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?