Learning By Example (TCWT)

Learning By Example (TCWT)

The monthly Teens Can Write Too! blog chain is back again, this time with a slightly more traditional prompt than last month — although still not one that’s easy to answer.

“What works of fiction have taught you by example, and what did they teach you?”

As Engie pointed out, this is a slightly vague question. It could be asking me to talk about the valuable life lessons I’ve been taught by books and how they’ve shaped my everyday actions but, since most of these prompts are usually writing related, I’m going to stick with the interpretation that we’re discussing what fiction has taught me about the act of writing.

Which is both easier and harder to answer: easier because there are some books that I know have influenced me, but harder because there are many where I can’t pinpoint exactly what it is that I liked and took ideas from, except that there’s something. And my absorption of fiction is far from limited to books — I’ve marathoned multiple TV shows this year and there’s plenty they can teach you about writing too. Let’s start with books, though.


Ptolemy’s Gate by Jonathan Stroud taught me how to end a series in a way that is both heartbreaking and satisfying to the readers: tying up loose ends without making everything happy clappy and unrealistic. It also taught me a lot about narration and humour and generally awesomeness. I love the Bartimaeus Trilogy, but that third book is my favourite without question.

Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini Taylor taught me how to write without pulling my punches. Many of my beta readers would probably argue that this isn’t a lesson I needed because I tend to be brutal anyway, but it’s one of the few examples I’ve read of fairly mainstream fiction that really doesn’t shy away from cruelty. It’s depicting war, even if it’s a magical one, and it makes sure you know that.

The Leviathan trilogy by Scott Westerfeld taught me the value of the slow-building relationship, because it made me care about whether or not the characters would get together more than I thought I ever would given my lack of interest in romance. Unlike the kind of YA that focuses on insta-love and intense physical feelings, here it spans three books, and is all the more realistic for it.

The books The New Policeman and Creature of the Night, both by Kate Thompson, taught me that the same author can interpret a myth or legend in a totally different way, in this case focusing on the fairies of Irish stories. Whereas in The New Policeman they’re the kind who dance around and play music, in Creature of the Night they are terrifying. And it was brilliant.

Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle had a few lessons to teach: The Raven Boys taught me how plot twists should work, while The Dream Thieves showed me how a change of POV can alter your perception of a character entirely. The latter also taught me a lot about beautiful writing.

The Dream Life Of Sukhanov by Olga Grushin forced me to reevaluate my perception of what the English language was capable of doing, because it was phenomenally written, and fascinating in the ideas it explored about creativity.

From Fingersmith by Sarah Waters and Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, I learned about unreliable narrators and misleading narratives: how you may think you know what’s going on, but a switch in perspective will pull the rug out from under you and you’ll find yourself questioning everything you’ve been told already.

Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett taught me that the humorous and irreverent approach can still be profound.

There are many, many other books which have taught me a great deal, and I’d be lying if I told you I could remember all of them. I’ve learned to write primarily by spending most of my teen years reading whenever I wasn’t writing, and studying English Literature taught me even more. However, these are the ones that come to mind as recent lessons.


Buffy The Vampire Slayer taught me about character development. Seriously. I just finished series four, and I am ridiculously proud of Xander and how much he has changed and grown — I feel like he’s underappreciated. Of course I love Willow, and Buffy herself; I love the changing relationship dynamics between all the characters, and how their enmity with Spike alters. I love the alliances that develop, and the enmity that grows. I love how nobody seems to be fixed in a single position of ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but everybody crosses the lines depending on their actions in a single episode. And I like Buffy’s terrible puns. They’re the reason I started watching the show, to be quite honest.

Hannibal taught me how setting and environment affect a scene. There’s a lot of focus on cinematography and design in this show and as writers, it’s something you can study to improve description and how you picture scenes. It definitely helped me to approach things in a more visual way. this is my design

Orphan Black taught me about amazing and varied female characters, about protective instincts and how familial relationships affect decisions, about how much of someone’s appearance is in their hairstyle — which may sound like a minor point, but it definitely got me thinking about how my characters dress and what that says about them. Likewise, I began thinking a lot more about mannerisms and the little things that make people different even when they look the same.

Misfits also taught me about character development, because as I approach the end of series three I’m constantly amazed by how all the characters have developed since the beginning, even if I wish Nathan hadn’t left.

Being Human taught me that you don’t need to have romantic relationships for the interactions between characters to be incredibly emotional: the series three finale is proof that the friendship between Mitchell and George was utterly beautiful. And tragic. Because everything is tragic.

absolutely heartbreaking brotp
absolutely heartbreaking brotp

And Dance Academy taught me that sometimes the mundane and realistic can be the most heartbreaking: that you don’t have to have monsters and the apocalypse and self-sacrifice to rip out your viewer’s hearts and dance on them. Seriously, this show gave me trust issues. It was meant to be my fun, light-hearted Australian show about ballet dancers and instead it did a Merlin and BROKE ME. I cried for four episodes running.

So that’s what I’ve learned from fiction over the past couple of years. What about you? Check out the rest of the chain to see what other people have written about:

25th – [free day]
30thhttp://maralaurey.wordpress.com/ and http://theedfiles.blogspot.com/
31st – http://teenscanwritetoo.wordpress.com/ (We’ll announce the topic for next month’s chain.)

6 thoughts on “Learning By Example (TCWT)

  1. I’d forgotten the Bartimaeus Trilogy (and my goal to read it since I was twelve years old, when my aunt accidentally bought me the third book instead of the first for Christmas). I must find the series and devour it. :) The other stories you’ve cited also look really interesting. You’ve given me a book pile! Thank you.

  2. This are incredibly well-thought out lessons. To my shame, I don’t recognize many of these things and I only got through the first season of Buffy before I moved on, but still, these lessons are fantastic, and things I wish I could pick up on within my own adventures in fiction… Awesome, awesome, awesome. :)

  3. Great post!

    The Raven Cycle was awesome. Totally agree about how POV can change the perception of a character. I didn’t expect to like Mr. Grey when I first met him, but by the end my opinion of him did a 180. Same goes for Ronan.

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