Now We Are One

Birthdays and other Celebrations in Storytelling 

©John Shelley, from Outside In, Frances Lincoln 2010.

Quite rightly, Words & Pictures is celebrating its first birthday this month. This Inspiration piece explores some uses for celebration in narratives – both written and illustrated.

Celebration itself comes from the Latin celebrare meaning ‘renowned’ [as does ‘celebrity’]. The root suggests performing publicly, observing so that everyone can see – like a priestess in a temple, for example. Birthdays are seen as times for rejoicing in cultures all over the world – whether public like the King of Thailand’s, or private like a toddler’s party. This gives celebrations a universal appeal – which can be particularly useful when the other elements of the story might be unfamiliar to a child.

I’ve decided on three main purposes for putting a celebration in your work:

1. Plot 
  • Marking the coming-of-age of your central character – think of a Bar or Bat Mitzvah with its responsibilities and special dress, initiation into the Warlpiri tribe of Australia with ritual body painting, or Japanese shichi-go-san festivities.
  • It can be a turning point: in fantasy works, it’s often when special skills are passed on. In more realistic storytelling, it can still show the before-and-after of a character’s development – now I’m old enough to use a library card on my own.
  • A birthday is ideal for portraying relationships with family and friends - choosing who to invite, all the preparations and build-up that puts people under [usually happy] stress.

2. Structure 
  • A joyous occasion can create an emotional high before a crisis- which makes the low all the more poignant or dramatic. 
  • It can be a genuine opportunity for reflection – you can sneak a little back-story, especially if done with humour.
  • You can legitimately break any predictability with a set-piece crowd scene, or a close-up focus on a particular custom, or some behind-the-scenes moments. Good fun can be had with what is supposed to happen – and what really does! 
Illustration ©Anna Violet

3. Pleasure
  • Celebrations really are a feast for the senses. There’s often decoration, food and drink, perhaps music and dance to enjoy. Traditions such as dimming the light to zoom in on the birthday cake make details like the scent of the matches and candlewax stand out. There might be the fizz of sparklers in a restaurant, the colour and motion and noise of a piñata, or the slurping of longevity noodles. So much to delight in from so many cultures. 

In your current work, try showing a birthday party. Things to consider:

- Will it be anticipated by the birthday child – or a surprise?
- Will it be for your central character – or will they be going to someone else’s?
- What will it show about the party-giver – love, poverty, generosity, effort, creativity?
- How will your child respond – shyness, uninhibited delight, giddiness, being overwhelmed?
- What customs could there be? Can you give a new angle on the expected ones – or would something quite different be right for your imaginative world?
- How much of the emotional and sensory experience can you get across?

©Loretta Schauer; detail from Beauty and the Beast, HarperCollins 2012.
“Bless you, Words & Pictures, may you live so long so your ears reach your ankles!” Traditional Hungarian birthday rhyme – delivered as you tug the person’s earlobe. 

By Philippa R. Francis - who writes as K. M. Lockwood

K. M. Lockwood is a writing name of Philippa R. Francis. As well as being a regular contributor, Philippa (@lockwoodwriter) is also part of the Words & Pictures team as the @Words8Pictures Tweetmaster, growing our following and maintaining our 'Industry news' feed.

1 comment:

    What a wonderful combination of inspiration celebration and illustration !
    (only a little worried about earlobe tugging)


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