Greetings, readers, and welcome to the first installment of “Write Like,” which will look at Young Adult authors and their books to break down their writing styles for new or beginner writers who would like to learn from their techniques.
First up is the quintessential and oft-lauded Young Adult author, John Green. Important note: Though Chebk keeps up with John and Hank Greens’ vlogs, neither of us had actually read any of John’s books before, though there had been several attempts, on both our parts, to get through his first book, Looking for Alaska. Thus, the entirety of this post will be based on Green’s bestseller The Fault in Our Stars, which I recently perused for this blog series. The story follows Hazel and Augustus, two teens who fall into a romantic relationship that is complicated by cancer. I won’t be reviewing the book formally — let’s not even start on the lack of diversity — but looking at the writing style ONLY.
Techniques we will be looking at today:
- Train-of-thought prose/Likeable narrator
- Character-driven dialogue
- Pop culture references
- Emphasis: Run-on sentences, capslock, and punctuated emphases
First up: Create a close relationship between reader and character through a natural, likeable narrative voice AKA train-of-thought prose. Green, like most YA authors, focuses on close, limited narration, in this case, first perspective (“I” voice). In this case, seventeen-year old Hazel Lancaster is our guide through the story. As a reader, we are in her head, hearing her thoughts and feeling her feelings. We are not privy to other characters’ perspectives besides what they do or say and how Hazel interprets it.
Example: “Then I found myself worrying I would have to make out with [Augustus] to get to Amsterdam, which is not the kind of thing you want to be thinking, because (a) It shouldn’t’ve even been a question whether I wanted to kiss him, and (b) Kissing someone so that you can get a free trip is perilously close to full-on hooking, and […] I never thought my first real sexual action would be prostitutional.”
This may seem like common sense, but it’s an important component to drawing your reader in quickly and completely. As long as the reader clicks with Hazel immediately, you, as an author, can do almost anything and your reader will be willing to go along with it. In the above prose, we get a lot of Hazel’s personality and emotion: her feelings for Augustus, her moral compass, her humor, and her voice with touches like “shouldn’t’ve.”
Second: Character-driven dialogue. This goes hand-in-hand with a natural narrative voice, but works twofold: Creating an external personality to complement Hazel’s internal, and giving other main and side characters individuality.
Example: “The thing about eggs, though…is that breakfastization gives the scrambled eggs a certain sacrality, right? You can get yourself some bacon or Cheddar cheese anywhere anytime, from tacos to breakfast sandwiches to grilled cheese, but scrambled eggs — they’re important!”
Ideally, each character should have a distinctive voice. Close friends can rub off on each other and imitate speech patterns. I think what people like most about Green’s character dialogue is how simultaneously witty and honest his characters are, whether they’re waxing poetic about breakfast foods or declaring their love in loquacious and precocious ways (everyone’s seen that quote, though, so.) Above all, they exude their own personalities and it’s engaging because it is natural and, mostly (soliloquies aside), realistic.
Third: Emphasize tension or emotions using differently text structures. Hazel’s narrative voice works so well because she sounds like a teenager — drama included. Green does this in three ways: structured run-on sentences, capslock mania, and period emphases.
- Run-On Sentence Example: “I finally ended up in the ICU with pneumonia, and my mom knelt by the side of my bed and said, ‘Are you ready, sweetie?’ and I told her I was ready, and my dad just kept telling me he loved me in this voice that was not breaking so much as already broken, and I kept telling him that I loved him, too, and everyone was holding hands, and I couldn’t catch my breath, and my lungs were acting desperate, gasping, pulling me out of the bed trying to find a position that could get the air, and I was embarrassed by their desperation, disgusted that they wouldn’t just let go, and I remember my mom telling me it was okay, that I was okay, that I would be okay, and my father was trying so hard not to sob that when he did, which was regularly, it was an earthquake.”
Look at that sentence! But it is amazing because it works. Green uses this technique to get the reader into Hazel’s mindset, as well as to build tension in a scene, growing each addition faster and faster until capping it with an amazing image or moment. Everything in the above example comes to a breaking point with Hazel’s parents breaking down as much as Hazel’s own thought process. Green uses this later to have Augustus confess his love to Hazel to showcase his feelings for her against all odds.
- Capslock Mania Example: “‘You’ve never been on a plan before?’
He shook his head. ‘LOOK!’ he half-shouted, pointing at the window.
‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘Yeah, I see it. It looks like we’re in an airplane.’
‘NOTHING HAS EVER LOOKED LIKE THAT EVER IN ALL OF HUMAN HISTORY.’”
Both main characters use caps at the peaks of anger and enthusiasm (like Augustus’s joy here), as do the side characters, such as Hazel’s mom, whose enthusiasm is relayed in Hazel’s narrative recounting. I wouldn’t normally recommend caps in any prose, but it seems to work in some YA stories precisely because it serves to emphasize heightened emotions.
- Period Emphases Example: “ Dude. Does Support Group Hazel make this better of worse? Isaac. Focus. On. Me.”
Used more sparingly than the former examples, I thought this was a cute quirk to help emphasize everyone’s dialogue and youth.
Lastly: Pop culture references, such as movies, art, science, and philosophy. Adding on to his characters’ wit and realism, Green helps his readers relate to his characters in their scope of culture: Hazel watches America’s Next Top Model religiously, she and Augustus bond over V for Vendetta and other movies, and there are references to the artist Magritte, Zeno’s Tortoise Paradox, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and even T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Some of Hazel and Augustus’s conversations are even shown through text messages and letters.
Arguably, this will date the book irreparably BUT it also gives teen readers something to which to directly relate with Hazel and Augustus and even video-game-loving Isaac.
Now that you’ve got the gist of some techniques Green uses to make his story flow, let’s put it in practice. Some writers suggest copying out favorite passages of prose by hand, but I find that taking a passage and imitating its style is usually more helpful in developing your own. So, imitate this:
“Once we got around the circle, Patrick always asked if anyone wanted to share. And then began the circle jerk of support: everyone talking about fighting and battling and winning and shrinking and scanning. To be fair to Patrick, he let us talk about dying, too. But most of them weren’t dying. Most would live into adulthood, as Patrick had.
(Which meant there was quite a lot of competitiveness about it, with everybody wanting to beat not only cancer itself, but also the other people in the room. Like, I realize that this is irrational, but when they tell you that you have, say, a 20 percent chance of living five years, the math kicks in and you figure that’s one in five…so you look around and think, as any healthy person would: I gotta outlast four of these bastards.”
Don’t focus on subject necessarily (i.e. a cancer support group), but maybe try a parenthetical tangent, or a sentence that connects “___ and ___ and ___ and __ and ___.” Give it a shot and, if you’re up to it, show us your examples in the comments!
Happy writing, readers. Leave a comment if this was helpful (or unhelpful) and how I can improve on future installments, or which authors you’d be interested in seeing!