Reading Novels Like a Novelist Attempt 6: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Little Fires by Maria L. Berg 2023

Now that I’ve explored my process of Reading Novels Like a Novelist (RNLN) for a while, I thought I would combine my RNLN focus post with my Contradictory Abstractions post on Tuesday, but then we had surprise snow and the sun came out, so I took a snow day. Then yesterday was the Heron Tree submission deadline and now it’s mid-day Thursday, so you’re getting one combined post this week.

As I had hoped, my studies of contradictory abstract nouns and reading novels like a novelist have combined and overlapped, so that I can study them at the same time. As I read Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for the Page, Stage, and Screen by Robert McKee, this overlap became even more apparent. Today, I’ll lay out how novels are a study of contradictory abstract nouns at three different levels: the premise of the novel as a whole, the character arc of each character, and the change in value during each scene.


Every novel is a persuasive argument. The author comes up with a premise and uses characters, and inciting incident, conflict and resolution to prove that premise to the reader. In Dialogue, McKee puts it this way:

“A core value is irreplaceable because it determines the story’s fundamental nature. Change core value, change the genre. For example, if a writer were to extract love/hate from her characters’ lives and substitute morality/immorality, this switch in core values would pivot her genre from love story to redemption plot.”

Look at those contradictory abstract nouns he placed in there for “core value.”  Think of how many stories that revolve around Good vs. Evil. Every story, in a way, attempts to define these two abstractions and then pit them against each other.

Character Arc

Every novel is about change. The main character needs to change to achieve her desire though she may not want to, or know that she needs to until she is forced to make some difficult choices. McKee says:

“The impact of the inciting incident decisively changes the charge of the value at stake in the character’s life. Story values are binaries of positive/negative charge such as life/death, courage/cowardice, truth/lie, meaningfulness/meaninglessness, maturity/immaturity, hope/despair, justice/injustice, to name but a few. “

Look at all those contradictory abstract nouns I’ve been looking at since last summer.

Scene Value

Every scene of a novel from beginning to end works to prove the premise, but it also has its own change in value. McKee explains:

“The values in scenes can be very complex, but at minimum, every scene contains at least one story value at stake in the character’s life. This value either relates to or matches the story’s core value. Scenes dramatize change in the charge of this value.”

This reminded me of my posts in November when I organized different contradictory abstract nouns into the big five. For example if my overall premise is truth and deceit, then a scene may be trust/distrust, and another may be honesty/dishonesty.

RNLN Things I Learned

Now let’s look at these three aspects of a novel using Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. The novel is about a wealthy family in a planned community in Ohio, whose lives are changed when their mother rents to a single mom and her teenage daughter.

Premise: The main premise of the novel is stated just after the three-quarter point (pg. 258 in the hard-cover); “What made someone a mother? Was it biology alone, or was it love?”

The author explores this question through examples of a demanding “perfect” two parent wealthy family with four children, a poor single parent of one child, a surrogacy, and an adoption process gone wrong. She also shows two of the daughters wishing they had the other one’s mother.

The author’s premise turns motherhood into an abstract noun and its contradiction which she shows through couples who cannot conceive and abortion.

I looked back at the beginning of the novel to see if the premise was stated there as well and found this interesting line, “. . . they could see there was little inside to be saved.” And though this is talking about the house it could also be speaking to the character Elena as a mother and her relationships in her family.

Character Arc: The novel starts our in the wealthy mother’s point of view. Then I thought it was going to be multiple point of view by chapter, but it turned out it was written in omniscient which I figured out at the beginning of chapter five when she started head hopping from paragraph to paragraph. The character arcs seem to be looking at a combination of values of good/bad, rich/poor, and love/hate.

The novel opens with the house on fire, and a statement of who lit the fire, all that wealth and worldly possession up in flames, so the change is already known, the rest of the novel is the why, the explanation of how they got there.

Scene Value: Picking a random scene in the novel, I got the backstory section when Mia thinks she’s being followed on the subway by a mugger, but it turns out to be a person who offers her a proposal to make money. The scene’s value runs along fear of the unknown to fear of the known/possible. Along the main premise the scene moves from not a mother, to possibility of being a mother.

Phoenix Feathers by Maria L. Berg 2023

Ship of Theseus

After reading the novel Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, I watched the Hulu mini-series called “Little Fires Everywhere.” Remember when we looked at The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill and talked about interesting formats which led me to The Ship of Theseus? The Hulu series made me think of The Ship of Theseus as in, if you change, replace, and add to every piece of a story, is it the same story? What pieces have to stay the same for it to be recognized as the same story? The Ship of Theseus really is an interesting thought puzzle and there it was playing out right before my eyes. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on what has to stay the same in a story for it to be recognized as the same story.

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