By July 1944, it was obvious to a growing number of Germans and Nazi higher-ups that Deutschland had all but lost World War II. Further, it was clear that Hitler’s obstinance was having a negative effect on whatever post-war future that Germany would have. As a result, many Nazi officials plotted to take out their Fuhrer and some even took steps toward achieving that goal.
On July 20, 1944, the Third Reich only had nine more months to live. Claus von Stauffenberg didn’t know that. The German army officer joined a meeting at the Wolf’s Lair (Wolfsschanze), one of the control centers Hitler maintained outside of Berlin. Von Stauffenberg placed his briefcase under the long table Hitler was pounding as he dictated strategy on the eastern front. After a few minutes, Von Stauffenberg excused himself and beat feet from the Wolf’s Lair. Soon after that, the meeting room exploded. Four people were killed. Hitler was largely untouched.
Why do I bring up an interesting event from recent world history? Because it relates to writing craft and Marianna Baer‘s Amulet Books YA novel The Inconceivable Life of Quinn. Von Stauffenberg planned to detonate the bombs he left beside Hitler with a pencil detonator. The device is a relatively simple one. It’s a spring-loaded cylinder. On one end is a percussion cap that makes the explosives go boom. On the other end is a vial of liquid chemicals that, when burst, will begin to eat away the spring mechanism. When the wire fails…kaboom. Here’s a diagram:
Marianna Baer has a pencil detonator in her novel. Quinn, the protagonist, finds out that she is a couple months pregnant. Can you hear the acid eating away that wire? Babies generally take nine months of oven time to cook. Two months have already passed. When a baby is in a mommy’s tummy, it gets bigger every single day and (unless there’s a problem) nothing can stop it. You can’t close your eyes and pretend a baby isn’t coming any more than you can stand on tracks and expect the train to disappear. Pregnancy is a great pencil detonator because it causes disarray and change by its very nature.
Ms. Baer makes smart use of Quinn’s pregnancy by allowing the drama surrounding the baby to increase as time goes on. The author did, however, have a little bit of a problem: everyone on Earth has either given birth or been born. There are currently more than 7.5 billion people on the planet; being pregnant is not unique in the grand scheme of things, but it is very special to the child’s parents. So. That’s the big struggle: you must make the mundane special in your work. As Gunnery Sergeant Hartman taught his recruits to repeat of their rifles: “This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine.” Everyone has been bullied. What makes the bullying in your story different. Everyone has fought with friends. What makes this fight different?
Fortunately, The Inconceivable Life of Quinn has a hook that makes the pregnancy worth reading about. Quinn is not only the daughter of a politician during an election year, she is a virgin and has no idea how she has come to be in the family way. In this way, there are two questions that keep us reading:
How’d the baby happen if there was no sex? Who’s the father?
What’s going to happen with the election? How crazy will the media get about the daughter of a NYC politician getting knocked up just before an election? (Shades of Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston!)
The great Lee K. Abbott loves to drop the following truth when it comes to writing:
On page 34 of the hardcover, Ms. Baer gives us a very sweet description of the first time Quinn hears the baby’s heartbeat. Her mother asks, “There it is. Can you hear that?” Then the narrator says:
A muffled, rhythmic sound. A distant drumming. Fast and strong.
A heartbeat that wasn’t Quinn’s own.
So this moment is nice and nicely written, but there’s a problem: there’s math involved. I’m the reader…I’m not supposed to have to do any work. Why should it be my job to go to the Wikipedia entry for “pregnancy” to figure out when the fetal heart starts beating? Should I be expected to get out a pen and paper and open the calendar on my phone?
Thank goodness, Ms. Baer saves me from this only five pages later. On page 39, she tells us that Quinn has been given a two-week window during which it was possible for her to become pregnant. (I think the author also says how many weeks the baby has been gestating, but I can’t find it in the text.) Don’t make your reader do math and don’t make them scratch their head and try to figure out, in this case, the baby is due and when it was conceived.
The Inconceivable Life of Quinn keeps the reader turning pages (or swiping the screen) by taking Quinn’s pregnancy and relationships in a number of unexpected directions. Ms. Baer populates her story (told from third-person vignettes from each character) with relatable characters who speak and act the way they should, even if those actions are not always pleasant. Quinn’s father should doubt her and ask several times about the father of the child. Some of Quinn’s classmates must be unpleasant to her.
The most interesting choice the author makes might be the way that she does so much to add unexpected elements to the pregnancy narrative. (I don’t want to reveal too much about those.) In this way, Quinn’s pregnancy, like so many others, is not simply an accident or a happenstance of biology, hormones, and impulse. The story of of Quinn’s “inconceivable” pregnancy becomes an emotional journey for the reader as much as it is for the prospective mother.
When I was in eleventh grade, Miss Rowe introduced me to Tennessee Williams and his play The Glass Menagerie. I related to the characters in a number of ways, but most strongly when the playwright described a certain section of the Wingfield apartment:
Nearest the audience is the living room, which also serves as a sleeping room for Laura, the sofa unfolding to make her bed. Just beyond, separated from the living room by a wide arch or second proscenium with transparent faded portieres (or second curtain), is the dining room. In an old-fashioned whatnot in the living room are seen scores of transparent glass animals. A blown-up photograph of the father hands on the wall of the living room, to the left of the archway. It is the face of a very handsome young man in a doughboy’s First World War cap. He is gallantly smiling, ineluctably smiling, as if to say, “I will be smiling forever.”
That photograph of Tom and Laura’s father is a constant and tangible reminder of why the characters are in their situation. That man is part of why Laura is shy and reserved, why Tom is angry and wants to leave, why Amanda is in denial. Wingfield père never makes an appearance on the stage…but he is always there, from curtain up to curtain down.
The same kind of dynamic appears in Chelsea Sedoti‘s The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett, a YA novel that is a little bit of suspense, a little bit of romance, a little bit of character study. The protagonist is Hawthorn, a high schooler who always looked up to Lizzie Lovett. The latter graduated a few years ago; she was the most beautiful, most graceful girl in school. Hawthorn just knew that Lizzie is the kind of person who has an easy life because they’re perfect.
Then Lizzie goes missing. Hawthorn wants to know why, wants to know where Lizzie went. So she investigates Lizzie’s life. She takes Lizzie’s old job and quickly develops a crush on Enzo, Lizzie’s boyfriend. I got a Raffaele Sollecito vibe from Enzo, who is a dark and passionate painter; he’s also a suspect in Lizzie’s disappearance in the eyes of some.
Ms. Sedoti sends Hawthorn on an interesting personal adventure as she and Enzo cope with their loss. I don’t want to give away too much plot (like I said, it’s partly a suspense novel), but the author does a good job of creating a meaningful arc for Hawthorn and giving her interesting things to do.
Speaking of which, Ms. Sedoti gave herself a big problem in choosing her narrative, but also gave herself great opportunity. Stories about disappearances and murderers and the like are very interesting! Just think of any episode of Dateline NBC. These are what I call “shiny” stories because they attract a lot of attention very easily, just like shiny things you see when walking down the street. Ms. Sedoti created an interesting narrative out of a story that is decidedly far less “shiny.” Hawthorn didn’t know Lizzie well. She wasn’t involved in the disappearance. Lizzie remains missing for quite some time. This is not exactly the kind of story that will be made into a pure horror movie.
So Ms. Sedoti reflected Lizzie and her life through the lens that Hawthorn represented. All of the characterization for Lizzie came from a girl who wasn’t very close to her. One on hand, this kind of information is objective; on the other hand, it’s filtered through the perspective of a teenager. (And one who admired her.) Ms. Sedoti also made sure there were a few subplots to suggest the passage of time and to keep things rolling. There’s a homecoming dance! There’s a terrible bully! There’s an annoying but devoted brother! Most of all, there’s a romance that unspools very slowly and methodically.
My favorite thing about Ms. Sedoti’s conceit is the way that Lizzie hovers over the narrative in the same way that the Wingfield patriarch dominated Tennessee Williams’ narrative. The book opens:
The first thing that happened was Lizzie Lovett disappeared, and everyone was all, “How can someone like Lizzie be missing?” and I was like, “Who cares?”
So as the novel starts, Lizzie is already out of the narrative picture and can’t appear. (You know, unless and until she’s found or returns, yada yada.) Absent Lizzie is a mirror that reflects upon the characters. To Hawthorn, she represents the flawless princess lucky girl she wants to be when she grows up. Eventually, she reflects upon Enzo as an artist and a human being. Those who aren’t optimistic about Lizzie making a return are exposed as pessimists or realists.
In a way, Lizzie is not so much a character as a symbol. Have you ever met Abraham Lincoln? Didn’t think so. Like Lizzie, writing about him means projecting your own ideas onto him. These kinds of characters are (often) symbols. Hawthorn is a compelling teenage girl. She has romantic desires and fights with her brother and seeks wisdom from the hippie caravan near her house. She’s a living, breathing person! (In prose form.) Lizzie, on the other hand, is a kind of ghost who drives and reveals the characters.
Of course, Lizzie also reveals information about us, based upon how we perceive her and how we think about the search for her. Ms. Sedoti gives us plenty to think about, but in that good way. Hawthorn experiences a number of twists and turns. She grows up in some ways and not in others. The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett (like The Glass Menagerie) is a work about how we cope with absence and how we grow up in the face of grief and longing and will be enjoyed by those who are young adults in addition to those who merely remember being young adults.
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. Continue Reading
Writers are asked many general questions about their craft.
…”What is your overarching philosophy regarding the inherent power of fiction?”…”What IS–character–to you?”…”What is the position of place in your work?”…
These are great and important questions, but I’m really curious about the little things. In the “Hey, Why’d You Do That” series, I ask accomplished writers about some of the very small choices they made during the process of composition.
Jim Pransky is an interesting man who has the kind of career to which many of us aspire. He’s been a baseball scout for many years and is currently with the Colorado Rockies. When he isn’t identifying talent and evaluating young men for their suitability to make it in The Show, he likes to write books about our great National Pastime. In addition to writing biographies of overlooked players that deserve attention, Mr. Pransky writes novels that use baseball as their setting. Continue Reading
Faith Prescott is sixteen years old and in love…with musical theater. Even though her parents and siblings are hard-charging people who have degrees in “real” pursuits, Faith wants to major in theater. Life gets even more complicated when Faith starts to have feelings for Noah, a powerful performer who, it turns out, is nineteen. No, the course of true love never did run smooth, and it certainly doesn’t for Faith (soon to use her middle name of Madeleine) and Noah.
I don’t want to ruin any of Serena Chase‘s plot twists, but I’m sure you can guess most of the beats in the story of Intermission. Girl falls in love with older boy, girl and boy star in The Sound of Music together, girl tries to be just friends with older boy, girl’s mom is not happy about older boy…you get the drift. Faith/Madeleine, like Liesl Von Trapp, is at that wonderful age where society and your parents treat you like a child, but you have the body, hormones and desires of an adult. Continue Reading
Perfectedbegins with a delightfully disturbing scene that demonstrates the reader is in the hands of a capable storyteller who has a rip-roaring yarn to share. Take a look at the first few paragraphs:
The conceit of the book is that the protagonist, later named Ella, is a cloned 16-year-old girl who has been sold as a pet after recent legislation has made such things legal. Though cloned and genetically manipulated, Ella is, of course, a human being with hopes and desires that she discovers and explores through the course of the novel. (I don’t want to reveal more of the plot than I have to; it’s a fun ride that is surprising in spite of the appropriate parallels that Ms. Birch draws.)
Kate Jarvik Birch plays with very powerful themes and evokes such a cool tone–disturbing but fun–that the reader simply must read on to figure out what happens next. Perfected is in the same wonderful vein as the 2011 film Sleeping Beauty.
This film, obviously, is not for the young ones! In the first few minutes, the film plops you into a creepy, strange situation and hooks you. Can you ask for more from a story?
Perfected is also spiritually related to the 1990 Luc Besson film Nikita, in which a young woman is sent to a finishing school for spies instead of prison. Nikita must, of course, understand her new life and how her own desires relate to her obligations. (The film was remade in the United States as Point of No Return, starring the always excellent Bridget Fonda.)
All three of these works are excellent because the storytellers immediately immerse the reader (or viewer) in the protagonist’s very strange world. None of us will ever be cloned human pets trained in an awful finishing school, but just about everyone is protective of young women. We get over the shock of the disturbing nature of the story because our empathy meters are turned to eleven as the prospective buyers investigate Ella’s skills and beauty.
Further, Perfected (and the two films I mentioned) release exposition about the world in a fun manner that answers our questions before we ask them. Ms. Birch must let you know all about Ella’s world: that she essentially has the legal rights of a dog, that she was not taught to speak to children, that she was not taught to read or swim, but she can’t tell you everything all at once. She must unpeel the onion one layer at a time. (And the book just might make you cry; there’s no shame in that.) Essentially, Ms. Birch asks herself the question that all writers must confront: what does the reader need to know, and when must he or she know it? (Unfortunately, there is no one right answer to the question. But that would be nice, wouldn’t it?)
Another reason the book is so great is that Ms. Birch clearly loves her protagonist, but subjects her to constant indignity. This is a variation on the writing truism that you must “murder your darlings.” In order for there to be a story, Ella must suffer. She must be treated poorly and subjected to the kind of oppression that no one deserves. The great thing about this idea is that Ella regains these necessities little by little. This is the basic structure of a story. Every good story, anyway.
Ella’s new owner is a congressman, and one of the people who pushed through the legislation that made the “pet” program legal. The man is also…not the best guy ever. No one should be surprised that the congressman has more and different interest in his new sixteen-year-old human girl than people have in their rescue Chihuahua. Perhaps it’s a tangential point, but I found it fascinating that Ms. Birch, it seemed to me, held back in this area. Don’t get me wrong; the congressman is a creep and a weirdo and a creepy weirdo. But I wasn’t sure if…how can I say this…he would have the restraint he had.
Any quibbles I have with the book are trifles. Ms. Birch is brave enough to put her heroine into danger and to let her work her way out and so many interesting things happen to Ella that you can read the book in a single sitting. (Which I did.)
Welcome to another Great Writers Steal First Page Inquisition, a feature in which I take a deep look at the first page of a novel and isolate what the author did to kick off their book in a successful manner.
Today, I’m analyzing the opening of Jeanne Ryan‘s Nerve, a best-selling YA novel that was released by Lionsgate in July of 2016. Why not buy the book from your local indie?
Now let’s say that you are an agent or an editor and you know nothing about Ms. Ryan or her novel and that her work has popped up in your slush pile. Her work, like yours, must grab the reader immediately and must waste no time in establishing the setting, characters and tone. And it must also seem fun. And it must seem meaningful in some way. And it must seem commercial enough that lots of readers will want to buy it. And the summary and first page must convince the reader that the rest of the book is worth reading. (That’s right…the summary and first page are very important.) Continue Reading
Trisha was a mother even before she had any kids. She had no choice, really. She had to grow up fast so she could protect her brother from their abusive mother and the procession of perverted boyfriends that went through their too-small home.
Rock Taylor was the Big Man on Campus, destined to accomplish big things in college football. He sees Trisha in the schoolyard one morning and it’s love at first sight…for him, at least.
The course of true love never does run smooth, of course, and Trisha has too many problems at home to even think about spending that valuable time and attention with Rock. Even though her heart rate increases every time Rock is around… Continue Reading
Cody and Meg were best friends before Meg went off to college at a private school in Tacoma, Washington. A little over a year later, Meg commits suicide by drinking industrial-strength cleaner. As you might expect, Cody wants to know what happened and why her friend chose to end her own life. Through the course of I Was Here, Cody undertakes a journey to come to grips with her friend’s choice and (obviously) reaches catharsis and a greater understanding of herself.
Gayle Forman is one of the superstars of YA, and for good reason. Her books confront big themes and are packed with big drama and give the reader big feels. Her book If I Stay was made into a major motion picture:
I Was Here is a well-written book, but it’s not a light, laff-a-minute novel. This is a good thing! We should all have well-balanced reading diets. The book is also a good example of contemporary YA, which is why it came to mind after a recent writers’ group meeting I attended.
A bright young man who has little experience as a writer, but is plugging away at a first novel (good for him!) described what he was writing. The young man had an interesting conceit and characters in mind, but, as he acknowledged, he was not sure about what would happen to them. All of that is just fine. If you are a beginning writer, the most important thing to do is put pen to paper. Over and over again.
During the meeting, we all talked about the three-act dramatic structure that is so popular in screenwriting. Why is this structure popular? Because it works. Works that adhere to this paradigm have a beginning, middle and end and stuff happens in a logical and compelling fashion. What else do you want from a story? If you don’t know about the three-act structure, I advise you to immerse yourself in the works of Syd Field.
I animatedly helped the bright young man who was burning to write a YA novel think about how the vast majority of great novels and films adhere to the three-act structure. I hope to see him again and give him my marked-up copy of I Was Here, but why don’t I break down the three-act structure of the book for the benefit of all GWS readers?
There are any number of ways to describe the three-act structure and I don’t want to steal someone else’s method, so I’ll sketch out my own. The point is that each story has three acts. The first establishes the world and pushes the protagonist on their journey. The second chronicles the protagonist’s journey as they make progress on their mission. The third ratchets the tension as the mission succeeds or fails. In the middle of each act is what I am calling a “plot rocket:” a turning point that changes the protagonist’s situation and keeps the plot moving.
Have you seen Terminator 2: Judgment Day? If not, you are missing out. If nothing else, enjoy James Cameron’s rock-solid writing and direction. Here’s how the story breaks down:
Want another one? You’ve probably seen Stand By Me, the film based upon Stephen King’s beautiful novella “The Body.” (Which could easily be considered a YA book.)
What about I Was Here? Well, here you go:
What’s the overall point? Ms. Forman employs the three-act structure to keep the story plugging along. Yes, Cody is very sad. She could linger for years in that sadness over the course of 2,000 pages. But that would not make for a very interesting book. No, Ms. Forman makes sure that things keep happening, things that are both driven by Cody’s actions and things that happen to her.
Not only should things HAPPEN in a story, but the ultimate point is that the protagonist’s situation should change. Their emotions should change. I don’t know if there’s such a thing as static drama. The three-act structure diagram reveals Cody’s emotional journey. Through the course of the book, she experiences shock, grief, anger…all of the emotions! (Particularly when she opens up to Ben a little bit.)
The young man who inspired this essay found the idea of breaking a story in this manner a little counterintuitive; that’s okay. Just about everything about writing involves practice. Next time you watch a movie or read a book, why not try to break it down into its three-act structure? Next time you are dreaming about your next story, think about where the plot point you have in mind may fit into the structure.
Here’s another way to think of it. If you are thinking, “I want to have a big fight between the the person on Earth who represents evil and one who represents good.” Okay, great. Guess what: that’s probably going to be the turning point in the middle of Act Three. Why? The idea as I expressed it is pretty heavy. It feels like a climax. If you have Luke Skywalker fight Darth Vader at the beginning of Act Two…you have a lot of movie left.
Let’s say you had a crazy idea about a person in prison who plays opera over the PA system for the other inmates to enjoy. Okay, great. But you need story before and after that. A guy playing opera over a PA system is not a punchy climax, really. You’ve seen The Shawshank Redemption; I just described the turning point of Act Two, according to Syd Field.
Here. I’ll even give you a blank version of the chart I made. Can you train yourself to break down the stories you enjoy by their crucial turning points? Ms. Forman can, and look what it did for her!