What’s in a reversal? Exploring Leigh Bardugo’s RUIN AND RISING.

Gasses bubbling the water at the lakeshore. Geothermal activity at Maria Laach caldera in Germany.
What bubbles to the surface? Geothermal activity at Maria Laach caldera in Germany. ©Laurel Decher, 2015.

Just finished reading Leigh Bardugo’s RUIN AND RISING, the 3rd book of her Grisha trilogy. If you haven’t read it, go read. (Note: This is a YA, not a middle grade title.)

SPOILER ALERT.

Last night, I stopped reading at the end of Chapter 8. Earlier in the chapter, things are looking up for Alina. She takes definite steps to be less isolated from her friends. The reader thinks things are looking up. But after this scene of light and laughter, the friends leave, and there’s one little paragraph:

Later, I could never be sure if I’d done it deliberately, or if it was an accident, my bruised heart plucking at that invisible tether. Maybe I was just too tired to resist his pull. I found myself in a blurry room, staring at the Darkling.”

For whatever reason, Alina has decided to reach out to the antagonist, the Darkling, through the tie that binds them to each other.

This moment in the story felt so real because we all know what it’s like to do something stupid when we just should have gone to sleep. After reading this story moment, I couldn’t sleep either because I knew this decision would ruin her. My reader brain was busy trying to rescue her from this choice.

I almost didn’t pick up the book again the next day. But I was on a train to Cologne and it was on my e-reader. So I did. When the scene didn’t turn out the way I expected, I was so relieved.

So, how did Leigh Bardugo do that?

How did she make the reader SURE that something dreadful was going to happen, without a doubt, and then REVERSE, without losing credibility?

This morning, I finished RUIN AND RISING before I finished traveling, so I had time to ponder.

Megan Whalen Turner’s ATTOLIA series and Dorothy Dunnett’s LYMOND CHRONICLES also have this trick of pivoting the whole story world on a character’s decision or a line of dialogue or an unexpected action.

Middle grade authors, Sage Blackwood and Angie Sage, also pull off this trick.

I really, really want the recipe.

Reversal ingredient list:

  • Reader expectations about the main character’s choices. Which ones look good from a reader perspective?
  • Consequences bubble up naturally early in the story. The reader experiences dread at the moment of choice rather than information overload.
  • Tension: The chapter that follows this passage has a feeling of I-should-not-be-here-but-I’m-too-tired that creates forboding.

Mix in reader expectations to form a smooth batter. Let consequences ferment. Set story aside to rise. Fold in a challenging choice and bake in a hot oven until done.

And then there’s Author Brutality, a.k.a. making things worse.

In his WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL workshops, superagent Donald Maass asks:

“What’s the worst thing that could happen to your main character?”

“It just happened.”

Collective groans and sounds of grief from writers killing off their main characters.

“Now–what happens next?”

Because whatever happens next HAS to be a reversal. The main character has gone as far as possible in the original direction.

Any thoughts about more essential ingredients? Do you like stories with reversals? If you feel like sharing in the comments, I’d love to know your favorite examples.

 

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Exploring the world of Angie Sage’s MAGYK and FLYTE

Alley leading to an archway with light shining behind it. In Sage Blackwood’s JINX books, Jinx wanders around inside the magical spells of others to see how they are constructed. As a reader and writer, I’m doing a similar experiment with Angie Sage’s middle grade novels.

If you haven’t read MAGYK and FLYTE, there may be spoilers. Go ahead and read them first. This’ll be here when you get back.

These are classic battles of good and evil, like the one I enjoyed in Lloyd Alexander’s THE BLACK CAULDRON when I was a young reader. Some of the story gets too dark for my taste, but my wimpiness is legendary.

What did I especially like about MAGYK and FLYTE?

The relationship between the Heap siblings was real and positive and conflicted. Reading Angie Sage’s novels is like belonging to a family with a lot of older siblings–you can see their choices and the results of those choices, but no one points them out. It’s all right in front of us, but we can choose whether we want to pay attention to it or to apply any of it to our own lives. There’s no lecturing about what the right choice is. It’s much more like real life where there are little clues to notice or not.

A variety of strong and unlikely friendships came up in the story. Friendships exist between boy #412 and boy #409, girl and boy, student and past teacher (now a ghost), an experienced boatbuilder and the Heap boy who loves boats, and an aunt who is a terrible cook and the child who loves her cooking. There’s also a the tentative friendship (or frenemy relationship?) between two fathers over a rare magical board game.

Characters have different ways of knowing and the official “smartest” people don’t always come out on top. The most important magical person in the story world oversteps in front of many people and has to face the consequences.

People who are afraid to speak gradually find their voices. This was subtly done and I hate to mention it in case it spoils someone’s reading experience. It’s quite brilliant.

I do like these books, don’t I.

They made me realize I want secondary characters who are more conflicted or at least with different backgrounds and philosophies from each other than I might have already.

Maybe some of my own characters need more differentiation. A trader, a courtier, a warrior, a shipmaster all have world views. Here are a few questions for writers:

  • Have I brought my characters’ worldviews to bear on the story?
  • How does the next generation subscribe to or deny their parents’ values?
  • Have I shown them making mistakes, apologizing (or not), and influencing each other?
  • What kinds of friendships are in the story? Could more be added?

Sage Blackwood’s Jinx is right. It’s definitely worth while to climb around inside someone else’s magic spells.

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