Apr 23, 2013

What a Mother Knows

Leslie’s Lehr’s What A Mother Knows gives me a wonderful opportunity to talk about story in the novel. I saw this book develop through every step of the rewriting process. So I can give you a close-up view of how this novelist crafted a successful work of fiction in today’s competitive marketplace.

What A Mother Knows opens literally with a bang: main character Michelle Mason is in a car crash that kills her passenger and puts her in a coma. When she awakes, she has lost a good part of her memory, and her 16-year-old daughter has disappeared. As she looks for the missing girl, she must confront the crucial question: how far would you go to protect your child? The answer to that question comes in an ending that is both shocking and totally justified.

Any piece of fiction is the product of literally hundreds of structural decisions that will make or break the final novel. In What A Mother Knows, the biggest decision of the entire writing process was shifting from an overall story structure and genre that didn’t work to a structure and genre that did. Lehr’s first version of the book was a drama structured with an advanced crosscut between two different story lines in time. This is the structure you would use if you were trying to write what’s known as “literary fiction,” since it allows you to play with two of the three keys of advanced novel, time and point of view.

But Lehr realized that this wouldn’t do, because a slow crosscutting comparison couldn’t sustain a narrative line. As she said, “so much felt dark and internal, and it placed too much pressure on the reader to connect the details.”

Lehr knew that the single biggest element in popular fiction today is narrative drive. So she shifted structures to one of the strongest of all storylines: the detective-thriller. Now the personal drama and the complex moral challenge inherent to her story would have plenty of narrative drive to rush it along and create maximum suspense.

The main technique Lehr used to make this new structure work was to base her thriller on something deeply personal, a mother’s love for her child. Structure forms like thriller and personal drama seem like opposites, but they can be mutually beneficial. This is the same technique Stephen King uses when he builds his horror stories on regular families. The technique is to construct a thriller on top of the real, identifiable feelings of the average person. Thriller gives the drama excitement and plot. Drama gives the thriller a solid base of deep feelings. Done right, it’s an unbeatable combination.

The third genre in the story blend in What A Mother Knows is romance. Love is not only a natural experience for this main character, it is deeply embedded in her character change. Character change should always guide the plot. And in What A Mother Knows, romance is part of Michelle’s rejuvenation, the true endpoint of her search.

Another major structure decision Lehr made was to extend the mother’s search outside of the city. The city is the classic detective arena. But this mother- detective covers the entire breadth of the United States.

Structurally, what Lehr is doing is extending the detective line out to the myth arena. This is hard to do. But the reason for doing it, indeed why it has to be done, goes back to the fundamental question of the novel: how far a mother will go to save her child. Turns out this mother will go very far.

The main challenge in extending the physical boundaries of the hero’s quest is the risk of losing narrative drive. You have to have complex story work to literally drive a story that far, and the story has to build. In the Anatomy of Story Masterclass, I talk a lot about the all-important technique of the vortex. Vortex is where we set up a funnel pointing to the final battle, and this funnel not only creates a convergence of all characters and actions, it interweaves all the genres into a single powerful line.

Sure enough, as the story moves toward the powerful climax, Lehr connects and builds both the detective and the romance lines. When these lines crest near the end, Lehr’s decision to extend the physical search, to go for the larger scope, ultimately pays off with a bigger ending.

Another key decision that intensified the ending was when Lehr chose to give her hero moral, as well as psychological, flaws. Not only does this make for a better story, it also prevents critics from labeling and dismissing the book as “chick lit.” This isn’t just about a woman’s emotional attachment to her child, which however valid is still totally within a woman’s world. The story is also about the central moral issue of being a parent.

Lehr tracks the moral argument of the story from the opening scene. Michelle is driving and her passenger, someone’s child, gets killed. Notice the moral line is based on the same deeply personal love of a mother for her child. And that means the ending pays off not only the plot line but also the moral line. That’s good writing.

Interestingly, the final scene – in my opinion the best scene in the book – has remained largely unchanged through the entire writing and editing process. This is one of the benefits of knowing your ending at the beginning of the writing process. And having a final scene this good makes a big difference if you want your novel to be popular as well as good.

I hope you will read What A Mother Knows, because it shows the unique pleasures that come from story in the novel. And for all you novelists out there, this book will show you all kinds of techniques for succeeding in the incredibly competitive world of fiction writing today.