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Who Stole the Rubber Ducky?

Many years ago when I had just moved to the Netherlands and was struggling to learn Dutch and getting to grips with its harsh, guttural sounds, a fellow student revealed to me that she couldn't make those far-back-in-the-throat sounds because using her throat muscles like that reminded her of the suffocating spasms of coughing she suffered as a child during bouts of bronchitis. Consequently, she was abandoning her Dutch studies. Now, had she been a fictional character this is what film director Sidney Lumet and writer Paddy Chayefsky would have rather cynically called her 'Rubber Ducky,' moment. In fiction it is the moment when the protagonist reveals some traumatic event in his/her past which explains his/her current neurotic behaviour; someone stole their rubber ducky when they were just three. In Citizen Kane it's his separation from Rosebud; in Casablanca it's when Ilsa leaves Rick in Paris; and in arguably one of cinema's most memorable monologues ever, in Jaws when Quint reveals his trial by sharks after the torpedoing of the USS Indianapolis.

RDMs are a basic building brick of all narratives that have a periodic structure; stories where we know nothing about the protagonist at the beginning, and which create change not from within the character but from the gradual revelation of who the protagonists/antagonists really are.

Past traumatic events were skilfully revealed as flashbacks in the film, Manchester by the Sea, so that the audience learned how Lee Chandler came to be living his sad existence as a janitor in a lonely basement apartment. I found it a rewarding watch because it relies on the viewer putting the character's back-story together, so that instead of being told the answer is four, the two-plus-two sums are revealed incrementally throughout the film. This way the director avoided that potentially melodramatic moment when the protagonist reveals all in a monologue (possibly while sitting by an open fire with piano music in the background).

So how can these revelatory moments be skilfully handled in our writing, bearing in mind we can't use cinematic devices? Daphne du Maurier is one of my favourite authors and she rarely explains why major characters in her stories do what they do. It's inferred that Mrs Danvers has a repressed passion for Rebecca, and this may be the root cause for her constant attempts at sabotaging the new Mrs de Winter. In Don't Look Now the murderous dwarf's motives are similarly never revealed. In Bernard Schlink's, The Reader, Hanna's identity as a camp guard is revealed through a war crimes' trial which protagonist, Michael seemingly stumbles upon.

If you do go the way of explanation via monologue there's always the risk that the reader might end up feeling alienated from the character if past traumatic event comes across as implausible or irrelevant. My fellow student's refusal to speak Dutch came across as churlish; why couldn't she just admit it was too hard and she had more enjoyable things to do rather than coming up with something that sounded like an elaborate excuse? When you feel you should explain something about your character's behaviour try asking yourself these questions.

  • Do I need to explain this at all?

  • Does this need to be explained at this stage in the story?

  • Can my reader infer the character's back-story rather than me telling it? (Can I show it rather than tell it?)

  • Will this revelation create more empathy with the protagonist or possibly slow down the action or even alienate the reader?


Can you think of revelatory moments which have worked for you in fiction from the POV of a reader/viewer? How much do you explain in your own writing? Does a character's behaviour always need to be explained?

I highly recommend 'Into the Woods: How Stories Work and Why we Tell them,' by John Yorke for a much more detailed analysis of story structure, and many thanks to Emma Darwin's blog The Itch of Writing for bringing the Rubber Ducky moment phenomenon to my attention.

This Week on Writers Abroad 17th April
Category: Site News

Happy Easter Monday to everyone!

Monday Muse: Vanessa has posted some seasonal and travel-inspired prompts for us to get out teeth into this week. She recently visited Paris in the springtime. Hey, I feel a song/poem/story coming on.

Blog: Sue has written about an issue that can plague the best of writers, self-doubt. What do we need to do in order to write that winning story? Change our style, chop up our sentences, throw in an errant Oxford comma? These are some of the questions Sue mulls over. Also, more controversially, the trolling of a cancer sufferer is a storyline in Coronation Street which has got a lot of people up in arms; should writers exploit this kind of suffering or has a line been crossed?

Bragging Stool: WA members have got four stories in Ad Hoc (it's starting to look like a coup). Sue with story, The Gown; Chris, Stag Undone; Crilly, Freedom and yours truly, Revenge Served Hot. There's still time to hop over and cast your vote; http:// It's Sue's 61st week in Ad Hoc and she has also supplied an evocative illustration for one of the winning stories! Sue is keeping the BS hot with third price in the Morgan Bailey's 100 word competition. Absolutely no reason for self-doubt!

April Challenge: Still plenty of opportunities in our April Challenge and Alyson has posted a picture-inspired story for critiquing. She would love to hear your comments and of course there is still time to post your own challenges. So cast aside the self-doubt (and Easter eggs and hot-cross buns) and let rip!

An exciting week ahead as I prepare to fly to Spain tomorrow for some wonderful days of writing, horse-riding and getting to know fellow WA member, Nicola! Now, let's see if I can jam my riding helmet and type writer into my carry on...

I'm Dutch, it says so in my passport.

I have had dual British and Dutch nationality since 2002. I always thought I would never naturalise, as it felt wrong, and the whole idea that a document could somehow change your identity was ludicrous. But then terrorist planes flew into the Twin Towers and in the wake of 9/11, populist Pim Fortuyn was winning hearts and minds in the Netherlands in a rapid tempo and antipathy towards outsiders grew. So in order to secure my position, I naturalised. There was no ceremony whatsoever, I just had to prove I could speak rudimentary Dutch, show my marriage papers and proof that I had lived in the Netherlands for three years, and perhaps most importantly pay a hefty fee to The Netherlands Ltd.


So, if I'm Dutch why do I;

  • quake at the thought of attending a Dutch birthday party where I have to kiss everyone three times on the cheek and congratulate them on the birthday of their neighbour, son, husband, father, brother-in-law, uncle and so on ad infinitum?

  • refuse to hang up a birthday calendar in the lavatory so that I never forget aforementioned momentous occasions?

  • feel nauseous at the thought of eating cold herring?


And if I'm British why do I;

  • expect buses and trains to run on time?

  • cycle everywhere without wearing lycra and deluding myself that I am in a velodrome?

  • love chips with mayonnaise?

  • consider it OK to jump the queue as long as no one spots me.

Global Citizen?

We are all learning the hard way what globalisation means for many forgotten communities. My dream of retiring in the UK with my Dutch husband has probably been scuppered by the Brexit vote. And while I bear no ill will to those who voted out, on many levels I understand their reasoning, as so often happens it will be the little people who play by the book who get punished, and behemoth corporations who destroyed local communities by off-shoring jobs and undercutting local businesses will remain unaffected. The term global citizen for me conjures images of an oppurtunist hopping from country to country in a private jet and snuffling up rich pickings without contributing to the local community. Or is that overly harsh?

A Foot in Both Camps

In terms of cultural identity I feel very Dutch when I am in the UK and very English when I am in the Netherlands. Or if I'm having a day in which my glass is half full, having dual nationality means I've got a wonderful pick and mix of traditions to choose from and I only need savour the ones I enjoy, and can wriggle out of others by shrugging my shoulders and saying, 'Hey, I'm only passing through anyway.'

I recently renewed my long-expired GB passport so now I plan to keep both passports up to date so that all bases are covered in a world which seems determined to make its citizens jump through endless bureaucratic hoops in order to 'belong'. What do you think? Would you contemplate dual nationality? Perhaps you have naturalised to your adopted country already. I'd love to hear your experiences.




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