On this episode, we are discussing the Young Adult romance, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. And then we’ll end with a critique of one lucky author’s query.
Summary of this month’s movie:
Here come the spoilers! For those of you that haven’t watched the movie, here’s what happened: Lara Jean wrote love letters to all her past crushes, but they were never meant to be sent out. When one of her past crushes, Peter, approaches her, letter in hand, she knows they are no longer safely hidden in her room. But when her best friend, Josh, shows up with another letter, she is done for. See, Josh had been dating her sister, Margot, until recently when Margot dumped him to go off to college. Stuck in this awful situation, she kisses Peter, and so begins their fake relationship. Peter has recently been dumped by one of Lara Jean’s ex-friends from middle school, Gen. He wants to make Gen jealous. As they continue to fake date, they become great friends and it is clear that feelings are growing. After their first real kiss on a ski trip, Lara Jean realizes that Peter still likes Gen. So she pushes him away. But while he is trying to prove his feelings for her, a video of them making out spreads through the school. As Lara Jean battles with the rumors spreading through the school, Peter tries to fight for her. When Margot comes home from school, she finds out that Lara Jean loved Josh, and is hurt. But when Lara Jean comes to her with her awful situation, she jumps in and supports her. Lara Jean then goes to confront Gen, assuming she leaked the video out of spite. But she learns that Gen is hurt by Lara Jean, and everything isn’t so black and white. After gaining confidence in herself, Lara Jean goes to Peter to finally admit that she loves him. They kiss. The end!
Jeni: What did you think about To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before?
Carly: Well, this wasn’t my first time watching it. And it holds up to multiple viewings. For me, it is a fantastic example of how YA can speak to people of all ages and it shows the quality that can be found in the romance genre. Rewatching it, I could really appreciate the style choices in the camera shots, the colors, the set, the wardrobe. It was all a mood, but specifically, a teen mood. I was definitely jealous of Lara Jean’s style and her bedroom. I wanted to be a teenager again, and I never want that. It followed all the YA romance rules, but it spun them in fun ways that made them stay engaging. There was the typical, “date someone else to make your actual crush jealous” but in the end, her crush didn’t end up being terrible, they remained friends. There was the “in love with the best friend” trope, but she doesn’t end up with him. There was the “loner and popular guy” trope, but her goal wasn’t to be popular and part of the “in” crowd, she was happy as she was. By mixing all of these tropes and upending them in small ways, it turned into an engaging story, that while predictable, wasn’t boring.
Jeni: Such a cute movie. It reminded me a lot of John Hughes films, which seems intentional, given the multiple mentions. My favorite part was really the family relationships. Lara Jean and her sisters are such goals, and I love when family is an important part of YA stories because even though friends become extremely important during the teen years, family is still important too. And John Corbett as Lara Jean’s dad was honestly a little too perfect for me, but that’s my adult viewer perspective. As a kid watching this, he’s embarrassingly perfect--totally cool and understanding about that she’s 16 and will probably want to have sex and so giving her condoms to take on the ski trip. OMG I would’ve died as a kid, but as a parent, that’s how I handle things that are hard to talk about as well. Anyway, the family dynamic is integral to this story--their mom’s death is a big part of what helps LJ and Peter connect initially; her little sister is behind the inciting incident; and her older sister provides important motivation for LJ’s actions. So, what does this movie do well that authors can apply to their writing?
Carly: To me, the biggest writing tip people can pull from this movie is the depth of the secondary characters. Obviously, developing the main characters in a book or movie is important, but creating complex side characters tends to be an afterthought. But in this movie, I was just as interested in the side characters as I was in Lara Jean and Peter. The biggest example of this for me was Margot, her sister. She was an annoying older sister but also there for her sister. She dated her sister’s best friend, I would have been furious, but she tried to make it okay. She felt betrayed to find out Lara Jean was in love with her ex, but she put it behind them to care for her sister. She was super motherly and organized, but she was also able to make mistakes and be a friend. Usually a side character gets one of these aspects. They are usually a one-dimensional aspect for the main character to respond to and to move the plot forward. But honestly, I’d watch a whole movie about Margot going to Scotland, moving on from her first boyfriend, helping her sister, etc. And then there was the so-called villain of the whole thing, Peter’s ex and Lara Jean’s ex-friend: Gen. She was awful, don’t get me wrong. But in the end we get a moment where we understand her. She felt betrayed by both of them, starting years ago. She wasn’t purely spiteful and cruel, she was hurt. In teen romances the villain isn’t usually given shading or dimension. I think adding in these other character dimensions, where we can see that Lara Jean and Peter aren’t the only people in this world, is part of why the movie is so successful. We can see beyond the main characters to other stories hidden away in the world, and it makes it so much richer.
Jeni: Um, yes please to the Margot in Scotland movie. Someone email Netflix and Jenny Han STAT. I totally agree about the secondary characters being so deep. I noticed in the first scene when Kitty, LJ’s younger sister, complains about LJ reading instead of hanging out with her. They use these side characters’ dialogue to get the reader up to speed about what the girls’ relationships are like, what their backstory is regarding their mom’s death and what their life is like with a single dad (who, by the way, I’d also be happy to see get a spin-off. I’m a sucker for a widower/single dad falling in love again), and what part in the family each of them play. What’s awesome is that each girl has her own distinct voice and personality, even though they have their similarities. For example, we see Margot’s actions are also motivated in large part by their mom’s death. And that’s all just in the first few minutes. As we move through the world and meet more characters, we do see all these potential little side stories that keep the world feeling real. You know what else I liked? Lara Jean and Peter had always been in school together, right? A lot of times in these stories, somehow kids who’ve always gone to school together but never really gotten to know each other don’t know about things like parents dying, and that always strikes me as unrealistic. In my school, everyone knew everything about everyone when it came to big life stuff like that. So I loved in this movie that the characters acknowledge that--they don’t know all the details, but they know the basics. It makes for a smart, real jumping off point for the discovery phase that’s so important in building a romance.
Carly: So another reason I think having three-dimensional side characters is so important is because it can develop your main characters as well. By having complex characters for Lara Jean to interact with, we get to see the different sides of her. She becomes more complex because she is interacting with complex characters. It would be easy for her to react negatively to Gen, because she does awful things to her. But by having Gen be complex, Lara Jean isn’t reacting to a purely evil person. Her reaction is more nuanced because the situation is more nuanced. And how she reacts to a nuanced situation is more telling than how she would react to a straight-forward situation. Again, with her sister Margot, it would be easy to view Lara Jean as a martyr if Margot was only a bad person. But because Margot loves her and cares for her so much, Lara Jean is shaded by the fact that she completely cuts her from her life when Margot goes off to school. Lara Jean is no longer the perfect person. It is relatable and understandable why she needed to create that distance, but it was still hurtful. How your main character interacts with the world is how we get to know them. You show who they are instead of telling readers who they are. And you get more detailed, nuanced characters if they are reacting to more detailed nuanced situations.
Jeni: I actually made the same note about the interactions showing us more about Lara Jean. For me, it helped because it provided a contrast to her characterization. By seeing who these other characters are, we see more of who Lara Jean isn’t. So, for example, we see that she is a rule follower by contrasting with her best friend Chris who sneaks off campus to get lunch at Subway. Such a rebel, I know, but still. We see that she isn’t snarky and sarcastic by seeing her first confrontation with Gen and that she isn’t outgoing like either of her sisters. In fact, the sisters are all kind of combinations of each other, which speaks to that amazing family dynamic I mentioned earlier. Lara Jean, as the middle child--which I am, by the way, so I totally relate to that invisible feeling--has some of the maternal, responsible aspects of her older sister and some of the more childish notions of her younger sister. It’s such a perfect way to show that age. You’re not a kid anymore--like Kitty--but you aren’t an adult yet either--like Margot. And so, yeah, we get to see all of that about our main character without having to explain any of it because it’s right there in the interactions.
Jeni: OK. This month, we have a query letter critique for a Young Adult contemporary romance manuscript. I could see right away what makes this movie a comp title for the manuscript in this query, which is super important for comp titles! There’s the similar plot point of secrets getting out, as well as the shaming and social pressure that comes with social media. It also has the sense of the love interest who seems out of the main character’s league. In the case of this query, it’s a famous person, but it seems like it’s basically still a version of the same trope. The query says that this story is told in an interesting format--diary entries, radio bits, interviews, and love songs. The format has my interest piqued enough to want to read pages, but there’s not much focus on the plot on this query. I’d like to see more about the conflict in the story, the obstacles the protagonist has to overcome, and what will happen if she doesn’t. What did you think, Carly?
Carly: Couldn’t agree more. I really liked the idea of the format, but the opener didn’t hook me in. I thought the body was pretty concise, and there were mentions of the overall conflict, but not how it would affect the MC. We get to know that the MC has her private journal leaked, but we don’t get to know what that does, except suck. I felt like the stakes were missing. It is clearly a love story, but what is drawing the characters together and what is the conflict in their relationship, not just their individual lives? Like I said, we know about the leaked journal, but not how that affects their potential relationship, or what else is in their way to being together. Besides that, my biggest note was that the hook needed work. It mentions fairy tales, which is clearly a theme in this book, but this query leads me to believe that the MS will upend the fairy tale romance trope, and the hook seems to be the typical boring fairy tale trope. Hook us in with what makes your book new and different. It is definitely really close!