What I Learned from Twilight: Writing with Sincerity
Over the three-day weekend, I read Stephanie Meyer's Twilight for the first time.
Yes, I know I'm twelve years late to the party. But I never read the book when it was popular for a few reasons.
- It was popular, and I was at that stage of late adolescence in which one is obligated to sneer at everything popular.
- The movies came out when I was in college. I watched the first one and found it boring, so I wasn't eager to try the book that inspired it.
- Over the years I've read countless articles about how the Twilight trilogy promotes traditional gender roles, portrays sex as something dangerous and shameful, and romanticizes stalking and abusive relationships. Who would want to read something like that?
But since I'm gearing up to write my own trilogy for young adults, I need to know my intended audience. It's an undeniable fact that Twilight whipped a significant portion of that intended audience into a frenzy of fandom for many years. So I checked out the eBook from my local library and went in with an open mind, determined to read it without being influenced by any preconceptions or prejudices.
And you know what? The book really does promote traditional gender roles, portray sex as a dangerous sin, and romanticize worrisome behavior. But the book also has its charms, and I understand why teenagers in the 2000s were so drawn to this story.
Twilight is clearly Stephanie Meyer's first novel. The chapters ramble and often go nowhere (e.g., Bella lies in the grass to think about Edward...and that's it). Redundant dialogue tags clutter every page (e.g., Bella makes many sarcastic remarks followed by "I said sarcastically"). No real conflicts pop up until the book is nearly over.
Then there are the bad relationship lessons. If Bella were my daughter, I would sit her down and say, "Sweetheart, a boy who sneaks into your house to spy on you in the dark is not romantic. A boy who physically drags you around while you're shouting at him to let go is not cool. A boy who secretly follows you when you go out of town with girlfriends, who gets angry when other boys talk to you, and who reads your classmates' private thoughts to find out every word you say, is not in love with you. He's pathologically obsessed with you."
However, I don't think any of that would have bothered me if I were fifteen years younger. I would have adored Bella Swan, because she's the very definition of adolescent wish fulfillment.
- She's a martyr from page one, sacrificing her life in sunny Phoenix to move to depressing Forks, WA because she wants her mom to be happy with her new husband. She hates stupid Forks and its stupid clouds, but she hides her pain behind a cool facade. (Edward: "You put on a good show, but I'd be willing to bet that you're suffering more than you let anyone see.")
- She's so mature for her age, a vampire who's lived for more than a hundred years comments that she seems much older than seventeen. She had to grow up fast because her bumbling parents couldn't feed or dress themselves without her. (Bella: "My mom always says I was born thirty-five years old and that I get more middle-aged every year....Well, someone has to be the adult.")
- She's so gorgeous, every boy she meets instantly falls in love with her. Bella's admirers include three popular classmates who follow her around like "golden retrievers," one super cute werewolf, and one glittery vampire who finds her petulant temper so adorable, he's willing to endanger his entire family by using his powers to rescue her from certain death. Repeatedly.
And yet, Bella's voice has charmed millions of readers since 2005. I believe there are two qualities to this character that lure people into the story of Twilight.
The first is relateability. All seventeen-year-olds think they're different from the other seventeen-year-olds, and they're suffering more than anyone could ever understand, and they're way smarter than the clueless adults around them. Bella is what teenagers believe they are, so they can put themselves in her place and feel what she feels.
The second quality is sincerity. Not once did I feel like Bella's character was disingenuous. Self-centered and immature, yes. Fake, no. Meyer didn't create Bella Swan thinking, "This is what teenage girls like in a heroine, so I'm going to give them what they want and sell gazillions of books." She wrote this story because she loved it. I might not personally find the hero's domineering behavior romantic, but it's clear Meyer's own heart was thumping as she wrote those scenes.
It makes no sense that an invincible 105-year-old vampire would move to small-town Washington and enroll in high school, when he could live happily in the wilderness of Eurasia hunting bears. It makes even less sense that he would fall head over heels for a sulky teenager who smells, to him, like the world's most delicious cheeseburger. (Can you imagine falling in love with a wise-cracking cheeseburger?) The romance in Twilight is unbelievable and cliché in the extreme.
Yet legions of Meyer fans don't care, because the improbable Bella Swan and the impossible Edward Cullen bare their souls on the page without apology or embarrassment.
Twilight, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, The Fault in Our Stars, A Song of Ice and Fire, the Millennium trilogy...every mega-hit series in the book world, regardless of genre, shares this one common quality, sincerity. A writer can come up with the tightest plot, the wittiest dialogue, and the keenest observations of the human condition, but if she doesn't write with sincerity, her readers won't connect with the story.
What Sincerity Is and Isn't
Sincerity does not mean "brutal honesty." It does not mean pouring out your raw feelings in a feverish confessional, heedless of your audience. It means respecting your readers and making an honest effort to touch their hearts.
In the seventh grade, my drama teacher listened to me read a scene from a play and told me, "Stop acting." He said to be a good actress, I had to stop acting the way I thought actors were supposed to act and be myself.
It wasn't until my twenties that I understood what that drama teacher really meant. The "myself" he wanted to see wasn't my raw self, but an artificial self that would come across as artless to an audience. He didn't want me to stop acting; he wanted me to act like I wasn't acting.
Like actors have to work hard to look like they're not acting, writers need to work hard to make their stories seem effortless. An effective writing voice is not a "natural" voice. It's a lucid voice that appears to be natural. To put it baldly, we need to manipulate people into thinking they're not being manipulated.
Readers don't mind being manipulated. In fact, they enjoy it. They want authors to create stories that will make them feel wonderful and terrible things. They don't want to waste their time and money on books that bore them. They just don't like it when it's obvious they're being manipulated, when they can see the author behind the curtain pulling the strings.
When I read insincere books, I can see the authors pulling the strings. I can sense them attempting to manipulate me into giving them royalties and glowing reviews. The scenes seem too glossy, like they were assembled by machine. The characters give me the same impression I get from politicians whose smiling lips spout whatever they think the voters want to hear.
Sincere books, on the other hand, make me feel like the authors and I are kindred spirits. The scenes seem to be written for me personally, lovingly crafted for emotional punch. The protagonists seem like real people. I'm right there in the story with them, feeling the same excitement and terror and sorrow they do.
How to Write with Sincerity
Conquer your fear of "sap."
There's a certain lie I hear surprisingly often, nearly word-for-word, from the mouths of unrelated strangers: "I couldn't care less what other people think of me."
Many people are terrified that "caring" will be seen as "weakness." This is an understandable fear, because kids are awful. To hide their own insecurities, children and immature adults try to humiliate others for having feelings. Kids who get upset when they're teased are "crybabies." Boys who openly express affection are "gross." In middle school, my friends pestered me to tell them the name of the boy I liked. When I worked up the courage to trust them with this precious secret, they laughed in my face. "That guy? He's a total loser!"
When people are afraid of derision, they create personas that are too cool for emotions and stuff. They roll their eyes at "sappy" love stories and scoff at "cheesy" happy endings. This kind of bravado is mildly exasperating in real life, and it's downright fatal in creative writing.
A sad number of novels, especially ones by and for men, feature characters who act like they're emulating Sam Spade. Macho posturing infuses every sentence. The heroes respond to danger by making snarky quips, and to tragedy by shrugging. They feel nothing, sympathize with no one, and describe members of the opposite sex in the language of frat boys trying to impress their bros in the locker room. (Why, pray tell, must every private eye catalog the breast size and leg length of every female he meets? Do men actually see women this way? Sweetie claims not.)
This problem is less common in fiction by and for women, but we're certainly not immune. In my own writing and in real life, I tend to hide embarrassing emotions under humor. Romance is especially squicky to me. (My middle school traumas might or might not have something to do with it.) I physically blushed at some of the outrageously suave lines Edward Cullen delivers in Twilight. Just the thought of writing anything like that myself makes me squirm in my office chair.
But to write with sincerity, I need to be willing to make myself vulnerable. I know I can't bluster my way through a novel, shying away from any sentiments the snarky porcupines might call "sappy." The sappiness of Twilight is exactly what makes fans of the books and movies swoon. If Stephanie Meyer had worried about whether people would think Bella and Edward are "squicky," she wouldn't be a wealthy woman today.
Think outside the formula.
I've read some cozy mysteries so formulaic, the authors seem to have used a Betty Crocker baking mix for instant novels.
- Pour mix into a large bowl.
- Add one love interest, one crafting theme, and one dash of small-town setting. Stir until large lumps dissolve.
- Pour batter into a prepared 75,000-word pan. Bake until an editorial toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
- Cool completely. Top with a picture of a cat.
Then there are other cozy mysteries like that gourmet cake my boss brought in for a coworker's birthday: a decadent gateau with a creamy white chocolate filling and a dark chocolate ganache. Just like I still remember the taste of that cake and want to try others from that bakery, I vividly remember the experience of reading those novels and want to find other titles by those authors. Nobody remembers the taste of a Betty Crocker cake with canned frosting.
Twilight isn't gourmet, but at least it didn't come out of a box. It's like a birthday cake your aunt baked for you from scratch. Your aunt isn't a professional pâtissier, so the layers are uneven, the texture is a little dry, and the cream cheese frosting came out gooey. But the homemade cake still tastes ten times better than a Duncan Hines, because she baked it with love.
Most authors who write formulaic books probably aren't being lazy or greedy for sales. Maybe they think the formulas are better than anything they could come up with. Maybe they're afraid if they tweak the usual recipe, their fans will get upset.
But writing like that doesn't come across as sincere, because there's nothing of the author's heart in them. Readers might close the covers thinking, "That was a well-written book. I acknowledge this author's skills." But they won't think, "Nooo it's already over! I didn't want it to end! I want more books and I want them now!"