Secrets and Scams in Storytelling

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.

There’s a specific kind of plan which, as screenwriting guru John Truby has pointed out, audiences really go for. The scam. In her Watching email, NYT writer Margaret Lyons shares her own passion for the scam:

Dear Watchers,
My passion for scams and hoaxes continues unabated, and I’m not alone. I finally had 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.
If you would like to sing “oh my scammy, whammy mammy,” now is the time to rewatch “Mr. Show.”

We hate scammers in real life, but we love to read about scamming plans in our fiction. Perhaps this is wish-fulfilment. We like to fantasise about getting our own back on the those who have wronged us.

The scam is closely related to two other storytelling terms/techniques:

Here’s what Truby says about scams.

Audiences love to be fooled, so make use of plans and scams to extend your plot.

  • The average writer doesn’t realise one of the first keys to plot is your hero’s plan.
  • Plan is a set of guidelines the hero is going to use to beat the opponent and reach the goal.
  • In really good [stories], this plan is often a scam. A scam is simply a plan that involves deception.

A scam isn’t just a single trick that the hero plays on the opponent. A scam is actually a campaign of trickery. It’s a complex sequence of tricks that surprises not only the opposition, it surprises the audience.

When you use a scam, it gives you more plot. A scam involves deception. The scam ties in with the trickster character, in turn tying in with the surprises you get from your opponent. All of these provide a substantial plot. Plot is the area where most writers are weakest.

Films that make use of the scam are varied. Some are serious films:

  • The Dark Knight
  • The Godfather
  • The Bourne Ultimatum
  • Die Hard
  • The Usual Suspects
  • But scam is even more important in comedy genres:
  • Wedding Crashers
  • Beverly Hills Cop
  • Tootsie

The main characters in Orphan Black and The Killing regularly use scams to achieve their goals, by dressing up, telling lies — but the audience knows that it’s all to a worthy end.

WILL ANY SCAM DO?

An audience accepts scams from some characters more than others, and your typical, conservative audience has little tolerance for certain kinds of scams.

In Breaking Bad, Skylar uses a scam to get Ted out of trouble, which many (sexist?) viewers interpret as an ‘unworthy cause’, since she’s married to Walt, and therefore should be loyal only to Walt.’

Children tend to have a higher tolerance for scammer heroes than gatekeeper adults, many of whom believe storybook heroes need to model good behaviour.

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 absoluetely 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. (Truby calls these plots ‘switch stories’.) 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

In children’s literature, think in terms of ‘secrets’ rather than ‘scams’.

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.

 

Chekhov’s Toy Gun In Children’s Literature

chekhov's toy gun

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

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

I’m not sure if someone has already done this, but for children’s literature I’m inventing my own related terminology. The kidlit equivalent of Chekhov’s gun is… Continue reading “Chekhov’s Toy Gun In Children’s Literature”

What is a ‘strong verb’?

dictionary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

trepan

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

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

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

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

Other various examples of verbs done well:

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

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

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

FURTHER TIPS FOR CHOOSING GOOD VERBS

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

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

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

ONE LOOK DICTIONARY

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

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

onelook dictionary

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

onelook filter

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

layer related to meat

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

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

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

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

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

OneLook parts of speech

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

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

There’s also a new Spanish version of OneLook.

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

The more specific version is called a hyponym.

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

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

Introducing your character’s age in a children’s novel

child age

Readers want to know early on the age of a main character in a children’s book. In a (non-illustrated) book, we don’t have a visual before us. So character age is one of the most important things we need to know up front.

How and when to convey that bit of information?

I took a look at character age and how this boring but necessary bit of information is introduced in various children’s books I happen to be reading lately. Continue reading “Introducing your character’s age in a children’s novel”