I don’t think there is a person on the reading planet who has not read the smash hit YA novel, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. It’s her debut YA and the sales and buzz has been bonkers. It’s one of those rare phenomenons we only read about and wonder about because, let’s face, that kind of overnight success could never happen to us, right? Wrong.
I’m going to tell you the key to how Angie’s book sold so much so fast: she wrote it like a movie.
Yep, now you know. Well, actually it wasn’t JUST that. I’m sure that having a good agent behind her like @Byobrooks and a very timely subject didn’t hurt. She also had good editors from her publisher Balzer+Bray.
Now many of you sisters and brothers out there may also add that she made it gangsta with all the foul language and round-the-way backdrop, and you’d be right too. But as a writer, I looked past all of that to the writing itself. Not just the words but the way she presented the words.
THUG is written to be viewed and that takes the admonition of Show Don’t Tell to its highest level. Movies engage us, even trap us in the world on the screen. Obviously we can SEE video, but more than that we are taken in, distracted and whisked away from our own thoughts. Even the people sitting around us seem to disappear (until folks start talking loud, bumping our chair or spilling something that rolls down from the back and ruins our new sandals.)
Anyway, all that a movie is and does can be captured on the pages of a novel and that is what THUG did. It’s the one thing that guaranteed its rise up the NYT Bestsellers list.
But before you run to your Macbook Air and peck out your bestseller, think about how it’s done. The next time you watch a movie, pay attention, not to WHAT’S going on but HOW it’s going on. The actions, the dialogue. Of course your novel can’t offer any crying violins or thumping bass to add to the tension but you can create that with words. Think about how you say a certain line, what you leave in and what you don’t include. That technique in itself can create the music. Like this line in THUG:
“Wilkes scribbles in his notebook. Momma rubs my back. For a moment there’s only the sound of pencil on paper.”
Thomas, Angie (2017-02-28). The Hate U Give (Kindle Locations 1563-1564). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
You don’t need background music with narrative like that. When you read it within the context of the scene, you can sense the tension in the room. I think it also helps that this is written in present tense, keeping the reader in the moment.
But your choice of words, sentence structure, tense, and length is just a part of it. The real key in this book is the dialogue; there’s a lot of it, and in between Angie reveals the thoughts going on in Starr’s head so that we can fill in the missing pieces (but briefly, so the descriptions that don’t bog down the story) just as an actor’s expressions do on screen. All this moves the story forward.
Take the scene in Chapter Four when Uncle Carlos is in the kitchen discussing with Lisa and Maverick about the investigation. The dialogue is short and snappy, just like it would be in real life. It sucks you in as if you were there at the table or a fly on the wall with your eyes darting back and forth from one speaker to the next. It’s captivating and that is the key to the success of this book. After all, who does not want to be captivated while reading. That’s what it’s all about, right?
THUG offers, interesting discussions, internal thoughts, short but precise description, as well as a good story line. All those things are the makings of a good movie too. So what are you waiting for? Make your next book a movie!