Emotion in Storytelling: Unexpected responses

Storytellers can manage audience emotions by writing characters who do — and feel — the unexpected. In other words, writers can subvert common emotional tropes to great effect.

Today’s storytelling examples come from music.

Canadian singer songwriter Michelle Gurevich is expert at creating songs which function as antidotes to pop messages. Her songs have titles like Drugs Saved My Life, standing in contrast to more conservative ideologies such as The Drugs Don’t Work from The Verve.

Drugs do save lots of lives — generally they’re on prescription, though. There remains a stigma regarding certain classes of drugs: antidepressants and stimulant medications cop it pretty bad.

No surprise, then, that The Verve’s The Drugs Don’t Work is pop whereas you may never heard of Drugs Saved My Life, unless you’re reading this from Eastern Europe where Gurevich is popular — an interesting cultural difference about audience reactions to subversion, perhaps.

When drugs ruin someone’s life, the emotions around that narrative are intense; when drugs save someone’s life, bringing the character back to equilibrium, this prioritises the muted story over the sensational one. But expressing a muted response is one good way to subvert a dominant narrative: That drugs are bad.

Similarly, Michelle Gurevich’s I Saw The Spark feels like the literary counterpoint to Dolly Parton’s pop song Jolene.

In Jolene, the singer/narrator contacts the rival woman and pleads.

The lyrics of Jolene appeal to baser instincts — calling is what we might do if our frontal lobes weren’t doing their job.

MY MAN: (comes home)
ME: (nervous) how was the store
MY MAN: fine
ME: oh thank g —
MY MAN: ran into jolene
ME: oh no
MY MAN: she mentioned you left kind of an intense voicemail

— Rob Dubbin (@robdubbin) July 28, 2019 

Jolene as a song is therefore cathartic, and although I really do think the singer/narrator should ditch the man, those feelings of jealousy and inadequacy are real, relatable and… intense.

Gurevich’s song I Saw The Spark evokes a different emotion in a similar situation and therefore makes an excellent counterpoint to Jolene. The singer/narrator demonstrates unexpected emotional maturity when her partner is attracted by another woman. She acknowledges that sometimes in love you win, other times it’s your turn to lose. This is a fatalistic but realistic worldview. Finally:

And there’s nothing I can do
But to love you both the more
No there’s nothing I can do
But to love you both the more
Second best thing to a cure

These two songs feel like the difference between what a friend might tell you to do (“Call that bitch and tell her to back the hell off” — a la Jolene) and what a therapist might advise — “You can’t make someone stay with you — it takes two to be in a relationship — keep your perspective and remember this isn’t about you personally”.)

There’s room for both kinds of stories in this world. The question is, as a writer, which are you going for in any given narrative? Cathartic or nuanced? Expected or unexpected?


Now to the world of short stories.

Literary short stories are perhaps designated ‘literary’ precisely because of the nuanced, unexpected, unexplored Anagnorisiss and emotions from the main characters.

Alice Munro is a particularly nuanced writer, especially evident in the stories she wrote as an older person. Take the short story “Fiction” as a mentor text exploring the nuanced, unexpected emotions around infidelity.


As children’s storytellers, be mindful of reaching for the easy, expected emotion. The ‘unexpected’ emotion in a children’s book — same as in stories for adults — is often the more muted one.

Below, Betsy Bird makes special note of a children’s book which makes an excellent job of portraying the complex emotion of guilt. It it’s a lot easier to write about tantrums (or ‘snits’), and let’s face it, more fun. I have covered numerous examples of picture books featuring snits/tantrums on this blog, but middle grade novel Keeper by Kathi Appelt knows that middle grade readers are ready for something a little more complex:

There is a note at the back of this book in the Acknowledgment section that strikes me as just as important as any word in the text itself. Writes Ms. Appelt of one Diane Linn, “She lovingly cast her knowledge of tides and currents and stingrays my way, and she asked me to consider heartbreak over anger.” Heartbreak over anger. The very root of why Keeper goes traipsing out into the sea in a boat with only a dog by her side. Any book, heck most books, would have sent Keeper into that boat in the midst of a snit. Kids understand snits. They’re experts in `em. But while a snit may help your plot along, it isn’t as emotionally rewarding as good old-fashioned guilt. Keeper goes into that boat not because she’s mad or even because she feels much affection for her absent mother, but because she’s wholly convinced that she’s ruined the lives of everyone she loves and this is the only way to rectify the situation. That packs the necessary emotional wallop the book requires, while also making Keeper a sympathetic character. Well played, Diane Linn.

review of Keeper by Diane Linn, reviewed by Betsy Bird


Photo in header is by Allef Vinicius.

Heads Of Beef Courage The Cowardly Dog

“Heads Of Beef” is an episode of Nickelodeon cartoon show from the late 1990s, Courage The Cowardly Dog.

Heads of Beef

In any horror comedy starring a dog, surely at some point the dog must find himself a hot dog, right?

The trope of the surprise in the burger plays on a primal fear we have when visiting cheap food joints — what is under the bread?

David Walliams has used it…

As have I, in our story app Hilda Bewildered.



While there have been many surprises and reversals, this is the first Courage episode which so completely subverts audience expectations.


Courage is forced to go with Eustace to buy Muriel a scone. She is too sick to cook.

Courage’s other shortcoming is that he is inclined to worry a lot and sometimes, as will be revealed here, it’s over nothing.

Eustace is a Horrible Husband (the full trope) so of course he looks after himself and is grumpy about his wife failing to cook him dinner even though she is sick.


As ever, he must keep Muriel happy and make sure Eustace remembers to buy her the scone from the bakery.

Whenever Courage puts his own collar on this is a visual metaphor for him doing something he doesn’t want to do. Another catch phrase is, “The things I do for love!” though he doesn’t say that here.

Plans to remind Eustace about the scone change when it becomes clear Eustace has no intention of stopping at Sweet Stuff. They drive right past.


This episode is one of the later ones from season one, and by now the audience is well conditioned: We know that an opponent will appear and that it’s up to Courage to save the day. Even if we’ve never seen any Courage episodes before in our lives, the intro sequence tells us exactly that: “…and it’s up to Courage to save the day!” The problem to be overcome by the writers is now how to keep the stories feeling fresh?

This is the first episode in which the opponent is not a genuine opponent. Both the audience and Courage are fooled into thinking the pig is evil and plans to eat them after luring them out the back.

The pig chef is called Jean Bon — “I’m not French but my name sounds French don’t you think?” (Is this a dig at American singer Jon Bon Jovi?)

The diner itself is first seen from a ‘security camera’ angle. This in itself suggests things aren’t quite right.

A diner with a single customer is a dodgy diner. Is this man the real opponent or is it the pig chef? It takes us a while to figure it out, and when we’ve made our decision, the fact that we made a decision in the first place gives us more of a surprise at the end.


Seeing the other customer disappear through a door (the lavatory?), and that the pig is suspiciously minding his briefcase and hat, Courage bravely decides to go through the same door and investigate. Of course he alerts Eustace first, but Eustace is busy enjoying his Very Cheap Burger.

Courage overhears part of a conversation
and imagines the worst


a low angle view emphasises the steepness of the stairs

The big struggle sequence involves Courage falling down the stairs into the basement, ominous shadows on the walls, and a chase scene in which Jon Bon chases after Courage in a way that seems he wants to eat him.

The pig looks meaner when we see parts of his body with the rest cut off. The purple on his apron — is that blood or sauce?
Shadows and stairways and basements lend a film noir level of suspense.
The big struggle sequence makes use of a variety of camera angles.

The best line is saved for the wife, who declares that Courage is so sweet she could just eat him up. She then chases him. Being quite large and unwieldy, Courage manages to get away and runs (wee wee wee) all the way home.

The psychological phenomenon wherein you want to squeeze or eat really cute things is called ‘cute aggression’. No one is sure why this is, but it might be simply that high levels of positive emotion may need a physical outworking, similar to crying when something really good happens to us.


The audience learns what the pigs mean by ‘heads of beef’. They are culinary artists who enjoy crafting customers’ heads out of minced beef.

It is also revealed that the customer who disappeared earlier is a gallery owner who offers to showcase their work.

Notice he stands in front of all sorts of weapons. A few moments ago this basement looked like a torture chamber. Now it is an artist’s area.


This part of the story actually comes before the revelation in this tale. (We are left wondering until the final scene what has happened to Eustace. Eustace often cops punishment for being such a horrible person but on this occasion he’s having a good old time.)

Courage makes it home, leaving Eustace at the diner. Sitting with Muriel in front of the TV, Muriel assures us all that Eustace will come home eventually. We know that Muriel won’t ever get the scone she asked for. But I have to admit, at the beginning of the story I was half expecting a circular plot in which Eustace stops off to get the scone and encounters a sequel of whatever he got at the burger joint.

Inversion Does Not Equal Subversion: The Day The Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt And Oliver Jeffers

The Day The Crayons Quit

The Day The Crayons Quit is a best seller made by two picture book superstars, so I’d like to use it as an example of something which bothers me a lot in children’s literature and film: Gender inversion that ironically supports the status quo.

On the surface, The Day The Crayons Quit contains a message for young artists: Use all the colours in your crayon box. Use them in original ways. (‘Think Outside The Crayon Box’.) And the gender message for boy readers: If you’re a boy, don’t be afraid to use the pink crayon. There is also another message, more implicit than that: Pink is for girls, and girls are one big blob of similar people who ‘colour within the lines’.


The problem with pink and gendered constructs in general.
(Please tell me who created this graphic if you know.)

This is of course a response to the pinkification of toys and games that’s been happening over the past 10-20 years.

  1. Do Gendered Toys And Playtime Have Their Place Or Is It All For Profit? from The Mary Sue.
  2. Stereotyping Childhood from Don’t Conform Transform. Why does the pink and blue division of toys matter? See also: I’m Dreaming Of A Non Pink and Blue Christmas from the same blog.
  3. Beauty And The New Lego Line For Girls from The Society Pages (See also: Retro Lego Catalogue Praises Little Girls’ Imagination from The Mary Sue. And if you’re wondering what the new Lego for Girls looks like, you can see it at Ms Blog.) Here are a couple of retro Lego ads, and as far as I’m concerned, they should still look pretty much like that.
  4. Lego For Girls Already Exists. It’s Called Lego from Mommyish, and here’s more commentary on the superfluousness of the new Lego line, which is discussed amid a handy explanation of Stereotype Threat from Don’t Conform Transform. (Girly Lego Sucks, But It’s Selling Like Hotcakes – an update from Jezebel.) And if anyone here is still wondering what the problem is, Peggy Orenstein tells Mommyish Why Those Girly Legos Should Give Parents Pause.
  5. Gender Typed Toys: What The Research Says from naeyc
  6. On Vanity And Princess Culture from Blue Milk, talking about dolls and other faux-harmless toys for girls
  7. Pink Or Blue: Defining Gender Neutral Parenting – Baby Storm’s parents have not revealed Storm’s gender.
  8. Toy Ads And Learning Gender from Feminist Frequency (a video)
  9. But just because it’s not pink, doesn’t mean it might as well be.
  10. Monica Dux conducted an experiment: ‘Walking my baby up and down a busy shopping strip. She was dressed in a lime-green hoodie and pink pants but before I set out I covered her pants with a grey blanket. The immediate assumption from all those who cooed at my infant was that she was a boy.’ The rest of the story is here.
  11. Embracing Girly: On Letting Girls Be Who They Are from Don’t Conform Transform: ‘There’s nothing wrong with a child choosing any or all of those things or loving them, but there is something wrong with media and marketers providing only one vision of what a girl can like and who she can be.
  12. A short clip from the comedian Jared Logan about the difference between the television commercials for boys’ vs girls’ toys.
  13. Feminizing The Masculine, a Pinterest collection which ends up being a visual guide to how pink is used to market to adult women as well as to girls.
  14. Are Gender Neutral Spaces Actually Doing Anything?, from Inequality by (Interior) Design
  15. Dame Jacqueline Wilson dares her publishers to not put a pink cover on just one of her books, to prove they would still sell, from The Telegraph
  16. Loving pink for boys, hating it for girls, from Motherlode

The Difficulties Faced by Authors/Illustrators In Conveying This Message

Best selling title that it is, lauded for its gender subversion, there are some potential problems in The Day The Crayons Quit.

First I’ll quote Jennie Yabroff who wrote in The Washington Post:

Even children’s books that seem radical in other ways reinforce a male-dominated universe. The current bestsellers “The Day the Crayons Quit” and “The Day the Crayons Came Home” have been praised as parables of inclusion and celebrations of diversity. One bookseller I spoke with even described the rebelling crayons as a metaphor for the Occupy movement. Yet not a single crayon is identified with a female pronoun. Just about everything and everyone in the books — from five of the crayons to a paper clip to a sock to Pablo Picasso to the crayons’ owner, Duncan, to his father to his little brother — is male, or not assigned a gender. The exceptions are a female teacher and Duncan’s little sister, who uses the otherwise under-employed pink crayon. To color in a picture of a princess. And is praised for staying in the lines.

Jennie Yabroff

 Anita Sarkeesian has already explained in detail our culture’s tendency to create a cast of male characters, each with differing personalities, then create a new ‘female’ version, in which her defining characteristic is ‘femaleness’. The audience knows that this is the girl because the creators have slapped a bow on her head, put her in heels and a dress, given her eyelashes or marked her out with pink.

This doesn’t just happen in video games — it happens on TV shows designed for children, in computer software used in schools, in advertising, in toys, and of course in mass market picture books.

Toy makers are in the same moral bind: Consumers want female versions, but how to show femaleness without stereotypical markers of femininity?
Toy makers are in the same moral bind: Consumers want female versions, but how to show femaleness without stereotypical markers of femininity?

Since readers of The Day The Crayons Quit have been acculturated within a system which pinkifies everything associated with girls, it should have been clear to this book’s creators — who presumably understand this tendency in children precisely so they can subvert it — that without gender pronouns, or clothes, or human names, the crayons are all default males.

It should also have been clear to any creators properly schooled up in gender politics that getting the male hero to pass on a message praising his little sister for ‘staying within the lines’ is just the sort of sexist bullshit that turns primary school aged girls into what I’ve heard teachers refer to as ‘colourer-inners’ by the time they hit high school. No, that’s not a grammatically sensible phrase, but an English teacher I once knew used it to refer to her female students who, instead of doing the research and the thinking required before writing any essay, would spend 90 per cent of their allocated time creating an ornamental page border, choosing which shade of paper to print on, then hum and ha over 7 different system fonts without doing any actual work. Having later taught at a girls’ high school myself, I became so exasperated with this tendency that I banned any modification to the Word template at the start of each lesson, otherwise 20 minutes would be wasted on choosing fonts and borders rather than thinking essay work. Who could blame these girls though, after having been told their entire lives that looking pretty and creating prettiness was the most important thing they should do?

Drew Daywalt’s picture book hardly blows that bullshit apart.

I’m most disturbed by the bit that says:

Okay, listen here, kid! You have not used me ONCE in the past year. It’s because you think I am a GIRLS’ colour, isn’t it?

I’m reminded here of all those picture books for toddlers which are designed to teach children not to be afraid of monsters. The book will then offer up a detailed picture of just exactly what a monster looks like (green and scaly or warm and fluffy) and where it lives (under the bed, behind the curtains). My own daughter was never scared of monsters until she encountered them in other people’s stories, and those first stories happened to be picture books, naturally.

When boys and girls are told that this generic ‘kid’, Duncan, is not using the pink because he is a boy, there is nothing whatsoever within the text or the pictures to say:


The message is not: Femme phobia is stupid because even though pink is ‘for girls’ girls are just a-okay. No, the message is: You can use the pink crayon even though it’s an icky girl colour. (So long as you use it to make a dinosaur, not a princess.)

How Might This Book Be Better?

  • The crayons probably do need to be overtly gendered, with 50/50 male/female. The pink crayon could have even been a boy, to really hammer home the ‘pink is for everyone’ message. I’m a bit icky still about all this because in a perfect world these crayons could remain completely ungendered. Also, the pink crayon is not actually marked as female in any other way apart from being pink. Still, if the creators didn’t know that was going to happen, they are surprisingly naive.
  • Don’t praise girls for colouring within the lines while offering up an example of creative freeform drawing in boys.
  • Show that Duncan has coloured in the princess rather than creating a dinosaur with the pink. Maybe have the little sister be the one drawing the pink dinosaur.
  • Either get rid of the bit that preaches about pink being related to girls (it should be obvious from the illustrations anyway, for children who already ‘get the cultural message’), or else append with something that challenges the inherent femme phobia.

The first part of the message works i.e. ‘Be creative and original with colour’. But with something as complex as gendered messages, unfortunately inversion does not equal subversion.

This picture book fails in its gender message however. In fact, it makes the whole thing worse.

And the peach thing is a bit problematic, too, as noted by a Goodreads reviewer:

In regards to the “naked crayon” (peach) mentioned by other readers, I believe this refers to Duncan removing the crayon’s wrapper and not the author’s inadvertent implication that peach is the only color equivalent to skin tone. Even so, as others have noted, the illustrations would be improved by diversifying the figures in the book (they’re all colored with peach crayon although brown and beige crayons are referenced), especially since one of the book’s lessons is to experience color in various ways.

The Problem With Endings In Subversive Tales

subversive endings
One of the most important and difficult tasks a writer can achieve is to change a reader’s mind. One way to do that is to write a subversive narrative.

A subversive narrative draws the reader in, then slowly, using a variety of tricks, the writer reveals this isn’t exactly what the reader expected.

But subversive tales are among the hardest to write. One big hurdle is: How to end a subversive story?

Margery Hourihan (who wrote Deconstructing The Hero) offers some favourite examples of stories which successfully subvert the traditional heroic tale — the one which pits reason against emotion, civilization against wilderness, reason against nature, order against chaos, mind/soul against body, male against female, human against non-human and master against slave.
  • Alice In Wonderland, Lewis Carroll, in which the entire world is turned upon its head
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and the others in this series, by Douglas Adams, similar to Alice In Wonderland in this manner, poking fun at the established order of things
  • Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George, because it does not depict wolves and nature as the enemy, over which to dominate
  • The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger, because the story criticises the values of post-war American patriarchal capitalism
  • Peter Rabbit (because although Peter is highly-spirited, he does not set out to ‘win’ anything over anyone else)
  • Tehanu by Ursula Le Guin, because relationships between women are completely independent of men and is about the emergence of new ways from the old
  • E.T. is about kindness.

Hourihan then describes why the endings of these non-heroic tales are so hard to end:

There is no thunderclap from Zeus or hot supper from Mother to signify approval of the hero’s deeds, the significance of the conclusion is often somewhat equivocal, and what will happen in the future is by no means certain. These stories do not imply that there are any final solutions to life’s difficulties; they do not evoke the ‘happy ever after’ heaven outside the text. The reader is left to wonder what Julie’s life will be like with her Americanized father and to wonder about the chances of survival for the wolves in the American north. Holden Caulfield’s future remains deeply problematic. Brian Robeson has been strengthened and matured by his experiences in the Canadian wilderness, but the reader must decide whether this will help him cope with his parents’ impending divorce and his own future. It is impossible to predict the futures of Tenar, Therru and Ged, but the one thing that is clear to the reader is that all will be changed utterly…

These stories demand active participation by readers and viewers. They demand interpretation and re-examination of received opinions. They demand the acceptance of uncertainty. But they reward their readers with intellectual, emotional and imaginative stimulation, with humour, with subtleties of insight, with opportunities to explore the perspectives of people different from themselves.

For more on mythic structure — or the heroic tale, as it’s variously known — see this post.