The meaning of “the rescue” in a narrative

Writing a Middle Grade book has been one of the best experiences of my life. I am learning so much, and every day is a new adventure, both in my story and the real world.

About five years ago, I wrote a novel and though it got me an agent, the book didn’t sell. Editors universally told my agent: great writing, not enough plot/ motor. ( An adapted part of the novel is published as a short story in an anthology that came out last year from Ecco, Sugar In My Bowl)

Plot had never really interested me, as a reader and as a viewer of movies as well. Most important to me is character and then, in books, language. Watching movies, I would often space out during the plot and then, five minutes later, have no idea what was going on.

In my book that didn’t sell, most of the action takes place in the character’s head. I still love to read books like that and, like any writer dealing with rejection, can think of many examples of writers in that style– Virgina Woolf, come on, people! But you know where that style absolutely will not fly? A Middle Grade book, a book for kids. Kids don’t want to read pages of introspection. They want action, adventure, but still, thank goodness, they want loveable characters.

Writing the MG book has shown me why plot is important in general: a fiction writer needs to show, not tell. Everyone knows that, but I never really understood it until this book. A writer can describe a character but what really shows the reader who she is her actions. It’s like how I tell my kids, “It’s not what you say, it’s what you do.” You know how I learned that, I mean deeply learned it? From being a parent. I can talk at my kids until I’m blue in the face, or I can show them. The latter is the only thing, the only thing, that really works. I think that is why being a parent is so challenging; if you’re yelling at your kid, you’ve got to look at your own pattern of behavior and who wants to do that?

Before, when I was told that all narratives had a pattern, I was kind of annoyed. Weren’t we all more original than that? Recently, I turned to Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, a book that I’d first read in my early twenties. Back then, and now at 43, it’s obvious that the “universal quest pattern” is tailored to male experience. For example, Campbell has sections on “Woman as Temptress” and also, throughout, females are the prizes to be won, the reward at the end of the adventure, or as with Odysseus, symbolic of homecoming.

I wondered, for a female hero, do we just flip the genders to complete the quest pattern?

In some ways, yes. As I’ve blogged about quite a bit, if women were mostly in power positions, if women had written most of the narratives that create our “universal” cultural imaginary, men would be sidelined, sexual objects, and relegated to the romance section.

This comes to the title of my post: the rescue. “The rescue” is such a great, useful narrative tool and this is why: the rescue simultaneously shows bravery and compassion. That can be a difficult combination to pull off. Writers want to be economical and concise, and how better to do that than with a rescue? And who better to rescue than a love object? As I blogged earlier, in 2012, this rescue act often undergoes a gender split: female rescuers, when they exist at all, get a monopoly on compassion, (it’s labeled a feminine “inclination to help.”) Men pull off the brave stunts and the rescue is often about ego.

“Inclination to help” doesn’t create heroes, it waters down drama. Writers need to raise the stakes, not lower them, or the story is a bore. Writers don’t raise the stakes because humans are tragic and neurotic, we love pain blah blah blah. Writers raise the stakes so the readers will “get it;” feel it. A kid feels like “the walls are caving in” when she has to move to a new city, share a room with her sister, share a toy, invite someone she doesn’t want to to her party; a writer literally will show the walls caving in, a world being destroyed.

So this is how I’ve come to understand internal action, action in a character’s head and physical action. I believe in the pattern Joseph Campbell lays out, and believe that it is a universal human experience/ sequence: (the call to adventure; refusal of the call; supernatural aid– the “helpers” I just blogged about; crossing the first threshold and on and on. Read the book, it’s great.) But here is where I differ with Campbell. I don’t think this pattern is representative of a life story, that a narrative mirrors the trajectory of a life experience compacted. I think its the opposite: the narrative pattern is the magnification of a moment. These moments we experience every day. Many “little” moments are heroic and feel heroic to us. Getting out of bed for my three year old, cleaning our room, sitting down to write. On a slightly larger level: quitting a job, starting a job, going to a new school, going on a trip, making a new friend, learning a new skill. We take risks that may seem small to an observer but to us, in our hearts and our heads, they are full of drama and symbolism.

This is why it gets me so upset that females aren’t protagonists in children’s media nearly enough. That in the rare occasions that females do get to star, most often they are surrounded by male characters; that females, except for the pink ghetto, almost always exist in the minority. Males have whole cast of characters to help them take risks and achieve their dreams. Females don’t.

But instead of lecturing you about now much a new model is needed, I’m going to get back to writing that book and show you.


8 thoughts on “The meaning of “the rescue” in a narrative

  1. Hi Margot,

    I thought a lot about your posts as I was picking holiday gifts for my nieces. I ended up buying several picture books by the wonderful Robert San Souci, who gave us Mulan. Although he doesn’t admit to writing specifically feminist stories, most of his books rework folklore and legends, many featuring female protagonists. Brave Margaret, from Ireland and Weave of Words from Armenia are 2 brilliant examples. Both feature heroic women who rescue their men, without any tiresome, “girls aren’t supposed to do that ” refrain undercutting the message. Both heroines are wise brave, and worthy of respective, rather than “minority feisties”, and their courage and independence are presented as normal, rather than the-ecxception-that-proves-the-rule. No maternal “compassion” is involved.

  2. I like the post a lot. I am trying to write a female protagonist in my MG sci/fi because I think there needs to be REAL women in sci fi. So often, when we get female action heroes, we don’t get a well-rounded character. They are often, they are sexualized, flawless, and if they have one flaw it’s that they are broken without their man.

    I think you are absolutely right in that, to create a female action hero, we need to keep a lot of things the same. Keep the character strengths, weakness, something should haunt them, etc. But there are differences between males and females, and I want to know what they are in the context of a hero.

    Maybe this isn’t something you need to worry about, but it is for me. Do you have any advice?

    Thank you.

    • Hi Nick,

      great summary of reductive traits of female action heroes! My advice is right along the lines that you are writing– female characters should be complex, the way all good characters are. Not stereotyped, not cookie cutter. I would think about that instead of worrying about generalizations of male or female characters. If you care abouyt your character and know her deeply, your readers will too.


  3. Loved this post! 🙂
    Also, I wanted to ask you if you’d read a YA book could “Anna and the French Kiss? It’s a romance, but it’s from the girl’s point of view and there is a focus on Anna’s friendships with other girls which you don’t see a lot in YA novels, and especially not romance ones. One of the reasons I really enjoyed it was because the characters felt so real, and I think you might like it too.

    • Hi Irene,

      Thank you for the rec. I will look for “Anna.” Please feel free to remind me if you don’t see a review in a couple months.


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