Have you ever wondered how far you would go to protect your loved ones, or what it would take for you to betray your most intrinsic principles? Do you understand that good people can sometimes be forced to make bad, even awful, choices? Can you see the world in shades of grey, as opposed to black and white or right and wrong?
My Sister’s Keeper by American author Jodi Picoult had been sitting unread on my shelf for over a year when I grabbed it as entertainment for an impromptu overnight fishing trip in 2007. I’d finished it – all 423 pages – by the time I arrived home the following morning. Next came the Pact, Salem Falls, House Rules, Keeping Faith, Handle With Care, the Storyteller… each novel was more thought-provoking than the last. I was hooked, emotionally and intellectually. And I’m not the only one.
With approximately 14 million copies of her books currently in print worldwide and translations into 40 languages, 4 novels made into television movies (The Pact, Plain Truth, The Tenth Circle and Salem Falls), and 1 released as a feature film (My Sister’s Keeper, 2009, New Line Cinema), the New York Times best seller is clearly a favourite among readers the world over.
Below is an examination of the skills and techniques that make Picoult one of my writing role models. Warning: may contain spoilers.
Some authors use metaphors or symbology to subtly examine controversial and ethical themes in their novels; Picoult plunges her characters directly into highly emotional circumstances that are tightly coiled around moral dilemmas, forcing the characters to make seemingly impossible decisions and the audience to consider some intense realities.
How disabled is too disabled? How far would you go to save someone you love? What does it mean to be a good parent, a good person? Is forgiveness yours to offer if you aren’t the person who was wronged? What do you do when evil lives next door? How well do we really ever know someone? What if..?
These are just a handful of the profound and challenging questions posed by Picoult’s 23 novels, and there are never any easy answers. “(I think that) I have sort of gravitated towards issues that I don’t know the answers to because that’s what’s more interesting for me to write,” Picoult says. “The act of writing is the act of trying to understand why my opinion is what it is. And ultimately, I think that’s the same experience the reader has when they pick up one of my books.”
Families, especially siblings and parent/child relationships, romantic relationships and friendships are always at the centre of these ethical issues, and often contain the most vulnerable among us – sick or disabled children, or children who have been abused or traumatised in some way – which taps into the reader’s deepest nuturing instincts.
2. SHIFTING or MULTIPLE POV’s
As all authors know, choosing the correct point of view (POV), or narrator, for a novel is paramount. First person POV allows the reader to emotionally connect with the main character and the themes within a plot and subplots, while third person POV allows the author more freedom with how they distribute information about the plot, themes and characters.
The use of shifting or multiple POVs in a novel is a difficult technique to employ competently, and is not for novice writers. Picoult uses multiple POVs so effectively that she has made this technique her trademark. The use of shifting or multiple narrators is necessary and appropriate for Picoult’s “social commentary” novels, as the examination of sensitive moral and social issues that will be read by millions of people from all walks of life – even in fictitional form – requires a degree of objectivity.
Regarding her use of this technique, Picoult says, “Everyone deserves to have their say. I always look at it sort of like the facets of a diamond. You’ve got to illuminate each one, and then let the reader decide what’s the brightest one and why. My job isn’t to tell them which is the brightest one. It’s just to illuminate every single facet.”
How does Picoult move from one character’s mind to another so effortlessly? Simply by changing the point of view, or the “voice”, of the narrating character each chapter. This is considered the most effective method of switching the POV because it minimises confusion for the reader.
3. PLOT TWISTS
A technique that is usually reserved for thrillers and crime fiction, Picoult incorporates numerous plot twists, from red herrings to Chekov’s Gun, into her commercial fiction.
Plot twists are used in storytelling to either shock the reader, or to expose character traits. Picoult’s plot twists serve a single purpose – to change the course of the plot and therefore the reader’s entire understanding of the book.
The twists often occur early in the story, and usually amidst an emotive courtroom battle of egos versus values, but Picoult is also not above throwing her readers off balance by adding one final (and major) twist in the closing paragraphs.
Any author worth the paper they print on knows that a little research goes a long way.
Picoult researches extensively for every one of her novels. General research begins with reading about the central topic and includes lengthy conversations with doctors, medical specialists, psychiatrists, scientists, lawyers, judges and police officers; when more explicit research is required, Picoult isn’t afraid to plunge herself into the depths just as she plunges her characters into emotional turmoil. For example, when researching for Plain Truth, Picoult lived with an Amish family for a week, and for Nineteen Minutes, she travelled to Littleton, Colorado and spoke with the detectives in charge of investigating the Columbine high school massacre.
In a world that is often scary and confusing, when our deepest beliefs and strongest opinions are challenged on a daily basis, it is a comfort to know that there is an author willing to plunge into the ugly depths of the human psyche in order for us to understand how we feel about it.
© Tara Jenkinson 2016
The Pact, 1998, Allen & Unwin
Keeping Faith, 1999, Allen & Unwin
Salem Falls, 2001, Allen & Unwin
My Sister’s Keeper, 2004, Allen & Unwin
Handle With Care, 2009, Allen & Unwin
House Rules, 2010, Allen & Unwin
The Storyteller, 2013, Allen & Unwin