The Sexism Behind Top Ten Lists

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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.



STEPHEN KING’S DECLARED FAVOURITE BOOKS

1. The Golden Argosy, The Most Celebrated Short Stories in the English Language – edited by Van Cartmell and Charles Grayson

2. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

3. The Satanic Verses – Salman Rushdie

4. McTeague – Frank Norris

5. Lord of the Flies – William Golding

6. Bleak House – Charles Dickens

7. 1984 – George Orwell

8. The Raj Quartet – Paul Scott

9. Light in August – William Faulkner

10. Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy

copy and pasted from Open Culture

Every single one of those books is either entirely by a man or edited by men.

For any widely read reader, limiting favourites to ten is always going to be a ridiculously contrived list, which is why it’s so annoying that he mindlessly picked creators who look/ed just like himself.

In his writing book, On Writing—mostly read by other writers and uber fans—Stephen King lists more of his favourite books at the back. Here you will find a few women.

This is a list of the books he recommended for writers back in 2000:

Abrahams, Peter: A Perfect Crime
Abrahams, Peter: Lights Out
Abrahams, Peter: Pressure Drop
Abrahams, Peter: Revolution #9
Agee, James: A Death in the Family
Bakis, Kirsten: Lives of the Monster Dogs
Barker, Pat: Regeneration
Barker, Pat: The Eye in the Door
Barker, Pat: The Ghost Road
Bausch, Richard: In the Night Season
Blauner, Peter: The Intruder
Bowles, Paul: The Sheltering Sky
Boyle, T. Coraghessan: The Tortilla Curtain
Bryson, Bill: A Walk in the Woods
Buckley, Christopher: Thank You for Smoking
Carver, Raymond: Where I’m Calling From
Chabon, Michael: Werewolves in Their Youth
Chorlton, Windsor: Latitude Zero
Connelly, Michael: The Poet
Conrad, Joseph: Heart of Darkness
Constantine, K.C.: Family Values
DeLillo, Don: Underworld
DeMille, Nelson: Cathedral
DeMille, Nelson: The Gold Coast
Dickens, Charles: Oliver Twist
Dobyns, Stephen: Common Carnage
Dobyns, Stephen: The Church of Dead Girls
Doyle, Roddy: The Woman Who Walked into Doors
Elkin, Stanley: The Dick Gibson Show
Faulkner, William: As I Lay Dying
Garland, Alex: The Beach
George, Elizabeth: Deception on His Mind
Gerritsen, Tess: Gravity
Golding, William: Lord of the Flies
Gray, Muriel: Furnace
Greene, Graham: A Gun for Sale
Greene, Graham: Our Man in Havana
Halberstam, David: The Fifties
Hamil, Pete: Why Sinatra Matters
Harris, Thomas: Hannibal
Haruf, Kent: Plainsong
Hoeg, Peter: Smilla’s Sense of Snow
Hunter, Stephen: Dirty White Boys
Ignatius, David: A Firing Offense
Irving, John: A Widow for One Year
Joyce, Graham: The Tooth Fairy
Judd, Alan: The Devil’s Own Work
Kahn, Roger: Good Enough to Dream
Karr, Mary: The Liar’s Club
Ketchum, Jack: Right to Life
King, Tabitha: Survivor
King, Tabitha: The Sky in the Water
Kingsolver, Barbara: The Poisonwood Bible
Krakauer, Jon: Into Thin Air
Lee, Harper: To Kill a Mockingbird
Lefkowitz, Bernard: The Ignored
Maclean, Norman: A River Runs Through It and Other Stories
Maugham, W. Somerset: The Moon and Sixpence
McCarthy, Cormac: Cities of the Plain
McCarthy, Cormac: The Crossing
McCourt, Frank: Angela’s Ashes
McDermott, Alice: Charming Billy
McDevitt, Jack: Ancient Shores
McEwan, Ian: Enduring Love
McEwan, Ian: The Cement Garden
McMurtry, Larry: Dead Man’s Walk
McMurtry, Larry, and Diana Ossana: Zeke and Ned
Miller, Walter M.: A Canticle for Leibowitz
Oates, Joyce Carol: Zombie
O’Brien, Tim: In the Lake of the Woods
O’Nan, Stewart: The Speed Queen
Ondaatje, Michael: The English Patient
Patterson, Richard North: No Safe Place
Price, Richard: Freedomland
Proulx, Annie: Close Range: Wyoming Stories
Proulx, Annie: The Shipping News
Quindlen, Anna: One True Thing
Rendell, Ruth: A Sight for Sore Eyes
Robinson, Frank M.: Waiting
Rowling, J.K.: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Rowling, J.K.: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Rowling, J.K.: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Russo, Richard: Mohawk
Schwartz, John Burnham: Reservation Road
Seth, Vikram: A Suitable Boy
Shaw, Irwin: The Young Lions
Slotkin, Richard: The Crater
Smith, Dinitia: The Illusionist
Spencer, Scott: Men in Black
Stegner, Wallace: Joe Hill
Tartt, Donna: The Secret History
Tyler, Anne: A Patchwork Planet
Vonnegut, Kurt: Hocus Pocus
Waugh, Evelyn: Brideshead Revisited
Westlake, Donald E.: The Ax

He updated the list when he updated the book, ten years later:

Abrahams, Peter: End of Story
Abrahams, Peter: The Tutor
Adiga, Aravind: The White Tiger
Atkinson, Kate: One Good Turn
Atwood, Margaret: Oryx and Crake
Berlinski, Mischa: Fieldwork
Black, Benjamin: Christine Falls
Blauner, Peter: The Last Good Day
Bolano, Roberto: 2666
Carr, David: The Night of the Gun
Casey, John: Spartina
Chabon, Michael: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
Child, Lee: The Jack Reacher novels, starting with Killing Floor
Connelly, Michael: The Narrows
Costello, Mark: Big If
Cunningham, Michael: The Hours
Danielewski, Mark: House of Leaves
Diaz, Junot: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Dooling, Richard: White Man’s Grave
Downing, David: Zoo Station
Dubus, Andre: The Garden of Last Days
Enger, Leif: Peace Like a River
Exley, Frederick: A Fan’s Notes
Ferris, Joshua: Then We Came to the End
Franzen, Jonathan: Strong Motion
Franzen, Jonathan: The Corrections
Gaiman, Neil: American Gods
Gardiner, Meg: Crosscut
Gardiner, Meg: The Dirty Secret Club
Gay, William: The Long Home
Goddard, Robert: Painting the Darkness
Gruen, Sara: Water for Elephants
Hall, Steven: The Raw Shark Texts
Helprin, Mark: A Soldier of the Great War
Huston, Charlie: The Hank Thompson Trilogy
Johnson, Denis: Tree of Smoke
Keillor, Garrison: Good Poems
Kidd, Sue Monk: The Secret Life of Bees
Klosterman, Chuck: Fargo Rock City
Larsson, Stieg: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Le Carre, John: Absolute Friends
Lehane, Dennis: The Given Day
Leonard, Elmore: Up in Honey’s Room
Lethem, Jonathan: The Fortress of Solitude
Lippman, Laura: What the Dead Know
Little, Bentley: Dispatch
Malamud, Bernard: The Fixer
Martel, Yann: Life of Pi
McCarthy, Cormac: No Country for Old Man
McEwan, Ian: Atonement
Meek, James: The People’s Act of Love
Niffenegger, Audrey: Her Fearful Symmetry
O’Brian, Patrick: The Aubrey/Maturin Novels
O’Nan, Stewart: The Good Wife
Oates, Joyce Carol: We Were the Mulvaneys
Pelecanos, George: Hard Revolution
Pelecanos, George: The Turnaround
Perrotta, Tom: The Abstinence Teacher
Picoult, Jodi: Nineteen Minutes
Pierre, DBC: Vernon God Little
Proulx, Annie: Fine Just the Way It Is
Robotham, Michael: Shatter
Roth, Philip: American Pastoral
Roth, Philip: The Plot Against America
Rushdie, Salman: Midnight’s Children
Russo, Richard: Bridge of Sighs
Russo, Richard: Empire Falls
Simmons, Dan: Drood
Simmons, Dan: The Terror
Sittenfeld, Curtis: American Wife
Smith, Tom Rob: Child 44
Snyder, Scott: Voodoo Heart
Stephenson, Neal: Quicksilver
Tartt, Donna: The Little Friend
Tolstoy, Leo: War and Peace
Wambaugh, Joseph: Hollywood Station
Warren, Robert Penn: All the King’s Men
Waters, Sarah: The Little Stranger
Winegardner, Mark: Crooked River Burning
Winegardner, Mark: The Godfather Returns
Wroblewski, David: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
Yates, Richard: Revolutionary Road

It’s possible I’ve misgendered a few but I’ve emboldened the female creators on his list. As you can see, the expanded list still skews hugely male. (A couple of those recommended books are by his own wife, but okay.)

King is so powerful as a writer that he is unable to criticise other writers without sounding mean-spirited.

Nevertheless, King sometimes punches down. These are the books King recommends in his memoir as examples of bad writing:

“Asteroid Miners” — which King admits is not the exact title (and therefore can’t be found)
Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Sussan — the story of three young women who become fast friends in the turbulent post-war worlds of Broadway and Hollywood
Flowers In The Attic by Virginia Andrews — about some children who are locked in the attic by their grandmother and begin an incestuous relationship.
The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller — the story of  about an Italian war bride, Francesca, who lives with her husband and two children on a farm in Iowa, then falls in love with someone else.

Though his list of negative examples is short, of the books King names accurately, they are either by a woman or about a specifically female experience. I’ll make no comment about how terrible they are, because that’s beside my point: If he was going to pick mainly men as good examples, there were plenty of male creators to choose from when picking bad ones. His list of bad books skews female.

HETEROSEXUAL MEN LOVE MEN

King’s top ten list, combined with his list of bad examples, reminds me of the following quote:

To say that straight men are heterosexual is only to say that they engage in sex (fucking exclusively with the other sex, i.e., women). All or almost all of that which pertains to love, most straight men reserve exclusively for other men. The people whom they admire, respect, adore, revere, honor, whom they imitate, idolize, and form profound attachments to, whom they are willing to teach and from whom they are willing to learn, and whose respect, admiration, recognition, honor, reverence and love they desire… those are, overwhelmingly, other men. In their relations with women, what passes for respect is kindness, generosity or paternalism; what passes for honor is removal to the pedestal. From women they want devotion, service and sex.

Heterosexual male culture is homoerotic; it is man-loving.

Marilyn Frye, The Politics of Reality (1983)

KING’S FAVORITE SHORT STORY COLLECTION

Stephen King’s favourite short story collection, The Golden Argosy, was published in 1955. Inevitably, that includes mainly white male writers as well.

This collection is no longer in print, but a reviewer on Goodreads collected links to each of the stories as they exist on the web, and here it is.

This year I’ll make sure to read the paucity of women in this collection. If I haven’t already, I’ll write about their stories on this blog.

(Edit: Now that I’ve read them, only two of the five are about women — “Big Blonde” and “Flowering Judas”.)

LET’S MAKE LISTS OF WOMEN

Since publishing corporations will tell you, women keep their corporations alive. In the USA, women are the more avid book readers, per the study, being 13% more likely than men to have read a book in the prior 12 months (77% vs. 68%). Women are also far more likely to be buying books as gifts for others.

Work — and art — by women remains undervalued.

A study of more than 2 million books revealed that titles by female authors are on average sold at just over half the price of those written by men.

WHAT TO DO? WHAT IF YOU JUST LIKE READING MEN?

First, this brilliant article, which applies to so, so much:

I DON’T HATE WOMEN CANDIDATES — I JUST HATED HILLARY AND COINCIDENTALLY I’M STARTING TO HATE ELIZABETH WARREN

by DEVORAH BLACHOR

I don’t need to go out of my way to gender balance my reading. I’ve done a post hoc count up and it happens quite naturally, probably because I’m female myself.

I write a newsletter for a sports club, and each month I do a member profile. Our club breakdown is almost exactly half women, half men. Writing newsletters is a bit of a pain in the neck, but I go out of my way to ask as many women as men for interviews. This isn’t easy, because more men than women come down to play other members (rather than privately).

We can all do small things like this to improve the current state of play.

However, in the name of redressing a wider imbalance…

MY FAVOURITE ALL TIME FAVOURITEST MOST FAVOURITE BEST EVER AUTHORS

In no particular order, here is my list of ALL TIME favourite authors.

  • Katherine Mansfield
  • Janet Frame
  • Lionel Shriver
  • Susan Faludi
  • Annie Proulx
  • Angie Thomas
  • Lynley Dodd
  • Maria Nikolajeva
  • Roberta Trites
  • Jane Austen
  • Toni Morrison
  • Marjery Hourihan
  • Naomi Klein
  • Patricia Grace
  • Cordelia Fine
  • Claire Messud
  • Peggy Orenstein
  • Angela Carter
  • Geraldine Brooks
  • Margaret Atwood
  • Marina Warner

Stephen King’s IT Storytelling Techniques

IT 2017 movie poster

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.

Here’s the golden rule about movie-length (or novel-length) stories about unpredictable monster villains with no redeeming features: Villain versus hero cannot, in itself, sustain a story. The character web is simply not interesting enough. Alongside the monstrous villain the writer must create a very human web of opposition. We see this time and time again in popular storytelling:

  • In Twister we have man versus tornado, but the human opposition comes from a couple of professional storm-chasers on the brink of divorce as well as an entire band of rival storm-chasers who aim to beat our heroes in their storm-chasing game.
  • In Jaws we have man versus shark, but the interest comes once again from the human opposition. Sheriff Martin Brody wants to close the beach, but this is opposed by local businessmen. Then there’s the most subtle, macho opposition between manly-man Quint and the others on his boat.
  • In Jurassic Park we have man versus velociraptor, but a park employee attempts to steal Hammond’s dinosaur embryos, among other interpersonal opposition.

And in IT, we have the evil outside villain (the shapeshifting clown), but there is a very strong human gang of bullies who are just as scary. The gang of bully kids is a common way to flesh out a web of opposition, especially in stories about children. Suzie Templeton used the bully opposition web for her short film adaptation of Peter and the Wolf.

IT: MODERN MONSTER

IT is very explicit about the symbolism of the clown, and why it is a shapeshifter. But this is the typical modern horror monster. I have written previously: What is the horror genre for? IT is a modern horror, having moved away from Christian symbolism and into psychological symbolism. The monster is a representation of whatever terrible thing happens to be in your own life.

SETTING OF IT

Realism interpretation of the IT setting: There is no clown. Georgie Denbrough drowns while trying to retrieve his paper boat from a drain. The body is never found. Bill bonds with the others in his vicinity who each have their own significant trauma: incest, Munchausen syndrome by proxy and so on. The monster is different depending on who sees him. This is like the Mirror of Erised in Harry Potter. Whoever looks into it sees their own unfulfilled desire. The Mirror of Erised is a descendent of an old fairy tale device, such as the mirror in stories such as Snow White.

Horror is one of the three most symbolic genres in existence. (The other two are science fiction and Western.) Much has already been said about the symbolism and, frankly, if you’ve seen a lot of horror, it doesn’t need saying.

A Fixer Upper 1946 illustration by John Falter. This house looks like the old house visited by the children of IT.
A Fixer Upper 1946 illustration by John Falter. This house looks like the old house visited by the children of IT.

CHILDHOOD REALISTICALLY DEPICTED IN A STORY FOR ADULTS

One thing that struck me while watching IT: The smart aleck dialogue, especially the crass sexual jokes in the dialogue of Richie Tozier, felt realistic. The irony is that this dialogue would never be acceptable in books for children of that age. These kids are meant to be 13, which upper middle grade, lower young adult. In children’s literature you never read dialogue such as:

Richie Tozier : You punched me, made me walk through shitty water, dragged me through a crackhouse… and now I’m gonna have to kill this fucking clown.

Richie Tozier : I hear the list is longer than my wang.
Stanley Uris : That’s not saying much.

Richie Tozier : Hey Eddie, are these your birth control pills?
Eddie Kaspbrak : Yeah, I’m saving them for your sister!

I have known adolescent boys who talk very much like this. Another difference between stories for adults and stories for children: Children in stories for children must function, to some extent, as role models. Child characters in children’s stories are more naive and wholesome than many real-life counterparts.

It’s not just the horror elements of this film which keep this movie out of children’s hands. The clown, all told, isn’t that scary for many kids. The clown is clearly a monster. But the stone throwing, the chase, the fat shaming, the mutilation on a boy’s belly — those elements all feel uncomfortably real.

CHILDHOOD SONGS SECONDED FOR ADULT HORROR

Listen to the IT soundtrack (composed and arranged by Benjamin Wallfisch) and you’ll hear a very creepy, echoey version of Oranges and Lemons, music box inspired atmospheric tunes and children singing, slowly and without instrumental accompaniment.

This technique is common across horror and thriller films. Quentin Tarantino understood the creepiness of Shivaree’s 2000 song entitled ‘Goodnight Moon‘ when he chose for the soundtrack of Kill Bill Vol. 2.

There’s a nail in the door
And there’s glass on the lawn
Tacks on the floor
And the TV is on
And I always sleep with my guns
When you’re gone

There’s a blade by the bed
And a phone in my hand
A dog on the floor
And some cash on the nightstand
When I’m all alone the dreaming stops
And I just can’t stand

On it goes. Fans of child literature, however, are more likely to think of the eponymous but innocent story by Margaret Wise Brown.

That link to the well-known picture book is part of what makes for the creepiness of the song. There’s something about the admixture of horror and childhood familiarities such as songs, clowns, circuses and picture books which intensifies the creepiness of the creepy bit. This is how the folk at TV Tropes put it:

If a program or film wants to add fear to a scene one of the most creepy ways is to have a Creepy Child, or a whole creepy choir, singing somewhere in the distance or background, usually the tune is a mournful nursery rhyme. Sometimes it will seem like the characters can hear it and they may even call out, asking if anyone is there.

Creepy Children Singing

The Wire is a TV series for adults, creepy because of its uncomfortable realism. The character Omar Comin is particularly interesting, due to his role as sometime-comic relief, for his incongruous same-sex attraction in an overwhelmingly macho environment, and for his sociopathic ability to kill. Regular viewers of the show will soon learn that when Omar Comin starts to whistle Farmer In The Dell, bad stuff is going to happen. In this clip, bystanders realise from the whistle that Omar is up to very bad business.

Why Farmer In The Dell? Because viewers familiar with the tune will associate it with innocence, childlike naivete and comfort. The tune works well in the story because Omar is probably using one of his own childhood favourites for dual purpose: To set up a nonchalant persona for himself in the eyes of others, and also to steady his own nerves. The words themselves may also have thematic significance, though The Wire is not known for its ham-handed metaphors in the manner of Mad Men, so this may be an overanalysis.

The tinkle of bells, the fast-to-slow tune of a music box, the call of the ice-cream van — all make for excellent horror soundtracks and IT makes use of it too.

RELATED

10 Things You Might Not Know About Stephen King’s IT from Mental Floss

How IT handles the book’s most controversial scene from Entertainment Weekly

Reversals and Reveals In Storytelling

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

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

WHAT ARE ‘REVEALS’?

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

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

Peggy Ramsay, agent

A revelation is basically a surprise.

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

WHAT ARE ‘REVERSALS’?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Yorke, Into The Woods

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

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

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

Alfred Hitchcock

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

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

EXAMPLES OF REVEALS AND REVERSALS

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

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

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

REVERSALS AND REVEALS DONE BADLY

The Rug Jerk

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

The Reset Switch, aka The Reboot

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

Critters.org

A Common Misperception

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

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

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

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

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

@NaomiHughesYA

Types of Reveals

A few main types of plot twists/reveals:

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

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

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

@NaomiHughesYA

Planning and Editing A Reveals Plot

Further questions to ask:

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

Carrie Storytelling Techniques

carrie film poster

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 the remake 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, Carrie 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.)

SENTENCE BEHIND THE STORY OF CARRIE

Your own powers can be the end of you.

I don’t believe the designing principle of this film is its main strength. Instead it makes an emotional promise: Watch this film and you will be thrilled and entertained. It possibly aims to sadden. (I don’t feel saddened by this remake.)

It also makes an intellectual promise to a modern audience: Watch this and you’ll learn of a different, slightly off-kilter world than this.

Horror films require us to face the unknown — they allow us to face our fears and put them into context. They shape our belief system, and provide a safe space to explore. Carrie was notable for being one of the few to broach the topic of menstruation which, 40 years later, is still somewhat taboo. There is nowhere near as much menstruation in children’s literature as there are girls dealing with it in real life, outside a few standout books from authors such as Judy Blume.

GENRE BLEND OF CARRIE

drama, horror

The horror genre is one of the most highly symbolic forms (along with Westerns and science fiction). The origin of the horror in this story comes from demonic forces. Another example of this kind of horror is The Exorcist. Other horrors might come from whatever lies beyond death (Dracula) or from humans daring to fool around with nature (Frankenstein). Those are the big three.

Interestingly, the genre of the 1976 adaptation is simply ‘horror’ according to IMDb. This remake must have been aiming for a bit more character development with the addition of ‘drama’.

The horror film is a genre aimed largely at pubescent and adolescent youth — the same people who love to scream on roller coasters and look for out-of-control sensations elsewhere in their lives. Attracting people who are not part of this constituency is often difficult. The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby did so by dealing with families in a serious way — something the mostly young audience for horror films isn’t especially interested in seeing.

— Howard Suber

I don’t think Carrie manages to deal with family matters in any serious way. The mother is not a rounded character. This feels all horror, not much drama.

The Female Gothic

Stephen King’s Carrie is a descendent of the Female Gothic, invented by writers such as Anne Radcliffe, Mary Shelley and Charlotte Bronte.

Features of the Female Gothic Novel:

  • Gothic texts are based upon Medieval society.
  • Following a Gothic Bildungsroman-esque plot, the Female Gothic allowed its readers to graduate from adolescence to maturity along with its heroine. 
  • The readers of these novels didn’t lead very thrilling lives — many restrictions — this was their outlet
  • The Female Gothic is about the suppression of female sexuality, or challenges the gender hierarchy and values of a male-dominated culture.
  • The natural cause of terror is not the supernatural, but rather female disability and societal horrors: rape, incest and the threatening control of the male antagonist.
  • The female protagonists pursued in these texts are often caught in an unfamiliar and terrifying landscape, delivering higher degrees of horror.
  • The end result, however, is the explained supernatural, rather than terrors familiar to women such as rape or incest, or the expected ghosts or haunted castles.(For example, the female protagonist will think there’s a ghost in the dungeon but when she gets down there it’s actually a real man wanting to rape her.)

In Stephen King’s variety of the Female Gothic, we have an out-and-out evil boy pulling strings behind the scenes, but female characters feature as all shades of good/bad.

STORYWORLD OF CARRIE

Symbolism

Many horror films could correctly be called “supernatural films” but this might reveal more than we care to acknowledge about the religious origins of so much horror.

— Howard Suber

She was alone with Momma’s angry God.

The blue light glared on a picture of a huge and bearded Yahweh who was casting screaming multitudes of humans down through cloudy depths into an abyss of fire. Below them, black horrid figures struggled through the flames of perdition while the Black Man wat on a huge flame-colored throne with a trident in one hand. His body was that of a man, but he had a spiked tail and the head of a jackal.

— Stephen King, Carrie

The setting of Carrie is very recognisable as our own but King includes supernatural elements.

Night journeys are a common element seen throughout Gothic literature. They can occur in almost any setting, but in American literature are more commonly seen in the wilderness, forest or any other area that is devoid of people. A prom, always held after dark, provides the perfect reason for a night journey.

Fantasy Elements

Stephen King writes what some have called ‘supernatural realism’. We might call it ‘magical realism‘ but I think ‘supernatural realism’ is a better descriptor. Carrie is set in the real world but there are supernatural elements. Carrie has the power of telekinesis and might be an ancestor of Roald Dahl’s Matilda in a sense. This is a world in which anything could happen.

There is a bit of a gothic vibe going on in this story, with the blue, cottage-like house looking peachy from the outside but once we get inside we’re shown cupboards used as prison, a dark and stifling atmosphere and a ‘mad woman in the attic’.

Era

The film is set in the USA in a mainly white suburban town in Maine called Chamberlain but the film is shot in Ontario. Here’s the house. Note that the creators of the remake decided to keep a general 1970s vibe in the setting — it’s also fitting that Carrie’s mother would have little money and therefore have to drive a car from that era. The original novel starts in 1966 and the main events happen 1979.

She continued to walk down the street toward the small white house with the blue shutters. The familiar hate-love-dread feeling was churning inside her. Ivy had crawled up the wests side of the bungalow (they always called it the bungalow because the White house sounded like a political joke and Momma said all politicians were crooks and sinners who would eventually give the country over to the Godless Reds who would put all the believers of Jesus—even the Catholics—up against the wall), and the ivy was picturesque, she knew it was, but sometimes she hated it. Sometimes, like now, the ivy looked like a grotesque giant hand ridged with great veins which had sprung up out of the ground to grip the building. She approached it with dragging feet.

Deaths In Schools

By the 1970s there had already been enough mass executions in American schools due to gun violence for the fear of a blood bath at a prom to be based upon a real, deep-seated fear. There have been many more school shootings since then. Unfortunately the terror of Carrie’s loner rampage still feels all too real.

STORY STRUCTURE

King wrote the novel as epistolary, using a combination of letters, news clippings, magazine articles, and passages from books. Sometimes when an epistolary story is adapted for screen some of that form is maintained, often with use of a storyteller narrator (the person who wrote the letters). But because I hadn’t read the book before watching the movie it was a bit of a surprise to find it was an epistolary novel. There’s nothing left of that. The reason for the epistolary form must have been to create a sense of realism for the reader.

SHORTCOMING

The desire to be known, to be seen, and to be powerful in your own sphere is a common desire in both real people and in the fictional realm. This particular desire seems to be having a moment in the West. The promotional material for the Carrie reboot reminds me very much of the posters which came out for Breaking Bad around the same time. Carrie and Walter White have the same psychological need.

Carrie’s problem is that she is an out-and-out social outcast. High schools are a great arena to show social exclusion — Vince Vaughn even sent Walter White back to school and made him the butt of some teenagers’ jokes in the pilot episode as they mock him washing cars — there’s something about mockery you get at school that stays with you your whole life, even when you engage your logical adult brain and realise your high school opponents had their own issues which had nothing to do with you.

The epistolary form of King’s novel allows for a variety of opinions on Carrie, leaving the reader with no ‘true’ impression of what she really looked like (and consequently, who she really was.) Described by the narrator as ugly, fat and blemished, she is described later as ‘pretty’. Carrie herself considers herself repulsive, especially her face, covered in blackheads and clusters of pimples. These various accounts of Carrie add to the gossipy, unreliable nature of the retelling:

Narrator’s description of Carrie, close-third-person viewpoint through the eyes of the girls in the changing room
Opinion of a minor character Stella Horan
From Tommy’s point of view Carrie is ‘far from repulsive’.

Carrie’s psychological shortcoming is that she needs to belong somewhere. She is totally alone in the world. Like any teenager (or adult), she wants to fit in.

Found written repeatedly on one page of a Ewen Consolidated High School notebook owned by Carrie White:

Everybody’s guessed/that baby can’t be blessed/’til she finally sees that she’s like all the rest….

— Stephen King, Carrie

In this movie adaptation she has been homeschooled until very recently, which is how the screenwriters get around the weird fact that Carrie doesn’t know what periods are. It’s hard for a modern audience to believe a 16 year old girl could not know anything about that. Stephen King had to lampshade that one quite heavily in his 1976 novel, especially since in the novel Carrie has been attending school all along.

At Ewan High School Carrie is shown hiding behind a pile of books, sneaking around as if hoping to become invisible.

Psychological overlay is an element connected to how characters within an American Gothic novel are affected by things like the night and their surroundings. In Carrie’s case, Carrie’s menstruation is connected to everyone’s general fear of blood. Blood symbolism can be seen throughout the film, culminating famously in the big struggle scene. 

Does Carrie have a moral shortcoming? Is she treating others badly? A fairytale victim character like this doesn’t need to show us that she is a fully rounded human being with flaws — Carrie is not a normal human being anyhow. She’s kind of the second coming, perhaps from the devil. In the films, at least, Carrie does not demonstrate any moral shortcomings. She is a Gothic Good Girl. (The virginal character in a Female Gothic.)

DESIRE

Carrie wants to go to the ball. This is intimately connected to her psychological shortcoming of course — her need to be part of something.

OPPONENT

King has used a number of character archetypes from the gothic novel to create his setting:

  • Virginal maiden – young, beautiful, pure, innocent, kind, virtuous and sensitive. Usually starts out with a mysterious past and it is later revealed that she is the daughter of an aristocratic or noble family. (Carrie)
  • Older, foolish woman (Mrs White)
  • Hero (Sue)
  • Tyrant/villain (Chris and her boyfriend)
  • Bandits/ruffians (the cast of school girls who mock Carrie rather than standing up for her)
  • Clergy – always weak, usually evil (not present in the film adaptation — the clergy is the invisible force behind the uber-Christian Mrs White). In the novel we do have a modified ‘clergy’ stand-in in the form of Mr P. P. Bliss:

Mr. P.P. Bliss, who had written this hymn and others seemingly without number, was one of Momma’s shining examples of God at work upon the face of the earth. He had been a sailor and a sinner (two terms that were synonymous in Momma’s lexicon), a great blasphemer, a laugher in the face of the Almighty. Then a great storm had come up at sea, the boat had threatened to capsize, and Mr. P. P. Bliss had gotten down on his sin-sickly knees with a vision of Hell yawning beneath the ocean floor to receive him, and he had prayed to God. M. P.P. Bliss promised God that if He saved him, he would dedicate the rest of his life to Him. The storm, of course, cleared immediately.

Brightly beams our Father’s mercy
From his lighthouse evermore
But to us he gives the keeping
Of the lights along the shore

All of Mr. P. P. Bliss’s hymns had a seagoing flavour to them.

Stephen King, Carrie

The watchful eye of the clergy is symbolised by the picture The Unseen Guest:

She walked up the hall and put her coat in the closet. A luminous picture above the coat hooks limned a ghostly Jesus hovering grimly over a family seated at the kitchen table. Beneath was the caption (also luminous): The Unseen Guest

— Stephen King, Carrie

On the other hand, the teachers at the school might be seen as the modern equivalent of the Gothic clergy, in charge of the virgin’s life, seeking counsel.

Carrie’s mother might as well be a mythical monster or a fairytale witch. The (semi) realistic setting allows us to read her as a woman with mental health challenges but her archetype predates such knowledge. American Gothic novels in particular tend to deal with a “madness” in one or more of the characters and carry that theme throughout the novel. In his novel Edgar Huntly or Memoirs of a Sleepwalker, Charles Brockden Brown writes about two characters who slowly become more and more deranged as the novel progresses. King’s novel The Shining is also about Descent Into Madness. Non-King examples include Sunset Boulevard, Black Swan, Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing and Apocalypse Now.

What Carrie lacks in complexity, Stephen King makes up for in his web of her opponents. In Carrie’s classmates we see all shades of bullying, from the out-and-out evil, dark-haired girl (Chris Hargensen) to the blonde* girl who wants to do the right thing but ends up making Carrie’s life worse (Sue Snell). Even the teacher (Miss Desjardin) has excellent intentions but inadvertently makes Carrie’s life worse by setting in action the suspension of Chris Hargensen, who because of this plots the blood in a bucket incident.

*In the novel Sue has dark hair.

King apparently wrote this book inspired by catty bitches he knew from school and from teaching high school. So I don’t kid myself that King is particularly sympathetic to the teenage girl at this point in his writing career. But in contrast to the ‘women are catty bitches’ reading, King turns Chris into a bullied victim herself. Her boyfriend is truly bad; if she hadn’t had sex with him he planned to rape her; later, he does in fact rape her.

but it had all begun to slip out of her hands, and it made her uneasy. If she had not given in willingly on Monday, he would have taken her by force.

Chris is punished, partly for her willingness to have sex, partly for her short skirt and also, partly, for being really mean to people.

There are lots of people—mostly men—who aren’t surprised that I asked Tommy to take Carrie to the Spring Ball. They are surprised that he did it, though, which shows you that the male mind expects very little in the way of altruism from its fellows.

Here King is kinder on men.

Carrying the pails back to the trunk, his mind made a dim, symbolic connection. Pig blood. That was good. Chris was right. It was really good. It made everything solidify.

Pig blood for a pig.

The bad boys are playing a different, more basic game. The menstruation connection is from the girls; the boys think they’re simply insulting Carrie by comparing her to an animal.

MYSTERY

As we get to know the opponents and what they are capable of, we are also introduced to a mystery: What is the exact nature of Carrie’s newfound superpower? 

Revelation is important in any story containing a mystery. (TV writers call them ‘reveals’.) But a story doesn’t have to be ‘mystery’ or ‘detective’ genre to contain a mystery element. Part of this story’s dynamic is to have Carrie find out/realise something that’s been true (latent) for some time: That she is a witch, and has inherited her powers from her grandmother. The story’s momentum comes from the finding out, and during the big struggle sequence we will see the full extent of Carrie’s superpowers. 

Much Gothic literature also includes a mystery of some kind. For instance, Jane Eyre has his first wife in the attic. Rebecca’s new husband Maxim went and killed his first wife in a re-telling of Bluebeard. Notice that these Gothic mystery novels are also named after the female leads.

King’s novel tells us near the beginning that Carrie has the powers of telekinesis, so the mystery there is in waiting to see how she’s going to use it.

PLAN

“Wait. Just wait. Let me talk. You want me to ask Carrie White to the Spring Ball. Okay, I got that. But there’s a couple of things I don’t understand.”
“Name them.” She leaned forward.
“First, what good would it do?” And second, what makes you think she’d say yes if I asked her?”
“Not say yes! Why–” She floundred. “You’re… everybody likes you and–“
“We both know Carrie’s got no reason to care much for people that everybody likes.”
“She’d go with you.”
“Why?”
Pressed, she looked defiant and proud at the same time. “I’ve seen the way she looks at you. She’s got a crush. Like half the girls at Ewen.”
He rolled his eyes.
“Well, I’m just telling you,” Sue said defensively. “She won’t be able to say no.”
“Suppose I believe you,” he said. “What about the other thing?”
“You mean what good will it do? Why… it’ll bring her out of her shell, of course. Make her…” She trailed off.”
“A part of things? Come on, Suze. You don’t believe that bullshit.”
“All right,” she said. “Maybe I don’t. But maybe I still think I’ve got something to make up for.”

In King’s story it’s not Carrie who has the plan. In fact, Carrie is a co-star at best. Despite the character of Carrie carrying the title of the work, and huge images of the actress emblazoned across the posters, the person who undergoes the character arc is Sue Snell who, like the majority of empathetic readers following along, wants to do something to help the outcast underdog. However, we don’t see quite enough of Sue in this film adaptation to rightly call her the main character. Both these girls are the stars — mirror images of each other in many ways:

  • Carrie is an outcast/Sue is popular
  • Carrie is lacking in confidence/Sue is full of confidence
  • Sue has Tommy for a boyfriend/Carrie goes to the ball with him but knows he is very much not her boyfriend
  • Carrie starts the book with blood between her thighs/the book ends with blood between Sue’s

It is Sue who comes up with The Plan that sets the plot in motion. She will offer her popular boyfriend to Carrie as a companion to the ball. This is of course a condescending gesture and Carrie can see right through it — the only way any girl would offer her boyfriend to another girl for an important life event like this is because she knows she’s no competition whatsoever. However, the plan works. It is undermined by Chris and her pig-killing guy friends.

BIG STRUGGLE

In the book, Stephen King puts the entire big struggle sequence into a section called ‘Part Two’. It comprises almost half of the book.

Carrie and Tommy at the ball in a brief moment of bliss. As in many high school stories, the outcast female character undergoes a makeover.

The sequence beginning with the bucket of blood on Carrie’s head. The blood in the bucket sequence is of course the set piece of this film and even if you forget every other scene, this is the bit which eventually enters pop culture. In fact, you probably know this scene even without ever watching the film or reading the book. Part of what makes this so successful is the build up, in which we see Chris as a puppeteer, literally pulling the strings (but of the bucket) from above, as a symbol of omniscient evil against good. (Her own abusive boyfriend is using Chris as his puppet, and also as his non-consenting sex doll.)

Structurally speaking, I’m guessing this is the part which could have posed the biggest hurdle for the writer(s). Miraculous survivals are elements within American Gothic literature in which a character or characters will somehow manage to survive some feat that should have led to their demise. The problem is, with Carrie’s anger-fuelled telekinesis, Carrie is all powerful. She can stop an oncoming car and murder people without even touching them. This superpower means the opponent is fully at her mercy. Sure, the revenge is sweet to watch, but when a character is so much more powerful than their opponent this makes for a boring blood bath.

To create a satisfying big struggle sequence, King gave Carrie two separate big struggles, one after the other with a quiet moment in the middle:

  1. The big struggle on stage against everyone at school
  2. The big struggle against her mother, who has been proven to be a formidable monster and who stabs her quietly in the back.

Sue watches as the house is destroyed. The house can be considered a character in the story, or at least an extension of the women who live there. (In Gothic novels the setting is always a character in itself.)

The cold, heartless house turns to rubble. The difference between this shot and the blue weatherboard house is important. The setting is greatly influential in Gothic novels. It not only evokes the atmosphere of horror and dread, but also portrays the deterioration of its world. The decaying, ruined scenery implies that at one time there was a thriving world. At one time the abbey, castle, or landscape was something treasured and appreciated. Now, all that lasts is the decaying shell of a once thriving dwelling.
Sue watches the house being destroyed, and Mrs White with it, in the basement.

ANAGNORISIS

In the book, this marks the beginning of Part Three. I’m guessing King thinks (or thought) in terms of three act structure as a writer.

We see Sue Snell see her gazing at Carrie’s headstone. Her voiceover says, “You can only push someone so far before they break.” This is her revelation. It’s an anti-bullying message at its heart.

NEW SITUATION

Interestingly, we are shown the new situation before we’re shown Sue’s anagnorisis. Usually it’s not that way around. We know that she is pregnant with a girl and from the court scene we know that most of her friends are dead. We can extrapolate that Sue will give birth to a girl, and we might even wonder if Carrie has done something to that girl to imbue her with witchy superpowers, in the style of Rosemary’s Baby (1968).

This isn’t how the book ends. Somewhere else, a woman called Amelia Jenks is pregnant with a baby who turns out to have witch powers. It is implied that Tommy gets Sue pregnant, but the final scene is bookended with blood — Sue gets her period (which may actually be a miscarriage).