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In today’s post, I will share with you 3 writing lessons you can learn from reading books by other writers. Naturally, there are a lot more lessons you can learn by reading. In fact, reading is essential when it comes to becoming a better writer.
I find that when you really like the books by a certain author, it pays to take a closer look to see why. In this case, I’ll use books by Mark Lawrence to highlight my points. He’s become easily one of my top 5 Fantasy writers, so it pays to study his work. What makes the books so compelling?
So, here are three writing lessons that I’ve learned by reading his books!
1. Increasing the stakes
In my opinion, you can make almost any story idea work, as long as the stakes get continuously higher. Already at the beginning of the ‘Red Sister,’ the stakes of life and death are clear as Nona’s friend Saida is hanged for the murder Nona committed to save Saida (not too much of a spoiler, as it happens in the first chapter). Throughout the trilogy, if you look at the core events of the books (the climactic moments at the end), they go from risk of death to Nona and her friend, to risk of unleashing a war, to risking eradication of a whole group of people.
So, what can we learn from this? Go through your writing and make sure what’s at stake is evident from the beginning (i.e., life vs. death, love vs. hate, etc.), and keep raising the stakes. If you write a trilogy or series together, keep in mind to do this not just throughout one book, but throughout the equals as well.
2. Unconventional characters
While this might not be a must when writing a book, it does set your story apart. We all know the trope of the empathetic hero who is kind and sympathetic and willing to sacrifice. Interestingly, Mark Lawrence chooses quite violent and angry characters for his books; much darker than usual.
For example: Nona, in the Book of the Ancestor, we meet while she’s about to be hanged for murder. And, we witness her having violent outbursts quite often and she had no problem slicing a man open when she feels it’s necessary. Though she might have violent tendencies, she’s extremely loyal to the ones she calls her friends and strives to do what’s right; she’s actually a very likable character with a dark edge.
On the other hand, Jorg, in The Broken Empire, is quite the asshole and sociopath. The first time we’re introduced to him, he’s burning down a village with his band of brothers where they killed all the inhabitants. If you go such a dark character, you need to write it in a compelling way, so that we keep hoping for the character’s redemption.
The way Mark made me root for Jorg is partly through his backstory and partly because the characters he’s up against seem even worse. Jorg experiences trauma which strips away any humanity he may have had before, and we find out his father is actually more of an asshole, and the other antagonists Jorg faces are basically pure evil. So, while Jorg grows a little bit throughout the books, he never becomes a likable character. But, we can empathize with him and in many ways, he seems to be the ‘lesser evil.’
3. Use of narrative drive
The way Mark Lawrence uses narrative drive is, in my opinion, excellent. Throughout the Book of the Ancestor trilogy, he gives you a taste of a significant future event as a prologue and epilogue in the first two books (and also in the middle of the first book, when there’s a large time jump). This event only happens in the third book, so you keep on asking yourself what the hell is gonna go down, making you want to read all three books in a row.
He plays with time a lot in his books. Past events sometimes get told in the form of flashbacks, gradually exposing more and more detail. In ‘Red Sister’ he also plays with having an unreliable narrator, where Nona tells her friends the story of her past, but she lies, leaving us none the wiser than before until she tells the story truthfully.
In ‘Holy Sister,’ it’s even done more masterfully by shifting between current events and the events that happened between the second and third books; information is continuously given at the exact right time, really using exposition as ammunition. He also uses this technique in the Broken Empire trilogy, often using different timelines to reveal important backstory at crucial times.
While playing with time is not absolutely necessary to create narrative drive, you might want to consider to reveal certain important bits of backstory scattered throughout your story. When will it have the most impact? And instead of having it simply told, could you turn it into a scene, showing your readers what happened?
So, what are the writing lessons we learned by reading? How and when we expose certain information to the reader is essential. Looking at these books made me realize there are more options available than just using flashbacks. Another interesting thing to play with are using more unconventional characters. And what’s always important: raise the stakes in your story.
I hope it was helpful! As I said, there’s still loads to get out of these books that I haven’t even covered, but I think these three points are the main reasons why I love these books.
What about you? Do you have a favorite author who inspires you in your writing (if you’re a writer), or who inspires you in other ways?