By Ekta R. Garg, E.ditor
May 14, 2020
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
Release date: August 14, 2018
Genre: Women’s literary fiction
Dozens of writing and publishing experts offer advice on what not to do when writing a story or novel. Don’t spend paragraphs on description. Don’t head hop—that is, go from one character’s point of view to another without some sort of break in the story. Don’t linger in the moment; keep the action moving, otherwise readers get bored and drop your work.
In Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens breaks all of these rules and more.
It works every single time.
As an e.ditor, I feel obligated to add a disclaimer here. Owens spent almost a decade writing this novel. She didn’t dash it off over a weekend. Also, it wasn’t her first publishing credit. She’s written three well-received nonfiction wildlife guides.
The biggest asset that allowed Owens to break the rules, though, is that she’s an expert on her subject matter. Owens wanted to write about a girl who lives in the marsh, and she knew what that experience would be like because Owens herself, growing up in Georgia, did many of the same activities that main character Kya does. Her authenticity in the storytelling shines, and that shine allows us to blink away some of those broken rules.
In other words, she broke the rules because she has a command of language and her story world. If any writers, new or experienced alike, are reading this, please know that you must do the same. You must command your topic. Only then can you see where to follow the trodden path and where to deviate from it.
There are so many amazing things about this book, but in this e.ditor’s analysis of Crawdads I’d like to take the three things I mentioned above and show you how Owens did what she did.
The book itself is an homage in the best way to write description. There are so many great paragraphs of it. The thing that surprised me—delighted me, really—about Owens’s work is the way her prose jumps out. She doesn’t follow the same old ways of talking about things. For example, in Chapter 23, Kya and second boyfriend Chase are in a boat headed to a remote shore. The narration says:
“Up ahead, Point Beach unfolded into the water like a brilliant white fan.”
That mental image is incredible. Owens could have said it any one of a hundred other ways—ways that other writers, no doubt, have used—but she uses the simile “like a brilliant white fan” to paint the picture. Right away I knew what Point Beach looked like.
Owens also used her description to move the story forward. The book is part coming-of-age, part murder mystery, and Owens alternates between the two storylines that intersect. In Chapter 10, the sheriff and his deputy decide to inspect the fire tower where Chase’s body was found. The chapter begins:
“Sand keeps secrets better than mud. …[A]s they walked along the track, looking for vehicle treads other than their own, sand grains shifted into formless dimples with every step. Then, at the mud holes and swampy areas near the tower, a profusion of detailed stories revealed themselves: a raccoon with her four young had trailed in and out of the muck; a snail had woven a lacy pattern interrupted by the arrival of a bear; and a small turtle had lain in the cool mud, its belly forming a smooth shallow bowl.”
The author’s giving us a clue about the murder, although we can’t quite make sense of it yet. The way she describes the terrain, though, lets us know that we’re looking at something important. Something that will come up later (and it does.) Owens confirms this at the end of the short chapter with the last paragraph:
“They stood looking around. The rest of the small half-moon beach was covered in a thick layer of broken shells, a jumble of crustacean parts, and crab claws. Shells the best secret-keepers of all.”
This is the location of Chase’s murder, and Owens is telling us that the features of the ground made a difference to what happened to him.
Again, there are so many incredible lines and paragraphs of description that it’s hard to pick out a few, but these examples show the care and time Owens put into her story. It’s all the more reason she’s allowed to break the rules of long descriptions.
Point of view (as it relates to head hopping)
Strictly speaking, head hopping is when the narration goes from one character to another and doesn’t offer readers a signal that the point of view of the story is about to change. Readers come to stories for a variety of reasons, but one of them is to bond with characters. The only way to do that is to give readers time with those characters one on one. The easiest way to do that is to stay within a particular character’s point of view or POV for the duration of a scene or even a chapter. A natural break on the page signals to readers that a change is coming, making it easy to accept a new POV.
If writers hop from one POV to another without that signal, though, readers are often jarred out of the moment. They get distracted; for a moment, their brains get kicked out of the story, and they have to reorient themselves. Do it enough times, and readers will drop a story or novel.
That’s why writing experts advise against it. Unless, that is, you know what you’re doing. Unless you’re breaking the rules for a reason.
In the case of Crawdads, Owens head hops once in a while and it’s almost unnoticeable. Why? Well, for one thing, her descriptions have set the mood for the book. This isn’t a breezy beach read where you can get distracted and skim paragraphs and still know what’s going on. This is a book that quietly but firmly requests your attention for every line and every page.
The mood is contemplative, introspective. For most of it, readers are inside Kya’s POV, seeing the world as she sees it. And Kya’s used to spending days, weeks often, all by herself, observing nature, painting. Writing. Reading.
We get so used to sitting by Kya’s side and just breathing that we don’t realize when the narration takes us, just for a moment, into someone else’s POV. In Chapter 17, Tate has begun teaching Kya to read and discovers that she has a voracious appetite for books. He begins bringing her books and using those to further her education. The narration tells us:
“After Tate started his senior year in September, he couldn’t come to Kya’s place as often, but when he did, he brought her discarded textbooks from school. He didn’t say a word about the biology books being too advanced for her, so she plowed through chapters she wouldn’t have seen for four years in school. ‘Don’t worry,’ he’d say, ‘you’ll get a little more every time you read it.’ And that was true.”
The second sentence—“He didn’t say a word…”—is technically not from Kya’s POV. She wouldn’t have known that information; only Tate would. The story has slipped from Kya to Tate to an omniscient voice (in the last sentence) within a single paragraph. But readers won’t be disturbed in the slightest. It’s just a natural progression of Kya’s story.
A few pages later, Kya asks Tate point blank why he’s teaching her to read. He answers, and then, in the next paragraph, the narration goes on.
“He didn’t mention how he felt sorry for her being alone, that he knew how the kids had treated her for years; how the villagers called her the Marsh Girl and made up stories about her. … But that wasn’t the main reason he’d left feathers for Kya in the forest, or why he kept coming to see her. The other words Tate didn’t say were his feelings for her that seemed tangled up between the sweet love for a lost sister and the fiery love for a girl.”
This is a more pronounced example of head hopping, because it lasts a full two paragraphs. After the second one ends, the story goes back to Kya’s POV. So why does this work?
Leading up to the first paragraph, when Kya asks Tate why he’s teaching her, Owens tells us the two are sitting on a log in the woods. That’s it. They’re not observing the seagulls or doing anything, really. They’re just sitting on the log. By setting the mood and giving us lush descriptions already, Owens has helped us settle into the story. So if Kya and Tate are just sitting, Owens can risk a quick aside into Tate’s thoughts without upending Kya’s too much.
Both the head hopping and the description dovetail into the third topic: pacing. Depending on the genre, often books will skip along from scene to scene, from action to action. Even when characters are sitting or talking, often they’re still moving.
In the case of Crawdads, though, Kya actually spends a lot of time observing. Thinking. Planning. She’s left behind at the age of 10 to raise herself. Everyone who left her thought someone else would pick up the slack of taking care of the youngest child. Instead, no one did. So Kya’s lived alone for more than two decades.
Take a second and consider what that means. Think about the last time you were completely alone for more than an hour. The stillness you would inevitably feel. The quiet. Now multiply that by 20-some odd years.
It would be a given that Kya would move at a measured pace. All of her actions would be careful, though out. She would only talk when she deemed it right to do so. When she thought the person receiving her words would value them.
By building her protagonist and her story world with these qualities, Owens sets readers up to expect and even enjoy a slower pace. That’s why we can enjoy paragraph after paragraph of lush descriptions. That’s why, even though we’re dying to find out who killed Chase and why, we’re willing to wait for the answer. Owens doesn’t rush anything, because Kya never has and never will. When Kya becomes an acclaimed author, it’s for her paintings. Paintings that take time and years to get right. So Owens creates a situation that would allow for Kya to have that space undisturbed.
It’s brilliant, and it works on every level.
I envy the e.ditor who got to see this manuscript first and who got to help Owens shape this world. No one writes a perfect manuscript right out of the gate, but the book’s tone and voice reveal the maturity of an author who has burrowed into her work. When writers come to me with some sense of confidence and heft in their manuscripts, it makes the work so much more enjoyable. Just like this book is for all of us who’ve loved it.