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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 Nobel Prize-winning novel, BELOVED.

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.

(Why writers should put their e-mail online for all to see.)


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
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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.

Hook agents, editors and readers immediately.
Check out Les Edgerton’s guide, HOOKED, to
learn about how your fiction can pull readers in.

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.

(Without this, you’ll never succeed as a writer.)


Check Out These Great Upcoming Writers’ Conferences:

  • July 23, 2016: “Get Published” Conference of Tennessee (Nashville, TN)
  • July 30, 2016: Colorado Writing Workshop (Denver, CO)
  • Aug. 12-14, 2016: Writer’s Digest Conference East (New York, NY)
  • August 20, 2016: Toronto Writing Workshop (Toronto, Canada)
  • Sept. 9, 2016: Sacramento Writers Conference (Sacramento, CA)
  • Sept. 10, 2016: Writing Workshop of San Francisco (San Francisco, CA)
  • Sept. 10, 2016: Chesapeake Writing Workshop (Washington, DC)
  • Oct. 28-30, 2016: Writer’s Digest Novel Writing Conference (Los Angeles, CA)
  • Nov. 5-6, 2016: ShowMe Writers Masterclass (Columbia, MO)
  • Nov. 19, 2016: Las Vegas Writing Workshop (Las Vegas, NV)
  • Feb. 26 – March 3, 2017: Writers Winter Escape Cruise (conference/cruise departing Miami)

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Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:

  • Agent Spotlight: Mackenzie Brady (New Leaf Lit) seeks Nonfiction, select YA and Fiction.
  • Why Having An Agent Doesn’t Mean Overnight Success.
  • How I Got My Literary Agent: Kate Dyer-Seeley (Fiction).
  • Agent Spotlight: Rachel Brooks (L.Perkins Literary Agency) seeks YA, NA and Romance.
  • Follow Chuck Sambuchino on Twitter or find him on Facebook. Learn all about his writing guides on how to get published, how to find a literary agent, and writing a query letter.

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