Sitting before me is City of Bones by Cassandra Clare, the first book in the bestselling Mortal Instruments series. I don’t know anything about the story, but I can see on the cover there’s a guy thinking, Hello, my eyes are up here! Wait – my eyes aren’t up here. Dammit. There’s also a cityscape. I can only guess it’s a city full of objectified guys.
Now I’ll read through the first chapter and see what lessons I find.
After the acknowledgements, there’s a quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, referring to “a dreadful thing,” “a hideous dream,” and of course “the mortal instruments in council.” The quote is nestled between two gothic doodles. Next there’s the title page for part one, Dark Descent. On that page there’s a quote from Paradise Lost, mentioning “chaos and eternal night.” And the first chapter is titled Pandemonium.
It may not be entirely Clare’s doing, but this feels pretentious. I won’t say quotes from famous works are bad, but if you want a dark atmosphere, it must be demonstrated to readers through your work. Shouting “hey, look at how gothic my story is!” won’t do it. Plus, that way when your first line is
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” the bouncer said,
no one will notice how it clashes with the pretentious, gothic font it’s printed in, because you won’t print it in a pretentious font. Like Clare did.
Create a Meaningful Opening Hook
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” the bouncer said, folding his arms across his massive chest. He stared down at the boy in the red zip-up jacket and shook his shaved head. “You can’t bring that thing in here.”
The fifty or so teenagers in line outside the Pandemonium Club leaned forward to eavesdrop.
All fifty people leaned forward? Leaning forward is what we do when we’re trying to hear someone who’s a few feet away. Now I’m imagining all these people packed in a close circle around the bouncer, each with an ear aimed his way. What people actually do in a line is maneuver around each other to take several steps closer. Or they used to. Now they futz with their phones, regardless of the situation.
Clare establishes that this is an all ages club on a Sunday night, and then we meet our main character:
Fifteen-year-old Clary Fray, standing in line with her best friend, Simon, leaned forward along with everyone else, hoping for some excitement.
I’m getting some “just an ordinary girl who is also super special” vibes here, probably influence from Twilight. I have no problem with this trope, but I hope Simon isn’t around to be the jealous male friend.
So everybody wants to know what “that thing” is. Clare is hoping readers want to know too; it’s her opening hook. Small mysteries like this are great for supplementing an opening scene, but here it’s a little disingenuous. We know the bouncer is speaking to a boy in a red zip-up jacket, so how come we can’t see the item? Because Clare doesn’t want us to. It would feel more natural if Clary had to maneuver to see who the bouncer was talking to and if it was just her who was curious. A bouncer giving a kid a hard time can’t be that unusual.
“Aw, come on.” The kid hoisted the thing up over his head. It looked like a wooden beam, pointed at one end. “It’s part of my costume.”
The bouncer raised an eyebrow. “Which is what?”
The boy grinned. He was normal-enough-looking, Clary thought, for Pandemonium. He had electric blue dyed hair that stuck up around his head like the tendrils of a startled octopus, but no elaborate facial tattoos or big metal bars through his ears or lips. “I’m a vampire hunter.” He pushed down on the wooden thing. It bent as easily as a blade of grass bending sideways. “It’s fake. Foam rubber. See?”
The mystery that everyone’s been waiting for is a fake wooden stake. That’s a bit anti-climactic. Maybe it’s actually a magic wand or something. Strangely, the kid hoists it. “Hoisting” implies the thing being lifted is very heavy. It looks like a “wooden beam,” maybe it’s a really big stake. And why is he hoisting it over his head? The bouncer is looking down at him, but surely they aren’t several feet apart in height. Maybe the bouncer is standing on a chair?
I like the startled octopus simile though; that’s cute.
Describe What the Viewpoint Character Can Actually See
The boy’s wide eyes were way too bright a green, Clary noticed: the color of antifreeze, spring grass. Colored contact lenses, probably. The bouncer shrugged, abruptly bored. “Whatever. Go on in.”
Hot guy alert! He has to be hot, or Clare wouldn’t have mentioned his eye color. Somehow Clary sees his eye color from her place in the line. Maybe it’s just that bright, or she has a special hot guy detector.
Then we have our bouncer, who should start a new paragraph. In addition, “abruptly bored” is a travesty. We’re in Clary’s point of view; can she read his mind to directly sense his boredom? I doubt it. We need external signals of his boredom, and what do you know, we have them. His body language and dialogue already make his boredom clear. Narrating his feelings violates the viewpoint and adds redundancy.
The boy slid past him quick as an eel. Clary liked the lilt to his shoulders, the way he tossed his hair as he went. There was a word for him that her mother would have used—insouciant.
More pretentiousness. Words are for communicating the story to readers, not for showing off a large vocabulary. I’ll forgive it if Clary turns out to be a vocabulary geek.
“You thought he was cute,” said Simon, sounding resigned. “Didn’t you?”
Oh dear, it looks like this guy is indeed the jealous male friend. More on that later.
Cartoon Villains Aren’t Threatening
We have a break in the text and some nice description of the club’s smokey, multi-colored interior.
The boy in the red jacket stroked the long razor-sharp blade in his hands, an idle smile playing over his lips. It had been so easy—a little bit of glamour on the blade, to make it look harmless. … Of course, he could have probably gotten by without all that trouble, but it was part of the fun—fooling the mundies, doing it all out in the open right in front of them, getting off on the blank looks on their sheeplike faces.
Not that the humans didn’t have their uses. … Vitality just poured off them, waves of energy that filled him with a drunken dizziness. … They didn’t know what it was like to eke out life in a dead world, where the sun hung limp in the sky like a burned cinder. Their lives burned as brightly as candle flames—and were as easy to snuff out.
So hot guy is evil. And the fake stake is actually a knife; that’s even less interesting. Here we have a potentially compelling villain that is hobbled by cartoonish behavior. The smiling as he plays with a knife and thinks about how humans are sheep is silly and overdone. What if instead of fooling the bouncer for fun, he was doing exactly the right thing to attract a victim? Perhaps the scene with the bouncer was designed to get attention from people like Clary, so a victim would seek him out. He’d be more threatening without the theatrics. It would also make him a better Edward-style love interest, if that’s where Clare is going with this.
Then we get some nice hints about the world. We know he comes from a different planet or reality of some kind, one that’s the epitome of bleak.
Description Is More Than Pretty Sounding Words
Next, a beautiful girl emerges from the dance floor and approaches him. Perhaps it’s Clary? We don’t know anything about how Clary looks, but the main character is always beautiful,* and we know she likes evil hot guy.
She was beautiful, for a human—long hair nearly the precise color of black ink,
I’ve seen a lot of terrible description, but her hair color takes the cake. That’s strange, because Clare’s had some good description up until now. She knows how to bring scenes alive with specific details and interesting similes. But this is jibberish.
First, we have “color of black ink.” When both a color is named and compared to something of a similar color, it should be to refine the color further. For instance, “brown like dead leaves” communicates that it’s a light, perhaps gold-red brown. But just like “the color of a red sweater” only conveys “red,” saying the “color of black ink” isn’t any better using “black.” Clare also adds that her hair is the precise color of black ink. So it’s not just black, but black black? Okay, black hair is common, so that isn’t exceptional. Except her hair isn’t the precise color of black ink after all; it’s nearly the precise color of black ink. Saying “nearly” only undoes the effect of saying it’s “precise” – that is, if saying “precise” actually did anything.
I can’t help but conclude that Clare is trying to sound poetic here, without the substance to back it up. Substance over style, everyone. Substance over style.
She was beautiful, for a human—long hair nearly the precise color of black ink, charcoaled eyes. Floor-length white gown, the kind women used to wear when this world was younger.
What? It’s unclear what time frame evil hot guy is thinking of for all the women in white gowns, but well… the world is 4.6 billion years old. I’m trying to imagine that history with lots of women in long white gowns, and it’s not going so well. White gowns stain easily; most civilizations probably wouldn’t have them in abundance. Maybe Clare means the girl’s wearing a toga?
… Around her neck was a thick silver chain, on which hung a dark red pendant the size of a baby’s fist.
When you conjure a metaphor, even if it’s just to compare size, color, etc, you invoke an image. Ask yourself if the image of what you are describing and the image you are invoking with your metaphor jive. In this case, I can’t help imagining a baby’s fist dangling from a chain around the girl’s neck. Is that what Clare wanted? You never know, but I doubt it. The “size of an unfolding rose” might be a better comparison, or for a creepier edge, she could compare it to a third eye or a second heart.
She smiled, passing him, beckoning with her eyes. He turned to follow her, tasting the phantom sizzle of her death on his lips.
I dig the phantom sizzle. Kudos.
Think Through Your Setting
… She reached the wall and turned, bunching her skirt up in her hands, lifting it as she grinned at him. Under the skirt, she was wearing thigh-high boots. He sauntered up to her … Up close she wasn’t so perfect: He could see the mascara smudged under her eyes, the sweat sticking her hair to her neck.
Nevermind, she wants sex and she’s not perfect looking. So unfortunately, she can’t possibly be Clary. The ordinary girl type always thinks she’s not good-looking because her “eyes are too big” or she’s “too shapely” or in Bella’s case, “too pale” – but she’s always gorgeous to others. If Clary sweated or wore smudged mascara, real girls might think they could become heroes without cosmetic surgery. Wouldn’t that be awful?
A cool smile curved her lips. She moved to the side, and he could see that she was leaning against a closed door. NO ADMITTANCE—STORAGE was scrawled across it in red paint. She reached behind her for the knob, turned it, slid inside. …
He slipped into the room after her, unaware that he was being followed.
If you were running a club with underage raves, and you had a storage room just off the dance floor, wouldn’t you lock it? You wouldn’t want underage kids going in there to have sex, would you? Maybe it’s not right next to the dance floor, but she didn’t turn and go down a hall or anything.
Then there’s the narration about her entering. First she reaches for the knob, then she turns the knob, then finally enters. Evil hot guy probably follows by first putting his left foot forward, then shifting his weight to his left foot, then moving his right foot forward…
Clare sticks another mystery hook in just before the next break in the text, that’s always a good idea. Who is following evil hot guy? Readers have to continue to find out.
Create a Good First Impression For Your Hero
We jump back to Clary and jealous friend Simon as they are dancing.
Clary wasn’t paying much attention to their immediate surroundings—her eyes were on the blue-haired boy who’d talked his way into the club. …
“I, for one,” Simon went on, “am enjoying myself immensely.”
This seemed unlikely. Simon, as always, stuck out at the club like a sore thumb, … He looked less as if he were contemplating the powers of darkness and more as if he were on his way to chess club.
“Mmm-hmm.” Clary knew perfectly well that he came to Pandemonium with her only because she liked it, that he thought it was boring.
Here’s one of the problems with this jealous male friend business. From what we’ve seen so far, this is not a friendship with an even balance of power:
- Simon is a nerd; Clary is probably really hot.
- Simon likes Clary as more than a friend; she doesn’t feel the same.
- Simon doesn’t like this dance club. He came only to please Clary, probably because he likes her as more than a friend.
- Once at the club, Simon tries to make conversation, while Clary ignores him.
This is believable, but it doesn’t reflect well on either Clary or Simon. Simon comes off as pathetic and Clary comes off as self-centered.
For comparison, in Twilight, our opening shot of Bella shows she is sacrificing her happiness to go live in Forks, WA. The scene hints it’s for her mother’s sake, though that’s not entirely clear. She doesn’t have any friends in Forks. Once Bella is established as a character, a bunch of new friends that Bella doesn’t care about fawn all over her. She’s established as an underdog before wish-fulfillment is served.
The scene continues with Simon trying to make conversation and Clary ignoring him in favor of watching evil hot guy meet up with gorgeous girl and go into the suspiciously unlocked storage closet. Then Clary sees two guys follow them, one with a knife. She tells Simon.
Suddenly all business, Simon squared his shoulders. “I’ll get one of the security guards. You stay here.” He strode away, pushing through the crowd.
Clary turned just in time to see the blond boy slip through the NO ADMITTANCE door, his friend right on his heels. She looked around; Simon was still trying to shove his way across the dance floor, but he wasn’t making much progress. Even if she yelled now, no one would hear her, and by the time Simon got back, something might already have happened. Biting hard on her lower lip, Clary started to wiggle through the crowd.
Luckily, Clary had trained all her life as a ninja. Taking out those knife-wielding guys bare-handed would be a cinch.
Just kidding, that last paragraph was me.
Simon gets his patriarchy on at the first sign of danger, commanding Clary to stay behind while he does important man things. Then Clary heads into danger without any plan for facing two guys with a knife. It’s typical for heroes to do reckless things, but this is a bit much, particularly since she doesn’t know the people she’s throwing her life away for.
This excerpt also shows where Clare’s wordcraft falls short:
- She uses “suddenly” and “abruptly” where they aren’t needed.
- She inserts repetitive telling. The phrase “all business” is summarizing body language she shows, then she spells out that Simon isn’t “making much progress” after saying he was still trying to cross the dance floor.
- She’s not fully in viewpoint. She narrates how Clary “looked around” as though we’re watching Clary from the outside. A better choice for a transition would be “behind her.” And as I showed you earlier, she occasionally narrates how other people are feeling.
- She uses a vague and cluttery “something might already have happened” instead of a compelling phase like “the blue-haired boy might be dead.”
- She says “Clary started to wiggle” instead of just “Clary wiggled.”
Subversions Are a Plus
Next there’s another break, and we transition back to the viewpoint of evil hot guy, who is in the storage closet with gorgeous girl. Gorgeous girl’s name is Isabelle, it turns out.
He walked toward her, stepping carefully among the wires in case any of them were live. In the faint light she looked half-transparent, bleached of color, wrapped in white like an angel. It would be a pleasure to make her fall. …
… There was some sort of bracelet around her wrist, just under the cuff of her dress—then, as he neared her, he saw that it wasn’t a bracelet at all but a pattern inked into her skin, a matrix of swirling lines.
He froze. “You—”
He didn’t finish. She moved with lightning swiftness, striking out at him with her open hand, a blow to his chest that would have sent him down gasping if he’d been a human being. …
Isabelle yanked hard on the whip, securing it. Her smile glittered like poisonous water. “He’s all yours, boys.”
Very nice. Clare set ups a common fictional scenario – an evil monster is targeting a “promiscuous” girl. These scenarios typically end with the girl’s death – or at least her shrieking and running to a hero for help. Instead, Clare defies those expectations by having the girl kick the monster’s ass. This is called a subversion, and it’s a great way to add novelty to conventions that are old and worn out.
“As You and I Both Know” Should Never Appear in Dialogue
Next, the guys who had the knife tie up hot evil guy with a wire.
“Come on now.” The tawny-eyed boy held up his hands, and his dark sleeves slipped down, showing the runes inked all over his wrists, the back of his hands, his palms. “You know what I am.”
Far back inside his skull, the shackled boy’s second set of teeth began to grind.
“Shadowhunter,” he hissed.
You probably know what I think of this. I’ll give you a hint, it starts with “p” and ends with “retenious.” If you want your hunters to be cool, show how they do cool things, don’t make your characters talk about how cool they are. Especially when they have no reason to say the hunters’ cool-sounding name out loud, like here.
Then there’s a transition back to Clary. She’s entered the storage closet. At first she doesn’t see anyone inside, and then they all appear. Apparently this unlocked storage closet is actually a large storage room, because they don’t notice she’s entered, and she manages to hide behind a concrete pillar.
The fair-haired boy paced back and forth, his arms now crossed over his chest. “So,” he said. “You still haven’t told me if there are any other of your kind with you.”
Your kind? Clary wondered what he was talking about. Maybe she’d stumbled into some kind of gang war.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” The blue-haired boy’s tone was pained but surly.
“He means other demons,” said the dark-haired boy, speaking for the first time. “You do know what a demon is, don’t you?”
“Demons,” drawling the blond boy, tracing the word on the air with his finger. “Religiously defined as hell’s denizens, the servants of Satan, but understood here, for the purposes of the Clave, to be any malevolent spirit whose origin is outside our own home dimension—“
Ahhh! Make it stop! This is notoriously called “as you and I both know” dialogue. It isn’t natural for people to repeat, emphasize, or recite things that everyone in the conversation knows; those things go without saying. But often, writers will stuff it in to inform the reader. Or in this case, the reader and Clary. The shadowhunters don’t know Clary’s listening, but they begin speaking for her benefit as soon as she enters the storage room.
The conservation should actually go something like this:
Blond boy, holding up knife: Are there more demons here?
Blue-haired boy: Yes, demons! I know lots of demons. I’ll tell you everything; don’t hurt me.
Because that’s how torture actually works. The biggest challenge of interrogation isn’t resistance; it’s false information. As for exposition in dialogue, it’s permissible when at least one person doesn’t know the information. Then it’s pretty straightforward. A future scene in this story might have a conversation like this:
Clary: A demon? You mean like from hell?
Blond boy: Not always. It’s what we call any evil spirit from another dimension.
Notice that the blond boy no longer sounds like a textbook, and he isn’t stuffing in details about the Clave, etc, because she didn’t ask for them. If you need to explain your world before your hero has a mentor, use a method other than dialogue. In this story, an explanation of demons could have been worked into evil hot guy’s viewpoint.
“That’s enough, Jace,” said the girl.
“Isabelle’s right,” agreed the taller boy. “Nobody here needs a lesson in semantics—or demonology.”
Now Clare’s apologizing for her traumatizing dialogue by lampshading – pointing out that its bad. That’s better than nothing, but not enough, especially since just as she’s apologizing, she stuffs in Isabelle’s name. People rarely use each other’s names when talking.
Without Context, Readers Won’t Care
… The bound boy gasped. “Valentine is back!” he protested, dragging at the bonds that held his hands behind his back. “All the Infernal Worlds know it—I know it—I can tell you where he is–”
Rage flared suddenly in Jace’s icy eyes. “By the Angel every time we capture one of you bastards, you claim you know where Valentine is. Well, we know where he is too. He’s in hell. And you—” Jace turned the knife in his grasp, the edge sparking like a line of fire. “You can join him there.”
Valentine must be the big bad. He’s been defeated before, but now he’s back. And Jace – the blond boy – won’t acknowledge it despite everyone telling him. Right now, it looks like a case of plot-convenient idiocy syndrome, a disease that ravages characters across many franchises.
This is foreshadowing that’s designed to establish a threat, raising tension and making the story more gripping. While the dialogue is finally somewhat realistic, it doesn’t succeed in establishing the big bad as a compelling threat. That’s because Clare provides no information that demonstrates why Valentine is so threatening.
Let’s compare this to Harry Potter, which also has a big villain that rises from defeat. At the beginning, Voldemort’s purpose is just to establish Harry’s intriguing history. Even so, we learn that Voldemort has been terrorizing the magical world for eleven years, that he killed Harry’s parents, and that only Dumbledore can face him. We don’t hear about Voldemort again until after the owls and letters business, when Hagrid explains his existence to Harry. Then Harry learns more at Hogwarts, where everyone refuses to say the name. When we finally find out Voldemort isn’t completely gone, readers know enough about Voldemort to care.
A lot is happening in the opening chapter of City of Bones. Just getting Clary acquainted with the magical realm takes time, and with the right narration, garden-variety demons would provide enough threat for early chapters. Clare should have waited to mention Valentine until she had time for enough context to make it meaningful.
Again, Dialogue Must Sound Natural
Once Jace makes his melodramatic statement about sending evil hot guy to hell, Clary finally uses her spunk to stop the proceedings.
Clary could take no more. She stepped out from behind the pillar.”Stop!” she cried. “You can’t do this!”
Jace whirled, so startled that the knife flew from his hand and clattered against the concrete floor. Isabelle and Alec turned along with him, wearing identical expressions of astonishment. The blue-haired boy hung in his bonds, stunned and gaping.
It was Alec who spoke first. “What’s this?” he demanded, looking from Clary to his companions, as if they might know what she was doing there.
“It’s a girl,” Jace said, recovering his composure. “Surely you’ve seen girls before, Alec. Your sister Isabelle is one.” He took a step closer to Clary, squinting as if he couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing. “A mundie girl,” he said, half to himself. “And she can see us.”
Look Clare, here’s my wallet, and my car keys, and my cell phone, take everything! Anything you want. Just stop stuffing your dialogue with unnatural explanations. I can’t take it anymore.
It’s a pity too, because Clare has some clever dialogue, like this quip about Clary being a girl. But she’s making some common mistakes:
- She’s uses flavored tags such as “he demanded.” It’s just another way of repetitive telling. The wording of the dialogue and body language should convey he’s demanding.
- Characters are speaking each other’s names too frequently. This is partly because Clare is trying to convey information. Jace might say “your sister is one” or “Isabelle is one” but it’s unlikely he’d say “your sister Isabelle is one.” Clare wants readers to know Alec and Isabelle are siblings, but they don’t need this information.
- Jace is talking to himself. People don’t usually do that unless they’re alone, if at all. Again, it’s an excuse to make Jace spell out things that he has no reason to talk to the others about.
- Altogether, the dialogue in this chapter is coming off as too canned. Phrases like “you’ve got to be kidding me” and “he’s all yours” are bordering on cliche. People do speak with canned and cliche phrasing, so it’s okay to use them occasionally. But if you do it too much, it won’t feel natural anymore. In this chapter, the unique voices of Clare’s characters are buried under catch phrases.
Don’t Bog Down the Action With Clutter
Clary tells the shadowhunters they “can’t just go around killing people” and Jace tells her evil hot guy isn’t a person.
“You’re crazy,” Clary said, backing away from him. “I’ve called the police, you know. They’ll be here any second.”
“She’s lying,” said Alec, but there was doubt on his face. “Jace, do you–”
He never got to finish his sentence. At that moment the blue-haired boy, with a high, yowling cry, tore free of the restraints binding him to the pillar, and flung himself on Jace.
They fell to the ground and rolled together, the blue-haired boy tearing at Jace with hands that glittered as if tipped with metal. Clary backed up, wanting to run, but her feet caught on a loop of wiring and she went down, knocking the breath out of her chest. She could hear Isabelle shrieking. Rolling over, Clary saw the blue-haired boy sitting on Jace’s chest. Blood gleamed at the tips of his razorlike claws.
Isabelle and Alec were running toward them, Isabelle brandishing a whip in her hand. The blue-haired boy slashed at Jace with claws extended. Jace threw an arm up to protect himself, and the claws raked it, splattering blood.
First, let’s look at the interruption in the dialogue. Clare doesn’t need to say that Alec couldn’t finish his sentence; we can see it isn’t finished. All she’s doing is slowing down an otherwise tense moment. A correction might look like:
“Jace, do you–”
The blue-haired boy yowled and tore free of his restraints. He flung himself on Jace.
Here I’ve both tightened the language and made it more active. The result feels faster and tenser. That’s what you want when the bad guy makes a surprise attack.
There’s also some odd time dilation happening in this excerpt. When evil hot guy attacks, Clary:
- Backs up
- Trips and falls backward
- Recovers from losing her wind
- Rolls over so she can see
During that time, Isabelle are Alec are either:
- Standing around shrieking. Isabelle is a girl, so apparently she has to shriek, even though she’s a bad-ass who captures demons.
- Running, because this storage room is actually a warehouse, and it takes them the entire time Clary is falling and recovering to get to Jace.
Time doesn’t pause when the point of view character looks away.
Black Is Just Black, Okay?
… Jace rolled over. There was a blade gleaming in his hand. He sank the knife into the blue-haired boy’s chest. Blackish liquid exploded around the hilt. The boy arched off the floor, gurgling and twisting. With a grimace Jace stood up. His black shirt was blacker now in some places, wet with blood. He looked down at the twitching form at his feet, reached down, and yanked out the knife. The hilt was slick with black fluid.
The blue-haired boy’s eyes flickered open. His eyes, fixed on Jace, seemed to burn. Between his teeth, he hissed, “So be it. The Forsaken will take you all.“
So Jace seems fine, even though evil hot guy tore his arm to shreds. He’s now covered in evil guy’s blood, which is “blackish.” If it’s not quite black, then what is it? Deep gray? Red so dark it’s almost black? But then, even though it’s not quite black, it makes Jace’s black shirt blacker. Of all the colors, black is the narrowest in definition. Yet under the faint light in this storage
closet warehouse, Clary can see subtle distinctions between black and black.
Then we have the last words of evil hot guy. He was speaking in casual language before. Now that he’s on the edge of death, he uses careful, formal phrasing. Maybe the boss demon briefly possesses lower demons when they die? And what are the italics for? Clare seems to use italics whenever she thinks her dialogue needs melodrama. But italics or no, his dying threat is laughable, because Clare hasn’t made him or any other demon scary enough.
Farewell evil hot guy, you were the most interesting character in this chapter.
Make Your Story Creepy in the Good Way
Once evil hot guy is dead, his body disappears, including the blood on the floor but not the blood on the shadowhunters for some reason. This thwarts Clary’s plans to involve the police and leaves the shadowhunters to argue over what they should do with Clary.
… “She’s a mundie.” [Isabelle]
“Or is she?” said Jace softly. His quiet tone was worse than Isabelle’s snapping or Alec’s anger. “Have you had dealings with demons, little girl? Walked with warlocks, talked with the Night Children? Have you–”
“My name is not ‘little girl,'” Clary interrupted. “And I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Don’t you? said a voice in the back of her head. You saw that boy vanish into thin air. Jace isn’t crazy—you just wish he was. “I don’t believe in—in demons, or whatever you—”
“Clary?” It was Simon’s voice. She whirled around. He was standing by the storage room door. One of the burly bouncers who’d been stamping hands at the front door was next to him. “Are you okay?” He peered at her through the gloom. “Why are you in here by yourself? What happened to the guys—you know, the ones with the knives?”
This is the most eerie spot in the chapter, but not in a good way. First we have Jace, who is calling Clary “little girl” in a quiet, intense voice. It’s nice that Clary corrects him, but that doesn’t make him any less of a condescending creepster. That’s a big problem, because right now he appears to be the love interest. He’s getting more candy than Isabelle or Alec, and the cover of the book is a decent match for his description. Making the love interest dismiss the hero at first will help build a romance, but be careful, readers should still like them.
Next there’s the voice in the back of Clary’s mind. This voice isn’t necessary to demonstrate that Clary feels conflicted. Behold:
“My name is not ‘little girl,'” Clary interrupted. “And I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Or did she? A boy just vanished into thin air. But there was a rational explanation for that, there had to be. She just didn’t know it yet. “I don’t believe in—in demons, or whatever you—“
Italicized thoughts are only needed in more distant viewpoints. In close viewpoints, thoughts should blend in with the narrative, like above. However, the subconscious voice might have worked if it was cut down to just Don’t you? It’s the part of Clary’s mind that she’s ignoring, so it shouldn’t have the presence to go on for several sentences. As is, it feels alien.
Then Simon shows up, and he can’t see any of the shadowhunters. This is another effective way to keep Clary from going to the police and convince her that the supernatural is real. Kudos.
Just Say “No” to Awkward Symbolism
Clary tells Simon and the bouncer she made a mistake. Then there’s another text break, and we see Simon and Clary outside hailing a cab.
Street cleaners had come down Orchard while they were inside the club, and the street was glossed black with oily water.
More black; this cannot be on accident. At least I hope not. Does Clare do this through the entire novel? Maybe each chapter has its own color? She could have at least used some fancy synonyms like onyx and ebony. Charcoal is all we get, and just once.
If you are embedding symbolic imagery in your work, this is what you have to look out for. If it’s not done expertly, it will become a distraction. It’s easier to let your symbolism emerge naturally from your writing and then enhance it a bit, than it is to just choose a symbol and insert it everywhere.
Again, Your Hero Needs a Good First Impression
“I don’t believe those guys with the knives just disappeared.” [Simon]
Clary sighed. “Maybe there weren’t any guys with knives, Simon. Maybe I just imagined the whole thing.”
“No way.” Simon raised his hand over his head, but the oncoming taxis whizzed by him, spraying dirty water. “I saw your face when I came into that storage room. You looked seriously freaked out, like you’d seen a ghost. ”
“It was just a mistake,” she said wearily. She wondered why she wasn’t telling him the truth. Except of course, that he’d think she was crazy. And there was something about what had happened … that she wanted to keep to herself.
“Well, it was a hell of an embarrassing mistake,” Simon said. …. “I doubt they’ll ever let us back into Pandemonium.”
“What do you care? You hate Pandemonium.”
Other than his random command to Clary mid-chapter, Simon has been a great friend. He accompanied her to a club he didn’t like to keep her company, supported her when she told him she saw guys with knives in the club, and now he can tell something’s wrong.
But Clary won’t give him any explanation after the bother she put him through, even an edited one. Worse, she’s been punishing him for disliking the club he kindly obliged to attend with her. She is not a good friend, and that doesn’t make her a likable character.
As an aside, I worked security for several years, and I cannot imagine any establishment banning customers for giving security an honest but false alarm. They might ban Clary for going into the storage warehouse, except the narration suggests this is a normal occurrence.
Unlike my critiques of Brooks and Paolini, I can’t say Clare’s work is terrible, just bad. Brooks and Paolini should have completely rewritten their first chapter/prologue, whereas Clare’s first chapter has accomplished some important things. Here a list of what I think she set out to do, and how well she did it:
- Create an opening hook. Her little mystery with the strange stake/knife would have been better if the item was more interesting and meaningful to the plot. But it was better than nothing. As a whole, the chapter was probably an effective hook for readers that liked Clary.
- Introduce her main character. Clary comes off as more flawed than intended, and that probably alienated some readers. However, She does have the ordinary + special power combo that worked so well for Twilight and many others. Plus, she’s blank enough for readers to identify with her.
- Introduce her main character to the supernatural. While the dialogue was incredibly awkward, the plot structure was well done. I think this was the most successful aspect of the first chapter.
- Establish the threat. This was the weakest aspect. Clare had a great opportunity to make the demon feel threatening. Instead he was first comical, and then he got his ass beat. The Valentine foreshadowing was even less effective.
It’s interesting that Clare chose to make the demon, and not one of the shadowhunters, a viewpoint character. Showing a character’s viewpoint makes them better understood. This in turn makes them less mysterious, less threatening, and allows the audience to become more attached to them. With her viewpoint choices, Clare made the demon understood and the shadowhunters mysterious. As a result, not only did the chapter suffer from a deficit of threat, but she inserted silly-sounding explanations about the shadowhunters into her dialogue.
While Clare’s writing was clumsy, she still showed potential. Many writers improve as their careers progress. With luck, she’ll be one of those.
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