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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

What I Learned About Writing From Eragon

I first read Eragon in about fifth grade.  I loved it, and ever since then, it's been one of my all-time favorite books.  It's been a huge inspiration for my own writing, as well as a gateway to all other books of its type.  I've read it so many times that I've lost count.  My copy is showing its use; it's well-loved. 

I learn from each book I read.  Every one of them.  Even so, some books have gone far beyond that.  Some books have taught me about writing without even trying.  Here's a list of what I learned about writing from Eragon (and Eldest, Brisingr, and Inheritance as well):
  • There will always be people who don't like your writing.  Eragon has its fair share of haters.  Maybe more than its fair share.  In fact, there even used to be an entire website dedicated to criticizing it.  And yet, it's still out there and has tons of fans.  Christopher Paolini didn't stop writing the series just because people didn't like his books.  He just kept going.  No matter how many people love your work, there will always be someone, somewhere, who hates it.  There's nothing you can do, and you can't let it stop you.
  • Everyone has to start somewhere.  Christopher Paolini started writing Eragon at age fifteen (the beginnings of the story were there when he was fourteen).  Just like the rest of us, he started out with just an idea and a need to write it down.  Now he's a New York Times bestselling author.  If he can do it, so can others.
  • When you daydream about your book becoming a movie...well, be careful what you wish for.  Sometimes we just don't talk about the Eragon movie.  For various reasons.  (One of them being: DAT VEST.  Another: "I suffer without my stone.  Do not prolong my suffering."  The movie does have some highlights, though, as seen in the GIFs throughout this post.)  When we say that we want a book to become a movie, what we really mean is "I want a nine-hour feature with a cast that looks and acts exactly how I imagined the characters and recreates every event and piece of dialogue exactly how it was in the book".  No matter how faithful a movie is to its book, there still will be some differences. 

Movie highlight #1: Garret Hedlund as Murtagh, which was FANTASTIC.

  • There's always a learning curve, and you can improve if you work for it.  The writing in Inheritance is noticeably stronger and more mature than the writing in Eragon.  The author was learning as he went, and you can see the progress (especially if you read them all back-to-back). 
  • It always helps if your parents own a publishing company.  Because that would totally never give anyone an advantage.  Nope.  Not at all.
  • All fictional characters are based off real people in some form or other.  It's public knowledge that some of the characters in Eragon (most famously, Angela) are heavily based off real people.  While most of us don't do it to this extent, every character we create is, in effect, based off people we know.  The people we know give us material in order to create our characters.  We notice the way they speak, act, and feel, and, consciously or not, we use this information to write our characters.
  • Everything is a trope.  Tropes don't mean your novel is unoriginal.  Tropes are the fabric of fiction.  A common criticism of Eragon is that it relies heavily on common "stock fantasy characters", like the Epic Hero, the Beautiful Princess, the Evil Overlord, the Wise Old Mentor, and so on.  While I'll agree that yes, Eragon does have an abundance of overused fantasy elements, that doesn't take away from my enjoyment of it.  Just because a book uses a familiar element doesn't mean it isn't original.  A trope is not the same thing as a cliché.  There really isn't any element of a story that isn't a trope, so therefore, every story is built of different combinations of these tropes.
    Movie highlight #2: This is epic, though I don't understand why Eragon isn't bursting into flames.  It looks cool, though, so I'll go with it.
  • You don't have to tie off every single loose thread.  One of the things I like about Inheritance is that it doesn't tell us what happens to every single character in the entire novel.  There are things left open-ended.  Some people hate that, but I like it.  If nothing else, it leaves room for sequels and spinoffs and such.  The book also doesn't explain everything, even at the end.  For example, Angela is a mysterious character throughout the entire series, and there's much we don't know about her.  Her backstory isn't revealed, though, leaving it up to interpretation and imagination.  The author could have told us her story, but he left us to make up our own minds about it. 
  • Even if you write yourself into a hole, there's always a way out.  Okay, sometimes the way out is deleting the last five chapters you wrote, but still.  It isn't real life, so it isn't set in stone.  And that means that no matter how weird a situation you've gotten your characters into, there's bound to be some way to pull them out of it.
  • Keep your story under control.  Learn how to rein it in.  If you think your story seems to be going on far longer than you intended, you might need to start regaining control.  Like, for example, if you feel your trilogy expanding into a four-book series.  Apparently some people can get away with that, but most of us aren't bestselling authors, and we can't.  So if it's getting too big, start cutting things down.

Movie highlight #3: One time Eragon made this face, and the fandom is still laughing.  And then this GIF happened.

  • All stories come from other stories.  Again, Eragon borrows heavily from other stories.  Mainly Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings.  While we shouldn't borrow from other stories to that extent, we can't help but borrow some aspects.  Like I said earlier, fiction in itself is not original.  There are basic stories that already exist.  What we do is build on them, combine them, and twist them to fit our purposes and create something unique.
  • The Big Bad Villain will be so much scarier if he has a human side.  Throughout much of the series, we don't even get to meet the antagonist.  And yet, he has a huge presence hovering over the entire novel.  We know he's scary even though he hasn't come into the story.  But when he does finally make an entrance, he makes you stop and think.  The way he talks, the things he says make so much sense.  Sometimes, you don't think he seems like a villain at all.  And yet you know he is.  This, in my opinion, is what makes him an awesome villain. 
  • Sometimes, you just have to pull the carpet out from under the reader.  (Eldest and Brisingr spoilers ahead.)   Remember that time when Paolini was all "Eragon, Morzan is your father!  Cue panic, cut to credits"?  And then when the next book came around, it was "JK LOL, Brom was actually your dad the entire time."  Sometimes you just have to pull a big surprise, and then make another big reveal that subverts it.  Because why not? 
  • Romantic relationships don't always go as planned in real life.  Why shouldn't fiction reflect this?  One of the things I appreciate about Inheritance is that Arya and Eragon don't end up together.  Eragon was in love with her the entire series, but she never really returned the feelings.  The relationship was never forced like in so many YA novels.  It resisted the "But they just have to get together" pressure that exists in books today.  It maintained its realism.
  • Readers want to be immersed.  When I read a book, I don't want to be a bystander.  I don't want to be conscious of the fourth wall.  I want to feel like I'm part of the story.  I want to feel like everything is right here, happening around me.  I want to feel like it's real.  Eragon, with its richly described setting and awesome cast of characters, makes this happen.  It's a hard trick to define, and even harder to try and explain how to recreate.  I think it's something you have to figure out through trial and error, but it's still something to strive for.

Movie highlight #4: It's kind of funny.  "I'll be fine without you."  Haha, you wish.  Eragon can't even go buy bread without getting himself into trouble and setting an entire town on fire.  Also, Murtagh.

  • Find books that give you that urge to sit down and write.  For whatever reason, when I read certain books, I get an itch to go and write my own novel.  I don't know why some books give me this feeling and others don't.  I love it when I find a book that does it, though. 
  • Never underestimate the value of rereading.  I've read and reread Eragon so many times that the cover of my copy actually fell off.  It's a book that I come back to, over and over, even though I know everything that's going to happen.  I talked more and what makes a reader reread a book in this post.
  • Eventually, your novel has to end.  If you've been working on a series for as long as it took to write the Inheritance Cycle, then you'll become attached to it.  It'll be hard to see it go and move on to other things.  Still, it has to happen sooner or later.  Writers have to learn when to say "Alright.  It's done."
  • Worldbuilding is vital.  I love the setting of Eragon.  It's full of detail, which makes it seem like an actual place.  It's populated with people with their own stories and culture.  It's fully fleshed-out in a way that makes it easy to immerse yourself in.  If writers can accomplish this, then we've already gone a long way to keeping readers hooked to our books. 

Movie highlight #5: Baby Saphira is adorable.

  • Dragons are not going out of style.  I heard/read somewhere, a few years ago, that dragons are going out of style.  Um, what?  Dragons are cool.  At least, I think so.  And so do many others.  If dragons are "going out of style", then how do you explain the popularity of EragonA Song of Ice and Fire?  The Hobbit?  Merlin?  (There's a dragon in Merlin, right?  Someone help me out here--I haven't seen it.)  Harry Potter, even?  No, it seems to me that dragons are going out of style in the way iPhones are going out of style--they aren't.
  • “Mmm....she's doomed! You're doomed!! They're all doomed! Notice I didn't specify what kind of doom, so no matter what happens, I predicted it. How very wise of me.”  This is some timeless wisdom, right here.  
Over time, I've picked up a lot of things from Eragon and its sequels.  I'll always love it for that.  What about you?  Have you learned anything from Eragon?  What about any other books?

I've got a few more of these posts planned.  One of them is for The Avengers, which isn't a book, but I'm still going to use it.  Stay tuned. 
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