Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Writing Lessons from "The Help" (Part 3)

The Help (Movie Tie-In)Do you have BIG ideas for your work? That's great. But are they also NEW? Finding just the right way to tell a story in a world that has been spitting out stories since the beginning of time can be a challenge, but it is this challenge that makes the pursuit of creating so worthy.

Lesson Three: Originality

When I first started reading The Help, I was a little skeptical that the underlying plot line would be able to weave its way through the whole book: Junior League President wants to make sure Black maids have their own bathrooms because of her misguided and racist attitude. Of course, as I continued to read, I saw how this was just one element of the entire story. It was interesting, yes, and something I had not ever thought of, but it was just a symptom of the bigger problems of the times. Although the maids were responsible for the care of the families' children, they were still thought of as different and even dangerous, and needed to be "kept separate". Although the maids maintained much of the white households, they were not welcome in the white parts of the neighborhoods unless they were working. All of this separation created a silence that Skeeter eventually thought she could break, in hopes that things would be different.

The editor in New York, Ms.Stein, gave Skeeter some fantastic advice when she responded to Skeeter's resume: "Don't waste your time on the obvious things. Write about what disturbs you, particularly if it bothers no one else." After getting shot down with her somewhat generic ideas of disturbing topics (drunk driving, problems in education), Skeeter took a look at what was going on in her own little circle and found inspiration there. Her frustration had never really come to the surface, she had never really spoken up about the injustice around her. Instead, she took more passive moves, like not adding in the Junior League President's initiative about the separate bathrooms to the League's newsletter.

The news of the time reported on the big problems, but it was not getting to the heart of the matter, not discussing the day to day lives of the people who were expected to stay silent. This is what excited the New York editor, but what also made her skeptical-- it was risky, both for the people who would share their stories and as a book proposal.

But this is what makes BIG, original ideas work. You take away the obvious angle and look at it in a totally different light. Your idea doesn't necessarily need to stem from something that disturbs you, but it needs to interest you. From that interest you need to view the elements of your new creation in a unique way: squint at your subject, look cross-eyed at your characters, deepen your dialogue. Stories are common, it's your job to make them uncommonly fresh.

We have the ability to make something out of nothing, make it matter. More on that next time.

Happy Writing!


  1. Excellent! I agree. I think the saying "write what you know" makes sense, but I believe your writing is much more compelling when you write what you care about. Your passion and curiosity shows in the writing.

  2. I think the key here is to ask yourself WHY you are writing the genre or story that you are. Is it because you think what you're working on is an easier road to publication than what you actually want to write? Are you writing just to get published (for ego)?

    That's what Skeeter was focusing on at first (getting published). It was when she focused on writing what SHE wanted--what moved her--that she got the editor's attention. Authenticity in writing is key.


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