John Green’s Looking for Alaska is a (deservedly) much-loved and much-awarded young adult novel, which, if you haven’t read it, pertinent to yesterday’s discussion let me give you the “OMG you haven’t read Looking for Alaska?!” treatment.
For those who have Looking for Alaska on their “gap” book list, the basic plot is this: a boy, quickly nicknamed Pudge by his roommate “The Colonel,” is attending a boarding school and develops a very strong crush on a girl named Alaska (not a nickname), who is beautiful but flighty/uneven/intense. She has a boyfriend but she seems somewhat intrigued by Pudge, and their relationship forms the backbone of the book as they embark upon pranks and general attempts to survive high school.
In addition to unteachable writing techniques like a perfect pitch ear for dialogue and what must be a painfully photographic memory of what it was like to be in high school, the way Green crafts the relationship between Pudge and Alaska is an incredible illustration of how to develop an interesting relationship between two characters.
Every single interaction between Pudge and Alaska advances their relationship in a series of incremental steps that swing between positive and negative emotion, with each interaction more intense than the last. One encounter will leave Pudge feeling like Alaska is the greatest girl in the world, the next minute he feels like she’s ignoring him or she’s mean to him, and each time he experiences a swing between positive and negative he feels it that much more acutely than the last time.
If you were to map out their interactions over the course of the book, it would look something like this (the question mark is there to avoid a spoiler of whether it ends on an up or down note):
Part of these swings are due to Alaska’s wild personality, but this is an almost textbook way to develop an intense relationship on the page. The variance between up and down moments creates suspense as the reader wonders which way it’s going to end up going, and since we feel each up and down more acutely than the last, the reader becomes increasingly invested in the relationship. Each time the line swings up to a positive experience it feels earned because Pudge had to suffer through the last negative one.
Too often when aspiring writers try to craft jousting or intense relationships between characters, the relationships will feel one-note because the characters have roughly the same level of interactions over the course of the book with, say, a positive spike at the end if the they get together. They may well be interesting characters, but when every interaction between them ends in the same mixed place, there isn’t the same feeling of investment and suspense. If the relationship doesn’t grow in intensity or change dynamics, the reader will very quickly decide they know what they need to know about the relationship and won’t be that interested in where it ends up.
On the other hand, when the relationship-o-meter swings between positive and negative poles it feels more true to life. Add increasing intensity and the reader won’t be able to turn the page fast enough to see what happens.
What I find interesting about this dynamic is that it’s not generally how real life works. Our opinions about people do not tend to swing wildly back and forth based on every interaction we have with them. For the most part our interactions with the people we care about don’t tend to end on a definitively positive or definitively negative moments annnnnnd scene. Even when we fight things tend to feel somewhat mixed and muddled.
And yet, on the page (or screen) it works beautifully. The quick swings between up and down in Looking for Alaska evoke the confusion and intensity of first love. We feel connected to the relationship because the characters had to earn it. We learn more about the characters by seeing how they deal with different levels of feelings.
Whenever two characters feel intensely about each other, this formula helps bring the relationship to life.
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I agree with Kimberly K. (and later, Nathan) that this kind of relationship is pretty perfect for YA. First love/lust/infatuation is intense and crazy and all sorts of crying yourself to sleep kind of times (what, you didn't do that in high school?) When you are living with an adolescent brain, the ups and downs are more intense. Adolescents are all about FEELING.
Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman have a great section on this in their book Nurture Shock (The Science of Teen Rebellion, I believe).
While I find graphs a little too left-brained, I like this one and this whole post is–as always–a great kick the in pants for me and my current WIP. I have to wonder if Alaska has Borderline Personality Disorder. Or perhaps she is Bi-Polar. I haven't read the book, but, man, poor Pudge.
Well, off to Amazon.com for my next read. YA books are the most fun!
This Pole to Pole growth in character relationships is well discussed in a great many books on the craft. Aristotle started it in The Poetics. Lagos Egri discusses it in the Art of Dramatic Writing, Christopher Vogler in The Writers Journey, James N Frey in How to Write a Damn Good Novel (the best craft handbook of them all) and Robert McKee in Story, who also points out that the 'graph' can end up both positive and negative in what he calls an ironic closure.
What's absolutely crucial though, (and I haven't read Looking for Alaska) is that the swings between negative and positive are organic and they grow out of the dynamics of the story's action. Arbitrarily creating a negative reaction because the last one was positive can appear exactly as it is: contrived and emotionally false, which of course leads us into the area of stereotypes and cliches.
The key of course, is to know your characters so well that you can write from inside their emotional centres. Most writers don't spend enough time with their characters to be able to live within their emotional capacities at the time of putting them into action and creating dialogue. But, once in that position, the rest flows naturally.
Excellent topic Nathan.
I love love LOVE John Green and LOOKING FOR ALASKA, and this post is brilliant and so so so true.
We were actually taking our daughter to interviews at a swanky private school AS I was reading ALASKA. I was like, "Hmmmm, maybe the public school is gonna work after all."
I liked ALASKA, but thought AN ABUNDANCE OF KATHERINES was better.
Nathan, you said:
"Our opinions about people do not tend to swing wildly back and forth based on every interaction we have with them."
I flatly refuse to believe you were never an infatuated teenager (in which such opinion swings are entirely the norm). I attribute this silly statement to selective amnesia. 🙂
Claire Dawn says
Nice review. Definitely needs to be added to my TBR list.
I don't know, Nathan… I may not have a photographic memory, but from what I remember of highschool (which for me was not all that long ago), people's feelings could swing around pretty quick, and they swung wide.
I should also point out that first love and a five-year-old relationship are not exactly the same thing. I think it's much more likely to involve quick swings because we don't really have a set impression of the person yet, so it's easy to think maybe you were wrong the first time–or the eighth, I suppose. Especially if the people involved are individually intense or moody. Or still in an uncomfortable place in their general social development or the specific relationship. Sounds a lot like highschool to me.
Ted Cross says
I really don't like it that relationships in novels must be so wildly different from real life ones, but I do understand the reasons behind it. I don't do this in my novel, though, because the one small relationship that develops is not meant to be in any way the focus of the story, so I t(think I) portray it more realistically. Sadly, that may mean agents would rather I cut it out.
Kate Evangelista says
For someone who enjoys writing romance, I learned a lot from this post. Thanks! Now, I have to find this book.
"For the most part our interactions with the people we care about don't tend to end on a definitively positive or definitively moments annnnnnd scene."
Am I the only one to whom this sentence made absolutely no sense? Were there words left out here?
I'm constantly surprised and frustrated by aspiring writers slavish adherence to the 'real' world.
Be it in dialogue or the dynamics of a relationship, the ways of the real world should never be taken as an absolute barometer of whether something either works or doesn't work in a fictional context.
Different rules apply. Things happen all the time in real life which we don't accept in fiction.
OMG-READ THIS BOOK!
Thank you, Nathan, for the reomendation. I read this book and LOVED it.
so i read the book over the weekend on your recomendation and it was pretty much a perfectly made book. But i didnt find the relationship to be very intense. Sure, there were up and down moments but those were caused becaused Alaska was suh a moody and secretive character. I think the intensiity you speak up was exclusive to these characters and it wouldn't really work when applied to other characters.
what i would have worn... says
Great post. I’m digging out my geometry set as soon as I finish typing. I was in need a new reason to procrastinate; now I couldn’t possibly start on my 3rd draft before making a graph!
I'm actually in the middle of reading this book after I picked it up at the Five Below store.
I am so glad I finally found a good book. Everything I've been reading lately just makes me cringe.
I just bought a few weeks ago this on your recommendation, and just finished it — absolutely fantastic! I can't believe I'd never heard of it until I saw your post!
Dayana S says
Awesome! This post saved me from doing something terrible.
The graph looks good for conflict dynamic between young adults: as a teenager, you often feel overwhelmed. The peers' vices and aggression are bigger and stronger than you. They toss you around like an ocean wave does.
However, here is a question about writing for younger children (elementary school). While they do experience conflicts, they are not usually so focused on them as teens are. They are more focused on action and dialogue. So, it would seem, for a children's book, one could sketch two graphs: one for conflict (occasionally flattening out), and another for action and dialogue. Any recommendations for this specific age group?
Nathan Bransford says
I don't know, I think the graph is relatively universal. The intensity might be different, but the ups and downs are not.