The Great Children’s Literature Study: Holes by Louis Sachar
Welcome to my new, regular feature in which I analyze great children’s literature. As a writer of children’s fiction myself, I need to study kidlit the way one might in school: look closely at the structure, the language, the characterization. Think about these great books, write about them, learn from them.
Here you can find out more about The Great Children’s Literature Study and read my first post on Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Patterson.
But today I’m discussing Holes by Louis Sachar. I love this book so much. It was published in 1998, so I don’t know if it can be considered a classic yet, but it’s destined to become one. It won the Newberry Medal and the National Book Award, plus it was made into a movie starring Shia LaBeouf and Sigourney Weaver. What higher honor is there?
When Stanley Yelnats is wrongfully accused of stealing a pair of sneakers, he ends up in a Texas detention camp where the boys are made to dig holes all day in the hot sun. Stanely is sure his bad luck is due to a family curse that began in Latvia with his great-great grandfather. But now it seems Stanley’s luck could change. He realizes that the boys aren’t just digging to build character – they’re looking for something, and Stanley might know where to find it!
If you haven’t read Holes, I suggest you stop reading this post right now and go pick up a copy. First of all, because the rest of this post might contain spoilers. And second of all, because Holes is really freakin good, and I’m honestly concerned that you haven’t read it yet.
Did You Know Louis Sachar Wrote a Sequel to Holes?
If (like me) you’ve already read Holes a million times, were you aware that there is a companion book called Small Steps? It’s not really a sequel – Stanley doesn’t even make an appearance – but it’s about two of the other characters from Holes: Armpit and X-Ray.
Small Steps was published in 2006, but I only recently became aware of its existence. I read it the other night and… wow. It’s quite different from Holes — more of a YA contemporary/romance instead of a middle grade adventure — but I didn’t mind. Small Steps is so entertaining and SO FULL OF TENSION. Seriously, you want to learn about how to increase tension in your writing, read Small Steps. It’s not a masterpiece like Holes, but it’s masterfully written. I read the whole thing in one night (staying up way past my bedtime to do so!), and to me, that’s always the sign of a good book.
But now, without further ado, here are the lessons we can learn from Holes about writing children’s fiction.
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6 Lessons on Writing Children’s Fiction from Holes by Louis Sachar
Lesson #1: A Great Premise with a Big Idea
In her book Writing Irresistible Kidlit, agent Mary Kole says, “many beginning writers fall into the trap of thinking too small with their stories.” This is not the case with Holes (and Louis Sachar is not a beginning writer… he’s the same guy who brought us Sideways Stories from Wayside School back in 1978!) As a seasoned author, Sachar knows: you go big or you go home.
Holes has a great what-if premise: what if the boys at a detention camp are made to dig holes as punishment? What if there is a villainous female warden? What if she is secretly looking for buried treasure and that’s why the boys are digging holes? What if Stanley figures out where the treasure is buried? And what if, on top of it all, Stanley is dealing with a bad-luck curse?
It’s a big idea, and Sachar develops this great premise into a big story that is both exciting and deep.
In The Anatomy of Story, John Truby says, “nine out of ten writers fail at the premise” because “they don’t know how to develop the idea, how to dig out the gold that is buried within it.”
Louis Sachar sure dug the gold out of this premise. (Sorry, just had to throw in a digging metaphor.)
Lesson #2: Weaving Together Intertwining Stories
Holes tells the story of Stanley Yelnats at Camp Green Lake, but it also tells the story of the family curse that started with Stanley’s great-great grandfather in Lativa. Later in the book, there is a third story as well: that of Kissin’ Kate Barlow, the outlaw who robbed Stanley’s great-grandfather in the Texas desert. As the novel moves forward, these three stories converge in a delightful way.
Louis Sachar says he knew from the outset how all three stories would fit together. The hard part was was “laying out the strands throughout the story, telling the story of Kate Barlow and of Elya Yelnats and Elya’s son, without it getting in the way of Stanley’s story.”
I wanted the reader to feel what a long, miserable experience this is, digging those 5′ by 5′ holes. But how many times can you say, “He dug his shovel back into the dirt and lifted out another shovelful?” My solution was to interweave two stories, bringing more variety to the tale.
I wonder if Sachar wrote all three stories separately then braided them together afterwards? Whatever his method, it worked!
Lesson #3: Jumping Right In
In the hands of a beginning writer, Holes might have started off with a chapter about Stanley’s miserable pre-camp life. Chapter two might have been when Stanley was accused of stealing the sneakers, and chapter three his sentencing by the judge. The reader wouldn’t even get to Camp Green Lake until chapter four. And Camp Green Lake is where things start to get interesting!
So Louis Sachar, master writer that he is, decided to start there. Chapter One is about Camp Green Lake, and by page 10 Stanley has arrived there.
When writing YA or MG novels, you should get to the inciting incident – the event that gets the story going — as quickly as possible. Sachar goes one step further by starting Holes after the inciting incident has already happened. He jumps right to the good stuff – Stanley arriving at Camp Green Lake — and drops clues about the inciting incident and Stanley’s pre-camp life as backstory.
In fact, the way Sachar parcels out information about the inciting incident is a great strategy to us reading. On page 7 we learn that Stanley “was innocent of the crime for which he was convicted,” but we don’t learn what that crime actually was until page 22. And it isn’t until near the end of the story that we find out who really stole the shoes.
Lesson #4: Pacing
Holes is a great example of a fast-paced story. The short chapters keep us turning pages, and the short paragraphs and sentences keep the story moving at a fast clip: Here is Chapter Two, in its entirety:
The reader is probably asking: Why would anyone go to Camp Green Lake?
Most campers weren’t given a choice. Camp Green Lake is a camp for bad boys.
If you take a bad boy and make him dig a hole every day in the hot sun, it will turn him into a good boy.
That was what some people thought.
Stanley Yelnats was given a choice. The judge said, “You may go to jail, or you may go to Camp Green Lake.”
Stanley was from a poor family. He had never been to camp before.
Not all of the chapters are so short, but none of them are more than a few pages. Short chapters is a pacing strategy I often see in YA and Middle Grade novels. Readers think, “just one more chapter. It’s only two pages.” Next thing they know, they’ve read the whole book.
It helps with the pacing, too, that Holes jumps right in without a lot of set-up (see Lesson #3), and that the novel alternates between different interweaving stories (Lesson #2), keeping readers on their toes.
Lesson #5: Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet
In his book Save the Cat!, Blake Snyder explains how most great stories fall into a three-act structure, which he breaks down into a 15-part “beat sheet.” In the class I teach on writing YA and MG fiction, I like to give use Holes as an example of a story that perfectly fits Snyder’s beat sheet formula.
The beats Snyder suggests for the end of the second act are pretty intense, and it’s hard to find many contemporary novels, middle grade or otherwise, that fit them as perfectly as Holes does:
Beat 10: Bad Guys Close In Section
Snyder says: There may be no specific “bad guys,” but the PROBLEMS should get worse and worse – the main character seems to be failing in their approach, and/or is facing more and more seemingly impossible obstacles.
In Holes: Stanley makes an enemy of Mr. Sir. He tries to steal the water truck so he can go into the desert and find Zero, but instead he wrecks the truck and runs into the desert on foot.
Beat 11: All Is Lost
Snyder says: The story seems to be over, and the main character seems to have no hope now. They feel like they have no other options. Things are worse than ever before.
In Holes: Stanley has no food or water. He walks and walks in the heat and finally finds Zero, who is dehydrated and sick.
Beat 12: Dark Night of the Soul
Snyder says: The main character reels from the “all is lost” moment, and there’s often a “whiff of death.”
In Holes: The boys struggle to reach “God’s Thumb,” growing weaker and weaker. Zero is barely conscious; he is on the brink of death.
Perhaps Holes fits the beat sheet so well because things for Stanley really do go from bad to worse to even worse. The stakes are high — death, even — which makes the tension high and gives the story a greater payoff in the end.
I think this provides two good lessons. One is: don’t be afraid to make things really bad for your main character. Make them hit rock bottom. Make there be a “whiff of death.”
The second is that even highly-original stories follow the three-act plot structure. Some writers worry that using something like the beat sheet to plot their novel will make their story seem too formulaic, but that’s not true. There is nothing formulaic about Holes, and yet it follows the beat sheet to a tee. To put it simply, the three-act structure is how most good stories are told.
Lesson #6: A Great Villain
Want a lesson on how to write a great villain? Read the scenes in Holes with The Warden. I love how there’s an air of mystery built up around her first before the reader actually sees her. I love her quiet, calculated viciousness. And of course, I love her red nail polish, made with rattlesnake venom:
She finished painting her nails, then stood up. She reached over and touched Stanley’s face with her fingers. She ran her sharp wet nails very gently down his cheek. He felt his skin tingle…
The Warden turned to face Mr. Sir, who was sitting on the fireplace hearth.
“So you think he stole your sunflower seeds?”
“No, he says he stole them, but I think it was—”
She stepped towards him and struck him across the face.
Mr. Sir stared at her. He had three long red marks slanting across the left side of his face. Stanley didn’t know if the redness was caused by her nail polish or his blood.
Mr. Sir screamed and clutched his face with both hands. He let himself fall over, rolling off the hearth and onto the rug.
The Warden spoke softly. “I don’t especially care about your sunflower seeds.”
Dammmmn! She is such an awesome villain.
Final Thoughts on Holes by Louis Sachar
I said this about Bridge to Terabithia, and I realize it’s true with Holes, too. This book doesn’t try to hide anything from its young readers. It touches on some deep and dark topics for a middle grade book such as a child being abandoned by his mother and the violent intolerance of an interracial couple. Not to mention poverty, crime, and teenagers who find themselves on the wrong side of the law.
Holes deals with all of these topics in a way that is thoughtful and real and yet still appropriate for the middle grade genre. It also manages to be funny, mysterious, and heartwarming. Dang. So basically Louis Sachar is a genius. And Holes is one of the greatest kids books of all time.
What do you think of Holes by Louis Sachar? And what other great classic children’s books do you think are worth a close study?
Find out more about The Great Children’s Literature Study and read my first post on Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Patterson.