On this episode, we are discussing the best friend comedy, Booksmart. And then we’ll end with a critique of one lucky author’s query.
Summary of this month’s movie:
Here come the spoilers! Amy and Molly are best friends who have spent their school years focused on school and their future and so haven’t really had a lot of fun. In their minds, it was all worth it for the benefit of getting into amazing colleges. But the day before graduation, they find out a lot of the other kids did both--got into awesome schools and also managed to have teenagerly adventures. The realization hits Molly hard, and she decides they have to make up for lost time all in one night (yes, right before they graduate!). They go to all these crazy parties and have … fun…? Mostly a lot of chaos, but it shows them both that they are never going to be completely ready for the future and that they didn’t know the other kids at school--or each other--as well as they thought they did.
Jeni: So, what did you think of the movie?
Carly: I’m obsessed with this movie. I wanted to rewatch it immediately. Their friendship is so beautiful and truly goals. I was very nerdy in high school, but I was not that driven, I had too much going on to focus that intensely on school. And I know you mentioned it, but can we talk about how so many kids in this school got into Ivy League colleges?! Like, crazy. And truly, this movie is giving us a run for our money to find the one female side character that we wish had a spin-off. But I found her, it’s Gigi. She was so quirky and weird and interesting. Usually, I want the spin-off because the side character is more interesting, but it wasn’t the case here. I loved both main characters so much. I was obsessed with Gigi just because I wanted to get to know her more, not because of a lack of interest in the main character. Which is crazy great writing.
Jeni: I also identified with the bookish main characters, and although I managed to have some fun in high school, I was (and am!) soooo socially awkward. Amy and Molly were honestly a lot like heightened versions of me and Carly. The writing in the movie was smart and quirky but also had its share of broader comedy, and the tone reminded me so much of those teen comedies from the 80s like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off but updated for a modern audience. I loved all the characters. Like, it very much starts with the idea of high school cliches--jocks, nerds, popular kids--but really gave it a lot more depth throughout the course of the story. My only problem with it was the weird situation with one of the teachers and a student. They made it clear the student was in his 20s, but still. Ew. So, what did the movie do well that writers can use in their writing?
Carly: The non-romantic relationship in this movie, was beyond on point.I think the movie was a truly great reflection of what an intense friendship can look like. Sure, it was heightened, but the speech patterns, the ability to know each other so well, the true love, is all accurate. The writing was amazing in this. I could listen to the dialogue all day every day. But it wasn’t all fun and games, they kept secrets from each other, they were afraid to be honest. The person you are closest to is the hardest one to disappoint. And I found this so real. A lot of times in writing it can be easy to focus on a romantic relationship. And don’t get me wrong, I love those too, but a non-romantic relationship can really grab a reader and make them connect with the main character. Part of that is because they get to feel like they are part of the relationship and sometimes a friendship is easier to relate to and way more satisfying. Honestly, it is probably one of the most overlooked devices in books. There is usually a friendship, sure, but it is usually a side-kick that aids the main character on their journey and takes a back seat to any other relationships, like a romantic relationship or an antagonistic one. Not everyone has a best friend, just like not everyone has a romantic interest, but it is an aspirational type of love that is severely overlooked. While lust and hate are strong driving forces in a book, don’t overlook the power of other forms of love. Those complex relationships where you love your friend, don’t want to disappoint them, feel judged by them, feel supported by them, often take them for granted, lie to them, but ultimately you truly understand them and will always be there for them, those are powerful relationships that can drive so many different plots and stories.
Jeni: Totally agree with all of that. I’d also add that family and found family falls into that non-romantic love category too. For some stories, that extends to pets as well. The emotional bond between pet and owner can be super important to some stories. Just ask my office cat, Phil. To give characters the kind of depth that makes them feel like real, three-dimensional people, it’s important to show all kinds of relationships and their complexities. What I really like about what Carly just said is that no relationship is all good or all bad. Think about your own relationships with family, friends, coworkers, and other people in your life. Even the really strong ones have some flaws and vice versa. You want your characters’ relationships to reflect that as well. Complex relationships can add a sense of grounding to a story that helps the reader make the leap of faith into your fictional world, and it also provides rich internal conflict for your character and external conflict for your plot. For me, the best stories are the ones where plot and relationships are intrinsically linked. We talked about this some in our Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse episode too, where both the internal and external conflicts are really driven by the characters’ relationships.
Carly: So in this movie, these friends fully support each other, to the extent that they can’t stop complimenting each other, which is adorable, and Jeni, I think we need to start getting more exaggerated in our compliments to each other. Think Leslie Knope to Ann Perkins, opalescent tree shark, etc. Anyway, off topic. But what makes their relationship so real is when Amy realizes that her crush and Molly’s crush are hooking up, she tries to pull Molly out of the party. And this results in one of the most well done fights I’ve ever seen. Molly doesn’t want to go, and when Amy tries to stand up for it and get her out of there, Molly refuses. Amy finally cracks and starts telling Molly that she is a steam-roller and drives everything in their relationship, that she doesn’t listen. It doesn’t mean they don’t love each other, but the recognition of the dynamic and the faults in it, is very relatable and moving. The fight continues, but the sound goes out and we are just shown a silent fight where they are screaming at each other. This is perfect, because the words don’t matter. We can all fill in the blanks. What matters is that they are prying open the cracks in their friendship. This fight is a turning point for them. It would be easy to either pretend it never happened or to let it break apart their relationship. How your characters respond to both the cracks and the fallout of the conflict in their relationship can be extremely telling. Having complex relationships make your characters more three-dimensional. Of course, they will react to the plot, but how they react to the people that matter most to them, is way more interesting and telling. Think, Harry Potter, if it wasn’t for his friendships, he’d be super boring. He’d be a hero on a quest that just responds to the antagonist. But his relationships with Hermione and Ron, especially when those relationships struggle, really show who he is. Even in Lord of the Rings, if it wasn’t for Sam, Frodo would be pretty boring. Don’t yell at me Jeni. Sure, romantic entanglements are interesting and cause a lot of conflict, but the underrated conflict of disappointing your best friend or revealing that you’ve been lying to them, is even more dramatic because it has a ton of history to build on. Building up that history and tearing it apart has more consequences than what could turn out to be a passing fling. It can be tempting to throw all new people at your characters, mainly because new interactions allow you to introduce characters to your reader by seeing them interact in fresh ways, like they are interacting with the reader for the first time. However, fleshing out your character by showing an established relationship is even stronger. But you can’t forget to flesh out the backstory of the relationships. They have a history together. Show that and build on it as you would with the backstory of your characters. Apply all those three-dimensional character techniques to the relationship. All those little details about how they met, what they do together in their spare time, what they often fight over, may not make it onto your pages, but it will inform on how they interact and talk to each other. So don’t be afraid to come up with a detailed history for that relationship. It will make your story so much richer.
Jeni: There’s another great example of this in the friendship between Gigi and whatshisname. These are side characters so the relationship doesn’t have the same impact on the overall plot, but in many ways, their interactions mirror Amy and Molly’s. People don’t really understand what they see in each other, and everyone thinks they’re dating. But really, they take care of each other in much the same way Molly and Amy do. So make sure you’re thinking about all your characters, not just the protagonist. Think about which other characters have something to offer the story. How can you use those secondary characters’ relationships to add to the worldbuilding? How can it compare or contrast to your main characters’ relationships or personalities to enrich the story or character arc?
Jeni: This month we have a query from a YA thriller. One thing I want to point out is that most of our queries and blurbs have been pretty obvious comps to the movie of the month, but this one isn’t. What makes it similar is the element of best friends going through an adventure together. Your comp titles don’t always have to have a big, obvious comparison. So, for example, if you have two sassy BFFs who would do anything for each other, you could say, “Fans of Booksmart will love the quirky friendships in this story.” Carly, what stood out to you about the query?
Carly: So I think this query has a lot of promise, and the author clearly has a ton of ideas, but what we’re missing here is a solid query structure. I know it can be tempting to do it your own way and include all the details you want, but agents want queries in the structure they are used to. They have to read hundreds of them, and it helps to go through and find the ones they are interested in if they all have similar formats. This query was 600 words, which is way too long. Your query should sit around 300/350 words. An agent doesn’t have time to read extra stuff, and it is possible they may pass on this just because they can’t dig into it. There is just too much detail stuffed into this. You need to pare down your query and focus on the highlights. Your query should start with a catching hook, what is different about your book and what sets up our expectations? The first paragraph should be your hook and only a sentence or two. Pull us in with it. The next paragraph should set up some of the world/background and focus on the main character, but just enough that we get what sort of world this book takes place in. The third paragraph should be all about the stakes for the main character. This is the most commonly missing piece in a query. What are the personal stakes and what are the greater world stakes if the MC fails? End this paragraph with a tease that sets up where the story is going, but makes us want to read more to find out. Then the final paragraph should include your metadata (genre, age category, word count) and your mini bio of any relevant experience. If you can stick to this structure, your query will be very strong.
Jeni: Yes, the concept seems really cool, but in addition to the query letter being too long, the word count is too high for this genre and age category. It's important to know what the standards are for your market. For YA thriller, even with the historical setting, it really needs to be 85-95k. This query has a lot of "sales-y" words in it to hook the reader. While one purpose of a query letter is to get an agent intrigued enough to want to read pages, you can overdo it. Going overboard with strong language and too many hooks can be a turnoff, especially when it doesn't explain the basic plot of your story (not including the ending--typically you want a query letter to end with hinting at the climax). Lastly, make sure you include a bio. Some agents don’t care if you don’t include a bio, but most want to see something. A lot of writers aren’t sure what to use if they don't have any writing credits. It’s fine if you don’t and won’t hurt your chances of getting representation. When this is the case, keep it simple. It's enough to say "I live in Charlotte, NC, and this will be my first novel." In terms of the query structure, my best advice for this is to study the actual structure of queries because it’s a pretty simple format, even though it can be hard to apply to your story. The two places I always recommend to learn about query structure are the QueryShark blog, where an agent offers feedback on queries and posts it publicly, and the Successful Queries blog at Writers Digest because you can see queries that got an agent there, along with notes from the agent about what drew their attention.