Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen

August 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

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When my friend found out I hadn’t read Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen, she said, “I’m jealous. I wish I could read that book for the first time again.”

Coming from a friend with good reading taste, that is the kind of endorsement that gets a book to the top of my (very long) “to read” list. And, it did not disappoint. It was phenomenal. A ton of fun to read. Engaging all along the way. A totally different world and the perfect way to pass a few summer days in the hammock.

I’ve been making a concerted effort to read fiction as a writer this year, so it seems important to also mention that this book delivered a pivotal moment of enlightenment to me. Until now, I have been intimidated by the concept of building the actual structure for my novel. I know the story. But how to tell it?

The clarity and elegance of this story structure taught me more than all the chapters and thoughts and work I’ve done on this idea before. It’s perfection. Here are a few of the things I’ve learned/observed:

  • Gruen puts future and past parts of the story in chapters that are next to each other. This helps to elevate the details of both the past and the future because they are so different. If they were not next to each other in this way, they would become less meaningful and the story would be (WAY) less good.
  • The way she sets up the story in the prologue creates such a sense of urgency and curiosity. Especially because she set the prologue against chapter 1 (see note above).
  • Even though Gruen sets up the Prologue to seem like it provides a lot of information, it actually doesn’t. Which is awesome.
  • Gruen uses short “current day” chapters to provide additional information about the main character and demonstrate that all is going to eventually be “OK.” Compared to the other story line, these chapters felt like interruptions. This can either be called “building suspense,” or “being annoying.” You decide for yourself.
  • Gruen has high respect for a reader’s ability to join into the world of the circus, despite the fact that most readers don’t know anything. She does this by conscientiously teaching the reader new words in a non-patronizing way and showing the down/dirty details of circus life.
  • Gruen uses photos that add instant credibility. I was amazed by how hard the photos worked to bring this story to life.
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