Seemingly as different from one another as can be, three women will nonetheless come together for a clandestine project that will put them all at risk. And why? Because they are suffocating within the lines that define their town and the times. And sometimes lines are made to be crossed.
In pitch-perfect voices, Kathryn Stockett creates three extraordinary women whose determination to start a movement of their own forever changes a town, and the way women - mothers, daughters, caregivers, friends - view one another. A deeply moving novel filled with poignancy, humor, and hope, The Help is a timeless and universal story about the lines we abide by, and the ones we don't.
I learned many writing lessons from this book, and I'll list them all, even though it makes for a lengthy post. Here goes:
- Create a disturbance in early pages. The book opens with Aibileen's normal world as a domestic. But on page 10, her world shifts when Miss Skeeter asks, "Do you ever wish you could...change things?" The seed is planted, and the story takes off.
- Keep secrets. Stockett did an amazing job of keeping secrets, without annoying the reader. What happened to Skeeter's beloved maid? What was Minny's Terrible. Awful. Thing she did? Why did Minny's boss, Miss Celia, remain locked up in her room all day? Why did she wish to keep Minny a secret from her husband? Bit by bit, these questions are answered, but the author keeps the reader guessing at the perfect pace.
- If you're writing a strong dialect, consider giving the reader a break. I don't know about you, but I have trouble reading a strong dialect. In the first chapter, when I read Aibileen saying, "Law, it's hot out there." I thought, Law, help me finish this book. But Minny's and Skeeter's sections gave my muddled brain a much needed respite.
- Surprise the reader with a slow burn love story. When we first meet Stuart, we hate him. He's rude, disrespectful, drunk. Mid-way through the story, out of nowhere, he reappears. In one paragraph we change our minds about him. And then in another paragraph, later on, we change our minds again.
- Use real life events as story backdrops. The characters bravely took on this book project, even though it would put them in real danger. And that real danger is evident because of the time and place (Jackson, Mississippi during the Civil Rights movement). Assassinations of Civil Rights leaders. Citizens beaten or killed. Knowing these real events took place adds an extra layer of fear.
- Use one character to supply information about another. The story begins in Aibileen's pov, but she drops information about Skeeter and Minny. By the time their pov's are introduced, the reader already knows them well.
- Each character must have "skin in the game." Aibileen, Skeeter, and Minny each have personal reasons for participating in their dangerous project. And Hilly has strong motivations to block them at every turn. The protagonists and their antagonists have conflicting goals, which adds drama.
- Match up unlikely allies. Miss Skeeter, a white woman who lives on a plantation, teams up with Aibileen, a humble, motherly domestic. Minny, a spitfire maid full of attitude, and Celia, the boss lady from the wrong side of the tracks, earn each other's trust and loyalty. These odd couples add emotion to the story.
- Use memorable, but easy to pronounce names. Aibileen. Skeeter. Minny. Hilly. Enough said.
- Bittersweet endings have staying power. By the end of the book, each character's life is changed. But not all for the better. That's reality, and reality resonates. If the ending had been tied up with a neat little bow, it would have felt less personal. Less real. But the author tied it up with the perfect balance of sadness and hope.
Another lesson learned? That even a critically acclaimed bestseller has its haters. A quick Google search confirmed that not everyone was happy with this book. Something to remember when our skin is thin.
The Help was a beautiful story with so many lessons about writing--and life. Have you read this book or seen the movie? What was your takeaway?
And if you're interested, here's an interview with the author. These "how many times were you rejected" stories are so inspiring.
Love your writing lessons, Julie. Yes, I've read it - one of my favorites this year. I truly don't understand the critics.ReplyDelete
I can't wait to read it. I've seen the movie and my daughter has read it. Great lessons, though.ReplyDelete
Great tips...esp the simple names...so true.ReplyDelete
The movie is wonderful, BTW...I broke my usual rule about reading the book first because my mother-in-law wanted to see it over the holidays.
This is one of my favorite books of all time! It gave me chills, and I don't even want to try and imagine what its detractors would say.ReplyDelete
I just watched the movie last week, and I was happy with the way it mirrored the book.
This is a fantastic post; thank you for sharing!
Thank you for this! I haven't read The Help yet, but these tips are priceless.ReplyDelete
I haven't read this one yet but I know want to b/c I've heard so many good things about it! That and Cutting for Stone - I just don't know if I'll get to them due to their thickness and time!ReplyDelete
I read the book. Loved it.ReplyDelete
Love your tips connecting to the story.
What a wonderful write up. I haven't read this book yet but I love the lessons you have taken from it. It sounds an amazing story and a fantastic debut. Well done to that woman!ReplyDelete
What a great post! I just finished this book, and, like you, I was blown away. Such beautiful writing. I fell into the voices so easily and was really moved by the story. Your "lessons" list is fantastic and spot-on!ReplyDelete
Great breakdown of the book. I want to read it again now. Ha!ReplyDelete
Happy New Year!
Don't worry, I haven't read the book either.ReplyDelete
Heavy dialects are too much for me as well. And in my second book, I think I have the slow burn relationship down to a science. Well, maybe not that good.
Wow, I've got to read this! I enjoy heavy dialects as a reader but not as a writer. They're too tough to keep up!ReplyDelete
I haven't read it yet - but it's on the wishlist! :)ReplyDelete
I read this book a few months ago, and I loved it. Your tips are great, especially the one about using one character to supply information about another. This adds another layer of depth, not only to the character observed, but to the character doing the observing. Happy New Year, Julie!ReplyDelete
The Help, to me, is a master class in voice. Each narrator has such a rich, authentic, unique way of reaching us. I keep a clipping on my bulletin board about Kathryn Stockett for inspiration. She was turned down by 60 agents, her 1st printing of The Help was 57,300, and at the time of the article which is a few years old, there were already 789K copies in print. You go, KS.ReplyDelete
I've passed this book so often, I guess I really need to read it. You've really sold it to me. Great tips too. Happy New Year, Julie!ReplyDelete
I'll have to read this book (no, you're not the last one to read it -- I will be!) to learn about pacing with secrets. My WiP is full of secrets and as I was editing today I kept thinking, "I wonder if I'm doing this right?" :) Definitely don't want to annoy the reader.ReplyDelete
Wonderful, thoughtful post, Julie! Thank you.
Julie, this is amazing. And on my bookshelf to read. So many lessons in this book. I'm really looking forward how to keep secrets without annoying the reader.ReplyDelete
I love the fact that you can take a beautiful book and share writing lessons. It makes them all the more exciting to read.
Happy New Year!
So very cool!! Yeah! I loved this book, even though at the outset I was reticent. I LOVED it. The movie was great too, but the book was better. :DReplyDelete
Great post and guess what? you're not the last one to read it because I haven't! LOL It's on my list. My HUGE TBR list for 2012:)ReplyDelete
Hi, Julie. Very interesting lessons that you culled from this novel. I have yet to read it. My wife read it and thought very highly of it. We saw the film together and I would love to make it required viewing for my 14 and 17 year old sons.ReplyDelete
Hope the new year is treating you guys well.
No, you are not the last person to read this. I still haven't. I hate to say it, but part of the reason is because my mom hated it. That doesn't even make sense because we don't like the same kind of books, but that little voice says "nah" every time I pick it up. She did say the dialect wore on her and that was part of the problem. I really do want to see the movie and I should give the book a chance, so if it comes my way, I will. All great lessons, btw!ReplyDelete
I love this author's story about how she got published. I have to admit, I've really struggled about wanting to read this book. But I went to see it with my mother and I loved the movie. So I'll probably read the book now.ReplyDelete
Good analyzing! I love reading about secrets, but they drive me crazy. LOL I love putting them into my novels, too.ReplyDelete
Oh yes, I read The Help & I loved it! Though I thought it was very slow at first. Hard to believe she had such a hard time landing an agent! Your observations are spot on, as usual. Another article to add to the file!ReplyDelete
Guys, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on The Help!ReplyDelete
Great tips - especially about the names (I always hope I can pronounce them when I read them - one of my issues with fantasy!). And no, I haven't read it, either!ReplyDelete
i love a book when you can take more away from it than just a great story - terrific tips - thank you!ReplyDelete
I haven't read the book, but all your points relate to the movie as well, which was excellent. One of my favs for 2011. So very well done an such a rich complex story. :)ReplyDelete
Hope you had a relaxing holiday Julie. :) Wishing good things for you in the coming year! :)
Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse
Nope, I'm the last person on the plant who hasn't read The Help; but you did a wonderful job on this post.ReplyDelete
You're not the only one - I finally got around to reading the book and watching the movie over Christmas break. I loved how poignant the story was and how clearly I felt I knew the characters. Those are both pretty remarkable accomplishments.ReplyDelete
Nope, you are not the last person to read THE HELP. I haven't read it, yet. It's on my TBR book list, which is soooo long that it isn't funny.ReplyDelete
I loved this book and your analysis is right on! Also such a good point that there will always be nay-sayers out there. In fact, I think the more successful a book is, the more the nay-sayers come out of the closet to bash it. Just because it's successful so they know they can get a reaction!ReplyDelete
No, I am the last person on the plant who hasn't read this book. I need to remedy this soon!ReplyDelete
I haven't read it yet, either. Just got a bunch of books loaded onto my new kindle, but they're all ones that were written by some of my blogger buddies. "The Help" will definitely be in my next download frenzy. Thanks for piquing my interest in it.ReplyDelete
I haven't read the book or seen the film, but the lessons you described were terrific, particularly the last one; bittersweet endings DO feel more authentic/realistic. Thanks for sharing!ReplyDelete
ah, my book club forced me to read this book a year ago this month--LOL! But I really liked it. And I thought a lot of the lessons you've discussed here worked VERY well. Hubs read it, and hated it. For many of the reasons Stockett's critics cite. But for me, it's just a great story. Not a rewriting of history~ <3ReplyDelete
Banned complain !! Complaining only causes life and mind become more severe. Enjoy the rhythm of the problems faced. No matter ga life, not a problem not learn, so enjoy it :)
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