Holes

Believe Care Invest: Stanley Yelnats in Louis Sachar’s “Holes”


  • A desert prison-camp for boys in 1998: 12 year old Stanley Yelnats is brought out by bus to be processed, and thinks about all the terrible luck that led him there. He arrives and meets Mr. Sir, who tells him how bad things will be.

As with the last two examples, this is the first novel some kids read on their own, and it’s wildly entertaining, but it’s also steeped in the tragedies of American history. Our white hero is falsely accused and arrested, which is to say that he’s being treated like a black kid, but he eventually realizes that, even in this unfair hellhole, he’s the beneficiary of all kinds of white privilege. Only by doing what he can to atone for his family’s original sin (exploiting and betraying a person of color) can he lift the “curse” that led him there. It’s a powerful tale, and all the more powerful for confronting the youngest of readers with these uncomfortable truths.

So why do we embrace this complex hero? Sachar will eventually complicate our feelings towards Stanley, but only after we intensely bond with him in the opening pages.

Believe: Stanley doesn’t just chalk up his terrible situation to bad luck, he blames his “no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather”, which is compelling. He’s got an odd name that makes him unique. He’s overweight (unlike in the movie), and we get a specific example of what that’s like:

  • On his last day of school, his math teacher, Mrs. Bell, taught ratios. As an example, she chose the heaviest kid in the class and the lightest kid in the class, and had them weigh themselves. Stanley weighed three times as much as the other boy. Mrs. Bell wrote the ratio on the board, 3:1, unaware of how much embarrassment she had caused both of them.

If you’re a fellow writer, that the sort of example that makes you say, “there’s no way the author made that up, that really happened to the author or somebody he knows,” and those are exactly the sorts of details you want to make your writing come alive.

Care: The very next paragraph is just “Stanley was arrested later that day,” so obviously we’re going to care about his kid.

But let’s talk about another great way to get us to care intensely for any hero: Show that something horrible is about to happen to them, and then show that they naively expect the opposite. The book’s great first paragraph starts us off with an ironic contradiction:

  • There is no lake at Camp Green Lake. There once was a very large lake here, the largest lake in Texas. That was over a hundred years ago. Now it is just a dry, flat wasteland.

Then, after three pages describing the hellishness of the camp, we find out about Stanley:

  • Stanley and his parents had tried to pretend that he was just going away to camp for a while, just like rich kids do. When Stanley was younger he used to play with stuffed animals, and pretend the animals were at camp. Camp Fun and Games he called it. Sometimes he’d have them play soccer with a marble. Other times they’d run an obstacle course, or go bungee jumping off a table, tied to broken rubber bands. Now Stanley tried to pretend he was going to Camp Fun and Games. Maybe he’d make some friends, he thought. At least he’d get to swim in the lake.

We don’t know yet that Stanley has been falsely convicted, but we don’t care: This poor kid thinks he’s going to get to swim! Even if he’s killed sixty people, that’s heartbreaking. We will soon find out that our hero is there because of a crime he didn’t commit, but only after the book has established that no one deserves this punishment.

Invest: Like another hero we’ll discuss later, Stanley takes his injustice like a man, which is more impressive in this case since he’s just a boy. He doesn’t protest his innocence to anyone. In fact, he discovers an irony (and ironies are always good): “Nobody had believed him when he said he was innocent. Now, when he said he stole them, nobody believed him either.”

Another point: All of the men in Stanley’s family are convinced that they’re cursed, which can imply a certain lack of personal responsibility, but Sachar lets us know this key information:

  • All of them had something else in common. Despite their awful luck, they always remained hopeful. As Stanley’s father liked to say, ‘I learn from failure.’

Pluck is always an essential quality in a hero.

But wait, we’ve seen how Sachar gets us to believe in, care for, and invest in a hero, but Sachar, goes further, and in these opening pages, he also does the same for a villain, all in one paragraph!

Stanley has been driven out to a desert prison camp by a bus driver and guard and he’s being dropped off with a warden. Then the guard notices something:

  • ‘That’s a lot of sunflower seeds,’ the bus guard said.
  • Stanley noticed a burlap sack filled with sunflower seeds on the floor next to the desk.
  • ‘I quit smoking last month,’ said the man in the cowboy hat. He had a tattoo of a rattlesnake on his arm, and as he signed his name, the snake’s rattle seemed to wiggle. ‘I used to smoke a pack a day. Now I eat a sack of these every week.’

So right away, we…

  • Believe: Specificity of the sunflower seeds, which is not a detail that I’ve seen in a lot of books. 
  • Care: Trying to quit smoking and dealing with cravings. 
  • We even “invest,” though that’s a tricky word for a villain: He’s badass: He’s got a cowboy hat and a rattlesnake tattoo.

With a hero, obviously, we invest our hopes for a happy ending. But with a villain, we also have to “root” for him to be a good villain, and the hat and tattoo do that. Sure enough, further down the page, Stanley gets to know him:

  • The man in the cowboy hat spit sunflower seed shells into a wastepaper basket. Then he walked around the desk to Stanley. ‘My name is Mr. Sir,’ he said. ‘Whenever you speak to me you must call me by my name, is that clear?’
  • Stanley hesitated. ‘Uh, yes, Mr. Sir,’ he said, though he couldn’t imagine that was really the man’s name.
  • ‘You’re not in the Girl Scouts anymore,’ Mr. Sir said.

He then denies Stanley badly-needed water, we’re going to primarily boo-hiss him, but our enmity will be strengthened, not lessened, by our belief in him as a human being and our understanding of his one weakness. This is a real villain, not a fake one, and he’s all the scarier for that.
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Holes: The Archive

An early piece I wrote about how they made a small change for the movie that robbed it of a lot of its power, but they had little choice, because all behavior looks worse onscreen:
And here's my recent Annotation project series:
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Storyteller’s Rulebook: Establish the Worst Things That Could Happen

“Holes” uses a classic trick: it establishes the two worst things that could happen, then those things of course happen. First, after the two “usually”s I mentioned last time, we get an “Always”
  • But you don’t want to be bitten by a yellow-spotted lizard. That’s the worst thing that can happen to you. You will die a slow and painful death.
  • Always.
Then we’re told that there are no fences at the camp because anyone attempting to run away is guaranteed to die in the desert. Of course, before the book is over, Stanley will survive both getting swarmed by lizards and attempting to run away from camp.

This is an area where you can benefit from your reader’s ability to guess where you’re going based on other books they’ve read. Sachar could tease us in his narration and say, “Little did Stanley suspect that soon he would do just that,” but he doesn’t have to. He knows that we’ve read books before and we know that if it gets an “Always”, then we’re about to see an amazing exception. That “Always” is all the foreshadowing he needs.
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Storyteller’s Rulebook: Writing for Reluctant Readers

“Holes” is a great book for girls, men and women, but it’s especially valuable as a rare book that you can use to get reluctant boys to read something. And of course that’s great, because, on a certain level, we’re all reluctant readers. Even full-time readers who get paid to read books are always looking for excuses to dump one and move on to the next. Anything that can suck readers and rivet them to the page is going to help you tremendously in the marketplace and in finding a place in people’s hearts. So how does the book do that? It uses some classic tricks:

  • Short chapters. Chapter 1 is one page. Chapter 2 is just eight sentences. Short chapters give the reader a sense of accomplishment.
  • Simple sentences. Let’s look at that beautiful first sentence: “There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.” No adjectives, no adverbs, one specific detail, and an ironic contradiction. That’s perfect.
  • Short paragraphs, which create a great voice.

Let’s look at four paragraphs:

  • Here’s a good rule to remember about rattlesnakes and scorpions: If you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you.
  • Usually.
  • Being bitten by a scorpion or even a rattlesnake is not the worst thing that can happen to you. You won’t die.
  • Usually.

You can’t help but hear Sam Elliot reading that. It’s charming. It’s bad-ass. It tells us that Sachar cares about our reading experience. We trust him to entertain us and we want more.

If these pages are all you’ve read, you might think, “So what? He’s telling a simple story with simple words, so of course it won’t be challenging to readers.” Those of you who have read the whole book, on the other hand, know how complex and rich the book will become. Sachar isn’t dumbing things down to the lowest common denominator, he’s easing entry into an ultimately very ambitious book.

Every children’s author dreams of writing the book that will make a child fall in love with reading for the first time. For many, this will be that book, then they can revisit at an older age and more fully realize how much meaning was packed into it, and how skillfully it drew them in.
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Rulebook Casefile: The Power of Mixing Information Superior, Information Inferior, and Equal Information Positions

We’ve talked before about information superior, information inferior, and equal information positions. Let’s look at how “Holes” uses all three effectively.

The book begins with a great example of information inferior. The first line is “There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.” This isn’t Stanley talking to us, it’s an omniscient narrator telling us something he doesn’t know. Only when we’ve been told omnisciently about the camp for a page do we meet our hero and switch to somewhat-limited third person narration. Once we’re privy to his thoughts, one of the first we hear is this: “Now Stanley tried to pretend he was going to Camp Fun and Games. Maybe he’d make some friends, he thought. At least he’d get to swim in the lake.”

Ouch! We care so much when we read this! We know a horrible fact that he doesn’t know, and we feel anguish to anticipate the pain that we know he’s about to have. Our information superior position adds emotional impact. We wish we could tell him what we know.

But we’re also in an information inferior position to Stanley in some ways. As I said before, he’s stoic, so he’s not stewing in thoughts of his false conviction, and the narrator isn’t in a hurry to reveal all either. I had to include six chapters in my sample to get the crime in there.

What effect does that have? If it had been poorly done, we would have gotten annoyed, but instead we’re intrigued. Bits of info are parceled out steadily enough to keep our interested whetted. At one point it seems the narrator is about to tell us before he gets distracted. Here are two one-sentence paragraphs:

  • It was this latest project that led to Stanley’s arrest.
  • The bus ride became increasingly bumpy because the road was no longer paved.

The narrator is jostled out of his train of thought, forcing us to wait for two more chapters. We enjoy this. We want to know, and we enjoy craving it, at least for a while. We would get annoyed if we had to wait ten chapters, though.

But of course, for most of these pages, we’re in an information equal position. We are given some details of the camp before Stanley gets there but we still meet Mr. Sir and the other campers perched right on Stanley’s shoulder. This should always be the default unless you’re looking to create an effect like the two listed above. It would alienate and annoy us to be introduced to everybody by the narrator before Stanley met them, or to be denied too much access to Stanley’s thoughts.
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Storyteller’s Rulebook: How to Write a Great Villain Introduction

Last time we looked at how we came to believe in, care about, and invest in Stanley, the hero of “Holes.” Now let’s look at how we end up doing the same thing for a villain, all in one paragraph.

Stanley has been driven out to a desert prison camp by a bus driver and guard and he’s being dropped off with a warden. Then the guard notices something:

  • ‘That’s a lot of sunflower seeds,’ the bus guard said.
  • Stanley noticed a burlap sack filled with sunflower seeds on the floor next to the desk.
  • ‘I quit smoking last month,’ said the man in the cowboy hat. He had a tattoo of a rattlesnake on his arm, and as he signed his name, the snake’s rattle seemed to wiggle. ‘I used to smoke a pack a day. Now I eat a sack of these every week.’

So right away, we…

  • Believe: Specificity of the sunflower seeds, which is not a detail that I’ve seen in a lot of books.
  • Care: Trying to quit smoking and dealing with cravings.
  • We even “invest,” though that’s a tricky word for a villain: He’s badass: He’s got a cowboy hat and a rattlesnake tattoo.

With a hero, obviously, we invest our hopes for a happy ending. But with a villain, we also have to “root” for him to be a good villain, and the hat and tattoo do that. Sure enough, further down the page, Stanley gets to know him:

  • The man in the cowboy hat spit sunflower seed shells into a wastepaper basket. Then he walked around the desk to Stanley. ‘My name is Mr. Sir,’ he said. ‘Whenever you speak to me you must call me by my name, is that clear?’
  • Stanley hesitated. ‘Uh, yes, Mr. Sir,’ he said, though he couldn’t imagine that was really the man’s name.
  • ‘You’re not in the Girl Scouts anymore,’ Mr. Sir said.

He then denies Stanley badly-needed water, we’re going to primarily boo-hiss him, but our enmity will be strengthened, not lessened, by our belief in him as a human being and our understanding of his one weakness. This is a real villain, not a fake one, and he’s all the scarier for that.
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Rulebook Casefile: Why Do We Like Stanley in “Holes”?

(I’ll be illustrating these with still from the movie, for lack of a better option, but it’s less than ideal, partially because skinny Shia is miscast.  Still, it would be too much to ask of a teen actor to lose all that weight, so it was probably the best solution.)
In my book, I talk about how the first three jobs of a writer are to get the reader to believe in, care about and invest in the hero, so let’s look at how “Holes” does this, which is somewhat tricky for a few reasons:

The best way to get us to believe is though specificity and unique details that sound more like real life than fiction. But this book has a tricky genre, the tall tale, so Sachar is never going to ask us to fully believe in Stanley Yelnats as a non-fictional character. He has a silly name. His father is an inventor (which is common in kids books but not in real life). He was sent to prison because stolen shoes fell out of the sky and hit him in the head (though that is later explained). We’ll always see Stanley more as a fictional character than a real character. So in service of his genre, Sachar has to stint on believability, but he makes up for it with caring and investing.

On the other hand, it’s easy to care about Stanley: He’s going to a brutal prison camp for a crime he didn’t commit, and, what’s worse, he’s poor. He’s never been to camp and hopes this will be fun, which breaks our hearts.

Investing is also tricky, but the book pulls it off nicely. The easiest way to get us to invest is to have a hero be badass or defiant, but Stanley doesn’t try to escape and he doesn’t sass back. Nevertheless, he’s got something we love: secret honor. He’s stoic about what’s happened to him, and he never insists he’s innocent in these pages, either when dealing with his jailers or his campmates. Even the thoughts we’re privy to through limited third-person narration don’t complain about it. He’s accepted his unfair sentence and he’s prepared to serve it without complaint, and that, in its own way, is a type of defiance: He’s not going to show any weakness.

He also tells us that it’s a family trait to be hopeful, so we sense that we’ve got the right hero to help us survive this prison camp. If he was depressive, we wouldn’t want to go to this miserable place with him.

Next time, we’ll look at a villain introduction and how it also hits believe, care and invest.
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The Annotation Project: Holes

So let’s keep going with some books. At this point I fear that, without diving into the high school canon, I’ve covered all three recent books that everybody has read. I’m trying to stick to the kind of books that publishers are actually buying today, rather than the classics we’ve all read, but I’ll go back and do some of those, too. For now, let’s meet halfway and do Louis Sachar’s modern classic “Holes”. This is my favorite non-Rowling kids novel: very simple on the surface but deeply complex and meaningful underneath. Of course, most of that complexity hasn’t become evident yet in these pages, but we’ll look at the foreshadowing.  You can click on the pages below or download the doc here.














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