I’ve never read Christopher Paolini’s Eragon before now, but I’ve heard it compared to both Star Wars and Harry Potter. I know I can expect a young male chosen one and (obviously) the dragon on the cover. Perhaps a dragon named Eragon, as that’s just “dragon” with a letter swapped out?
Since Paolini was a teenager when he wrote this book, he has a solid excuse for poor writing. In fact, he’s probably ahead of the curve for his age. But that doesn’t make his work immune to critique. Someone decided to publish this, and lots of people paid money for it. Then they made a movie out it. Sure, it’s for a young audience, but don’t young adults deserve strong writing too?
Let’s get into it.
Opening and… a prologue! We have a prologue. Sorry, the story will have to wait. This prologue is sitting here before chapter one, so clearly we need to read it.
Wind howled through the night, carrying a scent that would change the world.
A scent will change the world by itself? Please tell me everyone in this world spends the next month gagging on horrid fumes, until they gather and go on a great quest to find and destroy the source of their smelly doom! I want to read that. I suspect this book will disappoint me.
Use Omniscience Wisely
A tall Shade lifted his head and sniffed the air. He looked human except for his crimson hair and maroon eyes.
It’s the ultimate in youthful worldbuilding; every race gets their own hair color and eye color! Unfortunately, describing someone with only hair and eye color is both unimaginative and ineffective. I don’t know if he’s young, old, thin, thick, upright, bent… so I can’t picture him. Also, since his hair and eyes are red, I can’t help wondering why he’s called a “Shade.” I keep imagining his skin as dark gray, even though the text says otherwise.
Paolini also needs a more graceful way to work in description than opening a sentence with “He looked…” If we were seeing the Shade from the viewpoint of another character, it would at least make sense. Here we have to ask: he looked human to whom? There is no character observing this, so that puts it in omniscient, rather than limited, perspective. Here’s what omniscient narration should sound like:
His appearance was almost human, leading many travelers to drop their guard and approach peacefully. Only when they stood within an arm’s length did they see the maroon eyes and crimson hair hiding under his hood. By then it was too late to run.
Limited perspective provides a closer connection to the viewpoint character. Omniscient perspective sacrifices that closeness for greater freedom and flexibility. With that flexibility, there’s no excuse to stuff observations awkwardly into your narrative. Give those observations some voice and breathing room; let them add personality to your work. If you’re not going to do that, don’t give up the advantages of limited perspective. Stick to what characters are actually observing in the moment.
There Is Such a Thing As Too Brief… and Silly
He blinked in surprise. The message had been correct: they were here. Or was it a trap? He weighed the odds, then said icily, “Spread out; hide behind trees and bushes. Stop whoever is coming… or die.”
Hahaha. I will now add “… or die” to every direction I give someone ever. Between that and how he says things “icily,” we know that this is a ridiculous villain. This was also the moment I noticed the prologue was titled SHADE OF FEAR.
These first two paragraphs are too brief. They should slow down a little and provide more context… or die. You’ll hear lots of advice to trim your work and watch your exposition; that’s because most writers are too long-winded. It doesn’t mean you can’t be too brief or use too little exposition. This is a complex situation stuffed into a tiny space: the Shade has received a message that told him someone would be here, he came even though he didn’t believe it, smelled that someone was indeed here but wasn’t sure it was the people he’s looking for, weighed the risk of sticking around, and then commanded his troops into ambush formation.
Who is he seeking and why? We’re already in his head, so we should know. If he needs to remain mysterious, we should witness only his commands, not his thoughts. Knowing his goals won’t slow the scene, either. In fact, it would provide a stronger plot hook, because readers would have a better understanding of what’s at stake.
Around him shuffled twelve Urgals… they resembled men with bowed legs and thick, brutish arms made for crushing. … The monsters hurried into the brush, grunting as they hid.
Naturally there’s a race of inferior sentient beings that the protagonists don’t have to feel guilty about slaughtering. Forget Star Wars and Harry Potter, this is clearly another Lord of the Rings knockoff.
Replace Generic Description With Specific Details
The Shade peered around a thick tree and looked up the trail. It was too dark for any human to see, but for him the faint moonlight was like sunshine streaming between the trees; every detail was clear and sharp to his searching gaze.
I like the moonlight to sunshine simile here, because it provides a nice visual. Even so, Paolini is consistently doing too much telling and too little showing. Here’s how he might have shown more:
…for him the faint moonlight was like sunshine streaming between the trees. His gaze surveyed the forest and found crickets singing in the grass, owls hiding in the branches, and the stems his party had trampled as they came down the hillside.
“Every detail” has been replaced by specific imagery. It’s more engaging, and it feels more real than simply saying he can see clearly.
They wait longer in the woods, and…
The Shade hissed in anger, and the Urgals shrank back, motionless. He suppressed his distaste–they smelled like fetid meat–and turned away. They were tools, nothing more.
“The Shade hissed” communicates his anger effectively, Paolini doesn’t need to say “in anger.” Once you show, telling is redundant.
Then we have a reminder that the Urgals are worthless and the Shade is evil. Very good, let’s move on please.
They wait in the woods again. Despite the rushed beginning, it’s becoming tedious. When time passes in your story, you don’t need to stuff several paragraphs of nothing happening in there. Just include one paragraph describing how the moon rises on the horizon or the protagonists grow hungry and tired.
The smell was stronger this time. Excited, he lifted a thin lip in a snarl.
The emotional expression also needs work. Unlike his angry hiss, we wouldn’t know he was excited, because this body language communicates anger. Even with the label, it still comes off as more angry than excited. Paolini should have dropped “excitement” and added body language associated with excitement. He could also include thoughts about how the Shade can’t wait to sink his teeth into whoever’s approaching.
Last, “in a snarl” isn’t effective phrasing. A character’s action has been dimmed into a noun rather than a verb. On rare occasions you may want to de-emphasize actions this way, but I doubt that’s what Paolini wanted here. It is more powerful phrased as: “He lifted a thin lip and snarled.”
Know What Words Mean
“Get ready,” he whispered, his whole body vibrating.
Woah there,”vibrating” is not the word you want. Quivering, shaking, and shivering are used to describe human motions. While Paolini was perhaps too young, anyone who pleases the ladies should know what connotation “vibrate” has.
Put Thought Into Your Narration
Ahead of them, the Shade heard a clink as something hard struck a loose stone. Faint smudges emerged from the darkness and advanced down the trail.
Three white horses with riders cantered toward the ambush, their heads held high and proud, their coats rippling in the moonlight like liquid silver.
The good guys have arrived! But we’ve established the darkness looks like daylight to the Shade. If they are emerging from it, it should be from a longer distance than the hearing range of a loose stone.
The first time I read the second part of this clip, I thought the heads held high and rippling coats belonged to the riders. Now I realize it’s the horses. This is a little odd, it suggests the riders are of secondary importance. Maybe these are super magical horses?
Redundancy Is Still Redundant the Third Time
On the first horse was an elf with pointed ears and elegantly slanted eyebrows. His build was slim but strong, like a rapier. A powerful bow was slung on his back. A sword pressed against his side opposite a quiver of arrows fletched with swan feathers.
The last rider had the same fair face and angled features as the other. He carried a long spear in his right hand and a white dagger at his belt. A helm of extraordinary craftsmanship, wrought with amber and gold, rested on his head.
Between these two rode a raven-haired elven lady, who surveyed her surroundings with poise. Framed by long black locks, her deep eyes shone with a driving force. Her clothes were unadorned, yet her beauty was undiminished.
Why hello, Arwen.
So here we have the first rider who’s an elf, the last rider who is also an elf, and the middle rider who is once again an elf. Why not just say they’re all elves? That’s not the only redundancy, either. A modern fantasy audience knows what elves are, so you don’t have to both name them as elves and describe what an elf looks like. Faux Arwen is described as a raven-haired elf with black locks.
Aside from Arwen, we have description that is focused more on weapons than characterization. That’s not surprising, since they are riding into a fight scene. However, it’s really strange that the helm is described in such depth, but no other armor is mentioned. I’m left with the impression that this overwrought helm is the only armor they have. Perhaps the emphasis on the helm is foreshadowing or something.
At her side was a sword, and on her back a long bow with a quiver. She carried in her lap a pouch that she frequently looked at, as if to reassure herself that it was still there.
We have a McGuffin! Paolini wouldn’t need to describe it here if he had just told us the Shade was looking for it. But since he didn’t, here we have a random pouch of strange importance.
Arwen is… frequently looking at the pouch right now? Or has she been doing that in general during this trip? Since she “surveyed her surroundings with poise,” I’ll go with the latter.
This is a tense moment; they are riding into an ambush. The rest of the description covers what exists in this instant, not what these characters do in general, and for good reason. For instance, if you said, “The dwarf held his axe high as he charged the oncoming orcs. He had practiced this ferocious pose over his many years of battle training,” you would be breaking the tension by leaving the moment.
And of course, Paolini is continuing to explain every time he shows:
- He blinked <– That means he’s surprised!
- The Shade hissed <– in anger! Anger right there!
- He lifted a thin lip in a snarl <– that’s excitement, not anger, I swear it!
- Wrought with amber and gold <– extraordinary craftsmanship!
- She carried in her lap a pouch that she frequently looked at <– Psst, she’s looking at it a lot because she’s worried it will be stolen!
In these situations, make sure the showing details are strong enough to stand on their own, and then remove the labels… or die.
Draw Some Diagrams or Something
They passed the Shade’s hiding place and the first few Urgals without suspicion.
The Shade was already savoring his victory when the wind changed direction and swept toward the elves, heavy with the Urgals’ stench. The horses snorted with alarm and tossed their heads. The riders stiffened, eyes flashing from side to side, then wheeled their mounts around and galloped away.
The elves have “galloped away,” so I guess that’s the end of this conflict.
I looked up several youtube videos of horses cantering, and it confirmed my impression that while it isn’t full speed, a cantering horse isn’t slow. Somehow the elves pass just a couple Urgals – who patiently wait to strike at the elves until their kind master orders them to – before the wind changes, and then manage to stop and turn their mounts, then speed up into a gallop, before they are attacked. Looking ahead, Paolini states there are only a dozen Urgals. Maybe they’re really spread out?
I’m still trying to figure out how eyes can flash from side to side. I think Paolini meant the elves were looking or gazing from side to side.
The lady’s horse surged forward, leaving her guards far behind.
This line was disorienting. First the elves gallop “away,” then her horse surges “forward.” I think away and forward are supposed to be the same direction, even though the riders have turned around and are going back the way they came.
Made-Up Words Make Magic Sound Silly
The Shade jumped out from behind the tree, raised his right hand, and shouted, “Garjzla!”
That is some comical spellcasting. Don’t make up silly words when you don’t need to. The Shade could have “shouted in a harsh tongue” instead.
A red bolt flashed from his palm toward the elven lady, illuminating the trees with a bloody light. It struck her steed, and the horse toppled with a high-pitched squeal, plowing into the ground chest-first. She leapt off the animal with inhuman speed, landed lightly, then glanced back for her guards.
The Urgals’ deadly arrows quickly brought down the two elves. They fell from the noble horses, blood pooling in the dirt. As the Urgals rushed to the slain elves, the Shade screamed, “After her!”
Wait, after describing every piece of weaponry those two elves had on their bodies, now they’re dead before they had a chance to use them? And what was up with that helm? I guess it’s purpose is to be found on his dead body or something. This only confirms my suspicion that the horses are the actual main characters.
Again, Know What Words Mean
A cry tore from the elf’s lips as she saw her dead companions. She took a step toward them, then cursed her enemies and bounded into the forest.
Haha, Arwen’s bounding like a lil bunny rabbit! Bounding implies a bouncing motion, it’s used to describe how four-legged animals run. Humanoids don’t “bound” unless they are jumping between specific points – like stones in a river. I think Paolini is relying too much on his thesaurus.
Don’t Invent Things That Break Your Plot
While the Urgals crashed through the trees, the Shade climbed a piece of granite that jutted above them. From his perch he could see all of the surrounding forest.
Where did this big piece of granite come from? If it was there before, why wasn’t he using it to spot the riders before the ambush?
He raised his hand and uttered, “Istalri boetk!” and a quarter-mile section of the forest exploded into flames.
Holy crap! Why didn’t he just get on his granite perch, explode the elves and their horses, and take the McGuffin from the ashes? Or if the McGuffin is too flammable, a quarter mile of flame would still have helped his ambush plans.
Grimly he burned one section after another until there was a ring of fire, a half-league across, around the ambush site. The flames looked like a molten crown resting on the forest.
So… he can keep doing that? I’m sure questions about why he doesn’t just explode things will never come up in the story ever again.
Don’t Let Important Things Happen Off Screen
Suddenly, the Shade heard shouts and a coarse scream. Through the trees he saw three of his charges fall in a pile, mortally wounded. He caught a glimpse of the elf running from the remaining Urgals.
I know the Shade has good vision, but can he really tell through the trees at a distance that the wounds are mortal, specifically? And how did they come to fall in a pile? Paolini should have shown a few blows rather than telling us the results. Perhaps Arwen skewered three at once, like a shish kabob.
She fled toward the craggy piece of granite at a tremendous speed.
Wait, what? Wasn’t she running in the other direction? It does make sense that she would turn around, ring of fire and all, but we should have seen it happening. This is especially true since she had a bunch of Urgals running after her. She could have been trapped between the flames and her pursuers. It’s convenient that she’s heading straight for the Shade.
Also, “tremendous speed”… she’s still on foot, right?
Awkward Foreshadowing Is Awkward
Black Urgal blood dripped from her sword, staining the pouch in her hand.
Is Arwen carrying her sword and the pouch in the same hand? Otherwise, is she waving the sword over the pouch or something? Of course, this is just an excuse to remind us she has the McGuffin, which isn’t a bad idea.* But Paolini should have just said something to the effect of “she clutched the pouch against her side,” etc. This isn’t subtle, just awkward. If you actually need to hide some foreshadowing, you have to disguise it as something else, not just put it in there and hope no one notices.
In addition, readers gain nothing by keeping this thing a surprise. At this point in the story, some magic item or other won’t mean anything to them.
Use Powerful and Meaningful Language
The horned monsters came out of the forest and hemmed her in, blocking the only escape routes…
As the Urgals surged forward, the elf pulled open the pouch, reached into it, and then let it drop to the ground. In her hands was a large sapphire stone that reflected the angry light of the fires. She raised it over her head, lips forming frantic words. Desperate, the Shade barked, “Garjzla!”
Why lookie here, Paolini does know how to narrate spellcasting without making up silly words. He just chooses not to. Also, put that Shade dialogue in a new paragraph where it belongs… or die.
We also have a couple phrases that have been weakened by making them secondary to the action. For instance, instead of “As the Urgals surged forward, the…” Paolini should have put “The Urgals surged forward. The…” Anything that happens while the main action occurs should be something you want to de-emphasize.
Villains Need to Be Effective
A ball of red flame sprang from his hand and flew toward the elf, fast as an arrow. But he was too late. A flash of emerald light briefly illuminated the forest, and the stone vanished. Then the red fire smote her and she collapsed.
The Shade hollered in rage… He shot nine bolts of energy from his palm–which killed the Urgals instantly…
The Shade can casually shoot energy bolts from his palm that kill people. Why did he need the Urgals again? Besides simply making his enemies and everything around them explode in fire, he could have just shot energy bolts at them and taken the stone.
I get that the Shade is the Big Bad,* and so he’s supposed to be both evil and powerful, but this is an unsustainable situation. Remember that Sauron doesn’t appear in person during the Lord of the Rings, because if he did, he would squash the heroes. He’s still threatening because readers have only heard intimidating rumors about him; they haven’t seen him in action. The Shade doesn’t have Sauron’s aura of mystery, and he doesn’t have a good reason not to kill the good guys. It’s only the prologue, and he’s already suffering from Team Rocket Syndrome by pretending he doesn’t have amazing powers.
And even with exploding fire and bolts of energy, he isn’t intimidating. The entire point of a prologue like this one is to set up the threat of the story. How does watching him lose do that? Paolini would have done better by showing The Shade succeed at a smaller goal, and then cackle about how he will soon have the stone or something. That is, assuming he bothers to explain what the stone can do, so we know what the stakes are.
Miraculously, Arwen is still alive. Apparently the big red fire that downed her horse was just a sleep spell. The prologue ends with the Shade grabbing his horse out of no where and taking her as his damsel. I imagine it will be up to the chosen one to rescue her – but why should readers care? To make your opening effective, you’ll need to demonstrate why the conflict matters… or die.
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