Taking Mr Ravenswood by William Trevor

Anders Zorn (Swedish painter) 1860-1920 Impressions of London, 1890

Taking Mr Ravenswood” is a short story by Irish-English author William Trevor, included in Last Stories (2018) and previously unpublished. The author had already died by the time this story was released to the rest of us. This is an excellent example of the ambiguity lyrical short stories are known for. To get a sense of what happens in the story, it is necessary to read the symbolism. In line with the ambiguous, post-Chekhovian lyrical short story tradition, William Trevor offers aesthetic but not dramatic closure. But mostly, I think, he is leaving us to construct a large part of the plot.

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Six Dinner Sid by Inga Moore (1993)

Six Dinner Sid by Inga Moore

Six Dinner Sid (1993) is a picture book written and illustrated by Inga Moore.

The plot of the cat who goes from house to house pretending to be anyone’s will be familiar to anyone who’s ever known a cat. There’s an episode of cult hit This Country (“The Vicar’s Son”) in which Kerry Mucklowe eats her mum’s dinners, then sort of falls opportunistically into a scheme whereby she cadges dinner off an elderly lady living in the same village. The audience soon realises that Kerry is behaving exactly like a house cat.

Six Dinner Sid is a picture book cat who does the same thing. In these stories about opportunistic tricksters, there’s a storytelling rule which I have not yet seen broken: At the climax, their scheming ways are exposed for all to see. The mask comes off. Two types of stories rely heavily on the mask: thrillers and comedies. This is more comedy than thriller. For a thriller cat picture book which also uses a mask, see Slinky Malinki by Lynley Dodd.

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Scams in Storytelling

Skippy advertisement by Norman Rockwell

When telling a story, the following is non-negotiable: Your character must have some kind of plan. There really are no exceptions to this rule.

There are some caveats, such as when your main character is a passive sort of character, in which case another character will make the plan which kicks them out of passivity. (Often it’s the opponent.)

But a story with no plan is not a story.

In her Watching email, NYT writer Margaret Lyons shares her passion for the scam:

a chance to watch both Fyre Festival docs last week — both flawed; both interesting — and I was also delighted to see that ABC News has a new podcast about Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos. And now, perhaps the best of all scams: A literary scam. This New Yorker piece about the novelist Dan Mallory’s “trail of deceptions” is going to power my whole week. My passion for scams and hoaxes continues unabated, and I’m not alone. I finally had If you would like to sing “oh my scammy, whammy mammy,” now is the time to rewatch “Mr. Show.”

Here’s why we don’t need to ‘like’ characters in the stories we enjoy: We wouldn’t want to be friends with a scammer (or trickster, or someone who wears a mask) but we really enjoy seeing their antics in fiction. Perhaps this is partly wish-fulfilment. We like revenge stories, and we like to watch fictional characters exacting revenge.

SCAMS AND PLANS IN CHILDREN’S STORIES

In children’s literature, baddies who plot evil are often foiled by a child or a childlike creature who saves the day. As in films for adults, some of these plots are serious and some are comical.

Almost every children’s story involves a scam scene, regardless of what we call it:

  • The entire Famous Five and Secret Seven series, and all of the child sleuth grandchild books, in which groups of children outwit smalltime crooks.
  • Matilda — Roald Dahl absolutely loved scams. Scams form the entire plot points of Matilda and the Twits. But every one of his books involves a scam of some kind, in which the young hero gets back at the opponent. David Walliams writes in the same tradition.
  • Ramona Quimby hides her report card in the freezer because her older sister Beezus’s is always perfect, showing her own school achievements up.
  • Jesse Aarons in The Bridge To Terabithia really wants to go with his music teacher to the museum, so when his mother is half asleep when he asks permission to go, he isn’t really concerned that she may not have even heard him.
  • Mildred Hubble from The Worst Witch series is constantly foiled in the second book in the series by a newcomer (Enid) who Mildred is supposed to be in charge of. This newcomer is full of mischief, which is interesting because she doesn’t really mean to cause trouble for Mildred, she is simply blundering her way through the strict rules of the boarding school for witches, breaking lots of rules.
  • The Pokey Little Puppy — Like Peter Rabbit, this is the character children fall in love with, even though he is doing exactly as his mother tells him not to. Perhaps we like these animals so much because they are justly punished.
  • Room On The Broom — through their own creativity, all of the passengers of the broom display great team work and fool the baddie to save the benevolent witch.
  • The Wee Wishy Woman of Nickety Nackety Noo-noo-noo by Joy Cowley saves her own bacon by fooling her captor into eating a stew made of glue. This is a classic fairytale ending — the clever trickster character gets away, similar to tales such as Hansel and Gretel, who fool the wicked witch by sticking out a chicken bone instead of a finger, and then by feigning ignorance about how to climb into an oven.
  • Holden Caulfield from Catcher In The Rye might be called the father of Ferris Bueller, taking off from school and doing his own thing.
  • Eleanor and Park each deceive themselves about how much they like each other, and then when they realise this, they must deceive certain adults in their lives. Is this the romance equivalent of a scam? I consider it as such.
  • The Fish in This Is Not My Hat has already stolen the hat at the beginning of the picture book, which shows initiative. In We Found A Hat, one tortoise fantasises about scamming his friend, but ultimately realises that this would ruin the friendship.
  • The Story Of The Little Mole Who Knew It Was None Of His Business is basically a revenge story in which a mole gets his own back by shitting on someone else.
  • Wolf Comes To Town is all about a wicked wolf who dresses up as respectable people in order to do very bad things. This particular form of deception fails to go unpunished, though, which may explain why this children’s picture book went out of print.
  • Artemis Fowl behaves badly, stealing fairy gold, but is undeniably attractive as a character because he goes after what he wants even if it’s illegal. He’s also very proud of himself.

But children’s authors aren’t usually encouraged to make use of ‘scams’, as such. I haven’t seen the word used. But I have heard advice to make use of ‘secrets’, the close cousin of the scam.

SECRETS

Children’s book editor Cheryl Klein advises that child protagonists should have secrets:

Let the reader know there’s a secret, and then don’t tell them what it is until it absolutely serves your purpose to do so. …It could be a secret the narrator knows and is keeping from the reader…Or it could be a secret the characters have to find out.

Klein points out that the genre of mystery novels require secrets and offers the example of Lemony Snicket, an example of a narrator who has a secret but refuses to tell the reader what it is.

Other child(like) characters with secrets:

  • Claude the dog goes off on his adventures when his owners are at work, so they never know what he’s been up to.
  • The Secret Seven were called ‘secret’ because they never told their parents (or other children outside the club) exactly what went down in their crime-busting world.
  • The storyteller character of Looking For Alaska by John Green keeps a secret from the reader and the structure of the book lets the reader know that we are counting down to a big reveal.
  • Billy in Where The Red Fern Grows has a secret — he sneaks off to buy a puppy after saving up a lot of pocket money, even though his family needs it

Are secrets more common in chapter books (and up) than in picture books? It seems so, since it’s harder to find examples of picture book characters who keep secrets. Since toddlers and young children are completely reliant upon their caregivers, the degree to which child protagonists keep secrets will depend on the age of the ideal reader, with the deepest darkest secrets being kept by YA protagonists.

Klein offers a caution about secrets when crafting the plot:

The answer to the secret has to have a significance equal to the effort the reader has invested in it.

Header image is a peanut butter advertisement by American commercial illustrator, Norman Rockwell.

Lamb To The Slaughter by Roald Dahl

Lamb to the Slaughter” is one of Roald Dahl’s most widely read short stories, studied in high school English classes around the English speaking world. In this post I take a close look at the structure from a writing point of view. Why has this story found such wide love? What appeals?

STORY STRUCTURE OF LAMB TO THE SLAUGHTER

The ‘main character’ of this short story isn’t clear because this is a story about a scenario, and the characters are required in order to carry out the scenario. The characters are archetypes. However, the story opens with Mary Maloney. We are encouraged to identify with Mary Maloney, and it is Mary who goes through an extensive range of emotions. We end with a conspiratorial relationship with Mary.

SHORTCOMING IN LAMB TO THE SLAUGHTER

Mary Maloney is childlike, as housewives of the mid 20th century often were. Mary is economically and emotionally vulnerable, and she is extra vulnerable because she is six months pregnant. She is unable to simply move on from this relationship, or get a job. Re-partnering will be hard for her, too. This situation encourages the reader to empathise with her plight, even if we don’t agree with her way of dealing with things. Also, readers are like ducklings and we tend to empathise with the character first shown to us. If Dahl had instead described the policeman’s arrival home, starting with him leaving work, turning the difficult situation over in his mind, we might have empathised with him instead.

Mary also has a Virgin Mary association — we don’t think of murderers when we think of ‘Mary’. I guess that’s why when we do get a murderer named Mary, we are intrigued by the story and it becomes lore.

DESIRE

Mary’s desires seem to be right there on the page: She is lonely during the day and home with no adult company, waiting for a scrap of human interaction from her husband after spending the entire day preparing the home for his arrival. But this interaction with her husband is her surface level desire, and points to a deeper desire: to assuage her utter loneliness. This is especially well set up by Dahl, because the very worst thing that could happen to Mary is to be left all alone.

OPPONENT

A simple web: Mary wants to remain married to her husband; her husband wants to leave her for another woman (we guess). Because their desires are in direct conflict, this makes them opponents. Later, the dead husband’s colleagues arrive. Part of what makes this story work: The husband was himself a policeman, so when his colleagues arrive to replace him as new opponents, these men seem like basically the same person to Mary.

Note also the writing trick employed by Dahl — he leaves the exact words of the break-up conversation off the page, instead giving us enough clues to work it out ourselves. This works partly because Mary is so blown-away by this revelation that she wouldn’t be able to take in all the words. This aligns the reader with Mary. It also works for another reason: Break-up sequences are pretty boring for most readers, who have seen the exact same conversation played out time and again in stories. It’s very hard to write a break up scene with any kind of originality, so Dahl just skips it, and trusts us to fill in those blanks. Also, the break-up is not a big part of the story. The Story = what comes after.

A question we might ask ourselves when writing short stories: Which parts of this story have been done so many times before that I can easily skip them? Narrative summary is a useful tool, especially in short stories.

PLAN

When a character snaps and does something crazy, you can’t really argue that there was a plan. Mary only makes her plan later: She didn’t plan to kill her husband, but she does plan to get out of it. She will visit the grocer, then return home to ‘discover him dead’, then get rid of the murder weapon by acting like a grieving wife in shock, then she will encourage the policemen to eat the lamb. This plays out with what I like to call a ‘heist plot’. I just mean that the reader doesn’t know what Mary’s going to do until she does it. Dahl puts the reader in audience inferior position. Reader satisfaction derives from seeing Mary carry out her plan and then get away with it.

Be wary of writing characters who just snap and do something crazy. I have heard judges of short story competitions complain that they see too many of those — perhaps writers are hoping to emulate Lamb to the Slaughter. Why does it work for Dahl? Because a woman snapping is not the story. Stories which end with a character snapping don’t work because:

  1. It’s generally unbelievable that people just snap — people who commit these crimes in real life have a history of violence. And in a short story you don’t have time to get into someone’s entire history, so it’s going to feel unfinished.
  2. It works here because Lamb to the Slaughter is basically melodrama. It’s written with a wry, tongue-in-cheek smile right from the start, and even Mary’s giggling is comical and over-the-top. Lamb to the Slaughter is written in the tall tale tradition.
  3. If a writer concludes a story by having their main character just snap and do something murderous, it feels like the writer can’t think of a more interesting way to finish the story off. ‘And then she killed him’ is akin to ‘And then she woke up and it was all a dream.’
  4. There is already a long history of tales which end in sudden death. Take Fitcher’s Bird, a tale collected by the Brothers Grimm. The final sentence: ‘And since nobody could get out, they were all burned to death’.

BIG STRUGGLE

It’d be easy to think the bit where Mary slaughters her husband is ‘the big struggle scene’, but it’s not, really. There’s no big struggle in that. She comes at him from behind. For storytelling purposes, the big struggle scene comes after a plan has been concocted and mostly carried out. Thus, the ‘big struggle scene’ in this story comprises the sequence in which the policemen hum and ha about whether or not they should go ahead an eat the lamb, with Mary encouraging them to eat. Mary wins that big struggle of words and manners.

ANAGNORISIS

The story ends when Mary giggles to herself from the next room. She has concluded she’s getting away with murder.

NEW SITUATION

The new situation phase is cut off in this story — as it is in many short stories — and left for the reader to extrapolate. We may also conclude that Mary has gotten away with murder.

LITERARY INFLUENCES ON LAMB TO THE SLAUGHTER

Dahl wasn’t the first to shock readers with a cannibalistic yet strangely genteel scene involving a character eating its own kind in a story about duplicity.

The Juniper Tree was one of the tales collected by the Grimm Brothers. In a patrilineal culture, a mother is angry that she and her daughter will inherit nothing while her husband’s son will inherit all. She is soon so overcome with anger that she is possessed by the devil, and eventually shuts the boy in a trunk, luring him with apples. The boy is decapitated. The woman tries to tie it back on with a neckerchief, but then the daughter accidentally knocks it off and believes she’s the one who killed him. The boy ends up in a stew. The father comes home, asks where the son is, and is told that the boy has gone away to stay with relatives for six weeks. The man eats the delicious stew — which he feels is part of him somehow — and throws his son’s bones under the table, which makes me wonder if that’s what men did in those days. (It reminds me of modern casino culture, in which big gamblers — mostly men — simply piss on the casino carpet rather than leave their stations to visit the toilet.) It’s the daughter’s job to tidy up after him. She collects the bones in a silk cloth and buries them under the juniper tree. The boy is reborn into the shape of a bird and the story goes on from there. The boy/bird eventually exacts revenge and kills his mother figure for killing his human form and feeding his flesh to his father. The mother is therefore punished, for letting herself become so angry and scared about becoming old and homeless and letting herself go crazy. Presumably, her daughter escapes this kind of crazy with her youth, and lack of understanding about how the world works. The sister doesn’t know that she, too, may become homeless — she is young and is likely to marry. So the inheritance thing probably doesn’t affect her.

Roald Dahl had a different relationship with retribution. Matilda is an entire middle grade novel made of revenge sequences against her terrible parents and Miss Trunchbull. Dahl certainly enjoyed pranks and tricks and loved to let his characters get away with bad stuff. Lamb To The Slaughter is another revenge tale, but unlike in The Juniper Tree, Dahl’s murdering woman is never punished. Dahl leaves his readers to imagine that her husband fully deserved to die.

The Juniper Tree was collected by the Grimms, but originally written down (in low German) by a painter called Philipp Otto Runge. There’s an entire family of tales in which one parent kills a child, the other eats him. (It’s usually a boy who is eaten.) Though these tales weren’t originally for children, food and death have become linked over the course of children’s literature.

Since sex and death (violence) are intertwined in mainstream stories, it is food and death which are intertwined in stories for children.

for more on that, see Food and Sex in Children’s Literature

Later, in 1857 the Fables of Aesop were translated into Human Nature. Aesop’s Fables had been published many times before this, but until now, readers had not seen them illustrated so adeptly by a well-known comic illustrator of the time: Charles Bennett (1828-1867).

Bennett dressed Aesop’s animals completely and gave them a contemporary mid 1800s setting. The characters are Victorian Londoners, but with animal heads. In order to find the illustrations funny the reader needs to know something about that particular social milieu. It was funny that Bennet turned the Fox in ‘The Fox and the Crow’ into a philanderer and the Crow into a rich widow, for example. Animals dressed in clothes appeal to children and so Grimm’s fairytales and Aesop’s fables became stories for the whole family, and eventually considered ‘children’s stories’. Likewise, Lamb to the Slaughter is not a children’s story, but when I taught high school English, this short story was studied by year elevens.

Aesop’s Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing is dressed as a policeman, taking supper in the basement with the cook, who is a sheep. They are ominously dining on a leg of lamb, and I wouldn’t mind betting Roald Dahl read the Bennett version of the Aesop’s Fables at some point, perhaps during his childhood. I’m sure Bennett’s comic illustrations would have appealed to Roald Dahl anyhow, whose own work was illustrated by famous British comic illustrator of the late 20th century and beyond, Sir Quentin Blake.

Wolf Lamb
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Slap Happy Larry Stories

I put this analysis into practice when writing my own short stories.

A Long Way From Chicago By Richard Peck

A Long Way From Chicago by Richard Peck is a Newbery Honor book from 1998, set in the era of The Great Depression. An adult narrator looks back and remembers his wily trickster grandmother. This book is one of the most moving and well-written children’s books I’ve read, at once comical and resonant.

THE COVER OF A LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO

A Long Way From Chicago

On all the various covers of A Long Way From Chicago the image of Joey in the plane features strongly. In one of the chapters Grandma finagles Joey a ride on a plane at the country fair but the plane ride itself is very much secondary to the chapter, in which we and the child characters learn the extent of Grandma’s cunning — as well as how tricks can somehow backfire.

So what’s with the centrality of the plane illustration?

Rumours are things with wings, too.

A Long Way From Chicago, p 118

Later in the story, a few years after Joey has ridden in that plane at the circus, Grandma shows him the power of rumour and gossip. It can be used for good, or it can be used for evil. Most often, it’s somewhere in the middle.

The car Joey loves to drive, not coincidentally, is called a ‘terraplane’ (a vehicle that ‘flies’ across terrain). The terraplane was a type of automobile produced by the Hudson Motor Company, previously called Essex. This particular type of car was designed to be more affordable, for families.

The Terraplane automobile A Long Way From Chicago
The Terraplane automobile

The Terraplane and I were becoming as one.

Historically literate readers will be keenly aware that Joey will come of age just as WW2 breaks out. I read this story without really acknowledging that fact, but in the final chapter we realise it is so, and of course he wants to fly planes. The experiences of his childhood summers with Grandma have lead to his wish to be a fighter pilot.

For more see The Symbolism Of Flight In Children’s Literature.

NARRATION AND TRUTH

The boy narrator is Joey Dowdel, a first person storyteller. His sister is Mary Alice Dowdel, two years younger. 

Because there is a full year elapsing between each story, the children change a lot. While each summer with Grandma teaches Joe something elemental about life, a lot of the change happens off the page, in the way that kids of that age change a lot year by year, regardless of what they’re doing.

The ageing of the children is the thread propelling the story forward in a linear direction. This line gives shape to the separate incidents taking place each summer. Without this narrative thrust the incidents would suffer the same problem as any journey story — the various characters and incidents would seem disconnected and the story as a whole would seem scattered.

Is this a coming-of-age story, then? Yes, but only insofar as any story about kids this age is a coming-of-age story. But this story isn’t about Joey and it’s not much about Mary Alice, either. Like The Great Gatsby, this is a bystander narrator entering a community and the star of this story is the grandmother he spends summers with. Eventually, the grandchildren learn all the tricks of their grandmother, picking people’s shortcomings to do what they feel is good in the community.

Truth is a popular topic when it comes to middle grade literature, and the same applies here. When you were little you were told to never lie. But now you’re in middle childhood you’re starting to realise that good people lie for good reasons. Look and learn. That’s what’s happening in this book.

The choice of narration is an excellent vehicle for this kind of theme:

“Are all my memories true? Every word, and growing truer with the years.”

This is a twisted spin on unreliable narration — Joey is old enough now to have a deeper understanding of the things he experienced as a child. Whereas we might expect old Joe’s memory for exact details to have faded somewhat, we are to trust his general interpretation of events, and the wisdom he brings to this long-ago story.

“We knew kids lie all the time, but Grandma was no kid, and she could tell some whoppers. Of course the reporter had been lied to big time up at the cafe, but Grandma’s lies were more interesting, even historical. […] What little we knew about grown-ups didn’t seem to cover Grandma.”

“[The ghost — actually cat — in the coffin] was a story that grew in the telling in one of those little towns where there’s always time to ponder all the different kinds of truth.”

STORYWORLD OF A LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO

When these scenes take place it is always August — the hottest time of the year.

That first summer it is 1929.

THE WIDER WORLD

This is the America of:

  • Al Capone, Bugs Moran
  • The St Valentine’s Massacre
  • Prohibition — alcohol is banned, which achieves little but serve to make bootleggers rich.
  • Joey and Mary Alice’s family in Chicago has no car telling us they don’t need one due to living in a city but also that they’re from an ordinary middle class family.  By 1931 the Great Depression hasn’t yet ‘bottomed out’ but is heading that way.

THE COUNTRY/CITY DIVIDE

In Chicago there are characters such as the real life John Dillinger, who robbed banks with two female accomplices. Richard Peck makes reference to these in part to contrast Chicago with this small town.

John Dilinger as mentioned in A Long Way From Chicago

Once in the country, Joey is the ingenue narrator, describing the town as an outsider. (This is a useful trick because readers are also outsiders.) Joey tells us that back then, Chicago has an ‘evil’ reputation.

  • Prairie chickens can still be seen waddling about
  • Horses are still common in the rural towns, though the rich family in town drives a Hupmobile.  
  • Fireworks — baby-wakers, torpedoes, bigger one is called a Cherry bomb
  • Snowball bushes grow in Grandma’s yard, which later come in handy for breaking a fall. I doubt they’re all that soft to land on, but they certainly have that image.
  • Grandmother lives in a small town ‘the railway tracks cut in two’. We know how sleepy and unexciting it is because we are told that people stand out under their verandahs to see the train pass by. This town is somewhere between Chicago and St. Louis.
  • “The Coffee Pot was where people went to loaf, talk tall, and swap gossip.” Story arenas need some local meeting place for the community. Gilmore girls also has a coffee house, as does Twin Peaks, Friends, 13 Reasons Why and many other stories about a community of people. Especially cosy stories. 
  • There is a local Holy Rollers church — ragtime and tambourines in the church at night. A Holy Rollers church refers colloquially to Christian churches of the Pentecostal or Holiness type — the kind where there is a lot of singing, standing up, moving about and falling down. It can be used derisively but has also been reclaimed by members of these churches themselves. There’s also the more staid United Brethen Church, where they have the rummage sale.
CHARACTERS IN THIS STORYWORLD

Fictional small towns where nothing much usually happens almost always have a town gossip. Effie Wilcox is the town gossip in A Long Way From Chicago, “whose tongue is attached at the middle and flaps at both ends.” Cosy mysteries need town gossips because the (usually old ladies) who solve the mysteries don’t have easy ins at the local police station (though they’re often related somehow to a copper.) Likewise, kids benefit hugely from a town gossip — being kids, their main insight into the adult world comes from hearing adults talk. A variety of mysteries happen in each of these chapters and I initially expected Effie Wilcox to feature more prominently, but as it happens, Grandma herself somehow has her own ear to the ground.

Wolf Hollow also has a town gossip, as does Anne of Green Gables, in Rachel Lynde.

Also like Anne of Green Gables, A Long Way From Chicago features  a mouse in the food (milk, though planted). This must have been a reasonably common occurrence in rural areas before fridges and modern housing. The grandmother is a trickster archetype — a common character archetype beloved by audiences. She’s getting up to tricks like a character out of a Roald Dahl novel, putting the mouse in the milk. I’m reminded of The Twits.

FOOD

They eat things like green beans and fatback for dinner followed by layer cake. For breakfast: pancakes and corn syrup, fried ham and potatoes and onions. See also: The Evolution Of Fictional Breakfasts.

Nehi is a type of orange pop sold for a nickel a bottle. There are also grapettes, Dr Peppers. 

nehi orange soda

Lack of refrigeration affects what they can eat. Food is home cooked and homegrown, especially at Grandma’s house, as she abhors spending money.

ENTERTAINMENT
  • Mary Alice is reading The Hidden Staircase by Carolyn Keene (a Nancy Drew mystery novel). The Nancy Drew stories are themselves mysteries, and Mary Alice’s interest in helping people out may have influenced her decision to harbour a runaway.
  • Tom Mix movies — an American actor well-known for his cowboy movies. Westerns were popular at this time — it wasn’t until after the world wars that Westerns turned into anti-Westerns.
  • Skipping ropes, skipping chants about presidents, puzzles of famous people. 
  • Tap dancing is popular with girls due to Shirley Temple.
DIALECT

Some of it is regional, some owing to the era.

  • Working like bird dogs
  • You’uns instead of y’all.
  • Throwed instead of thrown
  • Lit running means ‘started running’
  • Chilrun
  • Pecks of potatoes
  • Dagnab it
  • Stir yer stumps
  • ‘Specialty house’ equals a privy equals an outside toilet
  • Skin to the church and get their maw and paw.
  • One of the characters is called ‘Miz’, which at first looks like an unnecessary call to attention of the woman’s unmarriageability, but it’s no such thing — at that time in that part of America women were called ‘Miz’ So-and-so, and it was simply a respectful generic used traditionally. This applied to the American South and places like St Louis.

Family means what you need it to, here. Though Aunt Puss is no blood relation of Grandma’s, the grandchildren are, yet Grandma does not acknowledge to Aunt Puss that they are her own.

TIME

Peck’s treatment of time in this novel borrows from the Gothic tradition.

There are still people alive in this story who fought in the Civil War. It is clear from The River Between Us that Richard Peck’s reason for writing for children (or at least part of it), is to connect young readers to generations they’ve just missed out on knowing. As an older writer, this is something he can do for us. 

In A Long Way From Chicago, Aunt Puss exists as a link to this earlier era. Aunt Puss has dementia and hasn’t noticed the passing of time. She thinks Grandma, Joey and Mary Alice are all the same age.

This does something for the reader’s appreciation of time. A Long Way From Chicago was first published in 1998, so the young reader is about 3 generations younger than Joey, 5 younger than Grandma and 6 younger than Aunt Puss.

But here we all are, each of us a child at some point, each of us connected by this story. Scholars would use the word ‘chronotope’ to describe the treatment of time in literature. Below we have a good explanation of why the Gothic chronotope is particularly well suited to coming-of-age stories like Peck’s:

The Gothic chronotope is often a place, very often a house, haunted by a past that remains present. As a child grows, more and more experiences, good and bad, displace into memory, forming the intricate passages where bits of his or her past get lost, only to re-emerge at unexpected times. The child’s mind becomes a crowded, sometimes frustratingly inaccessible place at the same time as his or her body morphs in uncomfortable ways. […] Gothic motifs of the uncanny are particularly apt for the metaphorical exploration of the vicissitudes of adolescent identity. The uncanny emerges in the adolescent novels they explore to both highlight change and trigger it. It becomes a complex metaphor for the transition the characters undergo with respect to their place in their families and their family history. […] the Gothic also offers fertile ground to explore beyond the conventions of the family to the adolescent’s place in larger social and cultural constellations of identity The results can affirm psychological models of development of they can open those models of development up to scrutiny and critique.

The Gothic In Children’s Literature: Haunting The Borders

The expedition into the past is further extended in the Centennial Summer chapter, when the town lives in the past for a week and dresses in old-fashioned clothes. This is when Joey meets the very old man who apparently fought in the Mexican War. Joey can hardly believe it — the Mexican War was so long ago. Joey himself will be fighting in a war when he gets older. These experiences, where he meets people who have lived through similar events before him, will contribute to his understanding of why he is fighting.

STORY STRUCTURE OF A LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO

This novel could be considered a series of interconnected short stories. I wasn’t surprised to read that the first chapter began as a short story, but Richard Peck realised he could get a lot more mileage out of Grandma Dowdel, so continued writing. Because each chapter is a short story in its own right, it’s possible to break down the structure of each one separately — each has its own desire/plan/big struggle/self revelation sequence. Instead I’ll make some general observations.

SHORTCOMING

Grandma Dowdel comes across — at first — as a misanthropist. She keeps to herself, doesn’t seem to have any friends in town and is so good at lying and tricking that she seems to be on the sociopathic spectrum. Her mistrust of people seems her main shortcoming, shown in the first chapter by the Cowgill boys picking on her as a target, first shooting her letterbox, next hoping to steal her gun.

DESIRE

Grandma Dowdel is gradually revealed to be not a misanthropist but a kind-hearted person who fights for the little guy. She is probably something like INTJ on the Myers-Briggs.

Grandma wants to make the world a better place. At least, her little town. She does not want glory for doing so — she wants to be left alone to do her good deeds. These deeds in themselves give her purpose. Her reasons for doing these things come from within. Unlike the vast majority of rural Americans at that time, Grandma Dowdel is wholly unconnected to the local (Holy Roller) church.

Although Grandma is the main character of interest in this story, Joey himself undergoes the classic ‘doubling down of desire’ that you often see in stories when the main character is required to do something against their will. Joey does not want to spend summers with his grandmother in hillbilly county.

Is Illinois really hillbilly country?
‘Hillbilly’ towns are found in Appalachia (Upstate New York, Western Pennsylvania, East Central and Southeastern Ohio, Western Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama).
However, another hillbilly region could be considered people residing in the Shawnee Forest region of Southern Illinois, or the Illinois Ozarks as they are called, and also South Central Missouri. This area starts around Rolla then heads southwest to Springfield and south into the Northern 2/3 of Arkansas.
The Ozarks and Appalachia are what make up the primary region of “hillbilly” country. Note that hillbillies are therefore not exclusive to the South, as they reside in a good chunk of Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Upstate New York.

But sure enough, when we get to almost the middle of the book, both he and his sister have changed their mind. They now both actively want in on these adventures with Grandma:

I don’t think Grandma’s a very good influence on us,” Mary Alice said. It had taken her a while to come to that conclusion, and I had to agree. It reconciled us some to our trips to visit her. Mary Alice was ten now. I believe this was the first year she didn’t bring her jump rope with her. And she no longer pitched a fit because she couldn’t take her best friends, Beverly and Audrey, to meet Grandma. “They wouldn’t understand,” Mary Alice said.

We weren’t so sure Mother and Dad would either. Since we still dragged our heels about going, they didn’t noticed we looked forward to the trip.

— A Long Way From Chicago, Page 61 (out of 148 pages total).

This change in desire is marked with the odd snippet of dialogue in which Joey accidentally comes out with regional dialect.

In each chapter Richard Peck sets up the desire without telling us that’s what he’s doing. For instance, in The Phantom Brakeman the story opens with Joe and Mary Alice at The Coffee Pot enjoying a Nehi soda. We’re told these drinks cost exactly a nickel. We’re also told how hot it is, and that there’s no air-conditioning, and just plunging one arm into a barrel of water provides relief. Later, when Joe is asked to do something for a nickel, it’s very clear to us just how much Joe wants that drink. We didn’t know that the heat of summer and the price of the drink were going to be significant — at the time it seems like Peck is simply setting the scene.

OPPONENT

Everyone in town is against Grandma Dowdel.

There is the town gossip, the Cowgill boys in the second chapter, the policemen who want to keep drifters out of town, whereas Grandma wants to provide them with a good feed. Then there’s the comical opponent Rupert Pennypacker, who has made an excellent gooseberry pie.

“The Day Of Judgement” chapter also has Joey wanting something badly for the first time — to go for a ride in the plane at the Country Fair. He really wants his grandmother to win the pie competition because then he’ll have the opportunity.

PLAN

Each chapter is a new summer and a new vignette in which Grandma comes up against someone and wins the big struggle by hard work and wits.

Grandma is described as ‘a little grey shape, mouselike’. Mice are smart tricksters themselves. They may be depicted in children’s books as weak and helpless — most often as child stand-ins — but Richard Peck takes the reality of the mouse here when he compares the grandmother to one. Mice are small but they are very brave, and extremely resourceful. They’ve learnt to thrive around people, living on the edge of civilisation. The mouse is an extended metaphor for the grandmother.

As well as mice, Grandma is also associated with gooseberries. Being a sour fruit, the gooseberry is a motif for Grandma’s general demeanour. When Grandma dresses up for the fair, this is the human equivalent of adding sugar to a gooseberry pie to make it palatable.

This is Hillbilly county and from what I learnt reading Hillbilly Elegy, Grandma works by ‘Hillbilly justice’. She’ll lie, thieve, threaten, trick and practise hard to get what she wants. Since the law has their own selfish agenda, she’ll happily take things into her own hands.

BIG STRUGGLE

While each chapter has its own big struggle, the big struggles do not ascend in any approximation to a dramatic arc. Peck has used a variety of big struggle scenes, including slapstick falling from a window to threats with actual guns, but often it takes a less deadly tone.

ANAGNORISIS

Joey realises that he wants to become a fighter pilot, that his sister is growing into a woman, that things change even though children don’t want them to.

NEW SITUATION

Joey sees his grandmother (perhaps for the last time?) as his army train zooms past her house in the middle of the night. She has lit up her house like a Jack-o-lantern even though she is normally really stingy with lighting.

The full meaning of the title now becomes clear. “A Long Way From Chicago” refers to all the international places Joe will visit via plane during the war.

 

The Blood Bay by Annie Proulx

At around the same time Annie Proulx published “The Blood Bay”, an episode of Six Feet Under saw Claire in big trouble for stealing a severed foot from her family’s funeral business and taking it with her to school. That episode, like this story, was darkly funny and made use of someone’s severed foot.

Six Feet Under, like The Blood Bay, uses a severed foot as prop in a darkly humorous episode.
Scene from Six Feet Under

It was inevitable that a TV series called something about feet would have to at one point make use of an actual foot. Dark comedy involving the loss of someone’s severed foot was used more recently in episode seven of season two of Animal Kingdom. (“Dig”)

While this is icky, North Americans haven’t been so squeamish about carrying around rabbits’ feet for good luck. Larry McMurtry writes of that practice in his cowboy novels. (Only the left hind foot is lucky.)

Severed human hands have a stronger history in folklore than severed feet. Characters with severed hands tend to be either victims, or monster-like villains. For more on that see Severed Hands as Symbols of Humanity in Legend and Popular Narrative by Scott White. The severed, walking hand also makes for a memorable horror scene.

SETTING OF “THE BLOOD BAY”

The year of this story — the winter of 1886-87 — is offered first thing, because there’s something the author needs us to understand from the get-go: This is a tall tale and it supposedly happened a long time ago. This means the tale might not be terribly true. It is sure to have been embellished as it was handed down the generations. It’s not just the year itself which is significant, but the long-agoness of it.

Valley of Wyoming depicting an approximate vista similar to that of The Blood Bay
Valley Of Wyoming, Jasper Francis Cropsey, 1865

If you’ve read Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove series, the final two books take place around about the same era. This is the era of the Wild West, of cowboys, where life is pretty cheap but boots cost an arm and a leg. It’s humans up against the weather, where farmers eke out a living without the conveniences and technologies enjoyed today by farmers, who still have bad years even now.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE BLOOD BAY”

It’s not easy to pick the main character in some of Annie Proulx’s short stories. That’s because, by her own admission, she doesn’t tend to write about people but about entire communities. Take Brokeback Mountain. That’s about a homophobic society more than it’s about Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist. Likewise, this is a snapshot of cowboy culture, in which death is so common that it might even happen that an old man be so easily fooled.

So I will try to make out the story structure using the cast of characters rather than taking a single hero.

This story makes use of what might be called a McGuffin — one of Hitchcock’s storytelling terms. Once that initial dude with the fancy boots succumbs to hypothermia readers don’t give him a second thought. His journey was used to get the story going. That’s a McGuffin.

SHORTCOMING IN THE BLOOD BAY

In this environment the human inhabitants are at a huge disadvantage: They’re never very far from death. That’s their biggest shortcoming, and is common to Proulx’s Wyoming stories.

The cowboys don’t have much money but they do need to stay the night. They feel they’ve been ripped off. If money were no object, this story wouldn’t fly. Poverty is at the base of most of  Proulx’s Wyoming stories.

The farmer’s biggest shortcoming is that he’s gullible, though this fact is kept for the punchline at the end.

The cowboys are based on the trickster archetype from fairytales — still a very popular archetype in modern stories. But there’s a twist — these guys never set out to be tricksters — they are opportunists who don’t speak out when they see things swinging to their advantage. That describes many of us, doesn’t it?

DESIRE IN THE BLOOD BAY

The cowboys want to get somewhere. One of them needs new boots. (We’ve already seen how perilous it can be to travel with substandard equipment.) The farmer needs to earn a living and he does this by taking in cowpokes and charging them for room and board.

OPPONENT IN THE BLOOD BAY

The cowboys are at odds with the farmer because they feel they shouldn’t have to pay that amount for one night’s room and board.

PLAN IN THE BLOOD BAY

One cowboy rides off early having failed to politely dispose of the thawed feet cut from the fancy boots.

The other two have no plan other than to keep mum once the farmer wakes up, finds the feet and refunds their money.

BIG STRUGGLE

The ‘big struggle’ scene is the discovery of the feet. It works beautifully because of Annie Proulx’s wonderful dialogue:

“There’s a bad start to the day,” he said, “it is a man’s foot and there’s the other.” He counted the sleeping guests. There were only two of them. “Wake up survivors, for god’s sake wake up and get up.”

The two punchers rolled out, stared wild-eyed at the old man who was fairly frothing, pointing at the feet and the floor behind the blood bay.

“He’s ate Sheets. Ah, I knew he was a hard horse, but to eat a man whole You savage bugger,” he screamed at the blood bay and drove him out into the scorching cold.

ANAGNORISIS

It’s a wonderful touch that the farmer is secretly proud that his horse can eat most of a raw cowboy. But I wouldn’t call this any kind of revelation — the farmer is duped and remains so.

The reader is reminded of the harshness of this milieu. The cowpokes don’t put the old man out of his misery, and why bother? People die out here all the time. There’s no real moral dilemma for them.

NEW SITUATION

The farmer is down a night’s room and board. Two of the cowboys got a free night with good food. The other ended up with nice boots.

thumbs_up_down

Slap Happy Larry Stories

I put this analysis into practice when writing my own short stories.

Storytelling Tips from Northern Lights by Phillip Pullman

Northern Lights cover
Northern Lights is a YA story with broad appeal for adults. The plot follows mythic structure.

Northern Lights has been adapted into a film (2007) and also into an action/adventure puzzle game (by Sega). While in some cases films can be just as enjoyable — or even more enjoyable — than the books upon which they are based, that is nowhere near true in this case. There are many reasons for this which resulted from too many cooks spoiling the broth. Not least:

Before its release, the film received criticism from secularist organisations and fans of His Dark Materials for the dilution of elements of the story which were critical of religion, as well as from some religious organisations for the source material’s anti-Catholic themes. The studio ordered significant changes late in post-production, which Weitz later called a “terrible” experience.

— Wikipedia

Ideology

There is no god, or if there is, things aren’t as black and white as the Christian idea of heaven vs hell would have children believe. In reality people are both ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Our viewpoint character, Lyra, is a natural atheist, regarding stories from the Bible as symbols rather than truths:

“And that was how sin came into the world, ” he said [after reading the story of Adam and Eve], “sin and shame and death. It came the moment their daemons became fixed.”

“But…” Lyra struggled to find the words she wanted: “but it en’t true, is it? Not true like chemistry or engineering, not that kind of true?” There wasn’t really an Adam and Eve? The Cassington Scholar told me it was just a kind of fairy-tale.”

People use religion as a means to gain power.

“You see, your mother’s always been ambitious for power. At first she tried to get it in the normal way, through marriage, but that didn’t work, as I think you’ve heard. So she had to turn to the Church. Naturally she couldn’t take the route a man could have taken — priesthood and so on — it had to be unorthodox; she had to set up her own order, her own channels of influence, and work through that. It was a good move to specialize in Dust. Everyone was frightened of it; no one knew what to do; and when she offered to direct an investigation, the Magisterium was so relieved that they backed her with money and resources of all kinds.”

 

Working hard gives you purpose in life.

Now that Lyra had a task in mind, she felt all very well, but Pantalaimon was right: she wasn’t really doing any work there, she was just a pretty pet. On the gyptian boat, there was real work to do, and Ma Costa made sure she did it. She cleaned and swept, she peeled potatoes and made tea, she greased the propellor-shaft bearings, she kept the weed-trap clear over the propellor, she washed dishes, she opened lock gates, she tied the boat up at mooring-posts, and within a couple of day sshe was as much at home with this new life as if she’d been born gyptian.

The appearance of perfection is empty and its pursuit will lead you astray.

 

Setting

Religion

It’s well-known that Pullman wrote this His Dark Materials trilogy as an antidote to the Narnia Chronicles by C.S. Lewis.

A dogmatic ruling power called the Magisterium opposes free inquiry.

Ever since Pope John Calvin had moved the seat of the Papacy to Geneva and set up the Consistorial Court of Discipline, the Church’s power over every aspect of life had been absolute. The Papacy itself had been abolished after Calvin’s death, and a tangle of courts, colleges, and councils, collectively known as the Magisterium, had grown up in its place. Those agencies were not always united; sometimes a bitter rivalry grew up between them. For a large part of the previous century, the most powerful had been the College of Bishops, but in recent years the Consistorial Court of Discipline had taken its place as the most active and the most feared of all the Church’s bodies.

But it was always possible for independent agencies to grow up under the protection of another part of the Magisterium, and the Oblation Board, which the Librarian had referred to, was one of these.

Consistorial: An assembly of cardinals presided over by the pope for the solemn promulgation of papal acts, such as the canonization of a saint.

Type Of Fantasy World

The world of The Golden Compass is a world very much like ours, in a parallel universe. Much of it would be familiar to us — the continents, the oceans, Brytain, Norroway and The North Pole — but much is shockingly different. On this parallel Earth, a person’s soul lives on the outside of their body, in the form of a daemon — a talking animal spirit that accompanies them through life. A child’s daemon can change shape, assuming all the forms that a child’s infinite potential inspires; but as a person ages, their daemon eventually settles into one form, according to their character and nature.

— from a glossary of a promotional adaptation based on the film for Nestle Breakfast Cereals called The Golden Monkey and the Duel of the Daemons

This is an example of ‘low fantasy’, along with Tom’s Midnight Garden and, of course, The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe.

Low fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy fiction involving “non-rational happenings that are without causality or rationality because they occur in the rational world where such things are not supposed to occur.” Low fantasy stories are usually set in a fictional but rational world, and are contrasted with high fantasy stories, which take place in a completely fictional fantasy world setting with its own set of rules and physical laws.

— Wikipedia

So we find that the world of Northern Lights is set upon a palimpsest of England and Northern Europe, with familiar names such as London, Oxford and Whitehall, Lapland, Berlin and Svalbard.

Lyra herself (in a close third person narrative moment) regards the subterranean area as ‘the netherworld’. It’s no coincidence that she and Roger find dead bodies down here. As mentioned below, with Lyra’s hobby of roof jumping, Pullman creates an expansive world that not only has great latitude but also makes full use of altitude.

Ghosts

As in Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden, this is an England where ghosts are real. When Lyra interferes with the skulls in the crypt, headless bodies enter her room at night to torment her. It is left up to the reader to decide whether this was real within the setting or if it is Lyra’s dreamscape.

Technology

This is almost a steampunk world. Instead of photographs we have magical photograms. Photograms are real things but in this world they can function magically so long as you use the right emulsion to develop the film. People have lorgnettes instead of spectacles (a pair of glasses or opera glasses held in front of a person’s eyes by a long handle at one side.)

Alethiometer

This is Pullman’s creation, inspired by the real world compass.

The word ‘alethic’ is a philosophical term denoting modalities of truth such as necessity, contingency, or impossibility. It’s basically a ‘truth-o-meter’.

“Dust”

The concept of dust is mentioned throughout the book and we are left to wonder what it is. It is revealed at the end to be connected to our real world, probably similar to how ‘dark matter’ or ‘junk DNA’ will eventually be proven to be something far more complex than we’d assumed, like how ‘bad air’ was later discovered to be a mosquito-borne virus, malaria.

Dust is revealed to be an elementary particle, thought to be evidence of Original Sin.

“But think of Adam and Eve like an imaginary number, like the square root of minus one: you can never see any concrete proof that it exists, but if you include it in your equations, you can caluclate all manner of things that couldn’t be imagined without it.

“Anyway, it’s what the Church has taught for thousands of years. And when Rusakov discovered Dust, at last there was a physical proof that something happened when innocence changed into experience.

“Incidentally, the Bible gave us the name Dust as well. At first they were called Rusakov Particles, but soon someone pointed out a curious verse toward the end of the Third Chapter of Genesis, where God’s cursing Adam for eating the fruit.”

 

Social Structure

It’s no accident that Lyra is a girl, not the default boy. Some authors create a girl protagonist for the reason of equal representation, as a move against symbolic annihilation, but another reason for creating a girl hero is because femaleness can be part of her underdog-ness, and an audience loves an underdog.

The reason Lyra is an underdog is because she lives in a patriarchy, similar to that found in England a few decades ago, where only (white) men were to be found in the halls of Oxbridge. There are a few token women, but they do not have equality:

“Are you a female Scholar?” said Lyra. She regarded female Scholars with a proper Jordan disdain: there were such people but, poor things, they could never be taken more seriously than animals dressed up and acting a play.

As in any unequal society, there is a strong caste system, with Scholars and politicians and royalty at the top and the servant class much further down (they all have dogs as daemons). Below them are the homeless and the travellers.

Animals

Pullman’s daemons (pronounced ‘demons’) are like spirit animals. They accompany characters everywhere, every character has one, and they can change form depending on the circumstance. At least, that is true for children. As children become adults their spirit animal settles into one creature. This is obviously symbolic of how we all grow more like ourselves as we grow older and figure out who we are.

This view of ‘concrete adult personality’ has been a dominant in psychology, at least in pop psychology, throughout recent history, though recent research suggests it’s not true at all. In February 2017 the results from the longest ever personality study revealed that our personalities when measured at the age of 77 are completely unrecognisable from those of our 14-year-old selves.

It is interesting to meet all the different forms that Pan takes on, and the animals of other characters’ daemons. Most writers are heavily influenced by Aesop when borrowing the animal tropes. Pullman makes use of standard animal characterisations but is highly original in both his choice of animal and which part of Lyra’s personality they represent.

STORY STRUCTURE OF NORTHERN LIGHTS

Shortcoming/Need/Problem

Lots of children’s books star ‘the every boy’ or ‘the every girl’. This is someone without distinct features. The reader — or often the middle class white reader — is then able to paste themselves over top, embodying the fictional character. Bella Swan is a good example of the featureless ‘every girl’.

Here we have a completely different heroine. Lyra goes beyond the every girl. Lyra Belacqua is a full-on rascal, “half-wild, half-civilised”, an implied orphan at the beginning:

  • Even though she hasn’t reached puberty she drinks and smokes. The drink is stolen and she’s not sorry for it even when she throws up.
  • She is engaged in petty warfare with whatever rival gang seems the most fun. She doesn’t think why she’s doing it.
  • She has some AD/HD qualities — she doesn’t sit still and listen when the Scholars try and tell her things, and when they do, it’s in one ear and out the other. These types of girls make very interesting protagonists and we see them a lot in middle grade fiction because they are fun. They are unafraid of adventure, and indeed crave it.
  • Lyra is a natural leader. She’s the decider in her ‘pack’ of friends, not just because she has noble blood but because that’s her personality.

So Lyra has very clear moral shortcomings: She lives her life in the name of fun even when others are at the butt end of her bullying. She is a renegade, which will come in handy later but for now means she steals and wrecks her health.

Lyra needs to learn which big struggles are worth fighting, and it’s not throwing rocks at the travellers’ kids who come into town. It is only when her best friend Roger gets abducted that she realises this is serious.

The reader already knows that Lyra is a Chosen Hero, much like Harry Potter, because we’ve been privy to the conversation between The Master and the Librarian after the failed poison attempt. The reader is clued-in to the fact that Lyra will succeed in her preordained mission.

Desire

At the beginning of the story Lyra’s only desire is to have fun. She is a natural explorer and very curious, so she explores the environment from the roofs and when she learns about the underground she goes down there, too. With her friend Roger she is trying to locate Gobblers, who to her are almost a kind of mythical creature.

However, when the Gobblers take Roger, shit gets real, and Lyra’s Strong Storyline Desire kicks into action. Not insignificantly, her doubling down happens on top of a roof. In stories revelations and decisions often take place in high places. It’s from the Bible. (Moses on the Mount.) It’s on the roof that she decides to go in search for Roger.

Pullman makes full use of the ups-and-downs of the geography, first with Lyra playing on the rooftops, next with she and Roger exploring the secret passages of Oxford, which her uncle tells her is just as expansive as what’s above ground.

When characters go onto rooftops, this is symbolically very similar to flying.

 

Opponent

Lyra’s life is turned upside down when children start to go missing, kidnapped by the enigmatic “Gobblers”, culminating in the disappearance of her best friend Roger.

We find the full range of villainy in this series, from morally ambiguous to out-and-out-evil, even if the evil is simply in the minds of the populace.

The mythical opponent — the out-and-out evil — is the group of Gobblers, who the reader knows from the outset is not exactly how Lyra understands it.

One thing Pullman does spectacularly well is presenting the adults in Lyra’s life as rounded people with both good and bad points, even when they get not much more than a single scene or a thumbnail character sketch.

  • Lord Asriel is a scary but admirable uncle.
  • The Master tries to kill Lord Asriel, but because we see him in discussion with the Librarian, his decision to kill Asriel is actually because he believes it’s for the greater good. He is not a classic villain, who in literature is bad because he wants to rule the world.

Pullman’s presentation of a yin and yang type universe is part of the deeper theme that there is no good/evil dichtomy. There is no heaven vs hell. It is far more complicated than that. People are far more complicated than that.

Mystery

Even in children’s books which are not of the mystery genre per se, mystery is a natural part of childhood and is therefore a natural part of stories about children. Remember what it’s like being a kid, overhearing adult conversations, standing in the shadows, and trying to work things out because adults don’t tell you things. And even if they do tell you things, you only understand part of it anyway. In this story, Lyra’s education is incomplete, she is pre-adolescent and a faulty memory. She pieces things together at the same rate as the reader.

Pullman is a master at introducing a tidbit then waiting before explaining what’s going on. He applies it to features of this fantasy world:

  • What is dust?
  • What is going on in the North that involves children?
  • Why are children going missing and what is happening to them once they’re gone?
  • What exactly are the Gobblers? This subplot draws on the nature of childhood rhymes such as Wee Willy Winky and folktales such as The Pied Piper. Pullman also understands the nature of urban legend, and we eventually learn where the name Gobbler came from, and who is behind the organisation.
  • What is the alethiometer for? Pullman shows us first, describing only what it looks like as it’s given to Lyra. Next it is pointed out that because it ends in ‘meter’ it’s for measuring something. We learn that only six of them were made. We learn that everyone wants it and it is very precious. Finally Lyra meets people who tell her (and us) exactly what it’s for.

He applies mystery to character:

  • Who are the baddies and who are the goodies?
  • Who are Lyra’s parents?
  • Who is this mysterious Mrs Coulter?

Plan

Lyra goes with the flow until she realises that Mrs Coulter is not all sweetness, as it says on the package. Lyra runs away and is taken in by the Gyptians. She decides to accompany the Gyptians to the wild and dangerous North.

Other characters have their own plans of course. For example, her father plans to build a bridge into a new world through the Northern Lights, where the barrier between the worlds is thin. Each of the main characters has a specific goal.

Battle

There are a number of confrontations, ending in the fight to the death between the bears as climactic big struggle. At least, we think that’s the main big struggle — it is a big struggle scene in the most literal sense and we think that’s the final shock we’re going to get. That’s why we’re not prepared for Lyra’s father suddenly severing Roger’s daemon from him.

(Self)-Revelation

The mystery is tied up and the reader learns the truth about the Gobblers and the Dust: LAt the Northern research station the Gobblers undertake a process called “intercision”, forcibly separating children from their dæmons. This cruel operation supposedly protects children from Dust, the obsession of the civilised world but a mystery to Lyra.

Lyra also learns after a crash landing that Iorek is the rightful king. She manages by trickery to win back the throne from the false king, Iofur Raknison, who had allied the bears with the Gobblers.

She learns after getting away from her wicked mother the second time that she is capable of great things — Lyra is an excellent trickster and it will be up to her to save these children and uncover truths.

Early in the book Lyra mentions that she has an advantage over adults: She has a daemon who can change, whereas adults have a daemon who is set. That gives her an advantage as a child.

Stories don’t generally feature characters with transmogrifying animal daemons, of course, but the idea that children are malleable and adaptable and resilient to change is a common one throughout children’s literature. Their resilience is one main advantage they have over their adult opponents.

New Situation

Overwhelmed by guilt after unwittingly assisting her father in killing Roger, Lyra resolves to find Dust herself, reasoning that if her mother thinks it is a bad thing then the opposite must be true.  She and Pan follow Lord Asriel into the new world.

 

 

Desperate Housewives Storytelling Tips

Desperate Housewives ran for eight seasons from 2004 to 2012. This show is a great example of a ‘cozy mystery’. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rAbKBUJ4NRY

TAGLINES

Taglines are for the marketing copy. 

Season One: Everyone has a little dirty laundry…/Secrets. Romance. Murder. All On One Street.

THE LOGLINE/PREMISE

For maximum narrative drive the premise should be all about the plot. A premise that works will contain some sort of contrast.

“Secrets and truths unfold through the lives of female friends in one suburban neighborhood, after the mysterious suicide of a neighbor.”

The contrast in this logline is that ‘friends’ have ‘secrets‘ in the ‘suburbs’, an arena we generally associate with ‘knowing everybody’s business’ and ‘nothing interesting ever happens’.

GENRE BLEND OF DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES

drama, mystery, satire

When Desperate Housewives first aired in 2004 it was the tone which drew me in. I hadn’t seen anything with quite that balance of 1950s housewife satire, comedy and mystery. It’s easy to forget that now because we’ve since seen a number of TV dramas with a similar vibe:

The women on this show aren’t real women — nothing like it. An excellent example of the ‘unreality’ of the characters can be heard in the audio commentary to episode 15, season one. Marc Cherry is especially proud of his writing of this episode (and it was the first time they shifted to their new, more expansive set), so he guides DVD owners through the episode they called Impossible.  In this one, John’s roommate Justin blackmails Gabrielle into having sex with him by becoming their new gardener. Gabrielle turns the gardener down, both for sex and for free garden work with obvious strings attached, but her husband lets him in and he surprises her while she’s in her own bathroom upstairs. The male writer and producer tell us on the audio commentary that actress Eva Longoria did an excellent job of ‘taking control of the situation’ but was ‘rooted to the spot’ for the first few takes, terrified at the prospect of finding a well-muscled young man confronting her for sex in her own space. The scene is meant to be played as comedy. Longoria’s acting made it somewhere there, but I did watch this episode the first time thinking that it’s not good comedy material, and a ‘real woman’ would not react with Gabrielle’s bravado — not with genuine bravado — in that particular situation. From my perspective, the male writer on this occasion simply did not understand how terrifying this scenario would be for a woman, and seemed a bit mystified about why Eva Longoria had trouble acting her part in it.

The men are archetypes, too. Even the children are preternaturally scheming/mature/creepy, harking back to a time before the concept of childhood existed. In this ways and many others, Desperate Housewives is a series of fairytales.

The show was originally pitched with ‘comedy’ in its genre blend but none of the networks were interested. When it was re-pitched as ‘satire’ suddenly it found a home. Networks had assumed it was just another soap. But they realised the audience was ready for a ‘self-aware’ version of the daytime soap, and changing the genre from ‘comedy’ to ‘satire’ did the trick.

OTHER SHOWS SIMILAR TO DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES

Suburgatory is another show aimed at teens using the suburbs as a horror arena, though it is heavier on the comedy.

Desperate Housewives was created by Marc Cherry, who had already achieved huge success with Golden Girls (1985). You may or may not already know that he then went on to create a show called Devious Maids (2013). Cherry apparently came up with the idea one day when watching the news with his mother. They were watching a clip about a mother of five who drowned them all one day. Cherry said, “Who could do something like that to her own kids?” and was surprised to hear the response from his own mother, “Oh, I’ve been there.”

Devious Maids, by the way, looks similar but with an Upstairs, Downstairs flip. I’m not sure if the Cherry-Lifetime collaboration achieved a Desperate Housewives vibe, and its cancellation suggests they didn’t, but judging by the intro sequence, it seems that’s what they were aiming to reproduce: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BxUeTGf4NiU

The Black Widows has been marketed here in Australia as the Nordic Desperate Housewives. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g-bVA5kuu8I

But in my opinion nothing has come close to Desperate Housewives, yet. Love it or hate it, it does what it does really well. The following is a close look at Season One.

Pretty Little Liars for one was pitched as ‘Desperate Housewives For Teens’. Like Desperate Housewives, there is a cast of four distinct female archetypes who are friends. There is also a slight supernatural overtone to the story, with a dead person pulling strings/narrating omnisciently.

are friends by virtue of them having been positioned in close proximity to each other. Each of the women is nothing alike. Instead, each stands for a different ‘virtue’:

  • Aria = artsy
  • Spencer = clever girl
  • Hanna = It Girl
  • Emily = sporty girl

The marketing machine behind The Spice Girls also knew what a great formula this is. The audience has a ready-made story for each girl, and we don’t require much information to get us started.

Though we also see this dynamic in stories for adults, it is common in children’s literature to find that ‘the’ main character is in fact made up of a group, and each in the group makes up a different potential facet in a child reader. We see it in series such as Winnie-the-Pooh to the Famous Five.

In Ann Brasheres’ The Sisterhood Of The Travelling Pants we even have the narrator explain that each one of the four main characters is completely different — it’s as if we make up different parts of the one person. So, yeah. Just like Winnie the Pooh.

Desperate Housewives also makes use of the Dead Girl Trope. Being a parody, does Desperate Housewives subvert it, or reinforce it? This can be argued both ways.

Something I’m wrestling with right now is whether subverting the Dead Girl trope is the way to go, or should we be trying to push back against that kind of mode of storytelling and not make everything a mystery that can be solved? I think there are Dead Girl shows that do subvert a lot of tropes. Pretty Little Liars and a lot of really silly teen shows like Riverdale, in [their] pulpy-ness and how over the top they go and how many rules they break, do in some ways undermine the rules of the Dead Girl show. They make it so they’re not really solving any problems, they’re not coming into any existential answer. They’re just winding their way through this maze that’s been created by violence and misogyny. It’s more like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland than Sherlock Holmes.

Alice Bolin

STORYWORLD OF DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES

How to describe the vibe? This Nancy Drew cover seems to epitomise the inspiration. Many in the target audience will have grown up reading such books — groups of nice girls wearing sensible, pretty clothing, surrounded by mystery and light horror. Everything is not how it appears.

Desperate Housewives has a fairytale vibe, and because fairytales have been read by children since the era of the Grimms, fairytales put an audience in mind of storybooks for children. There is plenty Desperate Housewives shares in common with children’s books:

  • The utopian facade, though in a children’s book the utopia is often a genuine idyll. Desperate Housewives is filmed on a set, not on a real street so absolutely everything we see on Wisteria Lane is ‘fake’, as well as carefully planted there. The creators describe Wisteria Lane as ‘hyper-real’.
  • The calm, all-knowing narrator, explaining truisms to the audience in a soothing, before-bed kind of way
  • The structure of the stories, which are bookended in a way many children’s books are, as well as smaller things such as switching from iterative to singulative time.
  • Though it’s not a strictly followed rule, episodes tend to open in the morning and are drawing to a close once we start to see conversations at bedtime, even if the episode itself spans several days. Many picture books work on a 12 hour clock, starting with the child getting out of bed, ending with them back in bed and ready for sleep.

Suburbia makes an excellent horror arena. The more perfect the lawns, the more things are rotten beneath. Audiences have learnt to expect that.

A great part of our day in the writers’ room is spent saying, ‘We’ve done that…’ We did towards the end start to think, ‘Are there any natural disasters left? We’re not really in the right climate for volcanoes and floods.’ […] Faced with the challenge of volume Desperate Housewives found itself, like many, grasping for sensation. The annual ‘disaster’ episode became a ritual and over eight seasons a tornado, a fire, a plane crash and a riot all hit Wisteria Lane.

Bob Daily, Executive Producer

Which brings me to Biblical allusions, because whether intended or not, these massive disasters are reminiscent of the deadly plagues of Egypt.

BIBLICAL ALLUSIONS IN DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES

It becomes clear as the seasons progress that the series is an exploration of the seven sins, though it should be obvious from the start that the apple is symbolic. This is Eve being tempted in the Garden of Eden. Eden, of course, is the perfect suburbs, and if these women were not each plagued by her own fatal flaw, Wisteria Lane really would be an idyll.

AD/HD DRUGS = THE POTIONS FROM A FAIRYTALE

Lynette’s storyline focuses quite a lot on the politics of AD/HD, drug abuse and education in America. The real world background to this plot line is that during the 1990s there was a lot of scaremongering in the media about the dangers of AD/HD medications for children. This came almost entirely from a single religious group. You can probably guess which one. Yes, it was Scientology. But like the vaccination ‘debate’, the debate over the ethics and safety of stimulants for children gained much coverage and scared a lot of people. If a child genuinely has an AD/HD neurology, there is a 95% chance that child will be helped by taking the right drugs. The literature doesn’t give such a high statistic because there are also children who are medicated who do not have a genuine AD/HD profile. (I get that stat from my wonderful AD/HD daughter’s pediatrician.)

At the time Season One of Desperate Housewives was written, the creators were cashing in on the scaremongering of the Church of Scientology. The audience doesn’t need any real reason for Lynette to just decide not to medicate her boys. We all know why she doesn’t because we’ve all seen the same media. If it weren’t for the realworld scare campaign, audiences would see no good reason for Lynette not to medicate her children. Of all the drugs given to children, AD/HD medication is the most heavily researched. It is an old drug, and several generations of children have been lucky enough to benefit so far. Giving AD/HD medication to a child with AD/HD is similar to giving a child glasses, and the effect is just as stark. AD/HD does not make a creative child less creative, turning him/her into a type of zonked out zombie; it allows naturally exuberant and creative AD/HD children to focus for long enough to put that creativity to good use. However, when we see Lynette tire out her boys by having them dig a massive hole, we see them subdued and lifeless for their observation visit to the fancy private school and we get a strong hint of what medication is meant to do to them.

Desperate Housewives has not been helpful in the fight to get kids who need drugs properly medicated. For instance, the writers make no distinction between ADHD and ADD, which are two separate neurologies. The dialogue between Lynette and the Ritalin-popping supermom does accurately convey that if an adult without AD/HD takes the drugs it’s like drinking an entire pot of Turkish coffee.

The public school teacher who threatens to kick the twins out of the entire public school system exemplifies how many assume teachers approach a parent whose children are short on executive functioning, though this character is good for drama. The boys themselves seem not just like children with AD/HD, but actively scheming and mischievous, whispering to each other in the back of their mother’s car. Generally, children with genuine AD/HD are trying their hardest to be compliant. The writers are doing one of two things: Either they’re suggesting AD/HD are true horrors, or they are showing us that Lynette is an ineffective parent whose six-year-old boys already see her as the opponent.

As the season progresses, the fairytale element of the Ritalin becomes clear. Lynette is a trickster who arranges a playdate with a medicated AD/HD child’s mother, then goes to the bathroom to steal his meds. Later, she goes for a session of acupuncture. When the Chinese acupuncturist pulls down a jar of herbs from the top shelf to help Lynette with her sleep and stress it is clear that the acupuncturist is a stand in for a girl’s trip to the knowing witch who lives in the middle of the forest.

STORY STRUCTURE OF DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES

An interesting thing I started to notice about Desperate Housewives is that after every recap of the previous episode we get a mini-story before the main one, much like in the Pixar film Up. The writers call it the ‘teaser’.

Example from Season One, Episode 7:

The story opens with a fully-formed short story about Martha Huber’s garden. Jealous [PSYCHOLOGICAL WEAKNESS] of the perfectionist Bree’s [OPPONENT] lawn next door, it doesn’t matter what Mrs Huber does, whether she water it diligently or cover it in smelly but potent fertilizers [PLAN], she cannot get it looking as good as Bree’s. One day [SWITCH FROM THE ITERATIVE TO THE SINGULATIVE], a jogger dies on Mrs Huber’s lawn.  Mrs Huber has an idea for revenge. She secretly drags the dead body into the middle of Bree’s beautiful garden of hydrangeas. [BIG STRUGGLE] When Bree discovers the body she calls an ambulance. When medicos arrive to pick up the body, their gurney destroys both garden bed and beautiful lawn. We see from the looks on their faces that Bree is disappointed and bewildered while Mrs Huber is smug and avenged [NEW SITUATION].

In Episode 8 we don’t so much get a fully formed story as intro so much as a backstory of Bree’s early life. This is to show us that Bree has been brought up to be a Good Girl, and now that her son has run over a neighbour’s mother-in-law, her morality will face the ultimate test.

SHORTCOMING

Bree — Bree is the most closely connected to the setting. She is at first presented as the archetypal Stepford Wife. Just like the perfect suburb they all live in, Bree keeps her house perfect. She can turn her hand to anything related to the house and children. She is undoubtedly a conservative Republican Christian. Hints are dropped to that effect. Bree avoids absolute cliche — or perhaps she epitomises it — by the fact she is a gun nut, a member of the NRA and owner of three weapons. As her husband points out, she is capable of looking after her own self.  But Bree is held hostage by her own perfectionist tendencies. Like Chekhov’s planted gun, when we learn she owns not one but three, we know she is capable of snapping. She points out to her friends, “Who really knows what’s going on behind closed doors?” which of course makes us wonder what’s going on behind hers.

Gabby — Gabrielle is bored. As she explains to her teenaged gardener toy boy, Carlos gives her everything she wanted. She just didn’t want the right things. She doesn’t realise it herself but she needs to be kept occupied. She can’t even really enjoy shopping, since Carlos buys her expensive gifts and there is no challenge in it.

Lynette — Lynette is not so much ‘bored’ as harried. She is the mirror reflection of Gabrielle. We picture Lynette when Gabby’s mother-in-law advises her to fill her days up with children, then she won’t have any time to wonder whether she’s happy or not. Lynette is harried and unfulfilled. She didn’t realise until it was too late that she doesn’t really like the job of mothering. But Desperate Housewives can only go so far with this. They have to show that Lynette really does love her boys, and the Mama Bear comes out at times, such as with the clueless traffic officer who tells her that her job is to control her own kids. She does bend over backwards to get them into private school, though it could just as easily be argued that she sees this as a personal challenge. Lynette needs to find fulfilment doing something other than wiping, mopping and breaking up fights.

Susan — Susan is an adorable klutz. Bella Swan has similar attributes. This seems to be a surefire way to garner the sympathies of some of the audience. In fact, Susan comes across calamities so often there is almost a supernatural element to her misfortune, as if she were cursed at birth by the thirteenth witch. Despite the fact that she must be a hugely successful children’s book illustrator to continue living in that big house, she is presented as an ineffectual divorcee. She uses her teenage daughter as a confidante in what would be, in real life, called emotional incest. The relationship between Susan and her daughter is quite similar to that between the Gilmore girls. The daughter is far more together and sensible than the needy mother, who doesn’t seem to have a best friend other than her daughter. If anyone needs a man to ground her, Susan does.

DESIRE

For maximum narrative drive the hero in each plot line must overcome extreme odds to accomplish a specific and difficult goal. There are four heroes in this drama and each of them has her own distinct desire line.

Bree — Bree wants to live a Pinterest life (though Desperate Housewives predates Pinterest). Let’s just call it a picture book life. (It’s no accident she lives on the same street as a picture book illustrator.) More than that, Bree wants to appear perfect. If she appears perfect to others, that is basically the same as being perfect. She would be happy with that. However, her husband is not. He craves a relationship with a rounded person with flaws, not with the cardboard cutout of a Campbell’s Soup commercial.

Bree is my favourite character, though I do not share her outlook on life in the slightest. I think I respect her because unlike the other main characters, she’s living true to her own moral code. (This will  be sorely tested, but even then, we can still understand her motivations.)

Bree’s goal of appearing perfect moves further away when: Her husband announces he is not happy and he wants a divorce.

Gabby — Gabby manufactures a challenge; her challenge is to continue having sex with the gardener behind the back of the macho, violent Carlos. This is her desire line for season one.

Gabby’s goal of meaningless sex moves further away when: Her mother-in-law comes to stay. With her middle-aged-woman’s sixth sense she realises Gabby is having an affair with someone, so chaperones her everywhere. This leads to much comedy and friction as Gabrielle thinks of increasingly ingenious and underhanded ways to get rid of the woman.

Lynette — wants to get her boys a good education but absolutely definitely does not want to homeschool. That’s the outer goal. Her inner desire is to find fulfilment. Lynette finds fulfilment by looking competent in the eyes of other adults. If she can’t be the CEO, she can at least find her place at the top of the private school mom pecking order.

This goal moves further away when: The public school system threatens to kick her children out of school unless she medicates them for ADHD. She makes clear to her husband that she’s not up to homeschooling them for fear of killing them, so the next goal is to get them into a fancy private school. She manages this by hook and by crook. Lynette is now plunged into the fascinating and uber-bitchy world of snobby private school mothers. Her new goal is to keep the boys there, and because she does not believe in medicating their boys for their ADHD

Susan —  When the handsome and available Mike moves into the neighbourhood in the pilot episode, Susan sets her sights on him — or rather, her daughter does, since Susan isn’t really capable of making any goals on her own. (This character trait is later ignored when she sets upon the mission of finding out the mystery of Mary Alice’s death, in which case she’s like a dog with a bone.)

Susan’s goal of finding happiness with Mike moves further away when: The brassy neighbourhood ‘slut’ sets her sights on Mike, and set up an unspoken rivalry, turning the man into the pawn in the middle. Since the pursuit of Mike isn’t a very meaty plot line, even with Edie as opponent, Susan’s klutziness sees her burn Edie’s house down. She now has another opponent in the nosy, manipulative middle-aged neighbour who finds her measuring cup as evidence and tries to blackmail her with it.

OPPONENT

An opponent refers simply to the character who stands in the way of a hero’s desire. Opponents differ from episode to episode. Some come and go; others are sustained over the entire season and beyond. Each main character has at least two main opponents.

Bree — Bree’s husband, next her own son. The daughter seems to be an ambivalent peacemaker for the most part. The psychologist isn’t helping her cause either.

Gabby — Gabby’s husband is shown to be a violent man who could easily turn his violence upon  her. The mother is also a bit of a gangster mother and makes an excellent comical opponent.

Lynette — At times her husband Tom, who stupidly suggests she homeschool, Lynette finds a more sustaining opponent in the private school queen bee.

Susan — It’s perhaps strange that a klutz like Susan Mayer has the largest number of opponents, but remember this is partly because the romance between her and Mike isn’t quite meaty enough, and there need to be many reasons why she and Mike can’t simply get together right at the start of the season. Therefore, consider Mike Susan’s ‘love opponent’, in a very similar dynamic to any found in a rom-com film. Susan’s ex-husband and the young, new girlfriend present as opponents at first, but when Lynette suggests Susan let go of her baggage and move past stupid can kicking rivalries the audience is no doubt relieved to see Susan take that advice. The audience has seen ex-husband rivalry before, and besides, the issues between Bree and her husband make for a far more interesting take on the divorce story because we get to see a break up from its embryonic stage. There’s Edie of course, who is a fun opponent because she treats man-hunting as a game. It’s hard not to like Edie. Many probably like Edie more than they like Susan. Likewise, Susan has a knack for getting the fictional older ladies off-side. Several of them are not charmed by her klutziness. One bribes her; another won’t let her borrow her car.

PLAN

We don’t see the characters making plans, or even talking about them very much. They are all trickster characters. We watch a scene and realise, “Ah, I know what you’re doing here.” It is satisfying to watch this even if we morally disapprove. Especially if we morally disapprove.

Bree — As far as she can understand, if she keeps a perfect home and garden, no one has the right to complain about anything. Her plan is always to do more and better. Bree is always wearing a mask. We see her try on a different mask in the bedroom, because she (correctly) senses that her husband is secretly kinky. As soon as the hotel date goes wrong, Bree switches from her Tiger In The Bedroom persona back into her Perfect Housewife persona. Bree’s plan is not working and she loses her family. This is Bree at her lowest, but the camera doesn’t show us that. We are shown circumstances conspiring to bring her children back to her. Andrew wants his mother the night he runs over Mrs Solis the elder.

Gabby — Gabby has no problems getting her mother-in-law back into gambling so she can steal one ‘last’ moment with her gardener.

Lynette — We realise as soon as Lynette wants to use the bathroom that she is planning on stealing another child’s Ritalin. We also understand in that moment that she has planned this playdate for the express purpose of stealing it.

Susan — Susan is the least successful trickster. She is really, truly bad at it. She is the mirror image of Bree on this point. Bree would never fall through a ceiling while snooping — we have already seen Bree successfully snoop at the psychologist’s office.

BIG STRUGGLE

Bree — Even when in big struggle, Bree looks her best and remains calm. Dinner at the fast food place where she learns her husband is leaving her, being affronted at the psychologist’s office, a cringe-worthy dinner party with the neighbours in which she gets the upper hand, an unsuccessful attempt at sex with her husband, locking her own children out of the house in a well-coordinated plan to get them back.

Gabby — Gabby’s big struggles are both ridiculous and real-world serious. When her husband assaults her, it’s serious. But most of the time even the arguments she has with Carlos is somewhat funny, as these characters declare they love each other while scheming and manipulating the other in a high-stakes game of chess.

Lynette — Having a bust up with the PTA Bitch, arguing with her husband about his suggestions she homeschool, losing it with the traffic officer, and memorably, coming down off Ritalin and hallucinating. She ends up sitting in a football field, a space we most closely with her archetype, The Frazzled Soccer Mom. Lynette’s big struggles are linked to child-rearing in most instances, and it’s almost always with other mothers. For instance, I’m reminded of the big struggle scenes from Courage The Cowardly Dog when Lynette bounces on an inflated castle while in a showdown with another mother about who brought head lice into the school. In Courage, also, big struggles often take the form of childhood games — squash, food fights, a train heist with a toy train. This allows us to find the big struggles funny.

Susan — Accidentally setting Edie’s house on fire, a big argument with her neighbour, then with Mike, falling over before making it onto the mechanical bull; Susan Mayer’s big struggle scenes are sometimes borne of ‘unpractised’ bitchiness and at other times occur as a result of her clumsiness. Susan is an inconsistent character, though the writers have created Susan knowingly. Edie points this out (lampshades this set of traits) for the audience when she accuses Susan of being adorably klutzy but actually pretty scheming. Susan’s flaws are also pointed out by Edie’s guy who ends up sitting on the side of the road with her after a second flat tyre.

ANAGNORISIS

In a long-running comedy series it is impossible for the characters to learn from their own mistakes. If they did, Susan would no longer put herself in calamity’s path, Bree would loosen up, Gabby would become genuinely altruistic and Lynette would somehow find a successful work-life balance.

Why does almost every series that doesn’t regularly refresh its characters have a life span of only two to three years? […] Characters have only one story, and all attempts to counter that are a lie. Soaps and series are lies — great and glorious ones if the lies are well told, but lies nonetheless. Soaps and series are partly a product of market economics, born from a desire to attract viewers and sell to them — but equally, like sequels, they tap into an audience’s desire to prolong the lives of characters they adore. As with those we love in real life, we want our fictitious friends to live forever. Authors and television executives recognize this and acknowledge too that it’s much easier to attract people to the readily familiar, the tried and the tested. And so the lie is told again.

Drama demands that characters must change, but the audience by and large — ‘we’, let’s be honest — insist they stay exactly the same. […] Deep down we expect film franchises to wane, but drama series are by definition a returning medium; they must reproduce to survive. Series characters can’t get to the end of their journey or the story is over, so their creators face the same dilemma as Hollywood but massively amplified. […] Stubbornly two-dimensional, they exist outside time and space […] Most of us have been frustrated by long-running shows were ingenue characters never seem to learn from their experiences, or equally annoyed when they do learn and stop being the character we first fell in love with.

John York: Into The Woods

Though I haven’t watched subsequent seasons I hear Bree does in fact have quite a character change — the most stark of all the women, which makes her the most ‘main’ of the main characters.

But generally, the characters of Wisteria Lane do not learn from their mistakes. If they did, show over. However, in true fairytale form, these characters and their flaws exist to teach the audience a lesson. In other words, in fairytale form the viewer is the one meant to have the anagnorisis. Not in this spoof version, however. It’s expected the audience already knows these life lessons. Despite the storybook structure the audience are not children. At the end of each episode the dead storyteller narrator explains the Moral Of The Story. A viewer who takes this seriously will feel talked-down-to — it’s important to regard this as fairytale satire.

Mary Alice Young = Charles Perrault

It isn’t easy giving up power admitting that we might need help from friends and neighbors, deciding that a loved one might know what’s best for us, giving up our better judgment for a slightly darker agenda, but for some the hardest kind of power to give up is the power to control their own desires.

Mary Alice Young

In fact, if you take a look at the storyteller narrator’s quotes all in a row, you’ll be struck with how trite they sound. The Mary Alice opening and closing lines are outlining, as if for an English literature class, the morals of age-old fairytales. If you’ve ever read the fairytales as transcribed by Charles Perrault, you’ll know that Perrault literally spent the last paragraph of a story outlining the moral in exactly this way.

These moral lessons are conservative, each and every one of them.

Keeping secrets is a lonely business. That’s why we all search for someone to confide in: an ally who will understand, an advisor who we can trust, a friend who will never judge.

Mary Alice Young

Generally in straight (non-satirical) adult fiction we’ll be asked to consider whether that’s really true. A common ideology of children’s stories is that secrets are always bad. (One exception to that is a recent book called Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk which, interestingly, she initially wrote intending an adult audience.)

The quotes from Mary Alice also function as a teaser, and are therefore broken into four parts:

Yes, we often learn our most important lessons outside the classroom. The painful truth about the state of a relationship [1], the ugly cost of challenging authority [2], the sad fact that life’s colors aren’t always rosy [3], then are those who refuse to accept these important lessons. They simply wait to teach a lesson of their own [4].

Mary Alice Young

NEW SITUATION

Since this is a continuing series, the final episode of Season One must both satisfy and intrigue.

We are satisfied because the mystery of narrator Mary Alice becomes completely clear in the final episode. Everything is explained regarding this enduring mystery. The character we knew was going to die does die.

It also intrigues because there is a brand new family on the street and they obviously have a secret of some kind.   Each of the four main characters has a new beginning ahead of her and we want to know what will happen to them.

Bree — Bree is about to enter a new phase of her life now that her husband is dead.

Gabby — So is Gabby, pregnant and about to say goodbye to her jailbird husband.

Lynette — Lynette is being pushed back into the workforce. How’s that going to go?

Susan — And Susan is moving in with Mike.

The Great Fusilli Courage The Cowardly Dog

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE GREAT FUSILLI

The Great Fusilli is the last Courage story of season one and it is fitting that the creators have made a work of metafiction — in other words, the audience is reminded that they are watching a TV show.

WEAKNESS/NEED

Courage: That it’s up to him to save the day despite being an ordinary dog

Muriel: That she is oblivious and trusting and just a little prone to fancy

Eustace: That he is easily persuaded by the promise of riches (among many other faults, this one is often his downfall, as it is here.)

DESIRE

Eustace wants to save Muriel and Eustace from the suspicious magician who has come to the house to make his owners stars.

OPPONENT

We see the opponent in the very first scene, driving down a long road to Nowhere. There is a long history of travelling circuses (and gypsies) and because they come to town for a short time then leave, we are to be suspicious of them.

He parks right outside the Bagges’ house and tries to persuade Courage that he belongs on the stage. Courage is immediately suspicious when the masks of the Fusilli logo switch suddenly from happy to sad.

The Great Fusilli is not what he seems and this is conveyed in various ways.

  1. The canned laughter not only pokes fun at other cartoons which rely on it, but show that this character is quite happy to live in non-reality, where an imaginary audience is as good as a real one.
  2. The logos are masks. Masks are used equally in horror and comedy, which is why it’s no surprise to find them used so frequently in a horror comedy. A mask isn’t necessarily a literal mask — we saw Courage dress up as a bunny rabbit in an earlier episode in order to lure a predatory opponent and this was another example of a ‘mask’. (Another oft-talked about mask is when Dustin Hoffman dresses up as a woman in the film Tootsie.)
  3. He is a crocodile. With the concept of ‘crocodile tears’ we have been primed to think of crocodiles as tricksters.

It is eventually revealed that The Great Fusilli is a carnivalesque character whose ambition is to have fun. This should come as no real surprise, since he is named after a type of pasta. (The second part of his name sounds like ‘Silly’ in English, which helps.)

PLAN

“What do I do now?” we often hear Courage say at the moment where he must come up with his plan.

Courage’s plan is always first to talk and reason. Since he is a dog this never works.

He goes along with The Great Fusilli, giving the audience an opportunity to see Courage tap dance and so on.  We’ve seen other characters do this, for example Chihiro in Spirited Away. Going along with the opponent’s wishes is a type of plan, though perhaps not much used in the West because writers are mostly under the influence of Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey. Going along with an opponent’s plan is never part of that deal.

We don’t know what The Great Fusilli’s plan is until near the end. We only know that he’s up to no good.

We get a clue when we see the other puppets (from Courage’s point of view) and then the three empty but labeled hooks, much like graves waiting to be filled in.

BIG STRUGGLE

The Great Fusilli — via magical ribbons dropping out of the mouths of the masks — turns Eustace and Muriel into puppets on strings. He has great fun playing with him. This was his plan.

This is where the metafictional part comes in — he has set up the stage to resemble the Bagges’ living room. The characters say exactly what they would normally say, only they’re being pulled by strings.

Courage covers himself in powder first, and inadvertently scares The Great Fusilli, who naturally assumes Courage is a phantom. This was not Courage’s plan (we are told from his face).

There’s obviously some Phantom of the Opera influence coming through here. The original novel was partly inspired by historical events at the Paris Opera during the nineteenth century and an apocryphal tale concerning the use of a former ballet pupil’s skeleton in Carl Maria von Weber’s 1841 production of Der Freischütz. So there’s a long tradition of European phantomy things in operas.

SELF-REVELATION

The Great Fusilli jumps to his death over the balcony, although he’s not really dead. Death is not the worst thing that could happen to this opponent who craves fame. The worst thing for him is to be left all alone in the middle of Nowhere, performing to an imaginary audience. So that’s what the writers have happen.

See also: Picturebook Study: In which Baddies Get Their Comeuppance.

In short, if you want to dish out just desserts for an opponent in a children’s story, and also want to avoid death, the way to manage it is to work out their greatest shortcoming, ham it up, then do that to them. It can be as silly as you like. So if you had a character obsessed with cheese you could trap them in a glass room surrounded by cheese on the moon, for instance.

Since this is a metafictional story the audience has it ‘revealed’ (in a fashion) that this entire thing has been made by people behind the scenes. This feels like an homage to them.

NEW SITUATION

The metafictional part doesn’t end. So the series comes to an end with Courage pulling the strings of Eustace and Muriel as they sit in their rocking chairs, safe in their own living room.

“The things I do for love!” Courage announces to the camera — one of his catch phrases.

If this series had not been renewed for another three seasons it would have made a fitting end. Fortunately there are plenty more Courage stories to come.

Since this episode feels like an homage to the creators of Courage I’ll take the opportunity to screenshot just one of the end credits, as a reminder to all of us writing for children just how much effort goes into a great children’s story. The head writer is David Steven Cohen. Cohen has more recently been working on Arthur, Little People and Space Racers.

Also take a look at the number of storyboarders involved in Courage The Cowardly Dog:

Films With Genius Main Characters

In stories it isn’t always the smartest or the strongest who become heroes it is often the character who perseveres or works hardest. The villain is often smarter and stronger than the hero.

What about really smart characters? Ironically in storytelling, the genius character is often the underdog. Their genius is also their shortcoming, or they have another big shortcoming which undermines their intelligence. Oftentimes their genius ostracises them as loners.  It’s common for a genius character to also be supremely lonely or depressed or pessimistic.

Because of the cultural fascination with genius, it remains a supreme object of desire, despite its associations with tragic oddity.

Nancy Bombaci 

The character arc for a genius character is often to show the world how smart they really are. (The “I’ll show them!” wish fulfilment of many stories for adults), or to win friends and lovers.

In life, there may be many different choices one can make to accomplish a goal. In films, there is often only one, and the hero gets to show how smart s/he is by figuring out what it is.

Suber

Contrast the genius character with the Every(wo)man. Even an highly relatable character must respond in surprising ways in a story, otherwise they’re not sufficiently interesting to engage our attention. One way an Every Character can respond surprisingly is by being smarter than the regular person. Or, in Northrop Frye’s terminology, we’re talking about the romantic hero.

1. Proof



This is one of the few with a girl math nerd. That makes me like it.

2. 21

This is one of these stories about a really nice guy who turns bad for a while but is ultimately redeemed. I think the end goes on for about five minutes too long. You also sort of know how it’s going to end, but the journey is great. I found myself sitting on the edge of my seat.

Oh and the story weaves together so well I don’t believe for a moment that this movie has much to do with the true story upon which it is based.

3. The Social Network

Another kind of protagonist is incredibly smart, irritatingly aware of it, and these people are driven to go beyond themselves, which often leads to spectacular failures. Or, in this case, win out in the end with lots of money if not one hundred per cent pure happiness in what he has achieved.

The Social Network was voted the number two film of 2010 according to Margaret and David’s viewers’ poll  (after Inception).

When I saw it, I doubted the authenticity of the strippers and the Asian fangirls. Mark Zuckerberg has said himself that in reality it was just a bunch of guys cutting code. It’s interesting, though, that toilet cubicle sex and nightclub stripper scenes are now ‘obligatory’ in any coming-of-age/success story, even when those things don’t really fit the story.

Even Mark Zuckerberg isn’t Mark Zuckerberg.

Are viewers so hungry for those done-before scenes that we’ll refuse to sit through any film which refuses to include them for the sake of authenticity?

4. Good Will Hunting

I didn’t really buy Matt Damon as a nerd. I watched it recently and that bowl haircut looks suitably nerdy, but only because it’s dated. Robin Williams played another inspirational teacher figure.

The phrase, “I’m going to see about a girl” felt cheesy. Mainly because it reminded me of the well-known phrase (at least around these parts “I’m going to see a man about a dog.” And last impressions last.

ps ‘Has a critic ever commented on the fact that Matt Damon clearly ripped off the interview scene in Trainspotting for Good Will Hunting?- courtesy of @sarahlapolla

5. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Lisbeth Sander is appealing because she is first and foremost a trickster:

Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy and Suzanne Collins’s “Hunger Games” series have given us female tricksters, women who are quick-witted, fleet-footed, and resolutely brave. Like their male counterparts—Coyote, Anansi, Raven, Rabbit, Hermes, Loki, and all those other mercurial survivors—these women are often famished (bulimic binges are their update on the mythical figure’s ravenous appetite), but also driven by mysterious cravings that make them appealingly enigmatic. Surrounded by predators, they quickly develop survival skills; they cross boundaries, challenge property rights, and outwit all who see them as easy prey. But, unlike their male analogues, they are not just cleverly resourceful and determined to survive. They’re also committed to social causes and political change.

Maria Tatar

Part of what makes this book a page turner or a movie suspenseful is that extreme wrong is dished out to this young woman, and many of us have to keep reading because we know she’s going to exact revenge. There is something very sweet about being underestimated. It’s so much more satisfying than being overestimated.

Suspense in the crime story comes from wondering whether the plan will work. We’re rooting for the bad guys because they are smart, organized, and daring. The ride will be a bumpy one.

6. 17 Again

Ned Gold is the classic fantasy and SF loving nerd into cosplay and learning Elvish who is tortured through high school then makes it big after high school by inventing software that prevented people from pirating music. He also invented the thing that allowed people to pirate music, but ‘that was a happy coincidence’.

As the main star of this movie goes through torture in his life life, it’s apparent to me that nerds are the happiest sort of person in life, and in fiction, because their interests and obsessions never let them down.

7. Vitus

This was described in the TV Guide as ‘uplifting’, so I knew I could watch it with the three year old hanging about. Sure enough, she took an interest, then went over to the piano and banged out a few tunes. Well, I should really put ‘tunes’ in the quote marks they deserve. This was a good family film for a rainy day, as long as your family doesn’t mind reading subtitles.

8. Arrival

The screenwriter of Arrival talks about the difficulties in writing smart characters here:

The script itself was a challenge like no other. I was writing for characters much smarter than myself, facing their own greatest challenges. Ted’s story offered me some groundwork, but I had to find drama and conflict within the linguistic theory to sustain something for a feature film. And a linguist and theoretical physicist couldn’t talk like I do, or else it felt like they were talking down to me. I had to let the smartest people in the room act like it, even if it meant I couldn’t always keep up.

Eric Heisserer, LA Times

The other thing is, the job of the writer is to make the audience feel smart.

9. The Breaking Bad Movie

Since Breaking Bad has a movie now, I’m going to add Walter White the ultimate genius character, whose downfall is ultimately his hubris rather than his lack of smarts.

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