A little while ago I wrote a post about the five writing lessons I learnt from The Walking Dead. It was fairly negative and I’ve been feeling a little guilty about this. So I wanted to do a similar post, looking at the five writing lessons to be learnt from something that I felt was brilliantly written.
Last week I finished reading Dark Eden (which won the Arthur Clarke award last week), by Chris Beckett, and thought it would be perfect for this.
As with all good books, it left me thinking for days after I’d finished it. I pulled it apart, examining each section so that I could learn what made it work and just why it had touched a nerve.
Dark Eden is a science fiction novel following a society of humans borne of two lost astronauts stranded on a distant planet.
The lessons I’ve learnt
- Keep it simple
Dark Eden follows a one boy as he breaks away from the social mould. There you go, there’s the plot in one sentence. Of course it’s not actually as simple as that. That would be rubbish. There are other stories intertwined and the general act of one person breaking away from a group is never actually that simple, but still Beckett has managed to keep the plot line simple.
I am always in awe of this. I’ve noticed, from studying each and every Discworld novel, that Terry Pratchett is very good at this as well. Keeping the plot line simple while at the same time complex enough to grab your attention, is key.
I would offer advice on how to do this but to be honest, I haven’t a clue. I’m still working on it and can only hope that my current works in progress manage to live up, even a little, to this ideal.
- Add some originality
Originality is that little piece of you that you put into your stories. Your own take on an old idea. What’s wonderful is when someone creates something that you can fall in love with.
Eden is a world of darkness, lit only by trees giving the impression of a beautiful but terrifying place. Imagine never feeling the sun on your face, imagine being surrounded by utter darkness. Not to mention the unique animals that you can’t help but vividly imagine and love.
The thing I truly love about Dark Eden is the language. Of course the humans of Eden speak is similar to our own and yet their language has evolved, as all languages do, from our own. They repeat words, they use slang, and Beckett has done this so well that I found myself using this language when not reading the book. Actually, it took me about a week to stop speaking like his characters.
The way these characters speak is also quite innocent. The repetition of words gives a feeling of childlike innocence and why not? These humans don’t know what it feels like to live a world with murder and rape and abuse. Not only that but they are, in fact, a new population, a new branch of humanity. They’re young and so their language should reflect that.
Language is always a tricky thing to pull off. It must remain consistent throughout the book and appropriate for each character. But if you can do it well, it can make a massive difference for the reader.
- Explore the world with the characters
I learnt at an early age that one of the best ways of discovering a world is through a character. This avoids the pitfall of ‘showing rather than telling’. It is much better for a reader to learn about something through a character rather than the narrative voice just telling the reader.
The description of worlds is where I lose interest in science fiction. I’ve never been a big science fiction fan and this is because I always find it tricky to get to grips with completely different worlds. I feel, if you’ll excuse the pun, alienated.
To me, the best kind of world building is where the reader slips into it and becomes used to it without even realising. Dark Eden does this. I felt that I knew Circle Valley within a few pages. I didn’t have to struggle with picturing it and as the group began to explore their world, I relished in learning about it with them.
Again, I’m not too clued up as to the secret of this yet but I believe it has something to do with showing and not telling, giving the reader some credit for intelligence and painting a picture with short, interesting pieces of prose that also move the plot along.
Yup, sounds easy…
- Short chapters are good
Dark Eden has very short chapters and each one is from the perspective of different characters. As with George R R Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, each chapter is headed with the character’s name.
I like this, you know immediately who you are with.. The short chapters keep the suspense of the plot, allowing it to move forward easily.
They’re also perfect for the actual logistics of reading. I don’t know about you but as someone who works full time, is attempting to write novels, keep a blog updated, is in the habit of staring into space and getting distracted by the television and is attempting to have a social life every now and then, I don’t actually have all that much spare time for reading.
For a busy person, short chapters are a dream. You can sit down and think ‘I’ll just have a break and read one chapter’ without feeling any guilt. Naturally, as happens when a book is well written, one chapter of Dark Eden always, always, turned into three or four.
- You are allowed to change character perspective
Near the beginning of Dark Eden there is a chapter from the perspective of one of the Oldest. We never visit his mind again, although he is present throughout the book. Yet, this one short chapter gives the reader an insight into the rest of the group after focusing on the young people. So John Redlantern has got itchy feet and has been thinking too much, but is he the first to feel this? Just how do those who actually met the original mother and father feel about this world?
It’s not head hopping as it is separated by a chapter. It has a purpose, as do the other odd chapters from Sue Redlantern and Caroline Brooklyn that take the reader into different aspects of Family and, later on, around Eden.
So a writer does not need to stick with a limited number of character perspectives, but each perspective should serve a purpose to the story and be clearly separated so as to not confuse the reader.
In other words, write the story that you want to write, you can even break the rules, as long as you do it well.
Dark Eden is an amazing book, well deserving of its Clarke award, and I have learnt a lot from reading it. It has stuck with, as has the language. Ok, so I’ve stopped repeating words to myself but the other day I caught myself staring out of the window and saying to myself;
“We’re here. We are really here.”
Exciting news? The sequel to Dark Eden, Gela’s Ring, is on its way!