It’s time for I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore.* The cover I have looks like it was made after the film adaptation. It has cinematic shots of three beautiful people staring intently out at me, a big shiny blue light, a huge explosion, and a woman with sunglasses non-nonchalantly walking away from the explosion. It’s all very dramatic.
The prologue and first chapter are short, so I’ll cover both. We’ll start with the prologue, marked only by a big black page with a swirly symbol.
Don’t Let Your Hook Become Anti-Climatic
The door starts shaking.
This is a good opening line. A shaking door implies an intruder, giving readers a strong hook and making them wonder who is at the door. Lore is also using present tense; this increases the immediacy of the narration and makes this situation feel more urgent.
It could be a little better. Instead of “The door starts shaking,” Lore should have used “The door shakes.” That it starts shaking is implied; saying so doesn’t add anything. This line also lacks personality. It doesn’t set atmosphere, imagery, or tone. But I consider those extra credit.
The door starts shaking. It’s a flimsy thing made of bamboo shoots held together with tattered lengths of twine. The shake is subtle and stops almost immediately.
Wait – we get no exciting intruder at the door? Just subtle and brief rattling? That’s disappointing. The opening still has some mystery – why is the door shaking slightly? – but the threat is gone. As strong as that opening was, Lore should have used a hook that wasn’t misleading. A rattling picture frame or sloshing glass wouldn’t suggest a villain was at the door. Or he could have actually had a villain at the door.
Unnecessary Rambling Will Break the Tension
They lift their heads to listen, a fourteen-year-old boy and a fifty-year-old man, who everyone thinks is his father but who was born near a different jungle on a different planet hundred of lightyears away.
Now that’s a long, jumbled sentence. Lore is using omniscient perspective for his prologue. His omniscient narrator can inform us at any time that this character is from another planet, and he chooses to awkwardly interrupt a tense moment. Do we really need to know the man is from an alien jungle immediately? And if he’s from an alien jungle, where does the boy come from?
They are lying shirtless on opposite sides of the hut, a mosquito net over each cot. They hear a distant crash, like the sound of an animal breaking the branch of a tree, but in this case, it sounds like the entire tree has been broken.
I’m guessing that this shaking door is supposed to be like the famous ripples in the puddle in the movie Jurassic Park. The heroes watch the puddles in terror because it means the ground is shaking with each distant thump they hear. Imitating this isn’t a bad idea, but Lore doesn’t know how to keep his* wordcraft tense. His description of the crash is academic and strangely underplayed. For instance, if I were to write a line in a fight scene where someone is hit on the head with a sledgehammer, I wouldn’t write it like this:
He senses a touch on the head, like affectionate patting, but in this case, it feels like he’s been hit with a sledgehammer.
That would underplay the action, the opposite of what Lore needs to do here. I like Lore’s comparison to a breaking tree; it provides some imagery even though the sound’s source is unknown. However, he should have described it more like this:
A crack sounds in the distance, like the trunk of an ancient tree snapping. It’s followed by a crash, then another, each rattling the loose door frame.
Moving on, the boy and man have a brief interaction. Then:
The man gets to his feet and walks slowly to the door. Silence. The man takes a deep breath as he inches his hand to the latch. The boy sits up.
“No,” the man whispers, and in that instant the blade of a sword, long and gleaming, made of a shining white metal that is not found on Earth, comes through the door and sinks deeply into the man’s chest. It protrudes six inches out through his back, and is quickly pulled free. The man grunts.
Oh dear, it’s another attack from the ill-timed narrator. This sword is supposed to stab the man instantly. Instead we watch it in slow-mo, observing how it is both gleaming and shining, white, and not from earth, before we finally discover it comes through the door to skewer a guy. You don’t want your readers to know that something happens instantly; you want them to feel that it’s instant. This makes the attack feel anything but instant. And really, if you were the boy who saw your faux father impaled, would you be dwelling on how shining and gleaming the sword is in that moment?
Here’s how I would do it:
“No,” the man whispers. “Don’t -”
A blade comes through the door and pierces his chest. It protrudes out his back, gleaming white. It’s pulled free and the man grunts.
To increase the feeling of suddenness, I added some dialogue that could be cut off. Then I trimmed the language. We don’t need to hear that the blade “sinks deeply.” We know it does because it protrudes out his back. Saying it protrudes “six inches” just sounds clinical; this is an action scene, not an academic paper. Since the sword is unusual, some description is warranted. I inserted it after the man is impaled, when the boy would see it. This creates a slight pause after he’s run through but before it’s pulled free. That’s a better place to slow down.
For Emphasis, Show More; Don’t Tell Again
The boy gasps. The man takes a single breath, and utters one word: “Run.” He falls lifeless on the floor.
Readers can see that the man says one word; they don’t need the narrator to point it out. Lore is saying it to dramatize the moment. Instead, he should have shown more dramatic detail in this scene. Does the man reach out for the boy? Does he push the boy away when the teen tries to help him? Does his last breath rattle? After he speaks, do his eyes roll up or does his face go slack? Instead of bringing this moment to life, Lore is glossing over it and then trying to make up for that by saying how dramatic it is.
The boy leaps from the cot, bursts through the rear wall. He doesn’t bother with the door or a window; he literally runs through the wall, which breaks apart as if it’s paper, though it’s made of strong, hard African mahogany.
Now Lore is narrating as though he’s having a casual phone conversation:
“I’m telling you Jake, this boy burst through the wall! He didn’t even bother with the door or a window, he literally ran through the wall.”
When we speak, we repeat details for emphasis. That’s not what you do when narrating a story. Narrating an action twice only slows the pace and wastes words. You also don’t have to use “literally”: If you say it happens, your readers will believe you. Particularly if you’re writing speculative fiction.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Lore previously wrote screenplays. It feels like he’s trying to recreate a movie with words. It’s great that he’s getting right into the action like movies do, which has definitely contributed to his popularity. But in film, sensory details are simply shown or heard; a novel writer has to work them into the narration, and he doesn’t know how to do that. While writers can do much worse than learning story structure from movies, no one can master wordcraft without reading some books.
Here’s what Lore might have written instead:
The boy leaps from the cot and slams into the hard mahogany wall. It bursts as though it’s made of paper, and he flees into the jungle.
Unfortunately, in the next paragraph Lore continues this trend of awkwardly telling readers about the boy’s superpowers instead of showing them. He says the boy “sprints at a speed somewhere around sixty miles per hour” instead of writing “The trees blurred around him.” He says the boy’s “sight and hearing are beyond human” instead of narrating “Even in the overwhelming darkness he ducked under every reaching branch and dodged every truck.” If his omniscient voice just had some personality, it might make up for this. It’s a good thing the plot is moving quickly, because the narration is remarkably bland.
Keep Your Threat Mysterious
Heavy footsteps are close behind him, getting closer every second. His pursuers also have gifts. And they have something with them. Something he has only heard hints of, something he never believed he would see on Earth.
We finally see the benefit of using omniscient for this tense prologue. Lore is using this perspective not only to tell readers whatever he wants but also to hide whatever he wants. This method has a downside: this scene would be even tenser if he used a close viewpoint. But when you’re in close limited, hiding something the viewpoint character knows can feel disingenuous. Not so with omniscient.
Lore is smartly keeping the threat mysterious. The boy might see what this thing he’s only heard of is, but we don’t. That’s a big reason why this prologue is succeeding where Paulini’s prologue and Clare’s introductory chapter failed. They demystified the threat, making their villains look comical and foolish. Lore is not only preserving the mystery but also letting the villain do some tangible damage. That’s what a prologue is for.
He sees a break in the jungle up ahead. When he reaches it, he sees a huge ravine, three hundred feet across and three hundred feet down, with a river at the bottom. The river’s bank is covered with huge boulders. Boulders that would break him apart if he fell on them. His only chance is to get across the ravine. He’ll have a short running start, and one chance. One chance to save his own life. Even for him, or for any of the others on Earth like him, it’s a near impossible leap. Going back, or going down, or trying to fight them means certain death. He has one shot.
Lore creates a nice moment of tension here as the boy contemplates a possibly suicidal leap, but once again, his wordcraft is the weak point. He’s using too much intentional repetition. He repeats “he sees,” “three hundred,” “river,” “boulders,” “chance,” “him,” and “going.” Reusing these words creates a rhythmic effect that adds emphasis to those spots. If he did it just once, that would be fine, but he’s doing it throughout the paragraph, making his prose thumpy and monotonous. He should have prioritized what was most important to emphasize.
He takes five steps back and runs–and just before the ledge, he takes off and starts flying across the ravine … He hits the ground and tumbles forward, stopping at the base of a mammoth tree. He smiles. He can’t believe he made it, that he’s going to survive. Not wanting them to see him, and knowing he needs to get father away from them, he stands. He’ll have to keep running.
He turns towards the jungle. As he does, a huge hand wraps itself around his throat. He is lifted off the ground.
Lore definitely knows story structure, I’ll give him that. In a nice twist, he gives readers a brief moment of rest before ramping up the threat again. Admittedly I saw it coming, but that might have just been me.
And while Lore’s wordcraft isn’t masterful, at least he doesn’t slow the moment down with excessive description.
Avoid Cliché Caricatures
Next the villain, who is apparently called the Mogadorian and uses the pronoun “it,” continues to hold the boy in the air while it steals some all-important amulet and pulls out the gleaming, made of shining white metal, not-found-on-Earth sword.
The boy looks into the Mogadorian’s deep, wide, emotionless black eyes, and he speaks.
“The Legacies live. They will find each other, and when they’re ready, they’re going to destroy you.”
The Mogadorian laughs, a nasty, mocking laugh.
And the winner for most cliché dialogue ever goes to I Am Number Four. I can’t count the times a threatened protagonist has said something like this to a villain, particularly in movies. Plus the mocking laugh… I really thought we would make it through this prologue without evil cackling. The story hasn’t even started; what’s so bad about a quick death without a hero/villain interaction? Then I could preserve my foolish hopes of a big bad that’s actually scary.
Then the Mogadorian raises its sword.
The blade ignites in a silver flame as it points to the sky, as if it’s coming alive, sensing its mission and grimacing in anticipation.
The blade ignites as though it’s grimacing in anticipation? I’m not sure I can mentally contort this flaming sword into a grimace, particularly since according to the narration, it isn’t actually grimacing. Lore needs imagery that fits better. The sword’s hilt could have a design that looks like a grimace, for instance. As it is, this is just weird. Also, is this sword supposed to be the thing that the boy never believed he would see on Earth? Or is it the Mogadorian? I can’t tell, and that’s unsatisfying.
… the boy still believes that some part of him will survive, and some part of him will make it home. He closes his eyes just before the sword strikes. And then it is over.
I like this finish. It’s oddly hopeful, and it humanizes the boy as he dies.
The purpose of a prologue like this is to establish the threat, giving readers a dose of conflict that will pull them through slower parts ahead. I would say Lore succeeded at that. The disadvantage of the prologue is that it didn’t introduce the main character. Let’s watch Lore do that in Chapter One.
Words Are Powerful Without Extra Attention
In the beginning there were nine of us.
Another good opening line. “In the beginning” suggests this number has changed, invoking curiosity. It also implies conflict, because these nine people are disappearing.
In the beginning there were nine of us. We left when we were young, almost too young to remember.
Wow, that word is a super big deal. Just using a single-word sentence at the end of a paragraph packs a punch. Lore didn’t think that was enough. This word is so important, it needs an entire paragraph to itself. And it has to be italicized.
Okay, Lore, show me what’s so critical about this fragment of memory.
I am told the ground shook, that the skies were full of light and explosions. We were in that two-week period of the year when both moons hang on opposite sides of the horizon. It was a time of celebration, and the explosions were at first mistaken for fireworks. They were not. It was warm, a soft wind blew in from off the water. I am always told the weather: it was warm. There was a soft wind. I’ve never understood why that matters.
Wait a second – after making a huge deal about this remaining memory, now we’re skipping it? All right, fine, let’s look at this retelling. While realistic for a second-hand account, it’s both vague and out-of-order, making it difficult to imagine being there. First the ground shakes, then we back up to a two-week period of celebration, then go forward again to explosions, then back up to a soft wind.
In this next edit, I’ll rearrange the text so it’s in the order that the events occurred. I’ll add a little content just to make the new order work, particularly with the current bookends he gave the paragraph.
I am told it was warm, a soft wind blew in from off the water. We were in that two-week period of the year when both moons hang on opposite sides of the horizon. It was a time of celebration, and the explosions were at first mistaken for fireworks. They were not. The ground shook; the skies were full of light. I am always told about the horizon. The clouds were dark. The waves were still. I’ve never understood why that matters.
This still leaves a lot to be desired, but just the change in order is significant to the reading experience. Luckily, in first person Lore’s style is less bland. Once he masters wordcraft he could have a nice voice.
What I remember most vividly is the way my grandmother looked that day. She was frantic, and sad. There were tears in her eyes.
We’ve found the critical memory fragment! But this is the most vivid memory, and all the narrator has is “frantic,” “sad,” and the presence of tears in her eyes? If you want to bring a story to life, vague language like this does not cut it. Imagine for a moment: if you were an actor playing someone frantic and sad in an apocalypse, how would you act? Maybe like this:
- The way my grandmother flinched away from the window and clutched my mother, sobbing silently into a sleeve.
- The way my grandmother raced for a pile of coats and gave me two that weren’t mine, her tears marking both.
- The way my grandmother seized me for a last hug only to push me away, begging me to run for the transport.
The closest thing Lore has in this paragraph is “the way his glasses gathered the light from the sky,” regarding the narrator’s grandfather. That’s a nice image, but it doesn’t have the emotion that Lore is trying to give this flashback.
Yes, Even Fantasy Should Feel Plausible
Let’s skip to the explanation of the narrator’s arrival and life on Earth.
The nine of us had to scatter, and go our own ways. For how long, nobody knew. We still don’t. None of them know where I am, and I don’t know where they are, or what they look like now. That is how we protect ourselves because of the charm that was placed upon us when we left, a charm guaranteeing that we can only be killed in the order of our numbers, so long as we stay apart. If we come together, then the charm is broken.
Well that’s… arbitrary. If this charm can keep people from being killed out of order, why can’t it keep people from being killed at all? And it conveniently stops working if the good guys join forces. This is why I recommend a rational magic system for your story. If you invent a rational system and stick to it, your magic or advanced tech won’t feel contrived.
In this case, I’m guessing Lore was attached to this concept of killing people in order, and he had trouble explaining how that would work. However, he didn’t need a magical explanation. Maybe everyone is hiding, and each person knows the location of just one other. The killer could find them one by one and extract information about the next target.
When one of us is found and killed, a circular scar wraps around the right ankle of those still alive. And residing on our left ankle, formed when the Loric charm was first cast, is a small scar identical to the amulet each of us wears. The circular scars are another part of the charm.
Sure, let’s just make the charm do everything the plot needs.
Mentor: As the charm’s fourth amulet bearer, you must go to the four corners of the Earth and gather the four elements!
Number Four: I’ve seen Earth from space, and I’m pretty sure it’s a sphere. Also, there are dozens of abundant elements on this planet.
Mentor: Silence! The charm doesn’t like cheek. Also, you must complete your quest at the most dramatic moment possible: only seconds before the Earth is destroyed.
Number Four: Destroyed? How?
Mentor: Haven’t you been listening? The charm will destroy the Earth unless the four elements are placed in the arms of your one true love right before it destroys the Earth. Speaking of which, you need to find your true love. The charm will give you cryptic clues.
In any case, the circular scars are apparently a brutal warning that some sadist added to the charm on purpose.
The first scar came when I was nine years old. It woke me from my sleep, burning itself into my flesh. We were living in Arizona, in a small border town near Mexico.
I like where Lore is going with this, but before we get there I have to stop and ask: who is “we”? The narrator said there were nine people that had to separate or die. But it looks like the amulet bearers were all too young to go off on their own, and they have adults with them. I would says the adults are adoptive human parents, but in the prologue Lore said, “a fourteen-year-old boy and a fifty-year-old man, who everyone thinks is his father but who was born near a different jungle on a different planet.” This sentence now makes even less sense, since the boy is apparently also from off-planet.
Do the adults not count? Let me guess: the charm only protects children. Whatever is happening, it’s important enough that Lore should have explained it here.
Don’t Gloss Over the Emotion
Back to the scars. Lore gives an overview of the narrator getting three scars that signify the deaths of the first three kids. Doing so is a convenient and interesting way to summarize the narrator’s life on Earth. I’ll give it to you in brief.
We were living in Arizona, in a small border town near Mexico. I woke screaming in the middle of the night, in agony, terrified as the scar seared itself into my flesh. It was the first sign that the Mogadorians had finally found us on Earth, and the first sign that we were in danger. … I had almost convinced myself that my memories were wrong, that what Henri told me was wrong. I wanted to be a normal kid living a normal life. … We moved to Minnesota the next day.
The second scar came when I was twelve. I was in school, in Colorado, participating in a spelling bee. As soon as the pain started I knew what was happening, what had happened to Number Two. The pain was excruciating, but bearable this time. I would have stayed on the stage, but the heat lit my sock on fire. …. We got in the car and drove away, this time to Maine. We left everything we had except for the Loric Chest that Henri brought along on every move. All twenty-one of them to date.
The third scar appeared an hour ago. I was sitting on a pontoon boat. The boat belonged to the parents of the most popular kid at my school, and unbeknownst to them, he was having a party on it. I had never been invited to any of the parties at my school before. I had always, because I knew we might leave at any minute, kept to myself. But it had been quiet for two years.
Like before, the broad strokes are well done, but the details are clumsy. Lore keeps telling his themes and emotions to readers instead of evoking them. The evocative details he does offer don’t strengthen the emotions he wants to convey. For instance, what if the narrator had just gotten a puppy, then had to give the puppy away because it couldn’t come with them on the move? It would highlight the tragedy of the narrator’s constant moves.
Even after we see his whole life, the main character doesn’t have a notable personality. This could be intentional. Number Four has conventional but relatable yearnings and is depicted as an underdog despite having superpowers. This is a good recipe for a blank character. However, Lore’s writing style is so generic that having a bland hero could just be carelessness.
I was sitting on the edge of the pontoon with my feet in the water, talking to a cute, dark-haired, blue-eyed girl named Tara, when I felt it coming. The water around my leg started boiling, and my lower leg started glowing where the scar was imbedding itself. … Tara started screaming and people started crowding around me. I knew there was no way to explain it. And I knew we would have to leave immediately.
The stakes were higher now. They had found Number Three, wherever he or she was, and Number Three was dead. So I calmed Tara down and kissed her on the cheek and told her it was nice to meet her and that I hoped she had a long beautiful life. I dove off the side of the boat and started swimming…
In that first paragraph, Lore tests how many times he can slip “started” past his editor. This word is useless 99.9% of the time. Seriously, hunt it down and destroy it.
FYI, “imbedding” is not a typo. It is technically an alternate spelling for “embedding,” not a misspelling, but I wouldn’t recommend it because it appears misspelled.
While it’s not stated outright, this scene suggests the hero is a guy. The badass chick on the cover is probably his love interest. So far he’s still a blank character, but I like the progression from a child who needs comforting to an adult who comforts others. But really, why is Tara screaming? Women don’t scream whenever we see something unusual. If the boiling water burned her, then a yelp would be justified, but a full scream?
Even with the silly scream, this is a nice moment, so nice that I wonder why it’s a quick retelling rather than a full scene. If you remember, Lore had a prologue to get in some action and establish the threat. He can afford to slow down to bring his main character to life. In fact, I think this chapter could stand well on its own without the prologue. If only he wasn’t telling the whole story instead of showing it.
Please Don’t Point and Shout, You’re Hurting My Eyes
When I got home, Henri was at a bank of scanners and monitors that he used to research news around the world, and police activity in our area. He knew without me saying a word, though he did lift my soaking pants to see the scars.[transition symbol]
In the beginning we were a group of nine.
Three are gone, dead.
There are six of us left.
They are hunting us, and they won’t stop until they’ve killed us all.
I am Number Four.
I know that I am next.
Whaaat? Lore could have used a simple but reasonably dramatic ending like “We look at each other and we won’t say it, but we both know: I am next.” But no, that’s not enough. Instead he must repeat everything he’s already written, one sentence per paragraph.
He’s practically shouting: I AM DRAMATIC!
Overall, Lore has some notable strengths: He’s good at story structure, and he keeps the plot moving. He also has some notable weaknesses: He hasn’t mastered his medium, and he’s unimaginative. While he certainly has potential, success at this stage doesn’t always motivate writers to improve. If you’ve read the rest of this book or his future works, tell me: Does Lore master wordcraft and bring his stories to life, or does he rehash the latest movie plots he’s seen?
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