Nicola Yoon’s EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING and Kinetic Narratives

When I learned about the conceit of Nicola Yoon‘s Everything, Everything, I was engaged as a reader, of course, but the book attracted my interest as a writer.  The novel is a YA book about a young woman who has spent her entire life in a clean room because she is sick.  Madeline has severe combined immunodeficiency and cannot enter the real world or have contact with people who have not been decontaminated, or else she’ll die.  She’s a bubble girl, essentially.

The conceit attracted me for two reasons:

  1. Young adults need contact with other human beings.  Well, we all need physical contact with others, but teenagers are especially in need of human touch.
  2. Think about it…MADELINE CANNOT GO ANYWHERE.  SHE CANNOT DO ANYTHING THAT DOESN’T HAPPEN IN HER HOME.

This wonderful dilemma inspired me to do a QuickCraft about the book:

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So, I’ve finished the book and I am so pleased to report that Ms. Yoon did indeed keep the narrative humming along.  How did she do it?  She employed several methods.  (And remember, I’m doing my best not to spoil the story too much.)

Most importantly, Ms. Yoon allows the conceit to break down halfway through the book.  The reader doesn’t get tired of the same home and the same three characters in it.  This is the same kind of idea that made the film The Truman Show so compelling.  In that movie (one you should definitely see), Truman Burbank has lived every day of his life in a camera-filled set and his life is being broadcast to the rest of the world.  And he doesn’t know that.  Director Peter Weir allows this compelling conceit to carry fewer restrictions as the story goes along.  Truman starts to figure out that his wife is an actress.  Madeline violates the terms of her house arrest.

Once Ms. Yoon wrung all of the drama she could out of the claustrophobic setting she chose, she allowed Madeline (and the reader) to explore different facets of the world.  And because Ms. Yoon established huge stakes and huge consequences for leaving the clean room, the drama in the novel was intensified with every turn of the page.

Another way that Ms. Yoon kept the restrictive environment from being boring was that she folded in other kinds of documents.  Madeline is a first person narrator and she tells her own story in chapters of varying length.  (And some of the chapters aren’t even a page long!)  Ms. Yoon also employed the services of her illustrator husband to add to the narrative with doodles, drawings, facsimiles of medical documents and the like.  The author could not vary the setting where the story was taking place in the first half of the novel, so she varied the way the story was being released.  

As I read Everything, Everything, I thought about Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window.  The classic film stars Jimmy Stewart as a photographer who has broken his leg and can’t walk, can’t leave the apartment.  All he can do is look at the apartment building across the way through his high-powered lenses.  Imagine his surprise when he believes he witnesses a husband murdering his wife!

Ms. Yoon and Alfred Hitchcock (along with screenwriter John Michael Hayes) both put a great deal of dynamic drama outside the protagonist’s static environment.  Madeline can’t go anywhere, but she can look out the window and see that the cute boy next door, Olly, is being abused by his father.  She can’t go to the drama, so the drama comes to her.

Writing a novel is a marathon beset with innumerable obstacles that the writer must solve–and some of those obstacles are imposed by the conceit we conceived.  What separates good books from lesser works is how the writer solves problems along the way.  Ms. Yoon solves the problems she gave herself in Everything, Everything and managed to use the challenges to make the novel more impressive.

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