Sunday, October 05, 2008

The Empty Bowl Theory

I’m wondering if one of the essential principles of structure is the empty bowl theory: start with a character who has an emotional need (an empty bowl) that needs to be healed (or filled)?

In Patricia Reilly Giff's Pictures of Hollis Woods, the main character's empty bowl is offered to the reader at the start of the story.

The moment a teacher spoils Hollis' most treasured possession--a picture of a family--the reader immediately understands on an emotional level what’s important to Hollis and what she wants most: a family to call her own.

It’s this longing for a family that drives her story forward.

In order to build the story's momentum, Giff sends two story lines running simultaneously down different tracks (call them story-line A and story-line B).

Story-line A is told in the present as Hollis’ life unfolds with Josie (her current family), while story-line B is told through the pictures that Hollis made when she was living with Steven, the Old Man, and Izzy (her past family).

By offering tantalizing clues about what happened in the past, Giff draws the tension taut in the present... and raises our expectations for the future... expertly interweaving the two story-lines without letting the lines cross until Chapter 8, when the two lines come together with the shock and power of two trains colliding into one another.

Throughout the story, Giff reminds us of Hollis' empty bowl: her need for a family. Each scene enables her to fill that bowl a little more. With each step that Hollis takes toward her goal, the reader watches her carry her bowl from past to present and back again, praying that she won't spill its contents.

By the story's conclusion, Giff has brought Hollis (and the reader) full circle.

Hollis has filled her empty-bowl to the brim and found what she most wanted when the story began.

For more about Patricia Giff, visit:

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