Part of a continuing series that deconstructs the mega-bestseller for the benefit of writers seeking to understand story structure and the dynamics of the six core competencies of successful storytelling.
In the last post we looked at the entirety of the structure of this novel, as divided into four contextually-driven parts, separated by three major milestones, and rendered powerful by virtue of a killer hook and brilliant execution.
All of it a textbook-perfect example of effective story architecture.
In this post we’ll look at the first of those four parts, which comprise the Part 1 “set-up” (equivalent to Act I in a film) that leads us to the First Plot Point, which – by definition – is where the story really kicks into gear.
The most critical thing writers need to understand about Part 1 – any Part 1, including yours – is that its highest calling is to introduce and set-up the story elements in such a way that when the First Plot Point arrives, it is backed and reinforced by stakes, emotional empathy, the shadow of an emerging antagonistic force, and foreshadowing of other elements that await down the road.
Timing and exposition here in Part 1 is everything. Get too eager and you’ll be serving up the main dish before the silverware shows up.
Certainly, some seriously dramatic stuff can happen in getting there.
In “The Help,” the latter is a more apt description of how Kathryn Stockett sets up this story (the First Plot Point appears on Page 104, right at the 20 percent mark). It’s all character introduction and backstory that drops us into the lives of three narrators.
The mission of these scenes is clear: make us feel like we’re there, and that we see dynamics that the characters cannot. They feel them — and you can certainly make that feeling visceral — but for them it isn’t a story yet, it’s just their life.
The story is out to change their lives. But we need to ease into it strategically, because we also know that what has to change, and why, is where the juice comes from.
The story best happens when the First Plot Point changes everything. Before then, the story was just coming.
The First Act of this novel spans six chapters with 43 scenes.
Each scene is separated by white space, and represents a change of setting, time or focus. For example, the author will break away from a scene to show us a quick flashback from a character’s childhood or home life – then back into a new scene. Many of these are short, less than a page, while primary exposition scenes go as long as 20 pages or so.
This demonstrates mission-driven scene writing at its finest, which I believe is one of the most powerful principles in storytelling.
The author also chose to write this book in present tense, which is always a risky call. If you’re considering it, I suggest you use this novel as a model on how to pull off such a complex and potentially toxic voice with seemingly the greatest of ease. Just remember it’s like experimental surgery… more patients die than live to tell the tale. In this case, the patient went on to be rich and famous… it can happen.
You’ll first notice this mission-driven technique early in the first chapter, at the bottom of page 2, when the narrator (Aibileen) cuts away from talking about the child she’s caring for to tell us about her own child (a scene which, by the way, reverts back to past tense, which is why this is so hard to make work… next thing you know you’ll need a scene in future tense and that’ll cause all the clocks in all the bookstores on the planet to run backwards). Both scenes have a characterization goal of showing us this woman’s heart and her passion for the children in her care – important because it moves us to like and root for her going forward – but also an expositional-mission by setting-up the contextual factors that will come into play once this story really launches.
Could she have lumped them together? Perhaps. But that probably wouldn’t have been effective (if nothing else for the mixing of tenses alone), or clear. Mission-driven scenes go straight at one thing and one thing only, using the rest as context and sparse filler.
The First Plot Point arrives on Page 104, when Miss Skeeter realizes that she will write the book that will change the lives of all the players in this story. Prior to that point… just a silly and dangerous idea. One that nobody seems to like.
It is when a notion being pondered and explored turns into a plan and a commitment that a set-up evolves into a story.
Read Part 1 again.
Notice how everything – all six chapters, all 43 scenes – are contributing toward that First Plot Point moment. Revealing backstory. Giving it stakes. Infusing it with tension and fear and anticipation. How those 104 pages invest the reader in this moment as much as they set-up, in a mechanical sense, the participation of the players.
The average reader experiences this but probably doesn’t realize what’s going on at this structural level. A writer, however, should strive to notice and then know it, because it is precisely what should happen in any effective story.
Notice also that the author delivers clean narrative POV symmetry in the first six chapters of her Part 1. She has three narrators, each of which must be introduced and given their turn at the microphone.
There are two chapters for each of them. Because all three points of view are critical to the set-up. Each has her own sub-plot and sub-text unique unto themselves.
The story would not be as effective had we not come to know each of them, love them, empathize with them, root for them, feel their oppression and need, recognize the social pressures in play, sense the palpable fear of defying those pressures, and then anticipating that something is going to upset this apple cart.
That pretty much summarizes all that Part 1 – any Part 1 – sets out to accomplish, and in this case does with stellar effectiveness.
By the time Miss Skeeter confesses that the idea for her book is not going away, when she realizes that it is bigger than she is (which, again, is the First Plot Point), we know this is the path the story will take. Because inherent to that path is the conflict, dramatic tension, character arc and thematic power that resides at the heart of any good story, and makes this one a home run on every level.
If this isn’t clear, I recommend that you read the set-up again, and look for these mission-critical narrative outcomes. It’s all set-up, all of it manipulation of the reader’s emotional investment in the characters and their feelings about the thematic issues at hand.
Let’s review how the chapters contribute toward this mission.
In Chapter 1 we meet Aibileen.
We see her heart as she truly loves the child in her care. How she out-mothers the mother. We meet her employer and feel the chill of the empty and shallow place in her soul. We are immersed in the culture that defines the dynamics of these relationships.
We also meet the story’s narrative hero, Miss Skeeter, through Aibileen’s eyes. The primary plot device – telling the collective story of the maids in Jackson – is foreshadowed at that moment. But there is already dramatic tension at work: Aibileen isn’t too keen on being the voice that exposes the racism of the day. She has a job, a family to care for, and a little white girl that needs her.
Aibileen is brought to life, and her life matters. At the end of the chapter we learn that her employer is building a “colored bathroom” in the garage for her use, after which she will no longer be allowed to use the “family” faciities.
Chances are you felt your face flushing with outrage as you read that one.
We are hooked. The thematic gauntlet has been thrown down. And a character we already root for is, we know, squarely in the crosshairs of a coming showdown.
All of this in 13 pages.
… still told from Aibileen’s POV, shows us more of this life while introducing us to her friend, Minny (also a maid, and soon to be a narrator herself in this story), and to the villain, Miss Hilly, who arrogantly represents the voice and ignorance of the culture’s racial prejudice.
… switches to Minny, who has a different set of problems and stakes. Miss Hilly is falsely accusing her of stealing silverware, the backstory of which tells us pretty much all we need to know about the nature of the antagonistic pressure in this story and the stakes they create for the heroes.
In Chapter Four we go deeper…
… into Minny’s world and point of view, including Aibileen’s revelation that the white lady Miss Skeeter might want to write about how they’re being treated by their employers. At this point participating in such an expose would be unthinkable, thus creating and foreshadowing part of the story’s conflict and resistance going forward.
Chapter Five introduces Miss Skeeter herself…
… who is the primary catalyst of the story and thus, by definition, its primary hero. We look at her life as a well-off white girl cared for by a loving and well-loved black maid, Constantine, who we learn had mysteriously disappeared.
In this and in Chapter Six…
… we learn about Miss Hilly’s intention to set Miss Skeeter up with her husband’s stuffy cousin, as it’s high time a nice girl settle down to make a home for a proper southern gentleman. Meanwhile Skeeter has a different vision for her life – she wants to be a writer (which is a primary motivator for everything that happens – when personal motivation collides with conscience and outrage, stuff happens).
The Author’s Narrative Strategy
In looking at the goals and missions of the scene in an effective Part 1, they can seem distant from the story itself. They are outcomes, rather than narrative techniques. They require a narrative strategy to be effective.
Stockett pops us in and out of moments and flashbacks just long enough to get a taste for the social dynamics at hand, and moreover, to feel the sub-text of prejudice, danger and injustice. Some scenes play like little stories, complete with mirco-stakes and outcomes, others just offer a day-in-the-life that allows us to understand what and why those characters are feeling in the current spine of the story.
Most importantly… this stuff can all be planned ahead of time. It can be planned in terms of a sequence of missions that need to be accomplished for the story to drive forward, and it can be planned in terms of how to populate those missions with characters, action, dialogue and something at stake in the form of a micro-story.
But it doesn’t have to be planned. It can be pounded on and edited until the right combination of anecdotes, flashbacks and real-time moments achieve just the right pacing and level of exposition. Not sure which approach Ms. Stockett used here (she declined my invitation to contribute to this series), but it doesn’t matter – however you get there is a good thing.
But allow me to repeat, it can all be planned before you write a word.
These six chapters also effectively set up several sub-plots…
… that become influencing factors to the primary plotline. Aibileen’s relationship to little Mae Mobley, the daughter of her clueless employer, creates stakes in the face of her rocking any racial boats. Minny’s new employer is up to something odd, and is hiding a secret that will become the primary McGuffin later on in the story. And Miss Skeeter juggles an awkward budding romance with the pursuit of a writing career, which includes a book deal from Random House if, and only if, she will send them something worth reading.
It is that last part, in context to Skeeter’s goals at that point in her life, that create the spine of this story. A book exposing the lives and employment dynamics of the black maids of 1962 Jackson, Mississippi would be a social time bomb, and if Kathryn can get the maids to help her at the risk of their jobs and even their personal safety, she will have precisely that on her hands.
When you read Part 1, notice how little airtime the book itself receives. It’s barely there at all, and when it is, its foreshadowing. Why? And yet the book is the sub-text all along, it is always there, waiting to emerge as the story’s driving force and most critical mechanical element.
When you notice this – that it’s not there until Page 104 – you’ll then appreciate what you are noticing on the page: scenes that are fully dedicated to setting-up the First Plot Point moment and rendering it powerful and richly layered.
Nothing happens, nothing is resolved. Rather, elements are launched, factors and dynamics are put into play. It’s all just set-up.
The Timing of the First Plot Point (on Page 104)
When you realize the sheer narrative bulk necessary to build these contextual elements with emotional resonance, it becomes clear why the First Plot Point can’t come any earlier than it does. Short-cutting the optimal insertion point would compromise the weight of the very things that make it work.
If Skeeter had launched her book with the maids as, say, the hook (at about page 25 or so), the underlying stakes and personal demons attached to the decision wouldn’t have stood a chance to make an impact. And their impact is everything in this story.
Test this in other stories you are reading, and in the movies you see. You’ll find this paradigm to be consistent and almost universally inflexible.
And now, after seeing it called out an explained in “The Help,” I’m hoping you’ll see and understand why.
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Six donuts, or the key to unlocking your writing dream. I dunno.
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