“The Help” –Context and Concept

I sat down this afternoon to write a post about the second quartile of “The Help,” better known as Part 2 (Act 2, or the first half of it, for screenwriters), which in story architecture is labeled The Response.

Bears slipping in right here… response to what?  Answer: the First Plot Point, as set up in the first quartile of the story.  Which in this book was Miss Skeeter’s realization that she absolutely must write her book about the maids of Jackson, Mississippi.  That it is going to happen, that it has morphed from a notion into an intention.

Everything in Part 2, for all the characters, is in context to responding to that critical Plot Point One milestone.

Right there, for me, things got sketchy. 

And it’s important to acknowledge why, because it’s precisely what happens when we are writing a story and do not have all four of the requisite story elements – concept, character, theme and structure – at the forefront of our thinking.

Because nothing really works until all four are swimming in the same lane.

What might that unfortunate consequence be?  Answer: writing without a complete and full contextual understanding of our own story.  This is a huge realization for a writer… both in terms of understanding what makes a story work, and recognizing what it is we are searching for as we plan or draft our stories.

In fact, I believe it’s the most important thing a writer can learn in their entire growth experience: the artful mixing and melding and rendering of the contextual power of the four elements of story.

When we write a story we are, from the moment idea dawns, searching for the moment when all four of those elements manifest and then melt into each other.  When that happens, the other two core competencies – scene execution and writing voice – suddenly become a magical experience.

Stories that don’t work are stories that don’t achieve that moment of melding.

Getting back to my little dilemma… I realized that in writing about Part 2 at this stage in this series about “The Help,” without acknowledging the higher level of conceptual context of this story, rendered the exploration shallow and without linkage to the big picture.

And the Big Picture is the point.

And so, instead, before we go further into structure, today I’m writing about The Concept of “The Help.”

Which, like all concepts, drives everything in the story, because it creates context for everything in the story.

It doesn’t matter when and how The Concept crystallizes – and we have no real idea when and how it did for Kathryn Stockett — what matters is that a powerful concept does, in fact, sooner or later appear and become the energizing narrative fuel for the story. 

You can begin with it, which is an outcome of story planning, or you can draft away until The Concept announces itself.  In which case – and this is perfectly okay – one then needs to revise or even start over so that the story, as revised, unfolds in context to it.

Huge stuff.  Critical writer awareness.  It’s a make or break level skill-set.

The Concept in “The Help

It’s Miss Skeeter’s book.  Call it a McGuffin, a plot device, or a metaphor.  It’s the concept

Everything else – the strong characters, the heavy themes – is without purpose until this concept applies.  Without that concept, or at least another concept equally as catalytic (a critical thing to recognize about a great concept, because its power as a catalyst for the other three story elements of character, theme and structure is its primary mission), this story goes nowhere.  Because it has nowhere to go.

The concept creates the journey.   The reason for the story at an expositional level.  It identifies a need, a quest, a problem to solve, darkness to avoid, all with stakes hanging in the balance. 

Otherwise, this book is just a bunch of short vignettes about maids working in the homes of clueless and often heartless employers, and a woman named Miss Skeeter realizing that something is deeply wrong with this picture.

Concept becomes the purpose of structure. 

Structure is the narrative device that drives the concept forward into exposition, with a beginning (the Part 2 set-up)… middle (Parts 2 and 3, separated by a context-shifting Mid-Point)… and an ending (Part 4).

Those are generic, universal, eternal and always effective.  In “The Help,” they are rendered perfectly, and are what gives this story a means by which the huge themes and strong characters have purpose and a chance to strut their stuff.

Without a concept, it’s just journalism.

Concept vs. Idea in “The Help

Before concept there is often an idea.  Many writers do not differentiate between the two, even though in execution they have evolved their idea into a concept by adding dramatic tension – a “what if?” to it.

Kathryn Stockett tells us, in the author’s note after the story concludes, that her idea for this book came when she realized that it never occurred to her to ask her beloved childhood maid what it was like to be black in that time and place, what it was like to live with and work with a white family who, despite fairness and caring, never thought to regard her as an equal, and who lived with different expectations and rules on the other side of town.

Wouldn’t it make for an interesting book to explore this?  To right these wrongs by acknowledging them.  That was Kathryn Stockett’s starting point.  It was pure theme, with the implication of characters… and nothing else. 

Every story begins with one of the four story elements, or, less often, with a vision for a scene.  In Stockett’s case, “The Help” began with theme.  The need to shine a light on what happened.

The author knew she needed to give the characters something to do.  A framework on which to hang these themes.  Something that presented risk, had options, had opposition, and with stakes hanging in the balance.

Miss Skeeter’s book was that concept.

What if a socially-connected white woman secretly worked with the black maids in a 1962 racially-prejudiced Southern town to write a book about their experiences, good and bad, as employees and often second-class citizens in the eyes of their employers?

That single question defines the concept.  And whatever “what if?” questions ensued from it defined the novel itself.

As it always does.

As you read “The Help” through a writer’s eye, be sure to notice how the context of this concept begins on page one and influences each and every scene thereafter.  How, without it, none of this happens.

And notice how the First Plot Point is where the concept of this story really kicks in.  It is almost always the point at which the conceptual thrust of the story either ignites or takes a major shift, creating context for all that follows.

The same fundamentals apply to your story, as well.  What’s your concept, and how does it create a platform for your other story elements – character, theme and structure – to fully explode into the minds and hearts of your readers?

What journey are you launching for your characters?  And thus, for your readers?

The answer to that question is the key to writing a great story.

Hope you don’t me sharing some good news… since Amazon.com selected my book (“Story Engineering”) as part of their summer reading promotion, it has remained the #1 Kindle bestseller in three separate writing and fiction writing categories.  Thanks for your support, this is largely because of Storyfix readers.

If you haven’t considered it, you can read about it HERE.  With my thanks.

Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #757 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)

9 Comments

Filed under "The Help" Deconstruction series

9 Responses to “The Help” –Context and Concept

  1. spinx

    Aaaaahh———-I feel like I am just one step from finally being able to draw that clear line between concept, theme and idea.

    Just one more kick in the ass!

    But funny that you would mention that without concept a story remains mere journalism, since I too have come to that conclusion a couple of weeks ago (Oh I feel so very smart now!).

    Continue your great work, and make sure that it is not the only thing in your life to spend time on! Be happy and have a damn nice day Larry!

    Always reading…………another wannabe.

  2. What will happen? Someone will reveal the racial injustices happening in 1962 Mississippi, thus achieving a sense of personal justice.

    How will X happen? With the help of some black maids, a racially sympothetic white woman will reveal to the world the injustice and wrongs happening in Mississippi.

    What if I do THIS with X? What if this white woman is a writer named Skeeter who collaborates with two black maids, Aibileen and Minny, to write a book about what goes on in Mississippi. (Concept)

    #TheMatrixMoment 😉

  3. Love your post today , Larry. I had about three MAJOR story epiphanies thanks to you. I’m going to link this post to my blog as well. I think you’re becoming one of my writing gurus. Mindy

  4. Hi Larry,
    I’ve been following your analysis of “The Help” (and reading it along the way) with great interest. Today’s post, I think, is the best one on this blog. And I’ll tell you why: in this post you injected a full measure of fervor to ram home the point that ‘concept’ really drives the story train. When we know in our bones what our story is really about, then characters step out of the dark, theme stands out to be noticed, plot points suggest themselves. I’m putting your ideas to the test in my WIP : I’ve taken a flash piece I wrote that gives me ‘that feeling’; the feeling that suggests an excellent larger story exists there. But the flash piece is just a concept right now – I’m in the ‘what if?’ stage of development. This post really resonated with me. Thanks.

  5. Great series, Larry. The whole idea of structure is so revolutionary to so many writers. But, when it’s explained (as you did so marvelously in your book), the pieces suddenly fall into place like magic. So often, writers want to make the concept of a “good story” out to be something mystical and attainable only through luck. It’s great to see people’s eyes light up when they realize structure is the key to making a good story fall into place every single time.

  6. Colleen Shine Phillips

    Inspiring as always. I remain a loyal fan and follower of Storyfix. I do have a request…..I believe you already did this on a previous post…..could you in just three sentences (or so, you know best) clearly distinguish Concept, Theme, and Premise? Or….please redirect me to the post where you did this. Thanks!

  7. Steve

    @Colleen (and who the heck am I, I’m learning too):
    Concept, a zombie decides to change his diet from brains to birthday cake. Theme, it’s a coming of age story for a very, very late post-pubescent “teen.” Premise, his new roommate a runaway clown convinces him that cake doesn’t scream, but often comes with ice cream. He says “Ohhhh.”

    If that’s too uh…, check Shanes’ post above. Premise is the very specific manner in which things take place. What sets the stage for action beyond setting?? (sorta asking) Well, keep listening to Larry. I’ve got the book and am going to catch up.

  8. Giovanni

    Hi mr. Storyfixer, I just wanted to thank you for this blog. It’s all very clear and easy to understand even for non-english old newbies like me. I love your deconstructions and very much appreciate your hard work. Please keep on!

  9. Pingback: More “Help”… Coming Soon