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