Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Things 50 Shades of Grey Taught Me About Writing

I know what you’re thinking. I mean, seriously, what the hell could one of the all time worst novels ever written have to teach a young author?

Actually quite a lot.

So in light of the stupid controversy surrounding this godawful atrocity getting a film adaptation, let’s take a look at all the wonderful things E.L. James has left with me.

1.      Unfortunately, nice guys really do finish last (in fiction). I hate to admit it (mostly because I am technically a nice guy even though I’m a girl with inner rage issues), but it’s the truth. Most of the time, when there’s a love triangle present, the girl chooses the bad boy. We’ve seen it dozens of times in fiction. There is just something about the classic jerk boyfriend character that us poor women cannot resist. There is no real explanation for it other than perhaps a hard study of human biology. Maybe it’s because we inherently obsess with people who seem to not like us. I know I do. It’s annoying, like a splinter in your finger, a tiny pebble in your shoe. It irks you. And, eventually, overwhelms you. My second crush in high school was a guy who got on my nerves constantly and we ended up verbally sparring through my third year and then I was walking down the hallway one day, fuming at something he’d teased me about earlier, and then it hit me like a Mack truck spinning out of control on an oil slick—I LIKED him. Ew. Boys, right? 

But despite the billions of things E.L. James got wrong, she knew that the foaming masses of women out there prefer the handsome, arrogant prick over someone much more understanding and level-headed to fantasize about. I think it has a lot to do with fantasies in general. We often indulge in them because we know that in real life, they’d be horrific experiences. If Christian and Ana were a real couple and people knew about what he did to her, he’d be on 'To Catch a Predator' in a heartbeat. No amount of money would avoid that. However, that brings me to my next point.

2.      Jerk boyfriends aren’t enough. We love jerks. We adore them. Indiana Jones, Tony Stark, John McClane, Richard B. Riddick,  Hellboy, the list goes on and on, and that’s just for movies. In fiction, there are thousands of arrogant pricks that we can’t help rooting for as we turn the pages. However, these fellas have something in common that Christian Grey does NOT: they have hidden depths. This is a trope known as Jerk with a Heart of Gold. It’s by far one of the most popular writing devices of all time. There is really nothing better than thinking a character is the scum of the earth and then finding out he has a kitten farm out in his garage. And this is the exact opposite of Mr. Grey, who is a Jerk with a Heart of Jerk. He’s intolerable, abusive, childish, selfish, and just a genuinely unpleasant man despite his dashing good looks. While this worked for all the lonely housewives still pining for Edward Cullen, it is the main reason that 50 Shades is one of the most hated novel series to date. His behavior is wholly disgusting. It’s reprehensible. It is not accurate in any sense to the real life equivalents of couples in the BDSM culture. It’s made up and creepy and wrong and honestly, it makes the human race as a whole look bad. Okay, I may be exaggerating, but still. 

50 Shades is indisputable proof that bastard boyfriends cannot cut it in the fictional world. Sure, the book sold millions, but again, the demographic generally isn’t writers or readers with their heads on straight, it’s people who don’t read on a regular basis and so they don’t know the difference between a well-balanced story with troubled but great characters and the mindless wet dreams of a lonely woman who thinks she knows what S & M is all about.

3.      Fanfiction really shouldn’t be renamed and published for profit. Sadly, not a lot of people know that Shades is actually an AU (alternate universe, for you non-nerds out there) fanfiction written about Twilight. Oh, yes, you read that right. It’s Twilight fanfiction. All she did was change the names, a few plot details, and then she published it and made a fortune. Did she have the legal right to do this? Yes. Was it morally right to do this? I disagree. I write fanfiction on a regular basis. It’s a great way to find other creative people and to share an interest in a particular movie, cartoon, TV show, anime/manga, or novel. However, there is one huge difference between that and original fiction—it’s free. That’s why fanfiction is such a booming part of nerd culture. If you hate something, who cares? At least you didn’t cough up any cash for it. You read it for free. That’s also why they are ten times more willing to review a fanfic than to review a novel on Amazon—it’s way less pressure and cost to do so. 

I believe it’s wrong to charge people to read something many of them could have read for free, especially when the quality is as eye-ball gougingly terrible as Shades. However, James is not the only one to abuse this literary loophole. Cassandra Clare, author of the City of Bones novel series, also did the same thing, and she is an even worse offender. According to the research I’ve gathered, she used to plagiarize a lot of the Harry Potter fanfiction she used to write and then eventually took it down, changed the plot and the names, and published it. She also reportedly bullied anyone who tried to point out what she was doing, and if you Google the controversy right now, you’ll notice it’s kind of hard to find. I believe that her publisher might have found out about it and made a point to keep things on the down low, and that’s a frightening idea in itself.

 However, for argument’s sake, let’s now focus on the writing aspect of this problem. You’re borrowing someone else’s characters. You’re piggybacking off of them. You’re adding and subtracting some things, but it’s still not original fiction. This is going to hurt your writing no matter how you try to dress it up. It’s still not your property and you will have to make all kinds of sacrifices in order to make it work without alerting someone to the fact that you’ve stolen their characters. You can see so many awful Bella Swan-isms in Ana Steele that it’s embarrassing—tripping over things, rejecting compliments and gifts, being sullen for no real reason, not noticing that the guy she loves is a total creep—and that’s just for starters. I hope that in the future publishing companies take a harder look at the authors who keep doing stuff like this and refuse to let it fly. It’s not fair to the millions of fanfic writers who don’t plagiarize and it’s not fair to the readers.

4.      Conflict matters. Honestly, can you look me in the eye and tell me what Shades is about other than poorly written sex? I bet you a nickel that you can’t. Story cannot exist without conflict. Yet Shades does, somehow. The initial attempt at conflict is Ana’s reluctance to engage in Christian’s disturbing sex fantasies, but it’s null and void before we even hit the halfway point in the first book. The rest of it just drags along with a bare semblance of a plot. Putting aside the fourth grade reading level grammar mistakes, it’s just dull scenes loosely strung together. Plot matters. Conflict matters. Character actions matter. There shouldn’t be any point that I flip through a book and I can’t tell what the hell is happening and for what reason.

5.      Editing is your friend. How many times does Christian “breathe” in Shades? How many times does Ana say “holy cow?” I think some lovely person went and counted them all, but you and I both know the exact number comes out to 84545695685067986879 because E.L. James didn’t have an editor. Or, if she did, the editor was too busy typing with one hand to actually do their job. The novel has so much unintentional repetition that it makes me want to spoon my eyes out of their sockets. No one “says” anything—it’s all attributions, which are a big debate in the writing world. I personally think that it should be 50/50 when it comes to dialogue tags, but most writers are strict and enforce the law that it should be “said” 90% of the time. 

Editing is not just a masochistic way for you to kill your darlings on the page. It’s good for your work. It helps you separate the crap from the gold. It helps you catch accidental mistakes and things you repeat without knowing it, especially if you’re a novelist. Editing should also be something that happens dozens of times before one even considers publishing. Not only do I look over my work, I pass it off to relatives and friends and then to a professional. Your eyes see what you wanted to write, and don’t always see what’s there. You have to edit until the very sight of your manuscript makes you want to puke. It’s despicable, but necessary.

Honestly, I could go on and on about how much I loathe these novels, but at the very least, they have given us some of the funniest dramatic readings of all time. Here’s to you, 50 Shades of Grey. You make us all look bad, but at least you suck in style. pun intended. 


  1. I've had absolutely no desire to read 50 Shades, and after reading this post, I still don't. But I'm glad you did and that you've rturned from the nether regions to share what you learned. It's true; sometimes we must suffer through really bad writing in order to improve our own.

  2. Good. The more it stays out of your life, the better off you are. And the worst part is after people find out you're a writer and they ask you, "Hey, have you read 50 Shades of Grey?!" and I resist the urge to facepalm every time.

  3. Finally succumbed to the temptation and downloaded free Kindle preview of the book. Ten pages in and it's dire. Can't get over the bad writing style-it makes Harlequin Romances look like Hemingway.Between the adjectives found in the thesaurus to the weird fixations on Christians long fingers and eye-rolling, I can't believe this is a best-seller. Whoever writes the script for the movie needs to rewrite the entire story.

    1. Your poor eyeballs. I am so sorry to have to share that pain. The funnier part is that there's no sex for a good forty pages so then all you're reading is Ana's incredibly stupid, shallow inner monologue about Christian without even getting to the hilariously bad sex. I too have a hard time believing it's sold millions of copies. I take it a sign of the end times, really.