How the Storytelling Format Can Limit a Fictional Narrative Strategically
As a writer who has created almost all of his fiction in third person limited, using a standard narrative format, I’m always exploring how established novelists use or misuse format to drive the voice of the work. It seems there is an increase of fiction for young people using a diary- or email-type format. Since this has always seemed like an overly easy technique, I sought a justified use of the format.
Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary stands as the best example I can find where the format of telling the story matches precisely with the protagonist’s voice, character development, and revealing the progression of time. Though the story is strong on its own merit, it is amplified tremendously by use of dual formats in diary-format and correspondence-format.
This novel begins the story of Leigh Botts, a lonely, lower-class boy with divorced parents, writing to his favorite author. The first few short segments are in quick succession, with Leigh writing a letter each year during his second through fifth grades of school. The graduation of feelings, thoughts and spelling in the letters give us a quick, believable passage of time and snippets of a sincere boy reaching out for connection.
In the next letter, Leigh is in sixth grade, “in a new school in a new town.” The letter is longer and reflects maturity, but ingeniously ends with a juvenile postscript:
A humorous and highly realistic touch like this could only have been successfully included in a novel written in the letter-style format. A subsequent letter ends with the P.S., “If my Dad was here, he would tell you to go climb a tree.”
From this single line, and previous implications, we now know his parents are not together. Other elements are unveiled in this piecemeal, clever fashion. When asked to describe himself to the famous author, he writes, “I am sort of medium…I guess you could call me the mediumest boy in the class.” While there are other (scant) physical descriptions of Leigh in the novel, this limiting storytelling pathway lets us know all we need to know: he is average; he is everyboy; he is self-effacing.
The series of letters to the famous author progress until we infer, from the one-sided correspondence of Leigh’s letters, that the famous author has suggested Leigh keep a diary. The novel switches to a diary-style format, which allows longer, more in-depth exposition and avoids the artificiality of a highly-detailed, progressive-narrative letter that would likely not be written by a young person. Anyone who has kept a diary, even a writer, seldom writes a narrative stream that would match a highly-readable piece of fiction. This change also prevents the reader from wondering why a boy would write such long, detailed letters–something that would jar the experience of staying in the fictive dream-state while reading.
The story unfolds with conflict with Mom; a lunch-stealing schoolmate; Leigh writing and winning a spot at the lunch table with a visiting author. Through it all, we experience his series of disappointments, gradual success caused by his initiative, and finally an understanding of what he can change and what he cannot. All of this arises organically from the words we read that fully seem to be from Leigh’s hand and mind.
Additionally, the letter-writing and diary format gives us a means to explore the emotional terrain with Leigh. His loneliness is shown, not told, by the fact that he is writing letters to his favorite author as though that author is a personal friend.
Persia Woolley writes in How to Write and Sell Historical Fiction, “Good writers achieve a balance somewhere between hand-feeding the readers and believing that it’s up to the audience to ferret out the meaning and content of the work.”
In the case of Dear Mr. Henshaw, the structure of how the story is told is a perfect framework for unlayering events gradually, limiting overtelling so that the reader’s imagination can reach and fill. Had it been written as a straight narrative, either first- or third-person, it could not have been as impactful.
Praising the skills of an author with the stature of Beverly Cleary might seem like going for the low-hanging fruit, but this does not detract from the genuine skill shown in the crafting of this novel. Dear Mr. Henshaw stands a prime, proven method of marrying format with voice–and the Newbery Award is a resounding confirmation.
Cleary, Beverly. Dear Mr. Henshaw. New York: William Morrow & Co., 1983.
Woolley, Persia. How to Write and Sell Historical Fiction. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 1997.