Before contacting publishers writers need to find an agent; one that will be their right match. There are many components to a great story. A compelling character voice, and a unique frame device are a must when choosing that one novel agents need to represent. But what do agents keep in mind when looking for that right novel? Peter Knapp, from the Park Literary Group, is here to talk to us about what makes a novel stand out from others, and how he chooses which story to represent.
What Makes a Great Story is a Great Storyteller
The introduction to Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom includes a delightful anecdote in which a librarian with the New York Public Library asked Ursula, the famed children’s book editor of E.B. White and Maurice Sendak among others, what qualified her—“a nonlibrarian, nonteacher, nonparent, and noncollege graduate”—to edit children’s books. Ursula’s disarming answer? “Well, I am a former child, and I haven’t forgotten a thing.”
I, too, am a former child! After graduating from college, I spent several years at a film production company with the specific mandate of searching for forthcoming novels that could be adapted into movies. Then, as I do now in my position at a literary agency, I constantly asked myself: What makes a good story? The answer, as it turns out, depends in part on the medium.
One of the most apparent differences between film and the ever-popular first-person narrative found in young adult fiction is the perspective. In film, the camera provides the viewpoint. Audiences see everything that the camera does, even if the protagonist may not. Take Twilight as an example, where the screenwriter took the liberty of stepping out of Bella’s experience in order to show vampire attacks happening in the area, building suspense. The audience is privy to information that Bella is not. Even in scenes with Bella, there may be details lurking in the corner of the screen that the audience is privileged to see before Bella. And Twilight’s cool coloring and soundtrack may help to convey the way Bella is feeling, but they’re not actually part of her experience.
In books, all an author has available are words. In young adult books, it is often the first-person narrator that frames the story. We can only know as much as he or she tells us. Perspective becomes a crucial decision. John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars would’ve been an entirely different book if it were narrated by Augustus Waters. What if Peeta narrated The Hunger Games instead of Katniss? The same events form an entirely different story when someone else takes the storytelling helm. Anyone who has a brother or sister knows as much.
Authors also face the challenge of how they want to frame their story, and finding a unique framing device can add another layer of excitement for the reader. Examples of this include Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why, told largely through a voice recorded on tapes; Gayle Foreman’s If I Stay, told from the point of view of a girl caught in a coma’s limbo; Daniel Handler’s Why We Broke Up, told as a letter to an ex-boyfriend articulating the importance of various artifacts from their failed high school relationship; and Stephen Chbosky’s Perks of Being a Wallflower, another epistolary novel written to an anonymous recipient. All of these books could be described as reality-grounded contemporary teen fiction (though one could make a career of arguing the genre of If I Stay), but they are elevated by the inventive way in which they’re told.
Of course, it doesn’t take a clever narrative device to make a great young adult novel. Great stories—for any age—require complex characters, fast pacing and that untouchable quality in the voice that makes a story deeply personal, and by turn, incredibly urgent. The best books force us to guess what will happen next, because we can’t stand not knowing, and then surprise us not just with what happens, but how it happens. My favorites always leave me feeling like a protective older brother, ready to ward off any further danger that may come the narrator’s way.
When avid readers hear their favorite novel is being adapted into a movie, a similar protective instinct kicks in. We do not necessarily want to see our favorite book being hacked to pieces and reassembled by Hollywood like some Frankenstein creation. But it is important to remember that a movie adaptation of a book is its own telling. Filmmaking has its own agenda and its own language, and while it may not always perfectly align with the book’s, that does not mean it is without merit. And boy is it ever an exciting time for young adult books! With Harry Potter behind us, the Twilight films coming to a close this fall, and the first film from The Hunger Games opening this month, it is hard not to feel enthusiastic about the state of YA book adaptations.
So, what’s going to be the next great story? In a letter to Natalie Savage Carlson, replying to a question about what the author should work on next, Ursula Nordstrom insists that editors (and I will extend this to agents) do not have the absolute authority to tell authors what to write, saying, “I never want to forget that if Lewis Carroll had asked me whether or not he should bother writing about a little girl named Alice who fell asleep and dreamed that she had a lot of adventures down a rabbit hole, it would not have sounded awfully tempting to any editor.” While individuals may have specific tastes, one thing is always true: What makes a great story is a great storyteller.
Peter joined the Park Literary Group, a literary agency located in downtown Manhattan, in July 2011. Previously, he served as a story editor and literary consultant at Floren Shieh Productions, where he scouted literary properties for production companies and film studios to adapt into feature films and TV series. He is a graduate of New York University and currently lives in Brooklyn.