, and all the equations work—though I’ve yet to solve one.

The New Yorker

I don’t know about you, but I personally don’t find these funny. Kids do, which is why you’ll see the same old 1980s playground jokes still doing the rounds in 2017.

As [psychoanalyst] Martha Wolfenstein says, the joke that seems funny to a child may not seem funny to adults, or to children of different ages. The general rule seems to be that as you grow older the forbidden wish or emotion is gradually more disguised, and the joke that allows it expression becomes more complicated.

For examples, take the natural interest that children have in their own and other people’s bodies. Preschoolers will often spontaneously pulls their skirts up or their jeans down to show you their tummies, or lie on their backs waving their legs about and giggling. By the time they start school, this sort of activity has mostly been given up. Instead, children of six or so tease others by trying to pull down their pants; they now know they are not supposed to exposed themselves, so they try to expose someone else.

At about seven, actual physical assault is replaced by rhymes about exposure. There are literally dozens of those, most along the lines of

I see England
I see France
I see [Mary’s] underpants.

To the adult such verses seem stupid and, if one has to hear them very often, annoying. But to the child, as Wolfenstein points out, they represent a giant step toward growing up. The conflict between id and superego, between the wish to see and show off nakedness and the knowledge that this is naughty and forbidden, has been sublimated into art. It is a very low form of art, but art nevertheless.

A year or two later, at about age eight, we begin to get verses about the nakedness of absent or fictional persons — another level of sophistication. Children this age recite rhymes like:

Hi-ho Silver everywhere
Tonto lost his underwhere.

At nine or ten children get to the point where simply announcing the physical exposure of someone doesn’t feel right; there has to be an excuse for the event. So we get a new sort of rhyme. Here, for instance, is a taunt that uses the name of the victim’s mother:

[Mrs Smith] went to town
To buy a pair of britches,
When she came home she tried them on
And bang went all the stitches.

Another charm of this one, no doubt, is that the person exposed is a parent, an authority figure. [It is also a fatphobic joke, still very common in 2017.]

By eleven or twelve most children have given up reciting such verses, but they still enjoy jokes and stories about physical exposure, especially if it happens as a result of an accident. Sometimes they will tell a story in which one of the characters is a younger child who doesn’t know something about the world that they have recently learned. Such a tale has a double payoff: it works, a psychologist might say, both in Freudian and in Adlerian terms (sexual release — superiority). For example:

Once there was a little girl walking home from school and she met a man on the street and he said to her, “Little girl, can you stand on your head?” So she said yes, and he said, “If you’ll stand on your head now, I’ll give you ten cents.” So she did, and he did. But when she got home she told her mother, and her mother was indignant. “You shouldn’t have done that,” her mother said. “All he wanted was to see your underpants.” Well, the next day when the little girl got home from school, her mother asked if she met the nasty man who wanted to see her underpants. So the little girl said, “Yes, and he gave me ten cents today, too. But I fooled him. I didn’t wear any.”

— Alison Lurie: Don’t Tell The Grown-ups: The subversive power of children’s literature

FURTHER LINKS ABOUT HUMOUR AND COMEDY

A list of funny kids’ books suggested by M. Jerry Weiss

For more on humour in children’s books listen to Episode 7 of the Kid You Not podcast.

See also The Carnivalesque In Children’s Literature

The Gender Divide In Humour, an academic paper

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.

Teachers In Children’s Literature

Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes - School is Out

Teachers in children’s stories can be mentors, opponents, fake opponents, or very much background characters. In young adult literature, teachers can (problematically) be love opponents.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF TEACHERS IN CHILDREN’S STORIES

THE EARLIEST TEACHERS IN STORIES

The teacher archetype is related to the traditional ‘wise old man’ and ‘wise old woman’ archetype seen in many older stories. The teacher is the modern equivalent of these characters, dishing out advice to help the main character get through the story.

TEACHERS IN BOOKS FOR YOUNGER READERS

Most picture books are today published for preschoolers, and in stories which include schools, the function of the story is to reassure preschoolers that school will be a happy, welcoming and nurturing place, full of fun and joy, where new friends will be made. The teachers are most often smiling and welcoming, as almost all teachers of kindergarten children are in real life.

In books from the First Golden Age of Children’s Literature featuring girls, the main characters who become teachers learn to humanise their childhood images. (See Anne of Green Gables, Little House on the Prairie). The good teacher has no faults. The bad teacher has no redeeming qualities.

In the 1970s and 80s, fictional teachers who broke convention tended to leave their jobs/get dismissed at the end of the story, but today’s non-conformist teachers tend to be a bit more successful in staying in their jobs.

TEACHERS IN YOUNG ADULT FICTION

In young adult novels published before 1980 favourable treatment of teachers outnumbered the unfavourable.

Contemporary young adult literature sometimes juxtaposes a ‘good’ teacher against a ‘bad’ one, enforcing a good/bad binary view. Other young adult novels challenge this binary and achieve subversion, or even humanise the teacher.

Modern young adult novels feature more successful non-conformist teachers. Teachers who rebel against norms are seen as the most favourable.

Iconic teachers in films often leave their schools at the end of the movie, sometimes without wanting to go. But modern iconic film teachers are more likely to keep their jobs.

MCLAREN’S THREE TEACHER ARCHETYPES

Education theorist Peter McLaren said in 1988 that the ideal teacher plays the part of the ‘liminal servant’.  Less effective teachers fit the mould of the ‘hegemonic overlord’ or ‘entertainer’.

In the first two roles students are spectators and don’t participate. The knowledge they gain is outside lived experience. These classrooms will look like teachers pretending to teach and students pretending to learn.

The Entertainer Teacher

a propagandist or evangelist for dominant cultural, economic or ethical interests. Suppresses individuality and conditions students for sameness.

The Hegemonic Overlord Teacher

Information is transmitted perfunctorily, like it’s a bit of food pushed under a cell door. This teacher follows lessons strictly and mordantly by the book, and not interested in student empowerment. Standout example: The Trunchbull in Matilda by Roald Dahl

The Liminal Servant Teacher

The ideal. Empowers students to question domination and their own assigned places. Students respond with immediacy or purpose and are the primary actors within the ritual of instruction. This is student-based learning. Students will be involved, emphasis will be off the chalk-and-talk. Teachers remove obstacles to let students let through active questioning of dominant ideologies. Lessons will be in a flow state with students totally involved. These teachers are social activists and spiritual directors. The teacher is a co-participant or co-creator. Standout example: Mrs. Sauceda in The Jumping Tree by René Saldaña, Miss Honey in Matilda. (The self-sacrificing, inspirational teacher who almost martyrs herself for the sake of the students is heroic but not sustainable in a long-term teaching career.)

OTHER TEACHER ARCHETYPES

The Kindly But Frustrated Teacher
Ramona's teacher

Think of Ramona Quimby’s middle-aged teacher, who is obviously a kind-hearted person but who is regularly exasperated by Ramona’s failure to conform. This is usually a female teacher, perhaps in her 40s or 50s, who we are to imagine has been dealing with children over many, many years.

‘Mrs’ from the Junie B. Jones series is also a kindly but exasperated type.

The Kindly But Beginner Teacher
Ramona's young teacher
Miss Binney from Ramona The Pest

Ramona’s first teacher, however, is brand new to the school. Miss Binney. Miss Binney’s lack of experience leads to a different kind of comedy. The kindergarten children, most notably Ramona and Howie, misinterpret Miss Binney’s words which leads to chaos. Had Miss Binney been a more experienced teacher she would have made Ramona the wake-up-fairy, but instead she picked the goody-two-shoes who needed nothing in the way of encouragement to behave well.

For the dual audience we have Edna Krabapple who is a more cynical version again.

Bad Ass Teachers
  • Mad-Eye Moody would be the straightest example. Both, the real Moody, even though he never gets a chance to actually be a badass while a teacher, and the fake Moody, who manages to do a great job of impersonating a badass.
  • Dumbledore gets special mention, as the one and only time he rebuked Professor Umbridge was when she started physically attacking one of his students. And the one and only time he ever got angry with Harry Potter was when Harry thoughtlessly suggested that Dumbledore was leaving the school unprotected. There is also his Unstoppable Rage when a bunch of Dementors showed up at a Quidditch match.
  • As does McGonagall. Mess with her, and you get a disapproving glare. Mess with one of her students or colleagues, and she takes four Stunners to the chest at age seventy and bounces back with only a walking stick to show she was hospitalized for a month.
  • Then, for an encore, she and Slughorn help an Auror take on TOM RIDDLE HIMSELF and live to tell about it.
  • Let’s not forget Severus Snape. He was a spy for Dumbledore, could fly without a broom, and during his spying days he lied to Voldemort’s FACE for years. And he was an innovator, too. He is in fact the Half-Blood Prince who was behind a number of innovative—and sometimes nasty—spells. And when he actually does teach, once you get past his Jerkass-ness, he is focused; he teaches with a purpose.
  • Miss Wilson in the Chalet School series. Leading a group of kids to safety through a secret passageway, with a gang of angry Nazis in hot pursuit? I’d say that’s pretty Badass. Doubles as a Mama Bear moment.
  • Mr McCarthy in Me And Earl And The Dying Girl is covered in tatts and for part of the story we think he eats soup with drugs in it. He has the appearance of a badass teacher but is actually pretty conventional, just with a smart-alec comeback for whatever his students say to him.
The Stern Teacher

Minerva McGonagall from Harry Potter. So strict that she tends to subtract more points from her own students when they do wrong because she holds them to higher standards. Madame Hootch is another, mostly forgotten example from Harry Potter. Since her subject (broom-flying) is so dangerous, the penalty for breaking rules in her class is expulsion. Not point loss or detention. Expulsion.

(Subversion: Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie subverts the trope all to hell, specifically the “tough but fair” part. Miss Brodie deliberately designates one of her girls as a “stupid” victim, marking her for life. She’s a charming, intelligent, and vivacious fascist.)

In Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie (1974) we have Ms Desjardin. If you’ve seen either of the film adaptations you’ll notice the teacher from the book is more hardened than as played on screen.

She slapped Carrie smartly across the face. She hardly would have admitted the pleasure the act gave her, and she certainly would have denied that she regarded Carrie as a fat, whiny bag of lard. A first-year teacher, she still believed that she thought all children were good.

Downright Nasty Teachers

The teacher characters in the Captain Underpants series, however, are rarely nice. In fact, they’re downright nasty, with school principal Mr Krupp playing the role of villain (along with Professor Tinkletrousers and many others).

‘Most of the teachers I had in elementary school, or primary school, and in high school were very vicious and cruel people,’ says Pilkey. ‘However, there are some good grownups in the Captain Underpants series and that’s the parental figures.’

Dave Pilkey, author of Captain Underpants, from interview at ABC

Principal Trunchbull of Matilda, reputedly used by Roald Dahl as a surrogate for all the cruel tutors he had over the years. Her treatment of children, as Matilda deduces, is deliberately so extreme and outlandish that no kid’s parents will believe the truth even on the off chance any child got up the courage to tell.

Captain Lancaster in Danny, the Champion of the World is a more realistic example. He’s obviously based on one of Roald Dahl’s actual teachers, Captain Hardcastle, described in his autobiography Boy.

It’s bad enough is you have a Sadist Teacher, but misery ensues if you have a Sadist (Vice) Principal who doesn’t just kick you around, but he kicks all the students. That’s right, meet Vice Principal Nero who runs a boarding school in A Series of Unfortunate Events. Not only he was generally mean to the students and tortured them with hours of awful violin playing, but he also had a bunch of outrageous and stupid punishments: For example, if you went to the office building and you weren’t an adult you’d have to eat your food without a fork and knife. And if you missed a class or got there late you weren’t allowed to have a glass from which to drink, you had to lick your milk from the tray. And if you didn’t go to see him play his violin, he’d force you to buy him candy and watch him eat it. I don’t want to even think what would happen if you’d skip a class.

Lucy Maud Montgomery’s heroines almost always fall victim to this teacher. Probably the worst offender was Miss Brownell, of Emily of New Moon. She takes Emily’s manuscripts in class and reads Emily’s poems to the rest of teh class in a mocking voice, with snide comments, occasionally accusing Emily of passing off other authors’ works as her own. When Emily refuses to apologise for writing poetry in class, Miss Brownell comes to New Moon and tries to convince Emily’s guardian to force the girl to kneel to Miss Brownell and apologize.

Mrs. Gorf in the first book of Louis Sachar’s Wayside School series turns her students into apples when they do anything wrong. This includes sneezing in class. The students manage to outsmart her by forcing her to turn them back into humans and tricking her into turning herself into an apple, which Louis then unknowingly eats.

Wendy Nogard in Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger is a more subtle (but even more insidious) example: while she appears to be a sweet, considerate teacher, she uses her mind-reading abilities to humiliate and turn her students against each other—all without ever compromising her “nice teacher” facade. An example of this is when, during a homework-checking session, she deliberately calls on the one student who has the incorrect answer for each question, and using the resulting slew of wrong answers to retract her promise of no homework for that day. Every student ends up hating all the others for being idiots who cheated him/her out of a homework-free afternoon, even though in reality none of them missed more than two questions on the assignment.

Sexual Interest Teacher

Though more common in YA, we also have teachers such as Miss Edmunds in Bridge To Terabithia by Katherine Paterson:

The somewhat unconventional and controversial music teacher, whom Jesse greatly admires. She invites Jess to go to the Smithsonian Museum, which leads Leslie to go to Terabithia by herself. As a result, Leslie is alone when she falls from the rope and drowns. She is played by Annette O’Toole in the 1985 film and Zooey Deschanel in the 2007 film. In the 1985 film, Mrs. Edmunds seems to take the role of Mrs. Myers. She tells Jess the story of a relative dying after Leslie dies instead of Mrs. Myers, and she, instead of Mrs. Myers, gives the homework assignment of watching a show on television.

Terabithia Teacher

Zooey Deschenel also plays the Hippie Teacher.

From Holes, we have Miss Katherine, whom many of the townfolk was after. (From the Hot Teacher page at All The Tropes) Another hippie teacher would be Barbara Finney from The Cat Ate My Gymsuit by Paula Danziger.

Falling in love with your teacher is a solid way for a writer to keep lovers apart for the entire length of a story. This is harder and harder these days, where in real life at least romance is permissible across cultural, socio-economic and geographic boundaries. People can sleep with each other without much in the way build up. The student-teacher relationship recreates the 1700s erotics of abstinence Jane Austen depicted so well (and which, more recently, Stephenie Meyer utilised in her vampire series.)

In Pretty Little Liars, a hot young teacher dates one of his students before he realises she’s one of his students. Somehow they continue this romance, meeting alone in his classroom, without anyone noticing.

TEACHERS IN REALISTIC NOVELS

The realistic novel “emphasises truthful representation of the actual”. ‘Realistic’ fiction supposedly corresponds closely with the real world. In a realistic novel, readers bring an expectation that representations of humanity will somewhat mimic real, rounded humans.

When teachers in realistic novels are presented in an unrealistic way, this undermines the realism of the story.

GOOD TEACHER/BAD TEACHER IN MODERN YOUNG ADULT LITERATURE

The more favourably depicted teachers help students develop their identities and resist dominant and oppressive educational paradigms; the less favourably perceived teachers often represent the authority against which the adolescents and good teachers rebel.

Beyond a Good Bad Binary

Mostly, teachers are adults who get in the way of adventure and independence, so the author uses teachers as background furniture then disappears them.

If you meet a bunch of teachers on your first day in the new school, only pay attention to the one who puts you in a group project with a handsome stranger. You’ll never see the rest again.

@broodingYAhero

YOUNG ADULT NOVELS MAKING USE OF THE GOOD/BAD BINARY

  • Anne of Green Gables — Miss Stacey replaces an ineffective, uninspiring, authoritarian male teacher who plays (inappropriate) favourites.
  • The Teacher’s Funeral by Richard Peck (2004) — set in 1904. Weaker teacher Myrt Arbuckle dies, succeeded by the more effective Tansy Culver.
  • Scat by Carl Hiaasen (2009) — Similar to The Petition, students assume teachers who mark hard must be bad teachers. Hiaasen inverts reader expectations of a good/bad dichotomy, in which the demanding teacher, Mrs Bunny Starch, is the effective one. In contrast, Dr Wendell Waxmo is a comedic caricature of an unqualified, eccentric substitute. He is basically an extreme Entertainer Teacher archetype.
  • The Sledding Hill by Chris Crutcher (2005) — English teacher Mr. Sanford Tarter represents the hegemonic overlord type. Mr. Tarter intrudes excessively in the life of Eddie. The other English teacher in The Sledding Hill, Ms. Ruth Lloyd gives students choice and power. Crutcher’s own ideology is no doubt influenced by the fact that his books have been widely banned by Mr Tarter types. Chris Crutcher’s coaches fall into good and bad categories. The good coaches let kids figure out what they need for themselves and provide them with backup to let them make their own discoveries.
  • Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (1999) — Mr Freeman is a shamanistic archetype and gifted artist who models what he expects of students and exposes the reality of the institutional power structure. But Mr Neck the social studies teacher is bigoted and unprofessional.
  • The Petition by Anne Schraff (2001) — Mr Pedroza is the best teacher and initially seems like a hegemonic overlord but turns out to be a false opponent ally and liminal servant. In contrast, Ms Corey is both Entertainer and Hegemonic Overlord. Schraff subverts archetypes by challenging the reader’s first impressions of these teachers. The young, relatable funny teacher who gives out easy grades is proven to be the less effective teacher. Superficial niceness covers bigotry.

The problem with the good/bad binary in a realistic novel is that teachers are dehumanised. Humans are more nuanced. Characters such as Matilda’s Trunchbull are clear comedic archetypes, but in a realistic novel, shouldn’t the characters be presented realistically to achieve the effect they’re going for?

MOVING BEYOND THE BINARY

The most interesting characters are not morally binary at all. To that end, some authors assign good and bad attributes to the same teacher.

  • Standing Up to Mr. O by Claudia Mills (1998) — the biology teacher Mr. O’Neill embodies all three of McLaren’s models depending on the moment.
  • No More Dead Dogs by Korman (2000) — The teacher changes from mixed good/bad to good, and has their own character arc alongside the students, with the effect of humanising teachers for readers. Everyone’s attitudes change for the better. This is achieved via narration from various perspectives including the teacher’s own journal entries and memos to himself.

AMERICAN TV TEACHERS

Many of the most memorable TV teachers are single women. There was a time only about 50 years ago when teachers were expected to give up work after getting married.

There have been fewer shows set in a tertiary institution but there is a lead woman lecturer in How To Get Away With Murder. There are even fewer women. Unlike most shows starring a teacher, this one isn’t a ‘family show’.

There are far more female high school teachers/administrators in real life than there are on screen.

Room 222 is from the 1960s. It was huge in America back then — a 30 minute sitcom. These were years where most houses only had one TV in them so everyone was watching it. It was made by the creator of the Mary Tyler Moore show, which is perhaps better remembered. Denise Nicholas was Liz McIntyre, an educated woman well-respected by her peers. She plays a counsellor. There’s also a student teacher who became a permanent character. Room 222 had a more diverse cast than many shows today.

Friday Night Lights stars Connie Britton. This is a sexist environment set in a football oriented community. She is the school counsellor and at times called actual counsellors to ask them how they’d advise on tricky issues. This show, like The Waltons, gives a family with young teens plenty to talk about.

There was a TV show in the 80s called Fame, based on the film, about a dance teacher and her students.

Square Pegs – a 1980s time capsule. Sarah Jessica Parker is in it.

Good Morning Miss Bliss — about a fictional high school in Indianapolis. The show was renamed Saved By The Bell and lost Miss Bliss. It just didn’t work.

DeGrassi Junior High morphed into DeGrassi High – teens don’t want to watch anything with ‘junior’ in the title. It focused pretty realistically on teen life. There is a teacher who is lesbian. This was breakthrough stuff in the late 80s.

In the 90s there weren’t as many female authority figures on TV.

Moesha was a quality sitcom which featured an African American cast. Her step mother played the principal.

The Bionic Woman — a teacher with supernatural powers. It aired in the 1970s and was a spin off from the Six Million Dollar Man, itself a breakthrough hit. Jamie Summers is the lead character – a tennis pro turned teacher who was injured in a sky-diving accident. Jamie is a government agent going undercover to complete all sorts of assignments to repay the favour of keeping her alive bionically. In her spare time she teaches classes on a military base in California.

Freaks and Geeks — Bill loves Bionic Woman and dresses up as her for Halloween. Freaks and Geeks features a number of teachers, though the memorable ones are all male. This was typical for the 1990s. There’s the male hippie counsellor, the jock P.E. teacher and the mean bald guy.

FURTHER READING

Header painting: Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes – School is Out

Desperate Housewives Storytelling Tips

Desperate Housewives ran for eight seasons from 2004 to 2012. This show is a great example of a ‘cozy mystery’.

TAGLINES

Taglines are for the marketing copy. 

Season One: Everyone has a little dirty laundry…/Secrets. Romance. Murder. All On One Street.

THE LOGLINE/PREMISE

For maximum narrative drive the premise should be all about the plot. A premise that works will contain some sort of contrast.

“Secrets and truths unfold through the lives of female friends in one suburban neighborhood, after the mysterious suicide of a neighbor.”

The contrast in this logline is that ‘friends’ have ‘secrets‘ in the ‘suburbs’, an arena we generally associate with ‘knowing everybody’s business’ and ‘nothing interesting ever happens’.

GENRE BLEND OF DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES

drama, mystery, satire

When Desperate Housewives first aired in 2004 it was the tone which drew me in. I hadn’t seen anything with quite that balance of 1950s housewife satire, comedy and mystery. It’s easy to forget that now because we’ve since seen a number of TV dramas with a similar vibe: Pretty Little Liars for one was pitched as ‘Desperate Housewives For Teens’. Like Desperate Housewives, there is a cast of four distinct female archetypes who are friends. There is also a slight supernatural overtone to the story, with a dead person pulling strings/narrating omnisciently.

The women on this show aren’t real women — nothing like it. An excellent example of the ‘unreality’ of the characters can be heard in the audio commentary to episode 15, season one. Marc Cherry is especially proud of his writing of this episode (and it was the first time they shifted to their new, more expansive set), so he guides DVD owners through the episode they called Impossible.  In this one, John’s roommate Justin blackmails Gabrielle into having sex with him by becoming their new gardener. Gabrielle turns the gardener down, both for sex and for free garden work with obvious strings attached, but her husband lets him in and he surprises her while she’s in her own bathroom upstairs. The male writer and producer tell us on the audio commentary that actress Eva Longoria did an excellent job of ‘taking control of the situation’ but was ‘rooted to the spot’ for the first few takes, terrified at the prospect of finding a well-muscled young man confronting her for sex in her own space. The scene is meant to be played as comedy. Longoria’s acting made it somewhere there, but I did watch this episode the first time thinking that it’s not good comedy material, and a ‘real woman’ would not react with Gabrielle’s bravado — not with genuine bravado — in that particular situation. From my perspective, the male writer on this occasion simply did not understand how terrifying this scenario would be for a woman, and seemed a bit mystified about why Eva Longoria had trouble acting her part in it.

The men are archetypes, too. Even the children are preternaturally scheming/mature/creepy, harking back to a time before the concept of childhood existed. In this ways and many others, Desperate Housewives is a series of fairytales.

The show was originally pitched with ‘comedy’ in its genre blend but none of the networks were interested. When it was re-pitched as ‘satire’ suddenly it found a home. Networks had assumed it was just another soap. But they realised the audience was ready for a ‘self-aware’ version of the daytime soap, and changing the genre from ‘comedy’ to ‘satire’ did the trick.

OTHER SHOWS SIMILAR TO DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES



Suburgatory is another show aimed at teens using the suburbs as a horror arena, though it is heavier on the comedy.

Desperate Housewives was created by Marc Cherry, who had already achieved huge success with Golden Girls (1985). You may or may not already know that he then went on to create a show called Devious Maids (2013). Cherry apparently came up with the idea one day when watching the news with his mother. They were watching a clip about a mother of five who drowned them all one day. Cherry said, “Who could do something like that to her own kids?” and was surprised to hear the response from his own mother, “Oh, I’ve been there.”

Devious Maids, by the way, looks similar but with an Upstairs, Downstairs flip. I’m not sure if the Cherry-Lifetime collaboration achieved a Desperate Housewives vibe, and its cancellation suggests they didn’t, but judging by the intro sequence, it seems that’s what they were aiming to reproduce:

The Black Widows has been marketed here in Australia as the Nordic Desperate Housewives.

But in my opinion nothing has come close to Desperate Housewives, yet. Love it or hate it, it does what it does really well. The following is a close look at Season One.

STORYWORLD OF DESPERATE HOUEWIVES

How to describe the vibe? This Nancy Drew cover seems to epitomise the inspiration. Many in the target audience will have grown up reading such books — groups of nice girls wearing sensible, pretty clothing, surrounded by mystery and light horror. Everything is not how it appears.

Desperate Housewives has a fairytale vibe, and because fairytales have been read by children since the era of the Grimms, fairytales put an audience in mind of storybooks for children. There is plenty Desperate Housewives shares in common with children’s books:

  • The utopian facade, though in a children’s book the utopia is often a genuine idyll. Desperate Housewives is filmed on a set, not on a real street so absolutely everything we see on Wisteria Lane is ‘fake’, as well as carefully planted there. The creators describe Wisteria Lane as ‘hyper-real’.
  • The calm, all-knowing narrator, explaining truisms to the audience in a soothing, before-bed kind of way
  • The structure of the stories, which are bookended in a way many children’s books are, as well as smaller things such as switching from iterative to singulative time.
  • Though it’s not a strictly followed rule, episodes tend to open in the morning and are drawing to a close once we start to see conversations at bedtime, even if the episode itself spans several days. Many picture books work on a 12 hour clock, starting with the child getting out of bed, ending with them back in bed and ready for sleep.

Suburbia makes an excellent horror arena. The more perfect the lawns, the more things are rotten beneath. Audiences have learnt to expect that.

A great part of our day in the writers’ room is spent saying, ‘We’ve done that…’ We did towards the end start to think, ‘Are there any natural disasters left? We’re not really in the right climate for volcanoes and floods.’ […] Faced with the challenge of volume Desperate Housewives found itself, like many, grasping for sensation. The annual ‘disaster’ episode became a ritual and over eight seasons a tornado, a fire, a plane crash and a riot all hit Wisteria Lane.

Bob Daily, Executive Producer

Which brings me to Biblical allusions, because whether intended or not, these massive disasters are reminiscent of the deadly plagues of Egypt.

BIBLICAL ALLUSIONS IN DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES

It becomes clear as the seasons progress that the series is an exploration of the seven sins, though it should be obvious from the start that the apple is symbolic. This is Eve being tempted in the Garden of Eden. Eden, of course, is the perfect suburbs, and if these women were not each plagued by her own fatal flaw, Wisteria Lane really would be an idyll.

AD/HD DRUGS = THE POTIONS FROM A FAIRYTALE

Lynette’s storyline focuses quite a lot on the politics of AD/HD, drug abuse and education in America. The real world background to this plot line is that during the 1990s there was a lot of scaremongering in the media about the dangers of AD/HD medications for children. This came almost entirely from a single religious group. You can probably guess which one. Yes, it was Scientology. But like the vaccination ‘debate’, the debate over the ethics and safety of stimulants for children gained much coverage and scared a lot of people. If a child genuinely has an AD/HD neurology, there is a 95% chance that child will be helped by taking the right drugs. The literature doesn’t give such a high statistic because there are also children who are medicated who do not have a genuine AD/HD profile. (I get that stat from my wonderful AD/HD daughter’s pediatrician.)

At the time Season One of Desperate Housewives was written, the creators were cashing in on the scaremongering of the Church of Scientology. The audience doesn’t need any real reason for Lynette to just decide not to medicate her boys. We all know why she doesn’t because we’ve all seen the same media. If it weren’t for the realworld scare campaign, audiences would see no good reason for Lynette not to medicate her children. Of all the drugs given to children, AD/HD medication is the most heavily researched. It is an old drug, and several generations of children have been lucky enough to benefit so far. Giving AD/HD medication to a child with AD/HD is similar to giving a child glasses, and the effect is just as stark. AD/HD does not make a creative child less creative, turning him/her into a type of zonked out zombie; it allows naturally exuberant and creative AD/HD children to focus for long enough to put that creativity to good use. However, when we see Lynette tire out her boys by having them dig a massive hole, we see them subdued and lifeless for their observation visit to the fancy private school and we get a strong hint of what medication is meant to do to them.

Desperate Housewives has not been helpful in the fight to get kids who need drugs properly medicated. For instance, the writers make no distinction between ADHD and ADD, which are two separate neurologies. The dialogue between Lynette and the Ritalin-popping supermom does accurately convey that if an adult without AD/HD takes the drugs it’s like drinking an entire pot of Turkish coffee.

The public school teacher who threatens to kick the twins out of the entire public school system exemplifies how many assume teachers approach a parent whose children are short on executive functioning, though this character is good for drama. The boys themselves seem not just like children with AD/HD, but actively scheming and mischievous, whispering to each other in the back of their mother’s car. Generally, children with genuine AD/HD are trying their hardest to be compliant. The writers are doing one of two things: Either they’re suggesting AD/HD are true horrors, or they are showing us that Lynette is an ineffective parent whose six-year-old boys already see her as the opponent.

As the season progresses, the fairytale element of the Ritalin becomes clear. Lynette is a trickster who arranges a playdate with a medicated AD/HD child’s mother, then goes to the bathroom to steal his meds. Later, she goes for a session of acupuncture. When the Chinese acupuncturist pulls down a jar of herbs from the top shelf to help Lynette with her sleep and stress it is clear that the acupuncturist is a stand in for a girl’s trip to the knowing witch who lives in the middle of the forest.

STORY STRUCTURE OF DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES

An interesting thing I started to notice about Desperate Housewives is that after every recap of the previous episode we get a mini-story before the main one, much like in the Pixar film Up. The writers call it the ‘teaser’.

Example from Season One, Episode 7:

The story opens with a fully-formed short story about Martha Huber’s garden. Jealous [PSYCHOLOGICAL WEAKNESS] of the perfectionist Bree’s [OPPONENT] lawn next door, it doesn’t matter what Mrs Huber does, whether she water it diligently or cover it in smelly but potent fertilizers [PLAN], she cannot get it looking as good as Bree’s. One day [SWITCH FROM THE ITERATIVE TO THE SINGULATIVE], a jogger dies on Mrs Huber’s lawn.  Mrs Huber has an idea for revenge. She secretly drags the dead body into the middle of Bree’s beautiful garden of hydrangeas. [BIG STRUGGLE] When Bree discovers the body she calls an ambulance. When medicos arrive to pick up the body, their gurney destroys both garden bed and beautiful lawn. We see from the looks on their faces that Bree is disappointed and bewildered while Mrs Huber is smug and avenged [NEW SITUATION].

In Episode 8 we don’t so much get a fully formed story as intro so much as a backstory of Bree’s early life. This is to show us that Bree has been brought up to be a Good Girl, and now that her son has run over a neighbour’s mother-in-law, her morality will face the ultimate test.

SHORTCOMING

Bree — Bree is the most closely connected to the setting. She is at first presented as the archetypal Stepford Wife. Just like the perfect suburb they all live in, Bree keeps her house perfect. She can turn her hand to anything related to the house and children. She is undoubtedly a conservative Republican Christian. Hints are dropped to that effect. Bree avoids absolute cliche — or perhaps she epitomises it — by the fact she is a gun nut, a member of the NRA and owner of three weapons. As her husband points out, she is capable of looking after her own self.  But Bree is held hostage by her own perfectionist tendencies. Like Chekhov’s planted gun, when we learn she owns not one but three, we know she is capable of snapping. She points out to her friends, “Who really knows what’s going on behind closed doors?” which of course makes us wonder what’s going on behind hers.

Gabby — Gabrielle is bored. As she explains to her teenaged gardener toy boy, Carlos gives her everything she wanted. She just didn’t want the right things. She doesn’t realise it herself but she needs to be kept occupied. She can’t even really enjoy shopping, since Carlos buys her expensive gifts and there is no challenge in it.

Lynette — Lynette is not so much ‘bored’ as harried. She is the mirror reflection of Gabrielle. We picture Lynette when Gabby’s mother-in-law advises her to fill her days up with children, then she won’t have any time to wonder whether she’s happy or not. Lynette is harried and unfulfilled. She didn’t realise until it was too late that she doesn’t really like the job of mothering. But Desperate Housewives can only go so far with this. They have to show that Lynette really does love her boys, and the Mama Bear comes out at times, such as with the clueless traffic officer who tells her that her job is to control her own kids. She does bend over backwards to get them into private school, though it could just as easily be argued that she sees this as a personal challenge. Lynette needs to find fulfilment doing something other than wiping, mopping and breaking up fights.

Susan — Susan is an adorable klutz. Bella Swan has similar attributes. This seems to be a surefire way to garner the sympathies of some of the audience. In fact, Susan comes across calamities so often there is almost a supernatural element to her misfortune, as if she were cursed at birth by the thirteenth witch. Despite the fact that she must be a hugely successful children’s book illustrator to continue living in that big house, she is presented as an ineffectual divorcee. She uses her teenage daughter as a confidante in what would be, in real life, called emotional incest. The relationship between Susan and her daughter is quite similar to that between the Gilmore girls. The daughter is far more together and sensible than the needy mother, who doesn’t seem to have a best friend other than her daughter. If anyone needs a man to ground her, Susan does.

DESIRE

For maximum narrative drive the hero in each plot line must overcome extreme odds to accomplish a specific and difficult goal. There are four heroes in this drama and each of them has her own distinct desire line.

Bree — Bree wants to live a Pinterest life (though Desperate Housewives predates Pinterest). Let’s just call it a picture book life. (It’s no accident she lives on the same street as a picture book illustrator.) More than that, Bree wants to appear perfect. If she appears perfect to others, that is basically the same as being perfect. She would be happy with that. However, her husband is not. He craves a relationship with a rounded person with flaws, not with the cardboard cutout of a Campbell’s Soup commercial.

Bree is my favourite character, though I do not share her outlook on life in the slightest. I think I respect her because unlike the other main characters, she’s living true to her own moral code. (This will  be sorely tested, but even then, we can still understand her motivations.)

Bree’s goal of appearing perfect moves further away when: Her husband announces he is not happy and he wants a divorce.

Gabby — Gabby manufactures a challenge; her challenge is to continue having sex with the gardener behind the back of the macho, violent Carlos. This is her desire line for season one.

Gabby’s goal of meaningless sex moves further away when: Her mother-in-law comes to stay. With her middle-aged-woman’s sixth sense she realises Gabby is having an affair with someone, so chaperones her everywhere. This leads to much comedy and friction as Gabrielle thinks of increasingly ingenious and underhanded ways to get rid of the woman.

Lynette — wants to get her boys a good education but absolutely definitely does not want to homeschool. That’s the outer goal. Her inner desire is to find fulfilment. Lynette finds fulfilment by looking competent in the eyes of other adults. If she can’t be the CEO, she can at least find her place at the top of the private school mom pecking order.

This goal moves further away when: The public school system threatens to kick her children out of school unless she medicates them for ADHD. She makes clear to her husband that she’s not up to homeschooling them for fear of killing them, so the next goal is to get them into a fancy private school. She manages this by hook and by crook. Lynette is now plunged into the fascinating and uber-bitchy world of snobby private school mothers. Her new goal is to keep the boys there, and because she does not believe in medicating their boys for their ADHD

Susan —  When the handsome and available Mike moves into the neighbourhood in the pilot episode, Susan sets her sights on him — or rather, her daughter does, since Susan isn’t really capable of making any goals on her own. (This character trait is later ignored when she sets upon the mission of finding out the mystery of Mary Alice’s death, in which case she’s like a dog with a bone.)

Susan’s goal of finding happiness with Mike moves further away when: The brassy neighbourhood ‘slut’ sets her sights on Mike, and set up an unspoken rivalry, turning the man into the pawn in the middle. Since the pursuit of Mike isn’t a very meaty plot line, even with Edie as opponent, Susan’s klutziness sees her burn Edie’s house down. She now has another opponent in the nosy, manipulative middle-aged neighbour who finds her measuring cup as evidence and tries to blackmail her with it.

OPPONENT

An opponent refers simply to the character who stands in the way of a hero’s desire. Opponents differ from episode to episode. Some come and go; others are sustained over the entire season and beyond. Each main character has at least two main opponents.

Bree — Bree’s husband, next her own son. The daughter seems to be an ambivalent peacemaker for the most part. The psychologist isn’t helping her cause either.

Gabby — Gabby’s husband is shown to be a violent man who could easily turn his violence upon  her. The mother is also a bit of a gangster mother and makes an excellent comical opponent.

Lynette — At times her husband Tom, who stupidly suggests she homeschool, Lynette finds a more sustaining opponent in the private school queen bee.

Susan — It’s perhaps strange that a klutz like Susan Mayer has the largest number of opponents, but remember this is partly because the romance between her and Mike isn’t quite meaty enough, and there need to be many reasons why she and Mike can’t simply get together right at the start of the season. Therefore, consider Mike Susan’s ‘love opponent’, in a very similar dynamic to any found in a rom-com film. Susan’s ex-husband and the young, new girlfriend present as opponents at first, but when Lynette suggests Susan let go of her baggage and move past stupid can kicking rivalries the audience is no doubt relieved to see Susan take that advice. The audience has seen ex-husband rivalry before, and besides, the issues between Bree and her husband make for a far more interesting take on the divorce story because we get to see a break up from its embryonic stage. There’s Edie of course, who is a fun opponent because she treats man-hunting as a game. It’s hard not to like Edie. Many probably like Edie more than they like Susan. Likewise, Susan has a knack for getting the fictional older ladies off-side. Several of them are not charmed by her klutziness. One bribes her; another won’t let her borrow her car.

PLAN

We don’t see the characters making plans, or even talking about them very much. They are all trickster characters. We watch a scene and realise, “Ah, I know what you’re doing here.” It is satisfying to watch this even if we morally disapprove. Especially if we morally disapprove.

Bree — As far as she can understand, if she keeps a perfect home and garden, no one has the right to complain about anything. Her plan is always to do more and better. Bree is always wearing a mask. We see her try on a different mask in the bedroom, because she (correctly) senses that her husband is secretly kinky. As soon as the hotel date goes wrong, Bree switches from her Tiger In The Bedroom persona back into her Perfect Housewife persona. Bree’s plan is not working and she loses her family. This is Bree at her lowest, but the camera doesn’t show us that. We are shown circumstances conspiring to bring her children back to her. Andrew wants his mother the night he runs over Mrs Solis the elder.

Gabby — Gabby has no problems getting her mother-in-law back into gambling so she can steal one ‘last’ moment with her gardener.

Lynette — We realise as soon as Lynette wants to use the bathroom that she is planning on stealing another child’s Ritalin. We also understand in that moment that she has planned this playdate for the express purpose of stealing it.

Susan — Susan is the least successful trickster. She is really, truly bad at it. She is the mirror image of Bree on this point. Bree would never fall through a ceiling while snooping — we have already seen Bree successfully snoop at the psychologist’s office.

BIG STRUGGLE

Bree — Even when in big struggle, Bree looks her best and remains calm. Dinner at the fast food place where she learns her husband is leaving her, being affronted at the psychologist’s office, a cringe-worthy dinner party with the neighbours in which she gets the upper hand, an unsuccessful attempt at sex with her husband, locking her own children out of the house in a well-coordinated plan to get them back.

Gabby — Gabby’s big struggles are both ridiculous and real-world serious. When her husband assaults her, it’s serious. But most of the time even the arguments she has with Carlos is somewhat funny, as these characters declare they love each other while scheming and manipulating the other in a high-stakes game of chess.

Lynette — Having a bust up with the PTA Bitch, arguing with her husband about his suggestions she homeschool, losing it with the traffic officer, and memorably, coming down off Ritalin and hallucinating. She ends up sitting in a football field, a space we most closely with her archetype, The Frazzled Soccer Mom. Lynette’s big struggles are linked to child-rearing in most instances, and it’s almost always with other mothers. For instance, I’m reminded of the big struggle scenes from Courage The Cowardly Dog when Lynette bounces on an inflated castle while in a showdown with another mother about who brought head lice into the school. In Courage, also, big struggles often take the form of childhood games — squash, food fights, a train heist with a toy train. This allows us to find the big struggles funny.

Susan — Accidentally setting Edie’s house on fire, a big argument with her neighbour, then with Mike, falling over before making it onto the mechanical bull; Susan Mayer’s big struggle scenes are sometimes borne of ‘unpractised’ bitchiness and at other times occur as a result of her clumsiness. Susan is an inconsistent character, though the writers have created Susan knowingly. Edie points this out (lampshades this set of traits) for the audience when she accuses Susan of being adorably klutzy but actually pretty scheming. Susan’s flaws are also pointed out by Edie’s guy who ends up sitting on the side of the road with her after a second flat tyre.

ANAGNORISIS

In a long-running comedy series it is impossible for the characters to learn from their own mistakes. If they did, Susan would no longer put herself in calamity’s path, Bree would loosen up, Gabby would become genuinely altruistic and Lynette would somehow find a successful work-life balance.

Why does almost every series that doesn’t regularly refresh its characters have a life span of only two to three years? […] Characters have only one story, and all attempts to counter that are a lie. Soaps and series are lies — great and glorious ones if the lies are well told, but lies nonetheless. Soaps and series are partly a product of market economics, born from a desire to attract viewers and sell to them — but equally, like sequels, they tap into an audience’s desire to prolong the lives of characters they adore. As with those we love in real life, we want our fictitious friends to live forever. Authors and television executives recognize this and acknowledge too that it’s much easier to attract people to the readily familiar, the tried and the tested. And so the lie is told again.

Drama demands that characters must change, but the audience by and large — ‘we’, let’s be honest — insist they stay exactly the same. […] Deep down we expect film franchises to wane, but drama series are by definition a returning medium; they must reproduce to survive. Series characters can’t get to the end of their journey or the story is over, so their creators face the same dilemma as Hollywood but massively amplified. […] Stubbornly two-dimensional, they exist outside time and space […] Most of us have been frustrated by long-running shows were ingenue characters never seem to learn from their experiences, or equally annoyed when they do learn and stop being the character we first fell in love with.

John York: Into The Woods

Though I haven’t watched subsequent seasons I hear Bree does in fact have quite a character change — the most stark of all the women, which makes her the most ‘main’ of the main characters.

But generally, the characters of Wisteria Lane do not learn from their mistakes. If they did, show over. However, in true fairytale form, these characters and their flaws exist to teach the audience a lesson. In other words, in fairytale form the viewer is the one meant to have the anagnorisis. Not in this spoof version, however. It’s expected the audience already knows these life lessons. Despite the storybook structure the audience are not children. At the end of each episode the dead storyteller narrator explains the Moral Of The Story. A viewer who takes this seriously will feel talked-down-to — it’s important to regard this as fairytale satire.

Mary Alice Young = Charles Perrault

It isn’t easy giving up power admitting that we might need help from friends and neighbors, deciding that a loved one might know what’s best for us, giving up our better judgment for a slightly darker agenda, but for some the hardest kind of power to give up is the power to control their own desires.

Mary Alice Young

In fact, if you take a look at the storyteller narrator’s quotes all in a row, you’ll be struck with how trite they sound. The Mary Alice opening and closing lines are outlining, as if for an English literature class, the morals of age-old fairytales. If you’ve ever read the fairytales as transcribed by Charles Perrault, you’ll know that Perrault literally spent the last paragraph of a story outlining the moral in exactly this way.

These moral lessons are conservative, each and every one of them.

Keeping secrets is a lonely business. That’s why we all search for someone to confide in: an ally who will understand, an advisor who we can trust, a friend who will never judge.

Mary Alice Young

Generally in straight (non-satirical) adult fiction we’ll be asked to consider whether that’s really true. A common ideology of children’s stories is that secrets are always bad. (One exception to that is a recent book called Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk which, interestingly, she initially wrote intending an adult audience.)

The quotes from Mary Alice also function as a teaser, and are therefore broken into four parts:

Yes, we often learn our most important lessons outside the classroom. The painful truth about the state of a relationship [1], the ugly cost of challenging authority [2], the sad fact that life’s colors aren’t always rosy [3], then are those who refuse to accept these important lessons. They simply wait to teach a lesson of their own [4].

Mary Alice Young

NEW SITUATION

Since this is a continuing series, the final episode of Season One must both satisfy and intrigue.

We are satisfied because the mystery of narrator Mary Alice becomes completely clear in the final episode. Everything is explained regarding this enduring mystery. The character we knew was going to die does die.

It also intrigues because there is a brand new family on the street and they obviously have a secret of some kind.   Each of the four main characters has a new beginning ahead of her and we want to know what will happen to them.

Bree — Bree is about to enter a new phase of her life now that her husband is dead.

Gabby — So is Gabby, pregnant and about to say goodbye to her jailbird husband.

Lynette — Lynette is being pushed back into the workforce. How’s that going to go?

Susan — And Susan is moving in with Mike.