Goins, Writer

On Writing, Ideas, and Making a Difference

5 Lessons for Writers from The Fault in Our Stars

Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book. –John Green

In case you haven’t heard, the biggest thing to hit the big screen this weekend is a film called The Fault in Our Stars. I’m taking my wife to it because we haven’t cried together in a while, and if the movie is anything like the book, it’ll live up to that expectation.

The fault in our stars

The Fault in Our Stars book

I stumbled upon this #1 New York Times bestseller earlier this year after getting tired of seeing it on the evergreen best sellers list. Listening to the audio version while driving home, I tried not to wake my sleeping son with my suppressed laughs.

I couldn’t put the book down.

After I finished reading it, I was fascinated with the author John Green and spent more than an adequate amount of time on his website, reading about what inspired such a story, how it clearly made an impact on people’s lives, and how his personal beliefs influence his writing.

I identified several lessons that any writer can learn from Mr. Green and apply to their own craft (I certainly plan on doing so, anyway). Here’s what I learned.

Write what you know

This was one of the secrets to Hemingway’s genius: he wrote nearly-biographical fiction which, he thought, was truer than reality. Green, who spent some time as a hospital chaplain before he became an author, did the same.

In fact, he admitted to basing part of The Fault in Our Stars on a teenage girl named Esther, who sadly passed away before the book she inspired was ever published.

Build a tribe

John and his brother Hank share a wildly popular YouTube channel called “vlogbrothers” where they talk about science, philosophy, politics, and anything else that tickles their fancy.

They’ve given a name to their community, Nerdfighters, a group that is dedicated to making the world a better place by fighting to “increase awesome and decrease suck.”

What Green has tapped into with his video channel, especially for a young adult audience, is something more authors could learn from: go where your audience is (and who isn’t on the Internet these days?), and meet them there.

He calls it “Nerdfighteria” — I call it your tribe. Whatever the name, go find the people you want to reach, and start serving them. Give people a place to gather, and you will have something more than just a good story. You will have a movement.

Tell a story about real life

Sure, there’s plenty of room in the market for the next paranormal YA romance novel; and if that’s your thing, go for it. But there’s also power in telling a simple story well. Reality is something we can all relate to.

Green does an excellent job of this in his novel about two teenage cancer patients who fall in love. The dialogue is funny and often sardonic, occasionally filled with believable profanity (how else would two kids dying of cancer talk?).

Because it feels real, you’re left with a sense at the end of the novel that there’s some lesson you just learned about your own life.

Make your audience cry

I once heard musician Damien Rice say he creates better art when he’s sad. I think we all do.

There’s a profound exchange that happens between artist and audience when we share our pain. At some level, every human being is acquainted with suffering, so when you tell a sad story, you are sharing something universal that we can all tap into.

Give hope

It’s not enough to just tell a sad story. You have to give people something to believe in. Yes, you must be real and authentic, but what makes The Fault in Our Stars, or any good story for that matter, powerful is that within this tale of inevitable tragedy, we find hope.

Reading the novel, you know that someone is going to die, but there is still a theme of redemption woven throughout the story. Yes, you know something bad is going to happen; but you believe something good is happening, too.

A good story captures our imagination and transports us somewhere else — but it also brings us back to our own realities, helping us understand ourselves and the universe a little better.

At least, that’s how I felt after finishing The Fault in Our Stars. We’ll see if the movie delivers the same.

(Addendum: I just got back from watching the film with my wife. It was good. There wasn’t a dry eye in the theater, present company included.)

Note: My online writing course, Tribe Writers, closes next Wednesday. Find out more here.

Have you read a book that fits all the above lessons? Share in the comments.

About Jeff Goins

I write books and help writers get their work out into the world. I am the best-selling author of four books, including The Art of Work. Each week, I send out a newsletter with free tips on writing and creativity.

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  • Great post, Jeff! I haven’t read this book yet but I definitely will. I love quality YA like this. I also adore Damien Rice, his gorgeous music makes me weep, it’s so good.
    -Dana

    • Me, too, Dana.

      Rice went on to say that he’s not sad anymore, nor does he intend to be, so he’s looking for a new reason to write. I appreciated his honesty, but that actually made me a little sad. 😉

  • Kristine Kweng

    “A good story captures our imagination and transports us somewhere else — but it also brings us back to our own realities, helping us understand ourselves and the universe just a little bit better.”
    Amen to this. 🙂 I’m so excited to see the movie!

  • I really enjoyed this book too. My manuscript is YA and I teach teenagers so it was right up my alley. I think Green is clever and uses social media very well, he encapsulates the essence of being a modern author. You make some great points.

    • Thanks, Naomi. He’s certainly one to watch. 🙂

  • Morgan

    The Book Theif was one that met those criterion. At least it felt like Zusak was writing what he knew. It for sure met all the others. Also The Art of Racing in the Rain was real, visceral, and hopeful.

    Great work Jeff!

    • I still haven’t read that. Never really got into dog fiction. Maybe I should. My wife and I saw the Book Thief on an airplane together and both cried a little, if I remember correctly.

  • You should read “Looking for Alaska” – his first, I believe. Fantastic.

    • I believe, my friend, I will save that for my upcoming trip to Alaska. 😉

  • Vobluda

    From what you said, I wouldn’t enjoy it even a bit, and I would better not write at all, than telling stories that makes people feel misarable, which is, I guess, this one.

    • Not at all. What it does is tap into the pain we can all relate to, and gives us hope. I think the best stories do that.

  • Sounds like a book I would enjoy. Putting it on my list. “Yes, you know something bad is going to happen; but you also believe something good is happening, too.” Those are some of my favorite types of stories. Like you said, they’re real.

    • I think you’ll like it, Eileen. 🙂

  • Tesha Munn Fritz

    When I read the book, “Vanishing Acts” by Jodi Picoult I knew it was fiction, but I could sense that there was history and background shared between the author and the characters. She definitely wrote from a “more than familiar” place. There was definitely some crying and laughter, but the theme of hope was beautifully written into each of the characters’ struggles and triumphs. Thanks for reminding me of that today.

    • You’re welcome, Tesha. Thanks for reading.

  • A

    Thank you, The Fault in Our Stars! YA existential fiction could very well replace the (what I feel) tired dystopia craze. Real life breeds resilience…
    Bring some tissues Jeff. One box for you and one for your wife.
    -Blessings
    Alyson

  • srvnGod

    The Shack by W.P. Young was a life changer for me. But the story behind the book coming too fruition was divine and phenomenal. Divine by Karen Kingsbury too. Well anything she writes really brings these lessons home for me.

    • The Shack was pretty moving to me, too.

  • A Tribe Writer friend, Pam Black, posted the other day that one NEEDS to read the book, The Fault in our Stars, first before heading out to see the movie. So, I have it on my Kindle reader now. This movie/book is a hot topic right now, so I’m feeling a world wide book club going on right now and I’m out of the loop, so I’d better get hopping and get this puppy read!

    I appreciate your take, Jeff, on recognizing what good writers do and sharing it with the world in order to help the rest of us. This writing community is so valuable in this way. Inspiration is fueled every time I read something from a Tribe Writer.

    By the same author of The Shack, is Cross Roads. This book I read in a day, sucked in like a holstein in 2 feet of mud (I was raised on a farm – this isn’t pretty). It’s a book that makes you think for days, although I don’t know if any shred of it is based on reality by the author. I’m thinking about googling that right now.

    • I agree. You will enjoy the movie being in on all the “inside jokes” and such. The movie stays pretty close to the book and only cuts a few pieces of content due to length. I thought it was good.

  • Goodness, I have to write all these books down!

  • DeBora

    Jeff, you did it again. I get so much from your posts. What I love most is how your writing and stories remind me that THE best writing is elegant in its simplicity and clarity. I’m working on my third book, and I will certainly take a page from John’s bestseller. Thanks!

    • You’re welcome, DeBora! I’m just sharing what I, too, am learning. 🙂

  • Joan Campbell

    I’ve just finished reading The Fault in our Stars, and have to say, I struggled to believe in the characters. They were so witty, erudite (that’s a word they would have used) and philosophical that they didn’t sound like 17 year olds to me! I believe one of the lessons I learnt from Green is that readers shouldn’t be aware of the author’s presence (as I felt aware of Green who is obviously very witty, erudite and philosophical). Just my humble opinion and maybe not very valid given that the book is such a roaring success. I also didn’t see much redemption or hope; in fact, it felt like a pretty bleak picture of death to portray to teenage readers.

    • Hi Joan. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. You’re right: the characters are larger than life. But I think that’s intentional. Green is creating archetypes: incredibly intelligent and witty characters who are still vulnerable.

      This, I believe, is actually a very believable picture of youth. These kids seem to know everything, and yet, they don’t. Even the author says that they often don’t understand what they’re talking about (he mentions this on his website, referencing how Hazel misunderstands set theory during Gus’s funeral).

      That said, I think teenagers are very clever. These may or may not be “typical” teenagers, but there are definitely kids out there who talk like this. I think the characters in this book represent a part of youth culture that we discount — the slightly nerdy misfits who know more than we sometimes give them credit for but still face the same tragic vulnerabilities we all experience as humans.

      And regarding the hope, I thought that was a pretty strong theme. Van Houten represents the potential cynicism we can all give in to when facing despair, and by the end of the story, we see that in spite of tragedy, both Hazel and Gus, and certainly Hazel’s parents, resist such a temptation.

      We can’t control the endings to our stories, but we can control what we make of them.

      So we may have to disagree on that point. 🙂

      Thanks again for the comment.

      • Joan Campbell

        Thanks Jeff. I like the point you make about Van Houten representing cynicism, and it is very true that Hazel and her parents take a completely different route to him. I hadn’t thought of that aspect as a form of hope!

        • That was my take on it, anyway, Joan. Thanks for reading. 🙂

    • Kat Whit

      I also read it the other night because my daughter wanted to go to the movie with me. As a teacher who works with this age group, and a mother of a smart teenage daughter, I also felt that the novel’s weakness is that the teens, highly intelligent and worldly beyond their years, just don’t seem realistic to me. But, it is a popular book among teenagers…so maybe it’s realistic to them. 🙂 We saw the movie lastnight. The message is a good one for all of us, with or without a terminal illness: Live your life to its fullest no matter how much time you have.

  • jbird669

    Just curious why you and your wife have to cry together?

    • Heh. We don’t, but once in awhile it’s nice to share a vulnerable moment like that. 🙂

      • jbird669

        Fair enough! 🙂 Sharing vulnerability I can agree with.

  • Peggy Dallmann

    Jeff, I have been meaning to read some of John’s books. I live near Indianapolis, where he resides, so I keep waiting for an opportunity to hear him speak or a workshop opportunity with him that will synch with my schedule. After reading your review, I will be certain to read this book. I enjoy a good YA book and a good cry at times. Please follow up and let us know if you think the movie was as good as the book. I recall sitting on an airplane by myself, laughing out loud while reading The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. I adored that book! Yet I was so disappointed when the movie was released later. After the movie came out, others acted as if they did not believe me when I told them they should read the book. I’ll bet many readers have passed up this very good book due to the movie. So I’ll take this opportunity to recommend Divine Secrets to my fellow women Tribe Writers especially. Men should enjoy it too, especially if they enjoy a book with some crazy incidents thrown in that will hopefully cause them to laugh out loud like I did.

  • Judging from my Facebook feed… the movie of this book is extremely popular.

    • Hah! And the thousands of Amazon reviews. NBD. Not like knowing what books are popular is your job or anything. 😉

  • This is actually my favorite book of all time, it was once Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (which says a lot). When I read The Fault in Our Stars for the first time I was awed by the way John Green told a story. After hearing about it from one of my other friends at school, I was unsure if I could handle story so sad, but Green was able to balance the sadness with laughter. His point of view of death was cynical in the most humorous kind of way. I cried the entire book (and movie); my only wish being that I can write a novel that moves people the way Green’s novel did. I’m only 16 so I have time 🙂

  • Krithika Rangarajan

    5 Lessons for Writers from Jeff Goins:

    a. Humility is the hallmark of a RESPECTED writer
    b. Simple elegance is more powerful than flashy exuberance
    c. Hold your readers in high regard
    d. Fabulous writers cannot help but create a community that joyously and actively engages with them
    e. Never compare, never compete – just be YOU

    Thank you so much for bestowing us with your wonderful articles, Jeff! #HUGSSS

    “The Fault in the Stars” – a profound title, btw your headline should tug at your reader’s heart 😉 – is going on my Must-Read list!

    • Great tips, Krithika. And thank you for your kind swords.

  • BRIANNA

    If you haven’t read “Looking for Alaska” by John Green, I highly recommend it! It was his first book, I believe.

  • Haven’t read or seen the movie but after this recommendation I just ordered it. Fabulous lesson here Jeff.

  • Vikki

    I absolutely loved The Fault in Our Stars, not sure I can cope with the film as watching the trailer made me cry. I thought it was a great book that really made me think and John Green found an incredible balance between sadness, humour and hope. I have to say though, I read Looking for Alaska right after and was so disappointed with it! I didn’t engage with the characters in that one at all. Hoping that was just a blip in the John Green genius.

    • Heh. Yeah, you’ll cry. Interesting on Looking for Alaska.

  • Ken Trupke

    Nice post, Jeff.

    I’ve never heard of The Fault in Our Stars, so thanks for your recommendation.

    Also, really good job drawing out the broader lessons.

    For me, a book that fits the lessons is Nicolas Sparks’ “The Notebook”. (The great James Garner stars in the movie version, but read the book, too.)

    • You know, I’ve never read one of his books. I can’t really stand the movies, but maybe I should get the novels a shot.

      • Ken Trupke

        Yeah, I hear you! The power for me was reflecting on my self/wife/marriage in the circumstances of “The Notebook”, so give the book a try.

  • Lisa Van Engen

    All time favorite right now! I did the same thing and devoured his website…. who wrote such a smart page turner?

  • Glenn Trevisan

    Loved the 5 lessons, Jeff. I read a book like that recently, a first book by Christian singer/songwriter Nichole Nordeman, “Love Story – The Hand That Holds Us from the Garden to the Gates.” Essentially, Nichole re-tells some Biblical stories but not in a way they’re ever been told before. I laughed and cried a LOT and, in each story (18 in all), lots of hope too.

    • I remember Nicole from back in the day. Maybe I should check this out.

  • Julia Zaher

    Bootstrapper, a memoir by MardiJo Link. Incredible story.

  • Karrilee Aggett

    So – I just read this book today. Literally. (As in… literally – sat down this morning and didn’t get up until I was done, not literally – as in ‘in the heart of’.)

    I too had seen it everywhere and heard the reviews but I was busy with all the other/non-fiction books as of late… but now, the movie! So clearly I had to read the book… quickly. In one day. So I could go see the movie!

    I loved the book and completely agree with your post here, and like the book I will tuck this away to reread again soon!

    • Hah! You “literally” took the words right out of my mouth. 😉

  • Morgan B.

    Thanks for the great post, Jeff! It prodded me in just the right way to realize what I had recently learned for my own writing, which I wrote my own post about: https://brisbaneskye.blogspot.com/2014/06/what-i-learned-about-writing-from.html

  • Cate McKeown

    Loved this novel. Loved how we were kept wondering if the ending of this book was going to go the same way as Hazel’s favourite novel. Kept the thought of ‘who would it be’ alive until it became clear who it would be. 🙂 Such a great write. Oh, to have such a story within! Thanks, Jeff, for the five lessons – you have such wisdom about you.

    • Yup. There definitely was that mystery there, wasn’t there?

  • You really are a great wordsmith Jeff, love your work!

    • Thanks, James. That’s nice of you to say. 🙂

  • Wendy Hill

    Yes, I agree that John Green hit it out of the ballpark with this one and for the very reasons you suggest – especially for offering redemption and hope within the story. My only other Green read was Paper Towns, which was disappointing compared with The Fault in Our Stars. It was a story about teens behaving badly and offered no redemption or hope to speak of, nor any real change or growth within the characters. I believe that makes it more sad than TFIOS, because it doesn’t provide any significant take-away for the reader. Yet, teens seem to love it.

    • Interesting. I’ve thought of reading other books by him but haven’t ventured out yet.

  • Too funny! I just wrote a blog today about TFIOS: https://audacitytowrite.blogspot.com/2014/06/why-im-obsessed-with-TFIOS.html

    I agree that even though it was a heart-wrenching story, it still (somehow!) managed to give us hope at the end. I thought Green really captured the heart/mind of a teenage girl (despite the fact that he is NOT a teenage girl). It was a great read and the movie was enjoyable as well.

  • Thanks Jeff. I have stayed away from this book because it doesn’t look like anything I’d be interested in. But you have convinced me I should give it a try.

    I am also mulling writing my first short story (or maybe book?) and am completely terrified at the thought of producing something that is mind-numbingly awful. But you have shared some great tips here that have given me the courage to get started.

    • Cool, Kent. Let me know what you think!

  • Hey Jeff,

    I loved the book and movie. I just had one note on your post here. John didn’t go to youtube to connect with his audience. His youtube presence was started with his brother as a communication experiment. Over time it has grown to an amazing community with awesome people.

    • Great point, Stephen. He didn’t start it to connect with his audience, but certainly that’s been an interesting byproduct.

  • Michael Lettner

    I read it after seeing my wife love it so much. I am normally a slow reader, but read it in 3 evenings. I loved how John Green wrote for all the reasons you said. We have recommended it to many friends and told them yes it’s sad, but a good sad. But I should put it like you put that it has hope in “pain the demands to be felt.” We listened to it on our drive home from my wife’s grandma’s funeral. We went and saw the movie on Friday. They did a great job of making it into a movie. It was really funny being surrounded by lots of swooning teenage girls. I may have cried during it especially about the infinities which was my favorite part of the book.

  • Adam Rufle

    As a reader of classics, nothing I’ve read about this book has made it sound appealing to me. Are there any people who generally read classics who would suggest The Fault in Our Stars?

    • Hi Adam. I read mostly classics, as well. I just don’t have time for fiction that’s going to be a waste of time. Still, every once in a while, I try to read a new book that everyone’s raving about. I don’t dare compare these books to The Sun Also Rises or The Great Gatsby, but they’re generally fun reads. That’s what TFIOS was. The story was good, the dialogue fun, and it was a quick read. I hope that helps. 🙂

  • Chelsea

    This was a beautiful and inspiring post. I just finished reading “Sky Blue” by Travis Thrasher. It gives the same incredible feeling as you have said “The Fault In Our Stars” does.

    • Cool. I’ll have to check it out. Thanks, Chelsea!

  • I devoured the book. I wasn’t sure if the movie would do justice to the book. But, I was very pleased. I am heading to the links to the author’s Nerdfighter site next. Thanks for sharing more about it. 🙂