Monthly Archives: May 2011

Deconstructing “The Help”

Thehelpbookcover.jpg

My opinion: with all the workshops… all the how-to books… all the blogs…

… with all that to help us, I think the most illuminating, clarifying and empowering thing writers can do is to read or see – and then analyze – stories (books and movies) in all genres with a view toward seeing what makes them tick.  

Med students have cadavers, we have bestsellers and great films. 

We have “The Help.”  A story that is still very much alive and kicking.

Dead or alive, there is much to learn in the transitory space – also known as a slippery slope – between theory and reality.

What “The Help” can teach us.

The Help” is a study in place, setting and character. 

None of which, by the way, either compete with or compromise the unfolding dramatic tension across a textbook-perfect four-part story arc – structure – punctuated by specific, easily identified narrative milestones.  There are many scenes that, while remaining mission-driven, seem to drop us into a moment in time in which character dynamics are exposed, seemingly without much forward-moving plot exposition.

But don’t be fooled.  Or lulled into complacency.  Because sub-text is raging on every page.

The Help” is nothing if not all about sub-text.

A reader of thrillers might get impatient with this aspect of “The Help,” but it is there by design.  Why?  Because the weight of our relationship with these characters, which is driven by our vicarious witnessing of their dynamics and inner responses, is the key to the entire novel. 

What happens in the story is driven by what the characters are feeling, where more often it is the other way around.

The author understood this subtlety fully, most likely before she wrote a word.  The story could have become lost in a sea of characterized vignettes, but there is always a sense that this is leading somewhere, and wherever it’s headed is fraught with risk and stakes worth, perhaps, dying for.

For me, this is the essence of character-driven storytelling, while still delivering a story that is, purely in a dramatic sense, rich with tension and sub-text.  We keep reading as much to find out what happens as anything else, and yet we wouldn’t care about what happens had Stockett not delivered such a rich tableau of character and culture and the pulse of a time and place so effectively.

That’s always a delicate balance, one that Stockett executes perfectly.

A Window Into Theme

To put it another way, “The Help” is a blending of craft and art in a way that is rare.  And like Dan Brown’s “The DaVinci Code,” the core competency (element) that propelled it into the hearts and minds of critics and readers alike, with a resultant long term lease on the #1 spot on virtually every bestseller list out there, is it’s theme.

That’s the other first-tier level of learning and awareness that awaits us in this book.  A similar story without the strong undercurrent of racial consequences, both on a micro/character level, and on a macro/societal level, probably wouldn’t have resonated as it did.

The theme is what makes this story important, as well as rewarding on many levels.  The book shows us how vital importance is to the success of the story.

If you haven’t read “The Help” yet, I strongly recommend that you do, and that you join us in a major leap up the learning curve via an in-depth understanding of why this story works so well.

Because it’s a duplicable, transferrable skill set.

No matter what genre you write in, a great story in any genre has something to teach us. 

To show us, rather than simply tell us. 

The latter part is my job.  The former… I’ll turn that over to Ms. Stockett for the next few posts.

Next Up: A Structural Summary of “The Help.”

Until then, ask yourself this: how important is your story?  What you are saying about history, life, humanity or culture that is important?  And how does this show up as sub-text within your story?

Even if your story is all about entertainment, it’ll fare better if there’s at least a seed of importance – usually at the thematic level – somewhere in your pages.

Click HERE to learn more about the Six Core Competencies of successful storytelling.

 

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The Flip Side of “Concept”

However you define it, “concept” is one of the Six Core Competencies of successful storytelling.  It is an essence of storytelling that becomes a powerful tool in that development process, as described ad nauseum here on Storyfix.  And in my new book.

And since we’re about to deconstruct “The Help” over the next few weeks, the book becomes a great example of what this is about today.

This post isn’t about Stockett’s concept for “The Help.”  That’ll be a big part of that series, as the book allows us to separate concept, theme and idea and premise in a clear and empowering way.

Rather, today’s post is about how concept, as a generic, universally-applied core competency – as a tool – breaks down into two available realms: the creative and the mechanical.

The Help” is a convenient and timely example of both.

The Creative Realm of Concept

At its most obvious, concept refers to the inherent proposition and invitation of the story on a narrative level.  It suggests that if you create a set of characters, then concoct a compelling situation, then smush the two together, literary hi-jinks will ensue.

And that without the smush, something is lacking.

A great concept is the stuff of thrills, chills, drama, tension, laughter, wonder, turn ons, emotions and life lessons that turn good books into great books.  Because, at its core, it is concept that gives great characters a stage upon which to show their stuff, which is the seed from which theme emerges.

When we think of concept, this is what we probably go to.  A “what if?” proposition.  The hook, that stage, the compelling notion of the fiction that is the source of dramatic tension, character arc and the prospect of engaging a reader’s emotions.

But that creative view may not be enough to fully seize the conceptual moment at hand.

Because there is another realm – another opportunity – that is by definition totally conceptual in nature and execution.  And if you don’t address it and optimize it (make the best possible choices in this realm), it will leave the station without you and both define and restrict your story in doing so.

The Mechanical View of Concept

As described above, concept deals with what the story could and should be in a dramatic sense.

The mechanical take on concept deals with how the story should best be told.

This mechanical side of concept is comprised of the choices an author makes about voice, tense, time sequencing, narrative asides and other little tricks and structures that reside outside of the simply linear.

Sometimes – often, in fact – the simply linear is ideal. 

But not always.  When it isn’t, you need a narrative concept (a mechanical concept) that does the job better.

As our first example, let’s look at “The Help.” 

That story is told in first person.  It was a choice, a decision – a concept – made at some early point in the story development process, as it is for any story.  But Stockett didn’t give in to the obvious choice, because there was a better choice on the table, one that wasn’t obvious at all.

She uses not one, but three narrators, all of them delivered in first person.  This, too, is conceptual, and by definition purely a mechanical one.  Third person omniscient narrative could have been used, but that’s a different concept. 

The book is also written in present tense, much like a screenplay (fair warning: don’t try this at home, it’s very risky business). 

Who knows how these mechanical decisions might have impacted the fact of the book.  What we do know, however – based on results – is that Kathryn Stockett’s choices worked.

I’m not talking about writing voice here (another of the six core competencies, one that is completely separate in context and execution), but rather, I’m labeling the means by which an author chooses to deliver a story – linear or otherwise – as conceptual.

Alice Sebold could, for example, have written “The Lovely Bones” as a musical.  Same story exactly.  Same hook, same conceptual underpinnings, same characters and drama.  And if she did, that would have been a conceptual choice that would have defined the entire future of the story.

Or you could have written “A Chorus Line” as  detective noir.  After the fact we – the viewers – take these mechanical choices for granted.  But staring at the blank page, taking them for granted can be fatal. 

Or it can make your career.

Which is why this realm of mechanical conceptualization is so important.

Mechanical concepts become creative by means of their effectiveness. 

Remember “Pulp Fiction”

How it jumped around in time sequencing, showing us what actually took place near the end at various times in the sequence of the story.  Nothing linear there.  That’s a concept, one residing in the mechanical realm of author decision-making.

Remember “The Bridges of Madison County?”  A totally mechanical concept, in that the story unfolded in two spheres of time, with narrative bridging (no pun intended) them to optimize pace, tension and emotion.

Structure, while guided by principles, is very much a conceptual decision, because what goes where defines your story.

Did you see the film “500 Days of Summer”? 

Each scene was labeled with graphic subtitles as one of those days, unfolding in what appeared to be a random order.  Day 365, for example, occurs well before, say, Day 21.

But it wasn’t remotely random from the author’s seat.  The story showed us what needed to be revealed in precisely the proper, optimized order, weaving backstory, false climaxes, abandoned hopes and rekindled passion together into a linear and artful love story that was more about how it arrived at its conclusion than the conclusion itself.

This, too, is a concept.  A tricky one, since a story still needs to unfold in a thematically and dramatically linear fashion whatever mechanical choice the author makes.

In my 2004 novel, “Bait and Switch,” I combined a first person protagonist narrative alternating with third person point-of-view chapters showing what was going on behind the curtain of the hero’s awareness (once again sending a legion of old school writing teachers into a catatonic frenzy).  According to the folks at Publishers Weekly that named it to the “Best Books of 2004” after a starred review, I’m thinking it worked.

A risky choice?  Not really.  I first saw that technique, by the way, in Nelson Demille’s The Lion’s Game (2002), and it blew my mind.  A whole new world of conceptual possibility opened up simply by seeing it done, and done well.

The enlightened writer understands that these two conceptual landscapes– creative and mechanical – are on the table at all times.  When seized early, even before a first draft, the storytelling is empowered and/or tested against a vision for it.  If it’s landed upon during the drafting process, that is an equally valid outcome of the story development process itself, because once that landing occurs, so does the vision for the story.

You can start a successful story without one, but you can’t finish a successful story without a vision for it.

So along with asking ourselves, what would my hero do in this situation?, and, what will make the dramatic tension in this scene go vertical? (these among a long list of other conceptual questions)…

… we should also be asking ourselves what mechanical options – point of view, time sequencing, dialogue style and even how the thing looks on the page – best suit the story and our vision for it.

This is where risk, creativity and courage collide in a brilliant explosion of exhilarating potential.

This is the essence of optimization

Awareness is a beautiful thing. 

Because in an avocation in which we can too easily begin to think that our stories are writing themselves… they aren’t. 

Rather, a story is like a child, tending to wander off to explore dangerous and wasted side trips and bad choices – one of which, I’ll grant you, yield valuable lessons – and it’s our job to shepherd them toward the sweet spot of dramatic optimization and literary bliss.

When that happens, know that both realms of conceptual decision making are in play… and that you have total control over the options presented by both.

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