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.