5 Writing Lessons Learned from 'The Nightingale'

It’s safe to say that The Nightingale changed me. Reading it as a newly minted 30 year old, something inside of me came alive again. It revived my love for fiction and a passion to write just like the author, Kristin Hannah.

But I quickly realized that learning doesn’t really come by osmosis. If I wanted to be as incredible and talented as Kristin, I’d have to work for it. I’d have to study, analyze, mark up the book, read again and again. And not just her work but others too. I created a master study list of five fiction books to read, re-read, then write a “report.” This is the first of those reports with just a few of the insights I gleaned on second, more careful reading.

Just a note, there are spoilers ahead! If you haven’t read the book, don’t keep reading!

1. Tension is EVERYTHING.

Every scene has to have it from the beginning to the end. It doesn’t always have to be thick, but it must be there. Tension is what creates a story worth reading again and again. If the audience doesn’t constantly ask “What will happen next?” even in the small scenes, you’ll lose them. Kristin used tension in a few ways:

  • Extended a scene to describe some detail of the surroundings while the character was discovering some horrible reality.

  • Created small scenes between characters who don’t see eye to eye or that could hurt the other. The dialogue is often rich and creates tension, even on a small scale.

  • Wrote the characters asking themselves and others rhetorical questions that call the ending into question, such as “Will there ever be a future?”, “Will we ever get out of this?”, or even “She kissed him softly, wondering if it would be the last time.” It intrigues the reader and makes her wonder (and more importantly, want to know) the answer.

  • Foreshadowing, whether subtle or obvious, also adds tension. It’s often very subtle, though in Kristin’s WWII story, mentions about concentration camps made readers aware of what was likely coming next.

  • Situate your character with a constant threat, whether a physical or emotional one. Bonus points if the threat physically lives in the character’s house. Even small actions, like making dinner or taking off their shoes, can make the readers sit at the edge of their seats.

2. Emphasize your character’s strengths and weaknesses again and again.

And don’t be afraid to be obvious about it either. Kristin doesn’t have any problems with saying that her characters were changed after certain experiences or that her characters were afraid. Of course, be careful with this. It works for Kristin because she also paired these statements with actions or lack thereof. She didn’t just tell us what her characters were feeling; she had her character do something, then reiterated the point with a sentence or two in dialogue of the character’s strength or weakness in the moment.

But don’t fall into the trap of wanting to be subtle with your character’s flaws. We read because of these people, so make it tastefully obvious.

3. Character change should happen in the first half of the book.

We all know that characters should change, but at what point should the change happen? Kristin spends about the first 30% of her book establishing the characters, setting the mood. By 40%, the characters are starting to change. The readers sense movement on the horizon and that they won’t be the same again.

4. Add a twist to keep the “dreaded middle” moving.

Aristotle taught his public speakers to include their weakest point in the middle of the speech because it’s often when the audience zones out. Your goal as an author is for your reader to never zone out and that goal is never in more danger than in the middle. You may have a killer beginning but the middle needs to be keep the action going.

Kristin does this masterfully by including a major plot twist (Isabel’s dad is actually a spy, too) somewhere in the middle of the book. It propels things forward and could potentially be the midpoint. (I’m still trying to track her story structure; it’s definitely not typical from my understanding. But prove me wrong if you’ve figured it out!)

5. Act 3 is satisfying because of the work in Act 1.

I’m learning a lot about endings right now (if you have 90 minutes, this video by the screenwriter for Little Miss Sunshine is definitely worth a listen). One of the biggest tricks in creating an unforgettable ending is making a gorgeous beginning.

Kristin didn’t skimp on showing us the character’s flaws and goals so when it comes time to change, we feel the change with them. When Isbel finishes her first mountain trek, I feel inspired. When Vianne stands up to Beck for her sister’s sake, I want to high five her. When she takes in Jewish kids, I want to join her. All of this because I saw how they’re changing throughout the book.

I’m also a big fan of resolution chapters that tell the story of what happened several years later. They give me closure, so I loved hearing what happened to all of the characters even if they had sad endings.

Up next on the fiction to read is The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See. I’ll read it once to get an overall feel for it, then review it a second time to try to learn from her secrets!