Puns are often simple wordplay for comedic or rhetorical effect.
Puns are at the heart of “Dad Jokes”, though in Dad Jokes, the “dad” generally pretends he doesn’t understand the speaker’s intended meaning. The Dad feigns stupidity, the Victim knows he’s only playing stupid, and the joke succeeds if it elicits a groan from the Victim.
The Victim: “I’m hungry.” The Dad: “Hello, Hungry. Pleased to meet you.”
Both Victim and Dad understand that the victim needs to eat; the Dad pretends to believe the Victim’s name happens to be homophonous with the common adjective ‘hungry’.
Burglar Bill is a picture book by Janet and Allan Ahlberg, first published in 1977. There are a number of picture books about burglars who break into houses at night, one of a child’s greatest fears going to sleep. Burglars can be found all across children’s literature. (Enid Blyton loved burglars.)
Be sure to examine the pictures in this one as there are plenty of visual gags. I love that Burglar Bill hangs a mugshot of himself on the wall.
I believe Burglar Bill has been hugely influential on the comical burglar stories that came after, notably:
Tad (2019) is a picture book written and illustrated by Benji Davies. This is an especially good mentor text for illustrators because I’ve never seen a better example of a fairly muted colour scheme that suddenly pops after the page turn at the end. I literally said, “Wow!”
Poof The Old Lady is a graphic novel created by two neurodiverse ten-year-olds. The running gag is that an old lady by the name of Poof goes Poof! at the end of each story. But she comes alive before the next.
The creators are best friends at school, and they both like to read and watch cartoons. They count among their favourites:
One of them loves dogs; the other loves owls. One has neat handwriting and is tidy by nature; the other can write and draw well, but her work is inclined to degenerate into scrawl, as ideas come faster than execution.
Telling stories is an advanced skill. As we learn to tell stories, we absorb the influences around us. Certain aspects of storytelling come easier than others.
Let’s take a look at a storyteller in early development. If you look closely at the stories of kids who’ve been exposed to a lot of story, it’s surprising how much they already know.
It’s not easy teaching kids how to write a story, but the writers have got a print-out of this blog post. They don’t use it as they’re writing, but if they get stuck, I point them in that direction and their plot problems are rapidly resolved.
POOF AND THE OUTDATED SAUSAGES
The young creators quickly established their own ‘rules of story’, and in line with Courage The Cowardly Dog, whoever dies or changes form in one story has to revert to their original form by the beginning of the next.
Another rule is that the mode of death must be comical.
In the Poof setting, eating outdated food is a common way to die. The authors understand the inherent comic value of sausages. Bananas work in much the same way.
Poof, as a character, has unexpected, and therefore comical, likes and dislikes. The authors have started this particular story in iterative mode, by describing Poof briefly and what she ‘always’ likes to do.
The sausage has been drawn with a Band-aid on it, because this is how the ten-year-old illustrator imagines an outdated sausage would look. Or, Poof thinks she can ‘fix’ the outdatedness of it by literally slapping a Band-aid on it. The illustrator is also making use of exaggerated size for comic effect.
As you can also see, Poof is an old lady archetype, with curly hair and glasses. Later, Poof acquires underarm hair, but the illustrator has yet to achieve character consistency and often forgets to draw it in. The pit hair is therefore random, a bit like the holes in Courage the Cowardly Dog’s teeth.
The narrator makes use of conversational narration, reminiscent of Wimpy Kid. “The thing is…”
The reader is encouraged not to buy into Poof’s fantasy of calling her fever inducing foods ‘Lord’. The speech marks around “Sausage Lord” indicate that.
By this point in the story the young writer has introduced a main character (Poof), her Shortcoming (a love for food which makes her sick, and a delusional fantasy about them) and an Opponent, the sausage, which has been somewhat personified.
Now the authors switch to the singulative (from iterative). This is the perfect place to do it.
Poof has been living on the edge, and now she has food poisoning, after a lengthy period of being okay. This is a classic story set up — a character does the same thing every day, but one day their life is shaken up. They must therefore change to cope with their new situation.
The boring details of how she got to hospital are skipped over. I believe there’s some unintentional comedy with ‘after a few weeks (3)’, which reads as if the time is the main thing, when it’s actually the sickness.
Then again, maybe it’s intentionally humorous, because the time humour continues, with the doctor saying a very non-doctor-like thing.
The writer has made comic use of a tall tale convention, or rather a shaggy dog tale convention. A shaggy dog tale is similar to a tall tale. The aim is to keep the listener interested, then end abruptly with no real climax. The listener will be disappointed and the teller will take delight in having strung them along.
Poof and the Outdated Sausages works as a story, though I did find myself wanting to know more about the Sausage Lord. As an opponent, this could have been extremely interesting. How exactly has Sausage Lord helped her out in the past? In Poof’s imagination, at least, he switches from an ally to an opponent, which is always an interesting turn of events in story.
POOF’S NEW PET
An adult writer might choose ‘shiny’ for symbolic reasons but I believe this young writer has chosen shiny because that’s how it feels to her. It’s an example of transferred epithet — it’s not the day that’s shiny, but rather than everything looks shiny, because of the strong sunlight beating down on it. In any case, I think it’s great.
The opponent is introduced right away, even before the main character is introduced. But because this is the second microfiction in a collection, and also because of the title, the reader can deduce that the main character is Poof.
Poof’s reactions are always beautiful to watch. They are over-the-top. As in every New York thriller, at some point the main character must run through traffic. This adds to the suspense.
Notice that in this one, Poof has hairy armpits.
Telling us that she nearly got hit (exclamation mark) is over-egging the pudding somewhat, but I’ll accept it.
Now we see the opponent. This is Worm-Hoop the one-eyed owl, though he’s not yet named. He is introduced very succinctly: We immediately know he is power hungry and that he desires to rule the world. He is an arch-villain.
The writer isn’t quite sure how to introduce him naturally.
The author has intuited that the main character requires both a ‘need’ and a ‘want’ and has incorporated them into one thing: The desire for a pet, and the need for something to keep herself calm.
Suddenly the opposition/hero status is flipped, and Poof becomes the predator. This is another rule of the setting: Poof and Worm-Hoop are evenly matched, like Roald Dahl’s creations in The Twits.
I can’t understand the reason for the ‘2 weeks later’ insertion. Perhaps they argue for a very long time.
Worm-Hoop, we deduce, is an English Owl, but pretends to be a different kind of owl so that Poof won’t claim him for her pet, though this is slightly ambiguous in the text. It helps to know that the creator’s favourite type of owl is the English Owl.
I do like the character design of Worm-Hoop. Owls have eyes one on each side of the head, but this is hard to draw in a cartoon. In order to anthropomorphise him by putting his expression on the front of the face, he has been given one eye in total, because you only really see one of an owl’s eyes at once. This also gives him a unique look. His beak functions equally as his mouth. Which is it? It doesn’t matter. Worm-Hoop also sweats like a human.
The narrator talks directly to one of the characters, breaking the fourth wall somewhat.
The metafictional insert ends after a minor conflict between character and unseen narrator. Sometimes these arguments go on for too long before the young writer brings the reader back into the main story. This one is a single page, so not too intrusive.
However, Worm-Hoop still appears to be talking to the unseen narrator, who seems to take the part of the reader rather than as someone who knows things the reader does not. Here, the narrator asks the character, “What are you doing?” The narrator knows no more than the reader does.
Worm-Hoop pops out of the story again, which is why the murder plot works — the reader is constantly reminded that this is just a story and no one actually dies. I suspect this narrative choice is the writer comforting herself.
The next part of the long-running gag is that Poof keeps calling her new owl a ‘parrot’, which is insulting because he is not. However, it’s natural she’d think so, since parrots can talk, and owls normally can’t.
When kids write their own stories for themselves, they get to use taboo language which they never see in their library reading material.
Worm-Hoop is so offended at this mistake that he accidentally dobs himself in as her perfect pet. If he’d only kept his beak shut, he’d have been safe and free. That is at the heart of the joke, though none of this is explained. If an adult had written this gag for a child audience, I’m quite certain they’d have explained it a bit more, but because the reader and writer are one and the same, the joke remains elliptical. Any outsider must work a little to get it.
Fast forward ‘a little later’ and these two now live together. The writer knows that in order for conflict to work, they must inhabit the same space, thrown together against their will. (Or, against at least one character’s will.)
It seems Worm-Hoop sometimes hoots as well as speaks English. Instead of perched on a branch, he’s perched on a chest of drawers.
He’s got his own bowl, but it’s a dog bowl.
And that’s the end of that story, which feels more like the end of a chapter. And it is. The young writer doesn’t make much distinction between stories and chapters. Some chapters are entire stories in themselves; others require several chapters.
The gag in this spread derives from adult relationships, and the fact that in relationships, couples don’t always feel the same way about each other at exactly the same time.
I figure this has been absorbed from watching TV.
This chapter is more like two sequential gags than a complete story, because each follows the rule of comedy rather than the rules of story.
In the second gag, Worm-Hoop is terrified of Poof’s gigantic snoring, which juxtaposes comically with tippy-toeing by her room so as not to wake her. (How does she not wake her own self?)
Interestingly, two separate depictions of Worm-Hoop suggest he is looking at himself, sharing the uncomfortable feelings with himself. This works nicely for an owl, because of the two eyes on each side of the head, which I think the illustrator has really made the most of.
WORM-HOOP’S ORIGIN STORY
The writer knows that the reader won’t care about a character’s backstory until we’ve had a bit of action and started to wonder. This young writer is a big fan of super heroes, so is familiar with the concept of origin story.
The gag in which Poof treats her pet bird like a dog continues. I believe the writer has been inspired by stories such as The Pigeon Wants A Puppy by Mo Willems, in which one character completely misunderstands the nature of some other character, with disastrous results.
This amuses me because it’s almost a satire of all those picture books in which a baby bird/elephant/dolphin goes out into the world for the first time, by doing something scary.
Unlike your typical cute baby animal character, Worm-Hoop is gripped by unexpected bravado. Picture books don’t tend to exist for those characters, who don’t tend to require the ‘Be Brave’ books in the first place! However, these foolhardy tropes are great for comical stories like this.
A rule of thumb for illustrators is, you don’t need to illustrate what’s clearly been said in words, but breaking that rule works to great comic effect right here.
The illustrator must have realised one eye took up about the same amount of real estate on his face, and offered a comical explanation for that, too.
I think this chapter works as a series of comic gags. If an adult were writing this for children, they’d have depicted Worm-Hoop’s siblings, making him distinct from the others, Ugly Duckling style. They’d probably also have shown the doctor, and made more of that scene.
E.g. “Hey doc, can you fix my eye? It fell out when I got a surprise.”
“No can do. You lost it forever. But I’ll max the size of the other one, and then you’ll be good as new.”
The first gag is that she doesn’t know how numbers work. I’m quite sure this is a gag taken from somewhere else (but I wouldn’t know from where).
Little Poof has drawn herself in a childlike way, which is quite an achievement, since the child drawing the rest of the illustrations is a child, and therefore also, quite naturally, drawing in a childlike way.
Then Worm-Hoop pops in. We don’t know what just happened yet.
The big reveal: This isn’t a flashback at all. Second reveal: Poof LIKES being seven again. Third reveal: Worm-Hoop did this so he wouldn’t have to be Poof’s pet anymore. Though this writer doesn’t know what ‘reveal’ means, she has a good grasp of the technique.
The comedown is that making Poof younger doesn’t turn back time. It simply makes her younger.
I believe an adult writer would have explained this more thoroughly. And would have possibly left the reader with more of an ending. The writer has included a Battle and a revelation (not a Anagnorisis, because these comic characters never change), but she leaves off the New Situation. However, we can deduce what that is. They continue to live together, only now Worm-Hoop has the antics of a seven-year-old to contend with. Ideally, this chapter would have ended with a comic scene showing that. For instance, Poof uses him as a non-consenting cuddly toy when she takes him to bed.
POOF’S MATHS PROBLEM
Poof has poofed back into her usual form as an old lady, but the writer has decided to keep with the maths theme. Even when she looks like an old lady, it is now clear to me that Poof is basically a naughty, mischievous seven-year-old in an old lady’s body.
Poof’s shortcoming (she’s bad at maths) and her desire (she wants to do her homework) are introduced succinctly on the first page.
The illustrator has absorbed comic book conventions after reading lots of comics. (E.g. the lightbulb for a good idea.) The reader knew Poof would think of Worm-Hoop. (The writer is making use of audience superior dramatic irony.)
Her Plan is to call for him. He comes immediately.
The illustrator has decided to use Worm-Hoop’s eye as a window into his brain. The eye can contain all sorts of symbols, and in this case, a question-mark.
The gag is that Worm-Hoop knows even less than Poof does. Poof doesn’t know how to add, but Worm-Hoop doesn’t know the meaning of ‘number’.
He therefore delivers a nonsensical response, and that is the gag.
I expected the story to end there. It works as a complete gag. But the young writer has decided (subconsciously, of course) to turn this into more of a narrative than a simple set-up and payoff, so next we have a Battle sequence in which Worm-Hoop struggles (with himself) to understand the problem. (I asked the illustrator and she tells me that button belongs to a calculator, but I don’t think that’s sufficiently clear without author intervention. The machine which doesn’t work as characters expect it to is a classic Spongebob gag.)
The gag from a previous chapter is reused. I’m not sure who the characters are in the final box. I think the illustrator is getting tired by this stage.
Humorous stories about characters who find themselves in strife after taking instructions too literally are old stock comedy fodder. One of the earliest recorded in Europe is the fairytale Clever Hans — an ironic title, because Hans is a fool. Hans does something stupid, his mother tells him to do it differently next time. But when Hans applies the previous bit of commonsense advice to the new, slightly different situation, this leads to different trouble. Trouble increases in magnitude until he ruins his life.
If you’re anything like me, Clever Hans as a humorous tale doesn’t work. It feels outdated, by centuries. One problem is the heinous nature of the repercussions. Hans ‘stupidly’ plucks out the eyeballs of the farm animals — an example of foolishness which seems cruel rather than funny to me.
But has the archetype of the overly literal foolgone out of fashion? Not at all. In fact, we’re having a bit of a renaissance. I suspect this is partly to do with increasing autism awareness (which is a different thing entirely from autism acceptance). The stereotypical autistic person, promoted by the contemporary corpus of fiction is:
Good at maths/fixing and hacking computers/memorising facts about specialty area
And overly literal, to his own detriment
CASE STUDY: ATYPICAL
Sam of Netflix’s Atypical series is an excellent showcase of this popular — but ultimately shallow — understanding of level one autism:
Sam is a basically a human whiteboard illustrating the triad of impairments. He talks in a somewhat rat-a-tat monotone voice (demonstrating atypical verbal development), can’t understand social cues and takes everything very literally (social and emotional difficulties), and has obsessions (imaginative restriction or repetitive behaviour), which manifests in his case as an all-consuming interest in Antarctica and the Arctic and all the fauna of those environments, especially penguins.
Overly literal interpretation of language is not a characteristic shared by every person with a diagnosis of autism. Many autistic people can throw sarcasm with the best of them. Satire — top level comedy — is not lost on autistic people. At the moment, any overly literal comedic character tends to have a pop-culture diagnosis of autism whether the creators declare that or not. The Big Bang Theory is an excellent example of that phenomenon.
This is why I am delighted to see brilliant Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby has revealed her autism diagnosis publicly,a generous act, given that she’s now going to be seconded as ambassador for yet another marginalised group, whether she wants to invest all that time or not. Gadsby does not fit the autistic stereotype. Fortunately for us, she has the gift of seeing satire and absurdity at the deepest level, commenting ironically, manipulating audience emotion with fine precision. Gadsby shares this skill with many in the autistic community.
Perhaps this signals the beginning of a more diverse representation of autism in pop-culture. I hope comedy writers will start pushing the boat out when writing autistic characters, beyond mishaps caused by ‘overly literal’ interpretations. It’s far more difficult to pinpoint humour in the very real differences between autistic and neurotypical communication styles. It really does require #OwnVoices level insight.
WHAT’S BEHIND THE STEREOTYPE?
The following observations are from an #ActuallyAutistic perspective:
Autism and Literal Speech
Taking things literally is an extremely famous autistic trait, suggesting that irony, sarcasm, metaphor is entirely beyond us. But these things often aren’t [beyond us at all], so what’s really going on?
In my various communications with autistic folk (quite a lot, considering how anti-social I am) I’ve found increasing evidence that autistic people can recognise figurative, ironic language quite well, most of the time. I think the real story is a bit more complex. Straightforward irony and sarcasm can be pretty clearly signposted in speech after all – the whole ‘nudge nudge wink wink’ thing.
I think autistic people can get pretty adept at spotting these signs and even use them themselves. I’m going to basically think out loud now all the instances where I have taken things literally, to see if a pattern exists. Please join in.
So one type of implication that I *always* run the risk of missing is implied instruction. Such as, ‘ooh it’s got dark’ meaning ‘put the light on’ or ‘well, someone has to do it’ meaning ‘I want you to do it’. I miss this kind of thing very frequently. However, I don’t tend to miss implied criticism at all. In fact, I’m liable to hear it even when it isn’t there. All the time.
So what’s the difference? I think it’s to do with interaction with other mental states. The implicit instruction one is demanding some action as a result, and I think autistic people have a great deal of inertia a lot of the time that slows us changing tasks. This makes picking up on and acting on implicit instructions even less likely? Whereas picking up on criticism fits nicely with the sort of C-PTSD we often pick up from our endless failed interactions with neurotypical people — we become very very sensitive to such things and have been conditioned to expect criticism – is that just me?
Similarly, I tend to totally misunderstand sarcastic criticism. Like if a friend says, jokingly, that something I did was crap, I’d unfailingly take this to heart. I’ve tended to avoid people who like using this sort of humour. Whereas sarcastic praise is fine. I can handle that, even though it’s critical. It’s very confusing.
Another type of thing I’ll misunderstand is exaggeration. I’ll always take it at face value. If someone says they’ve had the worst day ever, I’ll believe that and be horrified for them. Anyone else do this? It’s like my brain doesn’t accept exaggeration as an option. So many times I’ve been amazed that people have seemingly recovered so quickly from what they described as dreadful, terrible things. I just never picked up on the fact they were exaggerating for effect.
Whereas I’m actually very good at identifying when people aren’t telling the truth, especially those little white avoidant lies like ‘I’m fine’ when they’re not. This seems to fit an easy pattern I can handle. I don’t know why. I’m not sure whether there’s a unifying pattern here, but I think that the issues around inference become more complicated when criticism is involved, due to the insidious effects of trauma in autistic people.
Once again it seems possible that an old obvious identifier of autism may actually be inextricably mixed up with the symptoms of trauma, like so many other traits.
We end up wondering what autism would be like without the trauma – how would it present? Maybe one day we’ll find out?
Below, an insight into the pitfalls of using stereotypically autistic tropes to create a character, and why it is problematic to then deny your character is written to be autistic. (Denial may work to get the author off the hook, but does nothing for the autistic community, who can see right through it.)
It’s very trendy, at the moment, to write characters coded as autistic. There have been several hits in books, films and television, that feature a particular kind of character. Usually, though not always, male. Usually, though not always, with savant-type abilities in some suitably nerdy subject. If not a savant as such, they are still very academically gifted. They are socially inept to the point of being flagrantly offensive and oblivious to it. They have no understanding of sarcasm or irony. Usually these characters are written by someone who isn’t autistic. Sometimes they admit that the character is supposed to be autistic, and sometimes they don’t. Claiming that the character isn’t autistic seems to be a good defence against irate autistic people like me saying “can you not with this terrible representation and encouraging people to laugh at us? You know it’s ableist, right?”
Anagnorisis is a moment in a work of fiction when a character makes a critical discovery. Even for plotters rather than pantsers, this is the part of writing that often emerges in the process of storycrafting.
Aristotle thought a lot about how stories are structured and noticed that stories typically contain reversal and recognition. Reversal often means something different to storytellers these days, but Aristotle was talking about a main character’s reversal of fortune (e.g. in a rags to riches tale). By ‘recognition’, Aristotle meant the moment when a main character realises what has taken place (with horror or delight). The concept of anagnorisis has been around for a long time, and complete, satisfying stories still require this step.
Others call it a ‘leap’, as in a ‘leap of understanding’. Teachers talk of ‘aha moments’, scientists of the Eureka effect.
Oftentimes in story it is far more gentle than that, or happens fleetingly.
If you’re writing a piece of fiction, I’d urge you not to try to show anything—instead, try to discover something.
What is the purpose of writing? For me personally, it is really to explain the mystery of life, and the mystery of life includes, of course, the personal, the political, the forces that make us what we are while there’s another force from inside battling to make us something else.
The concept of anagnorisis links to a long human history of religious morality. Not surprisingly, storytelling is influenced by this way of viewing humanity, even in a non-religious modern story. The more common term ‘revelation’ is similar to the 2016 word ‘woke‘ — while it has its origin in religion, the concept is far wider than that.
Religions also differ in how they value personal epiphanies. LDS is a faith that places particularemphasis on feelings as a basis for knowing what to do or what decisions to make.
I had a grace descend down on me.
Bill Henrickson, Big Love
“Then came the most exquisite moment of her whole life passing a stone urn with flowers in it. Sally stopped; picked a flower; kissed her on the lips. The whole world might have turned upside down! The others disappeared; there she was alone with Sally. And she felt that she had been given a present, wrapped up, and told just to keep it, not to look at it — a diamond, something infinitely precious, wrapped up, which, as they walked (up and down, up and down), she uncovered, or the radiance burnt through, the revelation, the religious feeling!”
Religious thought from around the world has shaped our storytelling. A story which includes a anagnorisis is therefore a universal story.
Millions of people never analyze themselves. Mentally they are mechanical products of the factory of their environment, preoccupied with breakfast, lunch, and dinner, working and sleeping, and going here and there to be entertained. They don’t know what or why they are seeking, nor why they never realize complete happiness and lasting satisfaction. By evading self-analysis, people go on being robots, conditioned by their environment.
In movies, anagnorises are often shot on a hill, or in some other high place like the top floor of a building.
The film Contact features Jodi Foster sitting in an elevated spot in the desert at the end of the movie — she now has a much better view on the world and its place in the universe.
In Charlotte’s Web, for instance, the part where Wilbur gains his understanding of death occurs with the part where Fern is at the top of the Ferris wheel.
For more on this, see The Symbolism of Altitude. It all comes from Moses On The Mount, of course. Or maybe the Bible stories are based on much, much older storytelling conventions. Maybe there’s something about being up high which allows humans to see things differently. (Cats get it.)
True self-analysis is the greatest art of progress.
The following demonstrates the close connection between death and enlightenment:
Since our consignment to heaven or hell was to be decided at the hour of death, the ‘good death’ became increasingly significant. Early Victorians idealised the notion of an end slow enough to give the dying the chance to say goodbye to their families and to prepare themselves spiritually for this all important moment. Families would cluster around bedsides, hoping to catch profound last words of their loved ones or witness religious raptures before death. Heavily edited stories of death scenes were expounded in Evangelical memoirs and journals, highlighting the dramatic battle of the dying in the days before death. The reality however was less romantic, leading many to comment on how rare that much romanticised rapture was. Indeed by the late Victorian period people had largely discarded these notions, hoping instead for quick, painless deaths over melodramatic, drawn out affairs.
Awe occurs very infrequently, maybe even only a few times in life.
ANAGNORISIS EXISTS ON A CONTINUUM
Just as there are strong desires and low-level desires, sometimes a character has a Eureka Moment (that’s what TV Tropes calls it), and at other times they realise something, sort of, in a nebulous kind of way.
Genre stories tend to have a stronger anagnorisis than more literary/lyrical stories, which can get away with revelations far more subtle. In some types of lyrical short stories the character almost has a revelation, then ignores it. Examples are plentiful in Katherine Mansfield’s modernist stories, but also in modern ones, such as Helen Simpson’s “In-flight Entertainment“.
THE ANTI EPIPHANY
Sometimes in a story there is opportunity for an epiphany, but the character suppresses the truth just revealed. Some people call this phase of story the antiepiphany. It often looks like a return to the quotidian mundanity of life.
Short stories don’t have time to dwell in the antiepiphany phrase. In his novels, Joyce takes his characters back to the mundane, but in his short stories end with the epiphany. Likewise, Mansfield doesn’t have time in a short story to show us the ordinary life Laura has woken up to the day after “The Garden Party”.
In some stories, the character has no revelation but the reader does, on their behalf. Annie Proulx likes those ones.
There is only so much revealing one can do. For every self-revelation, there has to be a self-concealment.
As Richard Sennett has argued: “In practising social civility, you keep silent about things you know clearly but which you should not and do not say.”
Just as we can suppress some aspects of ourselves in our self-presentation to others, so we can do the same to ourselves in acknowledging or not acknowledging what we desire. Most of the time, we spare ourselves from the torture of recognising our baser yearnings. But when does this necessary private self-deception become harmful? When it becomes public dogma. In other words: when it becomes denialism.
But Mole stood still a moment, held in thought. As one wakened suddenly from a beautiful dream, who struggles to recall it, but can recapture nothing but a dim sense of the beauty in it, the beauty! Till that, too, fades away in its turn, and the dreamer bitterly accepts the hard, cold waking and all its penalties.”
In Greek mythology, a phoenix is a long-lived bird that is cyclically regenerated or born again.
Associated with the Sun, a phoenix obtains new life by arising from the ashes of its predecessor. According to some sources, the phoenix dies in a show of flames and combustion, although there are other sources that claim that the legendary bird dies and simply decomposes before being born again.
At the beginning of 2018, Uma Thurman opened up to the media about her experiences with Weinstein and Tarantino. Following in from this, Jessica Chastain said the following in a series of tweets: I keep imagining Tarantino spitting in Uma’s face and strangling her with a chain for KILL BILL. How many images of women in media do we celebrate that showcase abuse? When did this become normalized ‘entertainment’? When violence against women is used as a plot device to make the characters stronger then we have a problem. It is not empowering to be beaten and raped, yet so many films make it their ‘phoenix’ moment for women. We don’t need abuse in order to be powerful. We already are.
Chastain’s phrase ‘phoenix moment‘ is a useful one. I consider this a subcategory of the anagnorisis phase in storytelling, and one which is highly problematic when used time and again with certain groups of people. It’s not the phoenix moment itself which is the problem, but the sequence of abuse scenes leading up to that moment.
In the wake of the Australian bushfires of 2019-20, the media talked also about ‘Chernobyl moment‘, as in, will this be Australia’s Chernobyl moment when it comes to understanding the full impact of climate change?
ANAGNORISIS CAN BE THE ENTIRE POINT OF A STORY
Especially lyrical short stories, which often present the mundane in a new way.
The daily papers talk of everything except the daily. The papers annoy me, they teach me nothing. What they recount doesn’t concern me, doesn’t ask me questions and doesn’t answer the questions I ask or would like to ask.
What’s really going on, what we’re experiencing, the rest, all the rest, where is it? How should we take account of, question, describe what happens every day and recurs every day: the banal, the quotidian, the obvious, the common, the ordinary, the infra-ordinary, the background noise, the habitual?
To question the habitual. But that’s just it, we’re habituated to it. We don’t question it, it doesn’t question us, it doesn’t seem to pose a problem, we live it without thinking, as if it carried within it neither questions nor answers, as if it weren’t th bearer of any information. This is no longer even conditioning, it’s anaesthesia. We sleep through our lives in a dreamless sleep. … What’s needed perhaps is finally to found our own anthropology, one that will speak about us, will look in ourselves for what for so long we’ve been pillaging from others. Not the exotic any more, but the endotic.
To question what seems so much a matter of course that we’ve forgotten its origns. To rediscover something of the astonishment that Jules Verne or his readers may have felt faced with an apparatus capable of reproducing or transporting sounds. For that astonishment existed, along with thousands of others, and it’s they which have moulded us.
DIFFERENT GENRES HAVE THEIR OWN KINDS OF SELF-REVELATIONS
As one example, romance genres require that at some point the main character/s realise they are in love. This love is usually of the romantic kind. (There are other kinds.)
Those epic big screen lip-locks aren’t just selling mouth pleasures, they’re selling Moments of Realization, too, when (at last!) everybody knows for sure that they’re in a love story.
Captain Awkward, who also does a great job of describing how a typical fictional romantic plot can unhelpfully shape our expectations of our relationships in real life.
ANAGNORISIS IN OTHER FORMS OF STORYTELLING
In the world of short stories, this moment is often called an epiphany, a Joycean epiphany, or the epiphanic moment. The ‘A-ha Moment’. However, these other terms often feel too strong for many types of story. As mentioned above, the Literary Impressionists such as Katherine Mansfield distinguished their form of storytelling by rejecting the epiphany, instead writing under the idea that people don’t really change all that much. Even when opportunities for change arise, characters often fail to heed the warnings, and keep plodding on as before — to their own detriment.
Walter White has the opportunity to do the right thing and hand himself in when Hank discovers who he really is. But he decides to run instead. He does have a slow, hard-earned self-revelation, though. He acknowledges that he hasn’t been doing it all for his family, but for himself.
Despite not changing much, Don Draper in Mad Men does face a number of moral dilemmas, mostly centred upon people finding out who he really is. He decides to continue living as Don Draper, but has regular lapses back into his old, less privileged life. When Don has his Joycean epiphany, that’s when the storytellers decided to leave him. (I imagine he becomes insufferable after that.)
In Big Love, Barb, as first wife, has already faced a number of massive moral decisions at the beginning of the story. Backstory eventually reveals to the audience that Barb had the opportunity to leave Bill when he took on his second wife. Barb is constantly tested, especially when her natal family and her church reject her, leaving her isolated from the rest of the world. The most noticeable character arc in Big Love is the character of Margine, who is so young that she is the main character in a coming-of-age story. At the beginning she is a teenager (revealed in a later season to be younger than initially depicted), but in the end Margine is a self-actualised woman, and makes the best of her polygamist situation to live what is actually a pretty feminist life.
But a complete narrative does seem to require something in the anagnorisis category. Even when the characters learn absolutely nothing, perhaps because they are irredeemably stupid or terrible, the audience needs to get something out of the story.
Dan Harmon outlines the basic skeleton of any good story:
A character is in a zone of comfort (BUT THEY DO NEED A SHORTCOMING)
This is called a plot reveal. This will surprise the reader if not the character. Annie Proulx’s “In The Pit” is a good example of this kind of proxy-Anagnorisis. In a twist ending you’ll always have a big reveal (possibly with delayed decoding), and in this case you probably haven’t got a character driven story but a plot driven one. I’m arguing that where there is no Anagnorisis phase in a character driven story, the storyteller needs at least a proxy for that, otherwise the story will seem unfinished to the reader.
CHARACTER LEARNS SOMETHING TRUE ABOUT THEMSELVES
This is the best outcome for a character and makes any pain endured across the story worth the effort.
CHARACTER ALMOST LEARNS SOMETHING ABOUT THEMSELVES
These stories are vexing tragedies for the audience, who experiences an “If only!” reaction. The Wrestler is a great example of this. Randy the Ram comes so close to learning something about himself. If only he’d seen what the audience had seen about him he could’ve improved his life.
“I make all my movies about pretty much the same thing. It’s ultimately death and being alone. It’s existentialism. The meaning of life. All of those big things that would seem obnoxious if I went on about them. And a lot of my characters go through this: There’s an inciting event in your life that shows you who you are and who you have always been, and it’s equally thrilling and repulsive to realize that and that you are entirely alone.”
CHARACTER LEARNS SOMETHING UNTRUE ABOUT THEMSELVES
This isn’t usual, but sometimes a character learns something about themselves which isn’t really true about them. The reader is given enough information to know the veridical truth of their character. The unreliable narrator is useful for this. Stories like this tend to have in common themes about how we can never really know ourselves.
Alternatively, the narrator knowingly gives us enough information to make up our own minds. A good example of this technique is Annie Proulx’s short story “Heart Songs“. Importantly, this faux-self understanding comes before the Battle scene, not after it, where it’s usually placed. Since the character is wrong about himself, it is the very thing that plunges him into the Big Struggle, not what helps him out come of it. We know these characters will never change. That’s the whole point.
Starting out sure about something then becoming less sure is another riff on Anagnorisis.
Sometimes it’s not the main character who learns something about themselves
Larry McMurtry’s film/book Hud features a main character (called Hud) who refuses to change. But those all around him do change and he is left all alone, which is the point. Don Draper didn’t change until right at the end, in a tacked on, cheesy kind of hippie way (in my opinion). But all the characters around him changed, mostly Peggy.
As Caroline Framke points out at Vox, “Don Draper spent seven seasons refusing to change at all. But others changed all around him. Joan realised that she could work sexism to her advantage for a longterm better future for herself and her son, then pull away entirely, to run her own business. Peggy’s story was a coming-of-age story, from country-girl to Manhattan cosmopolitan who didn’t feel she had to pretend to be someone she was not. Peter had the Anagnorisis that family comes first. Roger reflected on his own life and realised how he’d gone wrong. Don Draper came up with a good idea for a Coca-Cola advertisement.”
If your main character (e.g. Don Draper) does not change, others around them must. (Exception for comedy series, see below.)
ANAGNORISIS IN CHILDREN’S STORIES
If you’re writing a contemporary children’s story, the Anagnorisis better be experienced by the child.
Adults in children’s books are usually stuck with their characters and incapable of alteration or growth. If they are really unpleasant, the only thing that can rescue them is the natural goodness of the child.
Alison Lurie: The Subversive Power Of Children’s Literature
Lurie offers Mrs Burnett in Little Lord Fauntleroy as the classic example of an adult whose only hope is the goodness of a child.
Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert go through late-life emotional maturity with the addition of Anne Shirley to the household. At least in Anne of Green Gables, Anne has her own emotional journey alongside the adults.
But even today, you’ll still find stories in which the child character exists as a tool in the emotional awakening of an adjacent adult. A particularly egregious example is a DreamWorks movie, which I talk about in my post on how girls are too often asked to play this role. Girls are assumed to be more emotionally mature than boys, giving rise to ‘The Female Maturity Formula’ of modern storytelling. In that film, Dakota Fanning’s character behaves like a miniature adult mother. The adult men in her company mend their ways, with her leading by example.
When examining a story for diversity, avoid a simple tally of gender and ethnicity. Look instead at who gets to have all the Anagnorises. That tells you who the ’rounded humans’ are considered to be.
ANAGNORISIS IN COMEDY
Or, absence thereof…
We love comedic characters precisely because they never learn. Failing to learn from mistakes is a compulsory psychological shortcoming for a comedic character in an ongoing series.
In comedy — specifically ongoing comedy series, either sit-coms or novel series — there will be no Anagnorisis on the part of the main character. Comical characters are highly flawed, and if they were to learn from their experiences they would get boring and staid. George Costanza never learns from his errors. Nor does Greg Heffley. Even when a comedic character does have a minor Anagnorisis, they’ll have forgotten it by the beginning of the next story, arriving in statu nascendi.
If it’s a stand-alone comedy story, however, the main character is quite likely to learn a big lesson. Groundhog Day is one example.
What does happen, though, especially in comedies for children: The audience has a minor Anagnorisis. Spongebob Squarepants features characters who never learn, yet each episode is mock-didactic. For the viewer. (Didacticism is coded as mock-didacticism in comedy.) Episodes end like a Charles Perrault fairytale, with a summary of a moral lesson.
Likewise, in Courage The Cowardly Dog, the viewer is reminded of the exact same lesson over and over — be nice to others because they can help you out. (Listen to Courage because he’s always the first to detect baddies.)
the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions. Catharsis is a subcategory of anagnorisis in which the audience empathises so keenly with the main character that they consciously or subconsciously connect the emotions to their own lives, feeling what the character feels. Removed by the filter of fiction, this can be revelatory and healing.
the concentration of mental energy on one particular person, idea, or object (especially to an unhealthy degree). Another modern word for this is monotropism. At the climax of a story mental energy becomes concentrated, in the empathetic character and ideally mirrored in the audience.
ERKENNTNIS AND WISSENSCHAFT
The German language usefully marks this as the distinction between tacit, incompletely articulated and intuitive knowledge (Erkenntnis) and knowledge that comes via science (Wissenschaft). The epiphany experienced by characters in stories is often of the Erkenntnis kind. English synonyms include: realization, recognition, insight, perception. Erkenntnis relies on ‘interpretive’ knowledge. This is often what a storyteller is asking of the audience, also. If we experience epiphanies from reading, it’s probably because we’ve interpreted it ourselves rather than been told outright. Epiphanies are therefore often tacit, incompletely articulated and intuitive.
WHAT IS A MIRROR MOMENT?
A mirror moment is a moment in midpoint scene of a novel or screenplay when the character is forced to look within and reflect on who he is and who he must become in order to achieve his goal. If he decides to continue on as he always has, he will surely fail (tragedy).
If the story is not a tragedy, the hero realizes he must either a) become stronger to overcome the odds or b) transform, shedding his biggest flaws and become more open-minded to new ideas and beliefs. One way or the other, he must better himself in some way to step onto the path which will lead to success.
from Story Midpoint & Mirror Moment: Using Heroes’ Emotions To Transform Them
A satisfying ending is one that delivers on the promise, providing new insight or comfortable confirmation or vicarious happiness. Even when it’s surprising in some way, the ending feels inevitable, because it fulfills the promise of the story. And—this is important—the ending feels satisfying only because the beginning set up the implicit promise in the first place.
The ending must make use of those same forces and conflicts, with nothing important left out and nothing new suddenly appearing at the last minute.
Mr. Shakespeare: Every character in your story doesn’t need to know how everything works out for everybody as long as your reader knows. These final scenes are unnecessary and they slow down the action at the end because, frankly, we’ve all heard all of this explanation already. Sometimes twice already. So essentially the audience/reader is forced to sit through a summary of the action while all the characters get caught up.
A successful ending must be tied not only to the author’s implicit promise and the forces dramatized in the middle, but also to the protagonist’s nature. A test for your ending is this question: If my protagonist were a radically different person, would this story still end the same way? The answer should be No.
Finding the right ending sometimes takes time. Once it took me thirteen years.
SpongeBob Squarepants is a fast-paced children’s cartoon for a dual audience, written by a guy who is also a marine biologist. This is a highly successful and long-running show, with humour that broadly appeals.
This series has been running since 1999. Critics say the show has been declining in quality in the last few years, which is what critics also say of The Simpsons. What is the longest time a comedy series should run for? Are there any examples of comedy series lasting longer than a decade without a serious decline in quality? I can’t think of any myself.
Here I use Scott Dikkers’ 11 Categories Of Jokes to focus on the humour of SpongeBob. I’ve used so many SpongeBob examples in that original post that I’m ready to do an entire SpongeBob post. (If you feel that analysing jokes takes the joy out of comedy, this post is not for you!) Studying humour is a lot like doing tennis drills. Concentrate on form and process during deliberate training sessions, but once you’re playing a game (actually writing comedy) we need to put everything you know aside and get into a state of flow.
It’s also worth looking at other people’s comedy writing to hone your own sense of what’s funny and what’s not. While I find most of SpongeBob’s humour funny, I get annoyed with some of it, too. (Backed up by Jeff Kinney’s Wimpy Kid sales as evidence, sexism sells.)
First a note about the structure.
THE PLOT STRUCTURE OF SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS
A lot of the SpongeBob Squarepants episodes follow a very common plot structure for fast paced comedies of about 11 minutes long. (This is also about the length of a We Bare Bears episode — equally fast paced with a heavy joke density and surprisingly complex plots.)
The double thread plot is popular with SpongeBob writers.
The plot will begin either with SpongeBob or with his opponent.
SpongeBob gets into trouble.
The opponent also faces challenges.
These two threads come together during the Battle sequence, and the audience learns how the two separate threads are inextricably linked. One thread doesn’t fly without the other.
The characters who live in Bikini Bottom have their own web of opposition which provides the most layered and interesting conflict of each episode. However, there is usually a big, bad baddie who comes into town. In episode one it’s a hoard of hungry anchovies. In Bubblestand it’s a massive bubble which envelops Squidward’s house and carries him away, suddenly uniting the SpongeBob/Patrick team with Squidward — they (briefly) feel sorry for him.
SpongeBob’s gang is made up of his best friend Patrick, who is the stupider but kinder version of SpongeBob, much like the Greg Heffley and Rowley friendship in Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Then there’s Squidward making up the threesome, who is sort of part of their gang but not actually because he doesn’t find SpongeBob and Patrick funny. Squidward embodies the seven deadly sins and then some — depending on the episode, Squidward is everything we despise in people. He is haughty, has no sense of fun, sarcastic, selfish and so on.
The threesome/twosome friendship plus an oddball outsider is pretty common in comedy.
In Seinfeld we have Jerry, George and Elaine, plus the unfathomable quirk of Kramer across the hall.
As mentioned above, there’s the Wimpy Kid stars and then there’s Fregley, who would like to be one of the gang but is just too odd for even Greg and Rowley, who get up to plenty of odd stuff in their own right. That’s the raison d’etre of these super odd character of course — Fregley’s weirdness actually provides verisimilitude to whatever those other two get up to. It doesn’t matter how weird Greg’s life is, it’s never as weird as Fregley’s.
Although these characters spend a lot of time conflicting with each other, they do band together when a bigger, badder outsider comes along. This creates a double layer of opposition:
Opposition within the in-group
Opposition between the in-group and the outsider (the big, bad baddie who comes into town)
SpongeBob wants a job at the Krusty Krab as a cook. He is sent out on an impossible mission to find a super powerful spatula (which he ironically finds easily at the supermarket).
Meanwhile, back at the Krusty Krab, a whole lot of hungry anchovies turn up and create havoc for the restaurant owner and Squidward. (The anchovies are the big, bad outsiders.)
These two plot threads come together as soon as SpongeBob arrives back at the Krusty Krab with his super-powerful spatula, which just so happens to be exactly the unlikely implement needed to knock out meals at a super quick rate, feeding all the hungry anchovies and saving the day.
This is a quiet story, which is in line with the mesmerising activity of bubble blowing. SpongeBob sets up a bubble stand (like a lemonade stand) right outside Squidward’s house.
Inside his own home, Squidward tries to practise his clarinet, but the bubbles outside are creating an unlikely amount of trouble for him.
The threads come together when a bigger, badder opponent comes into town, suddenly putting these neighbours on the same side. (A massive bubble which carries Squidward away.)
This episode does not have the dual plot line going on. It is a simple parable with a clear message for its viewers: If you keep recycling a joke it stops being funny and starts irritating people. You will alienate your friends. This episode therefore has the single strand plot line, like a parable. The New Situation phase is actually a song, explaining the lesson in the way those old parables and Charles Perrault fairytales used to do in a paragraph.
This episode opens with the point-of-view of the opponent — the tiny Plankton, who wants SpongeBob to help him clean up the beach, as he himself is too small to make a difference. Plankton is not a formidable villain, but is still an opponent, because SpongeBob does not want to spend his days cleaning up the beach. SpongeBob’s goals are simply to have fun. Plankton is a fake ally opponent, instructing SpongeBob to be formidable, though SpongeBob obviously doesn’t have it in him, being nice when he’s meant to be assertive. SpongeBob eventually realises what the deal is and decides that if he can’t be aggressively mean, he can be aggressively nice. The entire story takes place on ‘the beach’, which is funny because there can’t be a ‘beach’ at the bottom of the ocean. The outtake shows him enjoying a game of volleyball, and the lesson is that it’s more fun to be nice than to be maniacal.
Notice that the ‘lessons’ in SpongeBob episodes are very obvious ones, and therefore very knowing. Though the youngest viewers might take these lessons to heart, older viewers know that these lessons exist only because SpongeBob is a parody of didacticism itself.
HUMOUR IN SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS
Even the music goes a long way towards setting a comical scene, with a tune by Tiny Tim in the pilot, and an outtake tune which sounds like slightly off-beat banjos. (Country music is easy to make fun of, just as it’s easy to make fun of country hicks.)
The entire series is ironic on every level. But let’s break it down just a little.
Irony is a ‘meaningful gap between expectation and outcome’.
In that pilot episode, we don’t expect SpongeBob to arrive back with a super powerful spatula, which we have been told doesn’t even exist. On a story level, we didn’t expect SpongeBob to secure his job at the Krusty Krab by saving his new boss from marauding hungry anchovies.
Irony might simply be the opposite reaction from the one expected. For instance, when selling door-to-door, Patrick’s eyeballs pop out of his head like worms and he gets them slammed in the door. Instead of saying “ouch” (the expected reaction) the eyeballs look around and Patrick says, from the other side of the door, “ nice place you got here!” This joke has several funny filters, the other one being he is so stupid he can’t feel pain.
2. CHARACTER HUMOUR
This is where it’s very easy to get mean about certain groups of people. But it’s also where a lot of excellent humour comes from.
GENDER, AGE AND POWER
Much humour derives from power flowing away a character, especially if that character generally has a powerful position in society. Mermaid Man, for instance is a parody on the superhero trope. Mermaid Man has no power at all really because:
He lives in an old people’s home
He dresses as a girl
Ageism is a slightly separate issue — we’re all going to get old at some point (if we’re lucky). Sexism, on the other hand, will never affect hetero cis boys in quite the same way so it’s worth taking a much closer look at that.
While Barnacle Boy is neutral and therefore unproblematic, the fact that his sidekick Mermaid Man wears the bikini of shells means that Mermaid Man is doubly disempowered: age and gender expression are against him. At first glance this may seem innocent humour, except that the joke doesn’t work if genders are reversed.
MEANNESS EXERCISE FOR COMEDY WRITERS: This is always a good yardstick to measure by. Does the joke still work if you reverse the genders? If not, it will stand out as horribly dated in a few decades’ time, and as horrible right now to many of your contemporary audience as well.
SpongeBob Squarepants the series gets a lot of mileage out of sexist jokes, which is what inevitably happens when the entire writing team is men — they inevitably write for a male audience.
Why is the town called Bikini Bottom? Because for boys there seems to be some discomfort around female clothing. And anything that causes mild discomfort is ripe for turning into comedy. Pants in general are also generally funny in children’s comedy, but if those pants are related to sexuality, now you’ve got a joke that spans two opportunities for discomfort: bum jokes AND sexual humour, otherwise known as ‘adolescent humour’.
Sandy Cheeks the squirrel is the female sexual opponent, meaning SpongeBob is sexually interested in this character, tries to impress her, and much of the humour derives from him failing as a man. This pokes fun at masculinity, at the same time as reinforcing it. No one is meant to learn from SpongeBob how to be a man, just as no one really takes the didacticism of SpongeBob straight. But this line of jokes remains problematic, not because of its explicit message, but because of the tacit ones. Anyone working in advertising will tell you, tacit messages are the more powerful.
We first meet Sandy in Tea At The Tree Dome. Sandy invites SpongeBob back to her dome where there is no water (because she is a squirrel). SpongeBob has told Sandy that he, too, likes water-free places. This is a joke aimed at the older portion of the audience — an example ‘reference humour’ based on the common phenomenon of trying to make out you like the same things as a sexual target even though you really don’t. It is always revealed over the course of a relationship that you really don’t like the things you pretended to like, which is a great example of transgression comedy, in which the ‘mask’ comes off and we laugh because it is both deserved and uncomfortable, and the reactions of the characters delight.
We next meet Sandy Cheeks at the beach, where Sandy continues to innocently think she and SpongeBob are just friends. She laughs wholeheartedly at SpongeBob’s jokes and SpongeBob thinks he’s well and truly on his way to persuading Sandy that he would make good boyfriend material. But then a big, strong manly crab turns up and Sandy decides to go with him to lift weights. SpongeBob is thoroughly humiliated when it turns out even Sandy can lift heavier weights than he can. Comedy comes from SpongeBob’s extreme shortcoming — even a stick with marshmallows on the ends sends him sinking into the sand. Viewers of all genders are familiar with the male tendency to show off for sexual gain. Everybody gets the reference humour of this dynamic. But it’s only one end of the gender spectrum who sees themselves time and again as the unwitting object of the desire in comedy. Spoiler alert: the femme coded genders.
This seems utterly innocent, until you take a look at SpongeBob’s utter persistence. He believes that so long as he persists, Sandy will eventually become his girlfriend. She’s simply too stupid to realise what he’s trying to achieve. In this super common (bog standard) comedy plot line, the ideology of persistence has a real and damaging effect on how boys are taught to see girls. The audience is taught to empathise heavily with the ‘loss’ of romance (though it was never achieved to begin with). That means we empathise with SpongeBob, but at no point empathise with Sandy. At the extreme real life version of this narrative, we get a boy shooting an ex-girlfriend in school, and the police describe the boy as ‘lovesick’. That’s because we are all taught time and again, from drama to comedy, to empathise with the plight of romantic failure, and not taught to empathise with the object’s wish to be friends, or to be left well alone.
Weirdly, we learn later in the Ripped Pants episode that SpongeBob has ‘lost his best friend’ (owing to bad jokes about ripped pants). Yet he interacts with this ‘friend’ like she’s a sexual target. This is why I don’t buy arguments that SpongeBob Squarepants the show can’t be a sexist show because SpongeBob the character is asexual.
Some of the episodes with Sandy Cheeks are downright weird. In the Texas episode, Sandy is sad. SpongeBob is the last to understand why (long after the viewers), hanging off that trope that men can’t understand women and women’s feelings. Eventually Sandy sings a heartfelt ballad about how much she misses Texas and SpongeBob finally understands her sadness. Sandy gets on a bus to leave Bikini Bottom forever, but SpongeBob and Patrick realise (by accident) that if they insult Texas she will hang around to defend her home state. Earlier, they stand by her bed and watch her sleep. Which, fine, but take all these behaviours together and the entire episode comprises creepy boundary crossing and negging. (Stephenie Meyer catches a lot of crap for the exact same storyline — a male character goes into a female character’s bedroom and watches her sleep.) Because of the (mock) didactic story structure of this series, Sandy learns at the end that home is where there are people who care about you. (Caring = insulting the things you love.)
Mrs Puff, because of her female gender, also becomes a romantic target even though she is initially presented as a middle-aged motherly teacher type. She becomes the romantic object for the older Mr Krabbe, who is so enamoured by her he bankrupts himself buying her gifts. Although the male characters are always presented as inept and slightly crazy for the lengths they will go to for love, the fact remains — if a female character appears in SpongeBob, she is eventually utilised as a romantic target. A female character’s sexuality is therefore her main characteristic.
The character of Squidward is basically an Incel archetype, before the Incel became a thing. At Slate, Christina Cauterucci uses Squidward as an example of a ‘millimeters of bone’ meme. If you’re not sure what that refers to, lucky you. Maybe stay well away.
Every comedy needs a stoopid character. SpongeBob Squarepants is pretty stoopid, but Patrick is even stoopider. The jokes get funnier once we realise this is their ‘thing’. Expectation makes humour work even better. It works best when the stoopid character comes up with something even stoopider than the audience themselves can imagine.
The stupidness of Patrick is surprisingly simple and effective. When Patrick announces something which is blatantly untrue, my nine-year-old finds this hilarious. This ironic distance between what the viewer can see versus how Patrick interprets the situation creates an ironic distance which young viewers find very appealing. For instance, Patrick blows a bubble which looks exactly like an elephant. “It’s a giraffe!” he exclaims, making my nine-year-old giggle. [Update: The erstwhile nine-year-old is now a tween and has told her father to shut the hell up with this category of jokes, in fact all jokes, thanks.]
SOCIAL CAPITAL JOKES
Squidward Tentacles is set up as the Loser character from the very first moment we meet him with this visual gag of him trying to remove some graffiti which won’t come off with rubbing:
Squidward’s nose has a phallic quality to it, drooping in disappointment or whenever his attempts to climb up the social hierarchy have failed.
Kids love making an unreasonably cranky character crankier. In Bubblestand there is a delight seeing the bubble elephant go inside Squidward’s house, disturbing his wind instrument practice. The audience is therefore reminded just how nasty Squidward is at the beginning of each episode. We are never trusted to remember, or rather, his nastiness gives us permission to laugh at him when he ends up in a full-body bandage or whatever. (The film Office Space uses the full-body bandage gag. Being live action, you’d think this’d be disturbing, except the guy who ends up completely incapacitated is wildly happy about it due to receiving compensation — an ironic reaction, hence the joke.)
There is literally no such thing as too many reminders that horrible character is horrible. Even when Squidward isn’t there, SpongeBob is making fun of him to impress Sandy Cheeks (in Ripped Pants). In Jellyfishing, Squidward is horribly sarcastic about not wanting to go jellyfishing with SpongeBob and Patrick. He suffers an accident on his bike and ends up in full body bandages. Patrick’s efforts to look after him end up with further injury to Squidward because of Patrick’s stupidity. Eventually Squidward is stung by an enormous jellyfish. Patrick and SpongeBob are stung by a smaller one so don’t get off scott free. I wonder if the writers thought dishing out all the bodily harm to Squidward and none to SpongeBob and Patrick was too much. I think they made the right choice. In the predictable and conservative sense of justice we all have as audience, SpongeBob’s naivety and Patrick’s stupidity did need punishing, just a little bit.
But because we’ve seen Squidward looking down on our empathetic characters, the writers do their absolute worst. Just when we think Squidward can’t be put through any more pain, the following day Squidward is in a bed on wheels rather than in a wheelchair. Now the audience needs a small reminder that this is cartoon violence. So they show us Squidward chuckling as the big jellyfish turns up again, like a classic horror creature that just won’t quit.
So that’s a case study in how to get away with extreme violence:
Keep reminding the audience that the suffering creature deserves what they’re about to get
Punish every character, according to their exact crimes, even the sympathetic ones
Let the audience know that the terrible injury isn’t that bad.
3. REFERENCE HUMOUR
Reference humour refers to common experiences that the audience can relate to.
As mentioned above, a lot of the reference humour is specific to the heterosexual male experience.
On the other hand, NO ONE gets off scot free in this comedy — everyone is laughed at. But notice how Sandy doesn’t get to make her own jokes. Instead, she’s laughing her head off at SpongeBob. Only the male characters are allowed to be both funny and laughed-at. That kind of asymmetry for the girls — who are always the ‘straight guy’ yet just as often clueless — is what’s problematic here. This dynamic is closely related to the Female Maturity Principle of Storytelling.
There are jokes in SpongeBob which appeal to a mature audience but which safely pass over a child’s head. For instance, one episode opens with SpongeBob intently peering at some sort of tentacled sponge on his TV. When his snail cat walks by Spongebob declares that he wasn’t really watching that, he was only switching between channels.
4. SHOCK HUMOUR
In Ripped Pants, SpongeBob is trying to lift ‘weights’ (marshmallows on a stick) when he rips his pants in front of a much entertained audience. This is both reference humour and slightly shocking, in that it exposes a part of the body not normally exposed.
5. PARODY HUMOUR
The beginning of the Jellyfishing episode features a heist movie parody. Patrick and SpongeBob slide daringly down a rope but have to pause for a long moment to blow on their hands, which are burning in pain — something that never happens to ‘real’ cat burglars.
In the Something Smells episode SpongeBob eats a lot of onion and scares others away. He concludes he is too ugly to exist, at which point Patrick finds him in a dark place playing moodily on a grand piano, reminiscent of The Phantom of the Opera (even though I have never seen that).
In Plankton, a crabby patty pretends to be friends with SpongeBob in order to learn the secret recipe for crabby patties. The plankton baddie makes use of various technology to achieve his aim, including a mind-control device and another machine which tells him exactly what something is made of. He also has a gramophone, which he pulls into the scene whenever he needs some melodramatic music. This is meta humour, and the humour comes from the fact that extradiegetic sound effects are now diegetic. Not something the audience would ever put into words, but we realise the plankton thinks he is in some kind of crime movie, and is loving it.
Superheroes often have a getaway vehicle with some amazing power in its own right, be it a magic carpet, turbo rocket or whatever. In the final episode of the season one, Barnacle Boy and Mermaid Man also have a vehicle with superpowers, but that superpower turns out to be a hindrance rather than a help: it is totally invisible. This means they can’t find it when they want it. They walk into it, walk around feeling for it, and one of them is always getting burnt to a crisp because he accidentally stands behind the exhaust pipe. This ‘burnt to a crisp’ scene happens twice. The first time we see how he gets burnt — the second time he walks onto the stage already crispified, and we feel a little smart knowing how he got that way.
EXERCISE: Can you think of something that is sometimes a help to your characters but is also, more often a disadvantage, getting them into trouble? List all the ways in which they can get into trouble then take two or three and repeat.
The entire Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy episode is about underwhelming jobs for two superheroes, providing one long juxtaposition. At another point in the episode, they are called upon to open a jar for SpongeBob, who has previously been established as a comically weak character.
Everything is over the top. So, SpongeBob doesn’t want to be late for his job interview? He’s set up a mechanical Wallace and Gromit type contraption to get himself ready in seconds. It even changes him out of his pants. SpongeBob is scared about the interview? He literally tries to run away as soon as he gets to the place. This is a blend of hyperbole and reference humour, because we all know how we’d like to run away whenever we feel scared.
SpongeBob doesn’t simply trip on a nail sticking out of the floorboards and fall over — he bounces and flips and enters into a never-ending series of smacks, where gravity doesn’t exist (unless it’s required for the scene).
Squidward doesn’t just get a minor injury catching jellyfish — his body is entirely covered in bandages and he wheels around on a gurney.
Sometimes a character gives the wrong (overblown) response to a situation:
“Make him feel good.” “I love you.”
Sometimes, hyperbole means layering:
“I’m so old I’ve got hairs growing out of the wrinkles on my liver spots.”
SpongeBob Squarepants itself is a wonderfully wacky name, as is Squidward Tentacles. Notice, however, that not all the characters have wacky names. Sandy Cheeks is kinda sexual. Patrick is aggressively ordinary. So is Gary. It’s this tension between weird names and normal ones that creates the humour — the difference draws attention to the wacky ones. These names also give us a clue about the character’s personality: While Patrick is often funny because he is stupid, he is always well-intentioned. In some ways he plays the ‘straight guy’, starting from the first time we see him, in which he gives SpongeBob a pep talk about how SpongeBob needs to go to his interview even though he’s terrified.
Sometimes wordplay involves drawing attention to language in a way that we may not have noticed before:
“The finest eating establishment ever established for eating!”
“Do you smell it? What’s the smell? A kind of smelly smell that smells… smelly!”
I have no idea why we find phrasal repetition hilarious, but it also explains Boaty McBoatface and all the subsequent snowclones.
“This is my lab!” (Viewer expects to see a science lab but sees a dog) “And THIS is my laboratory!”
EMPHASIS ON NAMES OVER SUBSTANCE
When the recipe-stealing plankton throws seaweed into his ‘ingredients machine’, the machine tells him seaweed is made up of fifty percent sea, fifty per cent weed. This useless information, derived from the name of the product rather than the chemistry, foreshadows how useless the machine will be when trying to decipher what’s in a krabby patty.
EMPHASIS ON THE LITERAL MEANING OF PHRASES
“What? You’re off your rocker!” ‘Camera’ pans out to show an empty rocking chair beside the character. Character sits in rocker and says the same thing again.
Old man (Mermaid Man) buys ice cream from truck. “A double scoop of prune with bran sprinkles,” he says, which is character humour to emphasis his oldness. Next, “Goes right through me!” he exclaims. (The food shoots an actual hole through his middle.)
CHARACTERS MISUNDERSTAND WORDS
These work like puns but have no obvious antecedent.
SpongeBob: “We need to become entrepreneurs.”
Patrick: “Is that gonna hurt?”
Juxtaposition is evident all over the setting, starting from the pet snail that meows like a cat. Another word for this is ‘surprise’. Yet we are not surprised at all, because in the real world, people tend to keep cats, not snails. A lot of the humour in this series comes from the writers and storyboarders pasting modern American life onto marine life — an awkward and funny endeavour.
I put any kind of ‘flip’ joke into this category.
Squidward is a more serious and adult character who occasionally reveals his childlike side by engaging in childish things like blowing bubbles when he thinks no one is looking. The juxtaposition between Squidward’s posing and his inner child provides plenty of humour. In this respect he’s like the Dwight Schrute character of the American version of The Office.
In the pilot, Squidward tells the boss SpongeBob is definitely not right for the position, but instead of a flat no, SpongeBob is sent on an impossible mission to find a thing that obviously doesn’t exist. (Obvious to the viewer, not to SpongeBob himself.) This is the restaurant owner being a trickster. Note that because this is the pilot episode, the audience doesn’t know that this particular spatula doesn’t exist. That’s why we see Squidward and the restaurant owner chuckling about its non-existence after SpongeBob has gone.
Takeaway point for writers: Don’t worry about being too obvious. Joke density allows an audience to accept over-explanations, on-the-nose narration and a host of other storytelling techniques eschewed by other genres.
But soon we’ll see that SpongeBob himself is a trickster, as he finds a way to fulfil his mission. He goes to the supermarket and, believe it or not, they only have one in stock. (Audiences of comedy will also happily accept this kind of deus ex machina solution to a problem.)
Audiences love tricksters, and we don’t mind who the trickster is. In this series, everyone has their turn outwitting each other with tricks, plans and wily scams.
SpongeBob doesn’t simply place meat patties onto the grill — he pings them out with his eye sockets. That’s just one example of many.
He regularly kills himself only to pop back up again. e.g. Slicing himself into thirds then immediately reforming into his character. He is literally indestructible.
His body morphs according to his emotions. Like Courage the Cowardly Dog, he can mould his spongey body into any shape that he likes. Whereas Courage does this once per episode, SpongeBob does it frequently, as the story sees fit.
DELIBERATELY ON-THE-NOSE NARRATION
SpongeBob Squarepants as a series makes heavy use of what I’ll call ‘on-the-nose narration’. In a straight (non-comedic) story, having a character announce to no one in particular all about the scene and backstory is a definite no-no, but here it is totally accepted. This is almost a kind of parody on stories in general. The writers are asking, “Why are we even telling you all this stuff? Why are you even watching this made-up crap?” The answer, of course, is you’re watching it PURELY for the jokes. There is no higher reason for these stories to exist — no moral, nothing.
As an example, take the pilot episode. SpongeBob stands outside a restaurant and embarks upon a monologue all about the Crabby Patties, telling us that help is wanted and letting us know his reason for going in. (To get a job.)
Throughout the series, each episode is introduced by an ambiguously foreign-sounding narrator who invites us to remember that this is just a silly story and not to be taken seriously.
SATIRE OF HEIST/SPY STORIES
In one episode SpongeBob wears a disguise which is no such thing. Characters within the setting are fooled by his giant Afro wig and headband from the seventies, which is also so big it includes the filter of madcap.
SATIRE OF GET SMART/INSPECTOR GADGET ETC.
One episode features super spy equipment which is a pen that also turns into a pencil.
SPONGEBOB’S DIFFERENT VOICES
Related to this is one of SpongeBob’s character traits: While he has a ‘SpongeBob’ voice which we all recognise immediately, he regularly breaks out in a completely different voice (though voiced by the same actor). When he uses this voice he is usually parodying some other genre.
“I’ve been training my whole life for the day I could join the Krusty crew!” he says, flinging open the doors of the restaurant where he wants to get a job. Visually, this is like an old Western. In terms of dialogue, he is parodying any sort of ‘hero’s journey’ character arc, in which a boy (most often a boy) dreams of being something important and then achieves his wishes, but not without trials and tribulations.
11. MISPLACED FOCUS
Barnacle Boy and Mermaid Man are keeping watch on top of a tower, telling each other how they must always be prepared for when disaster strikes. Importantly, their dialogue comprises a list of cliches about being alert. But when SpongeBob turns up unexpectedly they fall off the tower in fright. That’s when we learn SpongeBob has only brought them donuts.
In Your Shoe’s Untied, the big reveal at the end of the story is that SpongeBob’s cat-snail has feet with shoes on, which we can only see if he lifts up his slimy body. We saw Gary the snail wander into the living room at the very beginning of the episode, so the story feels circular and complete at the end, when it is revealed that Gary is the only creature in Bikini Bottom who is able to tie shoes. Yet we never thought to look.
SPONGEBOB AND AUTISM
I hear so much from parents of autistic kids and caretakers of autistic kids, and this happens so much and comes up so often that somebody should write a term paper on it, that SpongeBob in particular is something that speaks to them. It’s the thing that they laugh at, the thing they obsess at, the thing they talk about and know every line of every episode […] And I don’t know what there is in that show that talks to kids that are on the spectrum, I don’t know, but more than other cartoons, that one … maybe because SpongeBob as a character is a little autistic. Obsessed with his job, very hardworking, gets really really deep into something.
Tom Kenny, voice of SpongeBob via the Marc Marron podcast, episode 324
Can SpongeBob be coded as autistic? Tom Kenny describes a stereotype of autism above. (Not all autistic people are obsessed with their jobs, for instance.) While Patrick is the ‘optimistic-happy-stoopid’ archetype, SpongeBob’s comic ‘stupidity’ takes a different form. When it suits the storyline, SpongeBob’s shortcoming looks more like social naivety/obliviousness. This is a gag utilised in the Netflix series Atypical (which I’m not recommending, for various reasons).
This social naivety stands out in the Graveyard Shift episode.
SpongeBob doesn’t understand that Squidward is making up a scary story on the spot in order to scare him. There are plenty of clues for the audience, putting us in ‘audience superior’ position, a form of dramatic irony which is really enjoyable for kids, especially. Namely, Squidward has to ask SpongeBob what day it is today (Tuesday) before declaring that the spatula handed monster will be turning up today. Squidward is forced to admit he’s joking after SpongeBob won’t stop a lengthy bout of crying. But when SpongeBob learns he’s supposed to laugh, he laughs longer and harder than is natural or comfortable. As a consequence, Squidward is forced to be mean again to stop SpongeBob from laughing. It appears from this scene that SpongeBob behaves in a way that he feels he should, getting it slightly wrong he also fails to pick up he cues that Squidward is joking and needs to be told. This behaviour is known as ‘masking‘ among autists and perhaps explains why some of SpongeBob’s behaviours feel familiar, leading to an extra layer of reference humour for many viewers on the autistic spectrum.
The following gang of three ‘boys’ is pretty common in drama/comedy:
One is neurotypical but an outcast for some reason (e.g. late puberty for Sam in Freaks and Geeks). This is the guy the audience identifies with. SpongeBob’s extreme shortcoming is the equivalent to Sam’s short stature.
One is an over-confident but misguided skeeve. (That’d be Neal in Freaks and Geeks.)
One could be coded as autistic due to his naivety and loveable innocence. (That’d be Bill from Freaks and Geeks.)
EXERCISE: We can paste this triad onto many shows. Try it for The I.T. Crowd or for Seinfeld. Or for kids’ books like Diary of a Wimpy Kid. It’s pretty obvious, right?
It’s admittedly a stretch to identify parallels between Star Trek and SpongeBob, but the affinity is stronger than it might first seem. The cartoon’s core emotional triad contains powerful echoes of the anxiety-ridden three-way that gave Star Trek its homoerotic frisson.
The ‘New Situation’ describes the part of a story also known as the ‘denouement’. The audience is left with a sense of what the main character’s life will be like from now on. This comes right after the anagnorisis(realisation) sequence. The main character has undergone a change (unless it’s a comedy) and their life will be better than before, worse than before, or just plain old different.
In any case, the audience wants enough clues to guess how life is going to turn out for them from here on in.
DIFFERENCES OF OPINION
There is often controversy about where a film ‘should have’ ended. Audiences want different things from their endings. Take Adventureland, a 2009 coming-of-age film. Hang out at review forums and you’ll soon notice that a lot of people think the story should have ended with the main character saying goodbye on the hill. Realistically, in the real world, he would probably never see these people again. But this is movie land, and we see a (dream?) sequence in which his crush moves to New York and they live happily ever after. The screenwriters decided the audience of this film would appreciate a happy ending, but the scene on the hill would certainly have been enough of a ‘New Equilibrium’ from a storytelling point of view. All we really needed to know was that the main character is moving on and his life is going to be completely different in New York.
This is where literary short stories deviate from traditional story structure… sometimes. Sometimes we are given very little clues about about how life will be from now on, with short stories sometimes ending at the Self Revelation moment. ‘Get in, get out’, with emphasis here on the ‘get out’. I’m talking specifically about short stories which are what I’d describe as ‘epiphanic moments’. A character makes some small discovery about something/someone. Even in these stories, if you go back you’ll be able to ‘extrapolate’ what their life will be like from now on. In short, short stories require more imaginative work on the part of the reader.
(Genre short stories work the same as longer works, with all seven steps.)
EXTRAPOLATED ENDINGS IN NEVER-ENDING PICTURE BOOKS
I include the ‘extrapolated ending’ as a final optional step in storytelling because some stories leave us with an open ending, in which case the work of finishing off is left up to the audience. Since audience members will vary on this, I like to consider it a separate step from the ‘New Equilibrium’ the author has chosen for us.
There is a very common sort of extrapolated ending in picture books — you can probably guess what it is.
It is often implied that the same adventure is about to happen all over again. Perhaps there will be a bit of a tweak. Picture books are unique in that they are the only book designed to be read at least fifty times by both a young and old audience, so this particular story structure encourages readers to think beyond the last page, and acknowledges that they’ll probably be back.
Not all picture books are sweetness and light and routine and comforting, however. This is a fairly new trend (though was already observed by kidlit critics in 1988 — see the work of Sheila Egoff in Give Them Wings) but contemporary popular children’s books are increasingly likely to be open ended.
Famously, This Is Not My Hat and I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen have rather gory implied endings. (The sneaky but cheeky fish protagonist gets eaten, for example.) What would have happened if Jon Klassen had shown the little fish being eaten by the big fish? (Or more likely, inside the big fish’s stomach wondering what happened.) This would have probably been considered too much for the youngest popular audience. In short, an extrapolated ending allows children with the capacity for gore to imagine what they like, while more sensitive types don’t have to go there at all.
HORRORS AND IRREPRESIBLE BADDIES
Here’s something picture books have in common with horror films.
In Dead Calm (to take just one example), the audience is left with a sense of calm, knowing that the man and woman have defeated the sociopathic killer. But just before the end, we are given evidence that the killer is not in fact dead. The entire story is about to repeat itself, only this time it may not go so well.
Here’s the thing about horror opponents — they are mechanical in their behaviour and you can’t kill them, no matter how hard you try. Ghosts come back as different kinds of ghouls, possessed creatures show up in different, more invasive places and so on and so forth.
PARABLES, FAIRYTALES AND PARABLE-SPOOFS
Those really old fables and Charles Perrault fairytales offer a moral lesson after the new situation in which we extrapolate that this particular character is not going to make the same mistake ever again… and neither should you.
The “Ripped Pants” episode of Spongebob Squarepants does the same thing, with a musical outtake instead of the didactic paragraph, in a spoof of a parable about recycling the same joke.
Kurt Vonnegut famously advised writers: Characters must want something, even if it’s just a glass of water.
Desire in storytelling describes what the character thinks they want. What we want is influenced by society and acculturation, so a character’s desires will be affected by their past and present setting.
It is not enough to say that everyone should only do what they want. That’s a bromide that anyone can parrot and it ignores the ways that society pressures us to want certain things.
Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex by Angela Chen
According to Vonnegut, this thing they think they want could be something run-of-the-mill. But maybe that character who wants a glass of water really needs human interaction, which is why they’ve visited the corner shop to buy a bottle of water rather than drinking it out of the kitchen tap. This advice is so fundamental, every storytelling guru will tell you a version of the same thing.
Some authors don’t bother with such low stakes as a glass of water. Before Caroline Leavitt starts any novel, she asks herself the following questions about each of her characters:
What does she want at the beginning of the novel and why? And what’s at stake if she doesn’t get it? “There has to be something at stake. It has to be something really major. I mean, if she just wants a glass of water, that’s not really interesting.”
Note that ‘stakes’ is a concept closely related to ‘desire’. John Yorke prefers the term ‘active goal’ rather than ‘desire’:
All archetypal stories are defined by this one essential tenet: the central character has an active goal. They desire something. If characters don’t then it’s almost impossible to care for them, and care we must. They are our avatars and thus our entry point: they are the ones we most want to win or to find redemption — or indeed be punished if they’ve transgressed, for subconsciously we can be deeply masochistic in our desires. Effectively they’re us. […] If a character doesn’t want something, they’re passive. And if they’re passive, they’re effectively dead. Without a desire to animate the protagonist, the writer has no hope of bringing the character alive, no hope of telling a story and the work will almost always be boring.
John Yorke, Into The Woods
Velleity: A wish or inclination not strong enough to lead to action.
Without desire, no story, so the story gurus tell us. This is so basic — at first glance what more could be to it? This comic strip by Poorly Drawn Lines takes a common desire line and spoofs it. Why does it work as a joke? Because of the juxtaposition between (noble) quest and the completely unremarkable character arc — the discovery that he can eat his roommate’s leftovers with basically no consequences. This flaunts the basic “rules” of storytelling which we all know intuitively: When a character has a strong desire they go on an important quest and undergo significant character change as a result. Achieving their goal must be hard. It can’t come easily or you don’t have a fully-fleshed story. So everyone knows this — everyone gets the joke in that comic — but when you sit down to write your actual story you may find yourself wrestling with the following:
Your character did want something, but now they’ve got it and your story doesn’t feel long enough, or quite finished.
You might know what your character wants, but what if they don’t? What if you need your character to be lacking in self-awareness?
CHARACTER SHORTCOMING AND ITS LINK TO DESIRE
Your character’s shortcoming is linked to their desire. (Click through on that link for a whole lot more.) A character’s desire is always contingent upon what has happened before.
Maybe desire is nothing but memory, And we dream only what has already been.
Tracy K. Smith
ESTABLISHMENT OF DESIRE EQUALS BEGINNING OF STORY
DESIRE BECOMES CLEAR AT THE INCITING INCIDENT
If you think of story structure in terms of ‘inciting incidents‘ (of questionable value), the main character’s desire becomes clear to the main character and to the audience after the inciting incident. That’s what the inciting incident is for. A specific type of inciting incident is Hitchcock’s ‘McGuffin’. This is an inciting incident which the audience has completely forgotten about by story’s end. The best inciting incidents subvert readers’ expectations. Inciting incidents aren’t always so easy to pick as an ‘explosion which rocks the main character’s world’. It can be much more subtle.
The protagonist will be alerted to a world outside their own.
They will make a decision on how to react to this and pursue a course of action that will precipitate a crisis.
This will force them to make a decision propelling them into a whole new universe.
FULFILMENT OF DESIRE EQUALS END OF STORY
Joss [Whedon] makes his living denying people what they want.
Whedon seems to live by advice as explained by Karl Iglesias:
A scene with a chase-and-capture dynamic (the character achieves their scene objective) or a chase-and-escape (they don’t get what they want). A balanced plot line will often include scenes that alternate between the two. Once the writer establishes the central question of whether the protagonist will accomplish their goal, the scenes that answer, “Yes they will!” in a small scene victory should alternate with “No they won’t” in a defeat, back and forth. This alternates the potent visceral emotions of hope and worry. Because a scene is like a mini-story, its beats can also alternate between satisfaction whenever the central character gets a step closer to getting what he wants, and frustration whenever there’s a setback, creating a dance between hope and worry within one scene, and thus keeping the reader hooked.
Karl Iglesias, Writing For Emotional Impact
Likewise, when your character has got what they want, your story is over. (Or maybe your main character does not get what they want, in which case you’ve written a tragedy.) If they get what they want ‘halfway through’ your novel, avoid trying to fix that problem by giving them a new desire. New desire means a new story.
“There are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart’s desire. The other is to gain it.”
George Bernard Shaw (Both work irl; only the first applies if it’s fiction.)
However! Desire mutates. Desire strengthens. In fact, in many, many stories you’ll see a passive underdog main character drawn unwillingly into adventure but at the halfway point (and yes, it’s usually exactly the midpoint in a film) they’ll ‘double down’. Now they really, really want that thing they were meh about at the beginning. Desire does not change over the course of a single story. Your main character has one main desire, they go to the ends of the earth to get it (or not) and then the story is over. Contrast this with ‘character plans‘. Plans change all the time. Initial plans fail and characters must invent increasingly ingenious ways to overcome opponents.
In uncertainty I am certain that underneath their topmost layers of frailty men want to be good and want to be loved. Indeed, most of their vices are attempted shortcuts to love…We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the neverending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is.
John Steinbeck, East of Eden
Some critics think in terms of three layers. Some storytellers think of desire as two-tiered: The surface desire (they want to be included in a group of friends, they want to get their hands on a fairy cup) and deep desire (they want friendship, they crave economic stability and prestige).
Others think in terms of three layers of desire. The Dostoevskian character has at least three layers, writes James Wood in How Fiction Works:
TOP LAYER: The announced motive.
SECOND LAYER: Unconscious motivation. Those strange inversions wherein love turns into hate and guilt expresses itself as poisonous, sickly love.
BOTTOM LAYER: Can only be understood religiously. These characters act like this because they want to be known; even if they are unaware of it, they want to reveal their baseness. They want to confess. They want to reveal the dark shamefulness of their souls. They act scandalously and appallingly without quite knowing why.
(This all explains why Freud and Nietzche were attracted to Dostoevsky’s work.)
RATIONAL AND IRRATIONAL DESIRES
One function of dreams in literature is to convey to the audience what a character really desires, compared to what they think they desire. Erich Fromm marks this distinction as ‘rational’ vs ‘irrational’ wishes in a chapter about dream interpretation:
We often wish things that are rooted in our shortcoming and compensate for it; we dream of ourselves as famous, all powerful loved by everybody, etc. But sometimes we dream of wishes which are the anticipation of our most valuable goals. We can see ourselves as dancing or flying; we see the city of light; we experience the happy presence of friends. Even if we are not yet capable in our waking life to experience the joy of the dream, the dream experience shows that we are at least capable of wishing it and seeing it fulfilled in a dream fantasy. Fantasies and dreams are the beginning of many deeds, and nothing would be worse than to discourage or depreciate them.
Erich Fromm, The Forgotten Language
This is also how storytellers make use of symbols and motifs — the storycrafting equivalent of dreams.
FAIRYTALE AND ROMANTIC DESIRES
Why does Rumpelstiltskin want the young woman’s first born? Why does the Erl-King want the boy, for that matter? We’re never told. It’s not supposed to matter.
In fairy tales influenced by the Romance era, character desire doesn’t seem to be as vital to story as mood and symbolism. Romantic poets weren’t about being the active participant, having a desire then going after it. Instead they were more about being tortured souls, the original Goths, haunted by poetry, at the whims of strong forces, often supernatural, outside their control and understanding.
The three most famous poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge are “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, “Kubla Khan” and “Christabel”. Each one of these poems features a main character whipped away from themselves by some violent and supernatural force. Likewise, Keats wrote odes in which the speaker takes leave of himself by way of contemplation.
These Romantic narratives are not about the desires of the ‘main characters’ (or rather, victim muses) but rather about the desires of the gods. The desires of gods are left off the page. Mere morals can never hope to understand the desire of the gods, and that is the very point. The mere mortals in these poems also remain mysterious to us because we’re not told anything about their wants and needs, either. This makes them different from the regular reader. Obfuscation of desire is a feature of Romantic stories and is deliberate.
The modern audience wants something different from fictional characters. We want to walk in their shoes, to experience another world as they experience it, to undergo a character arc as they do. What applied to Romance poems does not apply to modern stories. This is partly to do with how we are not a religious population in the same way. We don’t explain the world by reassuring ourselves with, “Oh, well, we can’t possibly know what the gods are thinking.” (Though we do still recognise the phrase, “God works in mysterious ways!”)
When modern storytellers take hold of those old narratives and fairytales influenced by Romantic sensibilities, the desire is left wide open and therefore open to fresh interpretation. This makes for a wide variety of re-visionings. What does the Erl-King want with the boy? Well, he could want sex (in a darkly erotic tale). Or he might want him as another kind of servant, or he may have blood lust and desire to kill him. The possibilities are endless.
DESIRE IN FEMININE GOTHIC FICTION
Published in 1818, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley was hugely influential, partly for affording The Other human emotions, turning him into a sympathetic character. This started a new form of Gothic literature which some people call the feminine Gothic.
Desire has always been a problematic issue for women (forbidden, suppressed, problematised, medicalised) so it’s natural that woman creators have messed with it through their art.
Desire plays a big part in feminine Gothic fiction. In Gothic texts there is generally some kind of violent separation at the beginning. In fact, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has gone so far as to say that separation is one of the most characteristic gothic conventions.
Separation from daughter through imprisonment (Maria)
Separation from creator through abandonment (Frankenstein)
Separation from family through exclusion (Jane Eyre)
And so it follows that the character desires reconnection. Note that the desire for reconnection applies to a vast number of modern narratives.
Michael Hauge urges writers not to worry about unoriginal desires. The desire is probably not where the originality of your story will come from, since we all basically want the same things (see Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs):
Don’t worry about your hero’s desire being trite and familiar. Just about all visible goals in any genre have been done many, many times. Usually they are some version of either winning a battle or competition (HUNGER GAMES), winning another character’s love (THE PRINCESS BRIDE), escaping a bad situation (JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE), retrieving something of value (any Indiana Jones movie), or stopping something bad from happening (any MISSION IMPOSSIBLE or AVENGERS movie). As for inner motivations, they will almost all be to gain love, acceptance, power, revenge or significance.
It’s the CONFLICTS heroes face in pursuing their desires, and the ways they plan to overcome these obstacles, that will make any story original and emotionally involving. So, focus on the external obstacles your hero must conquer to achieve her goal, and the inner conflict that pits your hero’s fear and identity against the emotional courage she must show to fulfill her destiny.
LESS COMMON DESIRES
Mauerbauertraurigkeit: The inexplicable urge to push people away, even close friends who you really like.
Lachesism: The desire to be struck by diaster, e.g. to survive a plane crash or to lose everything in a fire.
(Megan McDonald’s Judy Moody title is comically hyperbolic — preadolescent Judy Moody is interested in finding her place in her own community.)
Characters who seem to want nothing still want something. They want homeostasis. Or, they may want someone else to do the thing that they want:
We often think of motivations as taking the form of wanting to bring about some state of affairs. They may also, however, take the form of wishing some state of affairs to obtain. This distinction between wants and wishes is important.
Explaining Social Behaviour by Jon Elster
Don’t tell me where your priorities are. Show me where you spend your money and I’ll tell you what they are.
James W. Frick
ACTIVELY PASSIVE CHARACTERS
The fact remains, fictional characters who want stuff but don’t actually do anything about it don’t make for compelling story.
What if your character is not a cop or a surgeon or a hero? What if they want to sit on the couch? If you have a passive main character (and by ‘main character‘ I mean simply ‘the character we see the most’), one workaround is to make them actively passive. That’s key.
Also key: Things are happening around them. Other characters must have strong desires. Even to maintain their status quo, your main character must go out of their way to maintain it.
THE CONCEPT OF THE ‘PHERE’
Phere is a Jungian concept, pronounced ‘fear’. In relation to story structure, Shawn Coyne has talked about it. He describes it like this:
it’s the unit of energy that turns a unit of story. … it’s a unit of energy that comes into a story that creates fear in the character. … The phere is the thing that induces the shift in valence from satisfied to unsatisfied.
In real life people don’t tend to put their lives at risk to get things they really badly want, right? Most people just hang around sort of satisfied with the status quo. If your main character doesn’t have a ‘desire’, per se, better perhaps to talk about ‘whatever gets them fired up’. Here’s another thing Shawn Coyne has to say about pheres:
If it’s the beginning hook, you’re probably going to start with a big phere and then you’re going to taper off and then move up and it’s like the movement and the expansion of the energy applied to the system will create a cathartic experience at the end.
In almost all stories, desire grows stronger and stronger over the course of a story. We might therefore think of a phere as a ‘Macguffin Desire’. It’ll do until the til-death-do-us-part desire takes over and drives the main character into big struggle.
CHARACTERS WHO HAVE CONFLICTING DESIRES
This isn’t a problem in your storytelling because a story starring character with two conflicting desires is a story about… conflict! And conflict is good for storytelling. Also, people are walking contradictions. We all want conflicting things.
In his book What Makes Us Tick? Hugh Mackay talks about our conflicting desire for homeostasis and predictability which rubs up against our need for constant change. He also points out that we can want something badly, but as soon as we get it, we wonder why we craved it in the first place.
The question is: why? Is it that we know, deep within us, that if we don’t change we will wither and die, intellectually and emotionally, if not actually?
Or is it that we crave change more than we care to admit; that we love surprises and challenges because they bring us to life and force a reaction from us? Yet the very notion of upheaval is at war with our apparently sincere wish for stability and stasis. Just as the homeostatic mechanisms of the body automatically adjust for tilt or for temperature change (making us shiver to warm up or sweat to cool down), we imagine that we automatically seek that kind of emotional stability, too. Who wants to be shocked by an unwelcome turn of events? Who wants to be obliged to change their minds?
Perhaps this tension between our intellectual need for surprise and uncertainty and our emotional need for security and stability accounts for the restlessness of the human spirit documented by poets, philosophers, theologians and psychologists. It often feels as if we desire one thing and desire its opposite.
Hugh Mackay, What Makes Us Tick
Of course this bundle of conflicting desires will be reflected in fiction, and indeed makes for the most interesting kind of fiction.
FEMINISM AND GOALS
Female characters sometimes seem passive but in fact they are limited by the setting, not permitted to pursue a goal even if they have one. ‘Goals’ as necessary elements of fiction are therefore a feminist issue.
In my education as a TV writer, I heard the same advice on repeat: your protagonist must drive through a story in the relentless pursuit of a goal. This gold standard of storytelling exists for good reason. Stick to it and your story will be clear, your main character a hero, and your narrative comfortable and familiar enough for people to invest in emotionally. In other words, something must happen externally. They have to be forced into action, even if it’s in a vain attempt to keep everything exactly the same as it was before. Often in realistic fiction it’s the annoying mother or a teacher on their tail. In a fantasy/thriller there’s a much wider range of villains who can enter the story to turn a character’s life upside down. … She is limited, and the audience is made to feel this limitation. Women are not often allowed to manipulate this sacred storytelling framework in television. Men, and male-centered narratives, have dominated the small screen from the early days of three-camera sitcoms, right through to what’s now being dubbed as The Golden Age of TV. These narratives privilege a quintessentially male experience. An experience where you get to do what you want, when you want, mostly free from systems that control your movements and decisions. The ideal of the active protagonist assumes your main character is free to act. But it’s hard to venture forth when the deck is stacked against you.
Courtney Jane Walker, What Makes Alias Grace So Good
Cynthia Benis Abrams hosts a podcast called Advanced TV Herstory. The episode from March 22 2018 is about a new kind of aimless character. In TV series, female characters can be divided into categories according to what they want:
Wants to get married
Wants to dedicate self to family
Working mother, often single
Retired woman (these are few — standout example is The Golden Girls)
Feminerd — great at her job, not so lucky in love. Wants it all. (The Mindy Project, New Girl)
The woman who isn’t sure what she wants out of life. This character lets life happen to her. She spends her time responding to external events.
This sixth category is especially interesting from the writing and desire line point of view. Why does this character find popularity and what gave rise to her? The answer to that can be found in the history of melodrama, which I wrote about here. Like the Romantic poems, melodrama features characters who respond to external events rather than drive them. This is why melodrama is considered a feminine form of storytelling.
However, the woman who doesn’t know what she wants is limited to the cable networks rather than seen on the big screen. The big, public networks aren’t taking risks on this kind of aimless woman, yet. This indicates she’s still pretty niche. Look at the following examples and you’ll know people who can’t stand these shows, indicating their niche-ness:
Piper Chapman in Orange Is The New Black. (I can’t bear this character myself — she’s the weak link in the entire cast.)
Jessa from Girls, who starts out as a party girl. She marries but it doesn’t last. She has no clear goals throughout most of the series, but she does find herself later on, lending a sense of conclusion to the series.
Chloe from Don’t Trust the B**** in Apartment B.
There is one example from an earlier era. The Days and Nights Of Molly Dodd ran from 1987-1991 and stars a woman who is reactive rather than proactive. She is roll-over nice but isn’t the go-getter audiences had gotten used to after second wave feminism of the 1970s.
This woman is a new trope, specific (mostly) to the 2010s. This probably reflects the dominant American culture, in which millennial women can have two postgraduate degrees from an Ivy League and still find themselves under- or unemployed. Young women no longer believe that it’s possible to have it all. Their grandmothers (or mothers) were the first to have a choice between family and career or both. I come from an in-between generation where there was never any doubt that family and career can go hand-in-hand, but with rising student debt and house prices, millennial women are realising kids might be impossible, even if they want a family. The sit-com Friends is perhaps the bridge between those second wave feminist women and the Piper Chapman/New Girl trope.
Season One of Friends is a great one, for a sitcom. It’s not a great season for Friends, by a mile. The show would soon find its footing with more serialized storylines, and the cast would only get better with time. Even so, the early episodes did a great job of introducing us to the gang and making us want to hang out with them again. The plot would thicken up nicely, but at first it was simple. Twenty-somethings navigating the usual travails of young-ish adulthood, most of which can conceivably be worked out in 22-minutes: Rachel can’t do laundry, so Ross teaches her how. Joey and Chandler’s crappy kitchen table breaks, so they buy a new one—a foosball table! The girls have a moment of existential dread, realizing that youth is past and life is chaotic and they “don’t even have a pla,” let alone a plan. So, they get drunk, problem solved.
I haven’t looked into TV’s aimless men, but that would be interesting to compare. Brett and Jemaine from Flight of the Conchords are fairly aimless, but their backseat goal is to get gigs. They are just as easily sidetracked by getting jobs as sandwich boards or making helmet hair. I’m not sure if this counts as ‘aimless’, or if it’s more accurate to say their aims are comically trivial.
WHEN CHARACTERS DON’T KNOW WHAT THEY WANT
The female sit-com characters listed above demonstrate that a story can be successful even when they are basically aimless.
There is still much room in the world for stories about characters who think they know what they want, because everyone else seems to want it, but who then question their mimetic desire:
In theory, mimetic desire can be perfectly fine. In practice, the world is not a neutral place. … If you don’t know who you are or what you want, the world will decide for you. It will show you a couple of options and tell you those are the only ones. As so many people throughout this book have said, it takes active work to step back, to create even enough space to take a breath and admit that maybe you don’t know what you want, but what has been offered has never felt right. … It takes active work to step back, to create even enough space to take a breath and admit that maybe you don’t know what you want, but what has been offered has never felt right.
Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex by Angela Chen
Naturally, child characters aren’t going to know what it is they want. Knowing what we want takes maturity and reflection.
“I don’t want whatever I want. Nobody does. Not really. What kind of fun would it be if I just got everything I ever wanted just like that, and it didn’t mean anything? What then?”
Middle grade novel Coraline is of course written in the tradition of melodrama.
Part of the interest of a character is seeing them come to an understanding of what they want:
A teenager wants to stay out all night and party past curfew but what they really (also) want (need) is to show their parents that they are grown now, and don’t need to live life by their parents’ rules. (Young adult literature)
A toddler wants to eat ice cream instead of broccoli, but also wants/needs to show their parents they are the boss of what goes into their mouth. (Picture books)
A future king wants to overcome his stuttering in order to give a speech but wants/needs to prove to himself, his family and the public that he is up to a leadership role. (Adult film)
The most interesting goals will be an outworking of the main character’s deep-seated desire. Greg from Me, Earl and the Dying Girl wants love and wants to be accepted, which is precisely why he has made it his mission to cheer up the dying girl.
A common combo: The character knows what they want on the surface (the treasure, new shoes, to get away from the monster), but doesn’t understand themselves well enough to know what they want at a deeper level. This is where fairy stories come in. To use the word ‘fairy’ in the broadest sense, a fairy stands for a desire which cannot be expressed. Perhaps this desire is too terrifying to confront head-on. Perhaps it simply cannot be named.
WHEN WRITERS DON’T KNOW WHAT THEIR CHARACTERS WANT
As explained above, just as we often have conflicting desires, it is very common for people to not really know what we want. In narrative, this isn’t very satisfying to a modern audience. Plenty of characters don’t know what they want. That’s why they’re sitting around waiting for life to happen to them. But in a story, at some point they must either realise what it is they desire (based on psychological need) or not, in which case this will be their downfall. We all want many things. Janis Joplin wants a Mercedes Benz, a colour TV, and a night on the town. That’s just the conscious desire, by the way. What she really wants is to be valued as much as her friends are.
CHARACTER DESIRE AND WOMEN
Most of the storytelling gurus work for screenwriters and are men. I would like to add to the discussion: Female characters, in fiction as in real life, will attract audience criticism for expressing certain desires and it’s important for writers to understand this basic gender difference sexism when creating a story. Jill Soloway (non-binary) is one of the big name California writers, and has this to say about women and desire as it relates to their experience directing in the macho world of Hollywood:
Women are shamed for having desire for anything — for food, for sex, for anything. We’re asked to only be the object for other people’s desire. There’s nothing that directing is about more than desire. It’s like, ‘I want to see this. I want to see it with this person. I want to change it. I want to change it again.’ It’s like directing is female desire over and over again, and film is the capturing of human emotions and somehow men were able to swindle us into believing that that is their specialty. All they told us our whole life is we’re too emotional to do any real jobs, yet they’ve taken the most emotional job, which is art making about human emotions and said we’re not capable of it.
Jill Soloway recently adapted I Love Dick for TV — a story which is in its entirety about the most taboo female desires.
I don’t care how you see me, I don’t care if you want me. It’s better that you don’t. It’s enough that I want you.
the main female character to an imaginary male object of desire
If characters must have desire in order to be interesting and, as Jill Soloway has noticed, women aren’t permitted desire in the dominant culture, it follows that any female characters are likely to be less interesting than male characters, relegated to supporting roles and turned into objects. There are many, many examples, but here’s one:
It’s rare to see any film, much less a PG-13 one for broad audiences, present a woman as a sex object as blatant as Lady Lisa, a fantasy who falls into a man’s arms without so much as a word
Jill Soloway’s I Love Dick is a response to this long history of storytelling. Perhaps there are some desires which are more specific to women. Jane Caro mentions Hugh McKay’s book What Makes Us Tickin this article, in which Caro expands her definition of feminism to mean, basically: The desire to be taken seriously. That’s the desire of many women, and of many female characters in particular.
DESIRE AND CHARACTER EMPATHY
In fiction there’s a surefire way to set up the villain of the piece: The villain is the one who wants money and power. Especially power.
THE ROLE OF OPPONENTS
Somebody’s got to want something, something’s got to be standing in their way of getting it. You do that and you’ll have a scene.
EVERY CHARACTER NEEDS THEIR OWN DESIRE
Peripheral character ego. The antidote to superman syndrome, the legitimate desire of peripheral characters to be doing something even when being ignored by the protagonists and author. Every peripheral character should behave (whether onstage or off) as if he or she is the most important actor in the story, with his or her own genuine motivations and independence. Tom Stoppard, the maestro of this conceit, built it into a whole play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. (CSFW: David Smith)
This is a tip from Karl Iglesias in Writing For Emotional Impact. In each scene, the lead character of that scene will have a desire. If sketching out a story plan, Iglesias advises phrasing that character’s desire in relation to that person’s opponents in the scene:
NOT: Spongebob goes to the Krabby Patty hoping to get a job. INSTEAD: Spongebob goes to the Krabby Patty to persuade Mr Krabs and Squidward to give him a job.
The reason for doing so? To remind yourself that every dramatic scene requires conflict of desires. (For more on Spongebob, see this post.)
GENRE AND DESIRE
Each genre has its own desire line tropes.
For instance, in romance the reader knows that the main character wants to find love. Though what they really want is to find wholeness, and themselves reflected in another individual.
There are countless reasons to read romance novels and much to love about the genre. But ten months into my journey as a newbie romance reader, I’ve finally realized what I personally love so deeply and completely about romance: I always know what the character wants, and I know they’re going to get it. […] Characters in romance novels can be just as deep and nuanced as any other characters in fiction. They can want complicated or contradictory things; they can make mistakes; they can spend a hundred pages pining over the wrong person before finally realizing that it’s someone else who will make them happy. But unlike other kinds of fiction, the underlying current of desire, the thing that drives the plot, the mechanism that makes you turn pages—is never, ever a surprise.