Wednesday, July 11, 2012

"The Help": an Example of Building Tension

I once wrote an article on Creating Tension where I said questions and choices drive stories forward better than anything else. (Also see my article on How to Not Create Tension.) After watching the movie The Help, I realized Kathryn Stockett’s book was an excellent example of this concept. I believe that's why it met with phenomenal success.

For those of you who haven’t read it, the story takes place in the 60’s in Mississippi. It’s about a white woman named Skeeter who wants to write a book about the experiences of black maids. This is illegal, however, and the maids could lose their jobs and even their lives.

I didn’t think a book about maids would be a page-turner, but it’s one of those novels where you’re itching to pick it up again to see what happens next. The book was fantastic for many reasons – it’s an all-around good read – but it was the questions that compelled me to finish it.

I highly recommend reading The Help not just because it’s a good book, but because it taught me a lot about strong story structure. Every character has a personality, goals, and backstory, and the novel is full to the brim with intrigue and plot layers.

I made a list of questions made it impossible for me to stop reading. Until I wrote them all down, I didn't realize there were so many!

Skeeter: Will she be able to publish her novel? Can she protect the maids? Will she and Stuart end up together?

Mrs. Hilly: Whom will she hurt next? Will she stop Skeeter’s book from being published?

Constantine: Why did she stop working for Skeeter’s family? Why won’t anyone talk about it?

Stuart: What happened between him and his ex-fiancé? Will he be able to love again?

Mae Mobley: How will Abileen protect her from her neglectful mother?

Celia: Why does she keep sneaking off upstairs while Milly’s working? Why won’t she tell her husband she hired a maid?

Milly: What was the “terrible awful” thing that she did? Will she get in trouble when Celia's husband finds out she's been working at his house? Will she ever escape from her abusive husband?

Charlotte: Will she and Skeeter ever have a healthy relationship? Will she die? Why won't she tell Skeeter what happened to Constantine?

Does your novel have that much tension? If not, don't feel too down on yourself: most novels don't! But it's a remarkable achievement that Kathryn Stockett could make such an unassuming plot so completely engrossing. If she can do that with a story about maids, I'm sure you can do it too.


  1. The Help IS a page-turner! You make a good point about those questions compelling you to keep reading. You cared about the characters enough to want to know the answers!
    It comes back to a question I always ask myself in my own writing, "Is there enough at stake?" In the case of The Help, there is definitely enough at stake to keep the reader going!
    I wrote about The Help on my blog a while back, Click Here to read my take on it!

  2. This is a really helpful analysis, Teralyn. Thank you

  3. This book about a book is a gem. The characters' insights are hard won and utterly believable, and their voices are often funny and wry. Just as the political and social climate of 1962 proves ripe for Skeeter's book, these early days of Barack Obama's administration might give Stockett's debut a boost. However, even without the timeliness of the racial themes, this novel would touch many hearts. THE HELP is over 400 pages long, but I didn't want it to end.


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