Friday, July 2, 2010

Busted!—Stephenie Meyer caught doing something right

Writers love to trash Stephenie Meyer’s prose. Recently overheard: she tells instead of shows, she’s a storyteller more than a writer, her protagonist is vapid, her sentence structure sophomoric, her vampires are just too…sparkly. Who would hold up Meyer as an example on a blog promoting excellence in writing?

I would.

Every time we experience a publishing phenomenon like the Twilight series, we writers have an opportunity to learn about what our readers want. In honor of last week’s release of the film Eclipse, based on the third book in the Twilight saga, I’d like to point out a few things Stephenie Meyer did right—techniques we can borrow to make our writing more marketable.

In Meyer’s series, success boils down to one essential skill: ramping up tension. Let’s break down its components to see what writers in any genre can use.

1. Cash in on unresolved sexual tension. If you can learn to sustain sexual tension over the course of a thousand pages, you too can be very well published. Bella wants-but-can’t-have Edward; Edward wants-but-fears-harming Bella. The plot keeps these lovers apart while Meyer fans the flame of desire.

2. Master the slow build. Revisit the tension Meyer builds when Bella first sees the Cullens—Meyer knows how to create an important event. Only in the twelfth paragraph of observing them does Bella even learn their names. Then she asks about them for a couple of pages. This raises questions in the readers’ minds: How will these characters be important? Add the fact that Edward acts brusquely towards her at first and the tension people craved in these books starts to crackle. Questions raised + tension born of slowly building conflict = page-turner. The formula is nothing new. Meyer uses it over and over—and so can you.

3. Forbidden love. From the opening description of the house and the bathroom Bella must share with her father, Meyer sets up the conflict: not only is Charlie a cop, and a protective father, they’ll be sharing close quarters while Edward, who is not Charlie’s number one choice to be his daughter’s suitor, secrets himself away in her bedroom. The setting itself points toward a story of forbidden love.

4. Serious complications. To keep her lovers apart, Meyer doesn’t resort to constant interruptions or miscommunications that frustrate the reader. She lets their identities, core values, cross purposes, and some real kick-ass danger do it for her. Just when you think things are as bad as they can get, they get worse. Readers love this.

5. Conflict on every page. I’ve been playing this game for a while now: Hold Twilight in your hand and open to any page. Chances are, you’ll see conflict. Today I find:
p. 441: My voice sounded strangled.

p. 336: “When he knew what he had become,” Edward said quietly, “he rebelled against it. He tried to destroy himself. But that’s not easily done.”

p. 237: Jacob scowled and ducked his head while I fought back a surge of remorse. Maybe I’d been too convincing on the beach.

p. 141: When Charlie smiled, it was easier to see why he and my mother had jumped too quickly into an early marriage.

p. 39: [After native Arizonan Bella is hit by her first snowball, she says] “I’ll see you at lunch, okay? Once people start throwing wet stuff, I go inside.”
Which takes us back to the opening. Tension-filled prologue aside, Meyer even writes tension onto the first page of Chapter One, as Bella leaves cloudless Phoenix to go live with her father:
p. 3: “In the Olympic Peninsula of northwest Washington State, a small town named Forks exists under a near-constant cover of clouds. It rains on this inconsequential town more than any other place in the United States of America. It was from this town and its gloomy, omnipresent shade that my mother escaped with me when I was only a few months old.”
6. To all this, we can add tension between books. To create the kind of indelible change that is the sign of a satisfying story, you need to go pole-to-pole. In Twilight, Bella moves to Forks. She hates Forks. Later, you can’t get her to leave with a crow bar. That is pole-to-pole change. In like fashion, Edward wants-but-doesn’t-want-to-hurt-Bella (pole # 1), but at the end of Twilight he relents—and puts Bella in mortal danger (pole #2). In Meyer’s early readers, who had to wait a year for the next book to launch, this created a hunger to continue with the series.

Your turn. Flip open to random pages in your manuscript. Can you find tension on every page? If not, take a clue from Stephenie Meyer's success and create some! If you care to sell books, that is…

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, an independent manuscript evaluation and editing service. What she believes: 1. Editing forever changed the way she reads. 2. Well-crafted moments of brilliance help her forgive many other problems in a manuscript. 3. All writers have strengths and weaknesses—but why settle for weaknesses? 4. We can learn as much from what other authors do right as we can from what we do wrong. This is her series, "Busted!—An author caught doing something right."




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27 comments:

  1. Taking notes from this post! Thanks!

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  2. What a wonderful and refreshing take on Meyer's writing style. I've never understood why the literary world is so hung up on "correct" style. Some of the greatest works would have failed as a high school English assignment. I love that someone else recognizes that writers don't have to follow the so called rules to do good.

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  3. Excellent post. I took notes. But, I still don't like the books. For me it's not her style it's the subject matter.

    Mary
    Giggles and Guns

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  4. I feel slightly humbled, as I too have dissed Meyer as being a less than fantastic writer.

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  5. What a great lesson in building drama and tension in a story. I noted that most of your examples had the tension coming from a characters reaction to a situation or another person. Perfect example of what I learned eons ago about what drama is -- action and reaction.

    I have not read the Twilight series as I am not interested in the subject matter, but I have gained a new respect for Meyers as a writer after reading your post. I had heard all the negatives about her writing ability, but apparently she is much better at it than her critics say.

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  6. While Meyer's sentence structure lacks, she does have good storytelling skills that bears noting.

    However, one other thing she did right that nobody's crediting her for?

    She's inspired young girls to read and write and she's indirectly assisted in the jump-starting of more than a handful of writing careers.

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  7. Hey Cat,
    Thanks for your comment! Not sure what you learned in your high school English class, but I don't think literary writers are at all hung up on correctness--perhaps they are even less so, as the style must serve and illuminate the content.

    Some rules exist so that communication can be clear; some storytelling guidelines exist because they typically work. My point here is not to hold Meyer up as a literary icon, but to see what we can learn from those things she does right. And she does know how to make a book "un-put-downable.'

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  8. You are so right, Kathryn. Absolutely perfect grammar and punctuation don't mean a thing to a reader if the story arc looks like a wet noodle and the characters act like zombies (unless they are zombies, of course). Excellent post.

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  9. Excellent point, Lee Ann. I think early in our reading lives we all had an experience with a book that was un-put-downable. For some of us, the experience laid the groundwork for patience that would help us handle more challenging works--we knew the payoff would come. For others of us, it created a benchmark against which all other books would be judged. But either way, as you so rightly point out, it started a tradition of reading.

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  10. The best-selling series authors must be doing a lot of things right, simply because they attract so many readers. I used to read a lot of western books when I was in high school. I don’t read must of this genre anymore, but a couple of years ago, I brought 5-6 of these books on vacation and re-read them on the beach, one book every day. It’s easy reading, for sure, but very catchy story telling.

    Of course the series-books get bad reviews from serious literature critics. That’s just the way it has to be. Imagine a literature expert with seven years university study and a PhD on James Joyce, giving a cheering review of a best-selling book series. He would of course loose all credibility among his expert-colleagues ... >:/

    Cold As Heaven

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  11. You have a lot of really good points here. I think I'm especially going to have to take the 'conflict' issue to heart.

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  13. Well, now that you put it that way...

    As writers, we would love to have our work appreciated and un-put-downable. So it is important to look at those authors who have done it "right" and learn those lessons.

    Really good post

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  14. heh, that's a good way of putting it :) I feel sorry for Meyer, people bash her far too much and I can't say I'm a fan, but there has to be SOMETHING that she did right that people love her books so much. And here it is.

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  16. I've seen that advice before: to create tension on every page. It's a key message of Donald Maass' "Writing the Breakout Novel."

    I'm in the (enormous) camp of people who love the Twilight series despite thinking they'd NEVER be into "vampire novels." The story is timeless and compelling. The sexual tension is breathtaking. The characters seem like they could walk right off the page.

    I. Could. Not. Put. It. Down.

    OK, so the prose is sophomoric in places. I think that's part of what makes it so readable and accessible. And there are moments of literary genius mixed in with that sophomoric prose.

    At any rate, the phrase "over 100 million copies sold" speaks louder than any criticism.

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  17. Great analysis! You are right, a lot of people fight it, but look what she's done and these are great clues to her success

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  18. Terrific analysis of what worked! Clearly *something* did, or they wouldn't be flying off the shelves! Personally, I enjoyed them, but you don't have to love something to learn from it.

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  19. I am a writer myself and I am not a fan of vampire stories. However, I loved the Twilight series. Stephenie Meyer is an excellent story teller for all the reasons that you mentioned and she has quite an imagination. Is she perfect? Probably not, but some of the vitriolic attacks on her writing style smack of jealousie.
    Christa

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  20. What a great post! I am definitely bookmarking this and although the hits against Stephenie Meyer will keep coming, you make a very valid point with excellent supporting pieces.

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  21. I loved the Twilight series also. Great insight into the story. Conflict is a crucial element in any novel. I'm editing my YA novel now and will make sure to check each page for conflict and tension. Thanks!!!!

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  22. Hi, Kathryn! Thanks for visiting my blog and leaving a comment, in which you directed me to this wonderful post of yours!! You have certainly made this Twilight fan's day!!!!!!

    On a more serious note, I have to say that I am heartily sick and tired of all the criticism directed at Stephenie Meyer. This woman has created a totally compelling set of characters, as well as an equally compelling world. These books, as you have so rightly pointed out, are page-turners. You attribute this mostly to the way Meyer skillfully creates conflict, which is indeed true. Beneath the conflict, however, there is a depth of poignant emotion that touches the reader, a well of desperate longing that utterly captivates because there is the future promise of fulfillment.

    Stephenie Meyer has romanced her readers by offering us a heady vision of forbidden love that triumphs in the end. Along the way, she has whetted our appetites with wonderful -- yes, wonderful -- prose that doesn't allow us to look up from the page until each book is entirely consumed, devoured, assimilated, and....LOVED.

    In short, these books have become utterly necessary to the psyche of any ardent Twilight fan. They have become interwoven with the very fabric of our souls and hearts.

    One of Meyer's more vocal critics is none other than Stephen King, whom, by the way, I absolutely DETEST. I read one of his stories once. Yes, it was very well-written, and conflict-laden, ad infinitum. But it protrayed disgustingly horrifying events. I don't like the horror genre, precisely because of its obvious aim of terrifying the reader. I do not enjoy reading anything that scares me silly. I do believe, furthermore, that Mr. King is, quite simply, insanely jealous of Ms. Meyer's success. While some of his novels have been made into movies, none of them have inspired the love and devotion that Meyer's books have.

    EAT YOUR HEART OUT, STEPHEN!!! This Twilighter thinks that Stephenie (ironic, the name similarity) is a MUCH BETTER writer than you!!!! (There are doubtless a zillion other Twilighters out there who would agree with me, too.)

    Thanks for this wonderful post, which I will also make sure to feature on my blog!!

    Maria @http://twilightandotherdreams.blogspot.com/

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  23. I do enjoy the twilight series - I have heard all the trash and I don't care.

    I think it's hilarious that people are so mad at Stephen King for - gasp - having an opinion.

    See way back in the day King was My Meyer - he was the one they all said was not a writer and he took that snarky nose-looking down at him with grace - humor and in fact agreement. He would say things like - your right -I'm a hack. Hard to argue with someone when they smile and agree with you.

    He is just such a dry New Englander and so funny that it shocks me others view him as evil incarnate! Not every one of his books shine - I agree. Some of them are a little hard to grasp the subtle tie ins - if you haven't read all his other novels.

    What he said was more a huge bow to J. K. Rowling than a knife to Meyers. It's all in how you want to see it.

    Meyer finally made my daughter adore books - like I do.

    King made me adore books. I never read another kids book after picking up one of his. My first adult novel - The Stand. Big book to tackle.

    Between me and my kids - Harry Potter. (I have read them out loud six times - yes the whole series)

    Any book that speaks to a bazzillion little minds and makes them think - makes them love words - Is a good book.

    Any author that can do that is someone to be respectful of in my book. I really don't care if anyone else can see that or not - It won't change my mind about plunking down my 20 bucks.


    I do pay attention to the opinion if I think it has been done thoughtfully with purpose. Like this wonderful post. Thank you for sharing with us exactly what you felt worked and what did not.

    Tread kindly future authors - for someday you may find your own footsteps dogged with echos.

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  24. Amen!! Thank you for showing that just because a novel seems "sophomoric" at best, if she can get millions of readers, so can we!

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  25. are you kidding? Twilight is crap!

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  26. Many of the most successful authors today are not among the best writers, but they are good verbal architects and good promoters who give readers what they want and build a franchise. No one seems interested in writing "the Great American Novel" anymore. A long-running series with movie and merchandise tie-ins is the target. I find it amusing that on the indie and POD forums, first-time authors are proudly announcing first novels with titles like "Blah-de-blah: Part 1 in the Chronicles of Yada-Yada."

    Of course, we all write to be read, but even that motivation seems to be taking a back seat to fantasied franchising. Twilight? Twilight of the good, rise of the good enough. Still, we certainly can take lessons from such successes.

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