Book Dissection: NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

I finished reading NOS4A2 by Joe Hill yesterday. I’d bought it after following him on Twitter, and I only followed him on Twitter because someone else had been retweeting him. That shows the power of Twitter, I guess–I hadn’t even heard of him before that.

It’s a powerful book. It’s something about the ruthless way he has of describing people, and the grim yet vivid settings. What I’m interested in doing is deconstructing the book to see what exactly it is that Hill does right. Because he does do this book right; it’s strong in all the right places, and the pacing is fantastic.

Non-spoilery recap:

Victoria McQueen has a knack for finding things. All she has to do is get on her bike and ride across the Shorter Way Bridge: a bridge that shows up wherever she needs it to, and takes her wherever she wants to go. But she’s not the only one with this kind of ability, and it’s not long before she runs into Charlie Manx, a man who uses his own powers to “rescue” children from their families and take them to Christmasland, where every morning is Christmas morning and every night is Christmas Eve, and Manx can drain away their innocence and humanity to make himself live forever.

In a different writer’s hands, this might have been about 12-year-old Vic’s battle against the evil Manx. But it’s not really about that. Instead, we see how her encounter with Manx and her own odd powers changes the course of her life. What the story really seems to be about is that everything has consequences, and those shortcuts that allow someone to avoid consequences–Vic finding things deemed lost, Manx being able to make himself younger–are the ones that have the greatest cost.

How the sausage is made:

I’ve been interested in figuring out how authors make unpredictable plots. There are thousands of examples of predictable plots repeated weekly on television screens and movie theaters. In many cases, that’s a result of the short format. There’s only so much you can do in a two hour movie, or in a 45 minute tv show where the characters need to end up in much the same place they started. Novels have more room to work with, but a lot of them take predictable paths anyway. So when I see a novel that does it pretty well, I want to figure out how it happened.

In Hill’s case, he lets the story get bigger than it originally appeared. Sure, Vic and Manx meet up, as you’d expect. But that’s not the end of the story. It’s just the jumping off point for the real plot, which takes years to unreel. In hindsight, it makes perfect sense: in a story about consequences, you can’t just end with the confrontation between protagonist and antagonist. You have to see what that confrontation leads to. That’s where the story departs from predictability.

I guess a (possibly simplistic) takeaway from this is that in order to make a plot less predictable, make it about theme, not formula. I’ve seen places where I believe this backfired–China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station springs to mind. That was a book about borders and finding that undefined place where one thing changes into something else, and while I thought it was a gorgeous book (and he’s one of my favorite authors), the ending seemed to rely too much on keeping with the theme than on narrative coherence. Still, it’s a good starting point for plotting. NOS4A2 marries a good theme to a solid plot, and the combination makes for a satisfying story.

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