Story themes

Some key story themes based on categorisation by Briony Coote with amendments.

  • Adventure story: a thrilling tale of lost lands and far-away travel. (“Alice in a Strange Land”, “Barracuda Bay”)
  • Affliction: A girl is left disabled or suffering from a progressing illness. Either she is determined it will not stand in her way of realising her dream, or she needs to come to terms with it. (“Blind Ballerina”, “Willa on Wheels”)
  • Animal story: protagonist either is an animal or a sympathetic girl who rescues/helps an animal. (“Seulah the Seal”)
  • Bullying: protagonist is bullied or (occasionally) is a bully herself. (“Badgered Belinda”, “Tears of a Clown”)
  • Cinderella (summary page): The heroine is being exploited by parents/guardians/employers. She has a talent/secret which could be her only hope of happiness. However her abusers keep interfering, or exploiting her talent, or both. (“Make-Believe Mandy”, “Cinderella Smith”)
  • Companion (summary page): the heroine has a magical or non-human companion who guides her and may also protect her. Typically the companion has their own reasons for being, which may or may not match the protagonist’s desires and aims; but they work together not against each other.
  • Deception: the protagonist is willingly or unwillingly involved in a deliberate deception of friends and/or family. (“Gwen’s Stolen Glory”, “Holiday Hideaway”)
  • Environmental concerns: the protagonists show a concern for the beauty of planet Earth, either locally in a fight against a road to be built, or globally by admiring flora and fauna. (“Almost Human”, “The Green People”)
  • Evil influence/supernatural influence (summary page): The heroine falls under the thraldom of an evil/obsessive spirit, or an evil object/curse. (“Creepy Crawley”, “Gail’s Indian Necklace”, “Slave of the Mirror”, “Spell of the Spinning Wheel”, “The Venetian Looking Glass”)
  • Exploited amnesiac: Rogues exploit an amnesiac girl, usually by blackmailing her with false information. (“Slave of the Swan”, “Miss No-Name”)
  • Frustrated destiny: The heroine longs to pursue a special talent but her parent/guardian will not allow it. Usually this is due to a family tragedy associated with the same talent. Alternatively, the heroine hardens her heart against it because she thinks it has caused the death of a loved one with the same talent. (“The Goose Girl”, “Minnow”, “Nothing to Sing About”, “The Ghost Dancer”)
  • Gag strips: single-page (or even shorter) strips with no ongoing story or plot/character development. (“Alley Cat”, “Do-It-Yourself Dot”, “Penny Crayon”)
  • Guilt complex: The heroine makes life difficult for herself because she blames herself (rightly or wrongly) for an accident or misfortune. (“Blind Faith”, “I’ll Make Up For Mary”, “Tricia’s Tragedy”, “Tearaway Trisha”)
  • Historical story: set in a specific or generic historical period such as the Middle Ages, Stuart London at the time of the Great Fire, or Victorian London. (“Bridey Below the Breadline”, “Bound For Botany Bay”, “Gertie Grit the Hateful Brit”)
  • Humour strip: like the gag strip, this is primarily about generating laughs, but is longer (two or more pages per issue) and has some character development or ongoing story elements. (“Desert Island Daisy”, “Gaye’s Gloomy Ghost”, “Sue’s Fantastic Fun-Bag”, “Tansy of Jubilee Street”, “The Jinx From St Jonah’s”)
  • Injustice: a person is wrongly accused of a crime, and the campaign to clear them begins (“Toni on Trial”, “Paula’s Puppets”)
  • Looks are deceiving: a pretty face does not reflect the true mind underneath. (“Angela Angel-Face”, “Who’s That In My Mirror?”)
  • Modern witch hunt: The heroine is persecuted by backward villagers who still believe in witches. (“Weena the Witch”, “Mark of the Witch!”)
  • Perfectionism: someone is obsessed with moral, physical, or intellectual perfectionism, inevitably ending in their downfall. (“Children of Edenford”, “Land of No Tears”, “Wanda Whiter Than White”)
  • Pinocchio: An alien/non-human/time traveller tries to assimilate into society and to become just like a real girl. (“Almost Human”, “The Robot Who Cried”)
  • Problems with parents: death, divorce, or remarriage has created difficulties between the heroine and one or both parents. (“The Four-Footed Friends”, “Left-Out Linda”, “Ping-Pong Paula”)
  • Prophecy: a prophecy indicates a (normally unwelcome) destiny for the protagonist, but generally with uncertainty in outcome such that it is fulfilled in an unexpected manner. (“Destiny Brown”, “The Bow Street Runner”, “Cursed To Be A Coward!”)
  • Profession story: a story about being a nurse, vet, or other profession that Jinty readers might be expected to be interested in becoming when they grow up. (“Angela’s Angels”, “Cathy’s Casebook”)
  • Quest or Journey story (summary page): a heroine or main character goes on a search involving a significant travel across the country or still yet further (“The Darkening Journey“). May be combined with the Runaway theme (“Somewhere over the Rainbow”, “Song of the Fir Tree“).
  • Redemption narrative (summary page): a main character starts out as an unpleasant or difficult person, and through her tribulations in the story is turned into a better person who sees the error of her ways.
  • Revenge: the heroine or villain is out for revenge (“Cursed to be a Coward!”, “Mark of the Witch!”)
  • Runaways: main characters go on the run to get away from people who threaten their hopes of staying together as a family. Alternatively, the people chasing them may  be abusers or would-be killers, in which case the term ‘fugitive‘ may be more apt. (“Somewhere over the Rainbow”, “Song of the Fir Tree“, “Always Together“)
  • School story: primarily set in and about a school. May have elements of anti-authoritarianism. (“Dracula’s Daughter”, “Pam of Pond Hill”)
  • Science fiction (summary page): a broadly science-fictional story, with elements such as time travel to the future, robots, aliens, and so forth. (“Almost Human”, “The Human Zoo”, “The Robot Who Cried”)
  • Sinister scheme: one or a small group of heroines must battle against the powerful interests behind a sinister plot to control hearts and minds, usually involving some form of hypnotism or brainwashing. A slightly less sinister version might be a form of mystery story. (“Children of Edenford”, “Prisoner of the Bell”, “Village of Fame”)
  • Slave story (summary page): a broad story type with many varieties. May be a child slavery racket where a corrupt or mercenary adult keeps a number of children prisoner for their own financial gain, or a harsh workhouse where the imprisonment is legal but the treatment is not, or a case of an individual protagonist being kept as a slave of a cruel adult for non-financial reasons such as revenge. (“Slaves of the Candle”, “Merry at Misery House”, “Slave of the Swan”)
  • Sports story (summary page): primarily about a particular sport, to the extent that the reader may learn quite a lot of technical details about the sport as part of the story. To add spice, it will also be combined with other elements such as rivalry, coercion, and so on. (“Curtain of Silence”, “Toni on Trial”, “White Water”)
  • Storyteller: The storyteller is a regular who tells spooky stories or stories based around a collection of items. (“Gypsy Rose”)
  • Survival: surviving against a catastrophe or becoming a castaway (“Fran of the Floods”, “Girl the World Forgot”)
  • Time travel: the protagonist travels through time. (“Land of No Tears”, “Shadow on the Fens”)
  • Troublemaker: a nasty girl causes trouble for an unsuspecting girl. The motive is usually jealousy, spite, personal gain, or not wanting to share (“The Kat and Mouse Game”, “7 Steps to the Sisterhood”)
  • Wish fulfillment: a heart’s wish granted by an external agency is going to at the least have unexpected consequences, if it doesn’t turn out to be a real unwanted deal with the devil. (“Dance Into Darkness”, “The Zodiac Prince”)
  • Witches: real or imagined, played for laughs or spooky, good or evil; the witch as a main plot element is much-used. (“Golden Dolly, Death Dust”, “Pandora’s Box”, “A Spell of Trouble”, “Sue’s Daily Dozen”)

9 thoughts on “Story themes

  1. They do say that there is more than one way to skin a cat. My approach to the history of the ten story papers produced by Thomsons for girls between nine and thirteen uses very few of the above categories. This may be because I am looking at the serials more in terms of their setting, although a handful of mine match yours, such as Adventure, Animals, Historical, Occupations, School, Sci-Fi, Sport and Time Travel. Among my other twenty are Ballet, Entertainment, Fantasy, Prehistoric, War, and Wild West. I’m more comfortable with my broader canvas. I would get far too bogged down by the minutiae of such topics as your Exploited Amnesiac and Guilt Complex.

    Having said that, the final approach and development of the book will hopefully make itself known to me when I have finished reading the novels for girls that I have bought in so that I can get a handle on what girls were reading for pleasure between about 1880 and 1958, and to guage the influence that they had on the writers of Bunty. I have about 250 novels plus Enid Blyton’s output of School and Adventure stories, I have so far read all the Blytons and fifty-seven of the others. Along with other works of reference by authorities such as Mary Cadogan, Sheila Ray, Rosemary Auchmuty, Nicola Beauman etcetera, I will be reading Dr Gibson’s recent tome, but none of them before I am sure of my ground.

    1. Many ways indeed! I should emphasise (as it says above) that the list on this site originates with one produced by Briony. I think getting the right breadth of each theme is quite tricky: I agree that broader ones are better in many ways, but I must say I felt quite a frisson of recognition on seeing themes such as Exploited Amnesiac! It may be that when looking at a narrower historical period then a narrower theme is more appropriate, if certain kinds of stories did repeat again and again.

  2. Where compartmentalising themes and topics is concerned, Briony and I have a similar outlook, the only essential difference being the division of the material into smaller or larger compartments. A couple of years ago I printed off everything that she had posted on line, including the original article on which this one of yours is based. I think my approach is better than hers though because I can still categorise within my compartmentalised settings rather more easily than she can expand hers at the moment. But then I suppose it depends on what each individual wants to do with such a huge mass of information. I already realise that there is no way I can reference every serial within my compartments. Just to give you a couple of examples, Animals and Occupations in Bunty already cover a side and a half each of A4, but in that paper I’ve only done the categorising of serials as far as issue 414 of 2249. I do envisage a complete list of the titles of the serials across all ten story papers, complete with starting and ending issue numbers and dates, appearing as a index at the end of the book, but frankly the task I’ve set myself is very challenging, and to boot it isn’t the only project I’m working on as I’m involved with Ray Moore on a companion volume on The Hotspur to This Was The Wizard.

    1. I think you can only sensibly use themes or settings as a fairly broad brush analysis; in my experience when I’ve tried to assign a theme to every single story I find ones that don’t fit exactly into any of the existing boxes, or only very broad ones that I might not find all that illuminating. School stories for instance – I wouldn’t put any story that happens in a school into this category, I think it would have to be about the school in some way. And even then, a story like “Children of Edenford” is set in a school and could be said to be about the school, but to me it’s certainly not a ‘school story’, which would have its own conventions and expectations. So I guess what I mean here is that even if the list of themes is not a complete one that allows you to categorise every single story, that’s ok to my mind. I can still say that the Cinderella theme is a strongly-represented one, for instance, or that there are fewer Sports stories in this title as compared to the other title.

      At the end of the day, you have to use a breakdown that you feel comfortable with – after all there is a whole lot of material you need to work through and categorise, and if you are not clear in your own mind as to what goes where then it will be an absolutely hopeless task! I do think your complete list of serials is worth doing and would be a very useful reference to have; personally, I would be too daunted to try to also categorise each of those serials to boot… 🙂

      Your mention of the word setting makes me think it is probably worth differentiating between settings and themes, which I’ve not clearly done up till now. I think I am keener to focus on themes / topics than settings, myself.

  3. I don’t know Children Of Edenford, nor which story paper it comes from, but from experience I would guess that it is probably about a school whose pupils are under the control of some malign force. I would feel uncomfortable placing it in any setting other than School Stories, and that is why my broader canvas would be appropriate. If my conjecture is correct I would put it in the Fantasy category within the School Stories compartment. If there is no malign force it would be placed in a different category. Needless to say, I do understand the point you are making, and it is fair to say that neither approach is wrong. We would reach the same goal by different routes. Either way I agree with you that a clear plan is crucial.

    1. Sorry, I should have linked to it – it is from Jinty and we have got a summary with sample pages here. Yes, the pupils are indeed under a malign influence, and a lot of the story takes place at school or is driven by other schoolchildren and by the headmistress in her capacity as such.

      I agree it is in the setting of a school, and it is a fantastical story, so clearly your categorizations are fairly straightforward to apply, which as we agree is crucial. As a theme, I wouldn’t categorize it as a school story (to my mind that is about the honour of the school, perhaps the tensions and rivalries between forms or individual girls, and so on). So to me the setting and the theme can usefully be separated (now that you have got me thinking along those lines by using the word ‘setting’).

      Briony’s original listing included the very specific categorization ‘Strange School’ – one with a bizarre policy or set-up – which “Children of Edenford” falls under. I am quite attracted to this very specific categorization in some ways, but it is not a theme that could very usefully be used to group together very many of the stories in Jinty. When looking across a wider range of comics titles it might to my mind become more useful, as helping to classify a specific sub-set.

  4. “Slave of the Trapeze” is never listed, yet it was the top story in Sandie over its 12 John Wagner the editor told me. One of the first `Slave´stories and pretty vioient. I know all this because I created and wrote it!

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