Stephen Chbosky wrote and directed the feature film adaptation of his novel PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER. That’s quite an impressive feat. He also gave an exceptional keynote address, giving away his top tips on how to write your own timeless classic, at this year’s SCBWI LA Conference.
Before that, I sat in on a breakout session he did with Jay Asher, author of 13 REASONS WHY. Their talk dealt with how to write realistic page turners. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to hear what these men had to say.
Chbosky stated his background was more screenplay-based and that he learned more about the page turn from watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer (created by Joss Whedon) and reading Alex Cross books (by James Patterson) than anything else. “It’s all about what happened or what happens next.”
Asher pointed out that his novel, 13 REASONS WHY, had a plot-driven suspense, while Chbosky’s PERKS was more character-driven suspense. Chbosky stated that he wanted the reader looking in the wrong direction so he waited to introduce elements to allow the reader to make assumptions or ask questions. Take Charlie’s teacher, for instance. He waited to introduce the teacher’s girlfriend to allow the reader to question the teacher’s motives towards Charlie. What’s the relationship here? Is the teacher gay? What’s going to happen to Charlie?
Asher added to this with a quote from Stephen King: “Making the reader guess.” Involving the reader in solving the mystery – making them guess the clues – keeps them reading, keeps them excited. As Asher was writing his book, he was thinking of how he was going to get the reader to guess the clues.
Chbosky said, “And that’s why he’s (Asher’s) so great. He’s making us write his books as we go along.”
Asher said another way to keep the reader turning the page is to write as clean as possible. He wrote 13 REASONS WHY so that the reader would not be able to put it down. He was afraid if they did, they would stop reading it. So, he kept the chapters short, with each leading into the next, and he created micro-mysteries that kept the suspense building along the way that did not allow the reader to come out of the story. He even made his character names easy to pronounce so readers wouldn’t stumble over them as they read.
Chbosky discussed that one of Charlie’s micro-mysteries is what’s going to happen with the sister when she gets hit and Charlie is asked not to tell. Chbosky stated that it’s important to get your readers invested in the well-being of every character. “If you can make your readers care about all of your characters – from the biggest to the smallest – that’s a major accomplishment.”
Moving on to Chbosky’s keynote, he started by pronouncing that, “The next generation of classics are literally in this room.”
He discussed the rejections he received for PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER. It took him 70 pages of writing awful stuff, just to get a fantastic title. As he was writing this awful beginning that wasn’t working, he asked out loud, “Why?” The answer he heard in his head was, “Guess that’s what happens when you’re a wallflower.” He scrapped everything, but the title and started again.
This was the first step in his journey to writing a timeless classic. There are three steps to follow:
- Find your Great Idea – He discussed how creative types have difficulty recognizing what’s beautiful or transcendent in themselves. How we as writers don’t always recognize the great ideas we have inside us. That’s why when you’re trying to find your great story, you should write down every idea you have and then share that list of ideas with the people closest to you, who genuinely want you to succeed. Everyone who reads the list will gravitate towards one or two ideas.
- Find the Right Genre – There’s one that fits you and your story. Don’t worry about what’s popular. Find what matches your need to tell your great idea.
- Study the Classics – Do this to spur you on, to challenge yourself. Because, what the hell, you’re gonna die; you might as well go for it.
Besides these three rules, he encouraged everyone to live a life that challenges you every single day. Find what’s beautiful in yourself. Find the story you’re meant to write. He calls it, “Fuck the market.”
Then take the time to make it great. “There’s no such thing as writer’s block; you’re just editing too early.”
He ended with this: “Books change lives. Books save lives. Books change the world.”
I had an opportunity to meet with Stephen Chbosky shortly after his keynote and have him sign his book for me. He was charming and dynamic. And told me a short, self-deprecating anecdote about having to give a speech shortly after President Clinton at an awards ceremony where he didn’t come off as well. Nothing intimidating about that situation. His speech was amazing and made us feel, if just for a moment, like we were all infinite.
Learn more about Stephen Chbosky here.
Follow Stephen on Twitter here.