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.
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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.

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