Genre Lessons: Street Lit

Man leaning on graffiti wall.I belong to a librarian book club that reads a different genre every month to improve our reader’s advisory skills. The idea is to get us better-acquainted with the types of books we may not normally read. In addition to improving my recommendations, I’m also studying these books from a writer’s perspective. Just because I don’t write a certain genre doesn’t mean I can’t learn from those who do. If you want to see other posts in this series, check out the “genre lessons” tag.

This month we’re reading street lit. Because this is a genre I have little experience with, I read three books — two YA novels and one written for adults. Here’s what a close study of street lit has taught me:

1. Worldbuilding is best done subtly and throughout a novel. And yes, worldbuilding is just as important for stories that take place in the real world as it is for those set in fictional worlds. All three of the novels I read started out with a fair amount of backstory, as if they were trying to explain the world and the characters’ situation to the reader. One had so much backstory I almost stopped reading because, while I was interested in the character’s background, I wanted to get to the actual story. I don’t think the story really began until about chapter four. And I certainly didn’t need all that information up front. When writing your own stories, make sure to ground your reader in the world, and explain things when necessary, but don’t give the entire history of the neighborhood on page one. Weave worldbuilding details and characters’ backstory into your tale as you go along

2. Give your character flaws. If you’re not familiar with the Mary Sue/Marty Stu character, it’s basically someone who is perfect: flawless looks, everyone loves them, and they’re good at everything, even things they’ve never done it before. One of the books I read was narrated by a Marty Stu, and all of the conflict in the story came from others. Every time there was trouble, it was someone else’s fault, and he was able to get out of that trouble with little difficulty. For me, this made the story not only unbelievable but also boring. I wanted the protagonist to be more relatable, and to struggle more. I wanted him to lose his temper when things he couldn’t control got in his way. In your own writing, make sure you pay attention to character development as much as the plot. You don’t want your characters to start out perfect (or even end up perfect). You do want them to grow over the course of the novel or series. Give them flaws. Have those flaws stop them from reaching their goal, so the thing they want most is depending on their growth as a person. This can be facing a fear, learning more patience, learning to trust others, letting go of strict beliefs … the possibilities are endless. But if your characters start out perfect, they have no room to go, and no internal obstacles standing in their way.

3. Keep the voice consistent in first-person narration. Two of the books I read were first-person. In one, the narration and dialog were consistent — the protagonist described the world through his own eyes, in his own voice. When he spoke with other characters, he sounded the same. In the other first-person novel, the protagonist’s dialog was inconsistent. Sometimes he would use abbreviations and slang, but at other times he avoided them, and I couldn’t find any pattern or reason for him to do this. It didn’t change based on whom he was talking to or the situation he was in. Just, sometimes he said “Imma do this, aight?” and sometimes he said “I’m going to do this.” Both are acceptable. Both say a lot about the character. If he uses both depending on the situation, that says a lot about him, too. But inconsistency just made it harder for me to understand who he was or know what to expect from him. So, if you want to use dialects or slang in your writing, go for it. Just do it with purpose. And if a character changes the way they talk, make sure there’s a reason for it.

Those are my main takeaways from reading street lit as a writer. Have you read any street lit you’d recommend?

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