So I started listening to The Fault in Our Stars yesterday while weed-whacking “the verge,” as Gandalf might say. And I am blown away.
As a writer, I can often see where a story is going before I’m too deep into it. As a reader, I can spot a great book when, even though I can see what is coming, I’m still dying to get there anyway. That takes a kind of brilliance or meticulous care on the writer’s part: that intentional laying down of story elements so that the obvious is not boring but electrifying.
Here’s the kicker: I don’t like romance novels, and The Fault in Our Stars is classified as such. That is not to say I don’t like romance itself. I love love affairs, the longing for union, the sexy flirtation between two people who are attracted to one another. Anyone who has read a sampling of my work knows this is true. Fairmist even has an honest-to-Faia love triangle in it. But I do not like the romance trope.
So, while I do not seek out romance novels, I’m always looking for good stories. I crave them no matter where they come from. If it’s a good story, my natural predilections fly out the window. The story could be a romance novel, a shoot-em-up detective story, a math-crunching hard sci-fi, a differently-abled-coming-of-age story, or even (shudder) a literary story. Great stories shine through the bars of their genres.
Typically, I find these genre-transcending stories through word-of-mouth. If enough people I respect tell me a story “got them,” it makes me curious. For example, back in 2016, The Martian was mentioned to me by a friend. A week later, another friend mentioned it. That same week a family member asked if I’d read it. My answer was: “No.” Because I’m not a hard sci-fi guy. What did I care about some dude doing math problems on Mars, calculating the wind speed of a red dust storm or the amount of bacteria needed to grow potatoes? Were there swords in this novel? Dragons? Magic? Badass women in battle-bikinis diving off waterfalls, dagger clenched between teeth, while chasing the villain?
So I wasn’t interested. But then my boss at work, during one of our weekly check-ins, asked me, “Hey, you’re into that whole sci-fi/fantasy thing, right? Have you read The Martian by Andy Weir, because it’s amazing…” Despite the fact that she conflated sci-fi and fantasy genres as one (they are SO not the same, thankyouverymuch), I checked out The Martian that very night. Why? Because my boss is not a sci-fi fan. That said something about The Martian. It had spilled over the genre lines and it had gotten to her. So I had to at least sample it to see a) if I agreed and b) why it did that. I got home, reluctantly called up the “Look Inside…” page on Amazon, and thought, “One paragraph. That’s all the time I have for this. If it doesn’t grab me, I’m making dinner and forgetting about The Martian forever….”
One paragraph was all it took. I read the thing in mere days.
I will admit I didn’t get four personal recommendations for The Fault in Our Stars, but I saw it in Save the Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody (a writing how-to book that I adore; if you haven’t read it and you want to be a writer, OH MY GOD what are you waiting for?). Ms. Brody uses multiple examples of popular novels to illustrate her lessons in story structure, and The Fault in Our Stars is one of those examples. So the book got on my radar in a general sort of way, and when Audible had a 2-for-1 sale, I took a chance.
As a writer, I analyze Story all the time. Surprise surprise. When I’m reading a book, watching a movie, listening to a podcast, I analyze. Even when I’m standing in line at the grocery store, I analyze. That far-off look isn’t me going over my mental grocery list, it’s me thinking about character and plot and the logistical smoothness of my work-in-progress.
My daughter (who suffers from this same story-analyzing affliction) and I will often make predictions in the first five minutes of a movie about what is going to happen. She’s a savant at this sort of thing. I get it right about 70% of the time; she gets it right about 95% of the time.
All this to say, I’m barely a third of the way into The Fault in Our Stars, and my mind is alight with how author John Green masterfully sets up his story. I see possible purpose in every event, in every side character in the world Green is constructing. I can see the catalyst (that thing that pitches the main character out of their Status Quo World and into the Special World) heading toward me like a freight train, and I envision a cataclysmic clash of hopes and hard realities in the main character’s misty future. And I…am…TENSE!
That’s writing. Wow!
It’s one of those books that, while I think I can see what will happen, I’m not certain. Moreover, I definitely don’t know how it’s going to happen, and that’s what keeps me driving forward. I mean, I’m sure the girl and the boy are going to get together, but I don’t know if it is going to be happy or tragic (impending death is a big theme in this story). Bottom line: I simply have to know what happens next. That should be the goal of every good writer.
In short: Well done, Mr. Green. You got me. The book has, for me, transcended genre. I’ll be looking to you as a model as I continue my quest to write a genre-transcending fantasy story.