Guest post by Edward J. Denecke, author and illustrator of What Happens at School When You’re Not There? (For a full bio, see the end of this post.)
During an important exam week while I was in college, someone told me about C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, a children’s fantasy-adventure series. I was a serious student and never shirked the responsibility of preparing for a test…until I began to read the first book in the series: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, in which four children in 1940’s England walk through a wardrobe and end up in a magical land. What began as a mere curiosity culminated in a string of late nights absorbed in all things Narnia. I can no longer remember anything about those exams but I DO remember being transfixed by these incredible stories.
What is it about the Narnia books that make them so popular? They’ve sold more than 100 million copies world-wide in 47 languages. From the seven books, three film adaptations so far have been made – The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe(2005), Prince Caspian(2008), and The Voyage of The Dawn Treader (2010) – which have grossed over 1.5 billion world-wide.
What can we learn specifically from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe? I believe there are at least 8 lessons writers can learn from this classic novel. Be aware that there are several spoilers contained in this post. You’ve been warned!
Lesson #1: Clear Premise
The premise sets the direction of your story’s trajectory. Get it wrong and you will travel so far afield of your desired destination that it will be nearly impossible to correct. Do you want to hear a concisely written premise? Here’s the premise on the back cover of my copy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:
“How Aslan, the noble lion, freed Narnia from the spell of the White Witch.”
There are a lot of important elements concerning the story unmentioned in this premise, but it zeroes in on the core of what this adventure is really all about. I look at the premise sentence as my north star. If I can write it concisely, it can guide me exactly to the crux of my story.
Lesson #2: Clear Conflict
A story without conflict is a story without an audience. Who cares if nothing ever goes wrong? But a story with muddled conflict is almost as bad (and maybe worse!). Did you ever read a book (or watch a movie) and think, “What a stupid situation! The whole thing could be solved in two minutes if …” I have. (For a few illustrative examples, take a look at the Cracked post “6 Movie Plots That Could Have Been Solved In Minutes.”) If conflict is contrived, the whole story crumbles like a wobbly stack of Jenga blocks.
So, what is keeping the four children from their ultimate goal of helping Aslan free Narnia from the White Witch? Layers of conflict. Edmund’s greed. Aslan’s hidden agenda. The children’s hesitations at fulfilling the prophecies written about them. The Narnians who’ve gone rogue. But the central source of conflict is always focused on the malicious intentions of the White Witch. As Mr. Beaver summarizes it for the children:
“And that’s why the Witch is always on the lookout for any Humans in Narnia. She’s been watching for you this many a year, and if she knew there were four of you she’d be more dangerous still.”
Lesson #3: Clear Designing Principle
In his book, The Anatomy of Story, John Truby describes the Designing Principle like this:
“The designing principle is what organizes the story as a whole. It is the internal logic of the story, what makes the parts hang together organically so that the story becomes greater than the sum of its parts. It is what makes the story original.”
What is the designing principle of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe? I believe it is found in Professor Digory Kirke’s words at the end of the story in referring to the Wardrobe and the children’s desire to enter Narnia again at some point in the future:
“You won’t go into Narnia again by that route.”
Everything Narnia happens within the Wardrobe. So the designing principle is a journey starting when the children enter the wardrobe and ending when they exit it. Be certain to have something unique and original like a Wardrobe-contained journey that defines the totality of your story.
Lesson #4: Clear Path to Character Change
Quoting John Truby again:
“Character change is what your hero experiences by going through his struggle. At the simplest level, that change could be represented as a three-part equation … W x A = C where W stands for weaknesses, both psychological and moral; A represents the struggle to accomplish the basic action in the middle of the story; and C stands for the changed person.”
I have found it incredibly helpful in my own story development to spell this out as precisely as I possibly can. What does it look like in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe? The W would be the children’s precarious predicament as helpless victims (weakness) in a world spinning out of control; the A would be the lengthy and costly battle against the White Witch (basic action taken) which forces them to confront the difficult challenges facing them while in Narnia; and the C would stand for the growth (change) the tried-and-tested children have achieved as a result of their Narnian adventure.
*Eva’s note: I disagree with Edward a bit on this one. In my mind, the W in Truby’s equation stands for a character’s internal weakness, not a situational weakness. For example, in the novel, Edmund’s greed and overall bad temper is his weakness; through his actions over the course of the story he must confront and overcome these personal weaknesses, thus causing him to be a changed person by the end.
Lesson #5: Clear Visible Plot Goal
The plot goal in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is crystal clear from the moment Lucy meets Tumnus, the faun on her first visit to Narnia. After putting Lucy under a mysterious spell by playing his flute, Tumnus regretfully informs Lucy of his deception by explaining to her,
“I had orders from the White Witch that if ever I saw a Son of Adam or a Daughter of Eve in the wood, I was to catch them and hand them over to her.”
And a moment before he revealed,
“It isn’t something I have done. I’m doing it now, this very moment.”
At this point the goal is set: Lucy and her siblings must defeat the White Witch, the Queen of Narnia, before she destroys them. Crystal. Clear.
Lesson #6: Clear Outer Motivation
Children’s fantasy writer and illustrator, Michael Hague, declares that the protagonist’s outer motivation must be visible, pursued to the end of the story, that it must define the outer journey, and its accomplishment must end the story. How does The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe measure up to that standard?
Susan, Peter, Lucy, and Edmund have one clear outer motivation: to defeat the White Witch and end the hundred-year winter in Narnia. That motivation is visible, pursued to the end of the story, defining of their outer journey, and its accomplishment ends the story (except for the denouement).
“The battle was all over a few minutes after their arrival. Most of the enemy had been killed in the first charge of Aslan and his companions; and when those who were still living saw the Witch was dead they either gave themselves up or took to flight.”
After that, the story wrap-up proceeds.
Lesson #7: Clear Major Dramatic Query
C.S. Lakin, writing coach and author of Writing the Heart of Your Story, describes the major dramatic query as a “Yes” or “No” question that you ask at the start of the book. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe that question is: Will the Pevensie children be successful in their attempt to defeat the White Witch and free the Narnians from the spell of the hundred-year winter? Yes or No.
Lesson #8: Clear Theme
Good stories are saturated with powerful themes. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is no exception. Betrayal, Greed, Compassion, Forgiveness, Good over Evil, and Courage, just to name a few. Karen P.L. Hardison, a certified teacher and contributor to enotes.com, states that the overriding theme of the book is “the power of evil to wholly dominate and the virtues that oppose evil”. Not a bad encapsulation of the totality of the adventure, wouldn’t you say?
It should be noted in closing that many readers find allegorical meaning in the entire Narnia series, specifically of the biblical variety. I would be one of them. But I don’t believe that Lewis intended his books to be limited to one strict interpretation of them. Much like the unredacted story of Robinson Crusoe complete with his soul-wrenching conversion, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe can be read on numerous levels. As simply an amazing adventure story, it is sufficiently marvelous!
Check out the other Great Children’s Literature Study posts for more lessons from classic children’s novels!
Edward J Denecke is the published author and illustrator of What Happens at School When You’re Not There? He is currently deep into the production of a four-part children’s adventure series. He lives in central Ohio with his wife, Marilyn, where they moved to be near their grandchildren. You can find his website at edwardjdenecke.com, and keep an eye out sometime in 2020 for the first book in his four-part children’s adventure series.
Ingmar Albizu says
What a great analysis and deconstruction of such a beloved story!
Great article, Edward, with lots of takeaways.
It is amazing how despite the clear conflict, premise, plot, themes, design principle, character arc, and motivation, the story can be read and interpreted in so many levels. It proves clarity does not preclude nuanced and complexity