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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.


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