Writing Lessons from Just Listen by Sarah Dessen

Last year, Annabel was “the girl who has everything” — at least that’s the part she played in the television commercial for Kopf’s Department Store.

This year, she’s the girl who has nothing: no best friend because mean-but-exciting Sophie dropped her, no peace at home since her older sister became anorexic, and no one to sit with at lunch. Until she meets Owen Armstrong.

Tall, dark, and music-obsessed, Owen is a reformed bad boy with a commitment to truth-telling. With Owen’s help, maybe Annabel can face what happened the night she and Sophie stopped being friends.

(from the Goodreads page)

Lessons:

  1. The main character saves herself. Ms. Dessen’s books tend to be a bit formulaic. The main girl has some sort of problem and meets a guy who is passionate about something. In this book, the guy is Owen and the passion is music. She uses Owen and his passion for music to help with Anabel’s personal growth. However, in the end, Anabel is the one who takes that last step to save herself. 
  2. Using flashbacks to reveal the backstory. In a book I read recently (that I will discuss on Monday), there is a great deal of backstory info dumping. Just Listen uses flashbacks to show us what happened instead of just telling them to the reader. I’ve been struggling with the idea of using flashbacks for awhile. If anyone has any ideas for a more elegant but still effective way of conveying backstory, I’d love to hear it!
  3. However, flashbacks shouldn’t interrupt a scene. I can think of at least one instance where Ms. Dessen started a scene and then suddenly jumped back a few hours, recounted what happened then, and then came back to the point where she’d started the scene. That threw me out of the moment when reading it.
  4. Symbols and motifs aren’t just for classics. The front of Anabel’s house is made of glass with certain parts hidden away. Anabel talks about how what you see isn’t the whole story. This theme is brought up again in different ways (such as with Anabel’s modeling and the rumors people spread about her at school). Using symbolism can illustrate the theme in an intelligent way.
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