Stephen King’s list of top ten ALL TIME favourite books is doing the rounds, because anything Stephen King has ever said regularly does the rounds. That’s why I’m going to focus on Stephen King as just one example of a wider trend: Men don’t count women among their favourites. Continue reading “The Sexism Behind Top Ten Lists”
IT is a 1986 horror novel by Stephen King, first adapted for screen in 1990, and most recently in 2017. This blog post is about the storytelling of the 2017 film.
THE TERRIBLE MONSTER OF IT
I liked what one reviewer had to say about IT: The monster in this film is whatever the story requires him to be for the scene. Indeed, this monster is the ultimate shapeshifter, sometimes calm, sometimes unleashed. This monster is a writer’s dream — he seems to have no rules. Why doesn’t every horror writer create a monster like this? He’s awesome.
He’s also one-dimensional. Continue reading “Stephen King’s IT Storytelling Techniques”
Reversals and reveals are vital for creating momentum and suspense in a story. Certain genres are required to be more page-turny than others, and all children’s literature must be page-turny. So you’ll find reversals and reveals everywhere in children’s literature.
WHAT ARE ‘REVEALS’?
‘Reveal’ started out as a verb, but is now commonly used by writers as a noun. This happened when novelists turned to TV, apparently.
‘Oh darling, [story is] just two or three little surprises followed every now and again by a bigger surprise.
– Peggy Ramsay, agent
A revelation is basically a surprise.
Revelation is seen by the audience as motion, even if nothing has changed but knowledge or insight.
WHAT ARE ‘REVERSALS’?
‘Reversals’ are ‘big reveals’. The audience’s understanding of everything in the story is turned on its head. They suddenly see every element of the plot in a new light. All reality changes in an instant. ‘Reversal’ is a term writers use. Audiences tend to just say ‘plot twist’, but that often just means a sequence they weren’t able to easily predict. For example, when Andy escapes in Shawshank Redemption, that’s not a reversal. It might qualify as a twist because we generally expect life-prisoners to stay where they are.
The Sixth Sense, however, includes a genuine reversal because the famous revelation requires us to regard the entire story until that point in a completely different light. The big reversal reveal comes right at the end of the story. This has the advantage of sending the audience out of the theater with a knockout punch. It’s the biggest reason this movie was a hit. (M. Night Shyalaman didn’t come up with the idea of the psychologist being dead until well after his first draft. Though he managed to make it feel very new, Shyalaman was borrowing from a long tradition of Dead All Along characters.)
An example of a reversal is when the audience finds out who A.D. is on Pretty Little Liars. A mistake the writers of that show made was waiting seven seasons to give that information to the audience. Desperate Housewives, the writer’s mentor series, wrapped up mysteries at the end of each season, not at the end of the entire series. This is called a ‘reveal’ but is also a reversal because we realise A.D. was in front of us the whole time. We are asked to think back on everything we’ve seen so far and consider in a new light.
The Greeks called this ‘peripeteia’. A classic example is Oedipus Rex — it’s the bit where he finds out about his parents. Fast forward a few years we have Luke Skywalker finding out who his father is.
A story can have more than one reversal. While minor reversals can occur in every scene, bigger ones tend to divide the work into specific acts.
A reversal reveal is most common in detective stories and thrillers.
But you must be careful with this technique. It can reduce the story to a mere vehicle for plot, and very few stories can support such domination by the plot. O. Henry gained great fame using the reversal technique in his short stories (such as “The Gift of the Magi”), but they were also criticized for being forced, gimmicky, and mechanical.
A subversion is not a modern invention but peripeteia itself; it is the tool that catapults the hero into the opposite of their present state — from thesis to antithesis, from home to a world unknown.
That’s what inciting incidents are too — they are ‘explosions of opposition’, structural tools freighted with all the characteristics the characters lack; embodiments, indeed, of everything they need. Cliffhangers, inciting incidents and crisis points are essentially the same thing: a turning point at the end of an act; the unexpected entry point for the protagonists into the new world; bombs built from the very qualities they lack which explode their existing universe, hurtling them into an alien space of which they must then make sense.
—John Yorke, Into The Woods
The final pay off must follow the internal logic established at the beginning of the story. Scooby Doo is hokey, but did this very well. Now You See Me (the film) has a twist which doesn’t follow the established logic and is considered a failure. It’s not interesting for an audience to see a 100% change of a character’s personality that has been built up throughout the whole movie.
The best reversal is the kind that creates the biggest surprise without ruining the established logic.
Create suspense by providing the audience with a certain amount of information, then leave the rest to their own imagination.
— Alfred Hitchcock
Give the audience just enough to see it coming but not enough to expect it. How to test if the plot twist works or not: The story is rewatchable/re-readable. It should be just as fun if not more fun to go back and see where the writers hint at that twist. This explains why studies show that spoiling a book before a subject reads it makes the reading more enjoyable. The path towards the reversal is more exciting, even though the reader has lost the enjoyment of the surprise. Perhaps this is why lots of stories spoil the ending at the very beginning.
EXAMPLES OF REVEALS AND REVERSALS
Gone Girl has a big reversal when we realise the victim is bad.
Victimised women who are actually evil in their own right may be a trend started by Gillian Flynn. In the b-grade horror/thriller movie Pet (2016) a stalker captures a woman he’s interested in and keeps her in a cage in ‘the tunnels’ of a dog shelter where he works. Halfway through the movie the young woman is discovered by the security guard. The reversal is that instead of wanting to be saved, the captured woman encourages her captor to murder him brutally. The big reveal is that she is a psychopath and the reason the stalker creep has captured her is because by stalking her he has realised this about her.
Safe Haven is a movie based on a Nicholas Sparks novel, which is fun to watch if you enjoy predicting romantic cliches. The minor conflict, the handsome widower, the woman who kids fall in love with. The downpour of rain, the first kiss… Eventually, however, just when there is nothing left (because they’ve fallen into bed), Sparks gives us the first major revelation: He tells the audience why his main character is being followed. All this time we weren’t sure if she’s a baddie, but now we know she’s the victim, abused and stalked by her cop ex-husband. But another supernatural revelation occurs right at the end, when we realize the woman who has befriended our main character has been a ghost all along. This is a reversal, because it causes us to see the entire progression of the relationship in a new light — this coupling hasn’t happened organically at all; it’s been ‘ordained’ by a higher power.
REVERSALS AND REVEALS DONE BADLY
The Rug Jerk
Any gratuitous plot or character twist tossed in solely to jerk the rug out from under the reader for the sake of surprise or shock, without sufficient foundation, foreshadowing or justification (retroactive or otherwise). Essentially any story twist that violates Chekhov’s principles: “If you fire a gun in Act III, it must be seen on the wall in Act I; and if you show a gun on the wall in Act I, it must be fired in Act III.” The Rug Jerk fires the gun without showing it first or explaining where it came from afterwards.
The Reset Switch, aka The Reboot
Any device that allows a writer to completely erase any already-occurred events of a story and bring the characters back to a predefined starting point, with little or no changes to them or their universe. Time travel (“It never happened”), parallel universes (“It never happened *here*”), unconscious duplicates (“We’re all just clones/simulations/androids of the REAL characters!”) and dream-sequences (“It was all a dream!”) have all been used this way. To be avoided unless the existence of such a phenomenon is, itself, the story’s or series’ central plot point (as in *The Man Who Folded Himself* or *The Left Hand of Darkness*).
STORYTELLING TECHNIQUE: THE ‘REVEALS PLOT’
When a story relies on reveals as its main source of interest for its audience, this is known as a ‘reveals’ or ‘revelations’ plot. Another name for this is the ‘big plot’, not just because there are so many surprises but also because they tend to be shocking. Although still immensely popular today—especially in detective stories and thrillers. Mysteries are required to include a big revelation, but other kinds of stories make use of revelation also. (Lord Of The Flies: Who is the beast?)
Came from: The heyday of the reveals plot was the 19th century e.g. Dumas (The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers), Dickens, The Portrait Of A Lady
How It Works:
- The hero generally stays in one place, though it is not nearly so narrow an area as unity of place requires. For example, the story may take place in a town or a city. Desperate Housewives is a great example of a reveals plot. Characters don’t leave the suburbs except to visit hospitals/schools/workplaces which are themselves a part of suburban life.
- The reveals plot almost always covers a longer time period than unity of time allows, even up to a few years.
- The hero is familiar with his or her opponents, but a great deal about them is hidden from the hero and the audience. In Desperate Housewives, the mysterious newcomers have secrets. Characters and audience learn about them as each series progresses.
- These opponents are very skilled at scheming to get what they want. This combination produces a plot that is filled with revelations, or surprises, for the hero and the audience.
- These plots tend to start en medias res, then take the audience backwards and forward through time. We’re not just talking flashback here. One set of scenes might unravel a secret in the forward direction. Another set of scenes might move us backwards from the ‘beginning’ to the source of the mystery itself. In a detective story the plot begins in the middle of the story — the point at which the investigation gets going. In this kind of story, the plot progresses by going backwards in time. The biggest revelation will coincide with the moment of the deepest penetration into the past.
The inverse* of the ‘reveals’ plot is the ‘journey’ plot.
- In the journey plot, surprise is limited because the hero dispatches a large number of opponents quickly.
- The reveals plot takes few opponents and hides as much about them as possible. Revelations magnify the plot by going under the surface.
*Dickens actually blended the reveals plot with the journey plot. This shows what a master he was of plotting, since the two approaches are in many ways opposites.
Advantages Of The Reveals Plot
- The reveals plot is organic because the opponent is the character best able to attack the weakness of the hero, and the surprises come at the moments when the hero and the audience learn how those attacks have occurred. The hero must then overcome his weakness and change or be destroyed.
- The reveals plot maximises surprise. (Since plot basically equals ‘surprise’, surprises are always good.)
Plot in this kind of story comes from digging deeper and deeper into the same world, with each new level providing a whole new batch of reveals, and thus plot, for the audience.
A Common Misperception
A misperception I run into a lot: if a reader is not SHOCKED by your big twist, it’s a failure. This isn’t true! Here’s why…
First, guessing a surprise twist beforehand (as long as it isn’t insulting obvious) can make readers feel smart and vindicated to see they guessed right.
Second, when you use a trope where a certain plot twist/reveal is expected, knowing that reveal is coming ADDS to the tension, it doesn’t detract from it. We’re looking forward to him discovering *gasp* his gf is actually the empress! The anticipation is part of the experience.
So: a plot twist can have value not only in being surprising, but also in being anticipated. How to set up plot twists so they’ll delightfully surprise readers OR add to our breathless anticipation when we guess them early: foreshadow adequately, but don’t make it blindingly obvious (unless you don’t mean for it to be a reveal to us, only to another character).
Try to ensure that your reveal will escalate the stakes and/or evolve at least one conflict (the main external one, an internal conflict, or a conflict between characters) in a new way. If it doesn’t change things in some relevant way, it won’t impact readers.
Types of Reveals
A few main types of plot twists/reveals:
1. those that surprise us but not the character (this type is used often for unreliable narrators; can be super fun, but can also make a reader feel lied to, so use carefully).
2. The type of plot twist that surprises a POV character but not us. Often used in dual POV stories where one character has a secret that we’re in on, but the other POV character isn’t. Great for driving up tension and anticipation as you build toward the reveal.
And finally, 3. The type of plot twist that surprises (or is meant to surprise; refer to earlier tweet about readers guessing it early not necessarily being a bad thing) both readers and the POV characters. Often happens at midpoint &/or climax.
Planning and Editing A Reveals Plot
John Truby advises writers take some time to separate the reveals from the rest of the plot and look at them as one unit. Tracking the revelations sequence is one of the most valuable of all storytelling techniques. You’re checking to see if the sequence builds properly.
1. The sequence of revelations must be logical. They must occur in the order in which the hero would most likely learn of them.
2. Reveals must build in intensity. Ideally, each reveal should be stronger than the one that came before it. This is not always possible, especially in longer stories (for one thing, it defies logic). But you want a general buildup so that the drama increases.
3. Reveals must come at an increasing pace. This also heightens the drama because the audience gets hit with a greater density of surprise.
4. Start the hero’s desire low and raise it with each “reveal”. It’s pretty typical in a story for the hero to be ambling along not wanting anything much and then something happens and they are forced into action. Then, at about the midway point the hero will really, really want that thing, doing everything in their powers to achieve the thing they never really wanted in the first place. The reveals are what drive the hero’s increasing intensity of desire.
Further questions to ask:
- Are these revealed secrets worth knowing? There must be a direct impact on the immediate situation.
- Does the audience have enough context for this revelation to be meaningful?
- Is the secret simple? If it needs heaps of explaining it won’t have any punch when revealed. (“Luke, I am your father.” Not, “Luke, I am your cousin thrice removed.”)
- Have you foreshadowed but not telegraphed?
- Like endings, reversals should feel both inevitable and surprising at once.
- Is this so-called revelation simply one of two possible alternatives considered from the beginning? If so, the answer won’t be much of a ‘revelation’ — more like when you’re expecting a baby it’s probably going to be a boy or a girl. The surprise is pretty minimal in that regard. If you’re stuck with this problem, consider audience misdirection or hint at something different but related.
This is a remake of a 1976 movie based on Stephen King’s 1974 (breakout) novel, Carrie. Critics don’t like this new one much. The criticism is mostly that it was unnecessary because the first adaptation was so good. The original has a slower, more sinister pace and the main thing the reboot did was to add the social media dimension and some modern SFX. However, this is — unfortunately — a timeless story of high school exclusion and bullying.
PREMISE OF CARRIE
A shy girl, outcasted by her peers and sheltered by her religious mother, unleashes telekinetic terror on her small town after being pushed too far at her senior prom. (In the book it’s called the Spring Ball — a lot of the slang/words have been updated.)
DESIGNING PRINCIPLE OF CARRIE
Your own powers can be the end of you. Continue reading “Carrie Storytelling Techniques”
Menstruation happens rarely in fiction. Perhaps you are rattling off half a dozen stories which feature menstruation, hoping to prove me wrong. But when you consider the impact of menstruation on a woman’s life, and how frequently it occurs, menstruation is heavily underrepresented in fiction. We need more of it. Girls going through adolescence in particular need to read more of it. Menstruation is one of the last taboos.
Outside basic instruction for adolescents, it seems adult women don’t read or talk about something that, for most of us, occurs every single month for more than thirty years of our lives. No one ever gets her period in a novel or a film, unless it is her first period, which is typically a part of the plot if it’s shown…even the famous Kinsey and Hite reports don’t mention sex during menstruation.
– Mentioning the Unmentionable, from In Context
Is it there but disguised?
Most ancient stories (up until recently, let’s be honest) have been recorded by men, and men are less likely to write about a uniquely female experience. But when it comes to sexual availability of women, then it does affect men. Take the symbolism of the mermaid versus the siren, for instance, which includes symbolism of menarche:
The single-tailed mermaid and the double-tailed species have not inspired distinct stands of stories. The little mermaid of the single fishtail strikes the onlooker as rather more virginal than the siren who exhibits herself by holding up her two tails on either side of her cleft; she has survived more vigorously in subsequent fairy tales and legends that tell of female initiation to love. The double tail suggests the onset of menarche and sexual maturity (Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid, for example, bleeds when her tail is divided into legs and she becomes a human),
— Marina Warner, No Go The Bogeyman
Menstruation In Middle Grade Literature
May 28 is World Menstruation Day, which aims to bring awareness to how lack of menstrual management products leads to further disadvantage in poor communities. At SBS Life, Vivienne Pearson asked: Where is the children’s fiction which includes periods? Most of the fiction she located for her daughter is from the 1960s and 70s, indicating there has been a disproportionate lack of stories which include menstruation published since then. This is especially disproportionate given the fact girls are reaching menarche younger and younger. It is now very common for girls to get their periods before age 11.
If you’re a wide reader of realistic middle grade fiction aimed mainly at girls, you can’ t help but notice the lack of 9, 10 and 11 year old characters who either have their period, whose friends have their period, or all the worrying and anxiety that tends to accompany the onset of getting a period.
Public Attitude Towards Menstruation In Fiction
Sharing an article about lack of menstruation in children’s literature, SBS Life asked on their Facebook page: Today is World Menstruation Hygiene Day. Young adult fiction is the perfect way to destigmatise periods, so why aren’t more authors writing about it?
Obviously, people who comment on Facebook articles are a self-selecting group. They are mainly Australian, Gen X and older, and I doubt many of them actually read the article. Of those who did, another large chunk of them have seen the Harry Potter movies (or heard about them), and that’s as close as they’ve come to children’s literature in 20 years. A number of commenters were bored or borderline outraged to find a story about menstruation in fiction in their feed.
Please please dont! Things like that do not need representation in the fictional world
I want to pretend I don’t get my periods. Don’t need to watch it on TV 👎😣 no one likes them!
Comments showing disgust demonstrate the very need for the representation of menstruation in fiction. I’m never really impressed by Facebook commentary. But the overwhelmingly negative response to his article disappointed me, still.
Apart from simple disgust, negative responses fell into three broad categories.
We don’t talk about poo, so don’t about periods.
No one uses the toilet either in movies.
Probably for the same reasons there aren’t many stories about bowel actions 💩!
Probably for the same reason authors don’t write about peeing and pooping.
for the same reason u don’t see charactors shitting or taking a leak
Because it doesn’t move the story forward, what a stupid question. Just to drive this home, why don’t history books have chapters devoted to Stalins bowel movements?
They don’t usually write about doing a poo, or any other bodily function either, unless it’s relevant to the story then those things are left out.
..and why don’t they ever take a crap or urinate? – because the Abrahamic religions have demonized all activity relating to the naughty bits
In 24, nobody has a pee or poo during the whole 24hrs! 😇
Actually, children’s literature does talk about poo. Often. The entire subcateogry of ‘gross out’ literature exists to fill a very specific developmental period in childhood, during which time we all learn to normalise toileting. Fart and bum jokes or anything containing underpants is THE most reliable way to crack a joke in this age group, lasting from the early to middle primary school years. Scott Dikkers even confirmed that for me in his book on comedy writing — don’t pull out the bum joke too early because it’s the pinnacle.
Just so we’re clear, I’m not making an argument for periods to be included in the gross out genre. The history of misogyny, taboo, disgust and ostracisation is too strong and present for that treatment. Including period blood in gross out gags would further stigmatise the process. I am in full favour of more naturalistic and regular mention of periods in realistic, middle grade fiction especially.
Judy Moody is a nine-year-old third grader. It is odd that Judy Moody isn’t thinking about periods, isn’t touched by prepubescent hormones, and that none of her friends have either.
Sara Pennypacker’s Clementine is the same age as Judy Moody. Clementine is curious and anxious and looks to the future, often getting things wrong. But not once has she given a thought to impending puberty.
I can say the exact same thing about other main characters in realistic middle grade fiction starring girls.
Part of this problem is down to a wider trend: The preference of ‘tomboy’ girls over ‘girly girls’ as main characters. Tomboyish, hyperactive girls comprise the majority of main characters of middle grade fiction, partly because they are so driven and interesting. (This switches around in YA, to the chagrin of agents looking for self-driven, sassy girls in their #mswl.) Girly-girls sit still and do as they’re told. They’re cast as opponents to our tomboy heroes. This in itself is problematic. I’ve written about that elsewhere, but didn’t mention the unintended consequence of complete erasure of periods in realistic middle grade fiction. Clementine is a wiry, prepubescent character and I’m not arguing that Clementine per se should have been about periods. I’m saying that’s all there is, for 8 year old girls who will start menstruating the following year. There’s nothing for them. It’s not even covered in schools until they know all about it through hands on experience.
Another possible issue: The adult gatekeepers of kidlit think boys will be icked out by any talk of periods, and even if they’re not, boys may conclude books including menstruation are not for them. This halves your potential book sales, and means these books won’t be purchased by schools in class sets. In smaller markets, like that in Australia, if a book isn’t going to be purchased by schools it may not break even. (It’s worth saying at this point that John Marsden does mention menstruation a couple of times in his Tomorrow When The War Began series, which is purchased in bulk by high school English departments across Australia and New Zealand. The action plot and the large number of boys in the cast no doubt compensates.)
We don’t talk about masturbation, so don’t talk about periods.
If we follow your logic, why did Harry Potter never have a wet-dream? Be careful what you wish for.
I ejaculated in my pants today and would like to drop that into a conversation with someone.
There is also a need for wider portrayal of masturbation in MG fiction and up, especially when it comes to girls, but that is a different issue. We can do both. We can fix both.
Also, there’s plenty of talk about masturbation. Where has this person been? The issue is more that masturbation is not considered appropriate reading material at the age most people discover it in earnest, if they haven’t already. (Adolescence.) It is absolutely odd that we only talk about male masturbation, that masturbation is still seen as a sexual failing (see the advertising campaign about ‘tossing’)
The New Zealand version of this advertisement even shows a young woman making the unambiguous wanking hand movement at a young man who litters.
In any case, the idea that ‘we don’t do masturbation well, so we shouldn’t do menstruation well either’ is… ridiculous. We are doing our young people a huge disservice.
Menstruation is never relevant to a story
A number of commenters assumed that menstruation is always uninteresting and irrelevant to plot:
Every word that doesn’t further the plot is wasted. Basics of creative writing
Probably for much the same reason we don’t usually see them on the toilet or cleaning their teeth … routine bodily functions typically add nothing to either the plot or character development.
Whether it is in movies, television or books writers of YA fiction will focus on important plot related stuff
And because SBS used an image from a Harry Potter movie to illustrate ‘children’s literature’, a number of commenters rolled their eyes and argued that Harry Potter would not be improved by inclusion of menstruation:
“Hold on Harry, I know we have to fight Voldemort but I just need to nip to the loo and change my tampon first”
Doesn’t exactly make for interesting reading does it
They don’t go to the toilet either. Oh for there to have been a scene in The Philosopher’s stone where Hermione took a dump and Ron and Harry crossed swords at a urinal.
Someone even used her status as an English teacher (ie, not a writer — don’t @ me, I’ve been both) and told us about the irrelevance of menstruation in some hypothetical fiction she obviously has in mind:
As an English teacher, if the content is not relevant to the storyline or character development in anyway then WHY put it in. South Park on the other hand … 😂
These commenters are missing the point entirely. There is so much to be said about the experience of menstruation, which — as I argue above — is far more dimensional than poo. (Unless a young person is living with IBS or similar, in which case it would impact their life, and be as worthy of fictional representation as any other body-related issue.)
- Because we still live in a culture of shame, simply by mentioning periods in fiction serves to break that taboo. That in itself is huge.
- Men may not realise this and women may have forgotten, but for periadolescent girls, periods are scary. BLOOD. COMING OUT OF YOUR BODY. How much will it really hurt? (All other instances of blood gushing out of a girl’s body hurt.) How much will come out? Will it fountain out of me? Will it come out during maths and stain the back of my summer school tunic, and will everyone shun me forever? Stephen King co-opted the scariness of periods for his debut horror YA novel, Carrie, for which he received a massive advance. The story is part of our lore and has been adapted for film twice. King doesn’t have any idea what the day-to-day reality of menstruation is actually like (see below), but try and tell me periods aren’t anything to write a book about.
- Periods change the way girls live their day-to-day lives. I mean, the entire ‘plot’ of their real lives. How does a fictional character on the swim team deal with her heavy periods and clotting? What does she do when periods coincide with big races? How does a ten-year-old cope at a sleepover when none of her friends have got theirs yet? Where does she put her used pads when there’s no bin in the toilet? Is it okay to ask the friend’s dad, since the mum lives at a different house? The plain old logistical problems around periods are endless. How do fictional characters cope with these issues, seriously, comedically? In either treatment, girls can learn scripts.
- Periods can hurt. What is it like to live with that pain, and also have to pretend — because the culture insists on it — that pain doesn’t exist? Many girls are dealing with this. Leaving aside childbirth, there are two times in a woman’s life when periods are statistically more likely to be super painful and super heavy — cruelly, that’s when you first get them and last get them: adolescence and peri-menopause. It is just so very validating to read a fictional version of your own experience. This is why we read! To feel less alone. The idea that fiction is not reality misunderstands the entire raison d’être for fiction.
The following snippets just skim the surface of the plethora of ways in which menstruation can be relevant to plot, character arc and theme:
KATRINA McIntosh*, an eastern suburbs mother with a daughter in year 7, was surprised when her daughter’s sleepovers and pool parties suddenly became complicated midway through grade 6. When dropping their children off, mothers would confide that their 11-year-old daughters had started their periods and would not be able to go swimming. Other girls needed discreet assistance to ensure privacy when they changed for bed at night. ‘The girls are still young and they didn’t know how to deal with it. They were too embarrassed to tell each other and it got tricky with swimming and sleepovers,” Ms McIntosh says.
Alice Friend, from central Melbourne, whose daughter started menstruating in year 6, says their school only had one toilet with a sanitary bin in it ”and all the girls were embarrassed to go in because that was like a sign that they had their period”.
Early menarche can mean being forced to grow up before one’s mind, and decision-making abilities, are ready. “If you’re 11 and you look like you’re 15 or 16, people will treat you like you’re 15 or 16.”
When puberty gets very early it’s no longer in synchronisation with brain development. They have a souped up car but they don’t have the skills to drive it.
Below, feminist thinker Ariel Levy explains the excitement of menarche. Perhaps girls in general feel far more positively about menstruation than is depicted in fiction for girls, when it is depicted.
It’s worth mentioning that not all depictions of menstruation should be miserable:
ELEANOR DUKE: You write about doing your first story for New York: “I was writing about an unconventional kind of female life. What does it mean to be a woman? What are the rules? What are your options and encumbrances? I wanted to tell stories that answered, or at least asked, those questions.” You also talk about being excited from a young age about being a woman. What do you think caused you to feel that womanhood was exciting and beautiful, and got you interested in writing about women?
ARIEL LEVY: The excitement, I think, was that we were excited about going through puberty, we were excited about changing, about the future arriving. It was the arrival of various kinds of maturity. I don’t know if it was that we were excited to be women, we were just excited that there was going to be evidence, in the form of blood, that we were old, we were changing, and that everything would change.
And here’s why menstruation needs to be a part of middle grade fiction, not just YA and above:
Ms McIntosh says her daughter’s former primary school provided ”quite graphic” sex education. ”But it was all cast into the future. They never said, ‘It is normal that this will happen to some of you this year’, so it was a shock for the girls when it did.”
A Brief History Of Menstruation In Children’s Literature
According to some critics, the first explicit mention of menstruation in an American children’s book occurred in The Long Secret. In Sweden, a number of children’s novels in the 1960s and 1970s broke this taboo. However, this fact is as conspicuously absent from most children’s novels as other bodily functions. Although it is common knowledge that young women stop menstruating under extreme conditions, very few adventure or war narratives focus on this detail.
– Maria Nikolajeva, The Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature
Harriet The Spy
In the second half of [the twentieth] century, as feminism launched its second wave, the limits of socially acceptable behaviour for girls were steadily pushed back, and one “subversive” book after another was at first condemned and then applauded. When it first appeared, in 1964, Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy was criticized because its heroine secretly observed and dispassionately recorded the foolish behaviour of adults. Its sequel, The Long Secret (1965), was censured because, for the first time in juvenile literature, it mentioned menstruation. Now both books are widely recommended.
— Alison Lurie, The Subversive Power Of Children’s Literature
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.
As far as big, well promoted fiction went, this was pretty much it when it came to mentions of menstruation in the books that were around when I was an adolescent. And I’m not the only one to have noticed the unusualness of Judy Blume, before her time when it comes to matters of bodily functions.
In fiction for and about boys, however, anything associated with girls is too often presented negatively. As ever, the attitudes of the writer cannot be separated from the work.
The following remarks from Jeff Kinney stands out to me as troublingly femme phobic. When Wimpy Kid create was asked about childhood influences on his reading here’s what he said:
I also sort of inherited my sister’s Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary books. I read a lot of those, Freckle Juice and Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. Luckily I got the heads-up about Are you There, God? It’s me, Margaret and I avoided that one. In about the fifth grade I discovered fantasy. You know, I started reading books by J.R.R. Tolkien, Piers Anthony, and Terry Brooks and I don’t know if it’s a guy thing or if it was a condition of the age, but I really liked escaping into those epic books that just took me to a different place.
That comment reflects the attitude about girls which shines through in all of the Wimpy Kid books. Specifically: Girl stuff is gross, girls themselves are alien creatures and in order to preserve your masculinity you must stay the hell away from any of it.
Though not marketed specifically ‘for children’, this story is a young adult novel by any common definition.
Is Carrie one of the few popular novels with strong menstruation symbolism running throughout which is also written by a man? I argue in my Goodreads review that in fact Stephen King doesn’t quite get female stuff right. Though our sympathies are with the girl who menstruates, King is nonetheless relying on the Gothic tradition of female bodies as terrifying.
Perhaps other cultures are more comfortable with stories about menstruation. There is Through The Red Door by Inger Edelfeldt, for example, which hasn’t been translated into English.
[H]orror has continued to provide the perfect medium to explore these themes. The female monster has been a great platform for exploring puberty and all its commensurate delights: it’s all blood, mayhem and rage, after all. Think Carrie at the prom, exploding with fear, confusion and violence at her tormentors, triggered by her menstruation.
Menstruation Horror And Taboo In Netflix’s Anne With An ‘E’
In the 2017 re-visioning of Anne Of Green Gables, Walley-Beckett changed Anne’s age from 11 to 13. As a consequence, it was likely Anne would start menstruating. This event is used as a catalyst for Matthew’s buying her a grown-woman’s dress with puffed sleeves, not a Pride and Prejudice type party with the Barry’s to say thank you for saving their youngest from croup.
This change in plot has the effect of asking Anne what it means to be a woman — all the good things as well as all the bad. It also takes the emphasis off Anne’s needing to look pretty and dress up for what is essentially, culturally, an opportunity to put oneself on the marriage market. The addition of Anne’s first period makes the show more feminist.
It is unlikely that Anne will mention her period ever again, however, as the girls have told her it’s a taboo topic. And Walley-Beckett approaches her series with ‘documentary like’ realism.
I haven’t read these — they’ve come up in my search for material on this topic:
- Waiting For It by Christine Keighery (Australian)
- Terry Goodkind’s ‘Sword of Truth’ is a series of fantasy books. More than one character refers to having her ‘Moon flow’. He writes very good, strong female characters by the way.
- Tamora Pierce does not shy away from menstruation.
- An all male short film on menstruation has created a storm in India, because there are no women and men have to bleed.
Menstruation In YA and Adult Stories
The Red Tent
If there’s a tentpole novel about menstruation, this is it. Or, this was it in the 1990s. A high school friend was in love with this book and really wanted me to read it. I read it many years later. This particular friend was the earliest to hit adolescence in our class. She was the first to start her periods at age eight, and the primary school even had to install disposal bins in the girls’ toilets for her benefit, and hold a special assembly for all the girls explaining what they were for. Looking back, I can see how important this book was to that friend, who for some long months was alone in her experience of menstruation.
As awful as it feels to be alone, at least there’s the consolation of having passed a rite of passage:
When we stood apart, I saw how much she had changed in the few months we had been apart. She was taller than I by a good half head, and there was no need to pull her garments tightly against her chest to see her breasts. But when I saw the belt that had declared her a woman, my mouth dropped. She had entered the red tent! She was no longer a child but a woman. I felt my cheeks grow warm with envy as hers grew pink with pride. I had a thousand questions to ask her about what it was like and about her ceremony, and whether the world was a different place now that her place in it was different.
In some religious and cultural thought, bodily fluids are thought to be a matter of ‘waste’. Every sperm is precious; every menstruation a wasted opportunity to have procreated:
Rebecca’s anger was terrible. “You mean to tell me that her blood was wasted? You shut her up alone, like some animal?”
Worse, bodily secretions are thought to be ‘sin’. Male ejaculation is seen as sinful and private. The advantage of having a male body is that you (more or less) control when this happens. Without modern medicine, women have no control at all over their ‘sinful secretions’.
I have long wondered if women bleed monthly because of the moon, or if the female and lunar cycles are plain old coincidence. (After all, they don’t match up exactly.) Regardless of the answer, femininity has inevitably been linked to lunar cycles. And of course the moon is heavy with symbolism of its own.
“The great mother whom we call Innana gave a gift to woman that is not known among men, and this is the secret of blood. The flow at the dark of the moon, the healing blood of the moon’s birth–to men, this is flux and distemper, bother and pain. They imagine we suffer and consider themselves lucky. We do not disabuse them. In the red tent, the truth is known. In the red tent, where days pass like a gentle stream, as the gift of Innana courses through us, cleansing the body of last month’s death, preparing the body to receive the new month’s life, women give thanks–for repose and restoration, for the knowledge that life comes from between our legs, and that life costs blood…many have forgotten the secret of Innana’s gift, and turned their backs on the red tent. Esau’s wives…gave no lesson or welcome to their young women when they came of age. They treat them like beasts–setting them out, alone and afraid, shut up in the dark days of the new moon, without wine and without the counsel of their mothers. They do not celebrate the first blood of those who will bear life, nor do they return it to the earth. They have set aside the Opening, which is the sacred business of women, and permit men to display their daughters’ bloody sheets, as though even the pettiest baal would require such a degradation in tribute.”
Lack Of Menstruation In Fiction Is The Norm
I recently watched Run, a British miniseries created by Jonathan Pearson, Marlon Smith, and Daniel Fajemisin-Duncan, written by Marlon Smith and Daniel Fajemisin-Duncan for Channel 4. Run is a well-written, suspenseful crime story which focuses on immigrant experiences — a welcome change for diversity on screen. Notice it was written entirely by men, though? I made a point of looking at the credits afterwards, because of a particular scene.
Run is no better or worse than any other show depicting a rape scene, but in general I feel women should be called in for #ownvoices critique in these scenarios, since a scene with a man raping a woman (the general gender dynamic in these scenarios) is more triggering for women in general. (Men raping men seems to trigger men who aren’t otherwise triggered by rape — I refer to common male responses to one of the first depictions of male rape in popular entertainment — the film Deliverance.)
In Run: A young Chinese immigrant character is raped in a car by a much older man who controls her finances and safety.
The first problem with this scene concerns the camera choices. The camera focuses not on the facial expressions of the old man during this rape but on the young woman, first as she slowly disrobes under duress. If the director was going for scary, he should have focused on the slow disrobing of the man — his facial expression, looking straight into the camera or just past it would have better depicted the terror of our focal character, the victim. Instead, by focusing on the disrobing of the young woman, the show’s creators end up with a scene which looks very similar to a sex scene. Why does this matter? Sex scenes are meant to be sexy. Rape scenes, however, are meant to be terrifying. When a rape scene uses the film techniques of a sex scene, there is a real risk of mixing those two things together. There are real world consequences for the cultural conflation of sex and violence against women, which pervades stories in the current era. Even the male viewer, so used to the male gaze that he doesn’t notice it’s there, would benefit from seeing that rape scene from the girl’s point of view rather than looking at the girl. I see no better way of depicting the terror of being raped by a bigger, stronger man than by putting the viewers (of all genders) into the point of view of the raped, not the rapist.
You know what else could have been done, had the creators really wanted to show how shocking this rape scene was? When the young Chinese woman slowly pulls down her underwear, under duress, the underwear is clean. Sure it was clean. It always is, on screen. Yet when rape of women really happens, in real life, there’s about a 25% chance that a woman’s underwear contains blood. Tampons are one thing, and if a woman is raped while wearing a tampon it would be a different kind of shocking to be shown the icky aftermath of that (instead we usually see her hunched over crying in the shower), but young Chinese women from a rural area (i.e. this character) won’t realistically be using a tampon because of cultural ideas about virginity and so on. This is the sort of knowledge that only women seem to have, and the disproportionately low number of women working in TV and film affects what we see on screen.
Menstruation At TV Tropes
The lack of women working in film and TV is also clear from the dominant menstruation tropes.
As pointed out by Jezebel: The mainstream media is out to teach you that menstruation is terrifying. (Fun fact, Fear of Menstruation= Menophobia, apparently.)
Related Links About Menstruation
1. Over at Jezebel some time ago, women were asked for their most horrifying menstruation stories. They weren’t quite prepared for the stories they got. I think this link needs a trigger warning, but if you are a man writing about a woman, or having sex with women, or related to a woman, give it a read.
2. A childbirth educator and Doula over at Persephone Magazine keeps getting unbelievable questions from women who don’t know the most basic things about their own physiology. She takes anonymous questions.
3. Have you heard the term ‘sexually antagonistic coevolution’? If not, you can find out what it means here, in which we are told that men prefer the voices of ovulating women over the voices of menstrual women.
4. For an explanation of the term ‘gaslighting’ and why you probably shouldn’t ask a woman if she’s ‘on her period’, see this article from Persephone Magazine, in which we also learn the unfortunate etymology of ‘hysteria’. I, for one, try to avoid the word.
5. What to do if you get your period when you go camping. Handy non-advice.
6. Women Spot Snakes Faster Before Their Period – because there are people studying these things. Now I’d like to see a superheroine based on that bit of research. Instead, comic book world will probably continue with the girls in fridges trope.
7. Your Period Is A Time For Deep Lady Bonding. Some researchers at the University of Chicago made an online survey to gauge women’s attitudes about their period, and discovered that women who belonged to religious traditions that had menstrual rules felt more shame surrounding their period and had a sense of seclusion during it, but oddly they also reported that they had an increased sense of community, from Jezebel.
8. Menstruation And Shaming For Profit, from Be Prepared
9. A Brief History Of Your Period, and Why You Don’t Have To Have It, from Jezebel
10. Menstruation in SF.
11. 1946 Walt Disney Menstruation Animation Tells Us We’re Okay Just The Way We Are from The Mary Sue
12. Why We Should Be Angry About Periods by Clem Bastow
13. The Taboo Of Menstruation from The Telegraph
14. Dot Girl Products, selling kits for girls having their first periods.
15. Is PMS A Myth? from Time Health and Family (not as dismissive as the title suggests). For the flipside of that argument: PMS Is Real, And Denying Its Existence Is Hurting Women from The Conversation and Is PMS All In Our Heads? from Slate
16. The Film Festival For Movies About Menstruation, by Jezebel
17. Pretend You’ve Never Had a Period With Tampax’s New ‘Radiant’ Line, from Jezebel
18. I don’t understand all this silence around periods from The Peach
19. Fifteen Memorable Menstruation Moments In Pop-Culture from The Frisky
20. Adventures in Menstruation from Alter Net
21. Welcome to the jungle: Your First Period from Persephone Magazine
22. Do Men Have A Monthly Cycle? from The Good Men Project
23. Unhappy periods and delivery room poos – let’s tell the truth about women from New Statesman
24. Women spot snakes faster before their periods from NBC News
25. No Menstrual Hygiene For Indian Women Holds Economy Back from Heeals
26. Over at Freethought blogs, a statistically literate person breaks down why the argument that women menstruate therefore they might legitimately be paid less is a bullshit argument. Worth a read, if only to hone one’s own bullshit-o-meter.
27. You may expect a female-issues driven website such as Jezebel to have a lot to say about periods. They do say a few things about periods, and that’s a bit of a round-up.
29. Girls Are Getting Their Periods Earlier and Earlier, and No One Knows Why from Jezebel. (Actually, a lot of people in the integrative health community have a theory: estrogen dominance, which we all have until proven otherwise, due to our contaminated modern world.)
30. Do Periods Really Sync Up Among Friends? from Persephone Mag
31. Menstruation from the ear? Science has advanced a bit since then.
32. A Periodic Table Of Your Period from Laughing Squid
33. ActiPearls and Having a Happy Period is a critique of a ‘sanitary pad’ commercial from Bad Reputation, in which ‘chemical stench equals sanitation’.
34. ‘Women weren’t included in the study because menstrual cycles may cause fluid balance fluctuations.’ That’s from a study on coffee, but makes me wonder — is the ‘complicating factor’ of menstruation (or menopause, or risk of damaging a fetus) part of why so often women are left out of medical trials and studies? At what point is it okay to eliminate women from a study, concluding instead that what’s true for men is also true for women? Many drugs are more dangerous than coffee.
36. Women Aren’t Run By Their Periods, from Slate
Some Interesting Point Of View Writing Decisions
NEMESIS BY PHILIP ROTH
This story is told by an omniscient narrator. At least, we think it’s an omniscient narrator, residing mainly in Bucky Cantor’s head. Then, on page 108 we get:
The next morning was the worst so far. Three more boys had come down with polio — Leo Feinswog, Paul Lippman, and me, Arnie Mesnikoff.
Unless I missed it, this is the first time the readers learn that the narrator is also a character in the story.
Why leave it til page 108? Well. Why not, if your name is Philip Roth?
TWO GIRLS, FAT AND THIN BY MARY GAITSKILL
In this novel, every second chapter is written in first person from Dorothy Never’s point of view, while the other chapters are written in third person point of view, about Justine.
That’s not unusual. What struck me as unusual was that on page 274 out of 325, the point of view switches mid chapter, with only a space break. The point of view chops and changes several times over the course of a single conversation between the two main characters in a cafe. I suppose this signals to the reader that the end of the book is near. (The book is breaking its own ‘rules’, which kind of preempts Armageddon, don’t you think?) Also, the two main characters have met up — as they did at the very beginning of the novel — and are having a real sort of interaction this time. They’re coming to blows. The chopping and changing POV within a single scene mirrors that tension.
MIDDLESEX BY JEFFREY EUGENIDES
Eugenides writes the first portion of his book with an omniscient first person narrator who hasn’t yet been born. This fetus can see into the minds of his parents and grandparents. Or rather, he imagines he can…?
Eugenides isn’t the first to do this in fiction. Passenger by Australia’s own Thomas Keneally is written the same way. More recently, Ian McEwan wrote from the point of view of an unborn foetus in Nutshell.
CARRIE BY STEPHEN KING
Carrie is an epistolary novel made up of omniscient narration, newspaper clippings, court transcripts, newspaper articles, interviews and the biography of a surviving character. The omniscient narrator who links all of these items zooms in on various characters and King achieves the advantages of first person with this strange trick of putting their first person thoughts inside brackets like this:
KEEPER BY DIANE LINN
Ms. Appelt isn’t afraid to take the point of view and toss it like a ball between her characters. For the most part, it’s Keeper’s eyes we see the world through, but around page eleven things change. Suddenly we’re hearing Signe’s story from her perspective. Then later it’s Dogie, Mr. Beauchamp, a seagull, and the dogs. Such an effect should be jarring to the reader. Switch your focus too much and where do your loyalties lie as a reader? I suppose that’s the point, though. Your loyalties lie with everyone. This is a family’s story, in a sense. As such, you need all their perspectives. And except for a brief hiccup I experienced on page twelve, none of these changes to the p.o.v. struck me as anything but necessary to the book’s storytelling.
— from a Goodreads review by Betsy Bird
Further Reading On Point Of View
1. The ‘danger’ of writing in first person by Patty Jansen.
2. The Benefits Of Free Indirect Discourse from Lit Reactor
3. Third Person Omniscient vs. Third Person Limited from Nathan Bransford
4. How to layer points of view from KidLit.com
5. Point Of View In Fiction, a podcast from Paula Berinstein
The Magical Life of Mr Renny by Leo Timmers is a modern Magic Paintbrush story in which a central dog character can paint anything he likes. Timmers adds a romantic subplot.
PLOT OF THE MAGICAL LIFE OF MR RENNY
A ‘starving artist’ (represented by a dog called Renny) can’t sell any paintings at the market. Everyone just wants to buy fruit and vegetables. Wishing he could eat the picture of an apple he has painted, a mysterious stranger turns up and tells him that if he were to take a bite of his apple painting, all of them would spring to life. Sure enough this happens, Renny is no longer starving and embarks on a lifestyle of rampant consumerism until an attractive female rabbit turns up wanting to buy one of his actual paintings. Obviously wanting to impress the cute rabbit, Renny renounces his ability to turn paintings into real-world objects and presumably lives ever after, but as a successful artist this time, because Rose the fruit seller has suddenly become interested in Renny’s paintings, which attracts the attention of all her customers.
Writing scary tales for children is difficult, because it has to be interesting without being too scary. How is it done? Where’s the line? What have storytelling experts said on the subject?
I’ve always believed that children, even at a very young age, know their limits, and if a story is too frightening and overwhelms them in some way, they will either fall asleep or walk away. If you read to your child on a regular basis, it’s easy to navigate this terrain with conversations about each story that help you instinctively calibrate what is appropriate for bedtime reading. Reading fairy tales may expose children to the dark side, but it also introduces them to survival skills, teaching them to use their heads to outsmart predators. Shoving the witch into the oven may be a bridge too far, but no reason to be reverent about the words on the page, especially for the younger crowd.
People say, ‘Your book keeps giving me chills,’ but I don’t know what that feeling is. Horror always makes me laugh. Normal adult things scare me, but not things from a book or a movie.
– R.L. Stine, from an interview with Village Voice.
“There’s no formula. I think you have to create a very close point of view. You have to be in the eyes of the narrator. Everything that happens, all the smells, all the sounds; then your reader starts to identify with that character and that’s what makes something really scary.”
– R.L. Stine from an interview with mediabistro.
What’s the difference between a monster movie and a dark fairy tale?
It’s a very, very, very thin difference. I think that horror stories come from fairy tales, in a way. They share a lot of similarities. I think the difference is tonal. You know, the fairy tale contains a lot more elements of magic and whimsy and the the horror story contains a lot more, sort of, almost existential feelings — sort of dread, and ultimately they are similar melodies, played at a very different key.
Over time, supernatural and horror fiction that has been targeted to children and young adults has become darker. If we look at books from the early 20th century through to the 1950s or 60s, we see books similar to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in their mild handling of frightening characters and scenarios. As we move into the 1970s we start to find horror novels targeted towards young adults. Stephen King’s works Salem’s Lot and Firestarter won the American Library Association’s Best Books for Young Adults award in 1978 and 1981 respectively, showing that children and young adults have been quite willing to read scary literature for some time. Neil Gaiman’s books Coraline and The Graveyard Book are also targeted for the tween audience, and could easily be considered scarier than even these specifically labelled horror books from authors such as King and Dean Koontz. In recent years, it appears clear that more and scarier books are being targeted to the child and young adult audience, and as a result, children are reading scarier books than in the past.