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, author Nomi Eve 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. [Read more…]