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Tag: The Fault in Our Stars

Masterpiece Monday: Awesome Authors DO-ing Writing DON’Ts (Parentheses)

Last week on Masterpiece Monday we had an installment in the series of Awesome Authors DO-ing Writing DON’Ts, and this week I’d like to continue with another addition.

When we read articles about writing online or attend writing groups and such, we’re often told NEVER to do certain things. Never tell always show, never use adverbs, never use ellipses, never use more than two adjectives at a time, etc. etc.

While many of those are usually good advice, they can be a real hindrance if stuck to all the time. I talked previously about how forcing myself to always show in my writing and never tell held me back.

This week I’d like to talk about parentheses. As writers we’re often told to never to use parentheses, unless we’re using it to cite a source in non-fiction writing.

Most of the time that makes sense. Parentheses are meant to insert extra information to the main text, so why would you use them when writing a story? If the information is relevant enough to be included, just put it in normally; if it’s not relevant enough, then just don’t include it. Right?

Not necessarily. Parentheses can do something special to fiction writing that other devices can’t: they can lift the text out of the story.

Here’s an example of what I mean, from John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. We’ve looked at this passage before on Masterpiece Monday for a different reason, but now let’s take a look at its use of parentheses. This comes from the beginning of the book, where Hazel is describing her cancer and “depression:”

“Whenever you read a cancer booklet or website or whatever, they always list depression among the side effects of cancer. But, in fact, depression is not a side effect of cancer. Depression is a side effect of dying. (Cancer is also a side effect of dying. Almost everything is, really.)”

Those parentheses are doing a lot of work here. They feel like they’re separating part of the text, enhancing the idea like Hazel is talking just to us, like she’s pulling us aside for a private whisper.

Not only that, but because the more macabre thoughts are encased in parentheses, the parentheses make them hit the reader less intensely than they would have if they were part of the main text. Rather than making Hazel seem actually depressed, she comes off as self-depricating and humorously cynical instead.

A little bit later in the chapter, the same thing happens again, after she talks about how only kids who will die soon take the elevator:

“Michael was next. He was twelve. He had leukemia. He’d always had leukemia. He was okay. (Or so he said. He’d taken the elevator.)”

Again, without the parentheses, Hazel’s words would come off as cruel. But with the parentheses, it turns her thoughts into another private whisper that lets us see into her morbid coping mechanism.

Of course, it should be noted that after chapter one, the usage of parentheses is few and far between. That’s because after the first chapter we’ve become familiar enough with Hazel that we don’t need them anymore. Now we know who she is: she isn’t cruel, she’s just a teenage girl dealing with her crappy situation the only way she can, with humor.

The parentheses helped us get to that point of understanding her, but continuing to use them often throughout the rest of the book would probably bog down the reader. Information overload is all too easy, and it would become mentally exhausting having to pick through parenthesized and non-parenthesized text for page after page.

In the end, using parentheses is like using chocolate syrup – great in the right places in small amounts, but terrible everywhere else. A little bit on some ice cream is fantastic. A lot on ice cream and you have a bowl of regret. And even a little chocolate syrup on a steak is a disaster.

Parentheses, like chocolate syrup, is simply another option you have. Whether you’re writing or cooking, it’s important to never label any option as “off limits no matter what,” because sometimes even chocolate syrup is going to be the best tool to accomplish what you want.

(Featured image via GAHAG, edited by me)

Masterpiece Monday: Do You Need to Spice up “Said?”

Last week on Masterpiece Monday we saw how inside jokes between the reader and narrator can be effective at drawing us in. This week I’d like pull back and show off some examples of something that I know is hard for me to do: spice up the word “said.”

Whenever I’m writing, I want to get across in my reader’s head exactly how I’m visualizing the scene. So when two characters are having a conversation, I love to throw in “spiced-up versions” of the word “said.” Things like this:

“Oh you’re too much!” he laughed.
“Get down here right now!” she yelled.
“I hate you,” she spat.

But here’s the thing – most of the time, you don’t need to spice up the word “said.” Good writers, unlike myself, are able to convey how the characters speak without needing to resort to long verbs that could slow down the prose.

Here’s an example from John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. It takes place just after Hazel and her mother arrive in Amsterdam and they flag down a taxi.

After getting our bags and clearing customs, we all piled into a taxi driven by this doughy bald guy who spoke perfect English—like better English than I do. “The Hotel Filosoof?” I said.
And he said, “You are Americans?”
“Yes,” Mom said. “We’re from Indiana.”
“Indiana,” he said. “They steal the land from the Indians and leave the name, yes?”
“Something like that,” Mom said.

Did you notice while you were reading? Just that one scene uses the word “said” five times… in a row!

Many editors would slice through most of them with their red pen, but I’m not sure they’d be correct in doing so. Yes, the author technically repeats the same word over and over, but it flows so well. If the author had instead used different verbs like “mumbled” or “guffawed,” or decided to commit the ultimate literary sin and use adverbs like “Mom said quickly,” then the scene would’ve been bogged down by needless words and syllables.

But it’s just one syllable/word, right? How much of a difference can it make? Subconsciously, quite a bit. The scene is supposed to be fast-paced, and any excess letters on the page will slow it down. We saw before how a longer action scene can take something fast and fun and make it boring, and the same goes for snappy dialogue as well.

I know that I’m tempted all the time to use other words besides “said” in my writing. And while sometimes it can be correct to do so, a lot of the time I use fancier “said” verbs as a crutch. The words the characters use and their personalities should dictate how they say things, not unnecessary description.

So the next time you’re scratching your head wondering what word to use in place of “said,” just try using “said.” If the same emotion you’re aiming for isn’t coming through, then maybe it’d be better to change the words coming out of the character’s mouth instead.

(Featured image via GAHAG, edited by me)

Masterpiece Monday: Inside Jokes between Reader and Narrator

Last week on Masterpiece Monday we saw examples of good action scenes that build tension by subtracting things. This week I’d like to show off an awesome example of something more subtle: callbacks.

Callbacks happen when a detail in your story refers to something that happened earlier. They’re cool because they make the reader feel like they’re rewarded just for reading. It’s like a little inside joke between reader and narrator.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green has some excellent callbacks in it. Here’s one of my favorite ones from the very beginning, when the narrator Hazel talks about her cancer, her “depression,” and her support group:

“Whenever you read a cancer booklet or website or whatever, they always list depression among the side effects of cancer. But, in fact, depression is not a side effect of cancer. Depression is a side effect of dying. (Cancer is also a side effect of dying. Almost everything is, really.)”

Then just a few paragraphs later we get this:

“This Support Group featured a rotating cast of characters in various states of tumor-driven unwellness. Why did the cast rotate? A side effect of dying.”

The repeated “side effect of dying” bit is super effective here. It not only emphasizes how all-encompassing thinking about dying is for Hazel, but also her cynical and slightly macabre sense of humor.

The same kind of callback happens soon afterward:

“I didn’t want to take the elevator because taking the elevator is a Last Days kind of activity at Support Group, so I took the stairs.”

Then a little later:

“Michael was next. He was twelve. He had leukemia. He’d always had leukemia. He was okay. (Or so he said. He’d taken the elevator.)”

If you hadn’t read the part earlier about the elevator being for kids on their “last days,” then that final bit wouldn’t have made sense. But with that proper setup, we get a chilling reminder of Hazel’s reality and another peek into how she emotionally deals with it.

Though there are more callbacks through the rest of the book, I really like these ones in the first chapter for another reason: they help to establish a bond between the reader and Hazel. Right away it’s like we’re part of little (albeit grim) inside jokes with her. Such a powerful bond between reader and main character helps ensure that we care about them quickly and want to keep reading to see what happens to them.

Having trouble getting readers to relate to/care about your main character? Try adding in some callbacks in chapter one and see what happens. We can’t all write like John Green, but we can at least try to learn from the pieces that make his characters so awesome.

(Featured image via GAHAG, edited by me)


Masterpiece Monday: A Sexy Voice

Last week on Masterpiece Monday we saw sound effects making a splash in some scenes. This week I’d like to show off a great example of something that I struggle with: voice.

Giving your writing its own distinct personality is tough. It’s not something you can easily fix or add in like grammar rules or putting in more details. In order to get a good, sexy voice, every sentence – every word – has to feel like it’s coming from an actual human being with a unique personality. The second one syllable feels forced or out of place, it all comes crumbling down.

I recently read John Green’s young adult novel The Fault in Our Stars. I don’t know why or how I’ve managed to go this long without reading it, but thankfully I managed to fix that. I was blown away by the narrator’s voice starting on the very first page.

Here’s a sample from page one where the narrator (Hazel) describes her discussion session at a local church with other kids fighting cancer:

So here’s how it went in God’s heart: The six or seven or ten of us walked/wheeled in, grazed at a decrepit selection of cookies and lemonade, sat down in the Circle of Trust, and listened to Patrick recount for the thousandth time his depressingly miserable life story—how he had cancer in his balls and they thought he was going to die but he didn’t die and now here he is, a full-grown adult in a church basement in the 137th nicest city in America, divorced, addicted to video games, mostly friendless, eking out a meager living by exploiting his cancertastic past, slowly working his way toward a master’s degree that will not improve his career prospects, waiting, as we all do, for the sword of Damocles to give him the relief that he escaped lo those many years ago when cancer took both of his nuts but spared what only the most generous soul would call his life.


Now that’s one hell of a voice! You immediately get a sense of exactly what kind of person Hazel is just by her description of a church meeting. Cynical, sarcastic, brutally honest, but not in a pretentious way – it all feels very natural.

One of the ways that Hazel’s voice is so strong is through her word usage. She doesn’t let herself be limited to the mere vocabulary of any dictionary. She uses multiple words at once (“walked/wheeled”), odd-sounding words for emphasis (“lo those many years ago”), and even makes up words when necessary (“cancertastic”).

But you can’t just have one fantastic paragraph and hope that carries the voice for the rest of the story. Hazel’s voice is just as clear for the rest of the book.

Here’s just three examples I particularly liked:

(1) I woke up and soon got into one of those experimental trials that are famous in the Republic of Cancervania for Not Working.

(2) I liked that he was a tenured professor in the Department of Slightly Crooked Smiles with a dual appointment in the Department of Having a Voice That Made My Skin Feel More Like Skin.

(3) “It must be some book,” she said as she knelt down next to the bed and unscrewed me from my large, rectangular oxygen concentrator, which I called Philip, because it just kind of looked like a Philip.

From the very first word to the last, author John Green does an amazing job of bringing Hazel to life as a distinct human being. Never once as a reader did I think “This sounds like a thirty-something man wearing the mask of a sixteen-year-old girl.”

That’s something I know I have trouble with when writing; my characters often feel like they’re just Scott Wilsons wearing masks instead of their own unique beings. Hopefully by learning from great authors like John Green we can all try to turn our novels from awkward mask-wearing parties into just actual parties instead.

(Featured image via GAHAG, edited by me)