I know, I hear what you’re saying… How can she not have read this book yet? ‘Uglies’ by Scott Westerfeld is one of the iconic dystopian YA novels, I’ve heard a lot about it. When I saw it in my local library, it jumped off the shelf and into my book bag.
I wanted to know why ‘Uglies’ became so popular with the YA market. And if, like me, you’re coming to this book well after the rest of the world, be warned that I have spoilers in here.
What did I find? Three themes that I believe led to success:
I’ve been told that world-building has hit the mark if you can imagine what is around the corner the hero never takes. Westerfeld’s world is 90% solid. I was able to suspend disbelief and exist in there, once I got past the extreme cost to society of making all those pretties. And the perfect rhyming clues that got Tally to Smoke, even though Shay had never seen any of the route and was going to have a guide and had been told not to tell anyone so why would David have described the route so well that Shay could turn it into personalised poetry…? But I chose to ignore that, because I loved the process of solving the clues. And I could feel the world. The party island, the hovering buildings, the moldering ruins, the expanse of white flowers.
And, even from the start, the feeling that something sinister hides behind the partying pretties makes you keep reading. Chewing fingernails even. If that’s your thing. Westerfeld scatters the clues well.
And the transformation of Tally’s view of herself and others, and of what ‘pretty’ means, is delicately done.
But she still annoys me by not telling the truth for SOOOO long. I know, it’s all about building the tension. But really… that long?
Yes, the kids have fun in this book! What teen wants to read a book where no one has fun or breaks the rules? Tally and Shay pull pranks, jump off buildings, and most of all, they ride hoverboards.
I want a hoverboard.
The only times I’ve ever ridden a skateboard I have donated great portions of my skin to the bitumen. But now I understand that’s only because my board didn’t come with crash bracelets and belly sensors. If it had, history might have played out differently.
And it’s a fact of the MG and YA realm, most parents need to take a back seat in books. In ‘Uglies’, there are barely any parents in sight. Cue the fun.
I love the Better Novel Project, and one of the findings that intrigues me is the Rescue Scene. So I was excited to see whether it played out in ‘Uglies’ as well. Christine has found that top-selling books have three rescue scenes in the middle chapters. As follows:
- The hero is saved by one of their best friends. Tick. In Chapter 2, Tally’s BFF Peris saves Tally by getting her up to the roof and pointing her in the direction of the bungee jackets so she can bounce away from all the vacuous pretties. Tally made a big mistake going into New Pretty Town. She needed saving. She was flawed. Good. No reader likes a perfect hero straight up.
- The hero is saved by a minor character. Tick. Page 290, the Boss pops up out of nowhere with a container of habanero peppers. The Boss is grumpy, the Boss doesn’t like people. But the Boss believes Tally is worth rescuing. So the reader should too.
- The hero attempts to rescue a friend. Tick. Twice. First, Tally tries to rescue the Smokies at Smoke, and can only save herself. And then, she rescues Shay from the Specials, but only once Shay has become what she never wanted to be – pretty. So even though Tally is getting kind of kick-ass, she’s still got a long way to go to be totally awesome. Chew some more nails, because if Tally is going to save the world from being pointlessly pretty, she needs to step it up a notch.
So. I read it. Finally. And I learnt. A lot.
Time to reach for one of my manuscripts again and start transferring learnings into plot-kicks. I think I need a bit of friend-saving in my South American road-trip WIP…