The Witcher book series, written by Andrzej Sapkowski and translated to English by Danusia Stok, started a popular video game franchise and now a popular TV show on Netflix too. I’ve seen the first season of the show, so that gives me some story context that I don’t have for most critiques. I think the show is really bad, but I enjoyed it anyway.
The books actually start off as short story collections, so I’ll jump in at the beginning of the first novel, The Blood of Elves. Since this is a translated work, I won’t assume Sapkowski is responsible for every foible of wordcraft. While a translator’s job is to be faithful to the original text rather than to improve it like an editor, translators have to make lots of judgment calls.
Let’s start by getting a real view of the cover. I cropped the image up top so unsuspecting visitors to the site wouldn’t be besieged with body horror they didn’t ask for. But just look at this thing (or don’t, if blood and more blood isn’t appealing to you).
A whole river of blood is pouring down Geralt’s fine butt like syrup. I’m guessing it can’t be blood from people he’s killed since it’s on his back side and his shoulders are surprisingly clean. So this is meant to tell us how manly he is. A real man can lose pints of blood and keep fighting I guess.
Also, a real man goes to battle without his shirt, or he tears it off mid-battle. You decide which.
All right, let’s cover the book’s first scene.
Help Readers Keep Track of What You’re Talking About
Here’s the opening paragraph of chapter 1.
The town was in flames.
This first sentence is not particularly unique or interesting, but it does have lots of conflict, so I’ll give it three out of five stars. And yes, it’s a paragraph of its own and for no reason other than dramatic effect because the next paragraph is clearly an elaboration on this topic.
The narrow streets leading to the moat and the first terrace belched smoke and embers, flames devouring the densely clustered thatched houses and licking at the castle walls. From the west, from the harbour gate, the screams and clamour of vicious battle and the dull blows of a battering ram smashing against the walls grew ever louder.
This is some nice imagery. I like the belching, devouring, and licking. However, it’s also a lot of layout information at once. We have to map out a whole city with a wall, houses, moat, terrace, and castle, and a harbor and gate specifically on the west side are thrown in for good measure. After some thought, I’m guessing the houses are outside these castle walls getting battered, so the town around the castle is on fire but the castle itself isn’t. I’m not sure though.
Readers are easily disoriented in the first paragraphs, and this is asking for a lot of work. Plus, the second sentence is long and the action of the sentence, “grew,” doesn’t show up until the end, making it difficult to sort through.
Since we haven’t been introduced to a point-of-view character yet and the town is described like we have a bird’s-eye view and not like we’re in it, this must be omniscient narration.
Their attackers had surrounded them unexpectedly, shattering the barricades which had been held by no more than a few soldiers, a handful of townsmen carrying halberds and some crossbowmen from the guild. Their horses, decked out in flowing black caparisons, flew over the barricades like spectres, their riders’ bright, glistening blades sowing death amongst the fleeing defenders.
What is happening here? First, “their” attackers surround “them” unexpectedly. I guess “their” and “them” must refer to the yet unmentioned townsfolk, since in the next clause, we learn the shattered barricades are being defended by a handful of townsfolk. But then the meager handful of town soldiers have horses that are flying over the barricades like spectres?
What we have here is a classic case of pronoun misattribution. In “their horses,” the word “their” is supposed to refer to the attackers in “their attackers.” But grammatically, it refers to what was last mentioned, either the crossbowmen or the town soldiers altogether. Even if that weren’t an issue, expecting readers to link this mid-paragraph “their” to a subject at the beginning of the paragraph is unrealistic. After all the tangent and description stuffed in that first sentence, readers will lose sight of what it was originally about.
Hilariously, the same sentence then uses “their riders.” So the town’s attackers have the town surrounded, the attacker’s horses fly over the barricades, and the horses’ riders’ (the attackers’) glistening blades are sowing death. Wow.
While in this case the pronoun issues could have been created in translation, native English speakers writing in English are perfectly capable of creating passages like these.
Give Characters Proper Introductions
Ciri felt the knight who carried her before him on his saddle abruptly spur his horse. She heard his cry. “Hold on,” he shouted. “Hold on!”
Other knights wearing the colours of Cintra overtook them, sparring, even in full flight, with the Nilfgaardians. Ciri caught a glimpse of the skirmish from the corner of her eye – the crazed swirl of blue-gold and black cloaks amidst the clash of steel, the clatter of blades against shields, the neighing of horses—
Shouts. No, not shouts. Screams.
After floating above the city, we’re abruptly in Ciri’s perspective. Everything in these paragraphs is what she’s seeing and feeling, when that wasn’t true before. Many stories written in third person start with omniscient and then transition to a point-of-view character, but an actual transition is necessary. That transition might look something like:
The back gates of the castle burst open, and a score of mounted knights in the blue and gold of Cintra raced out, pounding over the blood and cinders on the narrow streets toward the town’s outer gate. At their center, a knight rode with the princess Ciri before him on his saddle.
The princess clutched the reins, squeezing her eyes shut against the sting of smoke and the sight of slaughter. She felt the horse under her jolt as the knight abruptly spurred it forward.
Above, I introduce where and who Ciri is in this large conflict. Then I narrate what she’s doing and, finally, what she’s feeling – since that requires more than just watching her from the outside.
After we suddenly meet Ciri, the knight she’s with repeatedly shouts, “Hold on!” Is he trying to tell Ciri to hold on tight so she doesn’t fall, or is he calling out to someone ahead? It’s possible this one is a translation problem. In English, “hold on” is used for both physically grabbing something and as a metaphor for persevering until help arrives – that may not be true in Polish. If the “hold on” is meant for Ciri, it’s a little strange that he’s shouting when she’s right next to him. We could chalk that up to the battle being loud, but then why does he keep repeating it? Is she rebelliously refusing to grab onto something?
Lest you think that vaguely shouting at who-knows-who to “hold on” is out of the question, you should know that the pitched battle between Cintra and Nilfgaard on the Netflix show has laughably generic lines like “we’re losing!”
Then the other knights of Cintra somehow overtake Ciri and her rider, even though these other knights are sparring, and the sparring is happening in the corner of Ciri’s eye instead of ahead of her. And while Sapkowski names the Cintrans and Nilfgaardians, he doesn’t say that the princess is on the side of the defenders, so a reader without context would have to figure that out. Also, are the Cintrans wearing blue-gold cloaks and the Nilfgaardians black cloaks, or is it the reverse? Or are all cloaks both blue-gold and black? And what exactly is blue-gold? Is it blue and gold, or is it a type of metal that’s blue? I have so many questions about this passage.
Since this is not the first story in the series, it’s possible that Sapkowski expects his readers to already know all about Cintrans and Nilfgaardians. But usually, even a later book in a series is designed so readers can start there without too much confusion. Plus, sometimes it’s been a while since readers finished the last book, and they need reminders.
Last, there’s this “not shouts, screams” bit, dramatically stated on its own line. Sapkowski has already described lots of screaming and slaughter so… yeah, what else is new? I’m also having trouble imagining that as Ciri is dashing for her life through a burning town, she specifically hears what she thinks are shouts instead of screams and then corrects herself.
All You Have to Fear Is the Word “Fear” Itself
For context, I’ll repeat the last two lines.
Shouts. No, not shouts. Screams.
Fear. With every jolt, every jerk, every leap of the horse pain shot through her hands as she clutched at the reins. Her legs contracted painfully, unable to find support, her eyes watered from the smoke. The arm around her suffocated her, choking her, the force compressing her ribs. All around her screaming such as she had never before heard grew louder. What must one do to a man to make him scream so?
Fear. Overpowering, paralysing, choking fear.
Melodrama. With every word, every letter, every single-word sentence and single-line paragraph, it will suffocate you, choke you, compress your ribs as they have never been compressed before. Overpowering, paralyzing, choking melodrama.
Okay, but really, we just have the word “fear” sitting there in italics. What about fear, exactly? The preceding sentence was a line of dialogue from the knight. Even if I thought this single word sentence was a good idea, the narration has to be focused inside of Ciri’s head already for readers to understand that this is supposed to be an emotion she’s experiencing.
With that context, this “Fear” wouldn’t be as jarring, but it would still be melodramatic. Here’s a tip: if you have to name the emotion your character is experiencing, you’re barking up the wrong tree. To make readers feel Ciri’s fear, Sapkowski needed to describe why Ciri should be afraid, not just tell readers that she’s afraid over and over again. If you’d like to know more about this, I have a whole article on melodrama. As for naming emotions, that only makes sense if, for instance, your point-of-view character is trying to figure out what emotion they are feeling.
Also, I just gotta say, what is going on with Ciri’s legs? Why are they contracting? And if she’s sitting on a saddle, why would they need more support? Or is it her eyes that are unable to find support? Without an “and,” the sentence could be interpreted either way.
It’s Okay to Tell Readers What’s Happening
Next, we have four paragraphs of disembodied violence. Here’s an abbreviated version.
Again the clash of iron, the grunts and snorts of the horses. […] All at once the knight at her back was wracked by a strange wheezing cough. Blood spurted over the hands grasping the reins. More screams. Arrows whistled past.
A fall, a shock, painful bruising against armour. Hooves pounded past her, a horse’s belly and a frayed girth flashing by above her head […]. Grunts of exertion, like a lumberjack’s when chopping wood. But this isn’t wood; it’s iron against iron. A shout, muffled and dull, and something huge and black collapsed into the mud next to her with a splash, spurting blood. […]
A jerk. Some force plucked her up, pulled her onto another saddle. Hold on! Again the bone-shaking speed, the mad gallop. Arms and legs desperately searching for support. The horse rears. Hold on!… There is no support. There is no… There is no… There is blood. The horse falls.
I love how Ciri meets a second knight who also shouts at her constantly to hold on. It’s just what Cintran knights do.
This whole sequence, with its disjointed falls, hands, blood, and all the rest, reminds me of a shaky cam. In intense action sequences in movies, such as car accidents, sometimes the camera will shake and the video will switch between random disjointed cuts in quick succession. This is meant to represent the chaos of the situation and boost adrenaline.
I think it’s a fine tactic when used in moderation, but it quickly becomes irritating. After a couple seconds, the audience just wants to know what’s happening. In these paragraphs, it’s hard to feel the danger that Ciri’s in while wondering whether those hands on the reins are Ciri’s or the knight’s or trying to sort out what that horse belly is about. And without consistently narrating about the characters and what they’re doing, we can’t appreciate the struggle these knights are going through to keep Ciri safe. They aren’t people in this sequence, just hands and heads ready to be chopped off. It’s all gore and no emotional power.
However, I wouldn’t object to a few sentences of this when, for instance, Ciri falls off her horse and has to get her bearings again.
Also, lest you think we were done with all that fear stuff, next Ciri sees the silhouette of a dark rider in front of the burning town, staring down at her.
And she is frozen in fear: a terrible fear which turns her entrails inside out, which deafens Ciri to the screams of the wounded horse, the roar of the blaze, the cries of dying people and the pounding drums. The only thing which exists, which counts, which still has any meaning, is fear. Fear embodied in the figure of a black knight wearing a helmet decorated with feathers frozen against the wall of raging, red flames.
The rider spurs his horse, the wings on his helmet fluttering as the bird of prey takes to flight, launching itself to attack its helpless victim, paralysed with fear. The bird – or maybe the knight – screeches terrifyingly, cruelly, triumphantly. A black horse, black armour, a black flowing cloak, and behind this – flames. A sea of flames.
The bird shrieks. The wings beat, feathers slap against her face. Fear!
It’s easy to spot melodrama by the sheer number of times dramatic emotions are named in the text, as though every time the word “fear” is used, the narration gets scarier. Okay, I admit it does get scarier, but only to editors.
And what the hell is happening with this bird? It’s just feathers on a helmet, and then it takes flight as though it’s been a bird all along. We’re in Ciri’s point of view, so what is she seeing? Does she see the helmet or the rider morph into a bird, or does she see something else? At least this strange sequence explains why in the show, Ciri says this guy has a bird on his head when his helmet only has two feathers sticking up.
This is fantasy, so it’s entirely possible that something magical is happening, but the narration needs to describe that. This “the bird – or maybe the knight” bit might work with a more playful omniscient narrator, but here it doesn’t fit. It feels like Sapkowski is making fun of his narration instead of fixing it, and that’s frustrating.
Now, raise your hand if you know why this strange bird-rider thing just happened.
If you guessed “it’s all a dream,” then you guessed right!
Writers often have trouble fitting an exciting conflict into their opening, so using a dream is a way of including conflict without actually having to include it. But it makes many audiences feel like they were lied to, because, honestly, they were. Asking your readers to get emotionally invested in a dangerous sequence only to reveal it doesn’t matter is a violation of trust. This doesn’t mean all dreams are bad, but dreams must matter to the story as a whole, not just give a thrill in the moment.
If Your Main Character Seems Invisible, Try This One Weird Trick
She woke, numb and drenched in sweat, with her scream – the scream which had woken her – still hanging in the air, still vibrating somewhere within her […]
“Ciri. Calm down.”
The night was dark and windy, the crowns of the surrounding pine trees rustling steadily and melodiously, their limbs and trunks creaking in the wind. There was no malevolent fire, no screams, only this gentle lullaby. Beside her the campfire flickered with light and warmth, its reflected flames glowing from harness buckles, gleaming red in the leather-wrapped and iron-banded hilt of a sword leaning against a saddle on the ground. There was no other fire and no other iron. The hand against her cheek smelled of leather and ashes. Not of blood.
So someone calls out to Ciri, and she wakes up. First, she feels the current state of her body – sweaty, numb, her scream fading. This makes perfect sense. The whole paragraph there is a little dramatic, but it doesn’t have “fear” ten times, so that’s a win.
Then another unattributed line of dialogue tells her to calm down, and she… thinks about the trees? Is this a disembodied voice coming from the night sky? Then Sapkowski describes a campfire and a sword, but still not the person right there talking to her. Well, after that she finally realizes there’s a hand against her cheek, so describing the person attached to that hand is probably next.
“It was just a dream. A bad dream.”
Ciri shuddered violently, curling her arms and legs up tight.
A dream. Just a dream.
Nope. After describing tons of fire and guts everywhere, and then waxing poetic about the trees and the campfire, there’s still no description of Geralt, who may or may not have blood pouring down his butt right now.
The campfire had already died down; the birch logs were red and luminous, occasionally crackling, giving off tiny spurts of blue flame which illuminated the white hair and sharp profile of the man wrapping a blanket and sheepskin around her.
“I’m right here. Sleep, Ciri. You have to rest. We’ve still a long way ahead of us.”
Well, by carefully reading that really long sentence, we discover he has white hair. Also, a profile, the most distinctive of features. Of course, it’s not possible to go into more detail because it might distract from those immensely important birch logs.
Update: A number of people in the comments have stated that Geralt shouldn’t need description because readers will know what he looks like from previous books. But that mistakes the biggest reason description is needed in this case: not for establishing exactly what he looks like, but for scene setting. Geralt is the most important item in Ciri’s view, so neglecting description of him makes him feel conspicuously absent from the scene. This is magnified by the embellished description used for everything else.
Think of description as your way to point the camera. A scene that takes a long shot of a couple logs but never looks at the main character would be weird.*
To describe Geralt while not being repetitive for familiar readers, Sapkowski could have focused on how Geralt looks in the moment. Maybe he has shadows under his eyes after going without sleep or there’s a new rent in his leather armor that he’s repairing.
No, Really, What Is Happening?
I can hear music, she thought suddenly. Amidst the rustling of the trees… there’s music. Lute music. And voices. The Princess of Cintra… A child of destiny… A child of Elder Blood, the blood of elves. Geralt of Rivia, the White Wolf, and his destiny. No, no, that’s a legend. A poet’s invention. The princess is dead. She was killed in the town streets while trying to escape…
Hold on… ! Hold…
This passage is really unclear. Ciri thinks about how she hears music instead of the narration telling us she hears music. Since Geralt just told her to go back to sleep, she might be drifting off here. Plus, they are outside around a campfire, so where would the music come from? So on my first read, I assumed this was her imagination.
But the next scene features a bard that’s just finished singing, so… maybe he’s somewhere nearby? That would also explain why the wording is so over the top. But the bard is surrounded by people, not out in the woods. Maybe magic allows Ciri to hear music from a distance because destiny?
Then we’re back to our good friend “hold on.” Is the bard singing that? It would at least explain why it appeared so often in her dream. Altogether, this is a real confusing way to stick in some exposition.
“What did he do to me? What happened? What did he… do to me?”
“The knight… The black knight with feathers on his helmet… I can’t remember anything. He shouted… and looked at me. I can’t remember what happened. Only that I was frightened… I was so frightened…”
Look folks, I know dialogue tags aren’t real popular, but when choosing between them and having your characters speak each other’s names all the time for no reason, choose the tags. It’s okay; a few tags won’t hurt you.
So that dream was a memory? That at least makes it a little more relevant to the story. And now we have a little mystery about what happened to Ciri.
The man leaned over her, the flame of the campfire sparkling in his eyes. They were strange eyes. Very strange. Ciri had been frightened of them, she hadn’t liked meeting his gaze. But that had been a long time ago. A very long time ago.
His eyes are strange? Horses are “decked out in flowing black caparisons, flying over the barricades like spectres” and the woods have “crowns of the surrounding pine trees rustling steadily and melodiously, their limbs and trunks creaking in the wind,” but the main character’s eyes are just strange?
Sapkowski even tells us they’re frightening while refusing to describe why. This has to be on purpose. My best guess is that Sapkowski wants Geralt to be mysterious and thinks that this will somehow accomplish that. It’s either that or he just hates describing people.
Occasionally, writers want their main characters to be mysterious – usually as a form of candy. This is generally a bad idea. The main character’s purpose is to get the audience emotionally invested in the story, and making them mysterious lowers that investment. However, since we’re in Ciri’s viewpoint, it’s hard to say thus far whether Geralt is functioning as the main character. If she’s older than she is in the show, he could be a mysterious love interest.
Either way, not providing a description of him when the point-of-view character is looking straight at him is disingenuous and adds confusion instead of building atmosphere.
“I can’t remember anything,” she whispered, searching for his hand, as tough and coarse as raw wood. “The black knight—”
“It was a dream. Sleep peacefully. It won’t come back.”
Wait – was this a dream or a memory appearing in her dreams? Before, when Ciri was asking what the black knight did to her, that seemed like a pretty serious question. “It was a dream” is not an answer if it really happened, but if it didn’t, why is she asking? Does she really need to be told that dreams aren’t real? Going back to the perhaps imaginary music – she said the princess was dead. Does she not know she’s the princess? Or like the bard’s lyrics, was it supposed to be other people speaking about how the princess was dead?
Ciri hearing things via magic could be fun and mysterious. Ciri having meaningful dreams could be fun and mysterious. Ciri not remembering her past could be fun and mysterious. This is confusing.
Consider Saying It Just Once Per Paragraph
Ciri had heard such reassurances in the past. They had been repeated to her endlessly; many, many times she had been offered comforting words when her screams had woken her during the night. But this time it was different. Now she believed it. Because it was Geralt of Rivia, the White Wolf, the Witcher, who said it. The man who was her destiny. The one for whom she was destined. Geralt the Witcher, who had found her surrounded by war, death and despair, who had taken her with him and promised they would never part.
She fell asleep holding tight to his hand.
So before, I thought maybe all that overdone stuff about destiny was the bard embellishing things. But nope, this sequence about Geralt of Rivia, the White Wolf, the Witcher, is how Sapkowski wants it. It is his destiny. The narration for which he is destined. It’s funny how often purple prose involves redundant phrasing. If we only say it once, it’s not a big enough deal!!!
I enjoyed a lot of the description in this opening, but overall the narration is too embellished. If you trying to make every small thing into a big deal, the story starts to feel belabored and melodramatic.
Sapkowski is eager to tell us about meaningless blood, gore, fire, and death while the important parts of the story are shoved off to the side. Interesting or nuanced characterization is neglected in favor of simple dramatic statements or rants about destiny. The narration is pretty, but it demands the audience work to figure out basic things the storyteller should just tell them, as though being obtuse is clever.
In other words, it’s exactly like the show.
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