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A Narrative Arc Drawn in Henna

photo adapted / Horia Varlan

A story isn’t powerful because of what happens, but what changes in your characters because of what happens. Those changes must be rendered with a deft hand so the reader enjoys a sense of discovery as small changes become larger changes in a subtle yet discernible way. These changes comprise what are known as narrative arcs.

The medium of story offers us many ways to show such movement that are more engaging for the reader than “first she felt this way and then she felt that.” In her novel, Henna House [1], author Nomi Eve [2] made an effective barometer out of the protagonist’s interest in an activity—the application of henna.

Arcs are threaded through scenes over the course of a novel. Plucking them for analysis in a blog post isn’t easy. But why let that stop me? Here, without giving too much away, I hope you can gain inspiration from the many pulse points Eve’s henna arc was able to touch.

Henna as character desire

Henna House is a story of Adela, who at the start is a Jewish child living among Arabs in the Kingdom of Yemen in 1923. Why mention a child with reference to coming of age? It is when she is five that Adela is first betrothed. Her parents’ health is failing, and if she should become orphaned, she will be taken from her family and adopted into the Muslim community. To protect her from the Confiscator’s clutches, her parents create a marriage contract that will go into effect as soon as she menstruates.

Adela is in no rush to grow up, save for one thing: she is enraptured by the elaborate patterns of henna she will not be allowed to wear until she becomes a woman. Until then, Adela watches “greedily” as the women of her community adorn one another. Telling the story from the perspective of someone who desires henna instead of, say, from the perspective of the henna dyer herself, was a great choice. Intense desire bonds us to Adela, and sends her along her arc.

Henna as culture-made-personal

Henna doesn’t make an entrance until Adela’s cousin Hani moves to town on p. 85, but oh what an entrance it is—Hani is a year older and “the fanciest creature” Adela has ever seen, decorated head-to-toe by her mother, a henna dyer.

I learned that night that the only way to know that girl, to know her truly, was to know her henna.

Because of the way Eve sets up her story, the culture of Yemen itself creates the push-and-pull that will keep us turning pages. Along the way we learn rich details about the alchemy of creating henna dye, as well as the mechanics of its application with a stylus.

Henna as indirect emotion

Such details aren’t info dump; in Eve’s hands, they create opportunities for henna to carry emotional load in the novel. Hani aspires to be a henna dyer, too, supporting women at times of vulnerability and hope—such as weddings and births—but as such they are sometimes blamed when things go wrong. When Hani’s mother is accused, she runs to Adela’s house with a wild look in her eyes.

Clutched in her hands was a henna stylus, which she threw to the ground, discarding it like a sword with a blunt tip, a weapon that would do no good in battle.

This not only shows us how upset she is, but is a brilliant example of what I call fiction-speak: the henna stylus will indeed be used as a weapon, and now we are watching for it.

Henna as worldview

Adela also sees such blame as unfair and wants justice on behalf of her newly arrived, exotic family members. A favorite aunt uses henna as a metaphor to deliver an important life lesson.

Everyone knows that henna is not permanent, it fades with time. So will these accusations. But to air them in public, to make a complaint to the court, will only set the dye deeper into the soul of anyone who listens.

Henna as a barometer of growth

Once Adela’s mother has her blessing to receive henna, the ritual is fully described and imbued with great meaning. She concludes:

Without henna, I wouldn’t know how to read myself. With henna, I was as sacred as a sanctified Torah. With henna, I was the carrier of ancient tales—a living girl-scroll replete with tales of sorrow, joy, and salvation.

Later, the absence of henna on the henna dyer’s hands—“her skin like the page of a book that had lost its letters”—is a bittersweet tribute, as ancient traditions give way to modern culture.

Henna as setting

The day Adela and her cousins leave her hometown for good, she looks back over her shoulder and allows henna to add color and meaning to what might otherwise be a description dump:

The jutting towers and graceful minarets, the arches of the gates, and the encircling girth of the walls combined into a henna of history, a henna of conquerors and conquered, a henna of brides and grooms.

Henna as plot vehicle

When Adela finally marries, the elaborate henna party is not quite what she imagined, and when our sensitive and deeply philosophical protagonist finds she has trouble talking to her new husband about notions such as love and fate, she hopes her henna might speak for her. This perfectly sets up a final twist, one that was foreshadowed on the first page of the prologue:

Hani died as she lived, inscribed with henna.

The novel is well worth reading just to find out what that twist is and how Eve set it up, but plot is rarely how a story is remembered. Character growth sticks longer to the ribs, and by drawing it in henna, Eve makes her story all the more impactful.

Inspired to give it a try in your work-in-progress? What aspect of your story could be plucked for use as a barometer of change? What other novels have you read that made use of this technique?

About Kathryn Craft [3]

Kathryn Craft is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy. Her work as a freelance developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com [4] follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she leads writing workshops and retreats, and is a member of the Tall Poppy Writers. Learn more on Kathryn's website.