Skip to main content

3 Things I Learned About Writing: Analyzing Toni Morrison’s Beloved

This reoccurring column takes the classic writing advice “good writers are good readers” and puts it to work, by looking at books across all time periods and all genres to find techniques that we can apply in our own work. This installment examines Toni Morrison's Beloved.

This reoccurring column takes the classic writing advice “good writers are good readers” and puts it to work, by looking at books across all time periods and all genres to find techniques that we can apply in our own work. This installment examines Toni Morrison's Nobel Prize-winning novel, Beloved.

(Here are 7 Toni Morrison quotes for writers and about writing.)

1. Use personification to set a tone. 

“124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom” (3).

Beloved has one of the most famous opening lines in literature. And what does it do? It personifies the house. 124 isn’t just a normal house that people live in. 124 has personality—it’s spiteful. This sets the tone for the novel right away. We know that something insidious is lurking in the house, around these characters. The supernatural is infusing the physical. This is important for the reader to know right away, so they understand the following events. Use personification to your advantage. Let it show your readers what’s important about your characters or the setting.

beloved-book-cover
Hannah-Haney-writer

Column by Hannah Haney, a regular contributor to the GLA blog
and to Writer’s Digest. She is the Managing Editor for Relief Journal
and has been published in The Cincinnati Enquirer and Writer’s Digest.
In her free time, she reads good books, 
eats good food, and writes bad
poetry. You can follow her on
Twitter or on her blog.

2. Switch perspectives.

“Beloved, she my daughter. She mine.” (200).

Starting midway through Chapter 2, the sections starting shifting perspectives. It starts with Sethe, then Denver, and then Beloved. As we get each character’s interpretation of events, we begin to get a full picture of what’s actually happening. These three characters are so different that seeing some of the noel through their eyes is crucial for getting a full understanding of the novel. Don’t feel locked into a perspective or point of view. Branch out. If one of your characters is yelling “Let me talk!,” let him or her speak.

3. Information doesn’t have to be tidy.

“Counting on the stillness of her own soul, she had forgotten the other one: the soul of her baby girl” (5).

Beloved is a little like a mystery novel. You find out pretty early that Sethe’s baby, Beloved, has died. Then a few sections later, they find a grown woman by the river who is named Beloved and comes to live with Sethe and her family. Is the grown woman the ghost baby or someone completely different? The answer doesn’t become blear until about two-thirds of the way into the novel. The characters are learning at the same speed you are. As you sort information, so do the characters. You come to realizations together. This creates a tight bond between reader and character. Thomas Pynchon uses this same technique in The Crying of Lot 49. It’s incredibly effective. Sometimes your characters don’t have it all figured out. Embrace it.

Writer's Digest Annual Conference

Write better. Get published. Build your network.

Writer's Digest Annual Conference | August 22-25 | New York City

How To Research Topics Like a Journalist

How To Research Topics Like a Journalist

From in-person interviews to scouring the web for credible sources, journalist Alison Hill shares tips on how to research topics like a journalist.

Can I Have Your Attention?

Can I Have Your Attention?

Every writer needs a little inspiration once in a while. For today's prompt, an announcement is about to change the course of history.

Glenn Boozan: On the Funny Side of Parenting

Glenn Boozan: On the Funny Side of Parenting

Emmy nominated comedy writer Glenn Boozan discusses how a funny piece of perspective turned into her new humor book, There Are Moms Way Worse Than You.

From Script

Adapting True Crime and True Stories for Television (From Script)

In this week’s round up brought to us by Script magazine, exclusive interviews with writers and showrunners Robert Siegel and D.V. DeVincentis (“Pam & Tommy”), Patrick Macmanus and Liz Hannah (“The Girl from Plainville”) who both have taken creative liberties in adapting true stories for a limited series.

Chanel Cleeton: On Reader Enthusiasm Conjuring Novel Ideas

Chanel Cleeton: On Reader Enthusiasm Conjuring Novel Ideas

Author Chanel Cleeton discusses how reader curiosity led her to write her new historical fiction novel, Our Last Days in Barcelona.

Writer's Digest Interview | Marlon James Quote

The Writer's Digest Interview: Marlon James

Booker Prize–winning author Marlon James talks about mythology and world-building in his character-driven epic Moon Witch, Spider King, the second book in his Dark Star Trilogy in this interview from the March/April 2022 issue of Writer's Digest.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: New Podcast Episode, a Chance at Publication, and More!

This week, we're excited to announce our newest podcast episode, your chance to be published, and more!

David Adams Cleveland: On Truth Revealing Itself in Historical Fiction

David Adams Cleveland: On Truth Revealing Itself in Historical Fiction

Award-winning novelist David Adams Cleveland discusses the timeliness of his new novel, Gods of Deception.

Lisa Jewell | Writer's Digest Interview Quote

The WD Interview: Lisa Jewell

The New York Times-bestselling British author discusses creating thrilling plot twists and developing characters in her 19th novel, The Night She Disappeared, in this interview from the Jan/Feb 2022 issue of Writer's Digest.