Writing

Lessons From the Fantastic Writing of The Martian

Person in Space Suit in Red Haze - Cover of The Martian by Andy Weir

So far I’ve written six critiques of best selling books that I think are bad. Needless to say, I am not easily impressed. Then my commenters had the gall to ask for something positive. What do you think I am, a magical praise-emitting unicorn? Well, it took some doing, but I have found an opening worthy of flattery. Let’s dig into the first chapter of The Martian by Andy Weir. FYI, there’s lot’s of swearing, in case that matters to you.

Open With Conflict

After the top-notch cover art, the first pages provide a clear but technical looking map of the surface of Mars. Then Chapter 1 starts with the heading “LOG ENTRY: SOL 6.”

I’m pretty much fucked.

That’s my considered opinion.

Fucked.

Conflict is the most important thing to have in your opening. Here, Weir has cast it into an anvil and dropped it on our heads. My perfect opening might trade some of that for creative elements that arouse curiosity, like M.T. Anderson’s “We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.” However, Weir is providing characterization with these words. The swearing contrasts with the technical labels and the academic “considered opinion” to provide an interesting glimpse of who the protagonist is. It also has the outraged tone of someone who just found out how screwed they are and is still absorbing it.

Opening with the main character in trouble is also a great way to get a story moving quickly.

Six days into what should be the greatest month in my life, and it’s turned into a nightmare.

I don’t even know who’ll read this. I guess someone will find it eventually. Maybe a hundred years from now.

This is an epistolary work; the framing premise is that we are reading the protagonist’s logs. Right now, Weir is fully embracing that premise. It’s a perspective that’s similar to omniscient; by having the character recount what’s already happened instead of living it, Weir has more room to selectively describe and conceal what he wants to. He puts that to good use in the first line here, giving us enough information to provoke curiosity while avoiding any obligation to satisfy it. I want to know how the hero’s greatest month became a nightmare, don’t you?

The framing also makes it easy for him to color the narration with the character’s personality. While not strictly unreliable narration, this is clearly not a neutral telling. However, to keep it up, Weir must avoid writing things that someone wouldn’t put in a journal – like a blow-by-blow retelling of fight scenes, for instance. The suggestion that it could be a hundred years before anyone reads the journal will help him here – you’d explain a lot more to someone a hundred years in the future than you would to someone living in the present day.

For the record . . . I didn’t die on Sol 6. Certainly the rest of the crew thought I did, and I can’t blame them. Maybe there’ll be a day of national mourning for me, and my Wikipedia page will say, “Mark Watney is the only human being to have died on Mars.”

And it’ll be right, probably. ‘Cause I’ll surely die here. Just not on Sol 6 when everyone thinks I did.

Let’s see . . . where do I begin?

To get the story moving, Weir jumped ahead to when his protagonist was already facing a crisis. Now that he’s hit us with a big plot hook several times, he’s ready to give us some explanation. If the title didn’t give it away, we know the hero is on Mars now. Mentioning the narrator’s name could have sounded awkward and unnatural, but Weir cleverly uses a quip about Wikipedia to cover that.

Admittedly, “Sol 6” threw me a bit. I initially thought it was a place, when really it’s the date. Sol 6 means the sixth day since landing on Mars. In a fictional world I would avoid inventing a fancy calendar to confuse people with, but this is a contemporary setting with real astronomy terms. Maybe Weir could have introduced the date more clearly, but as the reader moves on to the next log, labeled “Sol 7,” the meaning becomes clearer.

Give the Hero Room to Grow

The Ares Program. Mankind reaching out to Mars to send people to another planet for the very first time and expand the horizons of humanity blah, blah, blah.

Weir has a lot of boring explanation to get through, so he’s using his narration to add entertainment while further developing the main character. We know Mark is an irreverent and cheeky fellow.

Next, Weir briefly mentions Ares 1 and Ares 2, the previous missions to Mars, which were both successful.

Ares 3. Well, that was my mission. Well, not mine, per se. Commander Lewis was in charge. I was just one of her crew. Actually, I was the very lowest ranked member of the crew. I would only be “in command” of the mission if I were the only remaining person.

What do you know? I’m in command.

This is funny and informative, but it also sets the protagonist up for growth. A common mistake is to make the main character too perfect and successful in the beginning. When writers do that, it robs readers of the opportunity to watch the character blossom. We now know that if Mark survives, we’ll get to watch his status go up. This information also increases likability; a decent dose of spinach creates an underdog that the audience can root for.

Weir does have a little clutter in his prose, most of it used intentionally. Sprinkling in words like “even,” “just,” “very,” “probably,” and “really” make the journal feel more authentic. This is a balancing act: too much and it will bog down the text, too little and it won’t feel personal anymore. To better maintain that balance, Weir is smartly keeping conversational clutter out of the most important lines. “I’m in command” is short and simple.

I wonder if this log will be recovered before the rest of the crew die of old age. I presume they got back to Earth all right. Guys, if you’re reading this: It wasn’t your fault. You did what you had to do. In your position I would have done the same thing. I don’t blame you, and I’m glad you survived.

Even though Mark is shocked and swearing about his situation, he’s not angry with his crew. So now even though we don’t know much about the details of his life, we know he’s a witty underdog and a pretty good guy. We’re less than two pages in, and Weir has likability nailed.

He’s also continually suggesting that Mark will die. For instance, “I’m glad you survived” emphasizes that Mark doesn’t think of himself as a survivor. This reminds readers of the opening hook, maintaining the tension.

Ensure Your Exposition Pays Off Later

Next there’s a break, which Weir uses to change subjects. After the break Mark goes into a more in-depth explanation of how the Mars mission works, “for any layman who may be reading this.” The next two pages provide necessary setup. Mark mentions that the supplies for the stay on Mars were dropped on the planet prior to the crew’s arrival, which later explains how he has food available. Mark specifies that there’s only one ship, the Hermes, that goes back and fourth between Earth and Mars, and that it takes three years, which explains why Earth can’t send someone to rescue him quickly. He ends by introducing the Mars ascent vehicle (MAV), the vehicle they need to get back up to the Hermes. We’ll hear more about it soon.

Then there’s another break. I looked ahead, and it appears that this book consistently has stopping points every few pages. It gives the reader a place to rest, so they feel like they’re making progress.

In the next section, Mark is ready to tell readers about the tragic event that just took place.

It was a ridiculous sequence of events that led me to almost dying, and an even more ridiculous sequence that led me to surviving.

Weir is good at increasing reader engagement near his breaks. Saying events are “ridiculous” provokes curiosity, creating a solid hook for the much-awaited story about how Mark ended up alone on Mars.

The mission was designed to handle sandstorm gusts up to 150 kph. So Houston got understandably nervous when we got wacked with 175 kph winds. We all got in our flight space suits and huddled in the middle of the Hab, just in case it lost pressure.

It’s worth noting that normally, you wouldn’t narrate events with such exact numbers, because people rarely know or remember them. For instance, they feel absurd in I Am Number Four. But in this book, Mark is a mission scientist trying to eke out a path to survival. The frequent numbers cited are critical to the plot and back up his characterization.

The MAV is the spaceship. It has a lot of delicate parts. […] After an hour and a half of sustained wind, NASA gave the order to abort. Nobody wanted to stop a month-long mission after only six days, but if the MAV took any more punishment, we’d all have gotten stranded down there.

We had to go out in the storm to get from the Hab to the MAV. That was going to be risky, but what choice did we have?

Everyone made it but me.

Weir sneaks in more setup here. The departure of the crew only a fifth of the way through their mission explains why there is enough food left for Mark to last a while. Even as he tells a riveting part of the story, he works to maintain tension and build anticipation by mentioning that the crew does something risky, and he becomes a casualty.

However, I think the clutter has gone a little too far in this section. Instead of “we’d all have gotten stranded,” Weir could have used “we’d be stranded.” Instead of “that was going to be risky,” Weir could have used “that was risky.” The trade off between personality and awkwardness isn’t good for these phrases.

Bring Scenes Alive With Detailed Imagery

Our main communications dish, which relayed signals from the Hab to Hermes, acted like a parachute, getting torn from its foundation and getting carried with the torrent. Along the way, it crashed through the reception antenna array. Then one of those long thin antennae slammed into me end-first. It tore through my suit like a bullet through butter, and I felt the worst pain in my life as it ripped open my side. I vaguely remember having the wind knocked out of me (pulled out of me, really) and my ears popping painfully as the pressure of my suit escaped.

The last thing I remember was seeing Johanssen hopelessly reaching out toward me.

The epistolary narration has kept up the tension with just the right details, but unfortunately it has also taken us away from the action. Finally, we’re seeing things as they happen. This is where vivid and specific imagery is important. Weir doesn’t fail us:

  • Saying the communications dish “acted like a parachute” provides a concrete visual of how it catches the wind.
  • Mentioning the antenna tears the suit “like a bullet through butter” emphasizes Mark’s vulnerability and gives a strong analogous image while avoiding gore.
  • Including “ears popping painfully” makes the depressurization feel real. Otherwise a loss of pressure might be hard for readers to imagine.
  • Showing a last image of Johanssen reaching out gives this mini-scene a final note of personal tragedy.

Weir doesn’t entirely avoid telling; “the worst pain in my life” is vague and remote. But for many readers, injuries aren’t fun to imagine. Weir may have used telling to shelter them from unpleasant sensations.

While Weir is doing this tense description, he’s also establishing why Mark can’t communicate with anyone to tell them he’s alive. The communications dish broke off.

Make Long Explanations Clear and Engaging

Weir has answered the question of how Mark became separated from his crew and left to die, but he’s not about to let up the tension.

I awoke to the oxygen alarm in my suit. A steady, obnoxious beeping that eventually roused me from a deep and profound desire to just fucking die.

The storm had abated; I was facedown, almost totally buried in sand. As I groggily came to, I wondered why I wasn’t more dead.

An alarm is going off in Mark’s suit, so we know something is wrong. Then Weir introduces a mystery – why is Mark still alive? Even though the big event is over, readers are compelled to read further. Some time has passed since the last section, so Weir also gets in some scene-setting. It’s just enough to establish Mark’s surroundings; Weir doesn’t let it slow down his tight narration.

Next, Weir dives into an explanation of how Mark stayed alive long enough to reach shelter. This presents a difficult challenge; he has to give a technical yet understandable explanation without sounding dull.

So there was only one hole in my suit (and a hole in me, of course).

[…] Somehow I landed face down, which forced the antenna to a strongly oblique angle that put a lot of torque in the hole in the suit. It made a weak seal.

Then, the copious blood from my wound trickled down toward the hole. As the blood reached the site of the breach, the water in it quickly evaporated from the airflow and low pressure, leaving a gunky residue behind. More blood came in behind it and was also reduced to gunk. Eventually, it sealed the gaps around the hole and reduced the leak to something the suit could counteract.

Saved by blood gunk! Now that’s something you don’t hear every day. Notice that Weir doesn’t use much technical language, and when he does, even if it’s simple, he explains the implications. A lot of “torque” means a weak seal. “Airflow and low pressure” means gunk that seals gaps around the hole. A sealed hole means the air leak can be counteracted. If readers become confused by any of his explanations, they can just read the result and move on.

He then explains all the technical last measures the suit uses to provide Mark with air to breathe. I won’t cover that except to say “bloodletting” the air is involved. Then Mark grabs his breach kit so that he can repair the suit.

The tricky part was getting the antenna out of the way. I pulled it out as fast as I could, wincing as the sudden pressure drop dizzied me and made the wound in my side scream in agony.

Pulling out the antenna that’s impaled him is an important moment, both because of the pain and because doing so reopens the leak in the suit. Weir makes it brief but intense, using a combination of body language (wincing), internal sensation (dizzied), and potent metaphor (scream in agony).

I stumbled up the hill back toward the Hab. As I crested the rise, I saw something that made me very happy and something that made me very sad. The Hab was intact (yay!) and the MAV was gone (boo!).

Right that moment I knew I was screwed. But I didn’t want to just die out on the surface. I limped back to the Hab and fumbled my way into an airlock.

Here, Weir finishes the backstory and works his way back to the present. Putting the yaying and booing in parenthesis both adds a personal touch and connects what might feel like abstract terms to their impact on the character.

End on a Strong Note

So that’s the situation. I’m stranded on Mars. I have no way to communicate with Hermes or Earth. Everyone thinks I’m dead. I’m in a Hab designed to last thirty-one days.

If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.

So yeah. I’m fucked.

Because he’s using epistolary, Weir can sum up all the implications of what he’s described without sounding unnaturally repetitive. He doesn’t stop there either; he builds on it by providing specific details about what could happen to Mark. He doesn’t just tell readers Mark is in danger; he illustrates it.

This is also a great example of clutter wielded expertly. The phrase “I’ll just kind of explode” is humorous because of the contrast between the softening effect of “just kind of” and the drama of “explode.” Weir has used this form of humor throughout the chapter.

Notice the rest of the paragraph is tightly worded. Weir says “I’ll suffocate,” not “I’ll probably suffocate” or “I’ll suddenly suffocate” or “I’ll start to suffocate.” The end of the chapter is critical; he must make a strong impression so his readers go on to read the next one. For that, the prose has to be as impactful as he can make it.

He closes by referencing his opening lines, bringing the chapter full circle. Even as it hooks the audience, it offers a degree of satisfying closure.

Overall Lessons

Let’s review what Weir has accomplished with his opening chapter.

  • Created a strong opening hook. Unlike many other works, where the hook in the first few sentences means little to the story as a whole, Weir introduces the big conflict of his novel immediately. He does this by jumping forward to when the big problem appears then filling in context. This creates a strong hook, one that will sustain the rest of the novel. He also diligently maintains the pull on the reader by continually reminding them of his big hook.
  • Introduced the main character. We have very little concrete information on the hero. We know his name is Mark Watney and he is the lowest ranked astronaut on the Ares 3 mission to Mars; that’s it. But Weir didn’t need specifics to provide a good introduction. Through the character’s own narration, Weir demonstrates that Mark is someone worthy of reading about. Mark responds admirably in a terrible scenario: cracking jokes, never giving up, not blaming others for his own misfortune. This worked because Weir put so much personality into the narration.
  • Set up for the rest of the novel. Setting up a realistic scenario about a stranded astronaut surviving on Mars is no small task, and about half of the first chapter is devoted to explaining everything. Getting through that in an entertaining manner is a high bar, and Weir leaped right over it. He now has a solid foundation to build on, one that will prevent future plot holes.

This book is about a guy who does nothing but solve science problems. If you want to see how a skilled writer can make any topic interesting, check it out. If you don’t have time to read the novel, you can also watch the movie. It’s an excellent adaptation of the book.

Want pointers on your story? We’re available for hire.

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Comments

  1. Adam Reynolds

    This is indeed one of the best books I have read in the last couple years. You have to love a book that manages to be as effective as this without an antagonist of any sort. Even the NASA politics are a case in which every side has a point.

    Most of the time when I read a book or watch a movie I often wonder if the plot would be better if something were changed. This was one of the few cases in which I could not come up with any alternatives.

    On the issue of the books vs movie, this is one of those rare cases in which each format does what their format does best. The book goes into more detail while the film summarizes.

    Though the bit in which Mark comes up with a rather clever solution while traveling a distance in the rover was something I wish hadn’t been deleted from the film. Though for pacing reason I understand why it was left out, as it would have ruined the pace at that point in the movie.

    • Tyson Adams

      The movie was well done, but I agree it would have been good to keep scenes like the rollover to maintain the tension. You can see why they didn’t since the final sequence was the point of the entire movie and you didn’t want to distract from that.

      CineFix does a great series on book adaptations. I blogged about their video on The Martian here: https://tysonadams.com/2016/02/27/book-to-movie-the-martian-whats-the-difference/

    • Chris Winkle

      Technically the Martian environment was the antagonist, but yes, it’s definitely easier to write stories where the antagonist is an actual person. Weir tackled a tough storytelling challenge well.

      I actually think that the book does quite a bit of summarizing – the journal format makes doing so very easy. I think the loss of detail and some of the traveling content was simply that movies are too short to cover a full novel. Though a lot of the science would require a voice over, and movies try to avoid that.

      One thing the movie did that I think the book should have included was the epilogue. Weir cuts the book off almost as soon as the resolution is reached, after watching Mark struggle through the whole thing, some more wind down and scenes back on Earth would have been rewarding.

  2. Sara Baptista

    Finally a post about Lessons from the Good Writing! Not that I am complaining, I really love the Lessons from the Bad/Awkward Writing. But in the middle of so many “bad” books, we finally have found some good

  3. Tyson Adams

    I normally hate hard sci-fi novels. They fancy themselves as having such magnificent insights into science that they forget to tell an interesting story. But The Martian was solidly one of the best novels I’ve read. I don’t think you can understate how important the humour and perspective of the narration are to this novel working.

    I reviewed it here: https://tysonadams.com/2015/08/20/book-review-the-martian-by-andy-weir/

  4. Hunter-Wolf

    Great read, i guess like many others i have been waiting for this for some time, it’s surely more productive and informative to breakdown badly books as we can learn a lot from the mistakes there (better even, avoid them if we were to write our own stories) but as a matter of fact there is also a lot of stuff to learn from dissecting a good well written book (or at least an opening chapter of one).

    The thing is, these topics actually serve two purposes, first like i said we can learn a thing or two about good writing practices (with clear examples), second we get some good recommendations for our “books to read” lists, that’s always a great bonus.

    So thanks Chris for this one and keep it up.

  5. Jared Gorrell

    I liked the book version of the Martian, but I always come away from it feeling dissatisfied. After watching the movie, I think it’s because I have a better sense of the other characters besides Mark Watney when seeing flesh-and-blood actors portray them. In the book, side characters, especially on Earth, generally lack personality or memorable actions, to the extent that I can rarely remember any of their names a day after finishing the book. While the side characters don’t get a whole lot more to do in the movie, they seem more fleshed out. For instance, there’s a good gag about “the council of Elrond”, which is not in the book, but it works in the movie to provide more depth for the characters at NASA. By giving us more details, the movie makes the side characters feel like actual people and less like plot points.

    Furthermore, I have to agree with Chris’ comment that the ending feels a bit sudden in the book. In the book, there’s a single chapter of denouement and conclusion, which (spoiler) leaves him on the spaceship bound for home. It’s a mostly satisfying ending for Mark Watney, but he’s still four years from actually coming home. Seeing him finally reach and be on Earth at the end of the movie makes the “Bring him home” goal of the story feel completely fulfilled.

    Also, the book has (spoiler) Beck at the end of the tether, trying to grab Mark. In the movie, it’s Commander Lewis. This subtle change this action allows us to see Lewis to get over her guilt about leaving Mark behind in the first place. It’s a small change, but it makes the movie work better in that scene.

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