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.