Joanna Ho’s debut YA novel, The Silence that Binds Us, tells the story of Maybelline Chen and her family in the aftermath of her beloved brother Danny’s death by suicide. It’s hard to talk about the craft of writing without spoilers, so please, if you haven’t read Ho’s beautiful novel, run to your nearest indie bookstore and grab it. You won’t be disappointed. It’s an amazing novel with all the bones of an expertly crafted story.
When Maybelline (May) Chen’s brother, who secretly struggles with depression, commits suicide, May’s world is shattered. In the aftermath, racist accusations are hurled against May’s parents for putting too much “pressure” on Danny to be the model student. May’s parents want to keep their heads down and soldier on, but May challenges these ugly accusations through her writing. The Silence that Binds Us is a powerful exploration of who gets to tell the stories, and who gets silenced.
Today, I’m going to focus on the Story Crisis, with a healthy dose of story structure thrown in.
In this excellent post by StoryGrid, the story crisis is defined as a binary, this-or-that, choice that occurs when all the character’s attempts to solve the problem in other ways have failed. They have been pushed to the edge of a cliff where they are forced to make a crisis decision.
In The Silence that Binds Us, Joanna Ho leads May to a crisis moment where she can either take back the narrative for many currently unheard voices in the community or she can protect her family and her own college future. Unfortunately, she cannot do both. In order for this binary story crisis to work, readers must understand how limited May’s choices are and what the associated stakes are.
Let’s look at some key points leading up to the Story Crisis, as well as the Story Crisis itself, to see how Ho threads together all the elements for a stellar climax to her novel. Remember…lots of spoilers ahead. Now’s a good time to stop reading this blog post and read Ho’s novel instead, if you haven’t already done so.
Act 1: SETUP, INCITING INCIDENT, AND DEBATE
In The Silence that Binds Us, there are two huge moments in Act One that lead May into her journey. The first one is her brother’s death by suicide. It’s not technically an inciting incident because it doesn’t lead May into action. However, it is the event that gets May’s story started. Her brother’s suicide throws May into a deeply devastated period of mourning.
when the world was awake.
when the world went to bed.
Sleep meant darkness
But no nightmare could be worse than reality. (38)
May’s brother’s death is a critical event for the story arc. It informs what we understand about May and her family. May would give anything to rewrite the past and have her brother be alive again, but that’s not possible. Worse, racist accusations have been hurled against May’s parents (and the Asian community in general) for putting too much “pressure” on Danny.
At back to school night, one of the most powerful parents in the school community says:
“We all know that last year, some Asian kid got into Princeton and then killed himself on the tracks. I mean, come on. What did his parents say to him? If Princeton isn’t good enough for these people, then what is?” (94)
He quickly doubles down on his accusation, giving the impression that he’s acting as the voice of the broader community:
“Everyone is too worried about being politically correct, but I’m not afraid to say that the Asians are the real problem here. I know most of you are thinking it too.” (94)
This moment when a prominent member of the community, presumably speaking on behalf of others, lashes out against May’s family is the true inciting incident. It is her call to action. May wants to push back against these accusations and her parents want her to “let it go and move on.” (101)
She must make a decision about whether she will confront their accusers or follow her parents’ wishes and let it go.
FIRST PLOT POINT, BREAK INTO TWO
No matter which structure you use to plot your story, there will likely be a big decision that moves your main character into their journey. For those of you using Save the Cat beats, you will be familiar with the idea of a Break Into Two (the second act). Other story architects use the term First Plot Point which is the point of no return for the main character that catapults them into their second act. Bottom line, it’s likely a moment where the main character makes a crucial decision that starts their “quest.” In The Silence that Binds Us, May makes the decision that, despite her parents’ misgivings about confronting their accusers, she cannot be silent:
Silence is death.
Forgive me, Ma.
Forgive me, Bà.
I cannot be silent. (103)
May’s decision to fight back with her writing propels us into the 2nd act and creates a dramatic (story) question that keeps readers turning pages until they have their Yes/No answer: Will May be able to convince people they are wrong about her brother and family?
This question sets up readers for the Story Crisis.
Act 2: RISING TENSION THAT LEADS TO A MIDPOINT
Now that we’re in the second act, May actively pursues her goal of convincing people they are wrong about her family. She starts by writing a poem entitled “He’s Not Some Boy,” (109-111) that gets published in the local newspaper. It directly and beautifully confronts the quote about “some Asian kid” getting into Princeton and then committing suicide. As controversy grows, May’s parents still want to keep their heads down and ride out the storm of anti-Asian racism, but May goes from wanting to defend her brother to the broader desire to challenge all the ugly stereotypes that uphold “systems and policies that always put white people on top” (217).
At the midpoint of The Silence that Binds Us, May writes: “We can’t let them control the narrative forever.” May and her friends begin to organize a “Take Back the Narrative” rally to share not just May’s family stories, but all their family stories that have historically been ignored or silenced by those in power.
Now May’s quest is much bigger than she initially imagined, but the dramatic question for the reader remains valid. Readers still want to know if May will have justice for her family in the end.
Ho’s flawless execution here continues to lay the groundwork for a crisis where May must choose between two extremely incompatible options. In the beginning of act 2, the stakes were personal to May and her family. Now the stakes have grown beyond the personal. May has peers relying on her to be a catalyst for change. Likewise, it’s no longer just her parents in opposition, but a variety of authority figures.
Act 2 continued: THE FORCES AND TURNING POINT THAT LEAD TO THE CRISIS (BAD GUYS CLOSE IN)
Despite (or perhaps because of) the lofty and well-intentioned goals of May and her friends, there are serious roadblocks to them making their voices heard. May’s mom gets a bad review at work that is obviously tied to May’s actions. There’s a very real chance that her mom will lose her job if May doesn’t stay quiet. Her mom says:
“Why is this so hard for you to understand, Maybelline? I could be fired. If I lose my job, where do you think we will live? What do you think we will eat? You think life is free?” She goes straight for the jugular. “Danny would have listened.” (308)
And the school has found out about the rally and they’ve told May in no uncertain terms that she will get suspended if she and her friends insist on holding their protest.
“I’m going to keep this brief, ladies,” she [the principal] says. A chime rings from her computer, and she clicks a screen closed. She folds her hands across her desk. “I’ve heard about your plans to disrupt Nathaniel McIntyre’s presentation during College and Career Week. Let me be clear: if you carry through with these plans, you will all be suspended. You don’t want that on your record when you apply to college.” (337)
May is at the turning point that will directly lead to her crisis. She has two mutually exclusive options for moving forward and she doesn’t know what to do: either (A) she moves forward with the rally at a great personal cost for her family, or (B) she cancels the rally, which not only means she will fail to change peoples’ minds about her family and her brother, but also she will let down all the people, including her best friend, who are counting on her to give them a voice.
CRISIS: TWO MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE OPTIONS
With May in crisis over two incompatible options, this is the point in a story where she (the main character) reveals her “true character”. By choosing to shut down the rally, she will completely lose her chance to ensure that everyone’s story is told (including Danny’s), but her mom will be able to keep her job and no one will get suspended. Alternatively, if she moves forward with the rally, she will ensure that many voices are heard, but at the expense of her family’s safety and her future college plans. Talk about meaningful stakes. May’s choice matters. This is a terribly hard decision for her to make. In fact, it feels impossible. And once she commits to her decision, there’s no turning back.
I feel trapped with an impossible decision, and I don’t know what to do. How can I keep planning this protest? How can I speak at the rally? I can’t sacrifice my family’s well-being, their safety, for this.
But I can’t back out two weeks before the event. We’ve worked so hard. Tiya is counting on me. If I bail, I might lose my best friend.
This whole thing started so I could set the record straight about Danny. It’s grown into something else entirely. I wish he was here to talk me through everything. What would he want? What would he tell me to do?” (346-347)
A little later, she summarizes how she feels:
“It’s like I only have wrong choices. I’m hurting people no matter what I do.” (356)
One could argue that May has been hit with two “Best Bad” choices, where both choices are inherently bad, but if you look closely at her choices, they really are two “Irreconcilable Good” choices where the protagonist must choose between two incompatible positive options. According to Story Grid, this choice could be between something that would be good for the main character versus something that would be good for the broader community, or it could be a choice between what the character wants versus what the character needs. In The Silence that Binds Us, the choice appears to be between what the family wants and what the broader community needs. Another way of looking at it is: Will May choose to play it safe for her family or will she choose truth?
Her best friend’s brother puts this “Irreconcilable Goods” crisis succinctly:
“Okay, you big baby, listen up. If you decide not to speak at the rally, you’re putting family first by choosing what seems best for them right now. If you decide to go through with the rally, you’re showing powerful people they can’t use your family to spread their narrative. Either way, you’re honoring Danny and putting him first.” (357)
When a main character is confronted with two choices, the one they pick gives the reader a lot of information about what that main character values. May’s choice will play out in the climax, and I’m not going to spoil what happens next. It’s too beautiful, heartfelt and wondrous. You need to read the book. And if you’ve already read it, you already know.
Bottom line, by setting up a compelling story question in the reader’s mind, and then increasing the stakes throughout the second act, Ho has crafted the perfect crisis with its excellent Irreconcilable Goods options.
NOW IT’S YOUR TURN
- Remember that a well-plotted crisis doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Its foundation is the compelling plot points that come before it. Check your story against a favorite story structure, such as the ones discussed in Save the Cat, Story Engineering, or The Story Grid.
- Follow Ho’s example and let your midpoint shift the quest–broaden it and heighten the stakes.
- Make sure your crisis leads the main character to two mutually exclusive options–either “Best Bad” or “Irreconcilable Goods”. I’ve allowed myself to skimp on this step before, and every time I’ve had a painful revision process.
You may enjoy these additional KidLit Craft posts about the story (dramatic) question:
Kristi Wright (co-editor) writes picture books and middle grade novels. Her goal as a writer is to give children a sense of wonder, a hopefulness about humanity, and a belief in their future. She is represented by Kurestin Armada at Root Literary. She is an active volunteer for SCBWI and a 12 X 12 member. Find her at www.kristiwrightauthor.com and on Twitter @KristiWrite.