An American Editor

September 26, 2016

On Books: Visions and Revisions (Part III)

by Alison Parker

Have you ever heard about the inverted pyramid?

I have. You write your news stories with the important facts up front, and because news copy has to fit around the ads, you can easily slash and burn from the bottom. It’s hardly pretty, but you might meet deadline because copy of that sort is easy to cut. Sadly, you still won’t win any prizes. “All the news that fits we print.”

You lose the all-important ending, the big bang. And after the first two or three paragraphs, it’s just the facts, ma’am — if that. Every discussion of proper news writing focuses on the “lede.” Suck the poor basters in with a boffo beginning. (I want to be fair. For a generally positive take on the pyramid, see “Writing from the Top Down: Pros and Cons of the Inverted Pyramid” by Chip Scanlon [Poynter, June 20, 2003].)

That boffo beginning isn’t a bad idea for starters, but what happens when your story trails off? Yes, you need drama. And you won’t have drama without conflict. You probably know the basics: woman versus woman (or man, of course), woman versus her environment, woman versus herself. Et cetera. I just read an interesting book on the subject, James Scott Bell’s Conflict & Suspense (Writer’s Digest Books, 2012).

Bell writes suspense novels as his day job, and his take on conflict is consequently skewed just a bit toward action. And why not? We all like fight scenes, don’t we? Most of you are too young to have seen Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton tussling in the hayloft when Petruchio (Burton) is trying to get the better of “Kate” (Taylor) in The Taming of the Shrew (Columbia Pictures, 1967). It’s a classic, and no clear winner emerges at the end of either Shakespeare’s play or Franco Zeffirelli’s film. (For an overview of critical response to the play, see Barbara Hodgdon’s introduction to the Arden edition, 3rd series. For a lighter take, see the high school movie based on the play, 10 Things I Hate about You [Touchstone Pictures, 1999].)

But violence between romantic leads doesn’t make everyone happy. And in Kate Walker’s 12-point Guide to Writing Romance, for example, we’re told that conflict doesn’t necessarily mean duking it out in any way, physically or verbally. By this calculation, the impossible situations that keep two “soul mates” apart drive the suspense. Even when readers know that a happy ending will come — if they bought a book in a reliable category (or series) romance and are smart enough to avoid cliff-hangers — the difficult logistics of overcoming the odds and the obstacles will keep the pages turning.

Still, the rape romances of the 1980s (see Janice A. Radway’s Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature [2nd ed., 1991]) are mirrored in the bondage fun and games selling nowadays.

I prefer verbal fireworks to fisticuffs or handcuffs — at least in a romance. My bookshelves are doubtless nothing like yours — we all know different things and we all feel different things — but for my taste, I can think of no scene more dramatic than the one in Pride and Prejudice in which Elizabeth rejects Darcy’s first proposal. “You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way than as it spared me the concern that I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner” (Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen, Ch. 34).

He had assumed that she’d say yes. After all, no one richer would offer for her, and with her lack of fortune and social standing, she had little choice but to get married as soon as possible. Good guess but bad judgment on Darcy’s part.

It takes Darcy a little while to figure out Elizabeth’s virtues in full. She’s not like the generally more submissive heroines in other Austen books, but those heroines aren’t playing off prickly, insulting men. Still, Austen’s favorite protagonist (yes, Elizabeth) isn’t at all like the “kick-ass” heroines of books such as Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games and Veronica Roth’s Divergent.

Times change and tastes change. When published library lists gave a seal of approval to children’s books (see, e.g., the discussion in Beverly Lyon Clark’s Kiddie Lit: The Cultural Construction of Literature in America, 21–22; see also 29ff), The Secret Garden didn’t make the cut in the early days. But it’s now the Frances Hodgson Burnett book taught in courses on children’s literature. The heroine, Mary, starts out as a little shrew, and she never quite gets over that failing. She is most effective when she rails at her even brattier cousin, Colin, who has been terrorizing the servants at Misselthwaite Manor almost since he was born.

It was not until afterward that Mary realized that the thing had been funny as well as dreadful — that it was funny that all the grown-up people were so frightened that they came to a little girl just because they guessed she was almost as bad as Colin himself.

She flew along the corridor and the nearer she got to the screams the higher her temper mounted. She felt quite wicked by the time she reached the door. She slapped it open with her hand and ran across the room to the four-posted bed.

“You stop!” she almost shouted. “You stop! I hate you! Everybody hates you! I wish everybody would run out of the house and let you scream yourself to death! You will scream yourself to death in a minute, and I wish you would!” A nice sympathetic child could neither have thought nor said such things, but it just happened that the shock of hearing them was the best possible thing for this hysterical boy whom no one had ever dared to restrain or contradict.

He had been lying on his face beating his pillow with his hands and he actually almost jumped around, he turned so quickly at the sound of the furious little voice. His face looked dreadful, white and red and swollen, and he was gasping and choking; but savage little Mary did not care an atom.

“If you scream another scream,” she said, “I’ll scream too — and I can scream louder than you can and I’ll frighten you, I’ll frighten you!”

Mary’s outburst, I should tell you, comes late in the book, after the secret rose garden and a number of good people have almost redeemed her. Oops. Some scholars believe that Mary’s continuing unfemininity might explain why the spoiled little boy, Colin, suddenly walks off with the story. Are post-Victorian heroines allowed to be persistently imperfect and still command pride of place? Phyllis Bixler, in her 1996 study The Secret Garden: Nature’s Magic, delves into the problem of class and gender, and Peter Hunt gives a nice overview of scholarly reaction to the ending in the introduction to his 2011 Oxford World Classics edition of The Secret Garden. Short answers to the heroine’s demotion: Some critics believe that Mary’s shrewishness is being punished, and at least one thinks that Burnett is working out her own “ambivalence about sex roles.”

Devotees of traditional heroines can’t be as worried about A Little Princess, which doesn’t operate in the same way. Though Sara was far from perfect in the original magazine serial, she’s a constant nurturer of the oppressed when Burnett turns the novella into a novel. Still, there’s conflict. Because the reputedly hot and oppressive climate of India was thought to be particularly dangerous to females (note the scene in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre in which the climate in Calcutta is treated as a killer), Sara’s father thinks he has to leave her at a cold boarding school in London. The similarly cold headmistress hates sweet little Sara almost from the start, as do some of her envious classmates. But because Sara was brought up by a loving father, and because of his example and her vibrant imagination, which helps her understand other people’s feelings and sufferings, she cares about the oppressed even before she becomes one of them. “If Sara had been a boy and lived a few centuries ago,” her father used to say, “she would have gone about the country with her sword drawn, rescuing and defending everyone in distress. She always wants to fight when she sees people in trouble.”

But when she’s called upon to defend Lottie, an annoying toddler who has lost her mother and whines about it incessantly, Sara’s real fight is with herself. Because she’s trying to emulate the restrained behavior she considers proper for princesses, she resists her impulses toward physical violence.

Lottie cuddled up to her with a consoled sniff.

“Come and sit in the window-seat with me,” Sara went on, “and I’ll whisper a story to you.”

“Will you?” whimpered Lottie. “Will you — tell me — about the diamond mines?”

“The diamond mines?” broke out Lavinia. “Nasty, little spoiled thing, I should like to SLAP her!”

Sara got up quickly on her feet. It must be remembered that she had been very deeply absorbed in the book about the Bastille, and she had had to recall several things rapidly when she realized that she must go and take care of her adopted child. She was not an angel, and she was not fond of Lavinia.

“Well,” she said, with some fire, “I should like to slap YOU — but I don’t want to slap you!” restraining herself. “At least I both want to slap you — and I should LIKE to slap you — but I WON’T slap you. We are not little gutter children. We are both old enough to know better.”

Here was Lavinia’s opportunity.

“Ah, yes, your royal highness,” she said. “We are princesses, I believe. At least one of us is. The school ought to be very fashionable now Miss Minchin has a princess for a pupil.”

Sara started toward her. She looked as if she were going to box her ears. Perhaps she was. Her trick of pretending things was the joy of her life. She never spoke of it to girls she was not fond of. Her new “pretend” about being a princess was very near to her heart, and she was shy and sensitive about it. She had meant it to be rather a secret, and here was Lavinia deriding it before nearly all the school. She felt the blood rush up into her face and tingle in her ears. She only just saved herself. If you were a princess, you did not fly into rages. Her hand dropped, and she stood quite still a moment. When she spoke it was in a quiet, steady voice; she held her head up, and everybody listened to her.

“It’s true,” she said. “Sometimes I do pretend I am a princess. I pretend I am a princess so that I can try and behave like one.”

After Miss Minchin tells young Sara that her father is dead, that she’s penniless, and that being kicked upstairs into a bare and unheated attic and turned into a drudge is a kindness, our little princess only rarely displays her less princesslike feelings. Rage and abject grief don’t figure into her fantasies. When she finally breaks down in tears under the cold, the hunger, and the loneliness, one of her young friends, Ermengarde, is absolutely gobsmacked at the melting of “the unconquerable Sara.” In the original story, I should note, Sara tormented poor Ermengarde with nightmare-making stories of the Bastille. In the remake, Sara uses those stories as a form of comfort, not passive aggression. She’s fierce but motherly.

Even when there’s no apparent conflict, there’s a big opening for conflict. You just have to be clever about working it in to your story. Or about complaining to the author (mildly, of course) when the novel you’re editing just doesn’t trip your trigger.

Alison Parker has held jobs in libraries, bookstores, and newspapers. She has taught university courses in classical languages, literature, mythology, and etymology. Parker helped edit legal maxims for Bryan A. Garner. Garner’s Modern English Usage acknowledges her contributions, and she was an outside reviewer for his Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. She has also worked as a columnist, a book reviewer, and an editor in various capacities, including developmental editing, rewriting, and plot doctoring.

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