Category Archives: “The Help” Deconstruction series

“The Help” – A Happy Ending… ?

Great endings are hard to craft.

Fun to read… easy to take for granted when we do.  Unless it bombs.

My favorite author, Nelson Demille, totally tanked the ending of “Night Fall” when he concluded the story with a deus ex machina of preposterous proportions.  After hundreds of pages of rooting for the hero as he gathers evidence and positions the antagonists for a hard and gratifying fall, the ending had them all meeting with the press and the FBI for a come-to-Jesus outing of the truth… in the North tower of the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001.

Even Demille admitted later that he really didn’t know how else to end this thing.  Which shows that, even at his level – believe me when I say, these A-list brand name authors have different standards than the rest of us, and sometimes they’re lower – at some point in the process we need to write our stories with a specific ending in mind. 

 I advocate that point occurring before you begin a draft, as defined during your story planning process.  (Read more about that HERE.)

This is one of the most powerful principles in all of storytelling.

 Every other milestone in our stories have criteria and timing attached. 

 But with endings… the timing is obvious… and the only other criteria is that it deliver an emotional experience – good or bad – to your reader.  That’s it.  Doesn’t have to be happy or sad, you don’t have to tie up all the loose ends, you don’t have to even end it, you can just stop if you want… provided it delivers the requisite emotional response.

Kathryn Stockett begins setting up the ending of “The Help” at the Second Plot Point, which occurs on page 452 (of the trade paperback edition) when Miss Skeeter tells her co-authors that Harper and Row has accepted their book for publication.

It’s on.  No turning back now.  The consequences of their actions are inevitable.

It is the anticipation and unfolding of those consequences that create the contextual missions for each of the remaining scenes in the book.  There are several storylines to wrap up, and each gets its moment at center stage, and in context to the dramatic circumstances that have been assigned to them earlier in the story.

Skeeter leaves town, gets a career.  Aibileen gets framed and fired, but it doesn’t bother her, she’s free.  And Minny… well, Minny certainly gets her pound of flesh out of the hide of Miss Hilly, who deserved much worse.

If you’re like me, I’m guessing that as you read this book you kept visualizing possible endings.  I was expecting to see Skeeter’s book explode the entire community into a frenzy of rebellion, violence and, ultimately, a changing of the culture.  Perhaps even the book becoming a national catalyst that would influence the entire civil rights movement, a Rosa Parks headline delivered in hardcover.

Stockett went nowhere near that type of ending

And in doing so, she teaches us how powerful a more subtle and character-driven ending can be.

To have there would have been a departure from the realistic tonality the book had maintained from the first page.  It would have been too Hollywood, as if Michael Bay had taken a crack at the final draft.

In a story that sought to be a serious thematic inquiry into a dark slice of American history, in retrospect I realize that the lighter touch was the only viable option.

Miss Skeeter’s book didn’t set the country free of racism. 

 It didn’t even set the characters free from it.  Rather, it set those characters free from allowing it to define them.  Through their courageous act of defiance and outrage, they became something more than their oppressors.

All the characters march forward into their lives as better people.  As quiet heroes who fought for and won their own freedom of will. 

This is one of the many lessons I take away from “The Help.” 

 In a character-driven story, the ending must be character-specific and thematically powerful.  In a plot-driven story, the ending can be bigger, it can be Hollywood.

This book challenges us to aim high, to bestow a gift to the world that reflects darkness through a lens of hope.  A book that invests the reader in the characters in a way that transcends empathy, that indeed become transcendent.

So many lessons for writers to learn from this book.  So many lessons for human beings to learn from reading it.

It remains to be seen how Hollywood will handle the ending of the adaptation (coming out in August), but I’m guessing it’ll remain true to the book itself… if for no other reason that Stockett was called in to help the screenwriter get it right.

The only real “rule” for our endings is this: it must remain true to the story just told, and reward the reader with something that resonates.

Beyond that, this is the one place in a story where the writer is pretty much alone with their instincts and the nature of the corner into which they’ve painted themselves.  The principles of story architecture lead the writer to this point, but the ending is where story and writer become one, and together they make their fate.

Wondering what you thought of the ending?

Hope you’ve enjoyed this series on “The Help.”

There’s already one wonderful guest post scheduled for next week that takes a closer look at subtext in this story, and more might surface as we move forward together.

 Next series… a deconstruction of my novel, “Bait and Switch,” which I’ve just re-released as an ebook (only 99 cents through July 31).

 Some have asked how the launch is going.  A few hundred books have sold, almost entirely because of this blog.  For all the noise about “please make it available on Nook!,” you can count those sales on one hand. 

So far I’m cynical about the whole social media aspect of this – bad news, since this is where he so-called gurus of self-published digital ebooks claim is the sweet spot… I did it, it didn’t work.  The best social media is word-of-mouth… so if you liked the book, please recommend it to someone.

Meanwhile, I’ll just take my starred review and go home. 

Kidding… the book will remain on Kindle, Smashwords and Nook, and eventually on iBook once it gets to through their weeks-long vetting process.  And I’ll keep experimenting with the various venues of pitching and pimping and promoting until I find something that actually works.

Maybe this…

NEW BOOK RELEASE – WARNING, THIS NOVEL MIGHT BE TOO HOT TO HANDLE!!!

 Does sex sell?  Let’s find out.

I’ve also just re-released my USA Today bestselling novel, “Darkness Bound,” on Kindle and Smashwords (so far).

Fair warning, it’s a highly sexual, dark and sexualized (meaning, the romance of seduction) thriller.

Not erotica, per se (it’s what I call a “relationship thriller, a sort of romance from a male point of view… this is far sexier than erotica (my opinion), as it relies on the context of seduction rather than explicitness, which it really isn’t… though you might need a shower when you’re done, and you’ll certain have something juicy to discuss with your significant other…), but rather, it’s dark and kinky and totally a guilty pleasure, one shared by several hundred thousand readers when it was published by Onyx ten years ago (the national radio campaign didn’t hurt either).  At the time it was mistakenly classified as “erotica” by the major bookclubs, probably because of the cover art of the original paperback.

Read the Publishers Weekly review, and if you like this kind of thing, please give it a shot.  It’s only $2.99, but on Smashwords (as a Kindle version through this venue, too) you can use the discount code – TD43M – to buy it for 99 cents, also until the end of July, when I’ll do a major release promotion.

 
 
 

Darkness Bound by Larry Brooks (Kindle Edition – Jul 12, 2011)
Thanks, as usual, for considering my work.

 

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“The Help”: Recognizing the Screaming Power of Narrative Sub-Text

We all know what sub-plot means.  It’s what’s going on in a story that isn’t – yet – directly connected to, or dependent upon, the main plotline.

Like a guy getting newly married to a younger woman who gets kidnapped by his not-so-young ex-wife.  Escaping the kidnapping is the primary dramatic plotline.  The evolution of his pending marriage – indeed, his relationship with his new bride – is the sub-plot.  Because she’s hitting the clubs while he’s locked in a warehouse.

But sub-text… that’s a 202 term in a 101 world.

Sub-text is almost completely synonymous with context.  The only difference is, in fact, the difference between “sub” and “con” – context is everywhere, including center stage.  Sub-text is completely invisible and unacknowledged, yet it drives everything… contextually.

Sounds confusing, I’ll grant you.  Let me try to clarify.  And yes, this is 202-level stuff… stuff you’ll want to know and master when you step up to a professional level of fiction writing. 

Because sub-text is absolutely essential.

Sub-text is the state and nature of the world in terms of what is going on in a story.  It is what drives and affects the characters.  It is the unspoken meaning and intention behind what is actually spoken. 

The exact same scene, word for word, but written with different sub-text (largely driven by where the scene appears in the story, which is contextual), would read – or, be interpreted – completely differently.

Example: the kidnapped guy and his gun-toting ex are having a conversation about the past.  If this is pre-kidnapping (maybe they’ve met for coffee), this would be one flavor of sub-text: their past is context for everything they say to each other.

But if this is post-kidnapping, then any conversation between them has a completely new sub-text, even if it seems warm and polite, which may include manipulation, thinly veiled threats, sarcastic and ironic bitterness and barely-masked fear in a way the first sub-text would not.

In “The Help,” each of the four parts offers the reader a new sub-text for the scenes within it.  This is basic story architecture, but at a 202 level.  As such, it’s not coincidental that the missions of each of the four parts – set-up, response, attack, and resolution – are, in fact, descriptors of the sub-text itself.

The mission of each of the four parts of a story is to shift the context, and therefore the sub-text, to another level: the sub-text resulting from a set-up context to a responsive one… from a responsive one to an attacking one… and from an attacking one to a resolving one.

The Four Sub-texts of “The Help”

In Part 1 of “The Help,” there is no solution to the problem of racism or the specific lives of the character.  None of that is on the table… yet.  The sub-text of everything is: this is just how things are.  And it sucks.

In part 2 of “The Help,” the sub-text shifts.  Because now, everything is contextually different, thanks to the emergence of Miss Skeeter’s book project as a very real possibility.  That project becomes the primary source of dramatic energy, tension and momentum, via the posing of the central dramatic questions it poses: will the book get written?  If it does, what consequences will come of it?

The scenes in Part 2 read very much the same as the scenes in Part 1, but the context is different, because the sub-text is different.  Now, each character has thoughts and considers options in relation to their awareness of the possibility of their participation in Skeeter’s book.  They look at their situations differently than before, even though the dynamics of their relationships and the nature of their conversations are the same.  They are hearing and evaluating everything through fresh eyes and keener sensitivity – indeed, this is hope emerging in their lives – and considering the possible risks and rewards of participating.

In Part 3 of “The Help,” the context shifts yet again – there are real life and death consequences to consider now – and once again the sub-text is something new.  Now, each participant is in, they are past the point of no return, and their own tolerance of the injustices of their lives – or, if you’re on the bigoted side of that fence, the threat and utter outrage of what seems to be happening – takes on a new urgency and danger. 

In Part 4 of “The Help,” after the Second Plot Point revelation of Minnie’s Big Secret and the potential consequences of Miss Hilly’s reaction to it being made public, yet again there is an edgy new context, and therefore a behind-the-dialogue sub-text that permeates each and every exchange.

This “behind the dialogue” perspective is a good way to recognize – and deliver as a writer – the power of sub-text.

Another Familiar Example of Sub-Text

Remember the film, “A Few Good Men,” when Jack Nicholson is having lunch with Tom Cruise and Demi Moore at an outdoor table in Cuba, discussing the recent death of one of Nicholson’s men?  That scene is dripping with raw sub-text amidst otherwise polite and pointed conversation, from comments about the meal to the obvious deference and disdain between the characters.  Other than a moment when Nicholson goes straight at it, the sub-text is never acknowledged yet is the loudest voice at the table.  It drives the meaning, implication and intention of everything these characters say in that scene.

Watch it, recognize it.  In fact – and this is so cool – you can watch it RIGHT HERE via Youtube.  Just be sure to come back when you’re done.  See you in six minutes.

Now, as you continue to study “The Help,” see how you’re now suddenly aware of the power of sub-text as a dramatic force, and how it shifts as the story moves along.

Please consider my book, “Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing,” to learn more about the principles of story architecture and the contextual milestones, missions and forces that make them universal and effective.  It’s both 101 and 202 in nature, so there’s good news for all writers looking for an edge.

 

Also, please CLICK HERE

 

… to read my utterly self-serving yet unapologetically persuasive “Top Ten Reasons To Buy My Best Novel for 99 Cents.”  This is part of my July re-launch promotion of “Bait and Switch,” and it’s not your typical online marketing schmaltz.  (Publishing your own book is like operating a vehicle… nothing happens without your foot on the pedal.  Coasting lasts, like, a few seconds.)

 

You and I will both be glad that you did. 

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