Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Writing lessons learned from ALONG FOR THE RIDE


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."
So there you have it, my writing lessons learned from "Along for the Ride." Have you read this book, or any other books by Sarah Dessen? Are there any writing lessons you've learned lately from a great book? Please share!

23 comments:

  1. That is a selfish dad.
    Character voice is something I'm still working on.

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    1. Alex, I'm still a student on character voice as well (among other things!)

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  2. Showing character traits through action--show don't tell--easily the best thing for a writer to strive to. And it's something I think we can always do better at.

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    1. EJ, sometimes I slip into "telling" without even realizing it! Thankfully critique partners don't let me get away with it :)

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  3. I love the subtle strength and humor of Sarah Dessen's books also.

    There is a lot to learn from her writing.

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    1. "Subtle strength and humor"... perfectly said!

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  4. I'm so glad you continue to post these writing lessons, Julie! Always something to learn. The backflash is something not everyone can do well without it feeling clunky and shoved in. Good to have an example!

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    1. Michele, she does backflashes effortlessly. I'm amazed.

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  5. Every time I read a great book I get depressed, LOL. I just want to create something that amazing! My focus right now is character--learning how to make relationships more meaningful. (I'm such a plot driven writer!) Sounds like I need to read Dessen--I'm surprised I haven't!

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    1. Morgan, I know what you mean about being feeling down after reading something so amazing. I think, "Dang, how does she DO that!" But thankfully we get to learn while also being entertained by great books :)

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  6. Great advice. I really like the one about giving characters unlikely traits. That is one of my favorite exercises to do while I write.

    Thanks, Julie!

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    1. Thanks, Sheri. That's such a fun thing to do when creating characters!

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  7. Sarah Dessen's books are very popular with the older girls I teach :)

    I love when the characters are shown like that - I'm going to be ticked off at that dad all night!

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    1. Jemi, during those "selfish dad" scenes, I got so frustrated with him!! I wanted to shake this fake person's shoulders and say "snap out of it!"

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  8. Great writing lessons as always, Julie! Very nice, and I loved that you used such great examples.

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  9. I've grabbed for her books many times. Now I shall close my fingers around one. I'm steaming about the dad and the restaurant.

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  10. These are awesome pieces of advice! And I just adore Sarah Dessen. :) Happy Writing!

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  11. Great lesson AND great review. I don't typically go for that sort of book but you made me want to!

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  12. Great lessons. Would you say this book had an open ending? I've always wanted to read this author and haven't because I've heard a lot about open endings. And I'm not a fan of open endings.

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  13. This appears to be another brilliant work. I love the writing tips. And to learn how to flashback, is a talent.
    James Scott Bell is amazing. Thank you for another great post.

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  14. It all seems fairly obvious, right? But not so easy to pull off well. As a writer, I'm always learning.

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  15. omg--I LOVE Sarah Dessen. I read all her books--but I haven't read this one! I'll have to grab it. Love her voice, but you're right, her characters have voices, too. And I love the quirky traits she gives them. Like in Someone Like You, the guy eats grape Jolly Ranchers, so their kisses are grape. Yeah! Like in Juno--orane Tic Tacs. :D <3

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