“The Help”: Structure From 10,000 Feet

I’m a big fan of context.  It informs and empowers each moment of a story, and on several levels. 

It also informs life, but that’s another series of posts.  Worth noting, however, how the principles that govern storytelling – structure, character, thematic weight, mission-driven exposition, even voice – are very much those that govern successful living, as well.

With storytelling, context is more than structural – it applies with equal power to all six core competencies – though this is indeed where we’ll begin our deconstruction of Kathryn Stockett’s bestseller, “The Help.”

Because everything hangs on structure. 

Ms. Stockett may or may not have had any idea that her story aligned with anything at all in terms of structural principles.  Or she may be a raving story engineer, like me.

Doesn’t matter.  The story works.  And these principles, planned or painfully extracted or intuitively graced or otherwise luckily in place, are always why.

Let the context-setting begin.  (All page numbers refer to the trade paperback edition of the novel; any percentages quoted apply to both the hardcover and the paperback.)

The Hook

The mission of a hook is to grab the reader early – very early – by establishing dramatic tension or posing a question (a can of worms) that compels further interest and promises a rewarding ride.  Sometimes it’s huge, sometimes more subtle. 

In “The Help,” the hook is directly theme-related and therefore somewhat subtle.  Either way, it announces that this story will push your buttons.  That this story is important.

As hooks go, pushing someone’s buttons relative to world view and personal belief systems almost always throws open the door to a killer story.  John Irving did it in “The Cider House Rules,” Dan Brown did it in “The DaVinci Code,” and Kathryn Stockett has done it in “The Help.”

Take note: all three were iconic #1 bestsellers.

In “The Help” the hook happens at the end of the first chapter, which is a great place for a hook in any story.  In case you missed it, it happens again at the end of the second chapter, bookending the first hook.

It’s on Page 13, in the final sentence.  Notice that we’ve had an entire chapter of setting up the emotional resonance of this moment, including meeting a compelling narrator who we already care about, and a villain who we already dislike.  The hook is when the reader is clear that the pivotal issue of this story involves a bigoted young white woman in 1962 Jackson Mississippi who yields more to social pressure than her own social programming to announce that she intends to build a “colored bathroom” for her maid.

Because it just is no longer acceptable that the maid use the “white bathroom,” which is the only bathroom in the house.

We’re hooked.  On a macro-level because of the size of that universal can of worms.  And on a character-level because we learn this through the narrative point of view of a woman who has already shown us her humanity.

The mission of the first scene/chapter is to set this hook.

The First Plot Point

In looking at any First Plot Point, it’s critical to remember that the moment has already been set-up in the previous chapters, or about 20 to 25 percent of the story’s length.  It almost always changes the plot (in many cases it begins the plot), but more importantly it defines the forthcoming landscape of dramatic tension while defining stakes and a direction for the hero’s resultant/responding quest, need or journey.

In “The Help,” we have three almost-equal protagonists by the time we get to the First Plot Point.  When it hits, it changes the story for all three.

The First Plot Point in “The Help” occurs on page 104 (nearly the exact 20thpercentile of the story), at the end Chapter Six, as narrated by Miss Skeeter.  (This book presents an interesting dynamic: one hero is Miss Skeeter, but three heroic protagonists with almost equal weight in her, Aibeleen and Minny; but it is Skeeter’s decisions and actions that provide the tension and momentum of the story.) 

By now the world view and pre-PP1 life of each character has been established (stakes), as have the issues and potential responses that will drive the story post PP1.  Only when something changes, when an opportunity is recognized or seized, or when the hero steps through a portal of no return, does the story change.

Which is the primary mission of the Plot Point One moment.  In “The Help,” this is when Miss Skeeter realizes that she must and will write her book about the lives of the maids in Jackson, Mississippi.  Until that moment it has been nothing other than a vague notion, a scary idea, and a seemingly impossible dream.  As long as it remained in that space it wasn’t dangerous.  The moment it became real, it became The Story

Nothing is the same for any of these characters once this fuse has been lit.  Classic PP1.

The story really begins here.  Everything prior to this moment has been a set-up for it, and for what happens after it.

The Mid-Point

Mission of the Mid-Point: to pull back the curtain of awareness for the hero, the reader, or both, with the insertion of new information that has already been in play as in influencing dynamic of the story, but is now exposed on one of those levels.  If the hero is party to this new awareness, it alters her/his experience going forward.

In “The Help,” the Mid-Point occurs on page 248 (the 48th percentile), or in the pages just preceding it.  Once again context is critical to understanding how and why this new information changes and empowers the story. 

Until now the other maids (besides Aibileen and Minny) are in resistance to contributing to Skeeter’s book.  At this point there are new stakes on the table: Medgar Evans has been murdered by local racial bigots, and Miss Hilly (who is among them in an oh-so-proper but nonetheless lethal way, at least in spirit) is closing in on Minny’s secret (her employment with Miss Celia).

On page 248, the most resistant and vocal of the other maids, Yule May, quietly tells Aibileen that she wants in.  Which means they’ll all want in, for reasons that are bigger than their fears.  That it is worth the risk. 

Miss Skeeter’s book is now alive and dangerous… and inevitable.

The Second Plot Point

This occurs on page 398 (the 77th percentile), when the Big Secret is let out of the bag.  If you’ve read the book you know what it was: the nature of the pie Minny baked for Hilly, the pie that was as metaphoric as it was catalytic to the story.

That moment changes everything.  It jacks the stakes.  It accelerates pace and tension.  The end of the fuse is right around the corner.  The consequences take on new fear and danger.  The resolution, the inevitable, forces the characters to take action and face those consequences like never before.

And because we’ve been moved to care for them so much, the destiny of these characters is something we, the readers, find ourselves deeply invested in.

Which is why this story works so well. 

The Conclusion

Structurally speaking, the end of a book is a milestone that is defined by all that has conspired to bring it about.  And thus, it stands apart from generic criteria or standards other than the need to convey some level of closure, meaning and emotion.

The ending of “The Help” was always going to be a sticky wicket, as Ms. Sockett couldn’t realistically show these women single-handedly solving global or even race issues and absolving prejudice in the South through their actions.  No, the ending always had to be personal, and perhaps, something that was the first of many quiet dominos toppling in what would end up being an important cultural shift.For us, as writers seeking to learn, the conclusion might be this: “The Help” is a great story, and for reasons that are now clearer than before.

If that hook wasn’t as universal and personal – if it wasn’t as weighty – it wouldn’t have worked so well.  The hook becomes the theme itself.

If she hadn’t seen and felt the fear and resistance of the maids, and thus the weight of the stakes, we wouldn’t have cared about Miss Skeeter’s decision – indeed, her need – to write this book for the right reasons.  If the FPP had come to0 early it would have compromised this essence, and had it come too late the story would have been marking time unnecessarily.

The FPP occurs at the 20th to 25th percentile for a reason.  We just saw it work in full glory in this book.

The Mid-Point is a tool that facilitates dramatic tension, without which the book doesn’t work as well.  We needed to experience the resistance of the maids and Skeeter’s quest to figure out if and how the expose might happen.  And then we needed to get on with it once it was determined that it was.  Inserting this shift in the middle of a story ensures a balanced flow of dramatic tension.

The story needed something mechanical, in addition to the thematic, to facilitate a big ending.  Something other than Skeeter’s book actually selling and coming out, much to the humiliation of the white women of Jackson.  It needed to be more.  Readers (us, not the women of Jackson) needed the visceral satisfaction of seeing Miss Hilly get nailed to the wall.  That justice was facilitated by Plot Point Two, which, had it came later, would have compromise the anticipation of it, and had it came too soon, would linger in a false sense of lost pacing.

The timing of these milestones aren’t arbitrary.  They are proven.  Like physics.  They are what they are.  

The Help” allows us to see how and why they work.

Next up: Analyzing the Part 1 “set-up” of this story.

When we’re done deconstructing all four parts, we’ll look at how togethey they deliver on the essential Six Core Competencies of successful storytelling.

Click HERE if you’d like more grounding on the underlying principles of structure and core competencies being discussed in this analysis.

PS… thanks to all for making Storyfix successful, on this, the second anniversary of the launch of the site.  Special thanks to Scott Krager for your mentorship, and to Mark and Renetta for your vision for it.

18 Comments

Filed under "The Help" Deconstruction series

18 Responses to “The Help”: Structure From 10,000 Feet

  1. Christina

    Larry, thanks so much for deconstructing such a great novel and for helping us see things clearly.

    One question: to me the Mid-point seemed to occur after Yule May was arrested, when all the maids gathered at Aibileen’s to pray. The curtain parts when we and Skeeter see the dynamics between Hilly and Yule May, how and why she stole the ring, and how Hilly treated her with such inhumanity. All this had been occurring throughout the story, and now it’s out in the open.

    Even though it comes a little after the 50th percentile (I’m using another edition, so I can’t give you a page number – it’s the middle of Chapter 19), it seems as if it’s Yule May’s arrest that causes the other maids to come forward, and at some point Skeeter mentions that Minny made all this happen.

    What do you think? I was hoping you could clarify! Thanks in advance.

  2. @Christina – you could be right. What’s cool about a great story like this one is that the major milestones seem to have a “cluster” of twists and context shifts, all near the targeted milestone point. Which means, any one of them could be the mid-point, and as long as the context shifts, or evolves from story point to story point (with additional new exposition), the specificity doesn’t matter. What matters is that you GET this, which you obviously do, which means your stories will take advantage of the power of this milestone (which, when executed, may turn out to have several evolving story-points).

    The milestones will be a point of discussion here, and as long as they do their job and come near their optimal point of insertion, there are no wrong or right or specific answers (I did invite the author, Kathryn Stockett, to participate, but regretably her PR agent says she was appreciative but too busy). Anyone who “sees” a milestone at work is having an “ah-hah!” moment, and that’s a good thing. Thanks for chipping in! L.

  3. Haven’t read “The Help” yet. But, your comment on “multiple” plot points brings into focus the necessity of bringing your readers into the story.

    Might have several “incidents” or scenes which could be the PP1, MidPoint, or PP2, but enabling the reader (our target audience) to CONTRIBUTE to the experience/story gives them many opportunities for a powerful emotional experience(s).

    Try doing that as a pre-meditated How. Really tough, right? Given our target audiences, it’s tough enough to do the Craft correctly. Now you can let your How and Artistic creativity shine. With several scenes at the proper structure points, you’ve now attracted (for sequels, if nothing else), many more readers who get hooked.

    While it make a long time to perfect our Craft and presenting our Art, this multiple-attraction could rocket us into the best-seller realms.
     Go for it. Go write something great.

  4. Christina

    Thanks so much for explaining, Larry!

    I have to thank you for this site and for your writing book – everything you’re teaching us is such a revelation, and finally it’s all clear.

    I also wanted to ask you – in The Help, from what I could see, the Inciting Incident isn’t concurrent as the First Plot Point. To me it seemed as if the Inciting Incident is the series of letters from Elaine Stein, the editor from New York, in terms of getting Skeeter on her writing journey. This in combination with Skeeter’s feelings about how badly the maids are treated (we see this very vividly with the separate bathroom).

    What do you think, about having a FPP and Inciting Incident that aren’t necessarily concurrent?

    Also, in terms of the hook – plot-wise it’s the separate bathroom issue, but for me, what got me really into the story from the beginning, is the level of characterization. You had written about this a while back, how that hooked you as well. Would Stockett’s level of characterization be a valid hook?

    Sorry to bombard you with questions, but I can’t help but pick your mind about these things as you always make things seems so clear! Thanks so much.

  5. I stopped reading when you talked about the Midpoint because I haven’t gotten to that point yet. But I did clearly see the hook and PP1, which I’m happy about, and thank you kindly for teaching me.

  6. First of all Larry – happy anniversary! I know I speak for all of us when I say thank you so much for starting Storyfix. You have helped me improve my craft immensely!

    Great introduction to the deconstruction of The Help. I wonder if everyone else turned the pages so quickly for the same reasons I did – obviously the characters are a big part of that, (I especially like the intrigue of Celia), but, more than that, I wanted to know what the Really Bad Thing Minnie did was, which we eventually find out is the pie. But for the first 2/3? of the book, we don’t know what that Really Bad Thing is, only that it’s so major it seems every decision Minnie makes is based on it. I hope I’m making sense here. My point is, wanting so badly to know what the Really Bad Thing is that Minnie’s hiding is what made me want to keep going, more than anything else. Did anyone else feel that?

    I look forward to the next post Larry!

  7. Surprisingly succinct and useful knowledge on how to write a story.

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  9. Larry,

    I read all of your blog posts, but I get more out of a story deconstruct than anything else.

    That’s one of the reason’s I’m getting so much out of your “Story Engineering”, you use tons of real life story examples of the techniques that you are teaching.

    Thanks for everything.

  10. Great post Larry. I’m reading The Help now and following along with your analysis.

    One minor point. It seems Miss Leefolt already had a guest bathroom which Miss Hilly refused to use. So there were two baths and they are adding another one.

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  12. Larry, I get so much out of each and every post. Thanks.

    I just blogged about story structure and gave you a heavy mention. Just trying to spread the good word. 🙂

    http://kashkawan.squarespace.com/novembrance/2011/6/3/story-structure.html

  13. Finished the book last night. Now I’m ready. Best book I’ve read in years.

    The scene where we learn of Yule’s arrest and the other maids coming forth reminded me of the scene in Rudy where all the football players offer their uniforms so Rudy can play. Definitely a turning point. Great stuff.

  14. @Luisa — thanks, always appreciate your kind words and support.

    @Shane — glad you liked. “Rudy” is a classic, and that scene is one of the reasons why. It’s actually a great “model” moment we can mirror, when appropriate, in our own work. A united front coming together to help or rescue a peer from a larger group of oppressors… never fails. Remember “I am Spartacus!” That started it in movies, I think.

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  17. Great post! This just helped me understand the plot points of my own story better, so thank you! And congrats on the two-year anniversay of StoryFix! I look forward to many years to come. 🙂

  18. Jessica Graves

    I love that I feel compelled to take notes on your posts! Thanks for that, Larry.