What Can We Steal From Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak?

Title of Work and its Form: Speak, novel
Author: Laurie Halse Anderson (on Twitter @halseanderson)
Date of Work: 1999
Where the Work Can Be Found: Speak can be found in all local independent bookstores, including Oswego, New York’s the river’s end bookstore.  (Ms. Anderson is a friend of that particular store, as well!)  You can also purchase the book online from Powell’s.

Bonuses: Here is a cool interview in which Ms. Anderson discusses Speak and the effect it has had on readers for fifteen years.

Want to see Ms. Anderson speak about Speak?

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure

Discussion:
Melinda is not having the best year of her life.  That’s to be expected, of course; the young woman is just entering high school.  Unfortunately, Melinda has more to worry about than Homecoming and classes.  The summer before, she was at a party and found it necessary to call the police.  Her old friends are not very happy with her now and she has learned what it feels like to eat lunch alone.  Speak chronicles the events of Melinda’s first year of high school.  She makes friends with Heather, who loves to make plans.  She loves Mr. Freeman’s art class, even if she doesn’t always know how much it means to her.  She loves her overworked parents, but Melinda’s secret is making it hard for her to, well, speak to them…or anyone else.  By the end of the book, Ms. Anderson reveals the secret and describes how Melinda achieves agency and takes charge of her own life and emotions.

It’s time to do some statistical analysis on the book.  I know…I know.  We became writers so we wouldn’t have to do math.  Too bad; the numbers will help us figure out what Speak can teach us about writing.  Like I said, the book takes place over the course of a whole school year.  There are four sections, each of which are devoted to one of the year’s marking periods:

Marking Period Pages the Marking Period Occupies in the Book Number of Pages
1 1-46 47
2 47-92 45
3 93-139 46
4 140-198 58

What do we notice?  Why, the first three secti0ns are virtually the same length!  Interesting!  The final section is the longest, by far.  This is a big deal because the last section SHOULD be the longest.  Ms. Anderson spends 139 pages setting up a lot of conflicts and putting a lot of balls into the air:

  • What happened to Melinda at the party?
  • Why won’t she “speak”/stand up for herself?
  • Why does Melinda refer to Andy Evans as “IT?”
  • Will Melinda make peace with her old friends?
  • Melinda seems to like art…will she stop being frustrated with her art and create a cool piece?

If Ms. Anderson doesn’t answer all of these important questions (and more), we will feel pretty cheated, won’t we?  The last section of the book is a little bit longer than the others because the author must pay off all of these conflicts.  Explanations take a little bit of time, and they’re often the most satisfying part of a story.  Think about the film Titanic.  The director, James Cameron, devoted a LOT of that movie’s run time to the couple hours the boat was sinking, right?  He did so because he made the same kind of promises that Ms. Anderson made and he needed to fulfill those promises.

Have you ever gone on a vacation?  You had to prepare for the vacation, right?  You had to pack your bags and save money and maybe even book a flight.  This preparation wasn’t the most exciting part of your week off, was it?  But when you got to your destination, you wanted to savor every moment.  (Just like Ms. Anderson took her time in the fourth section of the book to make sure she answered every question we might have.)

These young kids sat in a car for thirty hours, thinking they were going to “Rattlesnake Ranch.”  Their parents did all the preparation and set up the big moment when…they revealed the big secret.  They were really going to Walt Disney World!

All those hours in the car may have been fun, but not as fun as the last part of the “story.”  The same principle applies to writing.  If you were to ask those little girls to write the story of their trip, which section would probably be the longest and most detailed?  The Walt Disney World section, of course!  The fourth section of Speak is the longest because the author took her time to give you the scenes you were really hoping for.

If you’ve read the book, you’re not a big fan of the character of Andy Evans.  For over a hundred pages, you’re not sure why you hate him…you just do.  Ms. Anderson couldn’t just tell you why Melinda is scared of Andy from the beginning.  Why?  Because Melinda wasn’t ready to talk about what happened.  (That’s why the book is called Speak!)  Instead, Ms. Anderson had to let you know he’s a bad guy in other ways.  What are those ways?

  • Melinda calls him “IT.”  Upper-case letters, so you know she means business.  And think about what it means to call someone “it.”  They’re not even a real human being when you call them an “it.”  Later in the book, she calls him “Andy Beast.”  Same thing.  Doesn’t sound nice.
  • Melinda points out that Andy has a “short stabby name.”  Why, that sounds like the kind of thing you say about a bad guy.  Say some of the names from the book aloud: Melinda, Heather, Rachel/Rachelle…these all sound pretty calm and “pretty,” right?  “Andy Evans” emerges a little sharper on the tongue.
  • On page 90 of my edition, Andy arrives at the lunch table.  Melinda says, “It feels like the Prince of Darkness has swept his cloak over the table.  The lights dim.  I shiver.”  Again, that’s not the kind of thing you say about a person you think is nice.
  • After page 90, Melinda starts mentioning Andy more and more.  Page 108: Melinda is scared by the possibility that Andy sent her a valentine.  Andy is “definitely not romantic.”

By the end of the book, when Ms. Anderson spills all of the beans, you REALLY know why you hate Andy.  But the author keeps your attention and keeps you wondering by making Melinda talk about him the way she does.  (Not to mention the fact that Melinda goes from not talking about him at all, to talking about him quite a bit!)

What’s the principle to learn here?  Characterization isn’t just about letting us know what to think about a person you create.  Characterization also drives the story.  Our increasing dislike of Andy lets us know that Andy is pretty important to Melinda’s tale.  We don’t know how he relates at first, but we get lots of clues.

It’s a small note, but I love that the book takes place in the Syracuse area.  And not just because I grew up in the Syracuse area.  Ms. Anderson makes the world of Speak feel real by describing the change of seasons and by populating the story with real landmarks: the big mall in Syracuse, the…interesting downtown retail climate, the dozens of feet of snow the area receives.  If you really wanted to do so, you could find a map of Syracuse and chart Melinda’s course throughout the story.

More importantly, Ms. Anderson is making sure that we know her protagonist (the main character, the one who does things) is just like us.  We live in a city with popular landmarks.  We struggle with a specific kind of weather at times.  The world feels real, doesn’t it?  This is a principle called “verisimilitude.”  That means “the appearance of reality in fiction.”  Even though Speak is a made-up story, the book affects us more because it seems real and the events in the book could really happen.  (Unfortunately, the central secret of the book happens all the time.)

One last thing.  I happen to be finishing up my own Young Adult book (with another in the mental hopper) and I’m really glad that Young Adult books can deal with REAL LIFE issues that teenagers experience.  When I was a young adult, I read Judy Blume books–they taught me about all kinds of “mature” subject matter.  Unfortunately, Ms. Blume’s books are banned by parents and school administrators all the time.  Even an important book like Speak is challenged and banned all the time.  I LOVE that Ms. Anderson fights back against grownups who don’t want young people to learn about what people really go through.  (Check out this awesome editorial she wrote.  Can you tell that she’s all fired up?)  My book isn’t THAT “mature,” but I do worry about being hassled by closed-minded folks if it ever gets published.

You might think that we’re made up of molecules and atoms and water and bone and blood.  In a deeper sense, we are creatures made up of stories.  The stories that we read and hear make us who we are.  They teach us empathy for other human beings and light our way when we’re deciding what we want to do with our lives and how we wish to treat people.  The next time you hear that someone wants to ban a book, remember: that person is trying to stop you from learning about the world and all of the people in it.  After all, a book must be pretty powerful if grown adults are spending time trying to keep you from reading it…

What Should We Steal?

  • Set up conflicts and devote a lot of page space to paying off those conflicts.  There’s no hard-and-fast percentage of page space you must give to a certain conflict, of course, but it’s important that your reader feels fulfilled by the end.
  • Employ characterization in such a way that it pushes the plot along.  You will often hear that plot is derived from character.  That’s true, but characterization can also advance the plot by itself and make the story seem more real, more “true.”
  • Plop your character into a setting that seems real.  Remember VERISIMILITUDE (the appearance of reality in fiction).  When your characters go to a pizza place, why can’t they go to the same pizza place that you do?  (I did this in my own Young Adult book!)
  • Strike back against those who wish to ban books.  The American Library Association will tell you all about this sad constant in American culture.

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2 Comments

  • I loved this book! For me it was the voice. I happened across a movie version on tv a couple of years ago by accident, ran to the library to read it, then ran to the bookstore because I had to own it.

    By the way, lots of writers are quite adept at math – Lewis Carroll wrote several academic papers on mathematics (I’ve encountered a few in my recent study of Euclid) for example – to the point where in The New Yorker, Alexander Nazaryan advised writers to study math.

    • The voice was interesting to me, too. Melinda seemed very rote as passive in the beginning of the book. (Which makes sense, of course.) I didn’t know they made a film version! I’ll have to check that out.

      And I hope it’s clear that I’m joking about writers and math; I do statistical analyses of pieces every so often and I’m a huge baseball fan, so I can’t avoid loving math. It’s always been a harmless joke in my circles that writers might have other things on their minds than numbers. (In fact, I wish I knew more math. I kinda got lost at the calculus level–not the teacher’s fault.) Isaac Asimov strikes me as another writer who used both sides of his brain to powerful effect.

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