Getting Ready for “The Help”

Not long ago I announced that I’ll be deconstructing the bestselling novel “The Help,” by Kathryn Stockett, in a series of Storyfix posts.  This is the first in that series.

If you don’t recall my past deconstructions of novels and films (dive into the archives, there are a half dozen or so buried there), these are a great way to see and analyze all six core competencies of a successful story in action… especially structure.

Call it proof, call it transparency, call it enlightenment, call it the opening of a critical door of awareness.  There’s nothing like seeing a theory in full glorious action to bring it alive.

Many are excited and relieved to see the plot points right where they’re supposed to be, doing what they’re supposed to do, and the contextual missions of the four story parts unfolding in fully aligned, textbook glory.

Cynics, not so much.  Because they must now look elsewhere to disprove the literary theory – which they tend to reject – and the validity behind all this story engineering stuff.  

My hope is that this series turns a few cynics into enthusiasts for what is true… and as you’ll see, proven.

I’m getting ready to launch the series in a week or so.

Until then, I wanted to share something that “The Help” shows us at the very highest levels of our understanding.  A little morsel of clarity that is of primary value to readers who are also writers, much more so than the reading public in general.

A general reading public which, by the way, bought this book by the warehouse full. 

Let’s assume this means you.

The Help” was Stockett’s first novel, which adds to the utter shock and awe of its performance, both commercially and critically.  It sports the usual litany of home run credentials: it was a #1 New York Times bestseller (for a year or so); all the other bestseller lists, too; it is currently #1 on the NY Times paperback list; and there’s that inevitable major movie deal (the film comes out in August, you can see the preview on Youtube HERE… but you’ll have to tolerate a 15 second commercial first).

Even better, virtually every reviewer praised the book for its power, its “pitch-perfect” delivery (a phrase used over and over, which speaks to the core competency of “writing voice”), its humor and its heart.

It defies genre, and in many ways qualifies as The Great American novel.  Probably won’t end up with that title, since it’s about the worst and darkest part of our history and culture.  That said, it’s a historical novel that’s about humanity more than history.

Not one critic praised the structure of the book, though many held the story up as iconic and important.  Why?  Because the structure is perfect.  And when structure is perfect, nobody notices it because they’re too busy swooning about the other five core competencies that it empowers.

That’s a loaded sentence, which I encourage you to read again.  Because it nails the relationship between structure and the rest of the things that will make a story successful.  Nothing works without it.

It’s like a perfectly tuned engine.  You don’t notice the engineering, you just appreciate the ride.

Here is the most exciting statistic of all.

Or, depressing.  This is half-full-or-half-empty pop quiz moment.

The Help” was rejected by 45 literary agents.

Read that again. 

William Goldman, the sage Oscar winning screenwriter and novelist who said of the movie business – and is equally and obviously true of the publishing business – “nobody knows anything,” is proven correct once again.

The First Lesson of “The Help”

You’re gonna want to read this novel if you haven’t already. 

And if you have, get ready to want to read it again.  Doing so – this or any other deconstructed story – in context to what should suddenly be clear, liberating and motivating in a way it isn’t to someone who isn’t an enlightened or open-minded writer, is the quickest route up the learning curve that I know.

This book is a clinic in mission-driven, perfect pitch, thematically devastating storytelling.

The story has three point-of-view narrators – right there it’s already outside the box, with a generation of academic “creative writing” teachers rolling over in their graves – any one of which could be nominated as the protagonist.

But the more you read, the more you realize the hero of this story is Skeeter, a rich and not remotely spoiled young woman embarking on her career and life in general in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi.  What career? 

She desperately wants to be a writer.

Not a coincidence, I dare surmise.

In fact (and this is a lesson in concepting, which is one of the six core competencies), Skeeter’s chosen profession is the driving catalyst of the entire story.  Without it, “The Help” is nothing but a series of character profiles in a historical context.

Without that career choice, there is no story.

At first, like so many of us, Skeeter just wants to write

She’s not sure what or even why, and she’ll take anything that requires a typewriter. 

Which she soon does, writing household tips for a local daily for what amounts to nothing more than cigarette money (remember, this was 1962, when the belief systems of the day – also residing at the heart and soul of this story – ruled without question or surgeon general warnings).

Skeeter gets in touch with a Big Time Book Editor in New York, who barely gives her the time of day (that much hasn’t changed since 1962, by the way).  But she does manage to squeeze in some life-changing career advice, and Skeeter listens.

One wonders if Stockett herself lived this little Epiphany in her own writing journey.  Could be the book began there, rather than some life-long burning desire to write about the civil rights movement.  Or not.  The two may have collided in an inspired moment of fate. 

That’s often what happens, too.  Only Ms. Stockett knows.

Collisions between creative sparks and burning themes… that can be a very good thing.

That grouchy editor’s advice was this: write something worth writing

Something that hits people right where they live.  That challenges.  That upsets a farmers market full of apple carts.  That lacks respect for the status quo.  That makes the establishment uncomfortable.  That rights wrongs and exposes truth.

That pisses people off… because it’s so right.

Not hard to find a qualifying landscape for such a book in 1962 Mississippi, where virtually everything about that culture and the belief systems that defined it was in need of challenging.

I’m hoping you’ll notice how that advice alters the course of Skeeter’s life. 

Not just her career, but her entire future, and the future of everyone in her sphere of influence and relationship. 

As it did with both the protagonist and author of this novel, hearing this call for courage clearly can be the defining moment of your writing journey.

If you haven’t read about the Six Core Competencies yet and would like to get more out of this series of deconstruction posts, click HERE.

16 Comments

Filed under "The Help" Deconstruction series

16 Responses to Getting Ready for “The Help”

  1. My book should arrive an a day or two. Can’t wait to dive into it.

    You know, I always wished authors would leave clues as to when the various plot points appear—perhaps an asterisk before the sentence and an explanation on the bottom of the page saying, “Here’s plot point 1,” or, “Here’s the midpoint.”

  2. That would be “in” a day or two.

  3. @Shane,

    In one of Lee Child’s recent thrillers (61 Hours, I think) he does exactly that. At the mid-point the protagonist learns something about the ownership of a warehouse that alters his approach to the rest of the story and Lee Child has the protagonist say “This changes everything.”

    I laughed out loud in the bookstore when I saw that, and promptly bought it.

  4. @Tony: That’s too funny. Awesome too.

  5. “…when structure is perfect, nobody notices it because they’re too busy swooning about the other five core competencies that it empowers.”
    AMEN

  6. I’m SO looking forward to this series, Larry. And as my third novel travels through cyberspace to my agent, I pray I followed the rules …

  7. Larry, you sure do know how to build suspense! 🙂 I’m so excited about this deconstruction and know it will be worth every word, just as the deconstruction of Shutter Island deconstruction was worth every word. I learned a lot from that series. Thank you so much!

  8. John McMullen

    I might be lazy, or I’m just busy–I’m thinking it’s the latter. Anybody got a pointer to one or more of the deconstructions in the archives? I don’t see an easy way to get to them. There is a pointer for the Shutter Island discussion, but I read that when it first appeared. Any others?

  9. @John — Avatar was deconstructed in February 2010. Shutter Island was early May, and then the great film “An Education” was covered in early June 2010 (I think the first post was late May). I’ll dig for others and let you know. L>

  10. Now I’m going to have to buckle down and read this. I’ve been hearing buzz about it from everywhere for a solid year, and I think I was just being stubborn! Looking forward to the deconstruction.

  11. When the Competencies are done professionally, they become unobtrusive to the reader. Our creative use of the story dynamics then pull the reader into our story.

    The reader isn’t thinking, “I’m reading a story… gotta leave to pick up the kids in 15 minutes… ,” but more like, “Oh, F*! I don’t _need_ an IRS audit right now!” They are part of the story world and probably have assumed the identy of the protagonist.

    Go write something great.

  12. trudy

    i always wonder how a book hits the no. 1 spot when I haven’t read it yet…lol okay, i’ll read it, Larry! What’s it all about? Is it Beloved meets Gone With the Wind or Fried Green Tomatoes meets Driving Miss Daisy????????

  13. @Trudy — more like “Mississippi Burning” meets “Time to Kill,” but with a lighter and more nuanced feminine touch (almost exclusively female POV) that takes no prisoners. A very emotional ride, think you’ll like it. L.

  14. That The Help was turned down by 45 agents offers is another example of William Goldman’s rule. Joe Haldeman was turned down more than a dozen times before Forever War found a publisher, and went on to win both the Nebula and Hugo awards. Twelve British publishers rejected J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter novel. Frank Herbert’s received thirteen rejection slips for Dune. Rudyard Kipling received this personalized rejection slip early in his career: “I’m sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.” Only when we stop sending out our novels do we know they have truly failed.

  15. I’m looking forward to this series, but “The Help” isn’t the type of book I normally like to read. Do you think I’ll get anything useful out of the series without having read it?

    I have read Story Engineering, and I intend to do so again after I finish the first draft of my WIP.

  16. Pingback: Links: Finals Everywhere 2011 Edition