Category: Plotting

This gorgeous image is by mariobraune and I found it on Flickr. Click the photo for more of the artist's great photographs.

GONE by Michael Grant has a premise that’s a brilliant hook: every person over the age of fifteen disappears and only children are left behind.  The author tells you about this situation in the very first sentence.  Consider this opening:

One minute the teacher was talking about the Civil War.  And the next minute he was gone.

As a reader, that sentence alone was going to be enough to keep me reading for at least a couple of chapters.  However, as I’ve been reminded lately, a premise is not a plot.  It will keep me reading for a couple of chapters but GONE is a whopping 560 pages long.  After the initial shock of children being left to their own devices, a story with tensions and struggles had to happen.

As a writer, I know the challenge of composing the beginning of a book.  You need to introduce characters.  In GONE, there’s a pretty sizable cast.  You also have to introduce setting.  If there’s world-building to be done, that needs to be solidly established in the first several chapters.  Besides all of that, the plot needs to move.

Mr. Grant uses a very effective device to get all of this done. The main character is Sam.  His love interest is Astrid.  Astrid has a little autistic brother and he’s missing.  Voila!  We have action.  We have an excuse to explore the setting.  And if we break up the search for little brother Pete with a point of view switch here and there to look at some of the other characters, that’s OK too.  It’s brilliant and there’s tension, even if the real antagonist of the story, Caine, isn’t introduced until page 140.

Once Caine shows up, the story is propelled forward.  We have our antagonist and his cohort of villain friends.  Our protagonist, Sam, and his cohort of hero friends have already been established.  Instant tension.

In the meantime, many of our minor characters have their own separate challenges and tension going on.  Lana, a character with a story-line of her own, fights for her life for weeks.  First, she’s terribly injured in a car accident, then coyotes trap her in a hermit’s shack.  Her private story is compelling and it’s sprinkled in amongst the main plot line.  Mother Mary is a character who takes charge of the youngest children.  At the same time she fights with an eating disorder.  Jack is a young computer genius who is having second thoughts about his association with the Cotes Academy crowd.

And these are just a few of the minor stories.

These are situations that the average reader can identify with.  Sam and Caine might be awesome super heros/villains, but Mother Mary, Lana, and Jack are (mostly) just stressed out people dealing with crazy circumstances.  As a writer, this is a good lesson for me.  Sometimes, I avoid writing about the “normal people” for fear that the reader will find it dull.  However, watching normal people cope is rarely dull.  If I ever find myself in need of a subplot, I’m going to look to my secondary characters and see if there’s a story there.

Plotting in GONE by Michael Grant is a clever mix of hero quests, the struggle of good versus evil, and personal stories of coping.  There are aspects of the plot that I didn’t like.  It felt like a lot of time was spent following the travels of the main characters.  Books where characters travel through the desert, then travel through a forest, then travel on the water, then travel (pick your mode of transportation) one of my pet peeves.  Just moving a character around doesn’t mean they’re really doing anything.  Nonetheless, I never felt the urge to put the book down.  By the last half of the book, I was completely engaged.

So, that’s my plot analysis for GONE by Michael Grant.  On Wednesday, I’ll take a look at the writing style.  This was definitely a book where the writing didn’t get in the way of the story!  Until then.


The plot in TOMORROW, WHEN THE WAR BEGAN by John Marsden is one big reason I didn’t like the book.  For the books I’ve blogged so far, once I’ve hit the halfway point of the book, I’m hooked.  By two-thirds of the way through if you interrupt my reading, I’ll growl at you.  I always ask myself one question when I finish a book; why did I keep reading? Usually the answer has something to do with the plot.  I needed to know if the main character would live.  I wanted to know the answer to a provocative story question.  I had to find out if the luckless lovers ever stop being star-crossed.  If it doesn’t have something to do with the plot, it probably has something to do with the writing.  For example, in THE BOOK THIEF the writing is just so beautiful and mesmerizing that I just enjoyed the turns of phrase.

My reason for finishing TOMORROW, WHEN THE WAR BEGAN was because I knew my co-worker who recommended it would ask about it.  Also, sometimes a story ending can knock my socks off.  If that happens, I can forgive whatever tedium I endured to get there (SIXTH SENSE, anyone?).  Unfortunately, that didn’t happen here.

Because every book is a learning experience, and because I doubt my little blog is going to hurt the sales of this series hit, I’m going to talk about the plot choices that didn’t work for me.  As always, this is just my opinion and I encourage you to read the book and judge for yourself.

  • The book is a flashback and throughout the book, the smaller stores are told in shorter flashbacks.  The book starts with Ellie announcing that she’s going to “write down everything that happened.”  Her friends are crowded around her, shouting advice.  So, what does that tell me right away?  Ellie survives the book and so do most of her friends.  As the story progresses, the teens discover that it is smarter to travel through the occupied town of Wirrawee in smaller groups.  Usually they creep stealthily in pairs.  Since TOMORROW is told from Ellie’s point of view, we only see her and her companion.  Everyone else has to tell the story of what they’ve been through when they get back to the point of view character.  Flashback, flashback, flashback.  And, again, if you’re there telling me the story, I know you made it through OK.  You lose valuable tension with this method.
  • The plot gets bogged down in details.  Ellie lists the things that they bring on the original camping trip.  She lists the things they need to set up camp outside of town.  And again when they decide to make it a more permanent camp.  And again when they make plans to fight back against the invading army.  I actually can find a laundry list interesting sometimes.  Maybe one in a book works for me.  Not this many.
  • It just doesn’t feel like there’s much direction.  Once the teens get back from their camping trip and realize that something horrible has happened, they systematically go to each person’s house.  It’s almost half of the book before we really get an action sequence.  I don’t feel like there’s a natural endpoint to this book: one enemy soldier that offers a specific threat; a ticking clock and a goal to complete in that time frame; a puzzle with a solution that would mark the end of the book.  To me, this book actually felt like only part of a book.

If I could play fantasy writing group and had a chance to critique the plot of TOMORROW, here’s the advice I would probably give (everyone’s a critic, right?).  I would explore moving out of the first person point of view.  This is a book that I think would gain more immediacy if it was told in real time and if the point of view shifted among the characters.  I would probably try to shorten the account of the camping trip and limit some of the description to pick up the pace.  And I would probably advise the author to give the team of teens a clear, active goal that it takes them a while to solve.  For example, the town of Wirrawee was attacked before the rest of Australia because it’s in a strategic location.  Maybe the kids could find out that they need to intercept a key convoy before a specific time.  Much of the book could be spent puzzling out this problem.

But, then again, maybe that’s why Mr. Marsden is a published author and I’m an unpublished amateur blogging about his book. 🙂

On Wednesday, I’m completing this analysis by looking at the writing style which I thought was one of the more charming things about the book.  I enjoyed the Australian voice.  Until then, I hope everyone has a great week.

That gorgeous (and in this context, terrifying) photo was taken by tathamoddie and I found it on Flickr.

Like I mentioned in my last blog, THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER by Stephen Chbosky has a plot that I’ve been having a lot of trouble dissecting.  It’s very similar to SPEAK, in the sense that it’s one year out of a teenager’s life.  In both books, the storyline encompasses their first year of high school. However, unlike SPEAK, PERKS doesn’t have a well-defined story question.  There isn’t that compelling sense that something bad (or good) is going to happen or a lingering aggravation that the author is withholding information to keep you reading.  There is a little ambiguity about some trauma in the main character’s past but it isn’t the driving force of the book.  The school year goes along the way that most school years do: punctuated by holidays and weekends.  As a writer that likes to analyze things, it’s MADDENING.  Why on earth did I keep reading this book?  Beyond that, why did I devour it in one four hour sitting?

I can only come up one idea: I kept reading this book was because it reminded me that people don’t always suck.

Charlie is a vulnerable little guy.  He’s gifted and he’s sensitive.  To me, that sounds like bully fodder waiting to happen.  When Charlie falls in with this older crowd that’s waaaay more experienced than he is, I was sure they would break him. Briefly I thought that was exactly where the story was headed.  But it wasn’t long before I realized that wasn’t going to happen.  He found friends–real friends.  The kind of people that Charlie might still know into his adulthood.  They took care of him and he, in his small way, took care of them.  It was beautiful.

Charlie is also very introspective.  He looks at what people are going through and relates that to the way they behave.  For instance, Charlie’s step-grandfather beat Charlie’s dad and aunt.  Charlie knows that’s the reason why his late Aunt dated men who liked to hurt her and why she drank too much.  He also knows that’s why his father is stern and unemotional.  Charlie doesn’t blame them for the way they act; he tried to understand them.

But, that isn’t a plot, is it?

So, after wrestling with this for a couple of days, I can’t figure out the plot.  Why does it work?  Why do I keep turning the pages?  It was beautiful writing.  It had round, compelling characters.  But the thread that holds this story together? I just don’t know.  It really feels much more like I had stumbled on to a shoebox full of letters and just happened to be reading them.

Perhaps it’s the voyeuristic pleasure that made me eat up this little morsel.  Maybe it’s the fact that I loved the characters and wanted to spend more time with them.  Maybe it’s just that a person’s life is interesting enough without explosions or vampires to keep this reader completely enthralled.  Whatever it was, this book was compelling and can’t put my finger on why.

I’m glad that next time I’m going to be looking at the writing style on Monday.  This book is deceptively easy to read.  The vocabulary and the sentence structure stay simple so that the ideas can be complex.  Until then!

That very cool photograph is by artist Filomena Scalise and I found it on

I know it sounds strange, but I usually don’t try to analyze the title of a book until I’m finished reading it.  Then, knowing how the book begins, proceeds, and ends, I try to determine if I like the choice in title.  For example, THE HUNGER GAMES worked for me.  The whole book is about these gladiatorial survivor games, so the title isn’t misleading.  Plus, it’s catchy enough to snag my interest if I don’t have any prior knowledge of the book.  THE GRAVEYARD BOOK worked for me too.  Like I said in my posts when I analyzed this book, THE GRAVEYARD BOOK feels like a string of individual stories about a boy who lives in a graveyard.  The title is very general and in this context, it works.

I’m bringing this up because I think that the title of THE HAUNTING OF ALAIZABEL CRAY (HAC) by Chris Wooding does the book a disservice.  First of all, Alaizabel isn’t really haunted; she’s possessed.  In fact, because Alaizabel is stronger than the spirit within her, it’s an unsuccessful possession.  Wouldn’t that have been a cool title?  THE FAILED POSSESSION OF ALAIZABEL CRAY.

However, my objection to the title isn’t because it could have been cooler or because it isn’t completely accurate.  I object to this title because it set up false expectations for the plotting of this book.  After reading the title, I believed that the thrust of the story was going to be about the supernatural threat to the heroine and how she ended up haunted.  It turned out that Alaizabel’s troubles only spanned about half of the book.  The real plot was about a secret Fraternity in London and their goal to bring about the apocalypse.

I will make this confession:  this book didn’t draw me along and make me need to know the ending.  I kept reading because of the great individual scenes (I think I mentioned a fantastic scene between Alaizabel and the serial killer, Stitch-face.  There’s also a pretty exciting knife fight.) and the super/icky/cool monsters.  The imagery for the grand finale of the book was spectacular.  In addition, when wych-kin overrun London, there are a series of short scenes that gave me chills.  But these events are secondary to the main plot line, which was not particularly surprising or revealing.  Like the characters, where the lead players were a bit of a snore, the primary plot of THE HAUNTING OF ALAIZABEL CRAY was borderline predictable.  On the other hand, the side stories, like the serial killer Stitch-face and the London citizens who are victims of the wych-kin, are chocolate-covered deliciousness.

That’s my take on the plotting for THE HAUNTING OF ALAIZABEL CRAY.  Even though I feel like this book is a little slow and the plot isn’t driving, I still made it to the end without any trouble.  A big reason for that was the writing style…which I will tackle on Monday.  Have a wonderful weekend!

The super-creepy artwork is by Shain Erin (seriously, this artist makes constructs really messed-up dolls that are icky and awesome.  LOVE it.) and I found it on flickr.

So here’s the thing about THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak:

You know how it’s going to end.

I don’t mean that in a general It’s-World-War-II-We-All-Know-How-It-Ends kind of way.  I mean it very literally.  Before we get the setting of Himmel street, before we know what year it is, before we even know Liesel’s name, death tells us how the book is going to end.  Page twelve through fifteen is the closing scene.  Of course you get an emotionally raw, extended version from page 529-539, but it isn’t a shock; you know it’s coming.  No tension.  No suspense.  There it is.

So, why would Mr. Zusak do this?  I think the answer is simple.  He does this because this is how he believes that Death would tell a story.  In fact, Death spells it out for you about halfway through the book

Of course, I’m being rude.  I’m spoiling the ending, not only of the entire book, but of this particular piece of it.  I have given you two events in advance, because I don’t have much interest in building mystery.  Mystery bores me.  It chores me.  I know what happens and so do you.  It’s the machinations that wheel us there that aggravate, perplex, interest, and astound me.

Rare is the day that you get a good self-analysis by an author about his own writing through one of his own characters.  But it’s all too true.  As a writer, you’re told to make sure the stakes and tension are high.  What’s higher than putting someone in a life and death situation and spinning the wheel of Fate?  In THE BOOK THIEF, life and death is part of the setting.  Nazi Germany was a dangerous place.  But instead of using that, Death is going to tell you straight up who dies.  He even gives you a little countdown.

If all that’s true, then what made me keep turning the pages?  As Death tells us, it’s the machinations–it’s life and living it–that is the interesting part. There’s daily drama that’s compelling enough.  Where will Liesel get her next book?  Will she keep having nightmares about the death of her brother?  Will she finally kiss Rudy (although Death spoils that one for us too)?  What will happen to the Jewish boy they have hidden in the basement? How will life change when the war really comes to Munich?  The details of life are compelling enough to pull a reader through a book without needing anything more.

I’m not saying that Death doesn’t drop a few breadcrumbs.  He indicates when Liesel is going to steal another book and where she might go to get it.  He refers to something as “The Jesse Owens Incident” and lets you wait a few chapters before you get the rest of the story.  He calls Liesel “The Heavyweight Champion of the Schoolyard” and then spins out the story after he has your interest.  It’s an interesting device actually. I learned that if you hint at an incident and make sure you do it with a good hook, your reader will probably hang out to get the whole story.  In THE BOOK THIEF, it works well more than once.

Obviously, there’s more to the plotting than what I’ve presented here.  That was also true of the characters and setting and I suspect it’s going to also be true when I play with the writing style in the next post.  And that’s one of the delights of this book. It’s one of those books that you can re-read, even if you’re not a re-reader, and find something new to analyze, discuss, or pick at.

Until Monday…I hope everyone has a good weekend!

The gorgeous photo is by szlea and I found it on flickr.

I have a mantra when I’m writing: simple is better.  In my first novel, the world-building was very complex.  When the time came to write a query letter and pitch the book to agents, I had a devil of a time.  The synopsis was even worse.  I always write a one, three, and five page synopsis so I have varying lengths available, depending on what might be requested.  My one page synopsis was a mess.  The three pager wasn’t much better.  I learned my lesson.  Manuscript number two could be summed up in one sentence and I definitely got more interest in it.

When Tanith Lee was writing INDIGARA, she completely ignored my mantra.  She has two worlds, two version of each character (with different names), and (I’ll get into this more in my next post) three points of view. Follow that?  Bear in mind that this was a novella.  A meager 192 pages.  That’s a lot of stuff going on in such a little bit of space.  Honestly, if Tanith Lee was part of my writing group (which would be completely awesome, by the way) I would have told her to double the length.

Here’s another little tidbit.  Most young adult books have a really strong inertia.  By the time you’re about a third of the way into the story, you can feel the plot pushing you towards the end.  INDIGARA just isn’t like that.  It wasn’t like I was tempted to stop reading; the writing was far too interesting for that.  I just didn’t feel that push–that sense that I need to know how these story questions are resolved.

So, while playing with the concept of using clichés worked for me with the characters and even elements of the setting, I think it might have backfired a little bit with the plotting.  I knew that the relationship between the three sisters would probably work out; Jet would most certainly make it home a wiser, less sarcastic teenager; and the world of INDIGARA, thrown out of balance by Jet’s arrival, would undoubtedly regain its balance.  No surprises here.  And then you hit the very last chapter.  In that chapter, Ms. Lee hints at a future scenario that, if explored, could make INDIGARA nothing more than a prequel to the real story.  Which is part of what makes me believe the whole clichéd characters and B-style plot was completely on purpose.

So that begs the question: what made me keep turning the pages?  Why didn’t I put down this book if it lacked inertia?  The answer to that, quite simply, is that it made me laugh.  Jet’s voice was droll and amusing, particularly when she’s in INDIGARA and noticing all of the really bad plot and dialog going on around her.  And at one point Jet convinces a dragon to do her bidding by offering him a donut.  That one had me making a fool of myself by laughing out loud on the bus. Thanks a lot, Tanith Lee. 🙂

In my next post, I’m going to tackle writing style.  Like I mentioned above, this book is told from three points of view:  Jet’s (via her journal), Otis, her robotic dog, and through an omniscient third person narration that is in the style of movie-script stage direction.  It took a little bit of getting used to but I think this choice actually added to the humor.  Until then.

The cover art image is used with the permission of the artist, Daniel Dos Santos.  Visit his site for more of his fantastic artwork.

Ok, let me preface this post by saying I am part of the northeast heat wave.  And, being from the northeast, my house is not equipped with air conditioning.  If I ramble a little or use bad grammar or contradict myself, it’s probably because my brain is hard-boiled in this heat!  That being said…here we go!

For me, the structure of TH1RTEEN R3ASONS WHY by Jay Asher is a dream.  A prologue and an opening chapter sets up the story.  In these chapters, you see a ragged Clay Jensen the morning after he listens to the tapes and then the book flashes back to the previous evening, when he gets Hannah’s package in the mail.  So, immediately you know whatever is on those tapes is bad.  You’ve got the tension working right away.

Thirteen chapters follow that.  Each one is essentially a short story from Hannah Baker’s life.  Her first kiss.  Her first friends in a new town.  Episodes she remembers in school.  Each chapter is a reason why she committed suicide and each chapter corresponds to one side of one of the tapes.  The driving force of the story is twofold.  First of all, Hannah Baker doesn’t sound like a withdrawn, quiet, victim.  So you’re genuinely curious how things could have gone so wrong for her.  Second, like I’ve already said, you like Clay.  One of the reasons that you keep reading is because you want to know what his role could possibly be in Hannah’s death.  Which is also why Clay continues to listen to the tapes.

Structure works for me both as a reader and as a writer.  When I give myself a firm structure in my writing, I have less of a tendency to ramble.  I have more of an inclination to hit my writing “marks”, like putting action sequences in the right places, resolving conflict at the appropriate moment, and making sure that tension builds at a compelling pace.

On the other hand, as a reader, when an author gives his book a predictable structure, I anticipate the rise and fall of the book.   I experienced this in the HARRY POTTER series, where each book was the length of a school year.  When spring started to arrive, you knew it was about time for the big showdown.    Or CHARLOTTE’S WEB, where you know autumn is when Wilber, the pig, is to be butchered.  Especially in CHARLOTTE’S WEB and TH1RTEEN R3ASONS WHY, the structure of the book creates natural tension.  You have a built in ticking clock.  By the end of the summer, Charlotte needs to have convinced Mr. Zuckerman not to butcher the pig.  And by the thirteenth side of the tape, Hannah will have decided to kill herself.

So, by Friday, I’ll either be a puddle of melted Kate, my supply of sugar-free popsicles having run out.  Or I will have outlasted the heat and have a post for you on writing style.  This book was interesting because the tapes were written in Hanna’s voice while the narration of the story was Clay’s POV.  At moments it was a little confusing, but I will say that it was an ambitious story-telling device to use.  Until then!

Deceptively simple

A lot of times when you read young adult fiction, the author withholds pertinent bits of information to keep the tension high.  Take HARRY POTTER for example.  You don’t really learn all the important details about the night Harry’s parents were killed until book five!  In TWILIGHT, we don’t really start getting the dish on what it means to be a vampire in Washington state until 2/5 of the way through the book and you don’t discover how a human is turned until 4/5 of the way.  I’m not talking here about legitimate plot turns; I’m talking about something one of the characters in the book knows and really should be revealing.  You bet I’m going to keep reading to find out what Dumbledore knows or what Edward is hiding, but you can also bet that I know I’m being strung along.

THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins doesn’t have to string you along.  The author came up with a premise so interesting and compelling that she didn’t need to withhold anything.  It’s all right there in chapter one.  How the lottery system works.  What the Hunger Games are.  By the end of chapter two, we know who the tributes are.  No secrets.  No twists.  Because she doesn’t need it.

The characters aren’t unpredictable, either.  We know that Katniss is good with a bow and arrow and good in the woods and we know why.  We know Peeta is sly and smart.  Heck, we even know that Rue is “very hard to catch”.  Maybe a bit of an understatement, but still, not a secret. Again, the author doesn’t need hold stuff back.  The Hunger Games, by their very nature, are going to be unpredictable.  The characters don’t need to be.

This is a great lesson for me as a writer.  Sometimes I like do what I call “over-decorate” my plots.  What I’ve got going on doesn’t seem interesting enough, so I invent some secret parentage or unknown half-sister or weird talent to dress up a dry plot.  Or–worse yet–I have to invent some complicated reason why my character is doing what I need her to do to further the plot (No, really…she goes to this experimental school that takes yearly trips to the North Pole.  Nobody cares how dangerous it is because it’s such a good learning experience.  And, no, she doesn’t know her dad disappeared while in the North Pole; she thought he died in a diving accident in the Florida Keys.  But when she finds that pair of spectacles lying in a snow drift, they seem familiar.  She doesn’t know why.  But she holds on to them anyway.  And they’re the key to everything!  Really.).  Come up with a simple, compelling premise and you can leave out all the decorations.

Here’s another thing: Ms. Collins has made the stakes so high that she doesn’t need any more tension.  What stakes are higher than a life and death battle?  Why would you need to ramp up tension after that?  It’s part of her world-building and the reader accepts the horror of it.  The Hunger Games become the antagonist of the story.  It’s brilliant, really.  We don’t need a mustache-twirling bad guy.  The government, and the Games they promote, force children to fight to the death. Two of those kids, Katniss and Peeta, we know and like.  But they can’t both survive and that’s a fantastic conundrum through a huge portion of this book.

So, the lesson I learned about story-telling from THE HUNGER GAMES?  Come up with a clean, simple plot, create some strong, likable characters, ramp up the stakes and voila!  Literary magic.  Easy as calculus.

At its core, SHIP BREAKER by Paolo Bacigalupi is an adventure story. I can’t call it fast-paced.  This is a book that makes a lot of statements.  In my opinion, dealing with issues in the midst of story-telling slows down the pace of a book and I believe this is also true for SHIP BREAKER.  The world-building is a statement on environmental responsibility.  Nailer’s position on the light crew is a statement about child labor and poverty.  Nita’s evolving attitude about the laborers around her is a statement about the disconnect between the wealthy and the poor.

I must say that even though Mr. Bacigalupi uses valuable real estate in his novel to make these points, and they do slow down an otherwise heart-pounding adventure book, they also add to the richness of the story.  They increase the intellectual value in this book in a way reminiscent of Margaret Atwood or George Orwell.  If you believe that books aren’t just to entertain us–that they’re also intended to make us think– SHIP BREAKER is for you.

This book, like so many adventure stories, is driven by a series of events in which our main character finds himself in harder and harder situations.  The story question doesn’t change.  Throughout the book, the question remains What is Nailer going to do? When he’s working the light crew, aware that he’s getting too big to do his job but knowing it’s unlikely he’ll ever be big enough to work the heavy crew, what is Nailer going to do? When he finds a rich girl in a shipwrecked clipper ship with more loot than any haul he’s ever seen and the girl is the only thing standing between him and the scavenge what is Nailer going to do? When he crosses his drunk, drug-addicted father, who also happens to have a gift for violence, what is Nailer going to do? And so forth and so on until the end of the book.

Unfortunately for Nailer, there is usually a clear consequence to his choices.  If he chooses what’s best for him, it’s often at great cost to someone else.  And that, along with the ongoing threat of his father, creates the tension in this book.  It’s a brilliant set-up.

I would also like to point out that while this book isn’t completely devoid of romance, it plays such a minor role it doesn’t even deserve a mention in plot structure.  I know that’s true of most of the books I’ve deconstructed on this blog, but it’s not true of most young adult literature.  Or even adult literature.  Or television series.  Or movies.  I think it’s safe to say that people of all ages find romance (or maybe even more specifically, star-crossed lovers, unrequited romance, and love triangles) compelling enough to propel an entire plot line.  Writing a good, compelling story full of tension is harder without it.  SHIP BREAKER is one of those stories.

So, next, I’m going to looks at the writing style of SHIP BREAKER.  In writing, you often hear that each word is a choice.  Every time you build a sentence, you’re adding to your tone, solidifying your themes, and cementing your voice.  SHIP BREAKER is evidence of that.  Until then.

Peeling back the layers

Plotting is an interesting thing.  Every time I read a new book, I find an author that handles plotting slightly differently.  But, I think most books have a few common elements.

1. A story question (Sometimes a layered story question)

2. An interesting cast of characters/setting/ romance to interest the reader while you’re setting up the story question.

3. Movement.

I say movement instead of action because in a book like SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson, there are very few scenes that could actually be termed action.  However, this book does move.

Ms. Anderson introduces the story question in SPEAK within the first page of the book.  Melinda is getting on the bus for the first day of high school and none of her friends are speaking to her.  Someone throws trash at her.  Obviously, this is a girl who used to have friends but is now ostracised by the entire class.  So, you’re motivated to keep reading because of the question why.  This is a question that isn’t answered until page 27.

In the meantime, we meet Melinda’s teachers.  The coach who also teaches and intimidates everyone but the athletes.  The hyper-motivated art teacher.  The Spanish teacher who refuses to speak any English in her class.  Through Melinda’s dry humor (which I will try to cover more when I look at writing style next post) these minor characters take on life.  It’s interesting enough to keep you reading. Plus, her first days of school are punctuated with bullying antics, continually reminding you that she isn’t just friendless; people are openly hostile to her.

Then, on page 27 Ms. Anderson uncovers one layer of the story question.  If you read the Amazon review, this plot element is revealed, so I’m going to give just this little bit away.  Melinda called the police at a party where there was underage drinking going on.  She got a lot of people in trouble.  But, by now the author has introduced Melinda to us so well, and she is such a likable character, that it’s impossible to believe that she would just do this to her friends for no reason.  And so, we get to the next layer of the story question: What really happened at that party?

Ms. Anderson really makes you wait for it.  You get hints and clues.  You’re pretty sure you’ve figures out the answer to the question but if you’re anything like me, you’re not going to stop reading until you know for sure.  And that answer doesn’t come until page 133.  While you wait, you see Melinda buckling under the pressure of being the class punching bag.  She’s skipping school.  There are meetings with guidance councilors and in school suspensions.  Ms. Anderson has created a character that you like–and more importantly–that you can identify with, so you’re invested in what’s happening to her.

And, finally, the last third of the book, the story question becomes: How will Melinda overcome this situation? and perhaps even more so Will Melinda find her voice?

Powerful stuff.

Let me just say, this story would never work if Ms. Anderson hadn’t created such a likable character in Melinda Sordino.  The whole movement of the story is dependent on the reader’s sympathy.  If you don’t care about Melinda, you don’t care about the story.  Period.  So, bravo to the author for hanging a story on one character and making it work.

So, next time writing style.  In a book like this, a quiet book, writing style is key.  Even though there are many strengths to this book, I think the writing style is the biggest one.