While on vacation last week, I devoured "Along for the Ride," by Sarah Dessen. I realized that one of things I love most about her books is that they make me smile. Not because they're meant to be funny, but because she has a gift for turning a phrase, and for simple, quiet, emotional character arcs. (For more gushing about Sarah Dessen, see my post "Writing lessons learned from JUST LISTEN.")
Here's a brief description of ALONG FOR THE RIDE from Amazon:
Ever since her parents began fighting, Auden has been unable to sleep at night. Now, spending a summer at a charming beach town with her father and his new family, she has to find new places to pass the time she spends awake. And so she meets Eli, a fellow insomniac who becomes her nighttime guide. Together, they embark on parallel quests: for Auden, to experience the carefree teenage life she has missed; for Eli, to come to terms with the death of a friend. In her trademark blockbuster-style, Sarah Dessen creates a powerful and irresistible story of two people learning how to connect.
Here are some of the writing lessons I learned from this book:
- Give characters unlikely traits: in Dessen's book, a BMX bike rider is good with babies. A ditzy Barbie-style girl is wicked smart. The sometimes cold and calculating main character longs for the simple childhood she missed--she'd never even learned how to ride a bike. This book reminded me not to stereotype.
- Character voice through dialog: this is the second book I've read of Dessen's, and now I definitely recognize (and love) her "author" voice. But each of her characters also have their own voices, and this is mostly revealed through dialog. Demanding mother uses sharp, condescending language. Carefree brother uses "chill" language. People-pleasing main character uses serious language. It all matched the characters.
- Use current life situations to add flavor and authenticity: in her acknowledgements and on her web site, Dessen explains how she wrote this book with a newborn at home. In "Along for the Ride," the main character spends the summer living with her dad, stepmom, and newborn stepsister. She witnesses and experiences the stresses of living with a baby, and the sensory details in these scenes were authentic.
- Show character traits through action: Dad was selfish and clueless, but instead of saying "dad was selfish and clueless," the author showed us. One example is a scene where the main character goes to dinner with her dad and newborn stepsister. The baby goes ballistic. Dad acts helpless, and then hands the baby over the main character, goes inside the restaurant, orders his food, and eats in peace. *Insert looks of disgust from moms here*
- Add something unique that binds the two main characters together: in this case, insomnia. While everyone else was asleep, Auden and Eli traveled around town together, doing childish things Auden had never done, and getting to know each other better.
- Jump ahead, then fall back: I've noticed a device this author uses well. She jumps ahead to the next important scene, but if there's a mini episode from the recent past that matters to the story, but doesn't need a full scene, she refers to it in a couple of paragraphs to bring the reader up to speed. In his book Plot & Structure, James Scott Bell refers to these short bursts as "back flashes."