Saturday, May 29, 2010


Once again, StorySleuths asked poet Julie Larios to apply her wisdom to a book of poems that fascinates us—Mirror Mirror: A Book of Reversible Verse by Marilyn Singer. We are fascinated not only by the form of the poems, but also by their content—both Grace Lin, in Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, and Marilyn Singer, in her Mirror Mirror poems, use fairy tale stories and themes—but in very different ways.
Julie, an award-winning poet and the author of four poetry books for children, is on the faculty of Vermont College of Fine Arts, teaching in their Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children program. Julie has treated us to two wonderful StorySleuths posts focused on poetry books: Red Sings from Treetops: A Year in Color and All the World.  

Now we are delighted to share Julie's insight about Mirror Mirror, as well as one of her very own poems, with you.

Verses Reversed
I admit to having a weakness for poetic forms. They’re like all lovely vessels – glass pitchers, for example - that we pour liquids into. The liquid takes on the form of the vessel which contains it. Only with poetry, the vessel (the form) has the power to produce the liquid which fills it up.

Sounds complicated, doesn’t it? In fact, it sounds alchemical. That’s because it is. Poetry does have something of that ancient art at its core– it is, after all, based on transformation (what else is the art of the metaphor but the art of change?). When a good book of formal poetry comes along, one which fulfills the promise of turning a poem into more than just the sum of its parts – well, let’s just say I’m a happy camper when that occurs. And it occurs with Mirror Mirror: A Book of Reversible Verse by Marilyn Singer. The reverso is the vessel, and the poet fills it beautifully. Voila – gold! Here is what Singer says (in the afterword of the book) about reversos:

We read most poems down a page. But what if we read them up? That’s the question I asked myself when I created the reverso. When you read a reverso down, it is one poem. When you read it up, with changes allowed only in punctuation and capitalization, it is a different poem.
All of the reversos in Mirror Mirror are based on fairy tales. Nestled alongside gorgeous images of castle towers, wishing wells, forests and dungeons (the illustrations by Canadian artist Josee Masse do their visual mirroring job exuberantly and intriguingly, playing with split screens and shadows) the poems – two per double spread – read down at first, then get flipped to be read backwards.  Here’s one of Singer’s nicely controlled reversos titled “In the Hood,” based on the tale of Little Red Riding Hood.  First comes the poem told from the point of view of Little Red:
In my hood,
skipping through the wood,
carrying a basket,
picking berries to eat—
juicy and sweet
what a treat!
But a girl
mustn’t dawdle.
After all, Grandma’s waiting.
That’s nicely done – a cute rhyme with a good control of the formal aspects of full rhyme (hood/wood and eat/sweet/treat) and meter. Nice, though not alchemical. Here comes the transformation: a second poem on the page, to the right of the first, told from the point of view of the wolf this time. It starts with the wolf contemplating getting to Grandma’s house and eating her up. But then the Big Bad Wolf spies the girl:  
After all, Grandma’s waiting,
mustn’t dawdle….
But a girl!
What a treat,
juicy and sweet,
picking berries to eat,
carrying a basket,
skipping through the wood
in my ‘hood.
So nice! The voice is handed over from one character to another, the lines are read in the reverse order, and the reaction occurs - alchemy! In the first poem, reading down, the line “juicy and sweet” describes berries; in the second version, laid out in reverse, it describes the girl. The words “Grandma’s waiting” are sweet when spoken by the girl, but when spoken by the wolf, they become sinister. And there’s the double entendre of hood and ‘hood – one small apostrophe transforms the meaning of the word. If you think that sounds like a simple thing to do, try writing one!
Actually, several people did try writing one, over at The Miss Rumphius Effect in April. Here’s a look at what they did.
I even gave it a shot, but no gold: My contribution can be read in reverse, so I managed to make sense, but the meaning is not changed, there’s no transformation.  I filled the vessel only part way:
The Singer

It’s a neat trick,
This slick reversal:
Can I handle
The movement, the tick to tock,
the click to clack of it,
the back to back -
I mean, the down to up?
I love the frown-to-smile of it,
The way that Singer sang it.
I’ll try it.

I’ll try it
the way that Singer sang it:
I love the frown-to-smile of it -
I mean, the down to up,
the back to back,
the click to clack of it,
the movement, the tick to tock.
Can I handle
this slick reversal?
It’s a neat trick.
Nice try, but no prize. I didn’t rhyme (except for a few internal rhymes) and I didn’t reverse the meaning. For Marilyn Singer to have designed an intricate form (shaped the vessel) and then filled it while also making sense, rhyming, creating a metrical beat, changing the meaning, often changing the speaker’s voice, then focusing all of the poems on fairy tales  - well, taking on that level of difficulty really is the sign of a fine craftsman in her glory, having fun.
So give it a try! To inspire you, I’ll leave you with one more wonderful example; Singer’s reverso this time tells two stories of Beauty and the Beast:

A beast
can love
A moist muzzle
can welcome
a rose.
A hairy ear
can prize
a nightingale, singing. 
Beneath the fur,
A soft heart
a soft heart.
Look beneath fur.
A nightingale singing
can prize
a hairy ear.
A rose
can welcome
a moist muzzle.
can love
a beast.

StorySleuths Tip # 74: Don’t be afraid of formal restrictions! They can take you places you would never get without them. So be brave, experiment, push the boundaries, and have fun. 

Monday, May 24, 2010

SCENE ANALYSIS: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

Dear Heather and Meg,

Among other amazing friends and writers, I saw Julie Larios and Susan Fletcher at a Vermont College reunion yesterday at Golden Gardens in Seattle, and thanked them both again for their luscious contributions to the StorySleuths blog. Anyone who is new to the blog and has not checked them out really should take a peek at Susan’s post on fantasy and Julie’s on poetry in picture books.

Onward to today’s post, which is inspired by a recent critique group session where Cora Grubbs shared with us her approach to figuring out her current novel. She is going scene by scene, looking at how things are flowing and working, and mentioned that, in addition to other things, she is interested in ensuring that there is a value change in each scene.

Value change? She said it was something she’d learned in Robert McKee’s book, Story. Written for screenwriters and filmmakers, it is a craft book with enormous application to the writing of novels. I decided to check it out, and soon found the tidbit Cora had referred to.

On pages 257 – 260 in his book, McKee describes “The Technique of Scene Analysis.” While Cora is applying this five-step process to her own work-in-progress, I decided to apply it to Grace Lin’s marvelous book in an effort to understand more about Lin’s magic, while at the same time learning a technique I might try applying to my own writing.

Here it goes. McKee says, “To analyze a scene, you must slice into its pattern of behaviors at the levels of both text and subtext.” Text, in this case, means what is going on at the surface--what our characters see, hear, say and do. Subtext is what is going on beneath the surface—the character’s true desire, which is something he or she may not be aware of. McKee says, “There’s always a subtext, an inner life that contrasts or contradicts the text.” He points out that in a poorly written scene the author relies on dialogue to show the subtext instead of letting the subtext unfold organically through the characters' actions. He refers to this mistake as writing “on the nose.”

Here is McKee’s five-step process applied to a scene in Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. Note that in Lin’s books the chapters are very short, and are often just a single scene. For this exercise I am looking at Chapter 22. In the previous chapter Minli has discovered that a street beggar is actually the king. Here, she chases after him, finally catching up with, and confronting, him.

Step One: Define Conflict. In this step we examine the character driving the scene (character in this case could be a person, an inanimate object, a force of nature) and ask what that character wants in this scene. Next, look at the source of antagonism in the scene and ask the same question. McKee says, “If the scene is well written, when you compare the . . . desires from each side, you’ll see that they’re in direct conflict—not tangential.”

Now, looking at how this applies to Chapter 22:

The character driving the scene is Minli, and what she wants is to connect with the king so that she can seek his help in accomplishing her quest. The king is the antagonist. He does not wish to have his undercover identity as a street beggar uncovered. The protagonist’s and the antagonist’s desires are in direct conflict.

Step Two: Note Opening Value. Here we are looking at what is the value at stake in this scene. Values could be things like happiness, friendship, freedom, justice. Once we have identified the value at stake, we determine whether that value is in a positive or a negative state.

Naming a value is a challenge for me, and I resorted to looking online for a list of values. Perusing that list I came upon discovery. And I would say that in this scene, discovery for Minli is at a negative state. She wants to meet the king and get his help, but he is eluding her.

Step Three: Break the Scene into Beats. In a scene there are actions, which cause reactions. McKee says, “This exchange of action and reaction is a beat.”

1. In a panic, Minli chases the king—action. The king runs--reaction. Several times she thinks she loses him, but stays on his trail. He disappears behind a hidden door which leads to the palace garden.

2. Minli discovers the king cleaning himself of his beggar disguise. Minli drops to her knees – action. The king responds with kindness – reaction.

3. A parade of servants descend upon them. The king panics and insists that Minli hides – action. Minli hides, making herself as small as possible – reaction.

4. The king is confronted by the hoard. He insists that he has been in the garden the entire time that they were looking for him and demands that this evening they bring him dinner for two in the garden—action. Counselor Chu agrees to comply with the king’s wishes—reaction.

5. When the king insists on dinner for two he glances toward Minli—action. Minli catches his eye and shrinks out of sight—reaction.

6. The crowd leaves. The King invites Minli to come out of hiding—action. Minli crawls out—reaction.

Step Four: Note Closing Value and Compare with Opening Value. Here we move to the end of the scene, and determine whether the charge of the value identified in Step Two has changed or remained the same. If it has stayed the same, the scene has likely fallen flat.

In Chapter 22, discovery has moved to a positive state. As the scene has played out Minli has determined that the beggar is indeed the king, she has made contact with him, and he has invited her to join him in a meal and a conversation.

Step Five: Survey Beats and Locate Turning Point. Look at the beats identified in Step Three to trace the arc of the scene. McKee says, “Within the arc locate the moment when the major gap opens between expectation and result, turning the scene to its changed end values. This precise moment is the Turning Point.”

Beat 4, when the king suggests that Counselor Chu bring two evening meals, is a Turning Point. Minli’s expectation is that she should get to have a conversation with the king to plea her case. Here, the king indicates that he is going to be taking a meal with her, opening the way for her to tell him what she is after.

In summary, McKee says, “Ill-written scenes may lack conflict because desires are not opposed, may be antiprogressive because they’re repetitious or circular, lopsided because their Turning Points come too early or too late, or lacking because dialogue and action are 'on the nose.' But analysis of a problematic scene that tests beats against scene objectives, altering behavior to fit desire or desire to fit behavior, will lead to a rewrite that brings the scene to life.”

Here, I have looked at a scene that works. The conflict is clear, the beats each have an action and a reaction. The scene has an arc with a clear turning point, and a value, which transitions from negative to positive by the scene’s end. While I do not believe I would feel compelled to do this for every scene in my novel, I can see that it could be very useful in analyzing scenes that fall flat. Thank you, Cora, for turning me on to this!

StorySleuths Tip #73: When a scene is falling flat, consider using Robert McKee’s Technique of Scene Analysis to locate problems and determine how to best fix them.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

DEVELOPING THEME: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon #5

Dear Meg and Allyson,
When I wrote my previous posting on how Grace Lin develops Minli’s desire and motivation early in Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, I thought a lot about the connection between character yearning and theme.
Elizabeth Lyon, author of one of my favorite books on craft, Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore, says “Theme is your novel’s message.” She elaborates:
Less simply put, theme is the abstract equivalent of the protagonist’s universal need fashioned into a statement of what he or she has come to learn. The theme states the personal growth or character change that completes the inner story arc. It has not been separate from the plot but has entwined with it. (pp. 212-213)
Minli’s character growth and the lesson she learns as a result of her journey in Where the Mountain Meets the Moon illustrate Lyon’s point. Let’s look at how theme emerges in the novel.

Want vs. Need

Minli’s goal—what she wants—is to find the Old Man of the Moon to ask him how to change her family’s fortune. This desire drives Minli’s actions, and each step she takes on her journey moves her closer to accomplishing her goal. In other words, this desire is the external conflict that propels the plot forward.
However, as she travels, she also experiences emotional responses that, over time, reveal a conflicting internal need. As much as Minli wants to accomplish her goal, she also misses her parents back home. For example, one night, she can’t fall asleep:
With pangs of guilt, she thought about how Ba and Ma pushed her to go home early from the field, how her rice bowl was always the first filled, how every night when she went to sleep in her warm bed she knew they were there… (p. 159)
While she naturally misses the comforts of home and the security of her parents’ company, she also develops a new appreciation for them. Her encounters with the people she meets on her journey force her to think in new ways. The same night she thinks about her parents, she reflects on the orphaned buffalo boy she met in the City of Bright Moonlight.
The buffalo boy didn’t have [what Minli had]. Instead, he had a dirt floor, a pile of grass for his bed, a muddy buffalo, and a secretive friend. Yet her turned away her copper coin and laughed in the sun. Minli couldn’t quite understand it, and, somehow, felt ashamed. (p. 159)
Minli’s emotional reaction to the separation from her parents reveals what Elizabeth Lyon might call a “hole in the soul” (p. 207). And the encounter with the buffalo boy leaves Minli in a state of confusion, wondering how he can be so happy when he has even less than she does.
The internal need propels character growth. Minli’s confusion about the buffalo boy’s apparent happiness illustrates a step in her emotional change in the middle of her journey.

Two Sides of the Same Coin

In addition to using character growth to develop aspects of the theme, Lin also uses the cast of characters to build thematic echoes. For example, at the beginning of the book, Minli and Ma both suffer from discontentment and frustration with their life of poverty. Neither likes to work so hard all the time.
However, Ma’s discontentment is deep-rooted, and she is pessimistic that her fortune will ever change. Minli, on the other hand, is driven by curiosity as well as faith in the stories her father tells. Ma and Minli show two characters with the same problem but different outlooks.
Elizabeth Lyon says,
To produce unity and coherence, as well as one theme, don’t give each point of view character a yearning divergent with the protagonist’s yearning. Craft yearnings that are supportive and parallel, or opposite but related (p. 210).

The Moment of Epiphany

The theme becomes clear when Minli at last meets the Old Man of the Moon. She can ask just one question, and she must choose between her own question (how to change her family’s fortune) and Dragon’s question (why can’t he fly?). She catches sight of the word written on the borrowed line. It says, “Thankfulness.” That word tells her everything she needs to know. She poses the question about why Dragon cannot fly.
Ma reaches her moment of epiphany at the same time, as revealed in the story she tells in the very next chapter. Her realization is more explicit than Minli’s. Ma says, “For all the time that she had been longing for treasures, she had already the one most precious” (p. 254).
By showing two characters reaching the same conclusion, Lin allows readers first the opportunity to infer the book’s theme independently while then reinforcing it afterwards in a more explicit way.
Returning to Lyon’s explanation of theme earlier, where theme “states the personal growth or character change that completes the inner story arc,” we can see the change in Minli: she recognizes the fortune she always had in her own family, and that recognition leads to gratitude. Translated into a more abstract statement, the theme might be “Be grateful” or “The love of family is more valuable than material wealth.”

StorySleuths Tip #72: Theme emerges from character change or growth. Use emotional reactions, reflections, parallel stories, and secondary characters to build toward a moment of understanding or epiphany. 

Monday, May 17, 2010

STORIES AS SCAFFOLDING: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon Post #4

Dear Allyson and Heather,

Every once in a while an author scaffolds a narrative on a structural element that perfectly complements the content. Think Holes, scaffolded by Louis Sachar on the curse put on Stanley’s great-great-grandfather. Think When You Reach Me, scaffolded by Rebecca Stead on the mysterious notes left for Miranda. Think Secret Water, scaffolded by Arthur Ransome on the sketchy outline map given by their father to John, Susan, Titty, Roger and Bridget. Think Love, Ruby Lavender, scaffolded by Deborah Wiles on letters sent between Ruby and her grandmother. And now, think Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, scaffolded by Grace Lin on stories inspired by Chinese folk tales told primarily to Minli, but also, tellingly, to other characters as well. It’s these stories that I’ll focus on in this post, stories that enrich, enliven, deepen, and illuminate the narrative of Minli’s quest.

Each of the 16 stories is set off from the main narrative by a title, in color, bracketed by two colored medallions with mini-images from that story, introduced by a drop cap in color, and typeset in a typeface different from the typeface of the main narrative (I’m not savvy enough to know which typesets they are, and I couldn’t find the different typefaces identified in the book). Each story ends with a centered medallion, similar to those in the border of the full page illustration on page 186. These visual elements serve to separate the stories from the narrative and from one another, as well as to link them together with one another.

As the stories complement the text, together they serve to drop clues for Minli, for her parents, for other characters, and of course for us readers as well. As an indication of how important the stories are, they all have titles, whereas the chapters themselves are simply numbered and do not have titles.

I’ll focus on 3 of the stories-- the first (The Story of Fruitless Mountain), the third (The Story of the Dragon), and the last (The Story that Ma Told)--and on how Lin uses them to drive the plot, develop important symbols, and clarify character change.

Stories drive the plot

The first story, “The Story of Fruitless Mountain,” appears in Chapter 1. It kicks off the story action and provides the motivation for Minli’s quest.

Even before the first story appears in the text Lin prepares a story space for it. Lin preps readers for something special and important--something not only with the power to transform Minli’s life, but with the power to reenergize her father and even to make her impatient mother smile.

What kept Minli from becoming dull and brown like the rest of the village were the stories her father told her every night at dinner. She glowed with such wonder and excitement that even Ma would smile, though she would shake her head at the same time. Ba seemed to drop his gray and work weariness--his black eyes sparkled like raindrops in the sun when he began a story. (p. 3)
In addition, it’s clear that Minli has heard not only this story, but many stories, before:
"Ba, tell me the story about Fruitless Mountain again,” Minli would say as her mother spooned their plain rice into bowls. “Tell me again why nothing grows on it.” (p. 3)

“The Story of Fruitless Mountain” describes how Fruitless Mountain can become fruitful again--when “Jade Dragon is no longer lonely and is reunited with at least one of her children” (p. 8). Following the story, Minli asks, “Why doesn’t someone bring the water of the four great rivers to the mountain?” If it were that simple, there wouldn’t be much of a quest! Minli’s subsequent question, “How will Fruitless Mountain ever grow green again?” can only be answered, her father said, by the Old Man of the Moon.

“Someday, I will ask him,” Minli declared. (p. 9)
By the end of Chapter 1, Minli has set her course--based on information presented in the story.

Stories develop symbols

Chapters 4 through 10 are devoid of stories, focusing instead on Minli’s unannounced departure on her quest to find the Old Man of the Moon and on her parents’ desperate search for her. When, in Chapter 11, Minli frees a dragon who cannot fly and asks him his name, he responds with the third story, “The Story of the Dragon.” This story includes an important reference to a small prop--an inking stone--that has major significance to Minli as she searches for the way that Fruitless Mountain will grow green again. In The Passionate, Accurate Story: Making Your Heart's Truth into Literature, Carol Bly suggests using a small prop three times--once to introduce it to the reader, a second time so the reader remembers it, and the third time so it becomes a symbol for something important in the story. (p. 159).

Ma first mentions the inking stone in Chapter 1. When Minli’s father says that a man tired to reunite Jade Dragon with her children by taking stones from the mountain to the rivers, Minli’s mother cut in:

“My grandmother told me he was an artist. He took the mountain rock to carve into inking stones” (p. 9).

The inkstone is mentioned for the second time in the dragon’s story:

When I was born, I remember two voices speaking.

“Master,” one voice said. “This is magnificent--the dragon is almost alive!”

“Add more water to the inkstone,” another voice said. (p. 51)

Later in the dragon’s story, the inkstone is described in more detail:

“Clean the brushes and take great care with my special inkstone. It is one of a kind, the only inkstone that was able to be made from a rock my master cut from a mountain far from here. He never told anyone which mountain, so we can never make another.” (p. 53)
In addition, the illustration on page 50 above the Chapter 11 heading is of an inkstone, emphasizing its importance.

The inkstone is mentioned a third time when, at the end of her quest, Minli is the one who puts the puzzle pieces together, realizing that the inking stone is the connection between the Jade Dragon and her dragon child, who has returned to her.

Perhaps Dragon was born from an inkstone made of Fruitless Mountain, the heart of Jade Dragon. Then perhaps he was one of Jade Dragon’s children. And by bringing him to Fruitless Mountain, Minli had discovered how to make Fruitless Mountain grow green again. (pp. 269-270)

Stories clarify character change

The last story, “The Story that Ma Told,” illustrates the transformation in Ma, from her skepticism and rejection of Ba’s stories, to finally telling him one of her own. Ma described a woman whose daughter had left home to find fortune for her family:

For without her daughter, the house became too large and empty, and she was not hungry for the extra rice. As the days passed in loneliness, fear, and worry, the woman cursed herself for her selfishness and foolishness. How lucky she had been! ....The woman wept tears for which there was no comfort. For all the time that she had been longing for treasures, she had already had the one most precious. (p. 254)
Her story, told to Ba, describes her recognition of the effects of her own actions, and precipitates her apology to Ba.

StorySleuths Tip # 71: Consider scaffolding your narrative on a structural element, such as stories, to drive the plot, deepen the symbols, and clarify character development.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon # 3

Dear Heather and Meg,

As I read Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon I paid close attention to the ways that Lin describes character, and demonstrates character development as the story progresses. I noticed the way that she both “told” and “showed” aspects of character. I will start with an example from the very beginning of the book:

Minli was not brown and dull like the rest of the village. She had glossy black hair with pink cheeks, shining eyes always eager for adventure, and a fast smile that flashed from her face. When people saw her lively and impulsive spirit, they thought her name, which meant quick thinking, suited her well (p. 2).

Here, the author is telling us what she wants us to know about Minli. Janet Burroway, in Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft, describes a passage such as this as the indirect method of interpreting character. About this method Burroway says, "The advantages of the indirect method are enormous, for it leaves you free to move in time and space; to know anything you choose to know whether the character knows it or not; and godlike, to tell us what we are to feel" (p. 97).

But this indirect method is not without its disadvantages. Again, from Burroway, “The disadvantage of this indirect method is that it bars us readers from sharing the immediacy and vividness of detail and the pleasure of judging for ourselves" (p. 97).

The other side of the coin from the indirect method is the direct method—showing. This is achieved through use of dialogue, appearance, thought, and the one I will focus on here—action. Consider this passage from page 37:
Her words cut into Ba like slices from a knife but, even though his face was pained, he said nothing and continued to pack. His hands trembled as he tied the bag closed, but they were gentle when he put them on Ma’s shoulders. ‘Let us go,’ he said (p. 37).

Oh Ba! If I were not married, and if he were not a fictional character, I would marry him.

Here, Ma is her typical acerbic self, and Ba, stoic and gentle, does not let her get to him. There is a job to do, and he’s on it. As the reader, I appreciate that the author has not pointed to his actions and interpreted them for me. Instead, I have a direct connection with the character and because I am judging the meaning of his actions, I feel a closer connection with him.

And later:

‘So, I think Minli, like the secret word and the paper of happiness,’ Ba said, ‘is meant not to be found.’ He glanced at Ma and while she did not meet his gaze, she made no objection, either.

‘And, tomorrow,” Ba continued, gently, ‘we should return and wait for her to come home.

Again, Ma said nothing but barely, perhaps only because he was looking for it, she nodded. Ba nodded back at her and quietly took some rice and dropped it into the fishbowl (p. 87).

The actions are subtle, so subtle. The fact that Ma does not speak, speaks volumes. This and her slight nod show us, the reader, that her character is evolving. She is starting to understand the wisdom of her husband, and acknowledge that she is not always right. And Ba? He quietly feeds some of their precious grains of rice to the fish who had suggested that it was time to tell Ma a story. Ba’s action demonstrates again his unobtrusive nature. He doesn’t acknowledge the fact that Ma is changing, because to do so would be out of character.

StorySleuths Tip #70: Use both a combination of direct and indirect character development, allowing subtle actions on the parts of your characters to speak directly to the reader.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

CHARACTER MOTIVATION: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon #2

Dear Meg and Allyson,

Thanks, Meg, for kicking off our discussion of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. What a treat to hear a storyteller’s perspective of the oral storytelling nature of language this book!

In fact, the narrative voice flows so smoothly, that I felt immediately swept up in the unfolding of events. As I went back to the beginning of the book and looked for examples of writing craft to discuss, I realized that author Grace Lin establishes motivation and desire in very subtle ways.

What does the character want?
Ah, the question every writing teacher and editor asks. What does the character want? What motivates the character? Why does she do what she does? Why does it matter? What’s at stake? And why do we readers care?

Donald Maass writes about personal stakes in his book Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook
Personal stakes are more than just what a hero wants to do. They illustrate why. Why this goal and the action that must be performed matters in a profound and personal sense. The more it matters to your hero, the more it will matter to your readers, too. (p. 40)
Lin uses the first chapters of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon to establish Minli’s personal stakes.

On the very first page of the book, we learn that the land where Minli lives is “hard and poor.” Because the land is so barren, Minli, her family, and the rest of the village, too, are also poor. This poverty is Minli’s way of life, however. She accepts it.

Minli’s mother, however, bemoans their poverty. She sighs 
a great deal, an impatient noise usually accompanied with a frown at their rough clothes, rundown house, or meager food. Minli could not remember a time when Ma did not sigh (pp. 2-3).  
At the end of the chapter, Ma exclaims, “What poor fortune we have!”

What makes Minli different, we learn, are the stories her father tells. These stories keep her spirit alive. She doesn’t see them the way Ma does, as useless. In fact, the stories stimulate Minli’s curiosity about the world. “So how will Fruitless Mountain ever grow green again?” she asks her father after the first story. 

Minli’s belief in the stories also creates a sense of hope. Unlike her mother, she believes the stories are true. She believes, in a na├»ve, child-like way, that change can happen.

The problem then is not impossible. Lin makes sure to plant a seed of hope.

Although Minli is an optimistic character, the hard work she performs impacts her. 
When the hot sun burned overhead, Minli’s knees shook from weariness. She hated the feeling of thick, soggy mud on her hands and face; and many times she wanted to stop in irritation and exhaustion (p. 11).
She returns home from working in the field one evening and notices her reflection in the basin of water she uses to wash up. “As she looked at herself reflected in the dark water, she saw Ma’s frown on her face” (p. 12). She doesn’t just see Ma’s frown, though. She also takes on Ma’s thinking:
Ma is right, Minli thought. What poor fortune we have. Every day, Ba and Ma work and work and we still have nothing. I wish I could change our fortune (p. 12).
Lin doesn’t reveal Minli’s age, but I assume she’s a pre-teen. She’s old enough to undertake a journey but certainly not yet a young woman. Minli’s reaction to noticing the similarity between her expression and her mother’s feels very appropriate for this pre-teen age. She notices the similarity, and she doesn’t like it. She wants to change their fortune because she worries she’ll end up like Ma, sighing and complaining all the time.

The combination of the problem (poverty) and Minli’s worry (that she’ll become her mother) ignite to fuel a desire (to change their fortune). Minli makes a rash decision to purchase a goldfish using one of her two coins. The purchase causes her parents to fight. Minli watches as her father sacrifices some of his precious rice to feed the fish. She realizes her mistake. She releases the fish into the river.
Minli watched it and sighed. As the sound faded into the night, Minli realized it was an echo of her mother’s impatient, frustrated noise. “Ma will never stop sighing unless our fortune changes. But how will it ever change?” Minli asked ruefully. “I guess it’s just another question for the Old Man of the Moon. Too bad no one knows how to get to Never-Ending Mountain to ask him anything." (pp. 27-28)
At this point, Minli’s desire is stronger. She understands her mother’s despair even as she dislikes it. She notices once again that her actions reflect her mother’s. But now she doubts that she or anyone else can do anything to change their fortune.

The promise of the novel
At this point, we readers are hooked. We don’t want Minli to become disillusioned and pessimistic. We don’t want her to turn out like her mother any more than she does. We want her to find the Old Man of the Moon. We want her to change her fortune.

You could say that Minli’s personal stakes transform at this point to our expectations for the novel. We want what Minli wants. Lin has accomplished what Maass described in the quotation above: “The more it matters to your hero, the more it will matter to your readers, too.”

StorySleuths Tip # 69: Use problems and worries to establish the protagonist’s motivation and desire.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

WORD CHOICE AND ORAL LANGUAGE RHYTHM: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon Post #1

Dear Allyson and Heather,

We are in for a delicious treat this month as we get to savor the tasty writing and rich story of the book we've chosen to focus on: Newbery Honor winner Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. This is a book that I can almost taste as I read. You know that kind—where you want to speed up to get to the next page and slow down to savor each word? That’s Grace Lin’s gift—she leads me deeper and deeper into the web of her story while at the same time enticing me to reflect on her language and images. What a feast she has written.

There’s so much to look at in the first chapter, where Lin:

  • establishes a vivid setting
  • introduces a feisty main character
  • includes the first of 16 stories set apart from the narrative and main characters while concurrently interweaving with them
  • identifies the central story problem, and
  • propels readers headlong into the next chapter: “Maybe,” Ba said, glancing at Ma, “I should tell you that story tomorrow.” (p. 10)

But I’m not going to focus in this post on any of those elements.

A common thread in the two starred reviews of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is the description of Lin’s writing as particularly noteworthy. Jennifer Rothschild in School Library Journal says, “The author's writing is elegant…,” and Andrew Medlar in Booklist says, “With beautiful language, Lin creates a strong, memorable heroine and a mystical land.”

I, too, felt Lin’s language pull me into the story and engage me with the characters, so I decided to take a look at the choices Lin makes with respect to word choice and sentence structure--the building blocks that we, as writers, use in creating our stories.


Lin uses alliteration to bring harmony to her writing, starting off with the title, which includes 3 words with initial m’s: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. In addition, both Mountain and Moon have final n’s, giving the title unity and resonance. The main character’s name also begins with an initial M, linking her alliteratively to the title of the story. Minli’s impatient mother is referred to as “Ma,” another initial M. And the person who Minli decides to seek by the end of Chapter 1 has two initial M’s in his name:

Whenever I ask something important, people say, ‘That is a question you have to ask the Old Man of the Moon.’ Someday, I will ask him. (p. 9)
The predominance of the initial M’s in the names of all these characters introduced in Chapter 1 gives Minli’s mission a feeling of intentionality and purpose.


Whereas alliteration gives Lin’s writing the feeling of flowing liquid, contrast gives her writing punch and bite. In the first sentence Lin selects hard words to emphasize the harshness of the setting:

Far away from here, following the Jade River, there was once a black mountain that cut into the sky like a jagged piece of rough metal. (p. 1)
Nothing could be harsher than the landscape described as “black,” “cut,” “jagged,” “rough.” But to top this harsh landscape off, it is smothered in dullness:
Crowded into the corner of where Fruitless Mountain and the Jade River met was a village that was the shade of faded brown. This was because the land around the village was hard and poor….Over time, everything in the village had become the dull color of dried mud. (pp. 1-2)
Nothing could be drearier, sadder, or more hopeless.

Yet in the midst of this dull brown village there was a brightness that Lin conveys initially through her selection of the image that describes the house where Minli lives, even before we meet Minli herself:

One of the houses in this village was so small that its wood boards, held together by the roof, made one think of a bunch of matches tied with a piece of twine. (p. 2)
Lin chooses the word “matches” as an image to describe the house, with the association of “matches” as something that ignites, that lights up, or enlightens, just as the child who lives there will add her own light to the dullness, the hardness, the poorness, of where she lives. Lin states this contrast clearly:
Minli was not brown and dull like the rest of the village. (p. 2)
Lin then selects words that connote light to describe Minli: she has “shining” eyes and a smile that “flashed” from her face. When Minli hears the stories her father tells her every night at dinner she “glowed” with wonder and excitement. She reflects some of her father’s light as he tells her the stories:
Ba seemed to drop his gray and work weariness--his black eyes sparkled like raindrops in the sun when he began a story. (p. 3)
and he set down his chopsticks his smile twinkled in a way that Minli loved. (p. 4)
"Shining," "flashed," "glowed," "sparkled," "twinkled"—Lin chooses words foreshadowing the light that Minli will bring to the poor villagers in the dull brown village at the bottom of Fruitless Mountain, where “nothing grew on it and birds and animals did not rest” (p. 1).


Even before Ba’s story begins, Lin writes in the rhythm of oral language. The first sentence itself echoes the rhythm of a fairy tale: “Far away from here…once…” (p. 1). The place and the time of the story are far away and long ago, and the story opens with a storytelling voice. Elizabeth Law said in her First Pages breakout at the Western Washington SCBWI Regional Conference a few weeks ago, “Get into the voice of your story on the first page.” Lin does.

A storyteller’s voice tends to run on without using commas to separate the words in a series, as is accepted practice in written communication. In this first chapter, Lin repeatedly writes without using commas in a series. Take this sentence:

The villagers had to tramp in the mud, bending and stooping and planting day after day. (pp. 1- 2)
And this one:
Working in the mud so much made it spread everywhere and the hot sun dried it onto their clothes and hair and homes. (p. 2)
How different those series would sound if punctuated: “bending, stooping, and planting,” or “clothes, hair, and homes.” The rhythmic storytelling voice continues into “The Story of Fruitless Mountain.” Describing the Jade Dragon’s four dragon children, Lin says:
They were large and strong and good and kind. (p. 4)

Although the stories that Lin includes within the context of Minli’s adventure are set apart by their titles and different typeface, they flow seamlessly together because the whole narrative is written in a clearly oral storytelling voice. As a storyteller myself, I’m intrigued and impressed by how beautifully Lin captures the sounds and rhythms of oral language and expresses them on the printed page. It’s a pleasure to read them silently, to feel them flow, and to “listen” to them echoing as I read.

StorySleuth’s Tip # 68: One way to write elegant, beautiful language is to use the sounds and rhythms of oral storytelling language.