Roald Dahl – A Mini-Lesson for Young Writers

Heidi Morein                                                                                                April 4, 2017

Focus Mini-Lesson: Upper Elementary School

Roald Dahl

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; James and the Giant Peach; Fantastic Mr. Fox

 

Introduction

A chief hallmark of Roald Dahl’s writer’s imagination is his capacity for creating characters with extraordinary names.

Dahl has a wacky sense of humor that is a little dark at times, particularly so when he doesn’t much care for a character – and that means, a character who will not succeed, who will come to a bad end, so that his hero may succeed. Examples: the somewhat snarky names of badly behaved competitors Violet Beauregard and Veruca Salt (of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory).

For Roald Dahl, names are imaginative, unexpected; they make us eager to see what happens. We start sizing them up: Friend, or foe? Will they help the hero? Will they be foiled when they try to stop our hero(s)? We may get a good idea just from hearing the character’s name.

These names give us the only insight we need to know: how will they fulfill their role in the story? They fulfill their role – and their name – through action. So they are not themselves extraordinary, nor are they rounded characters – in fact most are rather flat. Dahl has mapped out a strategic role they must fulfill, a role that will be fulfilled by extraordinary action.

(Side note to class: Later on we can talk about the larger strategy of character development.)

Teaching Point

Big strategy: Name characters to define role and move story action along to its conclusion. Little strategy: funny names which make use of literary techniques including alliteration.

  • Focus on literary technique: Alliteration

What is alliteration, and what is it doing in my prose?

Definition: Alliteration is the repetitive use of a letter, and sound, at the beginning of closely connected series of words.

Dahl started writing stories by telling stories – to his children, so I believe he writes stories that are meant to be read out loud, even performed. Reading Dahl is like a party of oddball characters and names, many using alliteration. It’s an Alliterapalooza!

Demonstration

  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
  • Willy Wonka
  • Villains (who aren’t too bright) Boggis, Bunce and Bean.
  • “We’ve been to Boggis and we’ve been to Bunce but we haven’t been to Bean.”

Fun to say, fun to hear, right? Want to try some more?

Just in case you think this is all silliness, hardly better than Dr. Seuss for littler kids, let me introduce you to a quite fabulously famous author!:

Charles Dickens (1812-1870) Also British, was a master storyteller, and his books were also meant to be read aloud – in fact, they were performed live – by Dickens himself! (And made into movies, just as Dahl’s books have been.)

Here are book titles by Dickens – say them out loud:

  • The Pickwick Papers
  • A Christmas Carol

Characters include: Tiny Tim, Ebeneezer Scrooge

  • A Tale of Two Cities
  • Nicholas Nickleby

Characters include this one: Wackford Squeers

And here’s another strange one, also the name of a rock band:

Uriah Heep (a character from book David Copperfield)

(Side note to class: You will recognize if not the name of Charles Dickens, his characters from A Christmas Carol – here are some pictures)

(Show clips of YouTube videos and still images from internet, including advertisements which have made use of these characters over the years to market Christmas shopping, which the students may find familiar)

Guided Practice

  • Say it out loud – perform it out loud

In crafting their prose, Dahl, and Dickens, have an eye for the ear! They want their writing to have performance value. How do you create great read-aloud prose?

One simple technique is alliteration.

Here’s a great line of dialogue using alliteration, which is also key to character: a retort by Scrooge to the notion that Christmas only comes once a year, so he should be lenient with others, which he does not wish to be. He says:

“It’s a poor excuse for picking a man’s pockets every 25th of December.”

Now, pick a partner, turn to them, and read this line out loud. Ham it up, if you like. (Try to do it from memory after a bit.)

It sounds like complaining, like being cranky, because of the alliterative p.

Now, let’s do the name of this cranky character, Ebeneezer Scrooge. Say it out loud to your partner.

It stops you at Eb and ben, then makes you wheeeeeze nasally – stingily – even if you don’t want to, doesn’t it? Scrooge is a tight-fisted, mean, miserly man, who doesn’t care about others.

And Scrooooooge is spooky, but awkward, too. He’s not an elegant miser, but a creepy one. Small-minded. Craggy and creepy. And when you learn that he will be haunted by spirits who try to get him to change his ways, you can imagine that name Scrooooooge coming out in a very creepy ghost-like way!

(Play excerpt of Marley’s Ghost)

 

  1. Link: Activity
  2. Let’s try creating a character you find admirable; what would you name him or her? Say the name out loud – does it sound like someone you’d cheer for?
  3. Try alliteration in their name.
  4. Now try having them say something that tells us, This is a great character who will do great things!
  5. Now let’s try creating a character who is either (a) a villain or (b) someone who might make you want you to wrinkle your nose and say, Ew! I don’t like them. What would you name them? What do they do to earn their name – a name that inspires you to wrinkle up your nose?
  6. Try alliteration in their name. Say it out loud. Does it say, ‘Ew!’?
  7. Give this character some dialogue, just a statement is fine, it doesn’t have to be an exchange with another character; something that shows us who they are, what we might expect of them because of the way they speak.

 

A Few Words About Our Author

It’s often said of heroes and celebrities that they have had led extraordinary lives, but Roald Dahl really did. In fact, much like a character from a book, he was a spy, a soldier; a prolific writer; an avid chronicler of horticulture and wildlife; an attaché-diplomat-foreign service charmer playing the political and social game in Washington, DC; a Royal Air Force fighter pilot; husband to a movie star; and a dad. His books are so beloved, so vivid, adventurous and tender, that many of them have been made into films – one twice over!

Born in Wales, Dahl was half Welshman and half Norwegian. He wrote not only children’s books, but many of his works can be (and perhaps should be) read by adolescents and adults. He liked adventure, creepy, scary stories and, less well known, he loved nature: his love of nature and his love of somewhat scary, creepy things combine triumphantly in James and the Giant Peach, where he brings to life a few of nature’s ordinary creatures made large and strange, but loveable; and then in a way more typical of the children’s book genre of gentle anthropomorphism, in Fantastic Mr. Fox.

For me, the most telling tidbit about him in biographical blurbs was this from Amazon.com,

The operative words here are over and over again. And most importantly for his craft, the habit of reading aloud.

Stories meant to be read aloud – captivating, listened to with what can imagined easily as his young audience’s growing excitement and fun – are a hallmark of Roald Dahl’s work. Moreover, when published, they are matched with illustrations meant to be looked at, gawked at, taken in. Perhaps his most artful use of language is his ear for snappy dialogue: effective, economic, film-script-like dialogue. It’s no wonder his books have been made into movies – live action and animation alike. Adaptation, which can be an arduous task, would have been wonderfully easy in his case, as well as remunerative.

Dahl’s books, which came out when I was a little girl, have been and continue to be enjoyed by generations of children, and their parents, thanks to Dahl’s wit and adventurousness, his astonishingly versatile writer’s imagination and craft.

 

NOTABLE ELEMENTS / STRATEGIES of CRAFT

Funny, Made-Up or Improbable-Sounding Names: Much like Dickens, and in a distinctively English way, Dahl likes giving strange, amusing, evocative character names (Violet Beauregard, Charlie Bucket; and see also Alliteration, below); in the case of Willy Wonka, names of objects as well – all those inimitable sweets (“everlasting gobstoppers”). In fact in a sense he objectifies people – those that he has no time for (villains, competitors) – into cartoonish figures of fun, while making garden bugs into caring, stalwart and affectionate companions. Related to:

An Ear for Dialogue and for Words, for the oral tradition as well as the Dad tradition of Stories meant to be read aloud, with language that is surprising, funny, fun to hear and fun to say, knowing it will be repeated and —

Alliteration: Villainous Farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean. And in dialogue: “We’ve been to Boggis and we’ve been to Bunce but we haven’t been to Bean.”

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; Willy Wonka.

Protagonists who are Small/Plain, Frail or Vulnerable, who live in poverty, or who do without, or who are in jeopardy, but emerge without fanfare and quickly to be resourceful and helpful, who keep a clearer head than (more than a few) adults: Charlie, James, the fox children. Related to:

Post-War privation and hope. The British Churchill evoked and counted on, which fostered Dahl’s sense of patriotic duty – his life as a soldier, of service, and duty; his country’s social historical reality. Charlie, James and the little foxes embody this, as does Mr. Fox’s sense of securing and sharing bounty, for his family, not out of greed; his level-headedness (as above for Charlie and James), his sense of interdependence, creating community.

Surrealism AND Solid, internal logic to, or side by side in, his tales:  Oompa Loompas and squirrels that sort nuts in the same factory. Working class (post-War) rationing or lack of food to eat and fantastical confectionary creations in the same city, walking distance, in fact. Extended family who share a home so inadequate that they share the same bed; they share and stay in bed because they are old, immobilized and dependent, which is real, and commonplace – but also, in a young child’s desexualized point of view, in a comical, non-connubial state of affairs, but which allows them to stay together as a loving family unit.

Villains who are ridiculous (as well as mean) and whose days are (clearly) numbered: the farmers in Fantastic Mr. Fox, the children competing with Charlie for the Chocolate Factory; the sister-aunts in James and the Giant Peach.

Or,

The Invention of the Flat Character you don’t mind being flat and you don’t mind being dispensed with: Ditto, as above – the children in the factory, the villain farmers, the sister-aunts.

Inventions a la Dahl:

Invent the name, and you’ve won half the battle to inventing the character. Makes the character memorable, and fun to hear what happens to them next. Indication of what their most important, story-driving characteristics will be.

Magic in the Midst of the Everyday: the golden ticket from the dollar in the street; He Who Designs a Fitting Destiny, or, The Deadpan Dispenser of the Deeply Dastardly and the Just Plain Dumb: Willy Wonka. (And the reason he is good for all those Gene Wilder memes.)

Dahl uses the archetypes and tropes of the fairy tale genre – magic bean-like things in James – but adds more than a touch of sadism, wit and irony: the fates of the children in Charlie; the bugs in James.  He doesn’t suffer fools, and dispenses with them as neatly and terrifyingly and as calmly as you please.

For use in students’ writing:

  1. Create prose with the notion that it will be read aloud

Reading aloud is always a good way to test out any writing; it helps with revising. It is of course especially good for stories. It’s always a good way to test dialogue, to see how natural it is.

1a. Dahl was a master of everyday dialogue, economically written, could hear and create several voices in scenes with multiple characters.

  1. Invent names that will be memorable – use imagination, and alliteration

I once invented a family based on this notion of imagination and alliteration – names that were pretty far-fetched but evocative: Percival Porkfriar, his wife, Tiny Parsons Porkfriar and their baby, Busby Berkeley Porkfriar.

  1. Magic in the everyday, in the unassuming. There can be magic in a pebble (Steig uses this too of course) and little stones, or almost anything tiny and seemingly ordinary, because from it big things can grow, as they do in gardens, and with people too. It’s fairy tale magic but it never gets too old if you’re a young reader!

And there can be magic – or untold promise – in the unassuming object or child. A bar of chocolate. A little boy who doesn’t talk back, who is polite, quiet, shy.

 

 

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