Two weeks ago we launched a back-to-school themed readalong for Book Country writers. The book we chose was the Young Adult Contemporary novel THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER by Stephen Chbosky. Our inaugural #BCReadalong was designed to read the book as writers, using PERKS as an example of prose, structure, and character development that has really resonated with readers of all ages.
Here at Book Country HQ we’ve come up with a list of writing tips that developed as we thought about what works about PERKS:
- Charlie is an unintentional unreliable narrator. Unreliable narrators are always a lot of fun, but what made Charlie’s voice particularly engaging is that the reader isn’t quite sure what’s so “off” about him. Charlie himself doesn’t know, either. That little mystery propels the book forward and keeps you turning the pages–you really need to get to that reveal at the end. It’s fun for the reader to piece these things together as they read, and it makes for a wonderful moment when you finally figure it out.
- Sometimes “telling” works. As writers, we’re always telling each other, “Show, don’t tell!” But you’ll notice that Charlie does a lot of “telling”: i.e. “I told Sam and Patrick about this, and they both got very quiet. Sam said she used to go out with Dave for a while before she got into punk music, and Patrick said he heard about that party.” Writing wisdom tells us that this should be a scene, with real dialogue and time to register everyone’s facial expressions and reactions. But because of the “epistolary format” of PERKS (Charlie is writing a series of letters to an unidentified person about his life), writing this “in scene” would feel contrived. These letters are meant to read like real correspondence from a 16-year-old guy, so Chbosky often lets Charlie summarize things. Charlie’s voice, because of this level of realism, is so believable that you forgive the fact that you don’t always “see” the scene.
- Charlie writes a letter every week or so. This also affects the “point of telling,” as in, the point in time from which the story is told. Many YA books are told in the present tense or in the immediate past tense, but Charlie tells his story from a bit of a distance, meaning that he has the chance to analyze what happened a little more. “I have now gone on another date with Mary Elizabeth. In a lot of ways, it was similar to the dance except that we got to wear more comfortable clothes.” The analysis that comes from Charlie’s point of telling gives Chbosky a lot of opportunities to be very funny because you get to see the impression that certain experiences left on Charlie from the vantage point of a few days later, after he’s had time to decide how he felt about it. And this is another thing that really contributes to Charlie’s relatable and engaging voice.
- Brandi pointed out something that she found interesting about PERKS: How a lot of Charlie’s growth over the year we spend with him has to do with his reading of classic novels like To Kill A Mockingbird, This Side of Paradise, The Great Gatsby, and A Separate Peace. As readers ourselves, we immediately relate to Charlie’s attachment to these books. When we write fiction, it’s okay to cross-reference other works of fiction–in fact, it can be a great way to give us insight into a character’s worldview, particularly those characters who are a little reticent (the “wallflowers” in our stories).
- Nevena also brought up the theme of “participating” in PERKS. Charlie’s teacher, Bill, tells Charlie that he should participate more, get involved, so Charlie goes out and makes friends with Sam and Patrick, and through them discovers a group that becomes his second family. Charlie is brave in a way that is relatable, especially to those of us who sometimes feel like it’s just easier to stick our nose in a book than deal with the drama of social life. Chbosky seemed to know that his reader had a need for this kind of character, and to me, that’s one way that Young Adult Contemporary books have changed since I was a young adult. I grew up reading about beautiful, popular, often rich girls (in series like Sweet Valley High and the Caitlin books). One thing I love about the current YA scene is how readily authors and publishers are producing books about characters that look, think, and feel like real people. And that’s why books like PERKS have such open admiration–they validate our experience of being flawed human beings, while still entertaining us with a good story.
What about you? If you’ve read THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, and want to join in on the discussion, find us on the Book Country discussion boards here.