“The Help” and creating a page-turning story

I recently re-read The Help by Kathryn Stockett. For any of you who haven’t read it – or seen the movie or listened to the audiobook – get it now. Fantastic, fantastic story. One of my favorites. Ever.

This time I noticed something new: how skillfully Stockett uses tension and pacing to hold the reader’s interest. The book is laced with mysteries from the largest scale down to the smallest.

At the book scale, there is Skeeter, Aibileen, Minny and their book about the maids. Will it get written? How will it be received? What trouble will it bring? How will they live afterward?

At the chapter scale there are the stories of the individual characters. How will it turn out for Aibileen and Mae Mobley? For Minny and Celia? For Skeeter and Stuart? What is the Terrible Awful? What’s Celia’s real problem? What happened to Constantine? What will Hilly Holbrook do next? Stockett keeps us guessing, in part by switching from one narrator to another every few dozen pages, in part by introducing and resolving questions over long spans of time.

At the page and sentence scale, Stockett takes her time in every scene. No question in dialogue is answered immediately after it’s asked. No thought is allowed to run to completion without interruption. No action succeeds without first overcoming an obstacle. Part of the author’s expertise is in being able to do this smoothly, withholding, delaying, and surprising without it feeling mechanical and formulaic.

The book is four hundred pages long and is a page turner almost the whole way. Any writer trying to learn how to hook reader interest can learn something from The Help.

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