Thursday, January 1, 2009

Dinosaurs Before Dark: A Ridiculously Close Look

Today I thought I'd look at story drive and point of view in a bit of an unusual context.

Both story drive and point of view can be tricky to achieve. A story without a consistent point of view will often feel all over the place, and one without drive makes us sigh and put it down, wondering why we couldn't get caught up in a story whose premise seemed so interesting.

My point today, though, is that though we may be tempted to make our stories more complex in order to create drive or to create point of view, complexity is not at all necessary to create interest or forward momentum. Similarly, point of view does not require a mature and sophisticated text.

My excerpt today is the opening of Dinosaurs Before Dark by Mary Pope Osborne, one of the Magic Tree House books that I just got for my son for Christmas. This book has drive on page one. It has third person limited point of view, also on page one. And my five-year-old can read it. I have immense respect for an author who can achieve that.

Let's take a look at how she does it.

Line 1:
"Help! A monster!" said Annie.

And we're off. Five words, and already I'm curious whether this is a real monster or not, where Annie is and why she'd be saying that. The style is simple. The content is compelling.

Line 2:
"Yeah, sure," said Jack. "A real monster in Frog Creek, Pennsylvania."

Instantly we have conflict, with the boy and girl disagreeing. I become curious about the relationship between Jack and Annie, and while I wonder which of them to trust, I still can entertain the possibility that a real monster is coming. Notice also that the context of conflict allows Jack to bring up Frog Creek, Pennsylvania. Without any conflict, you'd get one of those cringe-worthy "as you know, Bob" sentences - but here it sounds totally natural because the location itself is not in question, only the plausibility of finding a monster there.

Line 3:
"Run, Jack!" said Annie. She ran up the road.

Annie could have argued with Jack, saying "No, really" - but then the reader would become certain this was just an argument. Annie's willingness to take action in spite of her brother's attitude keeps us guessing about monsters, and also develops Annie's character and her relationship to Jack.

Line 4:
Oh, brother.

One line, and suddenly we sense point of view. With no quotes, this can't be spoken, but it's such an idiosyncratic expression of frustration that we have to conclude it's someone's thought. Mary Pope Osborne accomplishes this without ever using the word "thought," or italics, or any other stylistic indicator. She just gives us something that can't be construed as anything but thought. The question then becomes, "Whose?"

Which is the curiosity leading us to the next line.

Line 5:
This is what he got for spending time with his seven-year-old sister.

Suddenly we realize we're in Jack's head. Although the pronouns are third person, the sentence clearly centers on him. "This" refers to the situation he's in, describing it as close and immediate to him much as I do when I think to myself. Also, this conflict situation again allows Osborne to give us critical information - "seven-year-old sister" - without resorting to an unrealistic line of dialogue or thought.

Something else, too: this sentence radiates attitude, through the expression "this is what he got." It's clear now that Jack doesn't believe what his sister is saying. The question then becomes whether he's reliable in his judgment. Osborne gives us that information in the very next line.

Line 6:
Annie loved pretend stuff. But Jack was eight and a half. He liked real things.

Coming on the heels of Jack's other thoughts, even a sentence beginning with Annie doesn't pull us into her point of view. The juxtaposition of Annie and Jack (see the word "but") gives us Jack's justification for his opinion. It also places him as only slightly older than his sister. I couldn't tell you what my son thinks, precisely, but from an adult's point of view, this is fascinating because I see that he's reliable in his judgment of the monster situation, but not necessarily reliable in his attitude toward his sister. It also places him at the age where kids stop believing in magical stuff – and given that this is a Magic Tree House book, we can sense already that he's got a surprise coming. This leaves us asking when, and what that surprise will be.

Line 7:
"Watch out, Jack! The monster's coming! Race you!"

Here we see Annie's persistence in wanting to play with her brother (after all, he hasn't answered her last invitation). But interestingly, the words "race you" suggest that Annie also knows she's making things up. "Race you" reflects her desire to engage and compete with her brother, but she'd never say it if there were a real monster coming.
Line 8:
"No thanks," said Jack.

Jack is staying out of the competition, and the conflict ends here – but we're still waiting for the final turn of the interaction, because the conflict is only over if both parties agree to let it go. Annie's response in the next line changes the momentum of the story completely:

Line 9:
Annie raced alone into the woods.

Suddenly we've ramped up the conflict. Not only has Annie refused to accept Jack's lack of involvement, she immediately runs off into a location which is a classic for adventures. I'd have to guess that by the age of five my son has already seen enough instances of kids alone in woods and trouble ensuing (through fairy tales, children's books, etc.) to think that Jack was wrong to let Annie leave by herself, and to wonder whether she's going to be okay, and what she's going to find.

And that's how Osborne keeps us driving ahead into the rest of the story.

The tools she uses here are content and juxtaposition – tools of the utmost simplicity, yes, but they are highly effective. This story drives forward with every line. It lets us share Jack's thoughts and feelings – and evaluate them – without the need for lots of extra words. The expressions she chooses are evocative of highly familiar knowledge (even for five-year-olds), and the conflict situation she sets up allows her to dispense critical information smoothly.

Now there's a good story.


  1. Great analysis, Juliette.

    This increases my respect for children's books, and for this author especially, by quite a margin.

    So tell us! Is there a monster or not? ;-D

  2. Thanks, Paul!

    There isn't a monster coming - or at least, not immediately. But several come later (see the title, "Dinosaurs...")