Chekhov’s Toy Gun In Children’s Literature

chekhov's toy gun

Chekhov’s gun is a storytelling technique to do with foreshadowing. The author places a gun in the story/picture and one of the characters uses it later. This is the general rule: If the gun has been placed, the author must make use of it. Otherwise the reader will wonder what on earth it was doing there. The reader will feel cheated. In this way, stories are very different from real life.

Obviously, when it comes to children’s literature, guns are a bit of a no-go. However, the Chekhov’s Gun technique is super useful for increasing tension and narrative drive. Children’s writers must be inventive when it comes to avoiding actual gun violence in stories for young readers, but do make use of this same technique.

I’m not sure if someone has already done this, but for children’s literature I’m inventing my own related terminology. The kidlit equivalent of Chekhov’s gun is…

Illustrator - John P Falter (1910-1982) TV gun
Illustrator – John P Falter (1910-1982) TV gun

CHEKHOV’S TOY GUN

Chekhov’s TOY Gun refers to an on-the-page gun which turns out to be a toy gun, not a gun at all, or something else similarly benign.

Here’s the difference between the Chekhov’s Gun vs Chekhov’s TOY Gun: The toy gun is never going to be used to inflict harm, even when we see it on the page as a threat. We know this because this is a rule of junior fiction. In Young Adult literature, anything can happen — I’m talking about middle grade and below. In MG stories, characters don’t shoot heroes. However, the reader won’t know that until after the Battle sequence of the story. Part of the Revelation part of the plot (coinciding with the Anagnorisis) part, will be, Oh! It wasn’t any threat at all! Just seemed totally threatening!

J. C. Leyendecker Independence Day illustration 1920
J. C. Leyendecker Independence Day illustration 1920

EXAMPLES OF CHEKHOV’S TOY GUN

R.L. Stine will often give his adult baddies a gun but these guns are never used to shoot our child heroes. In How I Got My Shrunken Head,the gun turns out to be a water pistol. Thanks to R.L. Stine, for inspiring me with a name for this concept.

In Pax, Sara Pennypacker suggests a character may be carrying a rifle by describing it through a naive animal’s point of view. The reader guesses a ‘long pole’ may be a rifle because the setting is a war situation. We soon learn that the ‘pole’ is actually the hero’s crutch (he has a broken leg), and this crutch is used as a weapon to scare off the attacking coyotes during the final big big struggle scene.

The examples I give are very literal examples, because the child character thinks there is an actual gun. Also very common in children’s literature: A character who looks very scary proves completely benign. For example, the gigantic man next door proves to be kind of heart when the child hero actually meets him in person. Or a rumour about a perceived opponent turns out not to be true.

To offer an extremely tangential example, in Monster House, McCracken is revealed to be a victim of the scary, enlivened, haunted house, despite being very scary to the children himself. The real opponent goes a long way back in history, with a version of intergenerational trauma being the real issue, requiring nothing more than understanding (symbolised by a massive, elongated Battle sequence) on the part of the adolescent heroes.

Richard Scarry (1919-1994), Pierre Bear , 1954 gun
Richard Scarry (1919-1994), Pierre Bear, 1954.

Apart from the big reveal that something is not so terrible after all, these stories by their nature tend to convey the following ideologies:

  • Things (and people) are not what they seem on the surface.
  • Don’t believe everything you hear.
  • Look closely and pay attention or you’ll perceive danger in the exact wrong places.
  • People who look like baddies are sometimes the goodies (and vice versa).
  • And even if they are bad, there’s probably a reason for that and we should extend understanding. Worse bad lurks behind bad.
  • Understanding to true nature of things, events and people will help us cope with the bad stuff we encounter in life.

Have you noticed examples of Chekhov’s Toy Gun in stories you’ve read lately?

What is a ‘strong verb’?

dictionary

In high school English we were taught to use ‘strong verbs’ and ‘specific nouns’. Today I’d like to say about more about those strong verbs.

When I taught high school English myself, I noticed the advice was sometimes misinterpreted. Some took it to mean ‘pick the most comically impactful verb’. In place of ‘get out’ (of a chair) they’d choose ‘leap’. In place of ‘put down’ (a school bag) they’d choose ‘throw down’. There was also the danger that those ‘strong verbs’ would creep into dialogue tags, which is another issue altogether.

In the end it’s ironing the stuff. Getting out anything that’s extraneous. I don’t use adjectives if I can possibly get away with it. I don’t use adverbs. I try to make the verb do the work.

JOHN LE CARRÉ

Other students would make heavy use of a thesaurus, picking unusual verbs. In place of ‘whisper’, ‘susurrate’.  Better thesaurus enthusiasts do make sure their readers could nevertheless deduce the meaning from context.

But there’s another, higher level of word ninja-ing and as writers we must aspire to this one.

Word ninjas choose verbs not only for their dictionary definitions but for their connotations, associations and how they fit into your overall symbol web.

Earlier this year I wrote a re-visioning of “The Pied Piper.” In my story, children are swallowed up into a hill. That’s the verb I used in my first draft — swallow. It was the first that came to mind and it’s not particularly apt. Nothing wrong with it really, and it lasted several drafts. But when I really focused on my verbs in a later pass, I had to admit, I didn’t really mean to turn the hill into a creature with a mouth.

Then I referred back to Robert Browning’s poem and realised that his verb ‘trepan’ was far better. Why? Because of its multiple associations:

trepan

Note that the verb has a mining use, which is basically how Browning uses it, but it also has a grotesque medical use which harks back to medieval times. (Browning wrote his poem fairly recently — even to him, the medical practice of trepanning would have seemed archaic and disturbing.) Because of its mining AND its medical associations, trepan is a far better verb than swallow.

After all the Annie Proulx short stories I’ve been reading lately, I’ve turned attention to how Proulx uses verbs.

Strop — ‘His razor tongue stropped itself on the faults and flaws of his dead parents’. This verb in its literal (non metaphorical) sense means to sharpen something with a strop. A strop is a strip of leather for sharpening razors. In a story about rural characters who work with their hands, this verb is especially appropriate.

Patinate — ‘But in the insomnia of old age he read half the night, the patinated words gliding under his eyes like a river…’ Patina is a thin layer that forms on the surface of copper, bronze and similar metals (a.k.a. tarnish) or certain stones and wooden furniture (sheen from wear, age and polishing) or any similar acquired change of a surface through age and exposure. This may count as an example of pathetic fallacy, in which attributes of something else actually describe the character. It is the character who is built up with layers (of age and experience). (Literature majors let me know if there’s a more appropriate term for this technique than pathetic fallacy.)

Other various examples of verbs done well:

Unloose — meaning ‘to loosen the ties of’, but when the writer used ‘unloose’ instead of ‘loosen’, they wanted to suggest ‘unleashing’, of something bad, like demons or bad memories.

‘Leavened with pride’, in a story which includes kitchen scenes where bread is baked. Pick any verb in any dictionary and you’ll find literal meanings listed first, followed by metaphorical meanings, which are now so common we hardly consider them metaphors. Pick verbs whose metaphorical meanings match the symbol web of your story.

Confect — means to make or construct, but is linked to confectionary, so this verb is useful to describe a character who is both a confectioner/lover of sweets and also, say, a liar.

FURTHER TIPS FOR CHOOSING GOOD VERBS

Think of your milieu. Some verbs are chosen because they are reminiscent of an earlier era: to be afeared of (afraid of), bewail.

Play with your verb nouns. In English, a lot of words are used as both nouns and verbs, one usage leading to the other. Blat means to cry plaintively. It’s also a noun: ‘tooting the horn in loud blats’ (Annie Proulx). A lot of our English words are commonly used as verbs but not as nouns, or vice versa. Try making use of the less common part of speech.

Be mindful of syllable count and phonology. Proulx writes harsh landscapes, so chooses single syllable verbs where possible, and if there are hard consonants like plosives and fricatives, all the better. (Blat, strop and crump etc. match these harsh landscapes. Proulx also uses words like these as character names, and links character to physical setting.)

ONE LOOK DICTIONARY

To help with all this, I highly recommend making use of (the completely free)  OneLook Dictionary. It’s the best writing resource I’ve seen online. You probably know it yourself, but have you found its slightly hidden features? If you haven’t used it recently, it benefited from recent upgrades.

The ‘related words’ page is especially useful, but this is no traditional thesaurus.

onelook dictionary

I recently wrote a short story about a butcher, and the symbol web was — of course — related to meat. So when using OneLook I made sure to make use of its filter functionality:

onelook filter

When I search for hits ‘related to meat’, the dictionary returns results which are tangentially, if not directly, related to my symbol web of meat. Top of the list were:

layer related to meat

As you can see, the job of selecting words is still a very manual process, but this OneLook feature has been super useful to me on various occasions. (Sometimes it is, sometimes it leads me down a fascinating rabbit hole, but is that not the joy of writing?) This feature is especially useful if you have a word on the tip of your tongue.

Poets and poetic stylists take note: You can search the thesaurus by meter:

(The forward slash means stressed, the x unstressed.)

For the more common definitions all you need to do is click once on a word and you get a pop-up window. This saves you opening a whole heap of extra tabs while you’re looking for just the right word:

And I generally know which part of speech I’m looking for, in which case, I definitely make use of this tab to narrow down the results:

OneLook parts of speech

OneLook lets you search by the number of letters (good for crossword enthusiasts, I imagine — I haven’t used it once when writing prose); by ‘sounds like’ and also by ‘primary vowel’. The nice thing about the ‘primary vowel’ feature is, it breaks the non-useful aeiou of English into useful phonemes (though doesn’t make use of phonemic transcriptions, which is only a bummer if you have learned that and would like to occasionally put it to use).

Go forth and have fun with OneLook. Some writers advise against making use of a dictionary and thesaurus — Stephen King is a well-known naysayer, but I wonder if he’s ever seen OneLook! I wonder if Stephen King has ever been stumped for words… Possibly the very best thing about OneLook, and I believe its raison d’être, is its ‘reverse’ functionality. I couldn’t think of the word ‘naysayer’ just then, so I typed ‘anti advocate’ and it returned what — at first — looks like a useless bunch of words, but the 19th result was ‘nay’, which led me to ‘naysayer’.

There’s also a new Spanish version of OneLook.

Another impressive dictionary which is not much to look at: WordNet. WordNet is especially useful if you have a verb in word but you know you need the less specific or more specific version of that word. These terms are best illustrated by making use of WordNet itself but in brief:

The more specific version is called a hyponym.

A holonym denotes a whole whose part is denoted by another term.

A meronym denotes part of something but which is used to refer to the whole of it.

Diary of a Wombat by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley

Diary of a Wombat cover

This month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story. Today I continue with a selection of mentor texts to help kids see how it works. Yesterday I analysed the structure of an Australian bush ballad. Today I stay in Australia, with the modern picture book classic Diary of a Wombat by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley.

Like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Diary of a Wombat is a parody of a diary. We expect that if someone has taken the trouble to write something down then it must be something important. But wombats don’t really do much and have little to report. Jackie French could have anthropomorphised the wombat and taken her off on an adventure to save the world, but this wombat is inspired by the wombats around French’s own house. Bruce Whatley illustrates animals in a mostly realistic style, with only a few modifications to make the facial expressions more human, making the pairing perfect.

Tuesday Diary of a Wombat

STORY STRUCTURE OF DIARY OF A WOMBAT

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

The wombat.

Unusually for a children’s book, the wombat is female yet has not been given any typically feminine markers, such as a big pink bow. This is partly to do with the realistic style of art. (There is no obvious sexual dimorphism in wombats — you can’t easily tell the sex of a wombat unless you’re an expert.) I wonder if you assumed the wombat was male until “For Pete’s sake! Give her some carrots!” A study by Janet McCabe told us that unless animal characters are given obvious female markers then we tend to read them as male.

The wombat hasn’t been given a name. Often this is because a character stands in for a group. In this case, she stands for your typical wombat, doing typical wombatty things.

A standout feature of the wombat is the distinctive round bottom, which may be why Bruce Whatley chose to depict the wombat from behind in a number of illustrations. This is surprisingly uncommon for picture books, in which we’re more likely to see ‘posed for a photo‘ characters. Bruce Whatley doesn’t vary the top-bottom angle of the wombat, keeping to one-point perspective throughout, without making use of high/low angles. This allows the reader to remain right alongside the wombat as an equal at all times. His choice to depict the wombat in various cardinal directions may partly be to do with the need to vary each illustration from the others. But when wombat sits and stars at the boarded-up door, we really feel her petulant patience for carrots, even though we can’t see her face.

The choice is masterful.

Diary of a Wombat back view

What is wrong with her?

Since our main character a wombat she is unable to communicate what she wants to the humans. This is one of the reasons animals are so common in picture books. They are like young children, also unable to communicate what they need in words.

She is also capricious and according to typical human work ethic, she’s comically lazy.

This is an oblivious character who doesn’t see the havoc she wreaks behind her. She doesn’t realise the humans filled up her hole because they didn’t want a hole. Unlike Peter Rabbit, she doesn’t realise the carrots in the garden have been planted there by someone and that she thieved them. She thinks she happened upon them.

WHAT DOES SHE WANT?

The wombat has simple needs and lives in a wombat utopia — a rural human environment with a large supply of carrots growing in the garden, good soil for digging holes and everything else she could possibly want. The wombat’s stand-out feature is that she wants for nothing. But for narrative drive, a story requires that the main character want something.

Jackie French has fulfilled this story step by giving our wombat the strong desire for carrots. Not only that, she is endlessly greedy for carrots and even when given carrots, she still wants more. This desire drives most of the story but, comically, she eventually has enough of carrots and decides she wants rolled oats instead. This is where her main shortcoming comes in: she is unable to tell the humans that she now wants rolled oats.

By the way, comic characters often have insatiable appetites. In a comedy ensemble you’ll usually get one who is obsessed with food.

  • In Kath and Kim, Kim is always eating. (Sharon stress eats as well.)
  • In Seinfeld it’s Kramer who is always going to Jerry’s for cereal and whatnot. He is shown to be a fruit connoisseur, and in another episode the big gag is that Kramer could have won a lot of money after being scalded by hot coffee, but he is delighted with a lifetime’s supply of free coffees instead.
  • In The Simpsons, Homer is the character who represents the stomach.

Characters are also funny if we can laugh at their stupidity. The obliviousness of the wombat means that Jackie French created her loosely  based upon the classic Dolt character. There are many different comedy character archetypes. Here are a few more.

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

The human family are in opposition to the wombat not because the humans are trying to get rid of her, but because they have different goals which cannot coexist:

  • Family wants a front door, wombat wants to gain their attention so chews the nice front door.
  • Family wants carrots for dinner so grows carrots in garden; wombat digs them up.
  • Family buys carrots from shop; wombat sits in back seat of car and eats them out of the bag.
  • Family wants a nice garden bed; wombat wants to dig holes where garden bed is.
  • Family wants to dry washing on the line; wombat doesn’t want things dangling onto her nose, so chews washing on line.

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

With a lazy, roly-poly character like this wombat, you aren’t going to get a complicated plan. The plan is simple: to walk to the family’s front door and make a nuisance of oneself until food is provided.

The family’s plan is to work around the  mischief of the wombat, filling in holes once they’re dug, buying more carrots once the home store is depleted.

BIG BIG STRUGGLE

Though it’s not obvious at first sight, Diary of a Wombat has a mythic structure. Rather, this is a parody of a classic story with a mythic structure. In myths, a hero goes on a very difficult journey to achieve a goal, meets lots of challenges along the way and finally gets what he wants (or not, in a tragedy). The hero then either returns home a changed person or finds a new home wherever he ends up.

The journey of the wombat is down the garden path to the front door. Sure enough, she meets obstacles along the way, but these obstacles are no more fearsome than a bush or a pair of wet pants which tickle her nose. Her ‘big big struggles’ are therefore ironic.

Okay, so until now I’ve been saying the same things, which are general rules but rules can be broken. So far I’ve told you that in a story with mythic structure the big struggles increase in intensity until one massive life-and-death big struggle. This is seen clearly in the Solla Sollew picture book by Dr. Seuss, which is why I included it in this series.

Jackie French shows us that there doesn’t need to be any big big struggle. In fact, in a parody, where nothing much happens by design, the story wouldn’t cope with one.

So what did the author do instead, to lead us gently towards a conclusion? She used a trick I’m going to call ‘accumulation’. This is exactly what it sounds like — various things from the story come together. By ‘things’, most often I mean ‘objects’. Another (really obvious) example of an ‘accumulation big struggle’ occurs in Stuck by Oliver Jeffers in which a boy gets something stuck in a tree. He keeps throwing more and more things into the tree hoping to get the other things down. The story gets more and more ridiculous as the things accumulate in the tree.

In Diary of a Wombat, the gag doesn’t rely on the accumulation plot, so it’s much more subtle. You can see it in the line, ‘Demanded oats AND carrots’. Oats and carrots have been the important twin desire lines throughout the story and they come together at the end.

WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?

Wombat learns that if she makes a big enough nuisance of herself then the humans will give her exactly what she wants.

The reader learns, comically, that animals can train humans, not just the other way around!

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

In this mythic journey the wombat finds a new home, even closer to the humans than before, burrowed under the house.

We can extrapolate that things will continue as they did before, but this time the wombat’s life is even more convenient as she doesn’t even have to walk up the garden path to get fed.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

  • I’ve already mentioned Stuck by Oliver Jeffers as another example of an accumulation plot. Another example of an accumulation plot is Let’s Go For A Drive! an Elephant and Piggie book by Mo Willems. In this early reader, two characters collect all sorts of things they’ll need for a drive. These things pile up on the floor. They eventually realise they haven’t got a car so they have to play make believe instead.
  • Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins has other subtle similarities. The hen in Rosie’s Walk (Rosie) is unaware that a fox is trying to catch her. She walks happily through a farm. Rosie’s Walk has been heavily influential as a story in which the text says something completely different from the pictures. Jackie French’s wombat is similarly oblivious, though her life is not in danger. Like Rosie’s Walk, there is a big gap between the pictures and the text. The text is first ‘person’, from the wombat’s point of view, but only the reader knows how much of a nuisance she’s being to the humans she lives with.

Teaching Kids To Structure A Story

teaching kids to structure a story

Teaching kids to structure a story is not easy. A lot of students know how to begin, but can’t seem to finish. Others don’t know where to begin. There are plenty of writing templates out there which focus on detail: the five senses, character sketches, describe a setting… All of these are useful, but not at the planning stage.

What to give students at the very beginning?

This is the template I use with my nine-year-old daughter. For more experienced writers there’s a lot  more to it, but I have had great success with my own kid. She loves this template. She now knows how to finish off a story.

1. Who is your main character?

  • What makes your character scared/angry/upset?
  • How do they treat other people badly?

2. What do they want?

  • What is the one big thing your main character wants in THIS story?
  • They might want two things.
  • They KNOW about one of these things. (e.g. a new guitar)
  • But they DON’T KNOW about the other thing. (e.g. to play guitar in front of an audience so everyone loves them and claps)

3. Opponent / Monster / Baddie / Enemy / Frenemy

  • Who is against your main character?
  • Who wants the exact OPPOSITE thing?
  • Or maybe they’re after the SAME thing, but only one person can have it.
  • Who thinks they’re helping, but really they’re not?
  • Who pretends to be their friend, but really they’re not?

4. What’s the plan?

  • How will your main character get that thing they want?
  • What are they going to do?
  • Where will they have to go?
  • Who needs to help?
  • Sometimes plans work, sometimes they don’t.
  • Sometimes the first plan has to change a bit before it works.
  • Sometimes a character does not get what they want. This is called a ‘tragedy’

5. Big Struggle

Before the end of your story there will be:

  • A big fight
  • A big argument
  • A near-death experience

6. What does your character learn?

  • Your main character has learnt something.
  • It might be about themselves. It might be something about life in general.
  • They did not know this thing at the beginning of the story.

7. How will life be different from now on?

  • Does your main character live in the same place, or in a new place? Maybe it’s the same place, but feels different now.
  • Do they have the same friends and family?
  • Have things changed between them and other characters?
  • Have they lost something, or got something new?

How To Write An Unlikeable Main Character

In a previous post I wrote about how to make a character likeable. This is basically an expansion on that post, because when you’re writing an unlikeable character, you’re using the exact same tricks, except more of them. Then, when you’ve exhausted your toolkit, your morally repugnant character can get on with the job of being morally repugnant, and readers will follow, intrigued.

A few quick thoughts on “unlikeable characters”. Often I’ll hear people saying they got feedback their character was unlikeable, so they try to make him/her (usually a her) “nicer.” You do NOT need to make your “unlikeable” character nice! You *might* want to make them more relatable/sympathetic. Important difference. If a character is mean as a snake but has sympathetic backstory &/or relatable motivation, readers will invest in them. (Ex: Snape!) Layering an “unlikeable” character’s interiority to show vulnerability can also help us relate. Some “unlikeable” characters are merely determined/motivated in a way/place society deems inappropriate. (Ie strong girls.) In which case… My advice is usually: don’t compromise a strong girl character *just* to make her “nice” for readers. Those aren’t your readers anyway. But if your strong girl character feels unrelatable (different from “not nice!”) think about adding vulnerability or sympathetic motivation.

Ways to make “unlikeable” characters more relatable:

-Sympathetic backstory

-Vulnerability

-Relatable motivation

NOT by making them “nicer”

“Nice” characters typically annoy and/or bore me anyway as a reader. I want motivated! I want determined! Not nice. At least not in fiction.

@NaomiHughesYA

We do need to know how to write likeable characters before we can write unlikeable ones. All the writers who’ve written super popular antiheroes spent years writing likeable characters first. It’s like how you can’t be a good cartoonist until you’ve mastered life drawing.

Surround unlikeable characters with characters who love them.

A classic example of this is Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind, who for some reason, hasn’t driven everyone away. If the other characters don’t mind her, we think as readers, she must be all right deep down, and we persevere through the story.

Scarlett O'Hara unlikeable character

If the hero is unlikeable, at least make them super competent.

A main character’s unlike-ability is almost completely cancelled out if they are very good at what they do.

Unfortunately for women in real life, this doesn’t apply to female characters quite so much. Compare and contrast Skyler and Walter White. Both are super good at what they do, but one of these characters was vilified by a bulk of the audience. The other was celebrated. I even got talking about TV in a doctor’s waiting room with a man who earnestly and passionately argued his case that Walt should’ve murdered Skyler to get rid of her early on. To him that would’ve made a better, more satisfying TV show.

From Steve Jobs, who was a petulant, entitled asshole who bullied employees and nearly destroyed his own company because of his immaturity…from his father he was taught that even the back of the cabinets – the parts people never saw – still mattered. Being a craftsman means caring about every part of what you do, not just the visible or superficial parts.

Great Lessons From Bad People
Steve Jobs unlikeable character

Make sure the audience understands motivation.

Okay, backtracking  a little, first they have to be motivated. They have to be active, not passive. They have to have a solid desire and plan to get it. Same as all good characters.

Even heroes who are totally likeable in the beginning often begins to act immorally—to do unlikable things—as they begin to lose to the opponent. What’s really important is that audiences understand the character but not necessarily like everything they do. 

This is another way of saying, make sure your audience empathises (but not sympathises) with your antihero.

When the audience understands a character’s reason for doing bad stuff, we’ll put up with a helluva lot.

Generate Twice As Much Empathy For An Antihero As For A Hero.

The pilot of Breaking Bad is a master class in how to generate empathy for a character who will soon turn out to be an antihero.

The pilot of The Sopranos works in a very similar fashion — both Tony and Walt have wives who are depicted as really annoying and unreasonable. In Tony’s case we see an awful mother and a criminal father — how could Tony have turned out any other way? We see his soft side (kind of) with the psychologist. We see him look after The Family.

The audience will share in their frustrations and anguish. The audience won’t share their hates.

Show the audience their hopes, dreams and fears. The audience won’t share their goals.

Since everyone feels misunderstood at times, showing other characters misunderstand them is a great way to generate empathy for unlikeable characters.

You can make them morally reprehensible but don’t make them annoying.

Reason  being, no one wants to hang around the length of a book or a movie with an annoying character. But morally terrible people on the other hand? Well at least those people are interesting. When characters cross the line we get to see where our own lines are. That’s what these characters are for. Would we do the same in their situation? How could they have handled things differently?

USEFUL TERM

Imitative fallacy. The common trap of trying to make the narrative imitate the personality of the protagonist. When the novel is concerned with an unlikable or inaccessible protagonist, the narrative is also unlikable and inaccessible. Since the reader cannot figure out the protagonist, nor is the reader given any reason to care about the protagonist, the reader disengages. The prose must transcend the imitative fallacy. Two examples of excellence are Sinclair Lewis, Elmer Gantry (hypocritical evangelist), and Babbitt (smug placid businessman). (CSFW: David Smith)

Glossary of Terms Useful In Critiquing Science Fiction

Moral Dilemmas And Children’s Stories

moral dilemma

What Is A Moral Dilemma?

Philosophers are especially concerned with moral dilemmas, and ask the following question: Is it possible to do a morally wrong action in order to do what is morally required? 

Various branches of philosophy disagree on the answer to that question. Some believe the question itself contains a paradox, rendering the question itself insensible. Gertrude Anscombe was an influential English analytic philosopher who went so far as to say that even considering this question seriously was evidence of a corrupt mind.

Modern moral theorists (generally) dismiss the question. Consequentialist philosophers judge morality by the consequences of someone’s actions, and they too are generally uncomfortable with the idea that good can result from immoral actions. Then there are the deontologists (a.k.a. duty theorists) who judge morality of action by someone’s motives. Likewise, they aren’t a fan of the idea that immoral actions can also be moral. They all say it’s a dangerous proposition.

Then you’ve got political philosophers, who tend to see the world a bit differently, understanding that politicis is all about making the best of impossible situations.

In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil.

The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (Lesson Nine)

Any man who tries to be good all the time is bound to come to ruin among the great number who are not good. Hence a prince who wants to keep his authority must learn how not to be good, and use that knowledge, or refrain from using it, as necessity requires.

Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince

This view is based on the understanding that two things motivate people best: love and fear. (Fear works better than love.) The Machiavellian view is that a good leader learns how to use fear to motivate people.

Unfortunately, immoral and unethical people can justify their evil decisions to themselves and others by arguing that they had no choice but to make an unfortunate moral decision, but they made the best of a bad situation.

Storytellers and narrative theorists are another group of people deeply interested in moral dilemmas. The best storytellers understand that the most interesting stories require characters to make decisions, between bad and worse, or between terrible and catastrophic.

Donald Maass explains the difference between a ‘dilemma’ and a ‘MORAL dilemma’:

A dilemma is a choice between two equally good or two equally bad outcomes. A moral dilemma elevates such a choice by giving two outcomes equally excellent, or excruciating, consequences not only for a protagonist, but for others. A dilemma is a situation in which none of us likes to be caught, but in which we all sometimes find ourselves. A moral dilemma is a situation nobody wants, and which few must ever face, but which is terrific for making compelling fiction.

Donald Maass

Using Donald’s distinction, not many children’s books of middle grade level and below feature moral dilemmas. The vast majority feature dilemmas, relatable because they are faced by all of us over the course of growing up: Do I sit with my old friends at lunch or with these shiny new friends? Do I follow my parents’ instructions or do I try something different? Though we might still call these ‘moral’ dilemmas if we wish.

Below, a character from Star Trek monologues about moral dilemmas, offering an excellent definition and example, and why so many stories are pyrrhic victories for the characters who have faced impossible choices. The scene below is basically a Self-revelation scene. At the beginning of a story a character makes the best bad choice. This drives them towards some kind of self-revelation, which will probably involve the realisation that their actions caused harm, and they must now learn to live with that fact.

The end monologue of seasons 6, episode 19 of Star Trek is all about Sisko’s massive moral dilemma. He has made a terrible choice in order to save many, and realises he must now learn to live with it.

Robert McKee is another storytelling guru who has this to say about fictional moral dilemmas, though I don’t believe everyone is a moral person. Some people (and characters) are antisocial and amoral, sometimes immoral.

The choice between good and evil or between right and wrong is no choice at all

Human nature dictates that each of us will always choose the “good” or the “right” as we perceive the “good” or the “right.” It is impossible to do otherwise. Therefore, if a character must choose between a clear good versus a clear evil, or right versus wrong, the audience, understanding the character’s point of view, will know in advance how the character will choose.

A thief bludgeons a victim on the street for the five dollars in her purse. He may know this isn’t the moral thing to do, but moral/immoral, right/wrong, legal/illegal often have little to do with one another. He may instantly regret what he’s done. But at the moment of murder, from the thief’s point of view, his arm won’t move until he’s convinced himself that this is the right choice. If we do not understand that much about human nature–that a human being is only capable of acting toward the right or the good as he has come to believe it or rationalize it–then we understand very little. Good/evil, right/wrong choices are dramatically obvious and trivial.

True choice is dilemma. It occurs in two situations. First a choice between irreconcilable goods: From the character’s point of view two things are desirable, he wants both, but circumstances are forcing him to choose only one. Second, a choice between the lesser of two evils: From the character’s view two things are undesirable, he wants neither, but circumstances are forcing him to choose one. How a character chooses in a true dilemma is a powerful expression of his humanity and of the world in which he lives.

Robert McKee, Story

As pointed out by McKee, a dilemma isn’t philosophically interesting unless the character faces a true choice. A choice between a ‘good outcome’ and a ‘bad outcome’ is no choice, either. The empathetic main character will simply make the good choice. Story over. (No story to begin with.) The interesting narrative choice must force two bad outcomes.

The character must get their hands dirty.

Damned if you do, damned if you don't. Cmon, cmon, it's either one or the other by Gary Larsson
Gary Larsson

What Does It Mean To Get One’s Hands Dirty?

A person gets dirty hands when they violate an important moral value to bring about a lesser evil in moral conflict situations.

Stephen de Wijze, political philosopher

Dirty hands scenarios contain inherent paradox: Those who make difficult decisions resulting in lesser evil receive praise for doing what’s courageous and difficult. However, that same person becomes morally polluted acting as they do.

How To Keep Dirty Handed Characters Empathetic?

Storytellers use all sorts of tricks to create audience empathy but in the case of stories which require empathetic characters to act badly, the opponent is particularly important.

In real life as in fiction, our actions in life are circumscribed by the evil acts of other people. Therein lies the difference between an empathetic person and an unempathetic person: Empathetic people will only act badly when they are forced to act for an outcome of ‘lesser evil’.

In this situation, an opponent might be a natural circumstance. For example, the leader of a country might require citizens to basically be on house arrest, destroying the economy to a large degree, but with the outcome that many lives are saved due to a nasty virus. Without the pandemic situation, a leader who curtails freedoms and destroys the economy is simply a villain.

Everyday Dilemma, Or Impossible Choice?

Janice Hardy calls the moral dilemma the ‘impossible choice‘. Hardy advises writers to include at least one impossible choice per story, even if the story isn’t overtly about that (e.g. Sophie’s Choice). If we think in terms of ‘impossible choice’, then choosing to sit with new friends instead of old friends then sounds impossible: If you sit with your old friends you could squander a chance to make extra friends. But if you sit with your new friends you might lose your old ones, since childhood is tribal. If you follow the rules about being nice to everyone, how do you deal with that covert bully who is never nice to you? Ignoring won’t work. Childhood is chock full of impossible choices.

An ‘everyday dilemma’ has a clear ‘correct move’ and the correct move will be heavily implied within the world of the story. Take the short clip below, a classic Sesame Street animation. The character has a dilemma: to pick the pretty flowers, or not? The animators anthropomorphise the flowers and make them shrink away, signalling to the viewer that to pick the poor flowers would be the incorrect choice. The flowers he has previously picked wilted immediately. This is not a moral dilemma; this is an ‘everyday dilemma’.

Moral Dilemmas Give Stories Emotional Impact

Karl Iglesias in his book Writing For Emotional Impact has this to say about moral dilemmas:

Dilemmas create emotional anguish for characters, which in turn challenges readers to consider what they would do if the dilemma were theirs. Our anguish may not be as acute, as we’re one step removed, but we twist our hands anyway. That is, we twist them if the dilemma is truly difficult.

Dilemmas, then, work best when the stakes are both high and personal. When one choice is morally right, it will win out unless it is offset by a different choice that is equally compelling in personal terms. Law versus love. Tell the truth or protect the innocent. Be honest or be kind. When there’s no way to win in a story, the winner is us.

The more difficult the decision your character has to make, the more you’ll engage the reader in thinking about it and therefore compel them to read on to find out how the story turns out.

Parables always feature a moral dilemma. The main character faces a moral dilemma, makes a bad decision then suffered the unintended consequences.

To take the schoolyard bully example, it is morally right to ignore a bully. That’s what kids are told to do. But in reality, ignoring bullies doesn’t work. It may feel personally right to quietly take revenge, or at the very least, to assert your own position in the pecking order by doing something that displays your own strength.

Moral Dilemmas Create Mystery

Mystery in story is always good. Not just in the mystery genres, but in every single story. 

Karl Iglesias recommends the following for creating mystery around characters:

Create a mysterious past

Special abilities, secrets. Make the secrets hurtful and embarrassing or dangerous. Your character should be willing to do about anything to protect them.

Create a mysterious present

Why is the character behaving in this particular way? Maybe they say something surprising in dialogue. The balancing act for writers is, these actions have to be both surprising and consistent with attitudes and desires.

This is where the moral dilemma comes in. As soon as you create a fork in the road for your character, this creates curiosity, anticipation and uncertainty in the reader. The mystery is: What on earth will this character do? The harder the choice, the more interesting it is to see the character’s decision.

Create a mysterious future

What will be revealed about the character and when? How will the reader be surprised?

We might use the word ‘ghost‘ to describe ‘mysterious past’. The word ‘hook’ or ‘dramatic question’ is often used to describe mystery in the present and future. 

Examples Of Moral Dilemmas In Stories For Adults

Dirty hands happen in all areas of our lives, so all genres of stories, in all settings, moral dilemmas feature large, from the relatively minor and personal to the massive and catastrophic.

Here’s why moral dilemmas have more consequence in stories for adults compared to those in stories for children: The more power the actor, the more catastrophic the impossible choice.

Political philosopher Stephen de Wijze explains why in a Philosophy For Our Times Podcast: “Doing Wrong To Do Right”. Politics is the ‘natural home’ of the moral dilemma.

Politicians face dirty hands scenarios daily. Politics is about protecting people from enemies, external and internal. Leaders also pick up the messes of their predecessors, cleaning up evil messes others began. Violence, lying and manipulation is so often the means to a political end. Politics thereby becomes all about compromise and choosing lesser evils. Politics actively rewards lying and dissembling. These are attributes required by politicians, at least so far in history, and probably into the future. There rarely exists any political situation free of dirty hands, and people who become leaders must have the ability to live with the consequences of their actions. (I believe this explains why leadership attracts sociopathic neurodivergence.)

The more power the actor/character/leader, the more devastating the impact of their moral decisions.

Here are a few examples of clear and obvious moral dilemmas in stories for adults — clear because the consequences are so dire.

DRAMA

No one talks about moral dilemmas in fiction without mentioning Sophie’s Choice, in which the central moral dilemma is in the film’s title. In this story, the moral dilemma is the main thing. It’s right there in the title. In desperate circumstances, on the spur of the moment, a mother must decide between sacrificing her son or her daughter. This decision is presented as a flashback story using her present non-wartime life as a wrapper.

Ned Stark from Game of Thrones faces a terrible moral dilemma in season one. But Ned is a good man whose very goodness destroys him. That’s not all: In storytelling terms, the end of Ned Stark’s life is not such a high stakes outcome (except for Ned and his family, of course). What raises the stakes and turns Game of Thrones into an epic high fantasy drama: Everyone else who depended on him are now going to suffer. Ned Stark was no politician. He wasn’t wily enough; not sufficiently willing to make a morally bad choice for greater longterm good. Throughout the rest of the Game of Thrones story the audience sees the unfolding of Stark’s failure, ie. how he refused to get his hands dirty. Calamity ensues. Hundreds of thousands die because of Ned’s Jesus-like goodness. 

Jeffrey Eugenides’ book of short stories Fresh Complaint is about men who don’t know how to behave in a more egalitarian world. Eugenides makes sure to include many moral dilemmas in the stories, fully understanding how moral dilemmas create great drama:

It’s sort of, you’re caught in the middle of this thing, you want to redefine what it means to be a man in our time, and then going along with that has to involve a lot of self-exposure, and a lot of recrimination and regret for your behaviour. At the same time, there’s maybe some resistance to being told how you’re supposed to behave. So the characters are caught between being good and being bad. That makes for more energetic fiction, when you have someone of two minds trying to figure out a problem, as opposed to being really sure about his way and his conduct.

Vulture

The lesser known film Albino Alligator from 1996 explores the dilemma of a woman having to kill an innocent man in cold blood so that she can survive a hostage situation. Compare this to a film such as Kidnap (2017) in which Halle Berry’s young son gets taken. Here there is no moral dilemma as she goes all out to get her son back, causing serious car accidents and even killing a cop. In this story it is taken for granted that a mother WOULD go all out for her son.

CRIME Shows

The detective/crime genre is great for presenting police officers with daily moral dilemmas.

Crime writer Jo Nesbo has this to say about the approach he takes to his stories:

I give my protagonists moral dilemmas and force them to make a choice. And I try not to be the judge of the choice they make. One of the big questions I try to ask is, what is free will? What is morality? Is it something God-given, or is it a framework that society has imposed on us to make us more efficient?

Even in stories for children, writers must ultimately let the audience decide whether the character was right to have made the decision they made.

Another excellent example is 24, starring a character named Jack Bauer.

Jack Bauer is a fictional character and the lead protagonist of the Fox television series 24. His character has worked in various capacities on the show, often as a member of the Counter Terrorist Unit based in Los Angeles, and working with the FBI in Washington, D.C. during season 7.

Jack Bauer, Wikipedia

Each episode of 24 is all about how Jack Bauer saves the world from evil people. He must do terrible things to try and prevent catastrophe from happening. Every episode features a massive moral dilemma (a.k.a. dirty hands problem a.ka. impossible choice). 

Dexter is another example, this time from the point of view of a sociopathic killer. The twist? He uses his sociopathic power to kill ‘for good’, only killing despicable people. We are to assume that once these despicable people are dead, there is less evil in the world overall. 24 and Dexter are immensely popular shows, demonstrating how audiences love impossible moral dilemmas; the more impossible, the better.

PSYCHOLOGICAL HORROR

In the Japanese psychological horror Dark Water, a mother must decide between staying with her own daughter (in which case they may both be killed), or sacrificing herself to mother the little girl ghost, thereby leaving her own daughter without a mother.

Moral Dilemmas In Stories For Children

Child characters typically have much less power than adults, therefore their moral dilemmas impact on their own personal lives — on their family, friends and neighbours. Moral dilemmas are less often a feature of picture books, many of which are carnivalesque, but start to loom large in middle grade stories. Young adult fiction aligns more with adult fiction in the severe outcomes of moral dilemmas, genre dependent.

FREEDOM OR CONFORMITY?

Sticking with the wolf theme, in the Japanese feature-length anime Wolf Children, the mother of two were-children must make a series of tough decisions about what to do with her offspring. One of the first: When they get sick, does she take them to the vet or to the doctor? Next, does she stay in the city and force them to live like humans, or does she take them to the country and let them explore their wild sides?

The story of Peter Rabbit sums up a central dilemma of childhood—whether one should act naturally in accordance with one’s basic animal instincts or whether one should do as one’s parents wish and learn to act in obedience to their more civilised codes of behaviour.

Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures

Japanese feature length anime Wolf Children is also about the choice between the restriction of civilisation or the freedom of the dangerous wild.

KINDNESS OR PRAGMATISM?

In Anne of Green Gables, Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert face a tough moral dilemma. They need someone who can perform traditionally masculine tasks to keep their farm running as the head into old age. But the orphan who turns up at the train station is a girl. They don’t need a girl. So, do they send her back, even though she clearly brings them such joy, and is so grateful to be on Prince Edward Island? The consequences for Anne Shirley are huge, but minimal to nothing for everyone else. This is therefore a ‘low stakes’ moral dilemmas as far as moral dilemmas go. (Contrast with Ned Stark’s moral dilemma in Game of Thrones, the results of which impact everybody in the world of the story.)

TO SAVE A LIFE OR PERHAPS SAVE MANY?

In The Iron Giant, Hogarth faces a tough choice. Does he report a potentially life-destroying giant to the authorities, or does he keep the giant secret and try to turn him into a benevolent entity?

TO SHARE OR NOT TO SHARE?

In “We Found A Hat” by Jon Klassen, two tortoises find one hat. They both want the hat. Only one tortoise can wear the hat. Do they fight for the hat? Do they take turns with the hat? Something else?

To lie or not to lie?

Lying and truth telling are hugely prominent themes in middle grade books, and especially in literary middle grade (the kind which appeals equally to adults). Developmentally, this is when young readers start to question black and white rules about telling the truth.

A story like Wolf Hollow features a moral dilemma, to do with telling the truth or not in order to protect someone. Interestingly, Wolf Hollow was originally written for adults, and revised for children when an editor saw a position for it on the children’s book market.

Similarly, in Lenny’s Book Of Everything by Karen Foxlee, Lenny thinks she discovers something (or someone) important and wonders if and when to tell her mother and brother about it. The mother and brother are preoccupied with bigger (health) issues, which is partly why Lenny keeps it to herself.

Anne Shirley faces moral dilemmas of her own. She has been taught not to lie, yet she finds herself having to do exactly that when she is forced to apologise to Rachel Lynde even though she’s not the slightest bit sorry. In the end it is Matthew who teaches Anne that sometimes it’s best to say the right thing to smooth things over, even when you don’t mean them. For Anne, it’s the choice between being true to oneself and doing what’s expected. This is part of her coming-of-age arc, since we must all learn this social custom, throwing away black and white notions about when it’s okay to lie.

Personal Versus Moral Decisions

Thidwick The Big-Hearted Moose is weighed down by all these creatures living on his antlers but when shooting season begins he has to choose between saving them and being free of them himself. This is the classic moral choice versus personal choice, as distinguished by Karl Iglesias, quoted above.

To break the rules or not to break the rules?

This is also a really popular moral dilemma in children’s books, because sometimes parents and teachers dish out terrible advice. It might be because they don’t want their child to get into trouble by prioritising the personal over the moral. Often as not, it’s because the parents are too old to understand (or remember) the social intricacies that are specific to the school years.

Lindsay and Sam’s father in Freaks and Geeks is so hopelessly out of touch with his teenage daughter that any advice he gives her is taken to comical extremes at the dinner table. In other stories, the adult authority figure may dish out quite sensible advice which nevertheless doesn’t work in the real world. Children start to realise this from about the middle of primary school.

Laura Ingalls wonders whether to let Jack loose on the Indians in Little House On The Prairie. In the next book, On The Banks Of Plum Creek, she is about to disobey her father and approach the river when she is distracted by a badger. In both cases she confesses her ‘almost’ crime and receives a minor punishment. Later, when Laura’s mother tells her to give her precious doll to another younger girl, Laura must decide whether to obey her mother or not. She does, but the girl treats her doll badly. Laura finds the doll in a puddle, brings it home and the mother apologises. Ma then fixes it up so it’s as good as new.

As a real life example, my 9-year-old daughter has a friend who was recently held hostage in the girl’s toilet (in a scene that reminds of something straight out of Bridge To Terabithia). This has led to tears, and the girl blocking the door simply won’t budge. The school rule: Hands off. No touching at all, ever. Advice that actually might work to disrupt the power struggle going on: Barge past anyway, and if she won’t move of her own accord, too bad for her. My daughter’s friend’s real life dilemma is, does she barge past the door-blocker, bending school rules about not touching others in anger, or does she stay in the toilet and cry, cementing the social hierarchy to her detriment?

Stories dealing with the issue of bullying are well-placed to explore these moral dilemmas with nuance that school authorities themselves are unable to provide. In fact, children’s literature is currently going through a period in which adults in general are not to be trusted. This is a feature of the dystopian novel, which made a comeback at the beginning of the 21st century. Amanda Craig has this to say about this kind of children’s book:

Many are quite brilliantly plotted and written, and I recommend them, especially for reluctant readers of 11+, even if, like vampires and demons they are becoming too familiar. Children enjoy imagining how they might behave in such adventures, and the usual blend of action, romance and moral dilemma does no harm. But there are other kinds of novel being published which do worry me.

Amanda Craig

In other words, dystopian novels can be useful for the moral dilemmas they present — and in apocalyptic scenarios, these dilemmas will be a matter of life and death.

Avoiding Overt Didacticism

This advice applies especially to children’s writers, perhaps. We’re going through a period where overt didacticism in children’s books is a big no-no. I push back on that a little below but first, an important distinction:

Narrative closure is not necessarily the same as thematic or ideational closure.

We might call the closure of plot a ‘narrative closure’.

We might call the other kind of closure ‘hermeneutic closure’. (Hermeneutic basically equals interpretive.)

Writers generally tidy up the plot in a narrative (but not always — Hitchcock’s Vertigo is one famous example).

But even if you tidy up all your plot threads to create a satisfying conclusion, that doesn’t mean you should tidy up ideas. You, as writer, don’t have to come down on one side or the other of the moral dilemma you yourself set up:

Your theme should take the form of an irresolvable dilemma, so you should give both sides equal weight for as long as possible until the climax. The trick is to come up with a finale that addresses the conflict and makes a concrete statement about it, without definitively declaring one side right and the other wrong. … [In your ironic and ambiguous ending] a statement is made about the dilemma, but its’ not permanently settled. You have something to say, but you don’t have something definitive to say. You have a point, but your point is untidy. You’re leaving room open for uncertainty and ambiguity, because that multiplies the meaning.

Matt Bird, Secrets of Story

But are children’s storytellers allowed to leave morality hanging? (When I say ‘allowed’, will morally ambiguous endings get published by the Big Six publishing houses, and when they do, will they find an enduring audience?)

This relates closely to a post I’ve already written about punishment in children’s literature. Children’s books very often come down on one side by punishing the characters who made the ‘wrong’ moral choice. A lot of genre fiction for adults is just the same — in crime novels especially, the rule of the genre is that the murderer gets caught (though it’s possible to blend crime with other genres and create something different).

While contemporary children’s books are said to be far less didactic than books from The First Golden Age of Children’s Literature, you’ll find they still contain messages — the messages simply seem more subtle. It all comes down to who gets punished.

There is still very much a taboo against rewarding behaviours considered bad by a popular, conservative audience.

The Gendered Nature Of Moral Decisions

Writers should be mindful of the gendered nature of this question. Girls are acculturated differently, to be kind and self-sacrificing. When female characters in children’s books make huge sacrifices we are reinforcing that message. An Australian picture book in which a female character makes a huge sacrifice for the sake of a male character is the Nick Bland book The Very Cranky Bear. The sheep shaves off her fluff to make the bear happy, but the story ends there. We don’t see how uncomfortable she is in the cold cave without her wool to protect her. Perhaps this is connected to the fact that sheep are regularly shorn, and in Australia where there are lots of sheep, we don’t really consider that a burden on the sheep. (If we didn’t shear sheep they’d grow ridiculously woolly, since that’s the way we’ve bred them.) However, it’s worth subverting gendered expectations where possible, in which case it’s necessary for writers to ask:

  • Why have I gendered my characters like this and not like this?
  • Can this self-sacrificing creature be gendered male?
  • If the self-sacrificing creature is gendered female, is she always sacrificing herself for the sake of a male, or can she at least help another female character or get something out of the situation for herself?

I’ve no doubt there are race issues related to the presentation of moral dilemmas as well.

FURTHER READING

A CHARACTER IS MORE LIKELY TO MAKE A BAD CHOICE IF FATIGUED

No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts.

Do you suffer from decision fatigue? from the New York Times

Philosophers often consider the (infamous) ‘Ticking Bomb’ scenario. (Infamous because it is thought to lead the thinker towards a certain conclusion.) The scenario requires the subject to consider if torture is ever justified.

This fictional scenario actually happened in Germany in 2002, when 11-year-old Jakob von Metzler was kidnapped by a 27-year-old law student. Police found the kidnapper, but the kidnapper refused to reveal the location of the boy. A police officer threatened torture, and the location of the boy was revealed. However, the boy was already dead. Germany, because of its 20th century history, is particularly careful around matters of torture. What happened next should probably not surprise us.

Ghosts, Flaws and the Psychic Wound in Fiction

psychic wound

There are various words to describe the event from a main character’s past which holds them back in the present: the fatal flaw, the psychic wound, the ghost. I’ve even heard ‘scars’.

A character becomes their scars. That’s not to say they’re defined by them, but their responses to them are.

@SamSykesSwears

Fatal flaws aren’t always fatal and suggest they tend to be inborn. Fatal flaw refers to what I prefer to call the psychological shortcoming, and the ghost is a bit different.

‘Psychic wound’ is good, but other people use the word ‘ghost’. (e.g. Karl Iglesias) This is even better because I can visualise this thing as an alter-character following the main character around, actively getting in the way of their goals. However, ghosts refer to supernatural creatures, so let’s stick with ‘psychic wound’.

Most often, the Ghost involves traumas such as abandonment, betrayal, or a tragic accident which leaves the character permanently injured or disfigured, or causes guilt if the character feels he has caused another’s death. It can also be the death of a loved one. Basically, any traumatic incident that created a sense of loss, or a psychological emotional wound. […] The difference between Backstory and Ghost is that the first molds the character’s personalty, whereas the latter is still an open wound which haunts the character in your story and affects his inner need. Both, if interesting, can add emotional complexity and fascination to your character.

Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias

Notice Iglesias mentions injuries and disfigurements. A disfigured character is a trope of yore, and modern writers need to be careful about that one. In these more enlightened times we know that a disfigurement or injury or missing right hand does not actually say anything about that person at all, but earlier stories conflated physical wounds with evil and mal-intent.

MOST COMMON TYPE OF PSYCHIC WOUND

The ghost itself acts as one of your main character’s opponents. One of. It’s rarely enough in a story to make your main character their ‘own worst enemy’. The ghost will be an add-on to your opposition — not the main bread and butter. (Unless you’re writing an experimental short story.)

THE FATAL FLAW

The most devastating ghost or psychic wound is sometimes called a fatal flaw.

In The Secret History, Donna Tartt opens Chapter One with the following paragraph:

Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw,’ that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I ued to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.

Donna Tartt

The concept ‘fatal claw’ is clearly well-known, in everyday language as well as among storytellers, or Tartt’s metafictive opening wouldn’t work.

DO CHILD CHARACTERS NEED PSYCHIC WOUNDS?

What if your character is very young? A toddler in a picture book probably doesn’t have a psychic wound. They haven’t lived long enough. And if they are already damaged individuals, you’re probably not writing a children’s book. In a carnivalesque story they definitely won’t be damanged, because a carnivalesque story is all about having fun — for both the character and the reader.

Even a middle grade kid who has made it all the way through primary school doesn’t necessarily have a psychic wound. A lot of middle grade characters are a stand-in for The Every Child, where plot is given preference.

PSYCHIC WOUNDS AND UTOPIAN SETTINGS

Less common is the story in which a ghost is not possible because the hero lives in a paradise world. Instead of starting the story in slavery — in part because of his ghost — the hero begins free. But an attack will soon change all that.

This second type of ghost is far more common in children’s literature than in adult film. This makes sense, since children’s literature is where you will find many more genuine utopias (well, up until middle grade).

What about the first category, though? Do kids ever have ghosts/psychic wounds in books starring kids, for kids?

CHILDREN WHO DO HAVE PSYCHIC WOUNDS

Being an orphan is a pretty popular psychic wound for children, and there are many, many orphans in children’s literature. For the writer, this gets the parents right out of the way so children can have their independent adventures but it works doubly to create a psychic wound. The great thing about orphans is, even for child readers who are not themselves orphans, the fear of becoming an orphan is ever-present.

PARENTS WHO TRANSFER THEIR OWN PSYCHIC WOUNDS

Oftentimes the parent is the one with the ghost. This ghost affects the child, because the child is completely under the control of the adult.

Perhaps the child isn’t an orphan but has lost someone close — commonly a grandparent. Lyndsey’s character arc is set off in Freaks and Geeks after the death of her beloved grandmother, when she decides things are going to have to change around here. Suddenly aware of her own mortality, she seems to realise she can’t lead her one and only best life if she lives it like her own parents are.

In middle grade and above, rejection might take another form as the main character realises they don’t have the friends they want. Peer rejection.

This moves into possible romantic rejection in young adult literature, though the main character usually finds someone by the end, following ‘a Jack for every Jill’ ideology.

One thing is clear: fear of abandonment and rejection crops up time and again in children’s stories. This is no doubt connected to the fact that children are developmentally unable to care for themselves. Without adults in their lives, they would not survive.

Fear of abandonment morphs into fear of romantic/professional/social rejection in stories for adults. This, alone, is not a ghost but a psychological shortcoming, but once the audience is told that the main character has suffered from actual abandonment in the past, this is a ghost.

HOW TO WRITE A CHARACTER GHOST

The ghost is connected to the main character’s psychological shortcoming and desire, so get that out of the way first.

WITHHOLD DETAILS

Most writers don’t let the audience in on the ghost right away. They keep it as one of their plot revelations.

That said, occasionally the ghost appears in the first few scenes. Ghosts don’t have to be used as plot reveals. They can be introduced early as points of interest.

HOW TO REVEAL CHARACTER GHOST

Commonly in film: another character explains the hero’s ghost somewhere in the first third of the story. If writing cinematically, novelists may choose to do this also, but we don’t have to. The narrator can reveal the backstory of the ghost in the narrative summaries without it having to come via dialogue.

IRONIC BACKSTORY

There is a case to be made for keeping backstory right out of any story unless it is ironic backstory. In other words, leave out the backstory the audience could have guessed anyway. If your main character is a 9-year-old boy who lives in the middle class suburbs of midwestern America we don’t need to be told about how he started elementary school when he was five, likes to watch Pixar movies and loves to eat pie. This boy’s backstory becomes ironic if you tell us his family used to live in their car, won the lottery and moved to this suburb last year.

Does advice to avoid non-ironic backstory apply equally to this specific type of backstory — the fatal flaw? I’ll argue no.

Case in point: sometimes we’re given the backstory of a villain which explains why they’ve ended up so villainous. If a villain became a villain because they were mistreated in the past this isn’t ironic — it is fully expected. However, the story of the fatal flaw must be inherently interesting and, if introduced at all, will probably have its own fully-formed story attached. (Some might call this a subplot.)

Note that a fully-formed story does not have to be lengthy. A 20 second TV commercial will be a fully-formed story.

COMMON TROPES RELATED TO THE PSYCHIC WOUND

Some of these tropes work well time and again — others you might avoid for ethical/overdone reasons.

In crime fiction, time and again we find the alcohol/tobacco addicted, workaholic, mechanically driven cop who is bad with people but can somehow read people well enough to apply their knowledge in their detective work. Most lately we have a number of autistic savants, or characters who tend to be read that way by an audience who know that one variation of autism (without the other bits which make up an entire individual).

In some romance imprints there are a lot of laconic men who are nevertheless good in bed because they absorb what their partners want by osmosis, or by relying on some kind of naked animal instinct. In supernatural romance, sometimes these men really are actual beasts of some kind. He may have been hurt by women in the past, or let down. Finally, in this story, he meets a woman who is not like all the others. Works as a fantasy; not good if applied to real life.

Mothers in horrors are almost always ‘fatally flawed’. Hana Shafi explains why this is a problem:

Marge [Nightmare On Elm Street] and her alcoholism, Wendy [The Shining] and her nervous passiveness, Maureen [Scream] and her infidelity. For centuries, real-life mothers have been blamed for social ills, both perceived and real. Mothers who work are neglecting their families; mothers who don’t work aren’t contributing to society or progressing the women’s movement; mothers who try to do it all are just kidding themselves. We plaster celebrity mothers on the covers of magazine and put them on informal trials: Are they good mothers or bad mothers? Are they worthy mothers? Are they capable of protecting their child? Will they make the right sacrifices, and often?

If horror movies are warnings, then they also act as our prescriptive fantasies for what happens if you’re a “bad” mother, if you don’t pay attention to what your kid is doing, if you opt out of the nuclear family dynamic. They say: be better or, essentially, be punished. Horror movie audiences are encouraged to feel critical of mothers. We might ask, “Will the monster win?” but it often feels like the true questions in horror are the same ones we ask of celebrity mothers, and of mothers everywhere: Are they good enough? Is everything bad that happens to the child the mother’s fault? Just as in real life, it seems, mothers are held responsible for anything and everything, no matter what they do.

The Walrus

RELATED CONCEPT: THE SOUL TOUPEE

This is a concept invented by writer/cartoonist Tim Kreider and his friend. He writes about this in his essay “The Csar’s Daughter” in the collection We Learn Nothing. This essay is a wonderful example of a character sketch — a ‘fabulist’ (liar) friend who leads Kreider into a profound series of insights into why people lie and how others are complicit.

Here, he explains the Soul Toupee, which I feel is related to the Ghost:

Years ago a friend of mine and i used to frequent a market in Baltimore where we would eat oysters and drink Very Large Beers from 32-ounce Styrofoam cups. One of the regulars there had the worst toupee in the world, a comical little wig taped in place on the top of his head. Looking at this man and drinking our VLBs, we developed the concept of the Soul Toupee. Each of us has a Soul Toupee. The Soul Toupee is that thing about ourselves we are most deeply embarrassed by and like to think we have cunningly concealed from the world, but which is, in fact, pitifully obvious to everybody who knows us. Contemplating one’s own Soul Toupee is not an exercise for the fainthearted. Most of the time other people don’t even get why our Soul Toupee is any big deal or a cause of such evident deep shame to us but they can tell that it is because of our inept, transparent efforts to cover it up, which only call more attention to it and to our self-consciousness about it, and so they gently pretend not to notice it. Meanwhile we’re standing there with our little rigid spongelike square of hair pasted on our heads thinking: Hey—got ’em all fooled!

Tim Kreider

This concept is so useful for writers because it links two vital aspects of characterisation:

  1. The Ghost
  2. The Mask, which I have written about elsewhere.

FURTHER READING

Brainstorming Your Character’s Emotional Wound by Angela Ackerman

How to Write Essential Backstory Elements from Stavros Halvatzis

Fiction’s Wounding Event: Where Character and Incident Meet by Michelle Hoover

Character Secrets from Writer Unboxed

How To Write Mystery

how to write mystery

The need for mystery is greater than the need for an answer.

Ken Kesey

The perfect detective story cannot be written. The type of mind which can evolve the perfect problem is not the type of mind that can produce the artistic job of writing.

Raymond Chandler

Mystery is the secret spice of all compelling books. It is the unexpected and yet perfectly fitting element; when it appears its rightness is palpable, and yet often just beyond the reach of easy explanation. Why does it feel so right? We can’t quite put our fingers on it.

Another reason mystery is less talked about, I think, is because many people meet this fascinating, fleeting sense of a meaning almost grasped, a music almost heard, and conclude it is a failure in themselves and in others to fully comprehend a book. This is not so.

Conceptual layers, conceptual depth, is what creates nuanced and interesting books. The elusive intellectual feeling of mystery comes from our minds’ effort to compare multiple conceptual frameworks, like looking through layers of tracing paper to see the one image those layers create. It’s intellectual exercise, and it’s fun. And it means you’re doing it right.

Mystery is what draws us back to a book again and again; it is what makes any work of art more than the sum of its parts.

Chronicle Books

What Is A Mystery Story?

Some long fiction has mystery and revelation as a subordinate element, but very often they stand alone as a novel’s main motion.

Mystery fiction involves stories in which characters try to discover a vital piece of information which is kept hidden until the climax. The standard novel stocked in the mystery section of bookstores is a whodunit. A few other types of mystery novels are Cozy Mysteries (where a group of people who are very unlikely to be mixed up in a crime become involved – these are usually not gory) or Hard-Boiled Mysteries (where the detective/private eye is very tough and unsentimental).

Mysteries often include crime, but not necessarily (for example the grandchildren spending the summer on an island will attempt to find out the source of the jewels hidden in the attic). If they are about a crime, they don’t have to have a detective, because some crimes are solved by clever veterinarians or clever quilt-shop owners.

Even when there is no mysterious past, our interest in the story is maintained by the question, “What’s going to happen next?” If we can predict what that will be — if there is no mystery — the story is boring.

By definition, a mystery requires that we be aware that some powerful knowledge exists that we do not possess. Mysteries, therefore, deal not with things that are totally hidden, but with things that are obscure.

What we often call “Mystery Stories” are, in fact, usually “Question Stories,” and once we have an answer to the question, the “mystery” disappears.

A true mystery, no matter how much we analyse it, remains a mystery. Great films, like all great works of art, are often like that — the more we learn about them, the more we realise that the mystery of their power remains.

Howard Suber

That’s what great fiction does, I think: A writer uses narrative to ask a question more clearly than it has ever been asked before. When a question is asked perfectly, it doesn’t need a tidy answer. To discover the precise shape of what the mystery is: That can be enough.

John Rechy

HOW TO PLOT A MYSTERY

Here’s one way:

I start by writing a brief, extremely dull short story. No one will ever see one of these if I can conceivably prevent it; it’s usually only about three pages, but I refine it for weeks, as carefully as Rudy Giuliani mixing his old fashioned before he Skypes in to Hannity, because, like Rudy, I’m focused on doing a crime. Specifically, that small story contains a full, straightforward account of the case my detective must solve, told in simple English. It enumerates who committed the crime and why, how they covered it up, and all the stuff of mystery novels: clues, red herrings, false leads, bloody knives, mysterious scars, anonymous notes, midnight rendezvous — in short, all the details I know I’ll have to omit from the real book I write, the actual mystery novel.

Charles Finch, mystery writer

Subgenres of Mystery

Some people divide mysteries into those that deal with the past and those that deal with the future. In the most obvious kind of mystery stories — detective films and thrillers — the mystery about the past concerns “Who done it?” and the mystery about the future concerns “Who’s going to be done in?”

A whodunit (whodunnit) is a type of mystery best described as a ‘mind-riddle’. The reader is encouraged to put pieces together themselves.

A whydunit (whydunnit) is a type of mystery where the audience knows who did it from the outset. Emphasis has now shifted onto how the situation got this bad. In this type of mystery we’ll generally be introduced to the criminal at the outset.

A ‘locked door’ mystery refers to a story in which the answer to the question is ‘this person’, and that person won’t come out of nowhere — they’ll exist in the cast. You eliminate them one by one until you find the person who did it. Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death is an example of this kind of mystery.

Detective fiction has become synonymous with mystery, but of course detective fiction requires a detective, even if it’s a nosy middle aged woman such as Agatha Raisin.

Raison d’être of Mystery Stories

There are said to be two main reasons for reading — intellectual engagement or emotional engagement. Mysteries of the Agatha Christie type offer us intellectual engagement as we are encouraged to work out a puzzle.

There’s something in mystery for everyone, or rather there’s a bit of mystery in everything, since plot is basically another word for ‘surprise’. That said, mystery is not like SF, in which readers are either SF readers or they are most definitely not.

A murder mystery, which is always solved at the end, provides a sense of justice sorely lacking in the real world.

Two Approaches To Writing Mysteries For Children

chasing vermeer children's mystery book cover

When a book of unexplainable occurrences brings Petra Andalee and Calder Pillay together, strange things start to happen: seemingly unrelated events connect, an eccentric old woman seeks their company, and an invaluable Vermeer painting disappears. Before they know it, the two find themselves at the center of an international art scandal, where no one — neighbors, parents, teachers — is spared from suspicion.

Now let’s talk about how you set up a mystery novel for kids. There are two ways to go about it. I call the two options The Agatha Christie and The Chasing Vermeer.

The Agatha Christie model is the hardest to pull off. You give your readers all the facts, lay them out plain and clear, and let them solve the mystery alongside you. When done well this engages the reader and makes them complicit in the solution. Instant audience identification! Brilliant!

Then you have The Chasing Vermeer method. Now the book Chasing Vermeer was very popular with kids, so you can’t knock it on that account. It was, however, a book where the mystery and solution was based entirely on coincidences. That’s a frustrating way to set up a novel.

From a review of York by Betsy Bird

If writing a Chasing Vermeer type mystery, best to add some Agatha Christie elements and make the coincidences as disguised as possible. Betsy Bird, children’s librarian points out that the Chasing Vermeer series is very popular with children, which suggests young readers don’t mind coincidences so much, being more in line with adult readers of cosy mysteries in that regard. (Children’s mysteries are basically cosy mysteries.)

General rule of thumb: If the contrivance hurts the protagonist, it’s usually okay. Contrivances that help the protagonist usually feel forced or overly convenient.

Janice Hardy

A lot of children’s mysteries have something in common with a scavenger hunt, where children go looking for something (a lost dog, the answer to a secret, an absent parent).

Ciphers, puzzles, treasure, secret codes… these are all commonly found in children’s mystery stories.

The ‘Fair Mystery’ Approach To Storytelling

I like smart movies about smart people, and enjoy it when most of the facts are on the table and we can contemplate them together.

Roger Ebert

Common Features Of Murder Mysteries

A crime is committed—almost always a murder—and the action of the story is the solution of that crime: determining who did it and why, and obtaining some form of justice. The best mystery stories often explore man’s unique capacity for deceit—especially self-deceit—and demonstrate a humble respect for the limits of human understanding. This is usually considered the most cerebral (and least violent) of the suspense genres.

Thematic emphasis: How can we come to know the truth? (By definition, a mystery is simply something that defies our usual understanding of the world.)

Twists are really common in lots of mysteries. A twist is another word for a reversal, which is a type of reveal. They’re hard to do well because the reader isn’t meant to guess early on. But when they do find out, everything should click into place for them.

Basic plot elements of the murder mystery:

  • The baffling crime
  • The singularly motivated investigator
  • The hidden killer
  • The cover-up (often more important than the crime itself, as the cover-up is what conceals the killer)
  • Discovery and elimination of suspects (in which creating false suspects is often part of the killer’s plan)
  • Evaluation of clues (sifting the true from the untrue)
  • Identification and apprehension of the killer.

Things murder mysteries must have:

  • Someone is killed early in the telling, perhaps on the very first page
  • An investigator will be called in to solve the crime.
  • Stock characters: the hero, the villain etc.
  • False clues in the plot (“red herrings”)
  • An eventual confrontation between investigator and murderer
  • An ending that either results in justice, injustice or a pyrrhic victory. In other words, the murderer is discovered and pays for the crime, the murderer gets away, or the investigator gets the killer, but loses someone or something in the process.

The Hero

Whether a cop, a private eye, a reporter or an amateur sleuth, the hero must possess a strong will to see justice served, often embodied in a code (for example, Harry Bosch’s “Everyone matters or no one matters” in the popular Michael Connelly series). He also often possesses not just a great mind but great empathya fascination not with crime, per se, but with human nature.

The Villain

The crime may be a hapless accident or an elaborately staged ritual; it’s the cover-up that unifies all villains in the act of deceit. The attempt to escape justice, therefore, often best personifies the killer’s malevolence. The mystery villain is often a great deceiver, or trickster, and succeeds because she knows how to get others to believe that what’s false is true.

Setting

Although mysteries can take place anywhere, they often thematically work well in tranquil settings—with the crime peeling back the mask of civility to reveal the more troubling reality beneath the surface.

Reveals

Given its emphasis on determining the true from the untrue, the mystery genre has more reveals than any other—the more shocking and unexpected, the better.

— David Corbett

Writing Techniques

Clues/Red Herrings

To be fair to the reader, it’s probably best to have a few subtle clues scattered throughout the story.  Clues can be verbal—something that contradicts a suspect’s alibi or that points to a possible motive for murder.  Clues can be physical—a suitcase in the back room. Clues can even result from insights our sleuth gets into the suspects’ characters.  That’s one reason why our investigation isn’t just about the crime—it’s about the people who might be involved.

It’s very tricky to use our sleight of hand with mystery readers. They’re extremely savvy readers who usually read a lot of mysteries each month. They’ll frequently believe any extraneous detail must be a clue (which is why we need to be careful about wrapping up anything that seems like a loose end or a Chekhov’s gun at the end of the book).

The best ways to slip clues under the radar: lay them near the beginning of the story and then introduce things that seem more interesting (the victim’s body, perhaps), and then continue laying them out throughout the book but being very careful to distract from them (maybe with an argument between two suspects, etc.).  It also helps to have an especially well-thought-out red herring near the end of the story to lead the sleuth and reader in an entirely different direction.

The puzzle has to be fair. Modern mystery readers won’t be happy if the killer is someone who was introduced at the very end of our story, etc. The modern mystery reader expects to be able to solve the mystery alongside the sleuth—it’s an almost interactive experience, or it needs to be.

Challenges For The Mystery Writer

Technology

Anthony Horowitz — wrote Alex Rider (a young adult mysteries), Magpie Murders, Midsomer Murders and makes gleeful use of Agatha Christie’s techniques. Here’s what he has to say about technology:

[Anthony Horowitz] placed the Conway novel in the 1950s, he said, because he likes murder mysteries that are “forensic free,” without surveillance cameras and DNA. “I want sprinklings of clues and red herrings,” he said. “And having no mobile phones is wonderfully helpful; it slows the pace down, and you have more time for atmosphere and character.

If writers want to write a mobile phone free story for adolescents and teens today they have to either contrive it, or set the story in the past.

Reversals and Reveals

The mystery writer needs to master this technique.

Examples of Culturally Significant Mysteries

  • Rebecca — an example of a gothic mystery
  • The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo — Scandi crime mystery which lead to what is now a huge boom in Scandinavian crime/mystery.
  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. There’s usually a central question in her books. (Suspense is the official mystery blend to describe these books.) This is the mystery which started a successful wave of psychological thrillers with complex female leads, mostly with dark covers. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins is another example. 
  • Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter is another example of how ‘Girl’ in the title these days indicates a murder mystery, probably with tantalising reveals and definitely female characters (solving the mystery as well as falling victim to it).
  • Tana French is another author who writes bestselling mysteries.
  • Little Face by Sophie Hannah. A weird, creepy central mystery.
  • Into the Water by Paula Hawkins immerses readers in a town where a river has mysteriously claimed the lives of two women.
  • The Passenger by Lisa Lutz
  • What She Knew by Gilly Macmillan
  • Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty is an Australian novel with a romantic subplot, contrasting a domestic violence subplot. This story manages to be both light and dark at the same time. Later made into an American limited TV series. Narrative is punctuated by excerpts from interviews with a journalist, commenting on and encouraging the intense drama between the women and their husbands during the school year.. We don’t know who the interlocutor is until the end of the story — another minor reveal. (I thought it was probably a police officer.) Note that when we find out who got killed, the reader/viewer is rewarded with a sense of just desserts, because this is the least sympathetic character of the cast.Other big reveals show us how the characters are more linked together than we anticipated, but is foreshadowed with the information that everyone knows everyone in this small town.  
  • Dragon Teeth by Michael Crichton
  • Dark Matter by Blake Crouch
  • The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena
  • Notice how many of these examples I’ve picked are by and about women. In an historic turnaround, men are apparently pretending to be women in order to sell crime fiction.
  • 50 Essential Mystery Novels From Flavorwire.
Mysteries Aimed At Children
  • Lord Of The Flies — Though you may not think of this book when you think of the mystery genre, the most central part of this story is the developing answer to the question, “What is the beast?” This example shows that almost all children’s literature (in particular) contains mystery elements.
  • Ginger Pye — An easy Agatha Christie mystery story for children in which their pet dog is stolen by a boy in their class. Young readers are supposed to work this out before the characters do, making use of dramatic irony. (The mystery is for beginners, rather than the text.)
  • Harry Potter — J.K. Rowling’s wizard series is basically of the mystery genre. For adults Rowling writes hard-boiled detective novels with plenty of plotting to show that she’s a master of mystery.
  • Encyclopedia Brown series for children — Donald J. Sobol wrote ‘two minute mysteries’. In two or three pages you have to solve them. To find the answer you flip the book upside down. They all hinge on reasoning things out.
  • T.O.A.S.T. Mysteries by James Ponti — for kids itching for a hilarious mystery to solve. Florian Bates is a bit bored at Alice Deal Middle School. Math class just can’t compare to helping the FBI solve the mystery of an art theft or uncovering a spy ring in DC. But in the second book of the series his dull life is soon interrupted when he gets a call from the FBI inviting him to investigate a series of seemingly-harmless pranks involving the daughter of the President of the United States. Florian and his best friend Margaret begin to investigate, just as the pranks evolve from innocent to dangerous.
  • Pretty Little Liars has a mentor text of Desperate Housewives. Originally a YA novel series, later a TV series. Unlike Desperate Housewives, the big reveal (reversal) was withheld until the end of the series. Desperate Housewives mysteries were neatly tied up at the end of each season, and the writers must have been confident viewers would happily return for a new mystery.
  • Riverdale is a Netflix series based on retrograde tropes, inspired by the Archie comics but with a more diverse cast. The other thing the writers of the TV series did was incorporate a murder mystery at its heart. Though aimed at teens my nine year old daughter loved it.
  • Wolf Hollow is the perfect example of a middle grade mystery.

Tips For Writing Melodrama

Melodrama is a widely misunderstood term but has its place in good storytelling. What is melodrama, and how do we write it?

A Brief History Of Melodrama

Melodrama emerged around the time of the French Revolution, which marks the beginning of capitalism and a shift towards commodification. Societies were moving from mercantile to market based economies.

Commodification had special relevance to women, because women were themselves commodities. Women and girls were married off for their family’s gain, with no autonomy. In the early modern era, women were not legal individuals, subsumed first by their fathers, next by their husbands.

Melodramatic stories are about what happens to an individual when they are faced with a difficult circumstance. Early melodramas asked questions such as, What is it like to be married off to a man you don’t know or like? Things happened to these main characters. In real life as in melodramatic fiction, these main characters had little agency. Pride and Prejudice is classic melodrama.

Like gothic fiction, melodrama has always been a popular form of storytelling rather than considered high art. No coincidence there: both types of story are about and enjoyed by women, and whatever concerns women is historically considered niche and frivolous.

In earlier times, melodramatic stories were interspersed with musical numbers, though didn’t quite fit the definition of musical theatre. This convention affected how melodramatic works were plotted; with more airtime taken up by the music, there was less time available for the main narrative. When storytellers are faced with telling a story in a very limited time, they have no choice but to rely on character archetypes and plot tropes. Audiences are already familiar with these things and need nothing by way of introduction.

For this same reason, the first cinematic productions also relied on melodrama. With no words in the silent era of film, anything other than reliance upon archetype was impossible.

The 1940s required stories that appealed to women, so stories emerged around the different and proper roles of women in society.

The 20th century gave us the soap opera, a low form of melodrama. They’re not functioning as true melodramas, though. There’s a reason soap operas are shown in the middle of the day — audiences are not craving genuine emotion at that time of day. If soap operas are melodramatic, it’s because they are designed to be an emotional diversion, not a catharsis.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and the way television series are funded. The makers of TV rarely know how many seasons they will be funded for. If they don’t know how long they will have to complete a story, they have no choice but to move away from the quest narrative, in which the story is over once the quest has been achieved. Instead, writers create a large cast of characters and move the camera between characters, between families, setting up a highly unusual situation and then letting the audience watch individuals’ responses to that situation by way of exposing different moralities. That’s what melodrama is.

Not all ‘prestige (episodic) TV’ is melodramatic. Breaking Bad is more quest than melodrama. The writers have previously spoken about one of the most challenging tasks of writing Breaking Bad: The cast of characters is very small, not to mention the writers’ strike that happened part way through season one and never knowing from season to season whether the show would be renewed. (Given the challenges around bringing that story to screen, they did a fantastic job.)

The Sopranos sits further toward the melodramatic end of the scale. The cast of characters is much larger. This is a violent, gangster world, so highly unusual (and shocking) events happen on the regular. Characters respond to that event in various ways.

Big Love, Six Feet Under and The Handmaid’s Tale are melodramas. Each of those shows places main characters in a very difficult, impossible situation. Due to their entrapped status, autonomy of the main characters is limited.

Desperate Housewives is perhaps what many people think of when they think ‘melodrama’. In fact, Desperate Housewives is a satire of soap opera (and wasn’t sold until ‘satire’ was inserted into the pitch).

Young adult stories with a mainly female audience are often described as ‘melodramatic’, with melodrama used as a pejorative. For instance, Rotten Tomatoes says of the film adaptation of If I Stay, “Although Chloë Grace Moretz gives it her all and the story adds an intriguing supernatural twist to its melodramatic young adult framework, If I Stay is ultimately more manipulative than moving.”

So What Is Melodrama?

In everyday English, ‘melodrama’ suffers from the same problem as ‘surreal‘. Generally, speakers use both of these words to describe something that is not realistic or unreal, when in fact the terms properly describe works of art which are more real(istic) than other works of art.

Surrealism and melodrama are related. Surrealism is a different but related kind of exaggeration. The meanings implicit in objects, people, or events become more obvious and accessible than meanings normally are in the chaotic muddle of our everyday world.

Because of its heightened, exaggerated reality, melodrama lends itself easily to symbolism, allegory, and surrealism.

So how is melodrama more real than, say, drama? Melodrama is the technique of revealing reality by concentrating on the remarkable rather than the ordinary. Melodrama is about extremes, especially extremes of circumstance and emotional reaction to that circumstance.

Melodrama is a storytelling paradigm rather than a genre. For that reason, different genres, and different stories within those genres, each have their own analogue switch relating to melodrama. Some genres tend to be more melodramatic than others. If we consider war movies a genre (they’re actually a blend of action and drama in a wartime setting), then some war movies are melodramatic (Hurt Locker), but some are quest stories instead (Saving Private Ryan, Apocalypse Now).

Many stories aimed at children (especially teens) are high in melodrama.

We might think of melodrama as the inverse of ‘quest’ arc. This is a continuum rather than a binary division. Some stories are more quest-like, some stories are more melodramatic.

When determining the extent of melodrama in any given story, ask the following: Is there a strong moral question that drives the story? Melodrama is about groups of people (families and family stand-ins), and how massive, unusual outside forces change interpersonal dynamics.

Melodrama is not about twists and turns. Melodrama won’t be using many of the techniques required by, say, thriller, which aims for suspense and perhaps for horripilation but avoids pathos.

What is melodrama for?

  1. Melodrama rouses strong emotions in its audience. These are stories which intend to invoke pathos. Storytellers want to make you cry. First they make you identify with their characters, then they put them through the mill.
  2. Melodrama invokes implicit shared attitudes.
  3. Melodrama presents a cast of characters — typically a family, or family stand-in — gives them an impossible dilemma and then shows how each of those individuals respond to it. Melodramatic stories are therefore domestic in nature. Also, by definition, melodrama requires a clear moral dilemma. A melodramatic story asks the audience to consider what they might do in the same situation, and to ask big, psychological questions such as, How much am I prepared to endure? How much am I prepared to risk? Am I seeing the situation correctly? Is it me that’s the problem here, or is it the world?

Pejoratively, melodrama refers to stories in which the writer tries to make the reader feel something but overdoes it and thus fails. This isn’t entirely fair use, because sometimes the writer WANTS the audience to enjoy the spectacle of characters getting all emotional without involving the audience in the drama. Melodrama can be harnessed deliberately in order to let an audience enjoy a story in a different way (from straight drama).

Why Write Melodrama ?

Sometimes visionary, heightened reality is the most real of all, because all the transitory, trivial details have been stripped away to reveal the fundamental essence of things.

The Setting Of Melodramas

Melodramas make their heroes pawns in cities which symbolise the originating problem for the hero rather than the end of the hero’s activity. The hero is a conscious agent and a conflict between morality and the violation of established laws is developed.

Symbolism.org

A feature of melodramatic settings is often darkness contrasted with light. A lot of the scenes will probably take place at night.

Use of colour palette in the melodramatic TV series Riverdale promotional material makes the most of this contrast:

The dark/light thing is incorporated into the character building, as shown by the taglines of Riverdale below:

Riverdale beauty darkness light

Desire and Need In Main Characters of Melodramas

In traditional (quest) stories, people tend to rise to a challenge in a superhero kind of way. In real life, people are mostly victims of circumstance. Since melodrama is ‘realistic’, it goes for ‘victims of circumstance’ characterisation.

People working in film and TV (and less so in children’s literature) are told constantly that their characters require a desire (surface and underlying), and a shortcoming/need (moral and psychological). Next they’ll need to make a plan, then keep changing the plan as things go wrong for them.

These elements are present in almost all compelling stories, but because writers are told they must have them, this creates a loop in which other types of stories don’t get made.

In real life, there are people who don’t have much agency. That describes all of us at some point of other; something big happens to us and we had no say in the matter. That gives us more in common with the romantic hero than with Walter White, whose plan is to cook meth and provide for his family. The melodramatic main character does not start out with a strong desire. They may wish to simply keep going in their highly restrictive lives. They may not have the executive functioning required to make plans (this is especially true of child characters). They may not have the freedom of gender, or of race.

In melodrama desires are muted; plans are reactionary. I’ve seen the term ‘out-of-whack’ event used to describe the external force that skicks off the melodrama:

Out-of-whack event. In Aristotelian drama, the story concerns a character whose stable life is knocked out of whack by an external force. The remainder of the story concerns his attempts to put his life back into whack, and his success or failure. The out-of-whack event inaugurates the struggle.

Commonly the out-of-whack event occurs at the novel’s opening (e.g. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land, Valentine Michael Smith is brought to Earth; or Zelazny, Nine Princes in Amber, Corwin recovers his powers but not his memory). It may already be in the past (e.g. Silverberg, The Man in the Maze, the aliens tamper with Muller’s brain to broadcast evil emotions).

Glossary of Terms Useful When Criticising Science Fiction

(I’m also noticing that the term ‘Aristotelian Drama’ basically describes ‘melodrama’. But Aristotelian gives a story street cred, whereas the word ‘melodrama’ confers a whole lot of negative connotation.)

Comedy doesn’t lend itself to melodrama. Comedic heroes tend to be low mimetic. Comedy derives from their own shortcomings — they don’t know enough, they are full of hubris, they are always making mistakes. But comedic main characters have drive, they make plans. Terrible plans, but plans nonetheless. Comedy evokes laughter; melodrama evokes tears. Melodrama goes deeper into character than comedy, which relies on archetype, sometimes with tweaks, but archetypes as base. (This is also why Breaking Bad is less melodramatic than The SopranosBreaking Bad contains a lot of dark comedy, and the two don’t play well together.)

Opponents in Melodrama

In a melodrama, an event happens which robs your character of their power. Their struggle is to regain their power, and thereby achieve freedom. Whoever stands in the way of them regaining their power functions as the opponent. These opponents don’t tend to be arch nemeses and archetypal villains, but spoilt brat offspring and overprotective parents — people with their own understandable wants and needs.

The Unoriginal Plots of Melodramas

Melodrama requires a strong, tried and tested plot. That’s why melodrama tends to correlate with genre fiction.

The external events that happen in melodramas won’t be original. Audience interest derives from the characters’ various reactions to these events. Melodramatic plots are therefore routine and expected.

When plot becomes less important, character becomes more important.

Whatever happens in your melodrama, make sure it is absolutely central to the lives of your main characters. These should be people in crisis. If they’re not in crisis, you’re probably writing drama, not melodrama.

There’s nothing like impending death to rouse you from existential boredom.

Roger Ebert

Bridges Over Madison Country is melodramatic because a woman falls in love with a man who is not her husband, in a culture where leaving her husband is not possible or okay. How does she deal with this over the course of a lifetime? She knows she’ll never love anyone like this again. The story explores how this chance encounter makes her feel, and how it makes her children feel once they discover their deceased mother’s secret life. Brief Encounter is another story with the same basic plot, yet these are clearly two very different stories. It’s not the plot that makes them different.

Young adult melodramas I Am Not Okay With This and Never Have I Ever both start with identical set ups: A teenage girl has recently lost her father. Her interiority is revealed via trips to the school counsellor, who encourages her to open up in a journal. There are other similarities because these plots are not what sets them apart; its all about the character, and these young women’s responses to the loss of their fathers.

Six Feet Under started every episode with a death, followed by the Fisher family meeting with the family to plan a funeral, more or less. The plots themselves would not have soon lost novelty if it weren’t for the highly interesting treatment of character, including dream sequences which hadn’t been seen on television before.

There are many, many stories about a city woman who faces a crisis and returns to her roots in a rural area, where she opens a cafe/bed and breakfast/etc, exposes a secret about her past, then meets the love of her life. Again, there is nothing unique about the plot. This opens up plenty of storytelling room to character development, crisis and… melodrama.

Notice how each of these stories listed above appeal to largely female audiences. There is a bias at work when evaluating stories from a cerebral angle: Original plots get elevated to high art, whereas varied emotional reactions in characters and audiences are criticised for being ‘tearjerkers’, lacking in originality and so on.

The Problem With Melodrama: Believability

Melodrama ignores the ordinary to concentrate on the unusual and unlikely. Ironically, it often creates a credibility problem for readers who expect mimesis in storytelling. (Many true stories are nonetheless unbelievable when transferred to the realm of fiction.)

melodrama film noir
Melodrama is a feature of film noir — a genre made up not by film makers themselves but by film critics.

Tips For Writing Melodrama

Tip 1: SHOW THAT THE MELODRAMATIC THING WORKS RIGHT AWAY

Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire begins with a vampire talking into a tape recorder. Either way, you know pretty clearly what you’re in for from the beginning.

Each story demonstrates its central premise: modern vampires, or shoot-’em-up spaceflight. If you’re going to write melodrama, start with melodrama.

If your story will be playing by rules other writers have used before—that vampires exist, that faster-than-light travel is possible—melodrama may be the best way to go. Work with the accepted convention. Introduce your premise with as little fuss as possible and get on with your story. Stephenie Meyer built her Twilight series on the accepted convention of vampires already established to modern readers by writers such as Anne Rice.

Tip 2: SHOW THAT THIS THING HAS WORKED IN THE RECENT PAST

Especially use this trick if you’re introducing an entirely new concept. 

There’s no arguing with the past — it’s over. Use this obvious bit of wisdom to have a character talk about the thing before it actually appears. Or you can write about a past event for which no satisfactory explanation has ever been found. The story then demonstrates the cause in the present, which also explains the past, retroactively.

Tip 3: USE A TRUSTWORTHY NARRATOR OR CHARACTER

Establish a reasonable character, and have them take the curse/magic/fantasy world seriously. Don’t have anybody doubting it, at least not for long.

This particular storytelling trick doesn’t always work well with the most savvy of young readers. Here’s a young adult who recently shared with the Internet why she doesn’t like YA fiction — one of her main points is that in real life nobody listens to teenagers. The fact that fictional adults listen to fictional young characters can either be a refreshing change or it can trigger annoyance, but now at least you see why writers do it.

Most readers are used to fictional conventions and are also appreciative of new and original fantasy worlds. They will accept anything if it is introduced correctly.

Tip 4: JUXTAPOSE THE EXTRAORDINARY WITH THE MUNDANE

Surround your curse with tangible everyday objects and activities, described in detail. I think this explains the popularity of magical realism. 

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe opens within the (historical) reality of war, in a house that could easily exist in the real world.

Tip 5: ONE IMPROBABILITY PER STORY

If there are a whole lot of odd goings-on they should all have, finally, a single cause. That one cause accepted, all the rest follows: the other oddities fall into place.

Sometimes this advice runs to “Writers are allowed one big lie per story”. But there are diversity issues that you can run into if you follow this advice. I fear this particular writing tip might be responsible for all those medieval fantasy worlds which are, when it all boils down, a retrograde white patriarchy. Perhaps writers think that they can only get away with the fantasy world itself, and that every other aspect of politics and 21st century social life must be laid upon this fantastical world otherwise we’re asking too much of readers.

Tip 6: NO UNDERCUTTING YOUR PREMISE

Don’t explain the big event which kicks off the story. Don’t explain it away or make fun of it in any other way, either. (Once you’ve made fun of it, you’re writing comedy, a melodrama killer.)

Melodrama can be ruined in other ways, too. No waking up and it was all a dream.

Tip 7: NO TALKING ABOUT THE IMPROBABILITY IN NARRATIVE SUMMARY

Especially at first, as you’re establishing the event. The improbable events must be shown in scenes rather than explained in narrative summary. Show don’t tell is not always good advice, but it’s good here.

Dialogue is especially useful when showing rather than telling, because well-rendered dialogue feels believable to an audience.

Lampshading has its uses, but be careful how and when you use it.

Tip 8: DON’T LET THE IMPROBABILITY TAKE OVER THE STORY

Write of the improbability sparingly. Don’t let the big weird event become commonplace. The amount of reality versus ‘improbably, magical thing’ has to be balanced. A story in which literally anything can happen is a story in which nothing makes sense.

In Big Love, the situation of the polygamous family living undercover is normal and ordinary 99% of the time, but has the potential to become extraordinary once in a while, which culminates when Bill runs for office. The normal, domestic scenes build credibility and also suspense, since the reader is always waiting for the secret to come out.

In other words, if you’ve got something functioning as a storytelling monster, don’t trot it out in every chapter or the reader will start to yawn. The monsters audiences imagine are more frightening than the monsters they see.

Alfred Guillou - Farewell 1892
Alfred Guillou – Farewell 1892

Notes above are from Anson Dibell’s book on writing: Plot and a Draft Zero podcast from Stu and Chas with Stephen Cleary.

Physiological Reactions In Fiction

physiological-reactions-fiction

Descriptions of physiological reactions are hard to write well because:

  1. We all know what the feels to be thirsty/humiliated/busting to go to the toilet, so why does an author feel the need to explain it again, as if her character is any different? Why not just tell and not show?
  2. Every possible physiological response must have been written before, over and over, so how to sound original?
  3. It’s so easy to sound unintentionally comical.
  4. Certain physiological reactions can be cringe inducing unless done masterfully.

Far too many stories these days prove merely three-dimensional. In other words, their principal characters display psychological width, length and depth, but operate as minds utterly detached from corporeal beings. As readers, we live inside their heads—not inside their bodies. We discover how their psyches process their surroundings, but not how their skin senses the living world. These characters explore an intensely abstract universe like brains trapped within jars, conversing with other similarly trapped entities.  They suffer ennui and angst, but never a stomach ache or a chest cold. They are the opposite of Washington Irving’s Headless Horseman in that their existence does not extend below the neck.

Fiction Writers’ Review

Yet now and again I come across a physiological description that’s original and engaging and poetic, and I’m filled with hope that it hasn’t all been done before. And then I think, “The field of possibles has just narrowed. I wish I’d written that!”

I wonder if anyone’s ever had a GOOD case of diarrhoea.

@stephenfry
Edward Gorey Neville died of ennui
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