You know when someone tells you do a thing, and you’re like, “Yeah, sure okay!”
And then someone else tells you to do that thing, and you’re like, “Weird, someone else just told me to do that thing!”
And then it’s like, “Yes, I know, I must do that thing. Everyone keeps saying so.” And then it becomes, “You know what? I don’t think I will do that thing, just to prove the point that I am not swayed by the madding crowds and the peer pressure of it all. I am strong! I am iconoclastic! I shan’t do that thing!”
And then everyone is like, “Okay, chill out, that’s fine, don’t do it.” And then everyone leaves you alone and you forget about it for awhile.
And then, about two years later, you find yourself doing that thing?
Enter Jojo Moyes and “Me Before You.” I could not get my friends to stop talking to me about this book. The premise always seemed interesting – a quadriplegic and his caregiver fall in love despite a looming and tragic deadline – and I am a sucker for true romance, the against-all-odds kind, like The Time Traveler’s Wife or Jane Eyre. I don’t really need for books to be tied up into a neat little bow, it’s the complexity and the heart-shattering reality of these stories that gets me.
It was just my own stubbornness and the need to read less popular (i.e., more literary) books that prevented me from reading this wonderful book for over a year. Thankfully, I got over myself, read it in two sittings, and then spent the entire weekend sobbing. Mission accomplished, Ms. Moyes.
At Big Sur, I had the pleasure of taking an incredible master class called “The Elegant Geometry of Story” that has changed the way I think about structure for my own novel, and has changed the way I read, too. You can google Four Act Story Structure and all kinds of things will come up, but what I learned there is what’s working really well for me as I revise, and I thought it would be fun to run “Me Before You” through the paces of the Four Act Structure, both for people to learn from and me to keep flexing these muscles on something that is not my own book.
Act I: Orphan. Our protagonist Lou isn’t a literal orphan, but she IS alone and emotionally marooned in ways that fit her into this category: The Buttered Bun has just closed, and with it, her waitress job of six years. She can’t find a job in her tiny hometown that isn’t demeaning or disgusting and her family is struggling financially. Her parents also clearly favor her younger sister, and Lou gets the shaft in so many ways: the tiny room, the joking about her intellect that hits too close to home, and a boyfriend who’s phoning it in after seven years of dating. Lou lives a very small life.
It would be easy to see Louisa as tragic, yet she is plucky. As readers, we look for moments that redeem our protagonists when they don’t lay out perfectly (and they shouldn’t ever) and those moments of redemption are called “save the cat” moments by screenwriters. Lou saves the cat allll the time: when we learn she gives part of her wages to her struggling family, when she takes the smaller bedroom just so her single-mother sister can have the big one, when she’s kind to her grandfather who no longer speaks. Lou is a hero we can root for.
The Inciting Incident: getting a job caring for Will Traynor, a young quadriplegic, former playboy and world traveler, now an angry 35 year old who is stuck: both in his chair and in the same small town as Lou. He hates his life and Lou’s entry into it kicks off the real plot of the book.
Act II: Wanderer. In the wanderer act, the protagonist is reacting to the environment around them, but not necessarily driving the plot forward themselves. As Lou gets acquainted with an embittered Will and his cold family, she simply tries to exist around them: cleaning, feeding Will, staying quiet and trying not to disrupt anything. But after Will’s ex and former best friend come to announce they are getting married, Will lashes out by breaking picture frames and Louisa, rattled by this outburst, is sick of treating Will with kid gloves while he’s so arrogant and mean to her. Because she shows backbone, Will finally starts to respect Lou. It’s a turning point in their relationship.
Wanderer also refers to how protagonists react to other characters, and Lou and Will continue to wander around each other in this section. She offers to give him a haircut, he starts to tease her in a kinder way. They visit a maze on the castle grounds and Lou reveals a deep secret about a sexual assault in her past that helps Will see why her life is so small and contained: she’s scared. They begin to understand each other and build a foundation for not sympathy, but empathy and not just friendship, but perhaps even love.
The Turn: Often, there is a moment that turns a protagonist from a wanderer into a warrior. For Lou, it’s when she overhears Will’s mum and sister discussing his previous suicide attempt and his new plan to commit doctor assisted suicide in Switzerland. He promised them six months, and Lou realizes she might be the only one who can help him see that life is still worth living. She also realizes that they only have a few months left, which propels her into action.
Act III: Warrior. In warrior, protagonists are now driving plot forward and making action and conflict happen. Louisa realizes she can make plans and book trips that will get Will out of the house and start to see the beauty of life. Some of these trips are a disaster (horse racing) while others are simple (picnics, walks, dinner with Lou’s family) And some are milestones: a wedding where they dance together, a concert where Will sees his plan – to show Louisa there is a great big world out there for her to play in – is also coming to fruition. They experience ups and downs during this act and as they do, they begin to grow closer and their relationship becomes romantic. For Will, this is a heartbreaking consequence of letting his guard down. For Lou, it’s the exhilaration of first love and knowing perhaps she has made a difference.
Then, Will almost dies from pneumonia. Louisa sees that Will’s not strong enough for her final trip: a bungee jumping, zip lining California adventure. So instead, they go to Mauritius to recoup in the island sun. This act culminates when Lou confesses her love for Will. Will admits that he loves her back, deeply, but that his love will never be enough to make his frozen life worth living. She hasn’t changed his mind, he will still commit suicide in Switzerland when they return. Lou is devastated and must now mourn both her friend and her true love.
The Oracle: The oracle is a character who holds the last bow in the quiver of the protagonist’s knowledge. Lou has leaned that she is capable of great insight, planning and execution, creativity and bravery. But what she ultimately needs to accept is that nothing she ever could have done would be enough, including unconditional love. Nathan, Will’s medical caregiver, tells her that while he, too, loves Will, he understands why Will is doing what he’s doing. Nathan helps her see that she couldn’t change it. Nathan’s wisdom sits with Lou for the next few days, after she’s handed in her notice and refused to speak to Will.
Act IV: Martyr. Lou finally realizes that she could have done nothing to stop Will and that, in fact, he’s gone to Switzerland while she was at home grieving. Then, Will’s mum calls Lou and begs her to fly to Switzerland for a final goodbye because Will is begging to see her before he ends his life. She flies there, despite opposition from her own mum, and realizes that in doing so, she has handed Will the final arrow in his quiver – the knowledge that he was so, so loved – and he’ll be able to see that Lou is taken care of. This ends Will’s journey of internal knowledge, as well as his plot.
Lou has realized what she needed to learn, but the epilogue where she reads Will’s last letter in the marais, is now the end of her plot, closing the loop on whether or not she will go out and explore the world. Will has left her the resources to do so, and now she’s in Paris doing it.
Will’s theme (i.e., what he needed to learn) was how to let love in.
Lou’s theme: how big the world is, and that she must find her own place in it.
Once the protagonists realize their themes, it’s the end of their internal journey and also the external journey, which is plot.
This idea of the four act structure has been a game changer for me as I write and revise. And if you, also, are an aspiring writer, get out there and do that thing. “That thing” of course, being either reading this wonderful book or figuring out the four act structure for you own books!