Learning how to represent the world, whether verbally or visually, is an acquired skill, and the gradual discovery of the rules of fictionality is, for the developing reader and, potentially, the developing writer, punctuated with epiphanic moments of exclaiming- ‘Wow! You can do that?‘.
Some of these moments we forget – and we conveniently conclude that there are aspects of narrative that we ‘always knew about’. But others we remember very well, and they can give us valuable insight into the mind of the child reader and viewer. However treacherous memories from childhood can be, this blog post takes its examples from two of my own narrative epiphanies.
The Beast with the Smoky Fingers
As a young child I was obsessed with the old surrealistic Beauty and the Beast film, by Jean Cocteau (1946). In one memorable scene, the Beast, tormented by his love for Belle, is shown wandering around the castle with smoke coming out of his fingers. For some reason, though I didn’t mind all the other surrealistic details of the film, that one bothered me – I couldn’t make sense of it. I asked my mother about it, and she replied that it could be a way of showing that the monster is being consumed by love – quite literally burning because of it. This triggered the first narrative epiphany I can remember, the first paradigm shift in my perception of fictionality: you can do that??? you can show love through burning fingers? The sheer magnitude of what this made possible gave my five-year-old brain vertigo.
That ‘No, I Am Your Father’ Moment
Miraculously, I first saw Star Wars knowing absolutely nothing about it – I was seven years old at the time, and my father had taken me to see the trilogy at the cinema. I first thought it was super boring, then super cool, then super thrilling, and then, suddenly, you learn that *SPOILER ALERT* Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s dad.
There were five minutes of profound disbelief when I looked at Darth Vader and looked at Luke and thought ‘There is absolutely no way this is true’. And then there was the excruciating process of having to accept, like Luke, that it had to be true. Which in turn gave rise to another narrative epiphany: you can do that. The villain can be the hero’s father. Nothing was sacred anymore, but it was a jubilatory thought. You CAN do that! The limits of fictionality had been stretched further than I could ever have imagined.
It’s interesting, though probably coincidental, that those two very striking moments occurred while watching films rather than reading books, especially as I didn’t watch many films. But there were other, smaller ones: you can have a protagonist who can’t spell (name and shame – Pippi L.), you can have a hero who grows up book after book (I wonder who), you can have a love story that ends horribly badly (Philip Pullman, I’m looking at you).
I don’t know how many people can remember these moments in early childhood where their understanding of fiction suddenly expanded, showing them how daring and how complex and how surprising this strange parallel world could be. If you can, please tell us about it in the comments – I’d be very interested to hear your stories. Of course, narrative epiphanies occur at any age. But remembering how Darth Vader and the Beast turned my perception of stories and storytelling upside-down makes me realise that even the tackiest narrative tropes are not obvious to the developing child. By consuming works of fiction, even bad ones, even passively, we allow them to modify our understanding of fictionality. And with it, our understanding of just how much we can do, as future writers and storytellers, in this infinite playground.