Saturday, September 26, 2009


By Susan

Last week I was fortunate enough to see Sue Monk Kidd and her daughter, Ann Kidd Taylor, at a reading in Dallas to discuss their new memoir, Traveling with Pomegranates. When I got home that night, I pulled out my newly signed copies of her books, including The Secret Life of Bees, and I thought about the first time I read it. And the second.

Around the third time I read Bees was when I had decided I wanted to write fiction, not just read it.

I began looking beyond the story of Lily and the Boatwright sisters, and looking more into her use of epigraphs, the themes employed, and the author’s symbols and motifs. I noted that there were 14 chapters, and that Lily Owens was 14 years old at the end of this coming of age tale.

Hmmm. I wondered if she did that on purpose? All of a sudden, I realized I was seeing something here, something beyond the story, beyond the meat and flesh of the narrative and plotline. With my newly trained eye, I could see the bones.

Every writer knows about the bones. At least, perhaps, they believe their bones exist. Yet in the writing of it all, I think there are times that we get lost.

I’ve written about the story and the importance of telling your tale, in It’s The Story, Stupid. I still believe that telling the story is most critical to your reader. Yet in pumping up the muscles of our plotline, we’ve got to remember that unless supported by a good structure, it will all fall apart.

At the end of the question and answer session with Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor, a beautiful elderly woman came to the podium for her questions.

“This is a thank you, not a question,” she began. “In all of my 57 years of teaching, I wanted to thank you for The Secret Life of Bees. It’s been a joy to teach, and the best book to teach to my students, in all of my years. Thank you.”

I was touched. Kidd placed her hand over her heart, bowed to the teacher, and said, “You’re welcome.”

Was this novel the best book to teach because it was a great plot? Or, as I suspect, was this teacher responding to the bones of the story, the overall structure and joints, from themes to symbolism and context?

I went back to my WIP, a novel I call The Angel’s Share. I looked at it through new eyes, and I decided that it has a touch of osteoporosis. Nothing that a little calcium can’t help, but my bones had gotten weak. So I pulled back, indulged in a week of “bones camp,” as I called it to myself, and started focusing on some basic ideas and questions. I went back through and reminded myself of all of these elements, and I answered the questions that I felt were unanswered.

Here are the basic bones to a story:

Context and Setting


Point of View

Protagonist, antagonist, and full character analysis

Themes, motifs and symbols, epigraphs

Chapter by chapter analysis

Rising action defined

Climax defined

Falling action defined

The use of foreshadowing

Key quotations and their meanings

Revisit your work in progress, and see what you have created. Does it have a full skeleton or just meat and muscle? Visit Sparknotes to look up novels you admire and learn from their bones too. They are all laid out on the table. Then go back to your own autopsy and see what’s needed.


  1. Susan, as a big fan of Sue Monk Kidd's work, I really got into this beautifully written and informative piece. Sure wish I could have gone with you to her reading. Must get a copy of Traveling with Pomegranates.

  2. Hmm, nice metaphor. Also, The Secret Life of Bees is the only book I've ever read that I wished I had written. Other books I've loved and admired, but none except Bees felt to me like exactly the kind of story I wanted to tell in exactly the way I'd want to tell it.


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