Writing Autopsy – Eragon’s Prologue

I really enjoyed Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle growing up. But it has its flaws – especially the first one, Eragon. The series is fun when you don’t obsessively nitpick, and I couldn’t have done better when I was 15. But looking back, there’s a lot to learn about writing from dissecting some mistakes.

So, here are a few lessons from Eragon’s prologue (read here).

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Prologue: Shade of Fear

I’m not sure this needs to be a prologue, but I am sure that if you’re naming your chapters you don’t want them sounding like something from My Immortal.

Wind howled through the night, carrying a scent that would change the world.

A scent? This is a strange emphasis. It’s not this encounter that changes the world, something a character does, but a smell on the wind. Careful where you suggest agency and significance.

A tall Shade lifted his head and sniffed the air. He looked human except for his crimson hair and maroon eyes.

I err on the side of simple physical description myself, but introduce a monster with more than ‘tall’ and hair and eye colour.

He blinked in surprise. The message had been correct […]
hissed in anger […]
Excited, he lifted a thin lip in a snarl. […]
howled in rage and stalked forward, flinging his sword at a tree.

When showing emotions, it shouldn’t be necessary to also tell them. At least, what’s being told and shown shouldn’t conflict. Why is it surprising that the message was correct? People don’t snarl with excitement. Howling and throwing a sword indicates rage, but it also comes off more petulant than scary.

“Stop whoever is coming… or die.”

Ellipses in dialogue can be effective for showing a speaker trailing off or hesitant, or, as attempted here, giving the listener pause to register a threat. Pauses can be used to give the listener/reader time to embellish a vague hint for themselves. (‘Wouldn’t it be a shame if…’)

But the threat has to actually be threatening. I can’t imagine someone speaking this edgelord line. A pause doesn’t automatically add badass power.

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. […]

The Urgals could not see as well as the Shade; they groped like blind beggars

The simile is nice, but what details does he see? The bit with the Urgals is another case of ‘telling, then showing what was just told’. Don’t bog down good action with unnecessary explanation, or imply a description without giving one.

“Get ready,” he whispered, his whole body vibrating.

vibrating cat

Uh, choose verbs carefully.

Ahead of them, the Shade heard a clink as something hard struck a loose stone. Faint smudges emerged from the darkness and came down the trail.

This would be fine, but it’s inconsistent with the mentioned night-vision. Keep track of and visualise details – imagining what you would see doesn’t work if you’ve altered the character’s senses.

Three white horses with riders cantered toward the ambush, their heads held high and proud, their coats

Sentence structure makes it initially ambiguous whose heads are meant. Rephrase sentences so potentially conflicting subjects are distinct.

The Shade jumped out from behind the tree, raised his right hand, and shouted, “Garjzla!”

A red bolt flashed from his palm toward the elven lady

‘Alohamora’ and ‘wingardium leviosa’ sound right in a way ‘garjzla’ just doesn’t (but other words in these books do). Say made-up words aloud to test how they work. Reported speech is another option – ‘shouted a barbarous word’.

As the Urgals rushed to the slain elves, the Shade screamed, “After her! She is the one I want!”

That ‘as’ slows us down. It suggests the rushing takes time, and leads us to process the rushing and the screaming separately when they should be a simultaneous, rapid, chaotic moment. How about, ‘The Urgals rushed to the slain elves, the Shade screaming’?

She took a step toward them, then cursed her enemies and bounded into the forest.

Again, verb choice. Rabbits bound.

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 was this granite when the setting was introduced, and why wasn’t he hidden watching from here earlier? It feels like Paolini added this in at this point writing the scene, but didn’t account for it being there from the start.

When you introduce something, go back later remembering it’s there and see what should change.

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.

A good idea with more nice imagery. The simile might do better as a metaphor integrated into the earlier sentence, though: ‘ a ring of fire a half-league across around the ambush site, a molten crown resting on the forest.’

The description’s good, but this is still an action scene. ‘Looked like’ puts a filter between us and the scene. Sense-verbs like ‘looked’ or ‘heard’ are an easy way to introduce sights and sounds, but they can also limit immediacy.

Grimly he burned […]
The Shade examined the ground twenty feet below, then jumped and landed nimbly in front of her. […]
A flash of emerald light briefly illuminated

The jump is a neat touch. These adverbs don’t add much, though.

He’s Mr Evil, I don’t think he’s ever not grim, or would be made more grim by worrying about damaging forest habitats.

As for ‘nimbly’, I get the point, but what if he ‘landed in a fighting stance’, or ‘with sword ready’, or something more showy than telly? ‘Nimbly’ doesn’t paint a detailed picture, it just means he hasn’t twisted an ankle.

Flashes are inherently brief.

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It’s honestly not that bad – some people seem weirdly furious about Eragon, whatever, nobody’s forcing you to read it. However, there are definitely issues in this prologue that we can learn to avoid in our own writing.

Things to check on:

  • 3edgy5me
  • Unnecessary telling, weak showing.
  • Misleading prominence and agency.
  • Sentence structure, clear subject.
  • Does it work spoken aloud?
  • Verb choice.
  • Consistency.
  • Weak adverbs.
  • ‘The thing looked green’ vs ‘green thing’.
  • Fine detail of pacing and tense.

8 thoughts on “Writing Autopsy – Eragon’s Prologue

  1. Love this post! I read Eragon much too late to enjoy it for what it was- which is why I was pretty baffled by that first line 😉 A lot of this is just incredibly convoluted and overly descriptive (which is understandable given how young he was when he wrote this). haha I actually thought you’d put in the ellipsis to cut down the quote- that to me speaks volumes about how poor that punctuation is. Personally I don’t like that simile, because it’s not relevant to the world or the moment- I don’t like when imagery feels a bit random- beggars elicit sympathy- am I supposed to be feeling Urgals at this point? (as much as I’ll give it that the plosive alliteration is a nice effect) (also gosh, sorry, I’m super fussy!) But it does explain why I didn’t like this book. I mean, I didn’t have to wait long for another example of how random the description is- the verb “vibrating” (and later “bounded”) is yet another example! I wasn’t crazy about the made up language either- it didn’t feel like it had internal logic- it felt like words were picked at random out of a hat.

    I know I’ve been really critical here, but I did give it around 3* for entertainment value and don’t feel furious at it 😉 I will say that it’s accomplished for a fourteen year old… but I don’t like the writing style at all and looking at it on a micro level explains why.

    Liked by 1 person

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