A Cautionary Tale: Abstraction in “Shatter Me”

Have I mentioned that I hate YA today?

Well, alright, I don’t actually hate YA. In fact, YA fiction has a lot of freedom for the “young” element of its demographic, which allows for some really imaginative premises and some really relatable characters.

The original idea of the Young Adult label was that certain “coming of age” moments are inherent to writing in this age group–first “serious” relationships, confused self-identity, developing sexuality, emotional sensitivity, and unending backsass. Somewhere along the line, however, these things were misnamed a genre, and ever since then YA has left a bad taste in my mouth.

I know it can’t all be bad. I liked plenty of “Young Adult” books before genrefication and I still do now. There are a lot of hidden treasures below the stenciled garbage, and I’m on a journey to discover some. As my first step in this journey, I turned to Tahereh Mafi’s popular 2011 “Shatter Me.”

Cover of Tahereh Mafi's "Shatter Me"
What a kickass cover.

Now, I’m not a fan of dystopias, but this novel came well recommended. I’m an asexual aromantic and have trouble relating to romance plots that assume you’re onboard, let alone YA’s weird “he’s so attractive I must be in love with him and realign the stars to be with him” propaganda. None of these things are inherent negatives; just indicators this book was not made for me.

The setting was pretty standard, yet the premise was interesting. The author more or less committed to the character’s “kill by touch” power, which I respected. I didn’t want to slap the romantic protagonists every time they looked at each other. It was paced just right, too. No rushing and no dawdling. Action felt like action and breathers felt like breathers.

I also was tickled by the formatting. The story is told in first-person by protagonist Juliette, and she occasionally censors herself by crossing out lines she’s “written,” contradicting or informing the rest of her internal monologue. It also errs on the side of unexpected and poetic, which appealed to me quite a lot.

I positively hated it.

Today, I want to talk about why I hated it, as both a reader and a writer. We’re going to put it on the chopping block because it’s a perfect example of a bad example.

Now, I’m sure you’ve heard “show, don’t tell” somewhere in your writing career. I don’t agree with the “no telling here, young man, that’ll be six Hail Marys and an eternity of shame” approach. Expression is expression, after all, and shouldn’t be limited by hard rules.

But the issue with “Shatter Me” is that, sometimes, in the effort to be unique, it forgot to show at all. The novel felt like no one had gone over it and said, okay, you can see this in your head, and that’s good. But now I need to see it in mine.

Take this as the crowning example:

“I want to bury my tears in a bucket of regret.”

Circled quote on page: "I want to bury my tears in a bucket of regret."

The narrative flow derails every time I reach this line. I have to stop. I don’t understand. You can’t bury tears, after all. But then I also have no clue what a “bucket of regret” is. Am I missing something here? Yes, absolutely.

This line is what you may have heard called an abstraction. An abstraction is something that is not concrete and cannot be visualized. This is the cardinal “tell” people are warning you about when they say “show, don’t tell.” Most commonly, abstractions come from figurative language. The following is a list of abstractions, with concrete adaptations in italics.

“My childhood is made of beauty and innocence.”
My childhood is made of pink dollhouses and chocolate birthday cake.

“The open sea embraces me in freedom.”
“The open sea stretches as far as the sky. No matter where my governess shouts from, I won’t hear her now.”

“His eyes are the color of first love.
“His eyes are green as the grass in Davis Park, where he pushed me off the swings because he thought I was pretty. “

See? Perfectly acceptable YA writing, since YA will accept pretty much anything. Abstraction isn’t always bad, but approaching description with abstract nouns like “beauty,” “innocence,” “freedom,” or “love” is much more difficult for a reader to see than specific images. Here’s another moment from “Shatter Me” where the writing gets blurry.

“I’m wearing dead cotton on my limbs and a blush of roses on my face….I catch the rose petals as they fall from my cheeks, as they float around the frame of my body, covering me in what feels like the absence of courage.”

Circled quote on page: "His eyes scan the silhouette of my structure and the slow motion makes my heart race. I catch the rose petals as they fall from my cheeks, as they float around the frame of my body, as they cover me in something that feels like the absence of courage."

If I was a tide pool creature I would invert myself to get away from this prose. But that’s not the issue. The issue is that nothing in this paragraph really means anything, particularly since no concrete comparisons exist to elaborate on “dead cotton” or “the absence of courage.”

“My cotton clothes are scratchy and fake. The cold on my bare arms feels like the absence of courage. I’m flushed to my neckline.”

Even something like this is enough to anchor the reader through the abstractions. Meanwhile, the bizarre extended rose metaphor, while visible literally, leaves me with absolutely no idea what Juliette is doing to “catch” nonexistent rose petals I assume are coming from a blush. Why are they floating around the body? It’s an abstraction, alright, but the most backward one I’ve ever encountered.

Mafi’s “images” are not concrete. They cannot be visualized. They do too much with too little, and I get nothing out of them. They do not say anything about the setting, about the character, or about what’s going to happen next. Returning to the subject of “bury my tears in a bucket of regret,” think about this:

“I want to bury my tears in a bucket of regret.”

“An entire bucket of tears inside me waited to tip out my eyes.”

“An icy bucket of regret splashed over me.”

Both variations justify the unexpected behaviors of one object each. I don’t mean to imply the examples I’ve come up with are the same caliber as a published product. What I’m demonstrating is basic writing craft. The function is there, even if the polish isn’t. When you create a line, it ought to add something to your narrative. It ought to do something. Try those sentences on again, this time in mid-scene:

“I stared at him. An entire bucket of tears inside me waited to tip out my eyes. It had been filling for years, and now it was about to overflow.”

“I realized what I’d said. An icy bucket of regret splashed over me.”

They fit into the story flow. They advance the scenes and add context to the “I” character. As a bonus, they attribute behaviors to “tears” and “regret” based on context native to a bucket. Note that the extended metaphor of the bucket filling still applies to the character’s actions.

If you’re not convinced by my self-made examples, compare Mafi’s line with a lyric from The Band Perry’s “If I Die Young.”

I want to bury my tears in a bucket of regret.”

“Gather up your tears, keep them in your pocket, save them for a time when you’re really gonna need them.”

This line is from a song, not a book. But it’s still easy to visualize. It has momentum behind it. It asks the audience to make only one assumption–that tears can be gathered. Being able to put them in your pocket and keep them then naturally follows from this. Mafi rarely gives us this ease.

“The tilt of his head cracks gravity in half.”

“It’s 8:00 in the morning and I’m wearing a dress the color of dead forests and old tin cans.”/”I am sitting all alone in a velvet chair in a blue room wearing a dress made of olives.”

“His eyes [are] hard and beautiful as frozen gemstones.”

“I marvel at the drop drop drops of water caught in his eyelashes like pearls of pain.”

“My bones begin to buckle, snapping in synchronicity with the beats of my heart.”

(Does it really? What color? Made of olives? Can you freeze gemstones? Pearls of what? He’s just in the shower. “Buckling” and “snapping” are both concrete, until you realize she’s not in pain and nothing is physically happening to her–she just fell down. Spun gold lit on fire? That’s really a bit much.)

I’ll admit, I laughed my way through the first ten pages. The only reason I kept reading was because I wanted to find more whacky quotes. Otherwise, I would have committed murder: I would have put this book down and never touched it again. The author may have known what she meant, but much of her imagination was lost in translation.

If you liked “Shatter Me,” more power to you. There was a lot to like. I wouldn’t be drawing and quartering this book if I thought it was only overdramatic, or too YA for me. My apologies to Tahereh Mafi for using her as an example for her weaknesses instead of her strengths. I’m sure that Mafi’s later books improve vastly on the gaffes of her debut novel. But please don’t take your writing cues from “Shatter Me”–you might take the wrong ones.

Recognize writing that’s meaningless, even if it means the world to you. Take feedback even if smarts. Just because a book is published does not mean it is perfect. Remember, there is nothing more tragic than a story no one can read.

11 thoughts on “A Cautionary Tale: Abstraction in “Shatter Me”

  1. Oooh boy. These are fantastic! Honestly this is what a lot of my writing looks like if I decide it’s a good idea to try and keep at it waaaay past my bedtime.

    It also often rhymes like some kind of drunken Dr. Seuss parody. Perfectly salvageable as terrible poetry. Not worth the paper I never actually print it on as prose, though.

    On the other hand, I’ve never come up with “a dress made of olives”. That sounds like one hell of a trip. Or a great martini. One of the two.

      1. Now I actually want to come up with new drink names from questionable descriptions in books. Don’t be surprised if a post along those lines shows up soon. Please feel free to join me.

  2. Pretty terrible. It amazes me how bad writers like that can get books published. As someone who started off as a poet I find those attempts at imagery pretty lame (and insulting). They needed a decent editor who would quite happily cut out that type of crap. I would love to sit down with author and read those lines back to them and say “What the fuck do you mean?!”

    1. You’re absolutely right, someone with no mercy and an editing pen could do a LOT here. I actually thought it might be an indie publication at first, but it’s a Harper Collins publication. Either someone at Harper Collins was having a major off day or the author had a hell of an agent.

      1. This makes unfortunate sense, though I do maintain that the YA “genre” standard allows for bad writing inherently and thus has trouble drawing the line between “meh” and “ugh.”

      2. It’s fast and cheap publishing, for fast and cheap reading. A lot of the readers don’t seem to care or can’t tell the difference yet. There’s no incentive to improve the prose.

        Which is a shame, because there is good YA out there that really gets a bad reputation by association.

  3. a thoroughly entertaining ‘hatchet job’. I do recall when teaching Middle School some great YA novels including ‘Z For Zachariah’ and ‘The Chocolate War’

    1. Well, I’m always happy to play the entertainer! And I’m grateful for the recommendations, my quest to relearn appreciation for YA has obviously gotten off to a bad start.

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