One of the things I enjoy is trying to look at a collection of things and observing the patterns there, seeing the pattern in the noise. It comes, I think, from decades of training as a scientist. The thing is, patterns are great, because they can be reproduced. And, if you can find a pattern in popular stories, as a writer, you can take advantage of that pattern to help your own writing.
Most famously, Joseph Campbell looked at the mythologies and stories from across human history and from them, developed the thesis that led to the Hero with 1,000 Faces. I have, entirely by accident, undertaken a similar, if far less thorough, analysis.
Every night, assuming they get to bed at a decent hour, I read a chapter or two of various different books to the kidlets as bedtime stories. It’s all the standard fare of good books – Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time, J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit, Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and a rather large helping of Roald Dahl. And it’s this surfeit of Dahl books that led to my epiphany.
Over the last few months, I have read the kidlets the following Roald Dahl masterpieces:
George’s Marvelous Medicine
Fantastic Mr. Fox
Danny Champion of the World
And after reading so many of them back to back, I began to notice a pattern.* The more I thought about it, the more this pattern began to look like a formula. And, now that I have this formula, all kinds of doors are opening up to me in my mind.
But don’t take my word for it. Let’s look at this formula together, along with example from 4 of his books, Danny Champion of the World (D), The BFG (B), Matilda (M), and The Witches (W ). It shouldn’t take too much effort to see the evidence in his other books as well.
Step 1: Set up a simple villain
- Meany Mr. Hazel snarls at Danny in the gas station (D)
- Mean giants eat kids (B)
- Mean schoolmaster Trunchbull bullies her pupils (M)
- Witches kill kids (W )
Step 2: Give kid main character a grown up to love and look up to
- Danny’s Dad is awesome and kind (D)
- The BFG is sweet, and gives kids happy dreams (B)
- Miss Honey is kind and ‘gets’ Matilda’s genius (M)
- Boy’s Grandmama is a badass former witchhunter who takes him in (W )
Step 3: Reinforce the meanness of the villain
- Mr. Hazell kicks sleeping dogs, unsportingly traps poachers (D)
- Mean giants tease and beat up the BFG (B)
- Trunchbull torments Miss Honey, likely killed her dad and stole her inheritance (M)
- Head witch kills other witches, will turn kids into mice to make people kill them (W )
Step 4: Set up some minor “unrelated” plot info as if it were worldbuilding
- Dad: I love poaching. Poaching is fun! (D)
- BFG: I collect dreams, can mix dreams together to create dreams to order (B)
- Matilda: I’m telekinetic (M)
- This is how you spot witches, this is how you make the Formula 86 Delayed Action Mouse Maker (W )
Step 5: Give the villain a want
- Mr. Hazell wants to host a great pheasant shooting party for big-wigs (D)
- The giants want to go eat the children in England (B)
- Trunchbull wants to live in Miss Honey’s place unperturbed, forever (M)
- The witches want to turn all English kids into mice (W )
Step 6: Main character uses the “unrelated” worldbuilding to deny the villain their want
- Hey, let’s poach ALL of Hazell’s pheasants before the shooting party! (D)
- Hey, let’s mix a nightmare for the Queen of England so she’ll stop the giants! (B)
- Hey, let’s use Matilda’s telekinesis to haunt Trunchbull and make her flee her past crimes! (M)
- Hey, let’s use the witches’ own recipe against them to turn the witches into mice!(W )
Using these 6 simple steps, in only around 25,000-40,000 words a book, Roald Dahl was able to craft some of the most beloved children’s books of the last century. It’s simple, it’s brilliant, and it looks deceptively easy.
Now, for some initial analysis of this formula, please bear with me while I talk about some storytelling tropes and terms.
What strikes me most about this formula is the role of the protagonist, the main character. In all of the years of learning about writing and storytelling as a craft, I have always learned that the protagonist is the character who wants something, and the antagonist is the one that stands in their way. It’s Storytelling 101, 1st lecture, first half hour of the class. It’s right there on the syllabus. Basic level stuff is what I’m telling you. In simplistic terms, the protagonist is the good guy, and the antagonist is the bad guy.
But not for Roald Dahl. For him, the good guy main character is the antagonist, and the bad guy is the protagonist.
Say that again?
In that formula above, the bad guy is the one that wants something, and the only job of the good guy is to deny it to them. Now, I know there’s all kinds of thought and theories saying that every character is the hero of their own story, and every protag/antag combo is simultaneously an antag/protag combo (which is demonstrably false, btw), but this is far more one-sided of a relationship.
Dahl’s “good guys” are only good in that they are 1) children, and 2) shown to be caring and loving, usually expressly because of step 2 in the formula above, having them love a kind and benevolent adult figure. By showing the child as loving someone good, and by dint of their own innocence, we automatically code them in our brains as the good guy. But what good thing are they actually doing? Usually, nothing. And, in some cases, they are actively conducting mischief and petty theft.
So what about the antagonists? The bad guys? Well, they are bad in that they cause pain or misfortune to others, either through their actions or their goals. So, demonstrably bad. But, they are the only characters with internal wants in the books. They are the proactive characters. They are the ones trying to accomplish a goal. The good guys are left entirely as reactive; their only goals are external, coming about in response to the bad guys. Their entire agency in the books is merely to thwart the goals of the bad guys. To be an impediment. To antagonize them.
Roald Dahl’s good guys are the antagonists of his novels, and the bad guys are the protagonists. And in every one of the cases mentioned above, the antagonists win. The goal is thwarted.
Every one those books is a tragedy, where the protagonist fails in their goals.
When I realized that a few weeks ago after five books, my mind was blown, and I had to read two more just to make sure the pattern I was seeing was really there.So, what does this mean for me? M I going to start writing children’s books derivative of Roald Dahl? Of course not! But, it does give me insights into, for instance, how much plot to incorporate into a 25,000 – 40,000 word work (commonly considered novella length), how to play with protag/antag dynamics, how to make antagonists feel like sympathetic good guys, Fast and simple ways to generate either good will or ill feelings toward characters, etc. Now, I just need to go put these lessons into use.
Here I Go,
*As a caveat, I will say that this formula doesn’t hold up for all of Dahl’s books. Having previously read James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I would have to say that based on my recollection of those books, they don’t fit into this formula without a lot of shoving, shoehorning, and shenanigans. But I take those to be the exceptions that prove the rule.