GWS Thanks For Stealing My Writing Time, E. Lockhart (Author of The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks)

COFFEE SHOP (Early Morning) – I was supposed to be working on my next young adult novel.  Its protagonist was whispering in my ear and I knew what he was about to do.  I had just enough caffeine to get my brain going without making my body shake.  Fountain pen: uncapped.  Journal: open.

Then I thought I might read a little bit more of The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, a book by E. Lockhart.  (Ms. Lockhart is on Twitter @elockhart.)  If you haven’t read the book, why not pick up a copy from your local independent bookstore or online?

Frankie Landau-Banks is a clever young woman who attends Alabaster Preparatory Academy, an expensive school in the Northeast.  Like all people her age, she is trying to figure out who she is and her place in the world.  Her father and sister attended Alabaster, and her freshman year wasn’t that bad…except for her relationship with Porter Welsch, who cheated on her.  Frankie starts dating Matthew, a cute senior.  All is well until Frankie gets curious and follows Matthew around, only to discover that he is part of Alabaster’s secret society.  The dissembling puts a bit of a wedge between them; Frankie wants to be a part of the group!  So she makes herself a member in her own way.  I don’t want to ruin the whole book.  Just go read it.  (But don’t start the novel if you have any hopes of finishing your own.)

Ms. Lockhart had a big problem.  Her story is packed with secrets all over the place.  Frankie has secrets from Matthew and her father and her sister and from Alpha and from the head of the college and her roommate…that’s a lot of information to withhold!  Writing the book was made even more complicated by the fact that Ms. Lockhart must figure out how much the reader should know and when they’re allowed to know it…even her narrator must keep secrets.  But if the narrator keeps too many secrets, the reader will get bored and will throw the book across the room.

What to do?

Well, one reason I’m not cross with Ms. Lockhart for stealing my writing time is because she demonstrated a very interesting way of condensing a story’s exposition.  (In case you don’t know, exposition is what we call the basic information about the protagonist and their setting.  Exposition is all of the factual stuff we need to know before we can proceed with the story.)

Want to see a visual example of some graceful exposition?  Sure, you do.  Take a look at the opening sequence of any Bond movie.  (Except for the first one and the last few.)  The film starts with the blast of brass instruments and we see James Bond through the barrel of an assassin’s rifle.  Without warning, Bond turns and fires and the barrel fills with blood and wobbles; the assassin is dead.  See?

What makes this condensed exposition?  We learn everything we need to know about Bond in less than a minute.  People want to harm Bond.  He has a target on his back.  But Bond not only knows who is stalking him, but can draw first.  And boy, is he a good shot.  Even if you know nothing about Bond, you’re ready to go.

Ms. Lockhart, of course, had different problems.  Frankie Landau-Banks is not yet as well-known as James Bond.  Nor do readers know everything about her world.  How to introduce everything the reader needs to get going without pumping out dozens of pages of boring description?

Ms. Lockhart begins the book with Frankie’s confession.  Go ahead, check it out.  It’s on Ms. Lockhart’s web site.  We see lots of references to things we don’t know about.  What’s the Night of a Thousand Dogs and the Canned Beet Rebellion?  We don’t need to know.  If you read the confession, here’s some of the exposition you get:

  • The month and year.
  • The setting of the book (Alabaster Prep)
  • There are going to be “mal-doings” in the book.  What does “mal-doings” mean?  Frankie seems to like playing with language.
  • There is something called the “Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds” at Alabaster.
  • The Order did a bunch of things that are probably interesting or there wouldn’t be a book about them.
  • Frankie was responsible for a lot of the mis-deeds.
  • Porter Welsch seems a bit of a jerk…

Okay, I can’t type them all out–I have my own book to work on–but you get the point.  Ms. Lockhart gives the narrator extreme power and allows it to present documentary evidence from the story to give us a handhold.  When you read the rest of the book, you’ll see that the narrator does indeed zip around time and between characters and is pretty proactive when it needs to be.  The narrator even presents an e-mail exchange or two that Frankie has with another character.  We can learn about using the appropriate kind of narration to communicate the current plot point.  If pretending to copy/paste e-mails into the book will tell that section of the story in a more efficient and interesting manner than traditional scenework, then so be it.

Ms. Lockhart clearly loves Frankie as much as the reader does.  Frankie’s a fun young woman who does interesting things and thinks interesting thoughts.  Groovy.  But here’s the thing: characters who are always right and who always do and think the right things can be really boring.  None of us are fallible, so it wouldn’t make sense for our protagonists to be infallible.

Approximately halfway through the book, Frankie is well into her investigation of the Bassets.  She discusses the matter with her sister Zada.  (Who is on the phone and a bit distracted.)  One the reasons that Frankie is so preoccupied with the Bassets is that she’s not allowed to join because she’s female.

Let’s pause for a second: everyone reading this is a decent person, right?  Sure.  We can certainly see Frankie’s point.  None of us likes to be told that we can’t do something.  So when we read Frankie’s side of the story, we agree.

Then we hear sister Zada’s side.  Zada points out that all the Bassets do is drink beer and engage in stupid pranks that waste time.  She encourages Frankie to start her own group if she wants to be part of a secret society.

Now, it really doesn’t matter which sibling makes the better case.  What matters that Ms. Lockhart gave us a good lesson: allow your protagonist, no matter how strong, to be wrong on occasion.  Allow others to question his or her beliefs and actions.  The world is not a black-and-white place, friends.  There are countless shades of gray all around us.  A story filled with too many absolutes is not one that can be easily believed.

Think of it this way.  You’ve seen The Karate Kid, right?  Not the remake, obviously.  The good one.  Daniel LaRussa is a fish out of water who feels alone…until he meets Mr. Miyagi and begins learning discipline and self-reliance from the martial arts.  The ending of the film, of course, takes place at a karate tournament.  We’re all rooting for Daniel-san to win!  We want him to beat the Cobra Kai jerk!  However, if the fight is too easy for Daniel, then we will lose interest.  That’s why the Cobra Kai jerk cheats a little bit and hobbles Daniel, making it harder for him to fight.

We are happier when Daniel pulls through because writer Robert Mark Kamen and director John G. Avildsen give Daniel flaws and problems.  Like Frankie, Daniel can be a little bit stubborn and judgmental.  Neither character always does or says the right thing.  We have these lapses, too; they’re what make us human…and isn’t that what we try to do in fiction?  We try to create new worlds that feel real and are populated by real people.

So should I be upset that Ms. Lockhart took away some of my valuable writing time?  Possibly.  But wasn’t it worth it?  I got to internalize some important lessons gleaned from her book and I had the pleasure to share them with you.

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