craft review by Kristi Wright
A MONSTER CALLS, a fantastical tale about a young boy’s struggle to come to terms with his mother’s cancer, was a joy to read, a joy to reread, and a joy to study, even though (or maybe because) I fought tears through much of the book.
There’s so much I could talk about: Ness’s gorgeous use of metaphor, his plot’s perfect pace, the way he foreshadows the ending with his beginning. But I’m going to focus on how from the first line to the last, Ness makes every word and every scene count.
Hooking the Reader
“The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.”
In the first line, we learn that the book has a monster in it, that the monster shows up just after the witching hour of midnight, and that this is when monsters tend to show up.
The next line:
“Conor was awake when it came.”
Now we know that this story is magical realism. It’s not a dream, nor a fantasy. Conor is fully awake and aware.
There’s so much packed into the first page. We are introduced to Conor’s mysterious nightmare, the importance of seven minutes past midnight, his mum, his long-distance dad, and his difficult relationship with his grandmother.
We know that Conor hasn’t told anyone about his nightmare—”obviously” not his mum and “absolutely not” anyone else.
Immediately, we have the most intriguing questions: Who is the monster? Why has it come? What is Conor’s mysterious nightmare? Why won’t he tell anyone? Why is it so obvious that he wouldn’t tell his mom? Why would he “definitely not” tell his grandma?
As a reader, I’m hooked!
A MONSTER CALLS is a perfect example of how to ensure that readers will turn the page.
Action: Make your first line count and ensure that your readers have questions right away that make them have to turn the page!
Jim Kay’s masterful illustrations, for which he won the Kate Greenaway Medal, make a huge contribution to the mood of the story. And they are drawn from the vocabulary of Ness’s text.
From the start, Ness’s words and phrases conjure a dark mood:
monster, nightmare, darkness, screaming, straining, rustle, a rush of panic, guts twisting, swallowed, curtains shushing, a monstrous quality, wild and untamed, heavy creak, pale half-light of the moon, glowing dully, graveyard, tombstones.
These sensory words and phrases evoke danger, mystery, fear and a sense of wildness. Ness does a beautiful job with word choice to create a particular mood.
Action: Determine the tone of your story and pepper your manuscript with words and phrases that evoke that mood.
Double-Duty Descriptions and Dialogue
Ness uses description and dialogue to reveal Conor’s relationships with and feelings about other characters–his adored mother, his long-distance dad, his estranged friend Lily and school nemesis Harry, and, of course, the monster. And within the dialogue, he reveals alternate readings of those characters.
Conor’s relationship with his grandmother is especially nuanced. He sees her at first as an adversary: “He didn’t like the way she talked to him, like he was an employee under evaluation. An evaluation he was going to fail.”
He even feels she is antagonistic toward him and his mother. When she arrives to help out, she pinches him on the cheeks so hard that “he swore she was going to draw blood.” But as he “gratefully” leaves the room, he hears his grandma say to his mother: “‘Now then, my dear… What are we going to do with you?’”
He interprets her as rude and managing, but we, the readers, can imagine (because of the dialogue) that she’s bucking up as she watches her daughter grow more and more sick.
Still, he maintains his view of her as adversarial–someone who will force him to confront his mom’s illness. When his grandmother wants to have a talk with him about his mom, “She looked like a bird of prey. A hawk that could carry off a sheep.”
These hard images belie her hurt, which Conor doesn’t see but we can, through her expressions and words. When she explains that “There is a lot of pain. More than there should be,” she’s trying to find a gentle explanation that he will understand.
Then she closes up emotionally with a clap of her hands as he resists her attempt. Her distance continues as she looks “just over his head rather than at him,” and as she “stood, concentrating on smoothing down her dress.”
Action: Use viewpoint, dialogue and character expression to do double duty–show your main character’s feelings toward another character and that character’s feelings as well.
Making Scenes Count
In A MONSTER CALLS, the scenes start exactly where they have to and not a moment before.
For example, the second chapter, entitled BREAKFAST, ends with Conor heading off to school. The next chapter could have logically started with Conor arriving at school, a not uncommon transition from one chapter to the next. Instead, Ness starts with Conor getting up from having been pushed to the ground by a school bully who will play a prominent role in the story.
When you read A MONSTER CALLS, watch for each scene’s beginning and end. See how Ness jumps forward to the next important moment in Conor’s journey, rather than including unnecessary mundane moments.
Action: Revise scenes to start at the next important moment rather than rambling chronologically through your main character’s day. Make sure that every scene counts.
What did you learn about craft from reading A MONSTER CALLS?
Kristi Wright (assistant editor) is the Assistant Regional Advisor for the San Francisco/South region of the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators and a writing mentor for the non-profit Society of Young Inklings. She offers writing workshops at the elementary school level with a focus on point of view and sensory detail. Her indie-published futuristic middle grade adventure series, The Basker Twins in the 31st Century, raises funds and awareness for a rare, childhood-onset disease, Friedreich’s ataxia.