A few weeks ago, Dave King posted a marvelous piece here concerning lessons to be learned about creating surprise by analyzing the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, specifically his Fantasia and Fugue in A minor. In the comments following the piece, I remarked that I had had a similar revelation about lessons to be learned from a non-verbal art form from a much different source: stories for children,
One of the great joys of having friends with wee ones is the ability to buy them picture books. One particular favorite, which I’m going to discuss here, is Marla Frazee’s The Farmer and the Clown.
The story in brief: A farmer, tilling his vast empty fields in solitude, sees a tiny clown accidentally bounce off a circus train passing by his land. He takes in the tiny lost clown and tries to console him, performing what few tricks he knows, then showing the little guy how to help with the chores. Basically, the little clown becomes something of a farmer while the farmer rediscovers his inner clown. The circus train circles back, and the clown is reunited with his loving family. The farmer, once again alone, cheerfully waves goodbye to his little friend. (Surprise ending, which I will not spoil for you.)
By the way: There is a video of The Farmer and the Clown available online that tracks through the images that make up the story. However, it’s not the same as having the physical book in your hands, and I strongly advise watching first with the sound off.
I have also recently been exposed to the Russian-produced Masha and the Bear. This is an ongoing video series with numerous episodes, all of which concern the introduction of a disruptive force (Masha) into the contented life of the Bear, who was once a performer with the Moscow Circus and now hopes to enjoy a tranquil retirement in his cottage deep in the woods.
These stories, stripped of words, reminded me of a few basic truths about narrative, which can often fall by the wayside as we address the many other challenges of fiction—and get lost in our language. The things I discovered turned out to be pretty fundamental, and the more I thought about them the more I saw them in the more “adult” literature I have found so compelling.
In particular, the three main lessons these two particular children’s stories brought home for me were:
- The emotional charge between opposites
- The power of image
- The mechanics of escalation
The Emotional Charge Between Opposites
As you can probably guess from the titles, both The Farmer and the Clown and Masha and the Bear concern primarily two characters of distinctly different natures:
A stern, old farmer vs. a merry young clown
A retired circus bear vs an indefatigable whirlwind of a child
These seemingly polar opposites form strong connective bonds, and the secret to that is the understanding that, despite their differences, they share at least one core similarity.
Both the farmer and the clown are alone.
Both Masha and the Bear are fundamentally sweet-natured.
There is a temptation to think of these characters in archetypal terms, and yet as I tried to think of examples from adult literature that had similar polarities, I realized that realistic fiction is by no means incapable of employing this technique. It is the classic technique of self-revelation through exploration of the Shadow.
Love stories, of course, abound in such connections between opposites-with-core-similarities, from Heathcliff and Cathy to Lizzie and Darcy to Scarlett and Rhett.
Much of crime fiction is premised on the notion that the detective’s search for the killer is in fact a journey toward a deeper understanding of himself. (Yes, I know, not even cops and robbers can escape those pesky Jungians.) How does the Joker taunt Batman in The Dark Knight? “You complete me.”
The trick is not to lose track of the core similarity, which creates the possibility of a trusting bond, while creating the extreme opposites.
The Power of Image
Both The Farmer and the Clown and Masha and the Bear bring their characters’ distinctly different natures to life in vivid opening images—or, as they say in the film biz: establishment shots.
We first see the farmer in his field, bending over hay with a pitchfork, his expression grim, focused on his work, while three crows circle overhead.
The clown is introduced more gradually: first the circus train, then the sudden ejection of a small shape (to the farmer’s alarm), the coming to rest of that shape in the barren distance (as the farmer approaches), and then figure’s turning toward the farmer with a small but utterly happy face.
We first see Masha’s home, a small farmhouse far out in the country. The animals—a dog, a goat, and a pig—are sleeping soundly in the midday sun. Then Masha literally bounces out of the house in a bucket. The animals all hide from her—she wants to play, a prospect that clearly terrifies them. She ultimately connects with a butterfly that lands on her nose, which she chases deeper and deeper into the woods.
We first meet the plump, contented Bear outside his quaint if ramshackle cottage, ambling happily among his humming beehives and sipping tea from a samovar before heading off with his pole to fish.
When I tried to find examples from adult literature with equally powerful and defining images, I began to see them everywhere:
- Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter, representing both the sanctimonious hypocrisy in which she’s condemned to live and her subversive defiance of it.
- The green light at the end of Daisy’s East Egg dock that Gatsby can see from his lawn across the water, which mirrors not only the love he lacks but the legitimacy he craves.
- Blanche Dubois’s scarf-draped lampshades, which symbolize her fear of the harsh reality that she is growing older, and thus losing her sexual allure, which has been her chief source not just of pleasure but of power.
- The ducks in Tony Sopranos pool, which foretell his loss of family, both the one defined by business and the other rooted in blood.
- The Severn Bore in Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, where the rising tide literally pushes the river’s current backwards. During college, he and his fellow students wait up one night to observe it, and chase the backward-surging water with their flashlights. Barnes later uses this image to convey the attempt to learn the truth about the past from memory.
When I returned to my own books with this question, I realized that the strongest openings and character introductions always featured if not a distinctive image a defining characteristic that was simple, powerful, and enigmatic, i.e., capable of multiple interpretations.
Incidentally, the legendary screenwriter Waldo Salt (Midnight Cowboy, Serpico, The Day of the Locust, Coming Home) said that for every scene he always wrote his dialogue last. First he focused on the action, and then he thought about what distinct images would bring that action most vividly to life. This suggests another storytelling technique: Consider making a story board for your novel, comprised of images, not words. If you don’t draw, just picture the scene playing out in your mind before putting words to paper.
The Mechanics of Escalation
One of the guiding principles in moving a story forward is: Whatever problem the character faces, make it worse.
As sound as that advice is, constant escalation of a problem can become boring and predictable. Without credible hope that the problem might actually get better, making it worse just becomes more of the same.
In The Farmer and the Clown, we first get the impression that the clown is going to brighten up the farmer’s dreary life. And that does indeed happen—until the little one’s loneliness kicks in. And then the farmer, no expert at gaiety, struggles to find ways to cheer up…a clown.
The lesson here is obvious, but still worth bearing in mind as we write: A great technique for escalating tension is to force the character to do something that fundamentally contradicts his nature.
Masha and the Bear provides a different lesson, which goes back to the old Rule of Three, common to jokes and gags and Vaudeville shtick.
The rule of three simple refers to a pattern: something goes wrong, then it gets worse, then it becomes disastrous. The comic effect can vary depending on how bad each step is, and how much worse the succeeding step gets.
For example: (1) I notice my kitchen faucet is dripping. I decide to fix it. (2) I use my wrench to tighten the thingamajigger, but the dripping not only doesn’t stop, it’s coming quicker than ever. (3) I really put some heft into it this time—and rip the faucet from the wall. Water gushes out like there’s a firehose in the wall.
Now, this creates a problem. The Rule of Three is so ingrained in our psyches that we anticipate it every time we see something go wrong in a story. Horror movies often go wildly wrong when they ignore this, because in intensifying danger they use three steps, and instead of being terrified the audience feels inclined to laugh.
So to avoid that natural inclination to giggle, you have to keep the Rule of Three in mind and subvert it: Make the second step actually improve the situation before it gets worse. Make it two or four steps, not three.
Bottom line: some of the best lessons can be learned by turning to children’s books—or simply turning off the sound when watching a film you’ve already seen, and focusing on how the images alone tell the story.
What storytelling lessons have you learned from children’s literature, storybooks, or some other non-verbal narrative—including music, painting, or photography?
What examples can you think of from books you love that exemplify the emotional charge between opposites, the power of image, or creative methods of escalation?