3 Reasons Kathryn Stockett’s The Help Became A Bestseller

bestselling novel The HelpTime to get honest. We all want our book to become a runaway bestseller and get turned into a movie.

And we all know exactly what it takes to get there–a great book and word of mouth. That hasn’t changed and won’t change no matter what technological advancements come along. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Social media maven Kristen Lamb pointed out that one of the best ways for novelists to create a great book is to examine successful books to figure out what worked for them. Once we recognize what helped make them great, we can incorporate those things into our own books.

So today I wanted to look at three reasons Kathryn Stockett’s The Help became a bestseller.

Unique Character Voices

The Help uses three first-person narrators to tell the story. (It’s not as easy as Stockett makes it look.)  Even if you weren’t told each time you hit a switch, you could identify which character was speaking because Stockett gave them each a unique voice.

How? Well, she kept in mind their background, education, and personalities.

Abileen’s voice is lyrical but filled with grammatical mistakes. She uses “they” when she should use “their,” and “a” when she should use “of.” You can hear the accent of black women in the South 60 years ago when she says, “First day I walk in the door, there she be, red-hot and hollering with the colic” (pg. 1).

This is Abileen’s voice, and only Abileen can say it just this way because of who she is. She dropped out of school young to work, but always had a knack for writing, and she’s been writing her prayers ever since so she doesn’t lose the ability. She’s older than the other POV characters, and it shows in her accent and attitudes, and in the slightly slower way she moves about things.

Minny’s is sarcastic, cynical, jaded. Her speech is sprinkled with profanity and criticisms of the foolishness she sees around her. Her metaphors tend to center around food.

What makes Minny so different from Abileen? She’s younger and has more education so she lacks the accent and grammatical mistakes, she’s extremely practical, but it’s more than that. Minny looks at the world the way she does in large part because her alcoholic husband beats her. And her food metaphors spring out of her love for cooking. She never burns the fried chicken.

Whether you have one POV character or ten, each of them needs to sounds like an individual.

A Theme People Connect With

You might think the theme of The Help is civil rights and equality for blacks and women. While those issues play a huge role in the book (after all, Skeeter is writing a book that tells the real story of black maids in the South), if that was the theme, it wouldn’t connect with people on an emotional level the way this book did. Civil rights is a political issue you vote on, not something that reaches in, grabs your heart, and squeezes it until it aches.

Stockett weaves a much more subtle and poignant theme throughout each POV character’s story–the struggle to feel worthy, worthwhile, loved, and valuable.

Skeeter feels like an embarrassment to her mother. She’s unmarried and dresses in ways that give her mother heart palpitations. Her hair is completely unmanageable. When she finally gets a boyfriend, she’s forced to choose between being herself and being who he wants her to be.

Minny works for Celia Foote. Celia comes from Sugar Ditch (basically the wrong side of the tracks). She desperately wants to make friends, but her heart of gold is overlooked because she’s tacky and trashy and married to the ex-boyfriend of Hilly, who has all the other white women under her thumb.

Abileen works for a woman who’s ashamed of her daughter. Elisabeth barely picks her toddler up because Mae Mobley is fat with a bald spot on the back of her head. Abileen spends the book trying to teach Mae Mobley that she is kind, she is smart, and she is important.

Each story connects to the theme in a different way, but it’s there under them all. And it’s something we can all relate to in one way or another.

Fresh Descriptions and Metaphors

George Orwell advised, “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” His point was that if you’ve seen it in other books before, it’s no longer fresh. It might even be verging on cliched. Worse, it makes your book forgettable.

The best metaphors stick in people’s minds because they don’t remember ever hearing them before. They also stick because they give people something tangible to hang on to.

The dread in my stomach is flat and hard and hot, like a brick in the sun (pg. 178). When I read this, I understood dread in a new way. My gut reaction was “Yes, that’s exactly how it feels. She just put into words something I’ve known all along but haven’t been able to articulate.” That makes for a memorable metaphor.

It smells like meat, like hamburger defrosting on the counter (pg. 232). Even now, months later, this metaphor still turns my stomach. This is how she described the smell of a miscarried baby. I’ve never seen a miscarried baby, never smelled what that sort of death smells like, but with this description, I knew. Stockett associated something unfamiliar to most of us to something familiar to most of us, allowing us to play an intimate part in a foreign experience. That also makes for a memorable metaphor.

Have you read The Help? What did you love about it? What else do you think made it a bestseller?

Marcy

**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

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How To Make Deep POV Enrich Your Internal Dialogue

Marcy and I have recently written posts about deep POV, internal dialogue, and dialogue (Marcy’s great series about dialogue continues next week), but now it’s time to take the pieces, put them together, and make your writing sing.

woman thinkingUsing deep POV for internal dialogue is a valuable tool for writers, but in the various critiques we’ve given this is also one of the areas that POV violation happens most frequently. Here are the most common offenders.

Settings

Let’s try a small experiment. Think back to the first time you entered a friend’s apartment or home. I’m betting the first details you noted were the big picture things, maybe the color on the walls, the furniture, the painting above the sofa, or the floor-to-ceiling bookcase? What did your friend notice? Maybe she apologizes for the blotch of wall color on the ceiling where her roller slipped, or warns you that the bathroom door won’t completely shut. She notes the hole in the wall where she moved the curtain rods, the dust on the books maybe, or that she hasn’t vacuumed in more than a week. Familiarity lets us overlook details in setting others would focus on.

When writing in deep POV, keep in mind what your character would notice – and not notice. Do you make a mental note of the way the sofa matches the walls in your living room? Or would you zero in on the book upended on the floor because someone’s lost your place and it will take forever to find where you left off? There are things that your character will take for granted, not mention or notice, in any situation because it’s familiar to them.

The Work-Around

If there are details that the reader needs to know about a setting that your POV character wouldn’t notice, have another character make a comment about it. “Did you paint again?” “No, but the sofa’s new.” Think about what your character would notice. Sometimes all that’s needed is a minor tweak.

Motivations

Each character will bring their own prejudices, history, and preferences to the story that they may not be willing to admit to themselves and therefore not mention or notice for the reader. 3 men walk into a bar. One’s looking for his daughter, the other is looking to get drunk because he’s just signed divorce papers, and the third is looking to get laid. Their motivations for being in that setting will influence how they interpret and view what’s going on around them. One sees every man in the room as the villain who’s corrupted his baby. Another sees every woman there as a possible conquest and focuses on their ‘assets’. The third man doesn’t see any of the women there, the only face he can think about is the cheating wretch who ripped his heart to shreds.

The Work-Around

Careful word choice will give readers insight into the character’s motivation without the character necessarily having to mention it. What words would the scoundrel looking to get laid use to describe the women he sees, the music? Let his word choice and the details he notices give the reader clues about his motivations for being there.

Backstory

Your POV character knows why they’re seeking any particular goal. In the first Pirates Of The Caribbean movie, we know from what Jack says about himself, and what others say about him, that he’s a scallywag with no honor, but he never tells us why he’s chasing the Black Pearl or keeps a pistol with only one shot. Why would he mention it, he already knows! Gibbs tells Will a story about Jack that’s mostly true, answering one or two audience questions, but leaving us with another unanswered.

The Work-Around

The best way to use backstory is in small snippets. Backstory should answer a question for the reader, but always leave them with a new one. Take the men in the example above. How would the man drowning his sorrow talk to himself? Would he dwell on his pain, remind himself why he’s trying to get drunk, describe the betrayal in detail? Would he reminisce about meeting the woman in question, sharing breakfast that morning. Not likely. Jim downed the third shot of whiskey, his throat and chest burning. Not enough. He still remembered her name — could still see them together in his bed. He slammed the shot glass on the bar and nodded to the bartender.

Attention To Detail

When you first met your spouse/significant other, what was it about them that first struck you? Was it because they had beautiful eyes, or beautiful blue eyes? We often remember small things, but in great detail. It’s the specific details that jog our memory or create what Malcolm Gladwell calls stickiness in his book The Tipping Point. We’re all attracted to different characteristics, use those details to tell the reader about your character.

The Work-Around

Don’t have your character catalog every detail about a setting, event or another character. Rather, choose one or two details that are sticky. Choose details that are specific and memorable to that POV character.

Kait Nolan’s new ebook Red is a YA urban fantasy and has fantastic use of internal dialogue. Notice what Sawyer (male protag) first notices about Elodie (female protag). “She was crying. Not that she was being noisy about it. She wasn’t hysterical or red-faced or wailing. She was absolutely silent. I caught the faint glimmer of tears on her cheeks, saw her shoulders shudder with the effort to hold in her grief.” What does this observation tell us about Sawyer?

Exceptions

There’s a line from the first Pirates movie where they talk about the Pirate code “The code is more like guidelines than actual rules.” There are always exceptions to writing rules, but a couple of quick thoughts before I finish. If it’s part of your character’s personality to break one of these guidelines, then do it. If your character has OCD, then having them catalog their morning routine might be a characterization technique. If your character has just miscarried, perhaps they’re painfully aware of every pregnant woman they see. Just be sure you have a good reason to break the rule.

Do you agree with these ‘guidelines’ or have one of your own to add? Share it in the comments.

Lisa

**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

Smell, Taste, Touch

Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, sense impressions draw your readers into a story and make the world on the page come alive. While we need to be careful not to overload the reader’s senses (think about how perfume or cologne starts to all smell the same once you’ve sniffed too many bottles), using all five senses strategically will add a new depth of richness to your writing.

Today I wanted to start with the three senses we tend to overlook: smell, taste, and touch.

Smell

Without even noticing it, you probably associate certain smells with memories, people, or places. I know when my husband visits Tim Horton’s because the scents of dough and coffee cling to his clothes. I hate the dentist office because it smells like burning hair. The smell comes from the singed protein teeth being drilled, and I associate that smell with pain. If I’m stressed, the warm scent of a clean dog will calm me down because I associate it with the comfort I find in my Great Dane when I throw my arms around her after a hard day.

Think about your own life and what smells evoke memories and emotions. Why do they have that effect on you? You don’t need to duplicate that precise smell in your fiction (you should find one unique to your character), but by paying attention to how smells weave throughout your life, you can learn how to build them into your fiction.

In Ted Dekker’s The BoneMan’s Daughters, the serial killer is addicted to Noxzema. I think about it every time I wash my face. That’s the staying power of a smell. For non-fiction writers, you can create the same lasting memory by finding the one key smell to grab your readers. It could be the difference between a forgettable article and motivating your readers to act.

Are you writing an article on motherhood? What smell defines motherhood for you? Are you doing a news story on the local track meet? What does the locker room smell like? Or the air in the early morning before the meet starts?

Taste

If you want to use the five senses to draw your reader into the world of your characters, you’ll need to decide when naming a food or a taste is enough and when you need to go deeper. Some tastes are potent enough in themselves. Chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream. A cinnamon-flavored toothpick. Your dental hygienist’s latex gloves.

A foreign taste always needs a description, otherwise you’re just placing an empty word on the page. In the historical romance Lisa and I are writing together, Ares drinks a glass of kumiss, sour milk with an almond aftertaste. Even though you’ve likely never tasted kumiss, can you imagine the bitter tang, like buttermilk gone bad, and then just as you finish swallowing, the slight sweetness of almond lingering on your tongue?

One trick to bring tastes to life when you’re not sure how to concretely describe them is to use metaphors or comparisons:

“The wine tasted like liquid sunlight” (Oakley Hall, How Fiction Works).

“She spoke of fruit that tasted the way sapphires look” (Toni Morrison, Paradise).

Touch

By its very nature, touch is an intimate sense. You can smell a scent carried on the wind, hear a sound from a mile away, look at stars through a telescope. To touch something, you need to be within arm’s reach.

Touch is one of the most multi-faceted senses. You can touch and be touched. You can be touched by another living being, by the weather, or by an inanimate object. To convey touch to  your readers, think about temperature, texture, pressure, and intent.

The most important thing for touch, though, is to know how your character will interpret it. A woman whose love language is physical affection will interpret a hug differently than will a woman who was sexually abused as a child. How will a germaphobe handle touch? What about an aging musician whose fingers are going numb?

What writers do you think use smell, taste, and touch well? We’d love to hear your favorite passages.

Marcy

**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

The Devil is in the Details

Ever heard the phrase the devil is in the details? It derived from the idea that the devil is most dangerous not in the big things, but in the way he sneaks past your defenses in the little things. In common parlance, it’s come to mean that the most difficult, most mysterious, and often most important element of anything you try to do is the details.

You’ll quickly realize how true that is if you ever apply for permanent residency in Canada or the United States. Thanks to all the illegal immigrants in North America, the government now requires a cross-border married couple to fill in mounds of paperwork and divulge minute details of their relationship to prove that it’s genuine before the non-Canadian spouse is allowed to live in Canada. (It’s even worse trying to go the other way into the U.S.)

Months have passed as my American husband and I have collected and labeled 65 pictures of our dates, wedding, reception, and honeymoon, highlighted a year’s worth of phone records, photocopied old boarding passes, and waited for background checks and medical results to clear. Do you remember every time you visited your spouse prior to marriage? And if you do, can you provide documentary evidence to prove that what you’re saying is true? Do you remember the calendar date when your husband or wife met each of your relatives and any close friends?

Unfortunately for writers, the Canadian government isn’t the only entity that wants details—and lots of them. The most important part of any article you write will be the details.

Details Give Credibility

As my dad sagely pointed out one day, the government asks for all these details because they prove that your relationship is genuine. A couple that wasn’t genuine would be able to give generalities but not details. In the same way, the details that you put in every article you write will give you credibility. So what kind of details do you want to include?

Eye-Witness Reports Help People Care

At first I found it insulting that we needed to “prove” that our relationship was genuine. Of course I love my husband, I wouldn’t have married him if I didn’t. But not everyone feels that way about marriage.

When you’re passionate about something, you can’t understand why other people aren’t as fired up as you are about this clearly important issue. You need to help them care, because if they don’t care, they won’t act. Details cut through the clutter we face, and find their way into people’s hearts.

Lisa and I have recently been working on articles about the cholera epidemic in Haiti, and in the process, we talked to two nurses who’d been there. We wanted to cry as we listened to their stories about the nine-year-old boy whose lifeless body ended up in the mass grave because no one claimed him. Or the mother who was too weak from cholera to nurse her starving baby. Or the families who slept on the muddy ground and went hungry so that they could stay by the bedsides of their loves ones.

We learned through the eyes of these two nurses how dehumanizing cholera is as it leaves you covered in your own vomit and diarrhea, helpless to do anything about your condition. Those eye-witness accounts are the ones that motivate an editor to buy your article, a reader to recommend your article to a friend, and everyone to take action.

Statistics Support Your Anecdotal Evidence

As essential as eye-witness reports are, they’re not enough by themselves. Anyone can find a terrible story and claim it’s a big deal. You need to be able to find credible sources that say this is the percentage of North Americans who suffer from this disease, or this is the number of people who’ve died, or this is how much tax-payer money is lost each year. Give people a hard number so that they can’t brush off your story as an exception.

Using All Five Senses Lets Them Live It

Sight is the sense that we rely on the most, so it’s the one we tend to use the most in our articles. How did something look? How big was it? What colour was it? Steal a trick from fiction writers and bring to life all five senses. How did the room smell? What did the medicine taste like? What did the hospital blankets feel like? Then your reader can fully engage and feel like they lived through it. Those articles are going to be the ones that they can’t stop thinking about.

Metaphors Bridge Gaps in Understanding

When I was a kid, if there was something I didn’t understand, my mom would try to explain it by saying, “Well, it’s like . . .” I wouldn’t recommend splattering your page with metaphors and similes, but they can help give new depth to your reader. In one of my earliest articles, “Just Say It,” I was struggling to explain why married couples need to both show love through actions and express love through words.

I needed to use something everyone could relate to: “Speaking and hearing the words will bond you together in a different way than physical expressions because they activate different senses and different centers of your brains. The connection between words of love and actions of love is like the connection between the aroma of food and the flavor of food. When you have a cold, your lasagna still tastes good, but not as good as if you could smell the melted cheese, spicy sauce, and seasoned meat.”

Metaphors come in especially handy if you’re addressing a topic that they have no personal experience with.

Marcy

**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.