© 2019 Writing on Fire | All rights reserved.
Hugh Howey is one of my newly favorite writers, after I read through his Wool Omnibus and the rest of the Silo series, binge-reading his story about a dystopian world where the entirety of human civilization lives in underground silos. I clipped through all of his brilliant visual descriptions and amazingly-paced plot. I read more about him and realized: he was one of the rare indie writers who self-published and made it big. The quality of his writing carried him through some of the slush that exists in self-published works. He is such an inspiration to me, and I wanted to read more actively and rationalize why it works.
We don't know what works until we read it. Every sentence we right must be inspired from somewhere else, and I strongly advocate for any fledgling writer to read voraciously, and dissect what you've read to make yourself a stronger writer. Read more to check out the little tidbits I gleaned from Howey's writing style. Warning: spoilers if you haven't read it. But you should so read it! Then come back here and read my impressions.
Let's start at the beginning
The novel begins with:
"The children were playing while Holston climbed to his death; he could hear them squealing as only happy children do. While they thundered about frantically above, Holston took his time, each step methodical and ponderous, as he wound his way around and around the spiral staircase, old boots ringing out on metal treads."
Howey introduces the character Holston, whose eventual death sparks the main momentum of the story--the mayor needs to find a new sheriff, leading her to the character from "down there," Juliette. Howey got right into his plot, and this is how you need to think, too: what is the importance of this character and how does he further the story? You know what's unique about Howey starting with Holston? He's not the main character of the story. In fact, he goes through quite a few peripheral characters before landing on Juliette. We are introduced to the environment and the situation before we are introduced to her.
1. Consider writing a novel without focusing on your main character at first--it's difficult, because you already have him or her in mind and you want to jump right in. But writing around the central character can reveal more to the reader about the context of why she becomes so important.
The children "thundered about frantically"--here is a well-placed adverb. I am told sometimes that I over-rely on adverbs. Watch out for that in your own writing.
2. In this case, the adverb adds additional description that wasn't inferred from the description already.
This, as opposed to "the children thundered about loudly": "thundered" already implies "loud", but it does not imply "frantically."
And then we get down to the description: The first sentence knocks you out. It brings up questions: Why is Holston going to die? The reader is immediately pulled in and wants to find out more, to understand this character and his motivation. He fits in a brief introduction to the environment: the spiral staircase. And he chooses to focus on Holston's shoes and steps, choosing his adjectives carefully: Holston's steps are "methodical" and "ponderous." His steps reveal his state of mind, a man contemplating his own death as he trudges upwards to his destination.
3. Notice this: Howey has not chosen to describe the man's eyes or hair.
Everyone, when crafting an initial character description, naturally does one of those two things. Here's a great study in how to write details and reveal a character's mentality without resorting to the basics. His shoes have more nitty-gritty than his eyes or hair.
We're in Chapter 9, and we're watching the Mayor, Jahns, climb down the staircase, winding through all the parts of the silo to find this mysterious Juliette.
With each step down, Jahns dreaded having to reclaim those lost inches on the way back up. This was the easy part, she reminded herself. The descent was like the uncoiling of a steel spring, pushing her down.
Why is this well-crafted? Howey describes Jahns' journey down as a mental and physical journey, a long push down followed by a fatigued walk back up. The "uncoiling of a steel spring, pushing her down" expresses the urgency and drive of going downward, having her physically compelled down by natural forces. This also suggests the opposite: on her way back up, she will be trying to coil a steel spring, working against what the spring wants to do naturally, and having a much harder time of it. He gets so much meaning from his one sentence that it took me three sentences to describe.
4. Sometimes a short, apt metaphor will do much more than a lengthy description.
Howey does this throughout his novel, and reading it actively will help you become a better writer.
Some things I learned:
Writing peripheral characters can cast light on the main character's journey, help create a sense of mystery, and draw the reader into the world. As an exercise, even if it doesn't end up in the story, it's given you more information as the author, and you will be more authoritative in the world you've created.
Go light on your adverbs, but if they add additional meaning that wasn't inferred already, don't be scared of them.
Think of different ways to describe your character while avoiding cliche: avoid the obvious features and focus on some other element: the clothing, their shoes, their mannerisms, their gait, their surroundings and how they fit in.
Think of a unique metaphor that can describe something better than straightforward narrative. Sprinkle little bits of thematic metaphors in your story to create moments of visual clarity in your reader's mind.
© 2019 Writing on Fire | All rights reserved.