Monthly Archives: June 2011

“The Help” – Fighting the Good Fight in Part 3

(Long post today, but good stuff, I think.  There’s a more personal message at the end, too, if you’re a skimmer.)

The mission of the third quartile of a story (Part 3) is to show the hero proactively attacking what stands in the way of reaching of the goal, solving the problem, escaping the danger or whatever else the author has deviously plotted against them.

The mission of the second quartile of a story (Part 2) is to respond to – not attack, at least not in context to full disclosure of the nature of the antagonist or the stakes – that same opposition.  Which may or may not be fully exposed at the First Plot Point, which is the intersection of the Part 1 set-up and Part.

And of course, the mission of the first quartile of a story (Part 1) is to introduce and position the elements of a story before the game-changing, story-defining moment of the First Plot Point, which is where it all suddenly begins to matter.

Make no mistake, the First Plot Point is the single most important moment in a story, at least from an architectural, execution-dependent point of view.That said, it should be noted here that…

… as we press forward into a story, and if we’ve carefully and properly designed our story using the varying contexts, missions and milestones (either through planning or drafting), things actually seem to get easier as we go deeper and further.

Or course they do.  Because Part 3 is the natural evolution and outcome of all the stuff you’ve put into play in Parts 1 and 2.  If you’ve done that effectively, then the odds of suddenly realizing you don’t know where you are, or where to go next are dramatically reduced.

And if that’s where you find yourself, there is really only one ultimately effective solution: stop writing the story.  Now. 

If you were driving toward a cliff, and you knew it, you’d stop.  You’d change course.  In fact, you’d go back to where you made the wrong turn that led you toward the cliff and request – execute – a do-over.

It’s time to go back to the story planning drawing board.  Whatever that means to you. 

The biggest mistake a writer can make, at this point, is to simply keep writing stuff – to drive off the cliff with hope that you’ll somehow survive the fall – even though you’re pretty such it doesn’t feel right in context to what you’ve written up to this point.

Oh, you’ll know.  By the time you get to Part 3, you’ll know.

But it’s unlikely you’ll have to go that route, because unless you’ve pantsed your way into a corner (writer-speak for painting yourself into one) with your Parts 1 and 2 – or, your planning didn’t work out as you’d hoped – odds are you’ve had Part 3 in the back of your mind, perhaps subconsciously, all along.

All of which, by the way, is generic story architecture stuff. 

As for “The Help,” once again it plays right into the universal mission definition of the four parts of a story, all of which are different. 

In Part 3 of “The Help,” each of the 51 scenes delivered within its ten chapters share this context of attack.  The characters know what they must do, and they set out to get ‘er done.

Milly is now all in.  That Part 2 reactionary phase (her fear, her hesitance and cynicism, at least enough to give her a uniform) has been dealt with, the players are no longer fleeing, doubting or considering other choices… they’re in.

The game has changed.  The essential dramatic question, which in Part 2 was “will Miss Skeeter get enough of the maids involved?”… to… “will the book get finished and published, and what will become of them when it does?”

They’re attacking the problem, or if you prefer, the goal.  Proactively.  In full view of the impending consequences.

All of that was implied and lurking in the sub-text of Part 2, but in Part 3 it pushes its way to the forefront.  Not by some narrative accident, but through the author’s intentions, beginning at Page 1 of the draft that was published.

Doesn’t mean they’ll starting succeeding right away, in fact they don’t. 

In fact, the reason they don’t is that the story is still building in tension and momentum and stakes in Part 3.  Only in a contextually new and different way.

This is a critical, empowering subtlety, folks.  One we need to embrace and practice.  One that doesn’t often happen by accident.

This Part 3 shift and elevation of tension implies that the antagonist is also evolving, meeting the new vigor of the heroes in Part 3 with even darker, more compelling danger and consequential proactively of its own.

That, too, is a critical subtlety.  Actually, it’s not a subtlety at all, come to think of it – it’s the fuel that makes the story work.

In Part 3 of “The Help,” Minnie and Aibileen align and support each other as part of the voice of Miss Skeeter’s book.  Each of them, in doing so, comes closer to exposure and the dangers of their rebellion, which are for them bigger and more personal than the book (Miss Skeeter’s) itself.  That collision of choices and consequences unfolds alongside the issue of Miss Skeeter’s book, albeit because of it.

Sub-plots evolve in Part 3, but in context to the new urgency of the primary plot.  Minnie emerges as the stronger part of the liaison with her employer, Miss Celia (a white woman), thus juxtaposing the balance of power and soul beneath the skin of the culture in which they exist.

Skeeter realizes her new boyfriend is too steeped in the culture she is trying to expose.  This puts her family status in danger, as well as her social well-being.  Meanwhile, she’s getting closer to the prize – a career as a published writer.

Toward the end of Part 3, in a major twist that demonstrates that you can insert all the curveballs you want apart from and in addition to those that become your plot and mid points, Skeeter learns the book will be published after all.

Which, because the consequences have just stepped up from if to when, lights a fuse in each of the character arcs.

Of course, no Part 3 would be complete without experiencing a power surge of threat and devious mechanism from the villain…

…  and Miss Hilly doesn’t disappoint.  She succeeds in getting Skeeter fired from her newsletter gig, as well as putting her own maid in jail on trumped up charges.  Her potential for evil is clearer than ever, and thus, her threat to our beloved heroes, which is not remotely, accidentally or coincidentally relevant to the more personal exposure she is risking through the outing of Minnie’s pie story.

The bad guy (Miss Hilly), you see, also has a goal, stakes and consequences.  It is what drives them, and it must be part of the narrative exposition.

If you haven’t read the book, Millie’s pie story is critical. 

It’s a killer, both literal and metaphoric plot device that, after 397 pages of tension-building, suddenly and deliciously (no pun intended) jacks the stakes to a new, unexpected level.  For everyone.

Plot Point Two happens when that little kitty is let out of the bag.  Minnie reveals the Big Secret that went down between her and Miss Hilly, which, when presented to the world via her narrative in Skeeter’s book, will rock both of their worlds. 

It becomes the centerpiece of the story’s consequences.  The McGuffin, if you will.

In fact, it might just get Minnie killed.  Or at least, thrown in jail on yet more of Miss Hilly’s lies.

Or it might, in fact, expose Miss Hilly for the pitiful human being that she is.  Which, after all this brilliant reader manipulation on the author’s part, would be wonderful and gratifying.  Something to really root for.

Worth staying up all night for, in fact.  Which is precisely what happens.

The reader is there.  We must know what happens.  Not because it is inherently consequential – it’s not, it’s a bit sophomoric and is a bit of history without direct impact on anything at all other than reputations and karma – but because we, the readers, want it so desperately.

Make no mistake, the reason we care so much has as much to do with the architecture of the story as it does with its themes.

****

I’m planning a “walk the walk” experiment/promotion for July. 

With all this information and perspective on what makes a story work comes a bit of a challenge, and occasionally a calling out.  What have I done, as the purveyor of all this supposed expertise, to justify my claim to credibility?  Who am I to put all this stuff on the table and position it as definitely as I have?

If you’ve read some of the reviews of my writing book, “Story Engineering,”
you’ll see the question posed there.  My enthusiasm for story architecture is as misunderstood as it is valid.  At least by some.

Anyhow – and without masking my intention to give my own novels a second life – I’ll be offering the Kindle version of my novel, “Bait and Switch,” for only 99 cents in the month of July.  Shortly thereafter I’ll have the other three novels (which were published prior to Whisper of the Seventh Thunder, and is already available on Kindle or in trade paperback) up on Kindle, as well.

I confess, I’m hoping to become one of those miraculous case studies in the emergence of Kindle and other digital e-readers as a venue for established authors as well as new ones. 

My goal is to move 5000 copies of the book in the month of July… but for that to happen, I can use your help.  If you like it, please recommend it and or write about it.  People in the industry have told me the book deserves(ed) to be a bestseller (it was a critical home run), so let’s see if the power of social media and the internet can make it so.

If I get feedback that it will be helpful, I’ll also post a short series that deconstructs “Bait and Switch” from the author’s point of view.

You can read a mid-story sample chapter from the book HERE.

The more we see it happen on the page, the more real it gets.

The novel, published in 2004, received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, rave reviews elsewhere, and PW selected it to their “Best Books of 2004” list (scroll down to the “Mass Market” category, where you’ll see the cover image), as well as their “Best Overlooked Books of 2004” list, the only paperback so-named.

Hoping you’ll help me make that last one an ironic moot point.

More on this promotion as it launches.  Thanks for your support.

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“The Help” – Part/Act 2 (Response) to the Mid-Point

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.”

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