Wednesday, May 19, 2010

How Books Work, part 1

As a frequent manuscript critiquer, INTERN is used to reading manuscripts that don't quite work (yet!). This has given her the urge to take apart published novels that do work and look at all the springs and cogs and little metal bits that make them tick.

Some of the most common problems INTERN sees in novel manuscripts are not enough suspense, not enough conflict, dragging pace, too much focus on trivial scenes and not enough on important scenes, and main characters whose problems are too easy and who never get put to a satisfying test (which sounds like a laundry list from any writing-advice book, but it's true, those are the exact problems most novel drafts have!)

So what does a novel with salient suspense, carnivorous conflict, pertinacious problems, etc, etc, look like?

For this first experiment, INTERN is going to take apart a novel that was a quick read and had a very straightforward plot: Black and Blue by Anna Quindlen. What follows is INTERN's extremely rough summary of the book [riddled with spoilers—beware!] with key plot moments, foreshadowing, character turning points, and various other stuff INTERN thought worth pointing out flagged.

Ch. 1:

Mother and Son in train station waiting to escape to an unknown location. [book starts in tense situation: will they get away before Husband finds them? where are they going?]

Ch. 2

Secret Agency for battered women drops Mother and Son off in Florida to start their new life. [secret agencies are cool! everybody loves secret agencies! is the secret agency a force of good, or does it have a dark side?]

Ch. 3-5

Several secondary characters and relationships introduced and developed: Mother’s new best friend, Mother’s clients at her new job as an adult caregiver. [sounds boring, right? secondary characters, snooze! but Quindlen makes it not boring, because she intersperses it with lots of present fears and tense memories about Mother's past with her abusive Husband]

Ch. 6

Mother meets son’s Coach in the grocery store, panicked event where Son goes missing briefly. [here, Quindlen introduces the main character's romantic interest. This moderately tense scene also foreshadows the later “missing son” crisis. clever!]

Ch. 7-11

Mother and Coach’s attraction and conflict are developed, Mother and Best Friend’s relationship developed, Son makes friends, Mother makes forbidden phone call to her sister and is reprimanded by Secret Agency. [foreshadowing later “forbidden phone call” crisis] [more relationship development! snoozles! but again, there's always a feeling of forward motion and tension because of the lingering fear of the Husband, and because every relationship is multidimensional and ridden with conflicts. As always, there's lots of juicy backstory interspersed with the present scenes.]

Ch. 12

Mother, Coach, and Best Friend take kids to carnival. There is a Ferris Wheel accident and Mother goes into nurse mode, revealing an aspect of her former life. She is filmed giving first aid and it is aired on the news. Mother and Coach kiss. [romantic turning point, plot crisis] [oh no! Mother and Son's cover is blown by that pesky news station—and now Mother and Coach have KISSED!]

Ch. 13

Secret Agency reprimands Mother for appearing on the news and demands that Mother and Son move again so Husband can’t track them down. Mother refuses to move again, says she wants to direct her own life. [character turning point] Mother and Coach go on dates, but Mother refuses to open up to love [romantic crisis] [OK, notice how Mother's character has CHANGED? Even though the Secret Agency is trying to protect her, she realizes that it's just another example of somebody else controlling her life. So she decides to stay put, even though it means increased risk to herself and her son. Also notice how Mother and Coach's burgeoning romance is not all kisses and sunshine. Mother's inability to love Coach back is a major obstacle to their relationship. She's started to change, but needs to change more.]


Ch. 14

Mother sleeps w/crowbar under bed in case husband tracks them down. Son has sleepover w/friends, girls sneak up to throw water-balloons through window. Mother is relieved that it is only little girls outside the window and not Husband [foreshadowing later “unwanted visitor” crisis] [Notice how all the major plot crises in the book are preceded by mini versions of themselves? This makes the book a pretty tense read, and also gives it a satisfying structure, at least, satisfying for INTERN to analyse!].

Ch. 15

Son gets into fistfight at school, Mother and Son talk about the fact that Husband hit her. Later that night, Son calls Husband on the telephone and is caught by Mother. [plot crisis]. Husband convinces Son that Mother is lying to him. Mother goes to gym coach and reveals her story. [character turning point] [Ooh! Oh no! Ouch! Son just called the Husband they've been trying to escape for six months! Bad noozles! They're totally screwed! Also, Mother finally comes clean about her Secret Past to Coach!.

Ch. 16

Relationship tension between Mother and Coach. Mother throws baby shower for pregnant Best Friend [subplot resolution], Son goes off on a camping trip with friends. [OK, so there have been subplots going on with the minor characters, mostly involving Secrets or Wounds from each character's Past. These are all getting resolved about now. Also, notice how the Son is on a camping trip? That means Mother will be home alone! Home alone with her crowbar!]

Ch. 17

Mother wakes up in the middle of the night and Husband is waiting for her downstairs, having tracked her down. Husband beats Mother and leaves her unconscious. [ultimate crisis!!!!!!!!! the whole book has been leading up to this and now it's happening! aaaaaaagh!]

Ch. 18

Book fastforwards to four years later. Mother and Coach are married and have a daughter. Husband stole Son after beating Mother and they have not been able to find him ever again. Mother and Coach move on with their lives (sort of) but hire private detectives and never give up hope of finding Son. [plot resolution, romantic resolution, lingering crisis [the skip from the present to the future is a sly move, because it keeps you asking, "yes, but what happened to Son? WHAT HAPPENED TO SON?" until the very, very, very last minute. It was also brave of Quindlen to make it so that everything didn't turn out OK—something turned out horrible! Son is gone, possibly forever, but Mother can never know for sure and will always have this Wound in her new life.]


So there you have it. That's the whole book. INTERN has left out the details of subplots and backstory, but those are the broad strokes. Even though the plot isn't complicated and there isn't a Huge Crisis or Big-Ass Plot Twist in every single chapter, Quindlen always keeps the ball rolling through backstory, emotional upheavals (developing the "internal stakes" when she's not developing the external plot) and interesting secondary characters. She also happened to pick a situation was naturally tense (hiding from a super-scary cop husband) and emotionally wrenching (hiding from a super-scary cop husband who happens to be her ten-year old son's father, whom the son loves].

There are obviously a million other things that make a novel work or not work (like good writing at the sentence level!) but this is an example of how putting some very basic dramatic features in place can make you want to turn a novel's pages.

For INTERN's next experiment, INTERN is going to analyze a YA novel, because it feels like more YA novels are being written this summer than perhaps in the past hundred years put together.

Good day and godspeed!


  1. That's probably the best bit of advice I've read in a little while. I'm actually going to save this to note pad as a reference point.

  2. Hello Intern - Super awesome post!

    To which category/genre does this excellent specimen belong?

    I'm guessing women's fiction?

  3. Brilliant!!!

    Just from reading your summary, i've learnt something

    i.e. the power of the mini-crisis = little nugget of knowledge


    Can't wait for your analysis of YA, curious as to which you will pick for it

  4. Nice! Conflict really can be tough. Meandering is easy. Can't wait to see the YA one.

  5. "Bad noozles! They're totally screwed!"


    I have to admit, as a reader I'm not sure I would be okay with jumping forward 4 yrs after such a climactic event. It seems like a cheat. BUT this is just a summary and not the actual book, and of course, execution is everything.

    The analysis was hugely helpful though, thanks!

  6. Great post--thanks for sharing this helpful info about a novel that works! Looking forward to your YA analysis.

  7. Was this a Secret Agent Guest Post?

  8. Thanks for the tips. Definitely not snoozles!

  9. my comment has disappeared??

    to summarise : excellent post, can't wait to see what yA book you picked!

  10. INTERN has helped me grasp how books work. Good writing at the sentence level! Yikes, that's a work in progress. Posts like this change the way I read. I'm noticing backstory and subplots.

  11. wow, that sounds like a really unsatisfying novel...protag basically failed without much fight.

  12. (P.S.: I have superhuman vision, not abnormally large forearms.)

  13. This single post far exceeds at least five books I own on the subject. I'm printing and tattooing this to my forearm for reference.

  14. Really helpful insight into what makes a book work!

  15. Aimee LS: nope, this was an INTERN post—INTERN is saving up the last few guest posts for days when she doesn't have a burning desire to write about something herself!

    Miss Sharp: Hmm, INTERN wouldn't classify "Black and Blue" as women's fiction, more like literary fiction for everybody...

  16. Not only brave of Quindlen to make sure not everything turned out okay and that the end was satisfying to those who need to see someone win a big fight, but she also showed some serious foresight to setting up a new book on a possible sequel about the son, sounds like.

  17. She should've spent the night with the Coach's crowbar.

  18. Wow, I really hate that ending. So glad I never read that book.

  19. "...more like literary fiction for everybody..."

    Sounds good. Thank you.

    Is it acceptable to categorize a novel as literary fiction for everybody in a query letter...???

  20. Thanks for an entertaining and interesting post.

    Unlike Lori, I think the novel's ending is most satisfactory. The lack of the expected happy ending is a clever move by the author who has left the way open for a sequel; a second book that develops the story and explains what happens to the son.

  21. that was a very succinct post- even laid out a great plotline too

  22. What you've done here is the best advice for any writer: take books that you like and deconstruct them, identifying what works and what doesn't. How to books be damned, this is how it's done.

  23. READER enjoyed this post very much. INTERN should write more "How books work" :D