Ten Right and Wrongs for ‘Fifty Shades,’ A Critical Look at the Writing

25887-imagesFifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James–If you haven’t heard of it, you’ve been living under a rock. Former TV executive, wife, and mother of two, living in West London, decides one day to put her Twilight fan-fiction fantasies down on paper. One thing leads to another, and the next thing you know, she’s selling the movie rights and women across western society are having the hottest book club meetings they’ve ever dared entertain.

As an aspiring romance writer, I can’t help but have two immediate reactions:”Good for her! If she can do it, so can I!”And, “Jesus, this is what all the hubbub is about? Why the hell aren’t I published?”

I would like to begin by saying this is NOT a blog intended to bash or criticize E.L.James, and what she has managed to do. Certainly, she should be congratulated and encouraged in her career, as it obviously brings her joy and much success. Additionally, I do believe her book has brought an awareness to the “vanilla” lifestyles of women across the globe, which could improve their sex lives by tapping into an unacknowledged aspect of their sexuality. No easy feat. My hats off to her.What I intend with this blog post is to address what works about this book, what doesn’t, and why its selling.

I have divided it into two parts.

 Part One: A brief explanation of what should be in a first chapter, and detailed notes/suggestions on how the writing could’ve been improved.

 Part Two: An exploration of why the book is such a hot potato, including the mass appeal of Dominant/submissive subject matter.

 On to Part One.

 Chapter One Summary

2 The main character, Anastasia, a frumpy brunette college student, is relatively directionless beyond passing her final exams for college. Her put-together roommate and friend, Katherine, is the editor of the school newspaper and going places. Katherine gets sick before a hard-to-get interview with Mr. Grey–a young, dashingly handsome business tycoon and a benefactor for the school. Anastasia steps in to conduct the interview as a favor. She is resentful, however, because she should be studying and doesn’t know a thing about this guy.

She meets him and fumbles and bumbles a lot. He finds her amusing. She thinks he’s an arrogant control freak, and asks inappropriate questions. He takes it in stride, and turns the interview around on her. She’s made uncomfortable, but in inexplicably, it turns her on. The scene ends with him following her to the elevator, helping her with her jacket, and referring to her by her first name, which (based on the scared blonde secretaries’ reaction) is unusual. He hints that he will be seeing her again.

What’s Wrong?

1. Too much info dump. 

After the first paragraph, we are slammed with what’s generally referred to as “info dump.”

Anastasia TELLS us Katherine is sick and she has to do her interview for us, in a very dead pan, uninteresting way. There is no voice in the relay of information, aside from the last sentence where she uses the word “Damn” again. That word has officially become A) repetitive, and B) a crutch for the author. It tells me she doesn’t have a handle on the character’s voice/personality/unique perspective.

  1. Weak dialogue.

The subsequent dialogue REPEATS what she JUST told us as in internal thought, in an utterly uninteresting way, which tells us NOTHING of our main character, her friend, or her voice.

“I can’t blow this off, please.”

“Of course I’ll go, Kate. You should get back to bed. Would you like some NyQuil or Tylenol?”

“…Here are the questions and my digital recorder. Just press record…”

Ugh. I can’t even.  It’s like two computers talking.Here’s how I would write it:

“You owe me, biatch. I’ve covered for you so many–“

“Jesus, I said I’d go already. Why don’t you crawl back into your hole and make-out with a tissue box.”

“And don’t forget the digital recorder. Pay attention, this is a new model. You press record here–“

“Thanks for the tutorial, Slimer, but I think I can manage.”

“You haven’t even looked at the questions I gave you.”

“Believe it or not, I did pass second grade. Unless your handwriting is complete chicken scratch or I spontaneously develop dyslexia, I should be fine.”

“You only passed second grade because I let you copy my homework.”

“Potatoes, po-tah-toes.”

  1. Boring Description.

Fast forward, Anastasia arrives at “Grey House,” the headquarters of Mr. Grey’s global enterprise. Her description is as follows:

Its a huge twenty-story building, all curved glass and steel, an architect’s utilitarian fantasy, with GREY HOUSE written discreetly in steel over the glass front doors.It’s a quarter to two when I arrive, greatly relieved that I’m not late as I walk into the enormous–and frankly intimidating–glass, steel, and white sandstone lobby.

Right off that bat, she’s using words like “huge…utilitarian…greatly relieved … enormous …frankly intimidating” which TELL us what she sees. This SHOWS us NOTHING. Then, in this manner, E.L.James spends a LONG time describing Anastasia’s entrance into the building and passing unimportant characters who offer useless and throw away dialogue.This description would greatly benefit from being reduced in size by half, and varying the use of the character’s senses, or at least a decent metaphor hinting at the character’s voice/perspective.

Is the glass reflective? Maybe it blinds her at first. Is the place air conditioned? Cold? Does she get goosebumps? Does the air smell stale or like expensive leather? Do her shoes make a loud ominous clicking noise as she traverses the white sandstone lobby that’s givin’ the Grand Canyon a run for its money? Does the sound make her stomach knot with dread?

I don’t need to know every building material, I need to know HOW the character sees it, and some inkling of a point of comparison so I can imagine my own version in my head. Everyone has an inkling of the size of the Grand Canyon. My fall back is sports analogies; “A football field between them….” or “Bigger than a baseball diamond…” Almost everyone can imagine these kinds of spatial relationships. I need a visual/visceral point of contact with the character so I can feel grounded in this setting /mood /atmosphere /description. But I don’t need that point of contact to extend for three plus pages.

  1. Unnecessary Characters.

We meet two secretaries: blonde, pretty, acting nervous and scared. Anastasia regards herself in comparison:

Another elegant, flawlessly dressed blonde comes out of a large door to the right. What is it with all the immaculate blondes? It’s like Stepford here. Taking a deep breath, I stand up.

e6462-82174323FINALLY! We have a hint of voice/perspective.

Then the blondes have a silent argument about getting her a glass of water with pursed lips and hard looks, while a hot black guy comes out of the office and says something unimportant and inconsequential. Two pages, wasted.

You might say, “But wait, they could be subplot characters…” If so, they need to be introduced in a MUCH more interesting manner that relays what kind of mirror they will provide for the overarching THEME of the book (I capitalized THEME because I will comment again on it later).

  1. Inconsistent Characters.

We meet Christian Grey. Specifically, Anastasia stumbles into his office, (which is painfully cliche), and she uses the word “damn” again… (Ugh!). He extends a hand to her and asks,

“Are you alright? Would you like to sit?”

Now, I don’t know about you, but these are not the first words I might anticipate out of a “control freak” Dominant. And yes, I said dialogue should be unpredictable, but NOT OUT OF CHARACTER. She describes him as stiffly polite, but he can still be commanding.

I think he would politely ignore her stumble and simply say,

“A pleasure to meet you, Ms. Kavanaugh. Have a seat.”

By ignoring her stumble, he is maintaining his superiority, keeping her off kilter, exerting his control. By acknowledging it, he is meeting her on her level. Empathizing. And every time a character asks a question that is anything other than necessary or rhetorical, it weakens that character. This is especially true of Male characters.

  1. Conflict is contrived.

_1384354632Anastasia bumbles and fumbles as she tries to work the tape recorder to start the interview. I almost threw my nook across the room for two reasons:

A. Interviewing a character is another gimmicky way to try to TELL without SHOWING, its cliché, AND it’s BORING. Blake Snyder tells us how to avoid this abyss of boring info dump by implementing a “Pope in the Pool.”  Its name comes from a script called “The Plot to Kill the Pope” by George Englund. The scene were the audience learns the details of a vital back story, is one in which the Pope, in his bathing suit, swims laps back and forth while discussing with representatives. We are so intrigued by the image that we aren’t bothered by the fact that we are receiving an info dump. It is also considered subtext. They are having a conversation about one thing, but their ACTIONS relate to the conversation on a whole other level.

B. A tape recorder is NOT HARD TO FIGURE OUT. You’ll notice in my version of the conversation in note #2, I added that it was a NEW tape recorder. Readers might be willing to believe she could botch pressing “record” if it were a machine that was technologically advanced, and/or one with which she is unfamiliar. But as it stands, I wanted to reach into the pages and slap Anastasia around a bit. Mr. Grey is far too forgiving. And I have no idea why he likes her.

What’s working?

  1. Improved Voice.

During the interview, Anastasia’s internal response to Christian Grey is an improvement.

If this guy is over thirty, then I’m a monkey’s uncle. In a daze, I place my hand in his and we shake. As our fingers touch, I feel an odd exhilarating shiver run through me. I withdraw my hand hastily, embarrassed. Must be static. I blink rapidly, my eyelids matching my heart rate.

Yes, its adjective overload, but she’s demonstrating voice without using the word “damn,” and the author is SHOWING how Anastasia is FEELING in response to Grey’s presence. That grounds a reader in the moment and makes it more real, BELIEVABLE.

I am not going to address the flatness of her physical description of Mr. Grey. You got the idea from what’s wrong #3. But if you haven’t read the book, he’s an attractive man with perfect teeth and auburn hair. Shocker.

  1. Includes a statement of theme.

After another filler description of the office, Anastasia notes an art installation on the wall, and we get the statement of THEME.

“They’re lovely. Raising the ordinary to extraordinary.”

Now, while this seems a bit contrived in the context of the scene, I have to give her a thumbs up, because this reads as the statement of THEME for the book; more or less the plot question. Up until this point, Anastasia is painfully–almost annoyingly–ordinary. In meeting Mr. Grey will she be catapulted into the extraordinary?

  1. Mr. Grey is compelling.

The interview begins. We get more of Mr. Grey’s voice–it isn’t bad, but its gimmicky.

Business is all about people, Miss Steele, and I’m very good at judging people. I know how they tick, what makes them flourish, what doesn’t, what inspires them, and how to incentivize them. I employ an exceptional team, and I reward them well.” He pauses and fixes me with his gray stare. “My belief is to achieve success in any scheme one has to know it inside and out, know every detail. I work hard, very hard to do that. I make decisions based on logic and facts. I have a natural gut instinct that can spot and nurture a good solid idea and good people. Bottom line is its always down to good people.

539ab-84859454Now,  this is VERY wordy for ANY man, let alone a Dominant one–its a fair description of how a Dominant man might think/behave. But that’s the problem; its a description. She’s not showing him doing this, she’s having him TELL us he does this. This is why using an interview as a way to introduce a character is gimmicky and doesn’t work. We are taking his word for it, but have no reason to believe him.

Then the interview slips into quoting famous people. Namely, Mr. Grey quotes Carnegie and Harvey Firestone. Which could be okay, if it wasn’t being used as part of a gimmick. It also kind of comes across as cheating, or lazy, to me.

On the other hand, I think this could work if a hero and a heroine were trying to best each other with their knowledge of famous quotes, especially if the quotes themselves related interestingly to whatever they are DOING as they are throwing these quotes at each other, i.e. provided a subtext. But that’s not what’s happening here.

  1. Use of body language.

On the other hand, as the interview progresses, Mr. Grey demonstrates some body language in combination with the dialogue that improves the situation.

“You sound like a control freak. The words are out of my mouth before I can stop them.

“Oh, I exercise control in all things, Miss Steele,” he says without a trace of humor in his smile. I look at him, and he holds my gaze steadily, impassive. My heartbeat quickens and my face flushes again.

Why does he have such an effect on me? His overwhelming good looks maybe? The way his eyes blaze at me? The way he strokes his index finger against his lower lip? I wish he’d stop doing that.

His response to her inappropriate comment is controlled and unperturbed (Finally E.L.James is SHOWING instead of TELLING Dominant behavior), which makes us like his poise in contrast to Anastasia’s lack of self control. Also, rubbing his lip is hot.

But Anastasia’s mini-sequel (portion of prose in which the character self reflects on her internal conflicts) is full of questions, which as I said before, weakens a character. Additionally, the paragraphs are not written in an organized manner, or broken up into proper Motivation-Reaction Units (MRU’s). To read more about MRU’s please see my post,  Three Basics of a Perfect Love Scene.

  1. Decent closing image.

The image we are left with, is that of Mr. Grey inexplicably canceling his next interview to spend more time with her, and then walking her to the elevator and helping her with her coat.

“Until we meet again, Miss Steele.” And it sounds like a challenge or a threat, I’m not sure which. I frown. When will we ever meet again?

His long index finger presses the button summoning the elevator, and we stand waiting–awkwardly on my part, coolly self possessed on his. The doors open, and I hurry in, desperate to escape. I really need to get out of here. When I turn to look at him, he’s gazing at me and leaning against the doorway beside the elevator with one hand on the wall. He really is very, very good looking. It’s unnerving.

“Anastasia,” he says as a farewell.

“Christian,” I reply. And mercifully, the doors close.

ed037-77661786Yes, she uses weak words like “really” and “very.” Yes, she TELLS us Anastasia “really needs to get out of there” after she just SHOWED us her desperation by “hurrying in” to the elevator. And YES, she uses unnecessary dialogue tags, BUT the image is a lasting one, and once again, his composure in contrast to her discombobulation makes HIM more appealing. Plus, I like it when heroes and heroines play with social customs and the use of their proper names.

Report Card for Chapter One

Let’s compare what we’ve reviewed with the Ten Must Haves in a First Chapter. 

  • Opening Hook- Weak. Anastasia looking at herself in the mirror is a gimmick for trying to show description, but it doesn’t work. Still comes across as telling. And its cliche.
  • Ordinary World– Brief glimpse in her apartment, hinted through her relationship to Katherine, her clothing, and self description–still, relatively weak.
  • Meet Cute- Full of gimmicks/cliches, including stumbling into the office, interviewing a character, and using quotes as dialogue.
  • Goal, Motivation, Conflict– Scene Goal: interview Mr. Grey, Motivation: Help out Katherine, Conflict: Mr. Grey makes her uncomfortable, and she’d rather be studying–Is this exciting enough to catapult me into Chapter Two? Meh.
  • Subplot intro- We meet Katherine, two secretaries, and a hot black guy. One of the three is a keeper (Katherine) But she is only important in so far as she provides a contrast to Anastasia’s c’est la vie attitude, and a reason to meet Mr. Grey. As it stands, the relationship between them is one-dimensional and flat, which weakens her motivation and heart.
  • Heart- Not quite there. Yes, she’s helping Katherine, but we don’t really know why. And since she REALLY doesn’t want to do it and  bitches about it the whole time, its hard attribute any heart to it. It feels like she’s doing it out of obligation, not because it stems from some strength of her character.
  • Devices- At the moment, it would appear Anastasia’s “loose lips” are supposed to be understood as a “sharp tongue” but I think it falls flat because its inconsistent. She is insightful regarding the statement of THEME, but then she stupidly bumbles by calling him a “control freak” to his face. So her being “feisty” doesn’t really work as a device, because its unintelligent.
  • Disaster leading into Inciting incident–Mr. Grey’s threat that they will see each other again, and the image at the elevator. Not bad, but only because he has brought substance to the story.

Long story short: Mr. Grey is the strength of this book, hands down, because of his presence as a Dominant male. To read more about why women find this so “damn” sexy, continue on to Part Two.


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