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October 15, 2010

Getting Charlie Into The Factory

A surprising revelation about Dahl's masterpiece

While researching my first MG Adventure, I took a really close look at the structure of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which Dahl was apparently  inspired to right by his childhood experiences as a chocolate tester at school. I can't tell you how surprised I was to find that, out of my 155 page version of the book, Charlie doesn't enter the factory until page 57.

The book is 30,644 words, typical for a MG story. If you only had 30,000 words to tell a story, would you spend the first 10,000 dealing with the main character outside of the real setting of the story?

The traditional 3 act structure of a story typically tells us that a character is locked into the world of his story by the end of the first act, which typically takes up the first quarter of a story (the second act is typically twice as long as the first and third). In other words, getting the character to the story is usually a priority. So how does Dahl's story work like this? How can he spend so long outside of the factory when the book is all about the factory? The title says it all!

The answer is that Charlie's character is vital to the story (he does come first in the title after all), and in order to put the reader in Charlie's miserable shoes, we have to feel like we might never get out of his miserable life to the same extent that he does.

The first 57 pages are all about Charlie and how miserable his life is. The misery is taken to the Nth degree, with leaky roofs, shared beds, terrible food and widespread discomfort. We also learn that he's the nicest boy you ever met.

By the time Charlie gets his chances to receive a golden ticket, boy do we want to get him out of that miserable life. The extra time Dahl takes to build the suspense is worth every word, because by the time it finally happens and Mr. Wonka shows up, we want to get in there just as much as Charlie does. And Dahl doesn't let us down once we do.

At the end of the day, the answer is in the title. Charlie is just as much a part of the story as the chocolate factory, because his life is as sad as the factory is wonderful. Spending just a little too long in such a bad place makes the factory that much greater.

1 comment:

ljkuhnley said...


That's an interesting observation about Charlie. I'm reading it myself for the second time and I've seen the original movie several times. I think you're right about the suspense being worth every word. Every time I get to the part where he finds the golden ticket I cry.

I think structurally it works as well if you consider Wonka's announcement as the catalyst instead of actually finding the ticket. In that respect, I feel that the discovery of the tickets is not truly setup per se but rather the first part of Act II. If you think about Act II as being an entrance to a new world, the world Charlie enters is not simply the chocolate factory itself but a world in which in he has hope.

I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on Matilda. Dahl chooses to reveal her powers very late in the story. Generally, I tend to think magical elements need to be established very early in the story (or at least hinted at). However, I was so engaged by Matilda's plight that I wanted her to have any advantage she could get over the Trunchbull.

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