Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Reds on Writing - Hallie finds the ruby slippers

HALLIE EPHRON: In this Reds on Writing Week, my thoughts turn to ruby slippers. You know, the ones that Dorothy clicked three times and they whisked her home.

In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy needs the ruby slippers to get home. The witch is desperate to get her hands on them, too, for their magic powers. But she has to kill Dorothy to get them. 

In the original L. Frank Baum novel, they're not ruby slippers. They're silver shoes (not as photogenic, I'm sure the folks at MGM said). This W. W. Denslow illustration from the book's first edition (1900)  shows the moment when the witch has already stolen one of the silver shoes, so Dorothy fights back, chucking a bucket of water over her.
Here's how the novel ends:

      Dorothy now took Toto up solemnly in her arms, and having said one last good-bye she clapped the heels of her shoes together three times, saying:
   "Take me home to Aunt Em!"
   Instantly she was whirling through the air, so swiftly that all she could see or feel was the wind whistling past her ears.
   The Silver Shoes took but three steps, and then she stopped so suddenly that she rolled over upon the grass several times before she knew where she was.
   At length, however, she sat up and looked about her.
   "Good gracious!" she cried.
   For she was sitting on the broad Kansas prairie, and just before her was the new farmhouse Uncle Henry built after the cyclone had carried away the old one. Uncle Henry was milking the cows in the barnyard, and Toto had jumped out of her arms and was running toward the barn, barking furiously.
   Dorothy stood up and found she was in her stocking-feet. For the Silver Shoes had fallen off in her flight through the air, and were lost forever in the desert.

Chapter 24 - Home Again

  Aunt Em had just come out of the house to water the cabbages when she looked up and saw Dorothy running toward her.

  "My darling child!" she cried, folding the little girl in her arms and covering her face with kisses. "Where in the world did you come from?"

  "From the Land of Oz," said Dorothy gravely. "And here is Toto, too. And oh, Aunt Em! I'm so glad to be at home again!"
So what do ruby slippers have to do with writing a crime novel? 
For me, they're a plot device, like Hitchcock's MacGuffin, a tangible object of desire that competing characters will do  anything to obtain or protect or hide or destroy.

Single object; competing goals. Like the statuette in The Maltese Falcon. Or the Degas painting in The Art Forger.  Or Tara in Gone with the Wind. Or the postage stamp in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.  Or Katniss Everdeen's pin and the freedom that it represents in Mockingjay.
Not every novel has ruby slippers, but each time I develop a plot, I try to find my story's "ruby slippers" -- a single object that either embodies (like Dorothy's ruby slippers) or represents (like Katniss's pin) what the protagonist and villain are competing for.

In my novel Never Tell a Lie the ruby slippers is an unborn baby, and also an inherited necklace that goes missing at the start of the book. In the novel I just turned in, You'll Never Know, Dear, it's a porcelain portrait doll and the little girl who disappeared with it.

Thinking about the plot devices in books you've read or written, are there any examples of "Ruby Slippers?"


  1. Aside from those you’ve mentioned, perhaps the philosopher’s stone in Harry Potter or the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark????

  2. Charlie Lovett's The Bookman's Tale. And, Joan, what about the horcruxes in HP?

  3. Definitely! Every Harry Potter book has one (or more). It's a staple in sci-fi/fantasy. YES, The Bookman's Tale. Raiders of the Lost Ark.

  4. Not a single object for a single book, The Three Pines in Louise Penny's Gamache mystery novels.

  5. All right, just as you said in your essay! F for fast reading -- :-)

  6. There's a stained glass window and a map in her new Inspector Gamache book that comes out end of August... A Great Reckoning

  7. Hank, the Maltese Falcon is one of my favorites... I love that it turns out to be worthless. A sort of stand-in for Bridget O'Shaughnessy who's not what she appears to be, either.

  8. Yes, agreed. And Spade makes that great speech about it.

    Did you also say the preciousssss... in Lord of the Rings?



    Diane, email me at h ryan at whdh dot com with your address!


    Now back to our regular programming...

  10. I'm trying to think of my books--doesn't seem as though I usually have a "thing" though often many characters are looking for the same person. Does that count? I will have to be more aware of this...you explain it so well!

  11. The Macguffin is a useful and fun device. You explain it so well Hallie. My two favorites are Rosebud in Citizen Kane, and the finial ball on the staircase in It’s a Wonderful Life. In my WIP I’m using an errant GPS.

  12. Those you've mentioned. Harry Potter has one in every book. And so does every Indiana Jones movie. Joan mentioned the Ark of the Covenant. In "Temple of Doom" it's the Shankara Stones, in "Last Crusade" it's the Holy Grail, and in "Crystal Skull" (really they shouldn't have made that one) it's the skull-thingy. Side note: Why in the world are they making a fifth Indiana Jones and what can he be looking for now?

  13. Lucy, I like having one because it can get lost, stolen, hidden... In one of my novels it was a wedding ring that the widowed protagonist wasn't able to take off (until the end of the novel) when he'd avenged his wife's death.

  14. Ang - an errant GPS, how perfect.

    Mary, why a fifth Indiana Jones, indeed! Could ask the same thing of Star Wars..

    What was the movie with the charm around the cat's neck that was an entire galaxy system that had to be saved? I remember, Men in Black... we're probably due for a 5th one of that, too. (Best role ever for Vincent d'Onofrio)


  15. My fave MacGuffin is the Hoyl Grail...it pops up everywhere....

  16. That would be HOLY Grail

  17. The only ruby slipper I've had in my own books was a missing child, but since she appears well before the end, I feel like she's not a true ruby slipper. Or Maltese Falcon. It seems to me that to be a real ruby slipper, the objects discovery, or discovering how to use it, or retrieving it must be the climax of the story.

    Hmmm... This is giving me "furiously to think," Hallie. Maybe I should try a Maltese Falcon story for my next Russ and Clare novel.

  18. Fascinating. I never thought of a talisman in that way, but of course it is. I'm printing this for future reminders. Thanks Hallie!

  19. Julia, it seems to me that somehow that baby in In the Bleak Midwinter is sort of ruby slippers.

    Yes, Paula, Holy Grail pops up everywhere (DaVinci Code...)

    Kait, I think that's the power of a talisman. What it represents. And that you can hide it, lose it, throw it away, steal it... and those acts take on power in context.

  20. Speaking of the Holy Grail, in the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie (again, why?) they are looking for the Fountain of Youth. But they are also looking for the chalices that the water has to be drunk out of(?) and a mermaid's tear (again, why did they make this movie?).

    Anyway, my first thought was that the Fountain is the MacGuffin, but is it? Is there more than one? Can you have more than one?

  21. One of my favorite MacGuffins/plot device/objects of pursuit is the bishop's bird stump in Connie Willis' To Say Nothing of the Dog, one of her historian time travelers books. Unlike the other books in this series, which I dearly love, too, To Say Nothing of the Dog is funny, full of charming with, as the historians pursue of this desired object.

  22. I'm reading Emily Arsenault's THE EVENING SPIDER -- I think it's a baby too, though not unborn. To be honest, I'm not quite sure what's going on yet ... which I like. :-)

  23. Mary, you can always have more than one. Often they'll build o each other.

    YES< Kathy! I love the bishops bird stump - that book is a hoot.

    Lisa, I haven't rad that one but I loved Emily Arsenault's The Broken Teaglass - she's quite an original writer.

  24. And the fifth element in The Fifth Element.

  25. Susie Salmon's bones. What was it that turned up at the end - a bracelet, or something like that?

    From Kate Atkinson, the missing child with a birthmark in the shape of Africa. The reader knows, but Jackson Brody is still puzzled at the end of "Started Early, Took My Dog." (Published 2010 UK, 2011 US and still no new Jackson Brody book on the horizon.) It doesn't feel right when you think there are ruby slippers, but there is no resolution.

    Some series begin with a mystery of sorts that is not the primary subject of the book. Not a will he/won't he. Something from the past. It may be a thing that unites partners, or a wedge between them. It can explain why a protagonist is the way he/she is. It's just there - the ruby slippers behind curtain three. This can make a story richer, or give depth to the characters, but I'm always worried that when the curtain is opened the series will end. His clothes are folded neatly and left on the beach while he walks into the ocean. Or a less blatant ending, but it ends nonetheless.

    I love series and always want to have the hope of another book.

  26. Sharon, you are brilliant. I love that: ruby slippers behind curtain three.

    I wonder if there will be more Jackson Brodi books. Doesn't look promising.

  27. What a great teaser, Hallie!! I remember you teaching about "The Wizard of Oz" when I took my first class with you several years ago -- the plot structure.

  28. Well, for Georgette Heyer readers, there's The Talisman Ring in the book of that name. A quintessential McGuffin.