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I'm going to play scholarly now, like the English major I was many years ago.

I doubt I'm really going to break any new ground here, especially given that a couple of different scholarly studies of DWJ's works have been released in the past few years. I'm also guessing that this same structure might well apply to other young adult fantasy novels. Finally, I have a nagging feeling that I once read about ideas like this in something called, I think, "The Hero's Journey." But thinking this through was useful for me when I was writing my review of her recent book The Game, because it let me pinpoint where I felt that things had gone wrong.

Most of the examples that I'm going to use are from the novels I've reread most often. They are:

  • Fire and Hemlock (F&H)
  • The Lives of Christopher Chant (LoCC)
  • Charmed Life (CL)
  • The Homeward Bounders (HB)
  • Archer's Goon (AG)

These books focus on a single protagonist. Although that person may have siblings or friends as sidekicks, the story is told only from his or her POV. I'm going to add a few examples from Witch Week (WW), but that one features two alternating protagonists (Nan and Charles), which makes the arguments a little less clear in some cases.

The basic outline runs like this:

  1. Setting the Stage (which maybe be combined with Step 2)
  2. The First Encounters with the Supernatural
  3. The Compelling Crisis
  4. Cycles of Challenge and Growth
  5. The Final Battle
  6. Aftermath

Setting the Stage

Often this starts out as straightforward exposition, describing the protagonist's situation and history (LoCC, CL, HMC). Sometimes, this is combined with Step 2, and the first uncanny encounter occurs on the first page (AG ), in which case most of the background is filled in by the protagonist's inner thoughts during the earliest scenes. A variation has the protagonist starting the narration near or at the end of the events told in the story, so that the remainder of the book is told in flashback, but once the timeframe is established, the basic scene-setting happens as usual (F&H, HB).

The First Encounters with the Supernatural

The protagonist experiences several odd events, but remains for the most part an observer. He or she is not yet compelled to act. Thus, Polly finds herself gate-crashing a funeral and helping shy, awkward Mr. Lynn choose some paintings as part of the deceased's bequest, and is then grilled rather ominously on the whole thing by Granny when she gets back home (F&H). Jamie discovers The Old Fort, and then can't find any information about it anywhere, when he tries to learn more about it (HB). Cat witnesses his elderly guardian's and his sister Gwendolen's strange behavior over the letters from Chrestomanci. Howard and Awful find the Goon in their kitchen, and discover that their father has been sending 2000 words to someone called Archer every month. And so on. Christopher Chant's situation is slightly different in LoCC, because he has been having magical adventures almost every night for some time. However, he thinks that this is a normal state of affairs.

The Compelling Crisis

Things take a more serious turn, and the protagonist ceases to be an observer. In some cases, this event is easy to identify and pretty distressing: in AG, Archer starts sending the Sykes family messages on their TV screen and interfering with their electricity and gas; in HB, Jamie sneaks into the Old Fort and is caught by Them; and in F&H, Polly and Thomas Lynn travel to Stow on the Water - and find that their made-up adventure tales have more truth than they ever realized. Sometimes, the event is relatively mild, and only really significant in retrospect: in LoCC, the Last Governess (Miss Bell) discovers Christopher's "spirit traveling" and reports it to his Uncle Ralph, and in CL, Chrestomanci takes Cat and Gwendolen to live and study in his castle. No matter how shattering or mild this event is, however, it marks the point at which the protagonist starts participating actively and knowingly in the story. (It could be argued that Polly started participating the minute she agreed to leave the reading of the WIll with Mr. Lynn. However, until the visit to Stow on the Water, she has no idea that anything really supernatural is going on, or that her actions have any true significance.)

Cycles of Challenge and Growth

This is the part that was most skimped in The Game. In a typical DWJ story, the protagonist has a number of adventures and lives through mounting crises, and he or she learns and grows each time. The clearest example is probably Jamie in HB, who travels from world to world, first learning to adapt, and then - through the successive encounters with "Him," Helen, and Joris - learning to think outside the box, to rebel, and to hope (even though hope, sadly, is Their principal tool). Usually the challenges also involve putting together a puzzle, especially in AG, where Howard gradually solves the story of the seven mysterious siblings, and figures out which of them must really be causing his family's problems - all the while learning to depend on himself. And sometimes the later, more difficult testing almost shatters the protagonists, as in Jamie and company's "War Against Them" (which appropriately occurs, as he himself notes, in Chapter 13), and in Polly's dark moment on the bridge in Bristol, and again later when she thoughtlessly allows herself to be removed from Tom's story.

The Final Battle

After building strength and gathering knowledge, the protagonist and his or her allies face the antagonist(s) and defeat him/them decisively. In DWJ's books, this may include a lengthy period of preparation, as when Christopher and his allies prepare to face the Dright, and to a lesser extent, when Polly prepares to face Laurel and her allies on All Hallows' Eve. The battle itself may be a chaotic event, with many participants on each side joining in the fray (HB, CL), or it may be more a contest of wills, as in F&H and WW. AG is particularly interesting at this point: is the last battle when Quentin "writes" Archer and his allies into their seemingly self-imposed exile from Earth, or was it really earlier, when Howard faces the truth inside Venturus' futuristic palace? Arguments can be made either way: the Venturus confrontation may instead be the ultimate challenge in the quest for knowledge and growth, equivalent to Polly's pursuit and discovery of the truth once her memories return.


This can be a weak spot for DWJ. The most obvious example is the often-discussed, hard to interpret ending of F&H. The book is, IMO, a masterpiece - but the ending bothers me as well. What exactly allows Polly and Tom to think they've escaped Laurel's logical trap? And then there's the lame attempt at humor with Tom's car. In CL, there's a jolly little recitation of all the happy things everyone will be doing - but the fact remains that Janet will be exiled from her real family forever, and no one seems very worried about it. The villains in AG could well figure out how to return to Earth one day, but no one discusses the idea very seriously - although Howard's decision to be ready for other possibilities is nicely put. For my money, the most effective DWJ wrap-up, and certainly the most heartbreaking, is the ending of HB, where the real cost of victory, to both the hero and his allies, is properly explored for once. Jamie's final words - "But you won't believe how lonely you get" - sometimes leave me teary-eyed.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *       

So - there it is. Any comments? Any questions? Any answers? Any rags, any bones, any bottles today ... ?

No music, because it's the middle of the night, and we have house guests (sis-in-law and nephew). And the Young Lady is off at her "Pirates of Penzance" cast party, because this was the closing night. The party runs all night, but she hasn't socialized on this level much yet, usually it's been just one-on-one with a best friend, she's an introvert like everyone else in the family (INTJ, probably) ... I'll be picking her up soon.


( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 26th, 2007 11:39 pm (UTC)
At first I too was bothered by the end of Fire and Hemlock, but upon a number of re-readings I have begun to appreciate the subtle mastery of it being so abrupt. It's not something that I can consistently or articulately explain, but there it is. And I do think you're right about The Homeward Bounders having the best DWJ ending...yipes. I cry every time I read it.

...though I do think that Howl's Moving Castle also has a rather good ending, despite it being so sudden.
Mar. 27th, 2007 10:21 pm (UTC)

Hmmm ... I think for me, the ending of Howl's is so very chaotic that the quiet little final bit, where Calcifer comes back, gets lost. I do like his airy, cat-like "It was raining" explanation. Oddly enough, Howl's has never really been one of my favorites, even though it was one of the first DWJs I read.

With F&H, I don't think it's so much that it's sudden - I think that it's as darcenciel says, below - you have to think too much for it to feel like a good ending. It's like a joke with a punchline that has to be explained.


Mar. 28th, 2007 02:02 am (UTC)
I guess I still sort of read DWJ books with the mind of a small child--or, let me rephrase: I read DWJ books totally straight on, so somehow what strikes others as chaos is to me perfectly reasonable. I really don't know why, but that's how it is. So I found the end of HMC abrupt, but not so much confusing per se. Also, the thing that always stuck out about that ending to me was Howl and Sophie holding hands and not paying attention to anyone else, which is actually where I think the book should've ended. The Calcifer thing is cute, but it's almost closure that we don't necessarily need. It's all so happy that the reader almost assumes that he's going to come back at some point, and doing it right then takes away from Howl and Sophie, who are really the point of the whole mess.

On F+H--Heh, that's what's so fun about it! At first it doesn't feel like a good ending, but once you spend enough time trying to figure it out, you see just how clever it is. That's not bad, it's just different from what you expect.
Mar. 28th, 2007 09:11 pm (UTC)

Hmm, I guess I should re-read HMC ... although, as I said, for some reason it's never appealed to me as much as some of the others. Except for the Green Slime chapter ... who doesn't love to Express Feelings with Green Slime?   ;-)

I certainly didn't let F&H's ending stop me from re-reading it a dozen times! The mixture of real world (here now) and fantasy (nowhere) were always so vivid ... the end of the Bristol sequence, when Polly and Tom can't find their way back to the car, still makes my hair stand on end.

That book is just so well put together - the section titles, just for example.

Mar. 29th, 2007 02:29 am (UTC)
HMC is worth another reading, I think. It's so much lighter than so many of her books, which is kind of the problem with it, almost. Then again, the darker bits are there, they're just a bit more glossed over. Anyway, I think it's an entertaining read if nothing more.

Waugh, I know. Such a brilliant, brilliant novel presentation-wise. DWJ wrote an article about writing it at some point...let me see...it's available at the bottom of this page in badly-scanned installments. Read it. It's quite fascinating.
Apr. 5th, 2007 07:36 pm (UTC)

Wandering back to this at last ... yes, I recommend that "Hero" paper myself quite often. In fact, I even keyboarded it into a computer file at one point ... I wonder what I did with the file? I meant to ask the folks at Chrestomanci Castle whether they wanted to have it, because those scans are almost illegible - and besides, the gov't webmistress in me says "those aren't accessible by the visually handicapped - and everyone should read that article!"

I've just read Pratchett's Wintersmith and I'll be reviewing it here - I guess I need to drop an e-mail on your LJ because I can't check to see whether that's of interest to you or not ... ;-)

Apr. 5th, 2007 11:08 pm (UTC)
Ooh, that'd be wonderful if you could find the file...if you want to put it on the web I've got some space on my subdomain.

I haven't read Wintersmith but I've been meaning to--but I'd read a review once I've read it, definitely. So yeah, feel free to drop me a line on my El-Jay.
Apr. 9th, 2007 04:06 pm (UTC)

The Wintersmith review is up.

(BTW, your LJ says "Comment to be added if you aren't already on the FL" ... but you can't comment if you aren't a friend, which makes it tough ... )

- Cho

Apr. 9th, 2007 07:44 pm (UTC)
You can't comment if you're not a friend? That...doesn't make any sense. Sorry, I'll fix that :)
Mar. 27th, 2007 03:45 am (UTC)
I like this. I agree with you on the "aftermath" usually being her weakest point - though I must say that her endings logically make sense, they don't seem emotionally satisfying. Like the above commenter, however, I do think that F&H's ending emotionally satisfies....but you have to really read it over and over to understand it (which kind of takes away the punch I'd like a book ending to have).
Mar. 27th, 2007 10:27 pm (UTC)

I have to say that for years I just pretended that the ending to F&H made sense to me, even though it didn't, because I liked the rest of the book so much. This article, which was originally a post on the DWJ mailing list, finally straightened it out for me.

You know, I think you're onto something with the split between the emotional and the logical. You may know that she had a very unhappy childhood, and I don't think she does "warm and fuzzy" all that well. Witty, good natured, friendly - yes. Tender, effusive, emotional - no. (And I tend to be an emotional person, myself.)

Hmmm ... thanks for bringing that up!

( 11 comments — Leave a comment )


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