Writing

Lessons From The Maze Runner’s Point of View Disaster

People run through giant concrete blocks overgrown with vegetation
This post-apocalyptic YA novel by James Dashner spawned not only bestselling sequels but also a movie series. A bad movie series, I hear, but they star Dylan O’Brien (aka Styles), so how bad could they be? I think the cover art is gorgeous, but I’m a sucker for human structures that have been conquered by vegetation.

Now that I’ve given you an obviously biased intro to The Maze Runner, let’s open it and see for ourselves what’s inside. You can follow along using the “look inside” feature on the book’s Amazon page.

Master Perspective Before It Masters You

Below is the first sentence – and first paragraph – of Chapter 1.

He began his new life standing up, surrounded by cold darkness and stale, dusty air.

Well, I’ll give it points for arousing curiosity. Unfortunately, it loses points for being disorienting. The balance between novelty and clarity is tricky to manage in openings, especially in speculative fiction. You want to give readers something interesting, but if you go too far too quickly, it can become overwhelming and confusing. Readers have no context when they read the first sentence, so they have to do more work to figure out what you’re saying.

In this case, streamlining the sentence a little would have reduced disorientation without sacrificing the intrigue. “He began his new life standing up” is a good sentence on its own. The rest could have waited for a second sentence. Of course, then we wouldn’t get a dramatic one-sentence paragraph.

This is the third critique I’ve done where a pronoun was used instead of a name in the first sentence, and it’s weird every time. In this book, it even feels kind of pretentious, like this new life business is too deep for something as mundane as a name. Names are for plebs.

Metal ground against metal; a lurching shudder shook the floor beneath him. He fell down at the sudden movement and shuffled backward on his hands and feet, drops of sweat beading on his forehead despite the cool air. His back struck a hard metal wall; he slid along it until he hit the corner of the room. Sinking to the floor, he pulled his legs up tight against his body, hoping his eyes would soon adjust to the darkness.

With another jolt, the room jerked upward like an old lift in a mine shaft.

Whoa, whoa – what freakish viewpoint are we in? We seem to be watching him from the outside, yet we have no idea what’s going on here. The character is clearly supposed to be disoriented in this scene, but readers should only feel that disorientation if they are experiencing it from his viewpoint. That’s the difference between mystery and plain old confusion.

The excerpt feels like a disjointed jumble because there are weird snippets of information the character doesn’t know, yet these snippets don’t form a complete picture. Let’s start with “Metal ground against metal.” The character can’t see this happening because he’s in complete darkness. It doesn’t say he hears a screech or grinding noise. The narrator just tells us that somewhere, two pieces of metal are getting it on. Maybe it’s happening right above his head, maybe on the other side of the planet. Only after this disembodied event occurs does the character feel the floor shudder. If we just cut out “Metal ground against metal,” the paragraph feels much more in his viewpoint and much less disorienting.

The other line that sticks out is “the room jerked upward like an old lift in a mine shaft.” It feels unlikely that this character knows what it’s like to be inside a lift in a mine shaft. But from an omniscient perspective, the image feels incomplete. We have no idea what this room is to make a comparison. It’s like someone walked up to me and said, “It wilted in my hand like a dead flower.” Okay, but is this wilting thing a plant, animal, or mineral? Is it just a dead flower? It is, isn’t it?

Before I let this poor excerpt go, I have to point out a classic timeline error. The grammar here indicates he sunk to the floor and pulled his legs tight against his body at the same time. I’m trying to imagine this, and it always ends in this guy getting a bruised bum.

Next we get some clanking noises, and then this.

The lightless elevator swayed back and forth as it ascended, turning the boy’s stomach sour with nausea; a smell like burnt oil invaded his senses, making him feel worse. He wanted to cry, but no tears came; he could only sit there, alone, waiting.

My name is Thomas, he thought.

That has got to be the most hilariously awkward character introduction I have encountered. People don’t think about what their name is. It doesn’t help that the sentence immediately before it is so melodramatic.

He starts his new life standing up.
In the cold.
In the dark.
Alone.
Waiting.
And his name is Thomas!

Hi, Thomas.

But before I go farther, let’s look at the next sentence.

That… that was the only thing he could remember about his life.

Now we can see what Dashner was trying to do when he delayed naming his main character. While the character can’t remember his identity, he is nameless. Once he remembers it, readers know it. I think this would have worked if we were just in Thomas’s head – though knowing he had amnesia right away would also have been important. It’s worth noting that this sentence is clearly intended to be in close limited perspective. The ellipsis indicates the character’s struggle to remember; an omniscient narrator wouldn’t hesitate like that.

But lest you think those earlier snippets of outside knowledge were just a fluke, behold the next two sentences.

He didn’t understand how this could be possible. His mind functioned without flaw, trying to calculate his surroundings and predicament.

Does he have a self-diagnostic program? To be fair, Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation discovers a new android relative every time the plot calls for one, so I suppose Thomas could be a third brother. But really, you’d think amnesia would be sign that his mind is not functioning without flaw.

Later in this paragraph, we finally get some passable internal narration.

He pictured snow on trees, running down a leaf-strewn road, eating a hamburger, the moon casting a pale glow on a grassy meadow, swimming in a lake, a busy city square with hundreds of people bustling about their business.

And yet he didn’t know where he came from, or how he’d gotten inside the dark lift, or who his parents were. He didn’t even know his last name. Images of people flashed across his mind, but there was no recognition, their faces replaced with haunted smears of color.

There’s quite a bit to like here. Not all of Dashner’s imagery is creative, but showing what’s inside Thomas’s mind instead of telling us makes a difference. This is also a great way to establish a baseline for his fictional world. From this we know the world outside is much like ours – or at least it was recently. Last, I’m quite fond of “their faces replaced with haunted smears of color” – it’s evocative.

Minutes stretched into hours, although it was impossible to know for sure because every second seemed an eternity. No. He was smarter than that. Trusting his instincts, he knew he’d been moving for roughly half an hour.

It’s impossible to know – but wait, he knows. Sure, Thomas, let the clock in your android brain keep track of time for you.

In the above excerpt, Dashner also manages to bring the narration more inside Thomas’s head than it was earlier. The simple “No” is clearly a thought, and it’s not italicized or labeled like “My name is Thomas” was before. I think Dashner is attempting close limited in this chapter, but accidentally breaks out of it too often. That makes it likely his big POV problems will get better in this book or in his next – as long as he keeps trying.

It also makes me wonder if Thomas really is supposed to have artificial brain enhancements. That would match the good ideas and flawed implementation I’ve seen so far. If Dashner did intend to portray Thomas this way, he needed to call attention to it in the narration, thereby telling readers it’s on purpose. Thomas is already evaluating his mental functioning, so it wouldn’t be out of the way for him to remember that most people don’t have self-diagnostics.

Cut the Filler

Strangely enough, he felt his fear whisked away like a swarm of gnats caught in the wind, replaced by an intense curiosity. He wanted to know where he was and what was happening.

That’s not a bad metaphor for fear leaving in this context, though it feels strange that it isn’t extended to cover his curiosity. That could have been fixed with a small line edit: “like a swarm of gnats caught in the wind, he felt his fear whisked away – replaced by an intense curiosity.”

With a groan and then a clonk, the rising room halted; the sudden change jolted Thomas from his huddled position and threw him across the hard floor. As he scrambled to his feet, he felt the room sway less and less until it finally stilled.

Wait, what? If the room was moving upward, that would cause downward pressure. With fast movement and a sudden stop, Thomas might be lifted up a bit and dropped back down, but thrown across the floor?

A minute passed. Two. He looked in every direction but saw only darkness; he felt along the walls again, searching for a way out. But there was nothing, only the cool metal. He groaned in frustration; his echo amplified through the air, like the haunted moan of death.

Does the personification of death roam around in this world, moaning? When Death moans, does a soul fly out with the moan, making it haunted? I’m trying to understand here.

It faded, and the silence returned. He screamed, called for help, pounded on the wall with his fists.

Nothing.

Thomas backed into the corner once again, folded his arms and shivered, and the fear returned. He felt a worrying shudder in his chest, as if his heart wanted to escape, to flee his body.

I can sympathize with his heart here. Too much melodrama, time to cut loose. But let’s hit the pause button on these hysterics and talk about the story. In the two pages we’ve covered so far, this is what has happened:

  1. Thomas is standing up in the cold and dark.
  2. He slides down against a wall and huddles.
  3. He realizes he can’t remember anything other than his name.
  4. A half hour passes.
  5. His fear is replaced with curiosity.
  6. He’s thrown across the floor, and he gets back on his feet.
  7. He feels along the walls.
  8. He groans, screams, and pounds on the walls.
  9. He backs into a corner, afraid.

The only thing in this sequence that has any real meaning is #3. Intriguing as it was before, the first sentence now just feels silly. Thomas is standing, and sitting, and standing again… Who cares? The emotional sequence is just as meaningless. He has this moment where his fear is blown away just so he can become afraid again.

These kinds of emotional fluctuations feel contrived and out of character. To come across well, readers must understand why the character’s emotion changes, and the reasons have to ring true. But Dashner is too far out of Thomas’s head during most of this to go into the mental processes that create a change in mood. Plus, there’s no takeaway here. A scene should have an emotional arc with a purpose to it.

Altogether, I’m left with the impression that Dashner is filling space. I think he wanted to have this significant scene where Thomas was alone and scared, but didn’t know what to put in it or how to give it the emotional power he was hoping for. So he did his best to make the situation sound unpleasant and describe his character being super emotional for a while. That did not work, so let’s go over what might have.

  • Being further inside of Thomas’s head wouldn’t have solved this problem by itself, but it would have helped. Readers would be more likely to imagine this as something happening to them rather than someone else.
  • Readers need to hear more about the troubling implications of this situation. So Thomas is in a dark metal box; why does that matter? In most stories, the protagonist would think about loved ones they won’t see again. Since Thomas has amnesia, he might puzzle over what this box is and why he’s in it. He could be in denial at first, convincing himself it’s just an unlit elevator he stepped into, and any moment it will let him out where he wanted to go. As time passes that becomes less likely, and he notices he’s hungry, dirty, and bruised. Finally, he has to acknowledge that he’s been caged like an animal, without regard for his suffering.
  • Last, something more evocative could happen while he’s in the box, though it might reduce the mystery. As is, he’s not in immediate danger, and he doesn’t hear anything other than machine noises. Some human noises could make the scene more meaningful and impactful. For instance, he could hear sobbing nearby or measured footsteps by someone who won’t answer his calls. Finding a skull while he’s feeling around would be disturbing and suggest he’s in danger.

Aside from a rewrite of this scene so far, the best option would be to cut it down significantly. Thomas thinks about his amnesia, time passes for a paragraph, and then the story moves on to something more important.

Don’t Wreck a Serious Tone

Finally Dashner is ready to get to the next thing.

A straight line of light appeared across the ceiling of the room, and Thomas watched as it expanded. A heavy grating sound revealed double doors being forced open. After so long in darkness, the light stabbed his eyes; he looked away, covering his face with both hands.

Dashner isn’t quite ready to leave all the melodrama behind. And… how does a grating sound reveal double doors? Maybe Thomas’s android brain knows exactly what giant metal double doors sound like.

As much as I love semicolons, I have to admit that Dashner has been overusing them. Most often, a semicolon is used to glue two sentences together into a single sentence. To be appropriate, the sentences should be more closely related than neighboring sentences. They also shouldn’t be too long. This sentence from the second excerpt is a pretty good example: “His back struck a hard metal wall; he slid along it until he hit the corner of the room.” I don’t think the rest of his semicolons should make the cut.

He heard noises above – voices – and fear squeezed his chest.

“Look at that shank.”

“How old is he?”

“Looks like a klunk in a T-shirt.”

“You’re the klunk, shuck-face.”

“Dude, it smells like feet down there!”

“Hope you enjoyed the one-way trip, Greenie.”

“Ain’t no ticket back, bro.”

Thomas was hit with a wave of confusion, blistered with panic.

Dashner works so had to try to make us take this situation in the metal box seriously. Thomas emits a groan that echoes like a haunted moan of death. His heart tries to get away, quite wisely, because his chest was about to be squeezed. Then after all that overly dramatic build-up, we meet “shuck-face.” This overly silly teen banter sabotages everything Dashner has done thus far.

That doesn’t mean you can never build up a threatening situation before revealing everything is okay. But the viewpoint character’s response is crucial here – it sets the tone for the audience. If this exchange was designed to relieve all the tension Dashner built up, Thomas should treat it that way. He might sigh in relief, sagging into a resting position. He could release all his emotional tension by laughing. Instead he’s panicking.

He willed his eyes to adjust as he squinted toward the light and those speaking. At first he could see only shifting shadows, but they soon turned into the shapes of bodies – people bending over the hole in the ceiling, looking down at him, pointing.

And then, as if the lens of a camera had sharpened its focus, the faces cleared. They were boys, all of them – some young, some older.

I like this sequence; there’s good imagery, and it really gets us inside Thomas’s head. I would still trim here and there. For instance, since they are bending over the hole, we don’t also need to be told they are looking at Thomas; that’s a given.

Why do they all have to be boys? Does the indifferent metal box love organizing its humans by gender category? Maybe the giant maze in this story is just an alien sorting algorithm that separates the littler humans from the bigger humans. That way each group can go in their own neatly labeled compartment.

Dramatic Telling of Emotions Is Just Melodrama

They were just teenagers. Kids. Some of his fear melted away, but not enough to calm his racing heart.

Thomas’s heart just can’t catch a break. I’m rooting for you, heart.

Someone lowered a rope from above, the end of it tied into a big loop. Thomas hesitated, then stepped into it with his right foot as he was yanked toward the sky. Hands reached down, lots of hands, grabbing him by his clothes, pulling him up.

If you find yourself specifying right or left limbs, you’ve probably gone too far. Readers don’t need to know what limbs are doing what, just what actions the character is taking. We also have another timeline error here. At least this time there are multiple hands all reaching down, grabbing clothes, and pulling up simultaneously, so we can at least imagine that some hands are pulling up while others are reaching down.

The world seemed to spin, a swirling mist of faces and color and light. A storm of emotions wrenched his gut, twisted and pulled; he wanted to scream, cry, throw up.

More melodrama… I cannot even. Please, Dashner, this is enough. I believe you that this poor kid is really upset at being rescued for some reason. Stop tormenting his internal organs.

All right, we are finally at the end.

The chorus of voices had grown silent, but someone spoke as they yanked him over the sharp edge of the dark box. And Thomas knew he’d never forget the words.

“Nice to meet ya, shank,” the boy said. “Welcome to the Glade.”

This is not a bad closing, since it gets us curious about what the Glade is. But of course, Dashner oversells it by insisting this rather unremarkable line is something Thomas will never forget.


Thankfully for Dashner, the big-picture view of chapter one is much stronger than this in-the-weeds critique might suggest. Yes, this already short chapter should have been cut in half. A stronger grasp of narrative perspective and better understanding of character emotion would have improved it immensely. Even so, I think the mystery of where Thomas is, how he ended up here, and what has happened to the world is compelling. Plot-wise, it’s a strong start.

Now tell me, internet hive mind: does Thomas actually have an android brain?

Need an editor? We’re at your service.

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Comments

  1. Rasarr

    Yass, another Lessons From Bad Writing!

    I don’t think Thomas has an android brain, but I think he’s supposed to be a supergenius or something like that, so maybe that’s what Dashner was getting at here.

  2. Someone

    The bit I don’t understand is he falls to his knees, and then he crawls around and then without getting up, he backs into a wall with his literal back, which should be parallel to the floor if he is crawling around on his hands and knees.

    • Cay Reet

      Yes, he could hit the wall with his head or his butt, depending whether he’s crawling forward or backward. Without either getting up or at least rising off his hands, there’s no way he can press his back to the wall.

  3. Bryony

    I believe the mazes tested different possible immune human combinations, including controls who are not immune, to try create some kind of serum. This is the excuse given for it being all boys in the glade. There are other mazes that do have girls, we just “so happen” to be in the one that doesn’t. Bleh.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Thanks for the info. I love the “it just so happened” excuse! It’s so flexible. It just so happened that all the characters in my story are white because that’s just who happened to show up when the wizened old wizard was handing out quests. It just happened that way, nothing I could do about it!

  4. Ennis

    God, there were just way too many analogies packed into that. Someone tell the author it’s fine for something to just happen, it doesn’t have to happen like another thing all the time.

    Personally I think “He groaned in frustration; his echo amplified through the air, like the haunted moan of death.” was the worst offender in terms of melodrama. Like, save it for when someone’s actually dying, if you have to use it.

  5. Rand al'Thor

    Could you do a lessons from the poetic writing of Name of the Wind? The prose is so beautiful

    • Chris Winkle

      Thanks, I’ll consider doing that one, but… the conclusions I come to after reading something often aren’t what people hope. I don’t want to critique your favorite book at your request only to say bad things about it.

      • Rand al'Thor

        Don’t worry, you have already critiqued books I previously enjoyed

  6. Greg S

    Overuse of similes is bad enough when the similes are actually appropriate. It’s downright awful when they are stinkers like, “…like the haunted moan of death.”

    Was this book translated from a different language?

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