Friday, April 20, 2012

Reading Circles: The Giver {Week 1}

For the next several weeks at Bigger Picture Blogs, Jade will be leading us through The Giver by Lois Lowry as we learn to read a book critically.  That is, we'll be trying to see what it is about a great book that makes it work.  If you're interested in reading along, please join us!  We hope to gain insight as writers into how an author sinks his or her literary claws into us and compels us to keep reading.  We hope the dissection of a good book can help us to become better writers, ourselves.  And we hope to have a ton of fun along the way. 

Week 1: Chapters 1-3
I was so excited to get started with both this project and this book in particular!  I've never read The Giver, and having heard wonderful things about it, I was ready.  It didn't hurt that I've been harboring a penchant for dystopia lately.  Give me a disturbing government professing to make everything better, add a brave soul seeking answers, and I'm there.

As soon as I sat down to read it, I found myself preparing to notice writing perfection around every corner.  Instead of my usual story-inhalation, I moved slowly, intending to take notes.  I wanted to capture the reasons behind the magic.  The way the story moved.  How the author shifted time and memory and plot. 

But that completely didn't work for me.  It was all I could do to stop reading at chapter three, and I had to physically lock my hands around the front and back covers -- sandwich-style -- to get away from the urge to continue. 

Crap, I thought.  I sped through it, and now I've learned absolutely nothing.  Gleaned no answers.  Learned no magic.  I put the book at the bottom of the stack on my nightstand, and fell asleep with thoughts of newchildren and comfort items vying for space next to my dreams. 

And Jade's questions have been on my mind ever since.  Questions about beginnings and hooking a reader.  And about building empathy and tension.  So with book in hand, I'm going to try to answer the questions to help myself start reading like a writer. 

1. Take a look at the very first sentence. How does it hook us and encourage us to read further? What about the first paragraph? What do we learn right away, or what information has the author decided to give us right at the start?
"It was almost December, and Jonas was beginning to be frightened."

Well, first off, the word 'frightened' tends to set off a little bell in my head like I'm a drooling canine in a laboratory.  I like to be tense.  I like to be worried.  And I super-like to be frightened, at least while reading, and as long as I know there'll be some resolution.  Which, luckily, is what most books usually do: resolve at the end. 

But it's more than that.  I want to keep reading after that first sentence because I want to know what the heck is about to happen in December.  And the rest of the paragraph is hook-ish because it immediately informs me of knowledge about Jonas' home: it's frightening when aircraft flies overhead.  It must not happen much.  Why?  Maybe the opening of this book is so great because it leads me to more questions than answers.  Immediately, I want to know why he's frightened, why December is significant, why planes are unusual in his town, why the plane was there -- twice, and why is that not okay?  So maybe hooking a reader quickly can be done by couching some questions in the first few sentences.  Not simple settings or character introductions, but questions.  Something to think about.

2. How does Lowry set the scene? Does she give us a lot of information up front, or does she release it slowly? When do you begin to figure out where this is set?

Very quickly, she mentions 'the community,' which makes me feel like the characters will be fairly centralized in a controllable location.  She might as well have said 'compound'.  At least that's the impression I got.  This was backed up on the second page when loudspeakers broadcast 'orders' for the citizens to head into the nearest building.  There seems to be an aura of control above it all, and not much of it lies in the citizens' hands. 

I'd say she releases it...shoot.  I don't know.  She releases the information exactly when she needs to.  No teases are bandied about unnecessarily, which really bugs me about some authors.  They seem to be creating hooks simply because they expect readers to follow blindly, that their urge to be in-the-loop will make them forgive lazy character development or tacky adjectives.

Lowry makes the intrigue effortless and painless.  I'm not frothing to know the crux of the entire story yet because information is so steadily and calmly relayed.  Each sentence leads to the next.  (Duh.  But you know what I mean, right?)  She shows us a bit about the community and the overarching sense of being controlled by some authority, and then skips over into Jonas' family life.  Each interaction gives me more clues about the world Jonas lives in. 

3. How does Lowry encourage us to empathize with the main character, Jonas? What are the first things we learn about him? How does Lowry show us, rather than tell us, what kind of person Jonas is?

We learn that he is very intuitive about his feelings.  And because he's so capable of unraveling whether he feels frightened or eager or nervous about what's about to happen, I automatically feel the same way he concludes he feels: apprehensive.  Discussing his feelings so in-depth seems to be one way that Lowry has tickled my empathy-bone.  Maybe. 

And I guess I feel empathy for him because he seems so nice.  Lowry shows him interacting with his sister respectfully and lovingly.  He listens to his parents without malice.  He comes across as very... docile.  Which makes me wonder how he'll be as the book's hero.  Because isn't he? 

4. What is the conflict he faces, or what causes the reader to feel tension? How quickly is this tension and conflict introduced?

Jonas is worried about the Ceremony of Twelve, but honestly, that doesn't make me feel too much tension -- just interest.  The tension, for me, came when Lowry started writing about newchildren and birthmothers and rules governing both.  The fact that birthmothers are given that title as a job description -- like human incubators -- and donate their babies to the worthy citizens of the community, who are allowed to have one girl and one boy child per all made me sit up a little straighter.  I was squinting at the page, re-reading sentences to make sure I had it right:

Nurturers who had cared for them since birth.

Newchild twenty-three.

We have him in the extra care section for supplementary nurturing, but the committee's beginning  to talk about releasing him.

Maybe he has the same birthmother as you.

I think newchildren are so cute, Lily sighed.  I hope I get assigned to be a Birthmother.

...the birthmothers never even get to see newchildren.

It's all got me very tense.  And perhaps this isn't even important for the plot development, maybe it's only meant as background into how the community lives, but...I've latched onto it and am sufficiently tense.  If this is the tension I'm supposed to be noticing, it's been introduced slowly.  Delicately.  A word or two in the first chapter.  A few sentences in the second chapter.  A great discussion in the third chapter.  It's built. 

But now I'm worried that I'm only attracted to this tension because of my sweet babies...

And there's another question about foreshadowing that I want to answer very simply: THE APPLE!  It's the reason I wanted so badly to read into chapter four.  But I was a good girl.  I followed the rules.  I am docile.

Maybe I'm like Jonas...maybe I'm a hero, too....


  1. I love your observation here: "So maybe hooking a reader quickly can be done by couching some questions in the first few sentences. Not simple settings or character introductions, but questions." What an interesting take, and a fascinating way to put it! That the reader is immediately drawn in by a question the author subtly sets up - and not in a crass way. She does it just by talking about something going on as if you already know what she's talking about. But you actually have to hang on to figure it out.

    I'm looking over the first few pages again now and what I notice is a complete LACK of detail. No freshly mown lawns, no blue skies, no scent of apple pies...and yet in my head, I feel I see it so vividly: the control, the uniformity. She only gives us details we's the lack of detail that communicates what this society is like. Interesting take on "show, not tell" right?

    Like you, I mostly just view the Ceremony stuff with interest. I'm curious what the big surprise will be, but I assume it's good & special news. I assume he will not be just a regular workman. But I'm also curious about a couple other things - namely, the newchild his father brings home, and the apple. Both signify a slight bend in the rules, a disturbance in the order. I'm sure it means something - this is the point where I begin to wonder what.

    I love the way you ended this post too. :)

  2. Talking about something as if the reader is already in the loop -- that's it exactly, Jade! Since I struggle with story writing in the I-need-to-know-what's-going-to-happen category, I think in order to implement this would be to (duh) NOT start writing at the beginning. Feel it out down the line and maybe come back to the beginning when I can finally see the whole thing clearly. Maybe :)

  3. A lot of writing tip books & articles recommend starting in media res - in the middle of action. In that case, it definitely helps to know what's going to happen! But I think what a writer can do if writing-by-the-seat-of-your-pants is your preferred method is to go ahead and just write it how it comes, and then go back and lop off the lead-in and start straight with the crux of the biscuit.


Hmm...And how did that make you FEEL?