Tag: Tom Perrotta

What Can We Steal From Ellen Hopkins’s Impulse?

Title of Work and its Form: Impulse, novel
Author: Ellen Hopkins (on Twitter @EllenHopkinsYA)
Date of Work: 2007
Where the Work Can Be Found: Impulse can be found in independent bookstores everywhere.  If you don’t know where to find the indie bookstore closest to you, IndieBound will be happy to point you in the right direction.  The book can also be purchased online.

Bonuses:  Ms. Hopkins’s site is extremely detailed and the author is very generous when it comes to communicating with her readers.  Feel free to interact with other fans of Ms. Hopkins’s work at her Facebook pageHere is an interview that Ms. Hopkins gave to the Monster Librarian.

One of the things I love about YA literature is that fans are so enthused about what they read.  Here is a fun video review of Impulse.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure

Discussion:
Tony, Vanessa and Conner are teenagers who are spending time in a psychiatric facility after unsuccessful attempts at suicide.  Each of them tried different methods and had different reasons, but they are united in their grief, sadness and need for help. Slowly but surely, each of them reach mutual understanding and help each other address the problems that led them to such drastic measures.

If you listened to my interview with YA author Sarah Tregay, you heard her talk about how much she loves novels written in verse.  Ms. Hopkins unspools the plot of Impulse through the course of hundreds of brief poems.  Each poem is in first person and Ms. Hopkins cycles through each character every few poems.

Impulse is predicated on a high-concept conceit.  Now, I love these kinds of projects–I’ve even completed a few of these works that play with narrative in extreme ways.  The big problem when you undertake such a project is that you are making your job a little bit harder.  Not only must you fulfill all of the standard obligations of the storyteller (plot, characterization), you must do so while remaining true to the unconventional structure that you’ve assumed.  It’s hard enough to hold the reader’s hand through the course of a grand narrative packed with multiple protagonists…Ms. Hopkins challenged herself to take the reader on that same journey, but with her eyes closed!

So how did Ms. Hopkins keep everything clear?  Well, first of all, she was wise enough to make sure that each character composed poems of different and discernible style.  With some exceptions–I’ll talk about those–each character composes poems thus:

tonyimpulse

The lines of Tony’s poems generally alternate beginning at the left margin and a few tab stops in.
vanessa impulse

Vanessa’s poems generally consist of brief stanzas.  The stanzas, not the lines, alternate between beginning at the left margin and a few tab stops in.

connerimpulse

Conner’s poems are generally wrought from short lines, each of which begin on the left margin.

Why is this choice a very shrewd decision on Ms. Hopkins’ part?  She gets a number of advantages:

  • The reader can quickly (and perhaps subconsciously) understand which poem belongs to which character.  Ms. Hopkins doesn’t have a narrator that can say, “Conner said,” so she must let us know who is speaking in another way.  This is her way of doing so, in addition to including the character’s name before each section.
  • The styles of poetry express the character.  Conner begins the story as very strait-laced, so it makes sense that his lines are more “boring.”  He SHOULDN’T have “funky” lines because that’s not the kind of character that he is.  Tony’s lines are appropriate because he’s always vacillating, alternating between big thoughts in his life about facets of himself that he can’t understand.  Vanessa is a little bit closer to self-understanding, but her poems must also express some confusion about herself.
  • The patterns break down a little bit as the book goes on.  This is a good thing.  Why?  These changes reflect the changes that are going on in the characters as they learn more about their problems and themselves.

It’s all a matter of “show, don’t tell.”  (I know you’ve heard that writing advice before!)  Instead of just typing out a TELL: “Hey!  Tony understands his sexuality a little more completely now!,” Ms. Hopkins SHOWS you that Tony has become a little more comfortable with his past.

Ms. Hopkins is also careful to adhere to traditional story structure, but does so in an interesting way.  I’ll explain.  The story of Impulse does indeed follow Freytag’s Pyramid:

freytag2

The story beats get more serious and more interesting…there’s a final climax…there’s a denouement and an establishment of the new status quo in the characters’ world…great.  That’s what a writer is supposed to do.  But Ms. Hopkins employs what I’ve decided to call Ken’s Character Onion:

onionI am aware that I cannot draw, but the point is that Conner, Tony and Vanessa resemble onions.  How?  They make us cry.  Okay, I’m kidding.  The characters resemble onions because they each have a number of layers that Ms. Hopkins peels back one by one.  In Freytag’s Pyramid, each conflict in the story gets bigger and bigger.  In Ken’s Character Onion, each revelation gets more and more dangerous.  It’s not enough that the action is increasingly exciting; the stakes for each character must become more imposing.

Even better, Ken’s Character Onion adds suspense to a story.  We care even more deeply about what will happen when we know that the author keeps raising the emotional stakes for his or her characters.  Want a great example from the movie world?  The 1999 Alexander Payne film Election (based upon the book by Tom Perrotta) begins with a dizzying, hilarious sequence of character-related details.  We learn Tracy Flick is running for class president.  She is extremely anal about the presentation of her clipboards.  Mr. McAllister is put upon by the world; he must clean up the mess his coworkers made before he can put his lunch in the refrigerator.  Tracy is a go-getter.  Tracy had an affair with her teacher, Mr. McAllister’s friend, Dave Novotny.  I know, it’s hard to understand without having seen the film.  So go watch the film.  Honestly, it’s nearly flawless and you’ll learn a ton.

Think of Freytag’s Pyramid and Ken’s Character Onion as parallel structures that keep a story interesting and a reader engaged.  Just like Alexander Payne did in Election, Ms. Hopkins releases plot and character details with enough regularity to keep the reader chugging along.

The last thing we should learn from Impulse is something that I tend to think about whenever I read, write about…or write Young Adult fiction.  I love the way that great YA literature deals with big, scary issues and treats its readers like…well…young adults instead of kids.  Countless thousands of teenagers engage in the behaviors described in the book.  They’re taken advantage of by teachers.  They engage in cutting.  They lash out sexually because of trauma they suffered in childhood.  Perhaps it’s because I had a slightly challenging childhood and adolescence, but I never understood why a parent or authority figure would want to hide reality from a young person.  We need to face facts: Teens think about sex on occasion.  (Every five minutes.)  Teens resist authority figures.  Ms. Hopkins remains true to her readers by capturing the world as it is, not how the deluded believe it to be.  And I’m willing to bet that Ms. Hopkins has received thousands of letters thanking her for the work she has done to improve lives through literature.

What Should We Steal?

  • Allow yourself to work with a big conceit, but fulfill your obligations to your reader.  You can write a story that violates every standard convention in the book…so long as you don’t leave your reader behind.
  • Employ Ken’s Character Onion when you construct your characters. Little by little, your characters should have more depth and we should know more about their very serious concerns.
  • Keep it real.  No one is happy, for example, that some people are sexually abused.  Depicting the struggle of such a person in story helps victims and non-victims alike to understand the depth of such a violation.  (Which results in the empathy that prevents and punishes such sad events.)

GWS Coffee Break: Great Literature and the Film School Thesis Statement Generator

Friends, I think it’s safe to say that we all have two goals with respect to our writing: to entertain and enlighten.  Whether we’re writing Jack & Jill 2: Twin Killing for Adam Sandler or a piece we hope ends up in Best American, stories and poems and screenplays are borne of our greatest hopes and fears.  There’s a message inside us that we simply must communicate.

The reader, of course, is free to decide what he or she thinks you are trying to say.  Sometimes it can be difficult to figure out the deeper meaning behind the work we enjoy…that’s where the Film School Thesis Statement Generator comes in.  Mike Lacher, creator of the hilarious Geocitiesizer, is here to help. Simply pop a film title into the machine and BAM!  You have the big claim you’re looking for.  See?

film school 1
Hmmm…this makes sense. The Spice Girls were fueled by “girl power” and many of their songs featured narrators who challenged traditional gender roles with regard to romantic encounters.
film school 2
Well, the character’s name is “Tony Stark.” There are stark differences between current and traditional concepts of race and a jump cut is a stark transition.
film school 10
In Bonasera’s funeral home, Don Vito examines Sonny’s body and laments, “Look how they massacred my boy.” See? It’s all about the LOOK.
film school 11
“Pre-Oedipal guilt” is certainly one explanation for that movie.
film school 3
I’m certainly not going to argue against the fact that Adam Sandler movies launch salvos in your face.
film school 4
I think that Columbine must have been on James Cameron’s mind a lot during that lengthy shoot.

This Thesis Statement Generator isn’t just for films!  Look what happens when you experiment:

film school 5

film school 7

film school 8

film school 9

Check out the Film School Thesis Statement Generator for yourself!  Why not leave the results in the comments?

GWS Coffee Break: What Does Google Think of Great Writers?

As you may be aware, Google employs powerful algorithms to determine what they THINK you might be searching for.  The suggestions provided by Google Instant reflect the searches that other people have done.  Millions of people have searched for celebrities such as Ashton Kutcher, so when you do a search for “Ashton Kutcher is,” you get the following:

googleashton

What does the aggregated wisdom reveal about some great writers?  Sometimes wondering what a writer IS leads to biographical details and a hint of detail about their work:

googletrethewey

googlezadiesmith
Sometimes, the deep question will result in superficiality and criticism.
googletomperrotta
A writer may be flattered by the implication of a search…
googletennesseewilliams
Isn’t it interesting that a Google search can result in literary analysis?
googlestephenking
Mr. King can dry his tears with his Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, though I’m not sure the award is very absorbent.
googlekimkardashian
Sometimes, people don’t even focus on a writer’s literary work; they just attack the writer herself.
googlejudyblume
Rumors of her death are greatly exaggerated.
googlejoycecaroloates
Geez, some band writes one song about you and your Google reputation suffers.

It’s a real song, apparently.  Picture a garage band from 1996 whose members were inspired by Silverchair mixed with a garage band from 1997 whose members were inspired by Everclear.

googleisaacasimov
I knew that Isaac was a very special man, but I had no idea that he, like Beetlejuice, will appear if you say his name three times.
googlegosselin
Well, come on. That’s just mean.
googlechriscoake
Sounds about right.
googlealicemunro
Which is better? Someone thinking you’re overrated or people not knowing who you are?

What Can We Steal From Tom Perrotta’s The Wishbones?

Title of Work and its Form: The Wishbones, novel
Author: Tom Perrotta
Date of Work: 1997
Where the Work Can Be Found: The novel is available in paperback at all fine bookstores.  You should run out and buy it immediately.  You can also get the book from Amazon.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Characterization

Discussion:
Gosh, I love Tom Perrotta’s early work.  (Don’t worry; I love his more recent work, too.  Just in a different way.)  The Wishbones is an entertaining read, but also packs a big emotional wallop.  Dave plays in The Wishbones, a wedding band that doesn’t make much money.  They do, however, have an awful lot of fun.  The fun/money ratio is getting to be a problem as Dave gets older and more serious about Julie, his on-again/off-again girlfriend of FIFTEEN YEARS.  When a patriarch of the wedding band community dies during a showcase, Dave goes into shock, leading him to finally, at long last, propose to Julie.  Only the next morning does he realize that he doesn’t want to get married.  I don’t want to ruin the twists and turns; let’s just say that Dave learns a lot about himself and a lot about life.  (One unexpected lesson: it’s possible to write a pretty great musical about the Kennedy Assassination.)

Perrotta’s third-person narrator is in on the joke and along for the ride.  When you sit down with the book, it’s clear that Perrotta wants his narrator to help him accomplish a few goals: to entertain, to tug on heartstrings and to tickle your funny bone.  How does he do this?  The narrator is completely honest about Dave, even when it makes the guy look like a massive jerk.  For example, here’s how the second chapter starts.  It’s the next morning, immediately after Dave proposed to Julie:

He woke the next morning with a consciousness–it felt something like a hangover–of having made a terrible mistake.  He couldn’t figure out how it had happened, how he’d allowed years of resolve to crumble in a single moment of weakness.  In the half darkness of his bedroom, he fantasized about calling and rescinding the offer.

“I’m not ready,” he’d explain.  “I don’t have a steady job or any money in the bank.  You deserve someone more reliable, a husband you can count on.”  He figured he’d leave out the part about not believing himself capable of a lifetime of sexual fidelity.

And how does the fiancee respond in his fantasy?

The imaginary Julie listened carefully, her brow knitting into wavy lines of concentration.  “I understand, Dave.  It would be crazy for us to get married right now.  But I do want to continue having sex with you.”  Her voice dipped into a more sultry register.  “In fact, I want to have sex with you right now.”

The fantasy sequence accomplishes a lot:

  1. The concept is funny.  There really isn’t a woman around who would react in the way Dave imagines Julie might.
  2. The fantasy reflects upon the immaturity in Dave’s character.  He’s not such a bad guy, but he is a little too selfish to truly make Julie happy.  He still has a somewhat adolescent mindset; instead of thinking about adult responsibilities, he’s thinking about how breaking off an engagement will get him laid.
  3. The fantasy reflects upon the maturity in Dave’s character.  Dave has SOME measure of self-awareness.  He knows that what he has done is pretty crummy and understands that he must get out.  He just can’t get out in the right way.

It’s a strange kind of praise, but Perrotta is a master of writing material that is ostensibly written by his characters.  (I LOVE the letters from Cindy in Joe College.)  The Wishbones required Perrotta to write some of the poetry of Marlene Fragment in addition to lyrics for The Grassy Knoll (the JFK assassination musical).  Dave’s friend Ian is a decent man, if a little private.  He’s been working on The Grassy Knoll for a long time, but has been reluctant to share his work.  Much to Dave’s surprise, it’s pretty good.

About halfway through the book, Perrotta recounts the development of The Grassy Knoll and describes some of the breakthroughs Ian had during the composition of the work.  Originally, the musical was only about JFK being shot.  Eventually:

Ian realized the song could move in an entirely different direction–instead of being about JFK, it could be about the audience.  Once he had this insight, the lyrics pretty much wrote themselves.

Do you see what Mr. Perrotta is doing?  He’s slyly giving us advice as to how we can improve our own writing.  Whether we’re writing about the assassination of JFK, genocide in Rwanda, the Holocaust or the red carpet premiere of Paris Hilton’s latest movie, we’re obliged to think about the world our characters inhabit.  Dave doesn’t live in a vacuum; he is influenced by people around him.  Those people influence those people…before you know it, your story touches everyone on the planet!

What Should We Steal?

  • Decide what kind of relationship your narrator will have with your reader.   In The Wishbones, the third-person narrator has full understanding that many of Dave’s actions are selfish.  In addition to honestly reporting Dave’s thoughts, the narrator also allies himself (herself?) with the reader, interjecting with the same judgments we would have.  For example, “Luckily for Dave, Julie didn’t hear.”
  • Populate the world your characters inhabit with the documents they produce.  The reader will never meet so many of the people you breathe to life.  Your protagonist, however, will seem more realistic if he had a third grade teacher, a favorite Spice Girl and chocoholic tendencies, just like everyone else.  Put extra effort into making the documents that your characters create in the standard course of their lives.  When you include a love note in a novel, it should be clear that the note was written by the character, not by the person whose name is on the book jacket.