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.

Continue reading “A Taxonomy Of Humour In Children’s Stories”

Reversals and Reveals In Storytelling

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

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

WHAT ARE ‘REVEALS’?

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

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

– Peggy Ramsay, agent

A revelation is basically a surprise.

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

 

WHAT ARE ‘REVERSALS’?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—John Yorke, Into The Woods

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

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

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

— Alfred Hitchcock

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

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

EXAMPLES OF REVEALS AND REVERSALS

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

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

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

REVERSALS AND REVEALS DONE BADLY

The Rug Jerk

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

The Reset Switch, aka The Reboot

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

Critters.org

STORYTELLING TECHNIQUE: THE ‘REVEALS PLOT’

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

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

How It Works:

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

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

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

Advantages Of The Reveals Plot

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

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

A Common Misperception

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

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

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

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

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

— @NaomiHughesYA

Types of Reveals

A few main types of plot twists/reveals:

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

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

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

— @NaomiHughesYA

Planning and Editing A Reveals Plot

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

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

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

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

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

Further questions to ask:

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

Teachers In Children’s Literature

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 people, dishing out advice to help the protagonist get through the story. Teachers can be mentors, opponents, fake opponents, or very much background characters. In YA, teachers can also be love opponents. Continue reading “Teachers In Children’s Literature”

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

Continue reading “Desperate Housewives Storytelling Tips”

The Apparent Utopia In Storytelling

apparent utopia

The Utopian World is prevalent in children’s literature, known by various names as listed here. Move into young adult, and the top end of middle grade, and you will encounter The Apparent Utopia.

Besides slavery and dystopia, freedom and utopia, there is one other kind of world you can create for the beginning or end of your story: the apparent utopia. This world appears to be perfect, but the perfection is only skin deep. Below the surface, the world is actually corrupt, rotten, and enslaving. Everyone is desperate to put on a good face to hide a psychological or moral disaster. The suburbs are often an apparent utopia, with their manicured lawns and friendly neighbours, but in stories there is usually something terrible going on in the suburbs.

— John Truby, Anatomy of Story

As depicted so clearly in the opening scene to the Netflix series Riverdale, the apparent utopia looks beautiful to the tourist or to the casual observer but awful things are happening just beneath the surface. The voice over which accompanies the opening scene of Riverdale is a perfect description of the apparent utopia.

Blue Velvet (1986) is famous for the utopian opening punctured by death, foreshadowed initially by the gun on the TV screen. Note the white picket fences, the rows of colourful flowers, the manicured lawns. Also the symbolic dream houses. Interestingly, after the man’s death, the camera gives us a macro shot of that perfectly manicured lawn to reveal the wriggling insect life underneath.

In the opening of L.A. Confidential (1997), Danny DeVito’s jaded, ironic voiceover explains how Los Angeles was marketed to wholesome family types, but turned out to be anything but.

Below is a description of Pines, which came through in a BookBub email. The copy describes your classic apparent utopia:

Pines
By Blake Crouch

The Wall Street Journal bestselling mystery that became a hit TV show! Ethan is sent to a small town to locate two missing federal agents — but something terrible is lurking behind its picturesque veneer… “A thrill and surprise on every page” (Hugh Howey)

A SHORT HISTORY OF APPARENT UTOPIAS

The apparent utopia is a descendent of The Fall plot, which is as old as language itself:

There was once a time when there was no disease. Life spans were longer than those we enjoy today, there was no suffering, and people possessed magical powers. They could fly, go to heaven at will, and understood the language of animals.

This is the myth of the golden age, found in cultures the world over. The oldest stories predate Eden: Sumerian cuneiform tablets speak of Dilmun, ‘a place where sickness, violence and ageing are unknown.’ When the sun-god Utu and Enki, lord of soil and earth, brought water, Dilmun flowered and became a beautiful garden. Another pre-Edenic tale is the ancient Persian story of Yima, the first human. During his time, ‘there was neither heat nor cold, neither old age nor death, nor disease.’ Yima built a beautiful garden, the most widespread image for paradise. This is no coincidence, as Richard Heinberg noted: ‘The word paradise itself comes from the Avestan (Old Iranian) word Pairidaeza, meaning a walled or enclosed garden.’

But then disaster struck. Myths of the fall are as widespread as those of the golden age. In Eden, the Serpent tempted Eve to eat the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In Persia — one of the few stories not to attribute the loss of paradise to the actions of a woman — the Fall was brought about when Yima refused to do the bidding of Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian god. Divine displeasure resulted in shorter life spans, pain, toil, conflict, and disease. We have been living in this world ever since.

A Short History of Disease: Plagues, poxes and civilisations by Sean Martin

The difference between Fall mythologies and the modern Apparent Utopian story is that it is often revealed that the setting was never utopian in the first place — it simply seemed so. This puts the audience in a state of unease, because from our comfortable position on the other side of the page or the screen, we too, could be living

THE SUBURBS AS APPARENT UTOPIA

Aside from small towns next to lakes and forests, suburbia is a common choice for the ‘apparent utopia’.

“They taught us at Barnard about that word, ‘utopia’. The Greeks had two meaning for it: ‘eu-topos’, meaning the good place, and ‘u-topos’ meaning the place that cannot be.”

— Rachel Menken, Mad Men, season one, episode 6, “Babylon.”

Mad Men, of course, is an apparent utopia itself, making Rachel’s lines somewhat meta. Mad Men is set partly in Manhattan, partly in the suburbs where Don Draper has bought a big family home, hoping to keep his family safe. Matthew Weiner was influenced by John Cheever when he wrote Mad Men; many of Cheever’s short stories are an apparent utopia, set in mid-century American suburbs.

FURTHER EXAMPLES OF APPARENT UTOPIAS

  • American Beauty, the movie, and also Six Feet Under, in a way. A family unit lives upstairs from a literal morgue. The apparent utopia symbolism is exploited most when the house has plumbing issues, spewing forth all sorts of vile liquid back into the family home.
  • Broadchurch, the British TV series, and pretty much any crime drama set in a picturesque small town, especially if it’s a holiday destination.
  • Tales From Outer Suburbia, the picture/coffee table book by Shaun Tan is an example often presented to children. (I think Shaun Tan’s picture books have a dual audience.)
  • Courage The Cowardly Dog, a horror/comedy TV cartoon series, which has fun with a ridiculously isolated prairie setting.
  • Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume is another example for young readers. In children’s stories, the apparent utopia is often pretty utopian, except for interpersonal issues, extending to bullying.
  • Pretty Little Liars, based on a series of YA books, marketed as Desperate Housewives For Teens. Interestingly, when adapted for TV, Pretty Little Liars makes use of many of the same landmarks as Gilmore girls, because they are both filmed in California at the same place.
  • The Ice House, film from the 1990s based on the Rick Moody novel. Suburban apparent utopias often feature houses made mainly of glass.

So if a story opens with a happy suburban setting, know things are rotten just under the surface:

Like Margaret Simon, I was an only child suspicious of suburban idyll. I consumed the book, as I would go on, in my 20s, to consume anything by Richard Yates or John Cheever, seeking assurances that a lawn was a poor means of generating certain existential satisfactions. The novel [Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret] begins with its heroine forced to leave Manhattan, with all of its enrichments, when her parents decide to move to the suburbs (for all of the reasons parents have always decided to move to the suburbs). “Please help me God,” Margaret implores. “Don’t let New Jersey be too horrible.”

Ginia Bellafante, NYT

an advertisement for Metropolitan Life Insurance from 1958
an advertisement for Metropolitan Life Insurance from 1958. The greyscale with red palette makes it seem creepy even when it doesn’t mean to be.
This illustration by Ji-hyuk Kim conveys both the safety and excitement of the suburbs at night.

INVERSIONS OF APPARENT UTOPIA

The small town which seems picturesque but is actually terrible is so common in story that it’s pretty much expected by the audience. For this very reason, storytellers can subvert that expectation by giving the newcomer a pleasant experience in a new place, even though that character expected the worst.

Suburgatory is a sitcom in which a superior-feeling teenage NYC girl is forced to move to a nearby suburbs with her dad. She expects the worst — and so do we — because this is a brightly-coloured, well-manicured suburb. The main character does encounter conflict, but not because there is death and destruction lurking under the surface — because the very utopia these people created has magnified their small problems until now they seem very large.

This same gag is used in much of the Gilmore girls humour, which is full of parish pump politics. Refer to Taylor and his town meetings. The inevitable message: Humans can never be happy. Where there is no outside opposition to unify a community, the community will invent conflict, turning against each other. (Of course, there’s no story without conflict.)

Schitt’s Creek is a different example of a subverted apparent utopia because the town is not presented as a utopia at all — the set designers went to a lot of trouble to make the town where it’s filmed look a lot worse than it is. Although this small town looks dilapidated on screen, it is revealed to the audience that the people of Schitt’s Creek are warm and friendly. This town looks like it will be full of illiberal bigots, but they sexual diversity. The creators were sure of one thing from the start — they didn’t want bigotry in this feel good show.

RELATED TO THE APPARENT UTOPIA

What’s behind the wide appeal of horrible, brooding, YA boyfriends?

young adult boyfriend

THE RECIPE FOR A YOUNG ADULT DARK PARANORMAL ROMANCE BOYFRIEND

  1. Handsome
  2. In a white kind of way
  3. Muscled but not too muscled — not like he works at it
  4. Well groomed and fairly nubile — not much body hair
  5. Remarkable eyes and gaze
  6. A bit older than the female protagonist
  7. A bit taller
  8. Maybe a bit richer (though sometimes he’s an underdog, financially speaking). All of this ‘a bit more’ refers to ‘hypergamy’ — the longheld view that husbands should be a little more more of everything (except beautiful) than their wives.
  9. Not like other typical guys — interested in literature rather than sport
  10. Though he’s not the uncoordinated, klutzy type either
  11. Loves reading, though he may be embarrassed to be seen doing something so sensitive and girly
  12. Perhaps writes poetry in his spare time
  13. May be on the periphery of a group of guy friends but is basically a loner
  14. Inexplicably falls instantly in love with the beautiful (though sometimes just girl-next-door looking) female protagonist
  15. There will be some reason why he cannot be with her right away (he’s a teacher/vampire/she’s already taken…)
  16. But he must be with her nonetheless, though their love is based on very little really
  17. This might lead to some stalking
  18. Or otherwise taboo/unethical boundary crossing
  19. And will definitely lead to much brooding
  20. Because he is not fully in control of his own sexual impulses
  21. Cannot stand seeing her with another boy
  22. Even if they’re just friends
  23. There will probably be a lot of mansplaining, in which he explains things about love and life to the female, and even if she balks occasionally, the reader/viewer will actually see he has a point
  24. He is experienced in love. It helps his attractiveness that he’s had previous girlfriends; as long as this girl is his last, that’s fine.

See more at: BroodingYAHero twitter account.

Ezra French Food
Pretty Little Liars, impressed by money and autonomy, because at this age it’s a pretty low bar

THE APPEAL OF THE YOUNG ADULT BOYFRIEND

Unless you are — or have been — a heterosexual adolescent girl, the appeal is a little hard to understand. Even if you ask an adolescent girl, she might not be able to tell you. If she is woke she’ll be keen to point out that he is only a fantasy, and fantasies are just that. She knows he is not real.

Still, it’s an interesting exercise to consider where sexual fantasies come from. Especially when they’re commonly held throughout a culture. Even fantasies do not exist in a cultural bubble:

  1. The Fantasy Of Love At First Sight — this article makes a distinction between romantic intensity and romantic profundity
  2. The Erotics Of Abstinence — lengthy months of yearning, which is at least half of the fun. Stephenie Meyer’s books are well-known for this aspect, and are thought to stem from her Mormon background, which preaches abstinence before marriage.
  3. The Expectation Of Hypergamy — in which the man is always a little bit more of something — a bit taller/richer/older/streetwise.
  4. The Fantasy Of Being Looked After Unconditionally And Forever — a return to the safety of the early years and I’m sure we could get all psychoanalytic right here. The girl only has to exist — he doesn’t ask anything of her.
  5. The Fantasy of Being Delivered From Obscurity by a Dazzling, Powerful Man — like one of those classic novels in which the ordinary but pretty common girl is chosen by the lord of the castle or something. Because until very recently, that has been a woman’s only hope at social mobility. (In Titanic you see the same thing but the economics are in reverse.)
  6. The Florence Nightingale effect — in which a caregiver develops romantic and/or sexual feelings for his/her patient, even if very little communication or contact takes place outside of basic care. A depressed/melancholic/damaged man seems appealing because in order to be attracted to someone as a partner you have to feel you can improve their life in some way. Our ghosts make us vulnerable. Vulnerability is attractive. Of Edward Cullen it has been said that “His anguish makes him volatile enough to keep things interesting but dependent enough that he will never be tempted to leave.”
  7. Stockholm Syndrome — feelings of trust or affection felt in many cases of kidnapping or hostage-taking by a victim towards a captor
  8. The Wish To Have A ‘Real Man’ — in a culture in which men and women are increasingly similar in life expectations
  9. The Wish To Have A Fantastic Boyfriend Who Doesn’t Pressure You To Have Sex — related to the erotics of abstinence above.  A boyfriend who can’t/won’t have sex with you is a safe person to have when you’re both terrified and curious.
  10. The Desire To Be Dominated — not always in real life, but quite often in fantasy, as was discovered by E.L. James. There are various opinions on this. Some argue that the desire to be dominated comes from emancipation. When women take on more responsibility in their real lives, they like to fantasise about having no power in their sex lives. Which leads me to the question: What are the fantasy lives of women living in strongly patriarchal societies? Do those women also have domination fantasies, when they are not allowed to drive, or leave the house, or decide who they’re married off to? That would be an interesting comparison.

 

Ezra Aria holding hands
First year tortured English teacher inappropriately holds hands with senior in Pretty Little Liars
Jessie taking the piss out of Luke
Jess from Gilmore Girls
Jess possessive
Of Rory’s boyfriends, Jess is perhaps the most possessive and creepy.
Jessie outbidding Dean
Jess has just made a concerted attempt to ‘out-do’ Dean and supplant him as boyfriend, catching the prize of smalltown pretty girl. Though Rory’s onto him, that doesn’t stop her from falling for it.

Sleep my bella

Edward plays piano
Even better if he can play a musical instrument. Or dance. It’s a better indicator than big feet.

Shapes of Plots In Children’s Literature

The success of a novel is only five percent about the structure and ninety-five percent about the quality of the writing.

— Elizabeth Lyons, Manuscript Makeover

(While this post started off with a focus on children’s literature, it is absolutely a post about all kinds of narrative, for any human audience.)

THE LINEAR STORY

The linear story tracks a single main character from beginning to end.

It implies a historical or biological explanation for what happens.

— John Truby, Anatomy of Story

linear_600x600

The linear story is a traditionally Western story.

Linear Plots In Adult Film

Most Hollywood films are linear. They focus on a single hero who pursues a particular desire with great intensity. The audience witnesses the history of how the hero goes after his desire and is changed as a result.

Linear Plots In Children’s Stories

As in film, the majority of children’s stories are basically linear. However, the plot doesn’t necessarily begin where the story begins. Home-away-home adventure stories are generally linear.

Dennis Butts, among others, has pointed out that in their use of formulaic elements and stereotyped characters, adventure stories owe a good deal to the structure of traditional folk- and fairy tales in which similar patterns tend to repeat themselves. [Also to myth.] Butts refers to the ideas of both Propp and Campbell as possible instruments to examine the structure of adventure stories, and to those of Bettelheim* to show the appeal of these stories. He also discusses Treasure Island in terms of folktale.

— Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear

*Bettelheim was an asshole who set psychology back a couple of decades. Look up his theories on the causes of autism. (tl;dr: Refrigerator Mothers)
  • The Epic Of Gilgamesh (the oldest known adventure story — 3rd millennium BC)
  • Tom Sawyer (‘master text’ for adventure story as the Narnia Chronicles are for fantasy), but is itself an off-shoot of The Odyssey
  • The legend of Saint George and the dragon
  • The Greek tale of Perseus
  • Robinson Crusoe (compared to Odyssean stories, the Robinsonnade keeps the characters in one place in order to focus on character development.)
  • King Solomon’s Mines (1885)
  • Jack and the Beanstalk
  • Treasure Island
  • Kim, Rudyard Kipling (1901)
  • Peter Pan
  • Sherlock Holmes
  • The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings
  • Doctor Who
  • Star Wars (a parody of the hero adventure story)
  • James Bond
  • Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
  • Cinderella, and any story using the ‘Cinderella Structure’ in which the hero can never go home again

For more on children’s adventure stories and their evolution, see The Centrality of the Adventure Story.

YouCan'tGoHomeAgain cover

Continue reading “Shapes of Plots In Children’s Literature”