Try the contrary

Today I finished reading Colleen Hoover’s “Hope Forever” finished. As I reflect on the book, I find myself involuntarily smiling over and over again – and this despite the fact that the book has a very serious, deep theme beyond the love story. But ultimately it is precisely this theme, which shines through only slightly over half of the book and only in the later course unfolds its full force. I think that’s a great solution. Everything is laid out from the first page but only makes sense over time.

But I don’t want to spread spoilers here. After all, I wrote yesterday about how Colleen Hoover mixes up the “twelve stages of physical intimacy” that most people follow the same pattern over and over again, just completely mixing it up to make the love story between Sky and Holder something unique that sticks in the mind.

Hoover uses a very similar trick with the text messages Holder sends Sky on a regular basis. From the first text message, she breaks out of the cliché by having Holder write exactly the opposite of what the reader would expect. As a writer, letters like this are a dangerous place to be. It’s clear that there’s been a spark between Sky and Holder. What comes next? Vows of love by cell phone? Trivia that would be the death of any good story? Here’s the first text message from Holder:

Your cookies taste like dog food. And don’t you go imagining you’re particularly pretty.

All this is well set up. Sky has a friend, Six. But she’s just settling down for an exchange year in Italy. And so the only chance the girls have is to keep in touch by cell phone. Six now does something that is quite unusual for a girl friend, but immensely important in the frame of the plot: she sends Sky an uplifting text message every day à la

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Sky, you are beautiful, most likely the most beautiful creature in the entire universe, and if anyone says otherwise, I’m afraid I’ll have to kill them.

One function of these text messages within the plot is to increase the sympathy factor for Sky. This is especially important at the beginning of a novel because it is here that the reader decides whether or not to be sympathetic to the main character. Since the story is told from Sky’s perspective, she has a hard time praising herself in order to win the reader over. That’s why it’s helpful to install a witness as early as possible to gush about how great the protagonist is. If you want to learn more about these techniques, the book Writing for Emotional Impact: Advanced Dramatic Techniques to Attract, Engage, and Fascinate the Reader from Beginning to End by Karl Iglesias is strongly recommended. He lists, in a separate chapter, all the ways to win the reader over to a protagonist.

The second feature relates to the game Holder is developing, which is to always communicate exactly the opposite of what he really thinks in his text messages. This is a wonderful way to avoid all the clichés that tend to come up in such text message exchanges. The reason Holder writes such messages is that he thinks Six is inflating Sky’s ego to the bursting point with her messages. And he now needs to do something to get Sky back on track.

For those who don’t believe me that Six was put into the novel primarily to highlight Sky’s good points – and to give Holder a motive for his own absurd text messages, let’s see how Six appears less and less often as the novel progresses, and by the end doesn’t even play a role. For a best friend introduced in the very first pages, this is extremely unusual.

This is another good tip for all writers: write exactly the opposite of what the reader would expect. This arouses curiosity, prevents clichés, and also provides a dash of humor.

I particularly noticed this technique in the dialogue of the television series “Gilmore Girls“. The series rose to fame anyway for its polished dialogue with countless allusions to film, music, politics, literature and current events. The stylistic device of saying exactly the opposite of what is expected in the situation at the time finds quite frequent use there. This occasionally makes for an absurd touch but is immensely fun to watch.

So: if you just feel like your story or dialogue is moving too close to cliché, just try the exact opposite.

Have fun with it, all the love,
Sandra

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