The Wisdom of Roald Dahl

One of the best ways to study story structure is to read children’s stories. Not only are they entertaining in themselves, but they let you clearly see the structure of the story and what makes them so appealing in the first place.

Roald Dahl wrote both adult short stories and children’s stories including “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “James and the Giant Peach,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” and “The Witches,” all of which have been turned into movies with varying degrees of success.

If you focus strictly on Roald Dahl’s written works for children, you can see what makes them so appealing to young and old alike.

Roald Dahl said that he likes to create nasty villains because then readers delight in seeing the villain get squished in the end. Since he wrote many children’s stories, Roald Dahl often focused on villains that children would delight in seeing get squished in the end.

In “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” the villains are the other nasty children with odious habits and behavior. In “The Witches,” the villains are mean women. In “James and the Giant Peach,” the villains are mean women again in the form of two aunts.

Roald Dahl also wrote the screenplay for “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” which deviates wildly from the Ian Fleming (the James Bond author) novel. In the novel, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is an intelligent car that helps discover smugglers along the coast of England. In the movie, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang takes the children to a land called Vulgaria where children are outlawed and the evil king and queen hire a child catcher to kidnap children and throw them in the dungeon. Once again, the villains are adults who children can fear and hate.

The basic pattern with children’s books is that you need to make villains that represent things that children dislike such as mean adults. When making stories for adults, you need to make villains that represent things that your target audience already dislikes.

For example, horror films are typically geared towards the younger crowd from 17 – 25 years old. As a result, many horror films are morality tales where people who do bad things get hacked to pieces by the bad guy. The heroes are always the people who do good and virtuous acts that allows them to live. For the younger crowd, horror movie villains represent the big bad world they’re about to enter and explore.

Romantic comedies tend to attract a slightly older crowd of 20 – 40 year olds. Here the villain is whatever keeps the heroes from finding love. Notice that each film genre caters to a specific need. With young people, they want to know what will help them survive the big bad world out there. With young adults, they want to know what will help them find love. Each age group has a specific answer they’re seeking and the movies provide them with that morality story.

More serious dramas typically cater to the older crowd such as 30 – 60 year olds who are more interested in understanding the meaning of life. Compare this to the much younger crowd that simply wants to see a lot of action and fighting such as in war movies, westerns, and action/thriller movies. The younger crowd wants to experience the joy of excitement so the villain is whatever threatens to stop them from achieving love, hope, the future, etc.

By identifying the types of fears and dreams a target audience wants, you can make your story much stronger. In the original draft for “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” Charlie was one of fifteen kids visiting the factory that allowed visitors every Saturday. After the author’s nephew hated the story, Roald Dahl rewrote it to limit the number of children to five (to focus more on Charlie) and made the factory visit a once in a lifetime opportunity to make it more special.  Such changes turned a bad story into a great one.

Remember, it’s not the idea that’s important but the execution. Focus on making your story appealing to a specific type of audience, tighten up your story to make every moment special, and then provide your audience with what they want to see to help them at their own stage in life.

For children, they want to know how to deal with mean adults. For teenagers, they want to know how to deal with the big bad world out there. For young adults, they want to find love. For older people, they want to find meaning.

These differences aren’t exclusive to a particular age group, but their needs are simply variations. Children also want to find love, but in safety and security compared to younger adults who want to find a partner.

Study stories from all sources, not just the latest movies. By studying stories from books and even plays, you can broaden your idea for how stories are constructed and spot patterns that may not be as obvious just by watching movies alone. By reading children’s books, you can especially learn what makes certain stories appealing to audiences and how you might consider those ideas in your own stories.

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