Book Review: Red Rising by Pierce Brown

If you’ve ever wondered what the love-child of Ender’s Game, Game of Thrones, and The Hunger Games would look like. . . Check out Red Rising. Ender’s Game was fun partly because of the protagonist and his talent for out-thinking his opponents in satisfying and surprising ways. Game of Thrones keeps the reader guessing with political intrigue, betrayals, plotting, and deep characters. The Hunger Games was largely satisfying because of its can’t-miss premise; throw kids into a televised arena where only one is supposed to leave? It would be hard not to make that interesting. Believe it or not, Red Rising does all of the above and more.

Here is the book’s blurb:

“Darrow is a Red, a member of the lowest caste in the color-coded society of the future. Like his fellow Reds, he works all day, believing that he and his people are making the surface of Mars livable for future generations. Yet he spends his life willingly, knowing that his blood and sweat will one day result in a better world for his children.

But Darrow and his kind have been betrayed. Soon he discovers that humanity reached the surface generations ago. Vast cities and lush wilds spread across the planet. Darrow—and Reds like him—are nothing more than slaves to a decadent ruling class.

Inspired by a longing for justice, and driven by the memory of lost love, Darrow sacrifices everything to infiltrate the legendary Institute, a proving ground for the dominant Gold caste, where the next generation of humanity’s overlords struggle for power.  He will be forced to compete for his life and the very future of civilization against the best and most brutal of Society’s ruling class. There, he will stop at nothing to bring down his enemies . . . even if it means he has to become one of them to do so.”

I can’t go any further into the actual events of the story without spoiling many of the satisfying twists and turns, but suffice it to say that the scope of the story is enormous and within 100 pages I found myself happily shocked at just how many unexpected turns it had taken. I was initially charmed by the characters and the Irish undertones to the red culture. This didn’t fade, but the movement of the story’s plot kicked into top gear and never lets up.

What’s Done Well? 

This trilogy has two stand-out points. The first is character. The protagonist, Darrow, begins the story flawed but he is incredibly proactive. He always has a plan of action, even if he harbors doubts or is making the wrong decision. Pierce Brown will sometimes hold the details of the plan from readers, even though the story is written in first-person; the result is watching Darrow enter into situations that seem doomed but knowing that Darrow must have something up his sleeve. His gambits don’t always work, either. At times, Darrow will fail. At other times, his success comes with heavier prices than he guessed. Even if the plot wasn’t as strong as it is, watching the growth of this character alongside an equally deep secondary cast would be enough. But as I said before, the plot is done incredibly well too.

I think my ability to guess what was coming throughout the trilogy was about one right guess for every ten. This is where the story brings to mind moments from Game of Thrones for me. Previously, Game of Thrones was one of the few books that made scheming so interesting. I have seen dozens of books try their hand at politics and intrigue, but most authors tend to create shallow imitations. Often, one or two characters are cast as the obvious wolf in sheep’s clothing or the political choices are distant and unimportant to the actual events of the story. Red Rising is like Game of Thrones without the snail pace. You get the same surprises, ambiguous but real characters who regularly reveal that they have interests and plans of their own, and morally testing decisions that directly impact the story. Best of all, you get all of this behind a story that constantly moves and isn’t slowed by multiple perspectives or excessive details.

What’s Not Done Well?

I had very few complaints as I moved through the story. My only problem was the feeling at some moments that Darrow couldn’t do wrong. There’s a sense of progression where he begins as flawed and prone to making mistakes from anger or brashness. But beneath the growth, there did seem to be an almost unrealistic natural ability that sets him apart from every other character. He does fail at times or misjudge characters, but it felt like when the author needed to sort of “turn it on,” Darrow could become an unstoppable thinking and fighting machine. That’s not to say those moments weren’t satisfying, but I had a lingering feeling that those moments weren’t 100% believable.

I also had a gripe with one of the major plot points in the second book. For one, it felt predictable, which was an anomaly in the trilogy. Pierce Brown dropped hints about this point for almost the entire second book, and the predictability left me frustrated that Darrow, who is usually so clever, had failed to see it coming. Still, I think the result was fun enough to make me forgive the predictability.

My last nitpick was the reuse of a few words. I think Pierce Brown has a fixation with describing things as a “ruin” and using the word “rage” in about every way possible. He was rage. Rage consumed him. He saw rage. The rage knight. Even naming two different chapters “Rage”. But over a few thousand pages I can’t really hold it against him. I just started to notice it by the second book and let it bother me a little.

Final Thoughts

I loved Ender’s Game, The Hunger Games, and Game of Thrones, but I would recommend this book before any of them. I really felt that it didn’t just borrow some of the best parts of these books, it improved upon them. It had a wider scope and far more character depth than Ender’s Game. It also didn’t rely on a huge twist for memorability. It’s only real connection to The Hunger Games is the can’t miss plot, which would be compelling even if it was executed half as well. And it takes all the realism and grittiness of Game of Thrones along with the twists and turns but manages to convey it from a single perspective and at a much faster pace.

Basically, you need to read this trilogy. I have some Amazon links below, so if you enjoyed the review and want to support the site, please use those links! Also, there is a movie being made by the director who directed World War Z in collaboration with Pierce Brown. So make sure you read this before the movie is a huge success so you can be that guy who says the book was better.

 

 

 

If Your Story Is Missing This, It’s Not Complete

It’s easy to get caught up in writing advice. You’ve probably read quotes from authors romanticizing the process by saying things like “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Is that going to change your story? Is it going to be the single piece of information that turns you into a best-selling author? Probably not. Most big name authors don’t like to talk about story structure. That’s because a lot of them have felt their way toward the correct structure through trial and error, talent, or persistence. What if I told you that you can skip the process and jump straight to the information that even most of the pros don’t know they are relying on? You can. It’s out there for you to grab. In fact, a quarter of it is right in this article.

So what is this thing I speak of that no story can live without? It’s a first plot point. If your story does not have a first plot point, it will not succeed.

If your first impulse to hearing the word “structure” is to cringe and throw your ink-well and quill across the room, just take a deep breath and hear me out. Structure scares many writers because they see it as a threat to their creativity. But structure is the backbone of your creativity. At least, it needs to be if you want to have your work read (and that’s what it’s all about at the end of the day). It’s the secret to successful If you were an architect and wanted to build a beautiful cathedral, you would need several types of knowledge and creativity. You might need the talent to carve intricate stonework, put together stained glass windows, and choose furnishings that enhance the atmosphere. All of that is great, but if you don’t know anything about basic engineering, you’ll at best build a shaky cathedral that might collapse at any moment, and at worst have a pile of beautiful artwork sitting atop a misshapen mass of stones and rubble.

Going into a story with the belief that your talent and love of storytelling is enough is no different. When done well, structure is invisible. That means the reader will only notice your characters, your concept, your voice, your theme, and your plot. Using accepted structure in no way compromises yourself as a writer.

Can I address every element of structure in one blog post? Technically yes, because this post could be as long as I want it to be. But for the sake of clarity, no. So for today, I’m going to focus on the first and most critical element of structure. It may not be pretty, and it may not be fun to think about, but it is absolutely essential that you understand the basics of structure if you want to be a storyteller.

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The First Plot Point

Regardless of what genre you’re writing in or what your style is as an author, there’s a critical point in your novel where you must place a specific moment: that moment is the first plot point. according to Larry Brooks (who, by the way, is the wizard of all things structure and taught me everything I know), the ideal placement of the first plot point is between 20 to 25% of the way through your story. You can read books all day and watch every movie there is without consciously realizing the need for a first plot point, but once you see it, you’ll notice it every time. If you’re a reader, you learned a long time ago that it’s unwise to give up on books before about the 60-70 page mark. Ever wondered why? It’s because the first plot point makes or breaks a book. 

I’ll get into more detail on the first plot point at the end of this article, but it’s not a solo act. A successful first plot point requires preparation.

Getting There Smoothly

If you don’t want readers to feel like they have to suffer through the first 20-25% of your book, don’t worry. There are structural tools to help liven up part one. If you’re an unknown name, you can’t expect readers to trust that you know what you’re doing and slog through the first 25% of your book without any reward. So get to know the tools at your disposal and use them well.

The first tool is a hook. There are several ways to hook readers, but many writers are surprisingly bad at identifying them. Here’s something many writers hate to hear: your voice as a writer is not going to hook a reader. You may grab some initial interest with your writing voice, but just like the most delicious pesto sauce imaginable, it can’t be served alone. So how do you write a good hook then?

Show the reader something that raises a question—and make sure they want the answer. For example, a man might kiss his daughters goodnight and appear to be the model father in all ways imaginable. But he might then go down into the basement where he has a woman bound and gagged. This raises questions. If he loves his daughters, as he appears to, why is he risking their safety? Why is he risking his freedom? Why is he doing this in his house? Is he only pretending to love his daughters, and if so, why? I could go on, but you get the idea. In simple terms, the more questions you can raise that compel readers to demand answers, the better.

There’s often a fine balance at play in the first pages of your book. If you rush through the necessary build-up, readers will not be invested enough in your character or world to care when the story kicks off. If you wait too long, they will have given up before they reach it. You must create conflict, build character, establish your world, introduce the character’s inner demons, foreshadow the events to come, and maybe introduce a portion of the supporting cast. Not always, but often, a story that begins more slowly packs the biggest punch when it kicks off. Usually that’s because the more of this information that gets packed in before the first plot point, the more compelling it becomes, and including all of this information can slow down the pace.

Inciting Incidents

So your hook is over, and it has probably only been about 7 to 20 pages. You still have around 50 to 60 pages to go until the first plot point. It’s often not enough to just coast your way to the first plot point. There’s a fine balance at play in the first pages. If you rush through the necessary build-up, readers will not be invested enough in your character or world to care when the story kicks off. If you wait too long, they will have given up before they reach it. The safer option is to use inciting incidents, or moments that foreshadow and or lead toward the first plot point. The first plot point in Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone is his trip to and arrival at Hogwarts. You may want to argue that it’s when he goes down to get the sorcerer’s stone with Hagrid or when he finds out what Hagrid was actually doing for Dumbledore, and it’s worth side-tracking for a minute to clarify why that’s not the case. Remember that:

  1. The first plot point redefines the hero’s goal or begins them on the path toward the ultimate conclusion of the story.
  2. It occurs between 20 and 25% of the way through the book.

So the Hogwarts Express fits first of all because of it’s location—right at 25% of the way through the book if you don’t count chapter one (and you shouldn’t, because it’s essentially a prologue). Beyond that, his boarding of the train is highly representative of his new mission. Harry’s goal for a while is just to keep his head down and survive. But through the first 25% of the book, he gradually and then rapidly realizes there’s another option. It’s only when he boards the Hogwarts Express that he can really be considered to set out on his journey to be a wizard.

So what is an inciting incident? To put it simply, it’s a moment that hints at the first plot point to come and/or the antagonistic force in your story. Think of these as your doses of excitement. This is how you inject energy and interest into your story while you work your way to the all-important first plot point. If you were writing a thriller where a girl is stalked by an ex-boyfriend, you might have her in the middle of a seemingly normal conversation when she notices a man wearing a hoodie watching her. Maybe he gets up and leaves when she makes eye-contact. That’s it. It takes a few lines, she notices, reacts briefly, and the story marches on. But what you’ve done is charged your story with more tension. You’ve also made sure the first plot point will be even more satisfying when it comes. Do this often!

The First Plot Point

Yes, it’s finally here. Or if you skimmed to this point, here it is. . . immediately. The first plot point! As I said earlier, this is the point where your real story launches. Your character and readers may have thought they knew what the story was, and maybe they were close, but this is the point when it really kicks into gear. If it was a love story, this is the point when the girl realizes her boyfriend is losing interest. If it’s a murder mystery, this is when the detective realizes the latest victim is his daughter. If it’s a crime-thriller, it’s when the duo slips up and has to start running from the cops. If you aren’t gathering it from my examples, it can be highly dramatic (like Neo taking the red pill in The Matrix) and waking up in a vat of goo, or it can be subtle but powerful, like in The Hunger Games when Katniss kisses Peeta on the cheek, essentially agreeing to play the game within the game, which defines her goal and the story from that point forward.

In The Matrix, you might have thought the story was going to be about fighting these “agents” and trying to kill them, but you weren’t really sure. When Neo takes the red pill, suddenly it becomes clear. The stakes are bigger. It isn’t just about one person fighting some agents, it’s all of humanity fighting for survival. That’s a big shift. In The Hunger Games you might have thought Katniss saying the famous line, “I volunteer as tribute!” was the first plot point. For starters though, it occurs way too early in the story for that. It’s more of a delayed hook and an inciting incident. You might have thought it was when the games began, but the games aren’t the real story. The real story is Katniss’ relationship with Peeta. Her alliance with him occurs right at the precise moment it should, and signifies a huge shift in purpose from that moment and onward. The games are an excellent backdrop that are interesting enough in their own right. They could have worked as a story by themselves, which is likely part of the reason the series was so wildly popular.

Final Thoughts

Structure is essential. It’s the figurative foundation upon which you build your story. Neglect the formula, and your foundation will be weak. But the formula is out there, so why waste your effort trying to figure it out on your own? If you don’t believe me, go look at any successful book. You’ll find all of these elements lined neatly where they should be, give or take a few pages, especially among new published authors.

 

If you found this information useful, check out my article on Larry Brooks’: Story Engineering. His book is so helpful that it honestly feels like cheating.

 

 

The Hands Down Best Book On Writing I’ve Read

I spent four years in college learning about writing and many more years reading everything there is about it. In all that time, I’ve been frustrated by the same thing: many writers are very bad at explaining why they are successful. The best comparison I can think of is the high school math teacher who is a genius when it comes to math. He gets in front of class and zips through the problem. Because most of the process was intuitive to him, he doesn’t know what parts are difficult, where to slow down, and where to explain things in more than one way. And like the math genius, many writers who have found success have done so through brute force determination or a natural intuition for good storytelling. The end result is that they don’t even quite know why their stories work.

So my frustration has been gathering bits and pieces from gurus, none of whom seem to have a complete and no-nonsense guide to good storytelling. That brings me to my second frustration. Writers love to hear themselves talk. We can’t just say, “Do it like this.” I’m even doing it now to an extent. I feel the need to wrap a simple idea in metaphor and context. But my point is that so many writers get wrapped up in how they explain the writing process that they forget to say anything worthwhile.

Despite having read almost all the books on writing out there, I never gained more then a momentary sense of inspiration. Sometimes I felt that I was gaining fragments on the real answer, but never the whole thing. Eventually I decided the only way to find the answer to the secret formula would be to meticulously pour through book after book, noting similarities—pulling them apart to find out what made them tick. But no writing guides out there wanted to make it simple. No one wanted to strip away all the fluff and get to the core of it. At least I thought so until a few days ago.

Before I go any further, for the sake of full disclosure, I want to point out that this this is an Amazon Associates link. If you plan to buy the book after reading my synopsis, you can use the link to jump straight to it on Amazon. It’s the same price and product, but using this link supports me and my site. Anyway, enough side-tracking. Let me explain why this book succeeded where so many others have failed.

Read This Book!

(If you run adblock you won’t see the link here to Larry Brooks: Story Engineering)

Brooks makes the bold claim that if you try to publish a book without including (and executing them professionally) any of the six core competencies, you will not be published. He says that every good book needs concept, character, theme, structure, scene execution, and writing voice. Maybe you’re saying, “yeah, nothing new.” On the surface, no. But Brooks breaks down each concept into simple, easy to understand parts. By the time you’ve finished reading, you’ll feel as though old hags had been trying to explain writing to you in riddles all your life until Brooks popped out of a coffee shop and said, “What’s all that mumbo-jumbo? You just put this here, and that there. . .”

Seriously. You’ll feel like someone handed you an instruction manual on how to build a table instead of a haiku about counting the wood grains and trying to become the screws.

Brooks even goes as far as breaking down a rough approximation of what page certain milestones typically should occur (and if you’re waving your old-school ink pen or knocking over your typewriter in rage at the idea of writing being put in some sort of box, he does an excellent job of explaining why his process is liberating rather than constricting).

Final Thoughts

Perhaps the most convincing reason to pick up his book is what it has done for me in just a few days. Like probably half of my readers, I have always considered myself a pretty good writer. Sure, I have some rough edges and things to work on, but at the end of the day I thought I had gained a good grasp of storytelling and all of its intricacies. After all, it has been a huge part of my life for years now. Yet. . . My precious little ego bubble was rudely popped a few pages into Larry’s book. Granted, it was a sort of happy pop. Maybe like a water balloon on a hot day.

But as soon as I finished reading, I felt a new kind of confidence. Instead of a vague sense of promise and potential, I felt as though I actually had a mold to pour my effort into—an assurance that if I was capable of building my story on the blueprint Larry outlined, I would be successful. It’s also worth noting that my confidence didn’t come from his promises, but from the strength and logic of his points. There’s a resonant rightness to what he says, and if your own brain didn’t already tell you he was speaking a truth, he brings examples from other bestsellers to back up his points.

If you do anything for yourself this week, make it buying and reading this book. I apologize in advance for all the editing this book will make you realize you need to do on your current project.