Novels, unlike films, can be sprawling things. They spread out in the middle, take side alleys that allow us detailed glimpses into setting and character, and can often feel like they have no shape.
But truly, the great ones, even the ones that feel formless, have strong structures.
This week I wanted to write about the novel Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler, the recent bestseller about a young woman who comes to New York City and is plunged into the tiny specific world of a top restaurant when she becomes a ‘backwaiter.’ The book goes on tangents about wine and food (dear God, the scenes with oysters and truffles are pure erotica), but its coming of age story of Tess, the recent college grad running away from her home in Ohio, is the scaffolding upon which the book is built.
SPOILER ALERT! I will be divulging all the major plot points here.
In Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey story structure model, the hero must travel to the “land of the dead” (actual or metaphorical) and be reborn, with new insight, understanding, and the power to heal.
Let’s see how Sweetbitter embraces this structure.
Tess arrives in New York. She gets an apartment with a roommate she rarely sees, and needs a job.
CALL TO ADVENTURE
She interviews at a prestigious restaurant with the manager, Howard, and wins a position as a backwaiter. She meets all the other workers there and gets a glimpse of the mercurial Jake, the bartender who seems to be involved with Simone, the head server who knows everything about food and wine and basically runs the restaurant.
REFUSAL TO THE CALL
Tess is attracted to Jake, but tries to ignore him.
MEETING WITH THE MENTOR
Tess is determined to be promoted to ‘server’ (her quest.) Simone takes Tess under her wing and teaches her all about food and wine. Tess becomes friendly with the other people who work at the restaurant who warn her that Simone and Jake have some kind of weird “thing” together, and that she should be careful. Tess gets drunk and snorts coke every night with her co-workers. Simone invites Tess over to her apartment. Tess’s relationship with food (and Simone) deepens.
CROSSING THE THRESHOLD
One night at a bar, Tess gets the courage to flirt with Jake. He leaves her four special figs in her locker. After work one night Jake kisses her. Now she’s totally into him.
TESTS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES
Will, Jake’s best friend, tells Tess he loves her. She doesn’t return his feelings. She’s trying to pretend Jake didn’t kiss her. When Jake ignores her, she sleeps with Will, then blows him off. Jake invites Tess to dinner and they bond. Simone sees Tess lick some blood off Jake’s arm and Tess mistakenly makes Simone look bad in front of a guest. Tess apologizes. At the restaurant’s New Year’s party, Tess wins “Person You’d Most Like to be Stuck in an Elevator With.” She’s excited. Jake dismissively says it’s the award that goes to the person most people want to have sex with. She cries, tells him he’s mean. He apologizes. They have crazy violent sex in a cab.
APPROACH TO THE INMOST CAVE
Tess and Jake are now a couple. Again, her fellow backwaiters try to warn her about Jake and Simone, but she doesn’t listen. Simone invites them both over for dinner at her apartment– Tess feels like they are her ‘family’ now. Samantha, Simone’s old best friend and former server, comes to dinner at the restaurant with her rich husband. Simone has an emotional breakdown– she too had aspired to escape the restaurant with a rich dude, but he abandoned her. Tess buoys Simone up.
Tess sees that Simone and Jake have identical “key” tattoos on their bodies. Jake tells Tess about their history. Simone practically raised him when his mother died. It’s unclear whether they had a sexual relationship. The Health Department shows up and the restaurant has to close for a few days. Everyone is freaked out. If the restaurant closes down, Simone and Jake will have nowhere to go.
Jake starts to ignore Tess, tells her he has to take care of Simone.
Tess starts drinking way too much, does a bunch of coke. She gets into a drug dealer’s car, goes to Simone’s, knows that Jake is there. She sends them a bunch of desperate texts, but they don’t respond.
Tess wakes up in her apartment, covered with blood and vomit. She has a fever, is horribly sick for days. Neither Simone nor Jake come to check on her.
SEIZING THE SWORD
Tess goes back to work, tells Simone that she’s a cripple. She’s angry at Jake, says she wants him to quit with her. They can work at another restaurant. He says he can’t leave Simone.
THE ROAD BACK
Determined to break them apart, Tess goes to Howard and threatens that she’ll tell his higher ups that he has sex with the hostesses. She wants to be a server and wants Simone and Jake fired. He tells her to come back to talk to him at one a.m.
Tess comes back to talk to Howard. She knows she has to have sex with him to get what she wants. She does, and feels horrible. Howard tells Tess that Simone hurt him too. Tess thinks she’s won, but the next day Simone approaches Tess in the locker room and tells her that she’s gotten her wish. She’s going to be a server. At the crappy sports bar owned by the same man who owns their restaurant. Tess knows she’s being fired. She quits.
RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR
After she’s been fired, Tess remembers that Simone used to say, “Don’t worry little one, none of this will leave a scratch.” But now she sees the marks on people. Including herself.
Do you see how simple the central story is? The triangle between Tess, Jake and Simone may not be the most interesting part of the book, but it forms the spine of the story. When placed into the phases of The Hero’s Journey, the plot and the emotional journey of Tess is clear. Following her quest to be a server, she goes from wide-eyed naive excitement at NYC’s charms, to being able to see how the city “marks” people.
Take Action! Do you feel like your novel plot is mushy or takes weird tangents that don’t add up? Try using the Hero’s Journey to give your story shape. What is your main character’s quest? Who is she at the start of the book? How is she different at the end? Find the simple emotional story that can be the foundation for your narrative, and then decorate it with amazing descriptions of figs and clouds of black fruit flies and Pouilly Fuisse.
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