Jan here. In medicine, it seemed to me that the best clinicians and teachers shared certain characteristics. They possessed insatiable curiosity and a willingness to learn from any source, however humble, so long as it benefited their patients.
I’m not surprised, therefore, to see two of WU’s whip-smart storymeisters collaborate in a Fifty Shades of Grey dissection for our benefit. Not a fan of the book? Maybe you quit at the first page? Well why not fasten your seatbelts (and collars) and keep an open mind while Lisa Cron (LC) and Donald Maass (DM) probe the secrets of this mega-bestseller? Enjoy.
And yes, while phrased like a gentle query, some of you will have intuited that really was an order.
When it comes to crafting a compelling story, a writer’s most important job is to relentlessly ask “Why?,” the better to drill down to the real reason behind every action the protagonist takes. After all, isn’t that what we continually do in real life: wonder why things happen, largely so we can figure out what the heck to do about them?
But often divining the “why” behind what people do isn’t so easy. And these days there’s one “why” question that has a whole lot of writers stumped: Why on earth has the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy sold 70 million copies and counting to the people we collectively call the public?
It’s so poorly written, it’s so surface, it’s so . . . compelling people can’t seem to put it down. True, many would rather be spanked than admit it, but still.
Why? Why? Why?
Here’s a thought: could it be that maybe, just maybe, Fifty Shades isn’t as poorly written as it seems? Yes, the prose is pretty abysmal. Yes, Anastasia says “inner goddess” so many times that if you used it as a drinking game, you’d be in rehab before you finished reading. And her continual use of the word “clamber” is down right irritating. Clamber, really?
That said, there are a surprising number of things that E.L. James does so deftly that it genuinely blinds readers to the shoddy prose. She hooks them. And she holds them. The question is: how?
We read Fifty Shades of Grey looking for answers. Here’s what we found:
- Anastasia’s POV is intimately personal, making her inner life warmly accessible. No omniscient narration. — DM
- The novel opens with a self-deprecating line that taps into a universal lament – after all, who among us hasn’t “ . . . scowled with frustration at myself in the mirror” at some point? — thus instantly endearing us to Anastasia. –LC
- On the first page we are immediately catapulted into a situation in progress — something has gone wrong that’s forcing Anastasia to take an action she’d really rather not – triggering a sense of urgency. –LC
- Anastasia and Christian come together under exotic conditions…yet are drawn together by an ordinary need for love. –DM
- Writing about forbidden sex allows the reader to experience danger from a distance. –LC
- What’s more, Anastasia is intrigued rather than repulsed by BDSM, further disarming the reader. -DM
The Characters — Anastasia
- Anastasia has a life (we can like her) yet it’s missing something (we can hope for her). –DM
- It’s Anastasia’s flaws – beginning with her clumsiness – that make her accessible and endearing . . . –LC
- . . . and not just to the reader. The very things that embarrass her the most – like falling head first into Christian’s office the instant they meet – are what draw him to her. –LC
- Anastasia is not your typical movie-star-beautiful “drop dead gorgeous” blonde, allowing the rest of us mortals to identify with her. . . –LC
- . . . Because we’ve already accepted Anastasia as an underdog – she’s not as pretty as her roommate, she isn’t a fashion plate – by the time we discover that she is, in fact, beautiful (and with flawless skin, no less), we’re happy for her rather than put off. –LC
- Anastasia resists her desire for Christian—she’s inwardly conflicted. – DM
- Anastasia’s fear – and curiosity – mirror our own, so she becomes our surrogate in a world that otherwise, regardless how alluring, might be too scary to venture into. –LC
- Anastasia is so sexually inexperienced that we feel protective of her, rather than intimidated by her. –LC
- Anastasia stands up for herself often enough that, even when she allows Christian to dominate her, she doesn’t seem all that submissive. –LC
- Anastasia has a wry sense of humor, and never feels sorry for herself, takes herself too seriously, or worse, too earnestly. –LC
The Characters — Christian
- Christian has opposing sides: he’s cold and distant…yet he’s reaching out. –DM
- Christian continually tells Anastasia that everything she does must be for his own pleasure, and yet in his actions, he seems much more interested in making sure she gets what she needs. –LC
- What’s unlikely about Christian (billionaire, BDSM) is balanced by what’s familiar (why can’t men commit?). –DM
- Christian accepts, adores and wants Anastasia no matter what, at all times: the devotion that defines romantic stories and affirms the universal value held by readers. – DM
- Christian, for all his sex slave bravado, is anxious for Anastasia to be honest with him at all times, and to fearlessly tell him exactly what she feels – a perfect female fantasy. –LC
- Christian’s external goal: the safety of a contract-bound submissive sex slave, is at odds with his internal goal: surrendering to his very real feelings for Anastasia. –LC
Tomorrow, Fifty Lessons Part II. Now do as you’re told: adjourn to the Red Room of Pain for a discussion of today’s training…um, points for discussion.