“The Help” is nothing if not a book of architectural subtleties. Because the major plot points in this story are primarily contextual in nature.
They always are contextual in nature – that’s the primary mission of story milestones – but in many books and films they’re also loud and self-announcing.
At the typical First Plot Point, for example, storms hit, doctors announce fatal diagnoses, lotteries are won, affairs commenced, divorces filed, kids go to college leaving an empty nest couple do deal with each other… whatever… the story is literally spun in a new direction after being set up in the first quartile.
Not so in this book. The story just seems to purr along, a slice of life and a peek into some dark corners told via vignettes and moments. And yet, precisely because of this subtlety, seeking a full understanding of precisely how the author’s chosen plot milestones work becomes a powerful storytelling lesson.
The milestones are all there. Just as much as if someone, perhaps a courageous woman, had dared take a seat in the front of a bus in 1943.
Now that’s a plot point… but in another story.
On page 104 of the trade paperback edition of “The Help,” at the end of Chapter 6, the author reveals the First Plot Point: Miss Skeeter admits to herself (and thus, to us) that she will write a book about the maids of Jackson and the racially-influenced realities that define their lives. That the notion just graduated to an intention.
And that it’s happening not just for her career, but because it has something important to tell the world. The centerpiece, the primary mechanical McGuffin of the story – the book – is now on the table.
Everything prior to this moment had merely been a set-up for it.
It creates a mission for Skeeter, and thus for the maids.
That mission is rendered empathetic – something we can root for – by virtue of the way Part 1 (the set-up) unfolds, via deep characterizations, thematic resonance and the presentation of a set of world views in dire need of examination and change.
The reader cares about the book at this point. Any earlier and that caring wouldn’t have legs. Any later and the story would have lagged.
Because of Part 1, consequences are in play the moment the First Plot Point lights the fuse of the rest of the story. The story kicks into another gear and and never looks back.
We are now thrust into Part 2 of the story.
While it feels smooth in the reading, the context of this story is now completely different. A shift in purpose has occurred. Everything that happens from this point on relates to, in some way, what was put into play at the First Plot Point – Skeeter’s book.
Everything that takes place going forward, either directly or indirectly, is a response to this new context.
Part 2 consists of 1o chapters and 51 short, mission-driven scenes.
Not all of them go straight at a character-specific response to the new context; indeed, some Part 2 scenes seek to create deeper stakes and consequences. But the primary heroic journey has now been launched, and thus, any deepening of the stakes are, by definition, in context to the new thrust of the story – the book.
Which, we should remind ourselves, wasn’t in play in Part 1.
And thus, even those seemingly peripheral scenes are themselves a response to the First Plot Point and the context shift it delivers.
Let’s look at what happens in Part 2 and examine how they are response to the unfolding birth of Skeeter’s book and the roles of the women who conspire with her to write it.
Notice how the exposition in Part 2 continues to deepen the dramatic tension, ratchet up the stakes and unpeel yet more layers of characterization. Nothing is solved, things only get darker and more urgent.
Skeeter needs to nail down Aibileen’s involvement in the project. But fear is in the way – fear of losing her job, fear of rocking the community boat, fear of something unspeakable. This is all in context to – in response to – Skeeter’s proposed book.
Meanwhile the sub-plot of Skeeter’s prospective date launches. These scenes, too (which at a glance don’t seem to relate to her book), are in context to her inner journey (which took a sharp turn at the FPP), because not everything that is normal and expected in her life as a well-off young white woman in Jackson is under the spotlight of a new awareness on her part.
Which is directly connected to her book and driven by the same character arc.
We see Miss Hilly’s truly ugly moral compass and the blackness of her soul. It’s good to ramp up the villain’s repulsion factor in Part 2, and thus, in context to what Skeeter is up to, becomes important to the reader’s investment. Because not only do we root for Skeeter’s book and the women who are writing it, but we’re rooting for Miss Hilly to go down in flames.
Sub-plots are everywhere in Part 2.
Minny and Miss Celia are doing a power struggle dance with an underlying dark secret. Minny has an unhappy home life to return to every day. Miss Skeeter is fetching library books on both sides of the racial issue and delivering them to Aibileen, fueling her passion for the project they share. All of these sub-plots are contextually related to the primary dramatic device of the story – the book.
At much urging Minnie joins the team, albeit reluctantly. She becomes the voice of fear and cynicism that defines the entire tone of the times. This is part of the unfolding dramatic tension: will Skeeter get enough maids involved? Will the risks surface in ugly ways? Will Skeeter finish in time? What will become of her, and the maids, if she does?
In Chapter 15 a piece of actual history drops into the story: Medgar Evers is murdered by white racists on his own porch, just around the corner from where our maids live. Shot in cold blood. The community’s reaction, the response of the maids and the attempt to sweep it under the rug on the part of the white women villains only deepens the reader’s investment in the success of Miss Skeeter’s book.
And all of it is because of, and in context to, the moment when the book project was born and committed to in Skeeter’s heart and mind.
The book is what the story is about on a narrative (Plot Point One is almost always an unveiling of what a story is about in a dramatic sense).
The racial issues are what the book is about on a thematic level. Keep them separate, but allow one to help drive the other.
The Mid-Point comes at the end of Chapter 16.
And it’s subtle. Easy to miss. But impossible to ignore if you are looking for story architecture. It feels like a natural evolution of things… but it’s not. Its placement is intentional, downright architectural.
The author could have brought in the Medgar Evans murder at any time in the story. Or not at all. But she’s used it in “The Help” as the catalyst for her Mid-Point, because it changes the context of everything.
The murder isn’t the Mid-Point. That happens when the characters are suddenly aware of a new context for their journey because of it.
Remember the mission of the Mid-Point…
… to add something to the story that serves as a parting of the narrative curtain – for either the hero(es), the reader, or both – in such a way that the story transitions from response-mode into attack-mode.
There are two elements that, when taken together, give us our Mid-Point in this story.
First, the black church gathers to voice their concern over the Evans murder and what it means for their community. Their lives are in danger in a way they weren’t before. The implication: something must be done about it.
The unspoken – because nobody knows about the involvement of the maids at this point – is that if their participation is ever exposed their lives would be in grave danger. And we know that Miss Hilly is capable of going to that extent.
The stakes just went up. The risk – and the necessity – of Skeeter’s book is orders of magnitude more significant and important.
The other element of the Mid-Point is when one of the most resistant of the maids, Yule May (who worked for Miss Hilly), tells Aibileen that she wants in. She wants to be among the maids who are telling their story to the world.
And because her employer is the most heinous racist in town (or least in this book), her stakes carry the most risk of all.
Until this moment, one of the points of dramatic tension was Skeeter’s ability to get enough maids involved to meet the publisher’s deadline, which was moved up (because of the impending Martin Luther King march) suddenly.
But now it’s on.
Skeeter has her maids. They all have their unified purpose and a shared mission.
And the villains have even more ammunition and an implied willingness to do whatever is necessary to silence dissent.
What happens from this point on has a new context. It’s now all Part 3 attack mode, but with the same sense of subtlety that defines the rest of the novel. The requisite Part 2 responding is done, the Part 3 proactive forward movement to get it done is underway, and in the face of even more risk and more significant stakes than before.
Thanks to Donna Lodge for the summarized chapter breakdown, which was of great help to me in doing this analysis.
Next up: an analysis of Part 3 of “The Help.”