September 16, 2010 at 10:04 am (speculative fiction, Writing Ranting, young adult)

For those who don’t want to look at the nuts and bolts of writing, here’s a funny and informative look at an acquisitions meeting (I LOVE this blog entry):

Also, here’s a random picture of a bird on a train:

There are some very mild spoilers in the following (spoilers on theme and on the first few chapters only).

I just started reading “Sabriel” by Garth Nix for the second time this week, analysing it like crazy to understand how a master of storytelling weaves his spell. It’s a little odd to be studying “Sabriel” (400 pages for young adults) while editing “The Princess and the Pirate” (40 pages for kids) but some principles do transfer.  

I’ll ignore the prologue in this analysis, having talked about it two days ago. It’s interesting to note, however, that the first paragraph of the prologue isn’t action – it’s setting. It’s a “slow burn” opening, which is the right choice because (a) having used a prologue, the chapter one opening must be involving from the first sentence, which means a “slow burn” opening will no longer be an option, (b) the setting is quite difficult to grasp – two completely distinct lands exist side by side – one magical, and one more like 1920s England. So it needs to be mentioned up front, and re-mentioned several times in the next few chapters. (And of course, that one paragraph of description sets the mood for that scene.) And even though Sabriel is barely born in that scene, she is still the centre of it – she even manages to be an active character.

And on with the first chapters.

The very first paragraph is a truly eerie image of a white pet rabbit, freshly bathed – and freshly killed. The dichotomy of innocence and horror is a constant throughout the book (Sabriel is 18 – literally a schoolgirl). Sabriel raises the rabbit from the dead before its young owner arrives. TV tropes has a section on “pat the dog” – establishing a hero’s goodness by their kindness to an animal. This scene is a fantastically macabre (and frightening) “pat the dog” – with a twist. The twist is that Sabriel’s calling is to make sure the dead (including this rabbit) stay dead – her compassion is a flaw.

This ties in to the main plot, not only because the school (and its innocence) becomes important later, but because Sabriel faces a similar temptation at the climax.

It also makes us love her instantly – that is the primary function of the scene (the character hook is her compassion, plus her own fear of her frighteningly creepy job, plus the unique pain of compassion being a flaw). And it shows us a little more of the mechanics of her job (which are important many times in the book – the realm of Death has its own rules and challenges).

After that there are 3 pages of quite straightforward exposition – by now we care enough to find it all interesting.

Then a literal incursion of horror into a dorm filled with 11-year old girls (girls Sabriel is responsible for). A dead thing enters, and Sabriel runs to fight it (we see she’s brave, but also see her authority over the dead – even the Magistrix of the school clearly sees Sabriel as the most competent person to deal with it). It is a terrifying scene – but that’s not the primary purpose. The primary purpose is to deliver a message from Sabriel’s father (aka Mr Macguffin) – effectively saying a garbled, “Help!” It’s a brilliantly dramatic way to deliver a message, and also shows more about Death that is important later.

And the plot is set: Sabriel must find her father (who may or may not be beyond help). The plot later builds to become, “Sabriel must find her father and save the kingdom” but the emotional heart is exactly the same.

Now that the plot and character are established, chapter two and three are relatively action-free (except for a brief misunderstanding – that, admittedly, could have gotten Sabriel killed if it had gone the wrong way). There’s a lot of setting detail, more info on the stakes (including a 14-day ticking clock for tension), and more on Sabriel (mainly: she  shows humanity as she struggles to carry a load of skis and stocks and backpack, she shows off cheekily to an annoying beaurocrat, and a father figure is deeply concerned for her dangerous voyage, but respects her enough to help her on her way).

Chapters 4-7 are an epic and terrifying journey, with quite a bit of setting detail (journeys are handy for that, particularly since Sabriel hasn’t travelled that path since she was 4), some bad news on the big bad (via a pile of corpses), and a brief moment of joy when Sabriel meets her dead mother’s spirit (which just makes us more sympathetic, since her mother is dead and rarely reachable – even this meeting is cut short). Sabriel kills a dead thing, but flees from another – which shows her competence, while also showing that This Is Serious Now.

And then there’s a period of physical and mental recuperation before she continues on her way – this time, with a Mysterious Companion (who is sort of evil, but also extremely helpful, and a great source of humour throughout the book).

Here’s the way Garth Nix deals with the challenges of opening a novel:

1. Instant hook: The image of the rabbit is compelling.

2. Setting: He describes Sabriel’s school uniform (including her prefect’s badge), and the iron school gate, which says “established in 1652 for Young Ladies of Quality”. That tells us everything we need to know about her boarding school, and thus all necessay setting for the first two scenes. (The dichotomy of this “country” with the magical one 40 miles away is also mentioned – not for the first or last time. Chapter two and three are set entirely in the area between the two locations.)

3. Characterisation: The fast hook is her compassion, magic, and that her compassion is a flaw. We then quickly see her courage and intelligence – reinforced by the way both children and adults come to her for help.

4: Instant action: Within a page, we have a problem (the Bunny’s young owner is fast approaching), and Sabriel goes into the risky world of Death to do something about it.

5: Plot hooks: It’s not until the dorm room scene that we know the main plot.

a. Finding her father, who may or may not be dead.

b. Sabriel needs to get better at her job (keeping the dead dead). Will she turn evil?

c. In chapter two, it becomes clear that more lives are at stake because of her father’s helplessness.

d. After the big action sequence, Sabriel keeps a wary eye on her companion (and soon gets another, who is also mysterious – and has several private conversations with the first). Each companion is utterly vital at the climax, and their secrets are relevant.

6: What characters look like: Since it’s in third person, everything is described in a fairly straightforward manner.

7. How the magic system works: As in “The Princess and the Pirate”, the basics are shown by immediate action, and more is revealed as it becomes relevent (again, through action).

8: Link to prologue: We all know Sabriel is the infant of the prologue – and the plot soon makes it very clear that a character we love (Sabriel’s dad) is in mortal danger. (And, since he’s not the main character, we know he really could die – causing pain to Sabriel, who has suffered enough.)

So that’s how it’s done: Exciting stories within the greater, more exciting story.

I’ll be sending off “The Princess and the Pirate” in the next few days (unless CJ spots a fatal flaw when he reads it tonight). I recently met three people from Publisher D (two of them the most relevant two people I could have hoped for). Publisher J specifically recommended Publisher D, so this is my shining new hope. Sadly, I’m only sending the first three chapters, so I won’t have a final answer for 6-12 months (and that’s assuming they’re prompter than the silent Publisher B).

The main lessons I’ve learnt from Nix this week are:

1. A Mr Macguffin needs a prologue – but your chapter one opening has to be a killer.

2. Some character-establishing exposition is fine, once you’ve earned it.

3. Repeat, repeat, repeat your main plot – all the way through the book (and the other plots/motivations too).


  1. Paige von said,

    so did the crazy bird get that free ride?
    and now I think I’ll go check that link

    • felicitybloomfield said,

      I think the bird left. Hope you enjoyed Rachelle’s work as much as I did.

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