Tuesday, January 5, 2010

What a Novelist Can Learn from Film

Part 2: Crossover Audiences

The Secret Life of Bees was another film that made me think about the writing life. I’d read Sue Monk Kidd’s novel and both the book and the film work for adult, young adult, or middle school audiences. The story is about a young teen, Lily, who wants to know her long-dead mother and runs away from her abusive father, T.Ray, to search for answers.

Since the Harry Potter books came out, it seems the linesthat usually separate adult lit from kid lit have been erased. This concept isn’t really new. Isn’t Romeo & Juliet Shakespeare’s contribution to YA lit? While it is, at heart, the story of two teens in love, it is also the story of anyone who falls in love with the “wrong” person. Thirty-year-old people of different faiths or races may face the same disapproval that Shakespeare’s teens did. An older woman courted by a younger man may face the disapproval of her children who wonder what the guy really wants. The reason Romeo & Juliet works for all kinds of audiences is because the basic story can happen to any one.

The Secret Life of Bees works in a similar way. It is a traditional quest story incorporating the sidekick (in this case, housekeeper Rosaleen) and ultimately leading Lily and Rosaleen to the keeper of the knowledge. The age of the protagonist appeals to the middle school crowd but, as there are various levels of complexity in the story, adults enjoy it too.

When critiquing manuscripts, I often ask myself, who is the intended audience? This is especially important for a young audience limited by its reading skills and life experience. So, how do you know if your novel will appeal to more than one generation? You may not, at first. All you can do is write the best story possible, and try to incorporate a few rules:

-Don’t fuss too much about vocabulary. Award-winning biographer, Jean Fritz, says, “…I write as if I’m talking to children naturally. I limit my vocabulary, but not any more consciously than I do when I’m talking to my grandchildren. If you’re intent on communicating, the vocabulary takes care of itself.” Sue Monk Kidd was able to present the complex issues of Civil Rights, mother love, and family secrets to readers of multiple ages. Her book will be read differently by people of different ages and life experience. But each reader will “get” the basic story.

-Pay attention to your characters. David De Batto, in the February 2007 The Writer points out that “The most interesting characters …are ordinary people placed in extraordinary situations and forced to react.” Sherry Garland, in her book Writing for Young Adults, agrees. She says, “Give your protagonist goals…without a character goal, the story becomes no more than a string of events…”

-Finally, trust your audience. When someone opens your novel, know that they want to enjoy the book. They want to take the journey with you. Tom Wolfe once said that he believed a writer’s first job is to entertain. If your work is entertaining enough, trust that audiences of all kinds will want to go along.

1 comment:

Sally said...

Really useful rules, Mur - thanks!