Hello again, dear readers. After a rather long summer (and fall…) holiday, the blog is back! And, as promised, is back to discuss Newbery medalist, The Giver, by Lois Lowry.
This was a big summer for me—lots of writing and revision and learning about the publishing process by living through it. It was also a big summer for the pets, who rather unenthusiastically welcomed the newest canine member of the family, my nephew, Odie. (He’s the handsome young fellow pictured above. Welcome, Odie!)
Peetles, in his usual fashion, felt immediately threatened by Odie (Pete has two responses to male dogs: Threatened and Indifferent; with girldogs, well…). Kerry was terrified of the little brown dynamo and hid under the table. Oscar was nowhere to be seen. Odie recognized poor Evelyn as another puppy and tried to box with her—Evie did not like playing with Odie.
Now, to the Blogmobile!
At some point in any story, the author has to lay out for the reader the world in which the narrative takes place, be it a post-apocalyptic society or dystopian future or New Jersey (same thing?). This is critical in terms of explaining, in a post-apocalyptic tale, the particular apocalypse and what’s left in its wake; or in a fantasy, the mystical world the characters inhabit. Like Morpheus in The Matrix, someone needs to sit us Neos down in front of a TV and give it to us straight—life as we knew it was a video game; in reality, we are batteries powering the mechanized overlords who now run Earth.
Sometimes the description of the world is given in a prologue or opening chapter, thus allowing the adventure, which is the actual plot of the novel, to begin right away. Sometimes the details of the world are teased out as a part of the adventure story, as in The Matrix. Rarely, though is the world of the story the whole story. The Giver represents this rare case.
The Giver is not an adventure story. Jonas does not hop into a hovercraft to join the rebel army and defeat the totalitarian community in which he was brought up (Star Wars, anyone?). Nothing much happens in the book. But something doesn’t always need to be happening for a novel to progress.
There are two ways that a story can develop: First, something new can happen, which I’m going to call the story moving forward; or second, more information can be given about something/someone that has already been introduced, which I’m going to call the story going deeper. For example, the character can be chased down an alley by a robot (the story moves forward), or we can learn more about the character’s childhood fear of robots (the story goes deeper).
Many science fiction and fantasy…let’s just say, many stories rely heavily on the first means of development—it’s plot! It’s the hero hopping into the hovercraft, going to the seedy spaceport, and then journeying into the galaxy to join the rebellion. These are all new things happening to the hero; the story is moving forward into uncharted territory. The story gives you details about the world as you move forward—spaceport! Spaceships the size of small moons!—but those details are in service of the plot points.
The Giver is perhaps the antithesis of this. Nothing much happens, and what does happen is really in the service of giving you more information about Jonas’s world. But the reader is still learning something—the reader is learning about this fascinating world, and just how crazy it is. The reader is going deeper.
The first third of The Giver follows Jonas through the period leading up to the Ceremony of Twelve, where he will be given his Assignment, or job. As he moves through his days, the reader learns about the community in which he lives, but nothing special happens—he goes to school, he talks with friends, he rides his bike. Mostly, the reader is being given a tour of the community and how it works.
As I read this first third, Jonas’s world seemed pretty normal. Highly organized, and weird, but weird in a kind of predictable way—I’ll admit, I was nervous about what exactly it meant to “release” someone, but I didn’t give it much thought. I was pretty much in the same position as Jonas.
I, for example, had no idea that no one in the community could see color. I didn’t even notice that in his reporting of the world around him, Jonas never mentioned the color of anything. When Jonas goes to the Receiver/Giver and is told that the aberrations in his vision are in fact him simply seeing the colors that he’s been genetically conditioned to ignore, I was blown away. Nothing happened—there was no robot attack—but new information was given to me, and I was floored. To get a reader to feel what your character is feeling is no easy trick; to fool your readers into missing that no one in the world of the story can see color feels like a masterstroke of storytelling.
What’s so cool is that I felt such a thrill, and yet nothing had happened. Lowry managed to blow me away by simply telling me something new about the world; in other words, she went deeper into the world she introduced in the first third of the book. And she does this over and over in the story: As the Giver gives his memories to Jonas, Lowry also gives that information to the reader, and we get to experience the shock/horror/joy that Jonas feels. While we may not experience the joy of first feeling snow falling on our skin, we feel the shock of Jonas never having known that sensation, and wonder what not having felt snow, or cold, or weather, would be like: We experience different kind of wonder than what Jonas experiences, but it’s wonder just the same.
This works as a form of narrative because the story requires a constant revelation of new information, not necessarily a constant barrage of events happening. So long as something new is being revealed, it doesn’t matter if what’s being revealed is the next phase of the terrifying robot chase or an even more insidious detail about Jonas’s world.
There does come the moment in the story when we know enough about the world to know that it is wrong, and thus Things need to Happen. Lowry weaves together the plots of Jonas coming to the conclusion that the community cannot continue in its ignorance, and Jonas needing to save Gabriel such that they climax at the same moment. At this point, the story becomes a more traditional action tale—Jonas hops onto his bike with Gabriel and escapes the community, and he has a rather terrible adventure in the world beyond, which ends in possibly the most depressing ambiguous ending ever.
To bring this back to structure, and how to structure a story, the point is that there is no one way for a story to be built, but there is one constant: The need for revelation. Build it however you want, but if you build it without constantly revealing something new about the world or the characters or the action of the story, the readers may not come.
If you have any thoughts or comments, please feel free to post them on my Facebook page, which you can join here. Next blog I’m going to talk about voice in How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff, which won the Printz Award in 2005. See you in November!