However great a man's natural talent may be, the art of writing cannot be learned all at once.
—Jean Jacques Rousseau
For my second “mini- dissection” or fiction analysis, I’ve chosen The Celestine Prophecy, An Adventure, by James Redfield, not only because—to everyone’s surprise—it became a best-seller, but also because the first edition was self-published.
It is a well-known story that Redfield traveled around the country peddling his books from the back of his trunk. Probably the author was as shocked as everyone else when people started asking for the book in stores. News about the contents of the book spread like wildfire.
Then, finally “the dream” came true when a major publisher paid Redfield for the publishing rights.
What was the key to Redfield’s success? Part of it was timing and had little to do with the book itself.
It is interesting to note that the first chapter is titled “A Critical Mass.” In a way, the book was prophesying its own success. A critical mass is the number of people required in order to make a shift in consciousness. This book was published in 1993, six years after the occurrence of a “critical mass” spiritual event known as Harmonic Convergence:
On August l6-l7, l987, the world observed its first Harmonic Convergence, a global event wherein Humanity focused on helping the Human Race through the power of thought, meditation, and prayer.
In 1987 thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands of individuals throughout the planet experienced an energy change or shift that motivated them to take a careful look at their lives. Many people discovered their life purpose; others felt compelled to make lifestyle changes.
Most of these people couldn’t explain why they felt differently. They only knew deep inside at the soul level that they must “take action” or move forward on their path of self-discovery. Some people refer to this type of urgency a “calling” or spiritual awakening. It was as if their Higher Self was encouraging them to “follow their passion,” or their “bliss.”
In the years that ensued, a critical mass started to build toward understanding that we humans are spiritual beings in physical bodies.
Consider in greater detail the history of that era. While Redfield was writing The Celestine Prophecy, the public was starting to learn about and embrace a larger reality. This reality, older than the one that serves as the structure for modern or Western belief systems, perceives the human being as a physical/mental/emotional/spiritual energetic system. All four energy forms are interconnected and linked to a unified field.
In other words, “we are all One.” From a holographic perspective, this means that each of us is linked to the One Creator or Source. We were also given another “insight”: each of us creates our own reality. This means we also create our own future. Free will and destiny take on different meanings when we view our reality from this perspective.
These spiritual insights radically conflict with organized religion and other traditionally held views of the universe upon which Western medical and scientific belief systems are constructed. Therefore, it is no surprise that the book became a best-seller. Forbidden fruits are hot items, especially if banned by religious groups.
Imagine the chaos—consider the consequences—if everyone in the world suddenly realized and became committed to the belief that we do indeed create our own reality and therefore are responsible for every one of our actions!
Redfield opened the door for the next awakening that occurred approximately 20 years later when the film, What the Bleep? and the DVD, The Secret, were released. The second spiritual wave was even more powerful than the first, and both have continued to move us toward critical mass understanding of who we are and why we are here.
Recently the film Avatar was released. This extraordinary work delivers a message that had its first major impact in the Sixties: “Make Love, Not War.” In 2010 even more people have come to realize that one does not “fight wars” in order to “create peace.”
Knowledge is power. The Celestine Prophecy divulges spiritual teachings—the natural laws of the universe—that had been hidden from humanity for centuries. Redfield delivers these spiritual teachings in such an engaging manner, readers are immediately captivated. People like to read mystery stories and they also like secrets and unsolved riddles that lead people on a series of adventures.
Spiritual teachers, healers and therapists recognized the advantage of using a well-plotted story and strong characters liberally seasoned with plenty of mystique (*hidden artifacts* and *forbidden information*) for a textbook. Celestine Prophecy study and discussion groups sprouted up throughout the world.
It is a marketer’s dream for a book to be used as a teaching manual. The other bonus was the fact that seminar participants were so excited about the book’s contents, eagerly they spread the word and gathered more aficionados . The book was soon published in every major language. It became a global sensation.
Following is the excerpt from The Celestine Prophecy that I have chosen to discuss:
I drove up to the restaurant and parked, then leaned back in my seat to think for a moment. Charlene, I knew would already be inside, waiting to talk with me. But why? I hadn’t heard a word from her in six years. Why would she have shown up now, just when I had sequestered myself in the woods for a week?
I stepped out of the truck and walked toward the restaurant. Behind me, the last glow of a sunset sank in the west had cast highlights of golden amber across the wet parking lot. Everything had been drenched an hour earlier by a brief thunderstorm, and now the summer evening felt cool and renewed, and because of the fading light, almost surreal. A half moon hung overhead.
As I walked, old images of Charlene filled my mind. Was she still beautiful, intense? How would time have changed her? And what was I to think of this manuscript she had mentioned—the ancient artifact found in South America that she couldn’t wait to tell me about?
“I have a two-hour layover at the airport,” she had said on the telephone. “Can you meet me for dinner? You’re going to love what this manuscript says—it’s just your kind of mystery.”
My kind of mystery? What did she mean by that?
Inside, the restaurant was crowded. Several couples waited for tables. When I found the hostess, she told me Charlene had already been seated and directed me toward a terraced area above the main dining room.
I walked up the steps and became aware of a crowd of people surrounding one of the tables. The crowd included two policemen. Suddenly, the policemen turned and rushed past me and down the steps. As the rest of the people dispersed, I could see past them to the person who seemed to have been the center of attention—a woman, still seated at the table… Charlene!
I quickly walked up to her. “Charlene, what’s going on? Is anything wrong?”
She tossed her head back in mock exasperation and stood up, flashing her famous smile. I noticed that her hair was perhaps different, but her face was exactly as I remembered: small delicate features, wide mouth, huge blue eyes.
“You wouldn’t believe it,” she said, pulling me into a friendly hug. “I went to the rest room a few minutes ago and while I was gone, someone stole my briefcase.”
--The Celestine Prophecy, by James Redfield, ©1993, Satori Publishing
The first sentence of the first chapter gives us the who (I, or the first person narrator), what (driving in a car), and where (parked somewhere that could be anywhere, but it was near a restaurant, we learn in the second paragraph). We are given a lead concept or plant: “to think for a moment.”
In the second sentence, we are given plot development. The protagonist was meeting someone named Charlene, who would be “inside” (somewhere… we don’t know it’s a restaurant until we read the second paragraph. Then we get the why that is delivered as a question relating to the fact that Charlene would be waiting to talk with him.)
Are you hooked yet? If not, the next sentence helps: “I hadn’t heard a word from her in six years.” Ahhh… A mystery here. Six weeks of silence and now suddenly we learn that Charlene has contacted the narrator or protagonist, stating that she needs to meet him to “tell him something.” “Waiting to talk with me” indirectly delivers that information.
We have the male-female issue at once. Who is Charlene, and what is the connection here between Charlene and the narrator? What is their story? Then we have another question reinforcing the why and the mystery, still in the first paragraph only:
“I hadn’t heard a word from her in six years.” (Do your math… 1987 subtracted from 1993 equals 6.) “Why would she have shown up now, just when I had sequestered myself in the woods for a week?”
The reader is curious about that last sentence. Why was he hiding out in the woods? What was going on in his life?
In the second paragraph, we’re given the where--the restaurant. We also learn more about the narrator. He owns a truck. He is not driving a car or vehicle such as a van, but a truck. Who drives small trucks? People in businesses that require transport of work materials, tools, animals, etc., or who might live in a rural area.
The author also pauses to give us a few details about the setting (where), which is part of the developing story line. It had just rained, “a brief thunderstorm.” Now in the early evening, the sun was setting. Ahhh... what romantic perfection! Sunset, the aftermath of a rainstorm... and summer time (Does that bring to mind “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess?) Here is another detail that answers the question when. Note that Redfield also adds another atmospheric touch: “because of the fading light, (the setting was) almost surreal.”
Do you think the narrator had been romantically involved and they’d had a spat or a “storm”? Now that “day was over.” The sun was setting. Peace in the land… and apprehension. What will happen “tomorrow”?
As anticipated, paragraph three delivers a description of Charlene as she would be pictured by someone who knew her well, possibly intimately. “Was she still beautiful, intense?”
What kind of male (or female) would not be jarred by those two words: “beautiful” and “intense”? Are you hooked yet?!!
Now we get the rest of the what delivered through questions and statements in the third paragraph: “How would time have changed her? And what was I to think of this manuscript (italics mine) she had mentioned—this ancient artifact found in South America that she couldn’t wait to tell me about?
Something is brewing. “Charlene” knows the narrator is interested in manuscripts and artifacts. South America is an archaeologist’s paradise. Some of the most treasured artifacts and information about ancient wisdom and advanced learning have emerged from research of the Mayans, Incans and other ancient cultures and civilizations that trace their roots to this area of the world.
We also have another notable plant delivered in the next paragraph through a flashback in dialogue: “I have a two-hour layover at the airport,” she had said on the telephone. “Can you meet me for dinner? You’re going to love what this manuscript says—it’s your kind of mystery.”
Wow! All printed on the first page of the book!
Let me pause here for a moment and talk about the technique of creating flashbacks.
Whenever you need to deliver information while narrating in the present tense, feel free to dip into the past by using a flashback. Often you can develop a whole chapter as a flashback or an entire section of a book.
The exciting and wonderful part about fiction is that it’s virtual; you the author are steering the reader’s imagination. You can shift gears as much as you wish, as long as you take your reader with you. Don’t leave them stranded somewhere, lost in details they were never given—or whipped in so many directions, they can’t get their bearings. Be clear and spell out to the reader everything they need to know in order to keep them on track.
Shift as much as you like or need to, in order to give the reader need-to-know information . You can even do it in the same paragraph when you’re in the present tense, as Redfield did here. He needed to deliver information about a phone conversation that happened prior to that evening.
The next page provides an excellent example of forward plot movement. In a few paragraphs, the narrator enters the restaurant, sees a huge crowd of people, including police officers surrounding a table in the area where the restaurant hostess said Charlene was already seated. We learn in the next sentence that the commotion is centered around Charlene; she had left her briefcase at the table while she went to the rest room, and the police had confiscated it.
Aha! Major mystery. The only question I would have at this point is, WHO would leave a briefcase unattended while going to the rest room? Maybe at one time people did that, but even in the era this novel was written (before 911), instinctively I know I would have taken all of my personal belongings to the restroom with me.
I would have placed a blank notepad and (cheap) ballpoint pen on the table at the place where I was sitting, and written “OCCUPIED” on the pad. Surely I’d leave the napkin unfolded and an opened menu in front of my chair to indicate that someone was sitting at that table.
For a moment—and for the sake of the story—we have to suspend our logic and let the author get away with this slip-up. As a book doctor who is often confronted with details that must be logically planted, I would have suggested several other ways to have the briefcase snatched.
The briefcase snatching, you’ve probably already guessed, is a “plotted plant” that delivers the message that Charlene is involved in “something important.” It appears that she has information that “someone” doesn’t want her to have. Did she steal it? Was it given to her for safekeeping? Many unanswered questions here!
As the story moves forward, the author continues to deliver more information. When the two embrace, it becomes clear that they have a strong attraction for each other. Romance is one of the best “plot hooks” there is: boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy re-unites with girl after great caution, fear, indecision, etc., or boy separates forever from girl, painfully or with great resignation. It could be the opposite also: girl meets boy, girl gets boy, etc.
On the next page (not quoted above), we learn that the government is trying to suppress information that Charlene, a researcher, has discovered while on assignment at the University of Lima in Peru.
She learns about an ancient manuscript that contains information about a prophecy. A “massive transformation in human society” will start to take place during the last decades of the twentieth century.
At this point, the reader is compelled to read on.
Is all of this contrived? Of course it is! It has to be, in order to compel the reader to stay with the story line and keep going. Like any good marketing campaign, you’re trying to sell your plot. Every second counts; compression of details raises the level of tension.
To strengthen your own fiction writing techniques, I suggest that you practice the same exercise with The Celestine Prophecy that you used for analysis of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
After reading the book carefully:
1. Make a plot outline of the book.
2. In 2-5 sentences, describe each character.
3. Find 5 places where the author describes each character.
How does he do it: through narrative, dialogue, body language, gestures, or all of these? Copy down each of these descriptions and note how they are folded into the story line.
4. Find 5 places where the dialogue moves the plot forward.
5. Find 5 places where the reader becomes frightened, or where the tension builds. What makes that tension build? What is the time limit before something “terrible” or “uncertain” may happen? Will there be a chase? Will they be found out? Is there a fear of death? A fear of being captured or killed?
6. Find 5 humorous places. Why do you find them humorous?
7. Find 5 places where the first person narrator is delivered as a character with whom almost every reader can identify. Tell how and why this identification occurs.
Details make stories human, and the more human a story can be, the better. The first draft of anything is sh*t.