Each month, we ask one distinguished author or illustrator to write an original post that reveals insights about their process and craft. Enjoy!
Dressing a Story
by Sara Pennypacker
It’s helpful for me to think of a novel as a living creature. (I’m a writer—everything is a metaphor!) The heart of my novel is its theme; the steady beat of life at its core. Its blood, coursing life through every page, is its language, or voice. Its skeleton is the narrative structure; the plot, its muscles, which must be strong enough to pull readers along. And the novel’s characters are the creature’s senses, through which readers experience what happens.
Then there is the final element: the costume, the embellishment, the details I use to personalize my book. My characters’ physical features, pastimes, and personality traits; the specific obstacles they run into; the setting’s particulars—all comprise the unique attire my novel wears.
The choices for outfitting a story are endless, which is a good thing. But sometimes, the number of options can feel overwhelming. Luckily, there’s a great way to narrow the possibilities—explore what fascinates you. Creating a story is hard work. Decorate it with the things that you’re passionate about, and the work of writing becomes fun. In addition, embellishing a story in this way makes it uniquely yours. In my novel Pax (Harper 2016), for instance, I costumed Peter with a love of baseball, because I’ve loved everything about the game since I was a kid.
Peter could have been obsessed with skating or baking cupcakes, and the novel would still have been the story of two friends separated by war. But it wouldn’t have had the same sense of authenticity, because those aren’t my enthusiasms.
In Pax, I’ve dressed the character of Vola, the hermit who comes to Peter’s aid, with puppetry. I’m fascinated by marionettes, but also just the teensiest bit creeped out by them—how spookily they move and the haunting expressions they wear. I think that my own feelings about marionettes bleed through those scenes and give the book an extra layer of tension.
The fox in Pax could easily have been a falcon or a dolphin, learning how to survive in the sky or the sea, and the theme of balancing wild and tame would have remained strong. But as I researched animals, trying to decide which species my main character should be, I became absolutely fascinated by fox behavior.
This animal’s intelligence, adaptability, curiosity, and connection with family and friends all made me a fox fan for life. I hope that the naturalistic details I was able to clothe the story with give Pax a sense of realism and that my keenness for the creature encourages readers to learn more about this amazing animal.
If I’d chosen some of the many other options available to me for Pax, the novel would have had the same theme, voice, plot, and characters, but it would have appeared completely different. And it would have felt different, too—an author’s enthusiasms make his or her writing more vivid, more alive.
So keep lists of your passions—the things that you adore and the things that repulse you. And don’t worry if they sound weird—the odder the better, in my mind. When I was in school, for example, I was fanatical about moss and mannequins—definitely not your average obsessions. But what if I’d combined the two to personalize a story: the way moss slowly covers everything in its path in velvety green, the way mannequins look so real they could move.
Actually, what a story this would make….
All text and images are courtesy of Sara Pennypacker and may not be used without her express written consent.