Storytelling Tips from an Unlikely Source II

Just like you can learn from your mistakes, and other peoples’ mistakes, it turns out you can learn from things you don’t enjoy. 

The Three Secret Cities: A Jack West Jr Novel 5 | Matthew Reilly Book |  In-Stock - Buy Now | at Mighty Ape NZ

These lessons are taken specifically from two books in Matthew Reilly’s Jack West Jr series: The Four Legendary Kingdoms (FLK, book four) and The Three Secret Cities (TSC, book five). While I don’t want to put you off his work, I  wouldn’t have read it if it wasn’t recommended to me. Content warnings include violence, sexual references, twisting of historical (including Biblical) events, cringy romance, more violence, horrific deaths, an *ahem* interesting and irreverent view of the Catholic church, um… 

But at the same time, I don’t want to make his avid fans feel bad for enjoying them. Different authors have different strengths, and Reilly’s strengths don’t quite line up with my personal tastes. And, if nothing else, his sales rates show that that’s okay. 

Having said that, if you particularly love his work, maybe you shouldn’t read this post…

  1. Pay attention to how authors portray members of the opposite sex. 

 It’s easier to portray experiences you’ve never been through than it is to portray perspectives you’ve never seen from. Opposite genders are especially difficult. Men and women see things differently, think differently, speak differently, act differently… it’s scary because you don’t even know what you’re getting wrong. 

In the book before FLK, there are a few scenes written from the POV of a twenty-one year old woman named Lily. In one chapter, another character and her maids are helping her prepare for a posh dinner party. They give her an elegant dress, do her make-up, and then she stands in front of the mirror and thinks how sexy she looks. 

I remember reading it and thinking, you can tell a man wrote this. 

Have you ever read a book like this? Maybe you’re a man, and the female author is trying to portray her male protagonist’s crush, and she gets his responses all wrong. He’s too girly! 

 Men and women see the world in different ways, which makes it surprisingly  hard to see the world through eyes that aren’t our own. 

Let’s use this to our advantage. 

The things you pick up on as being wrong are clues as to how the author’s gender thinks. The things that I notice as being too masculine about Lily are insights into how men–or, at least, Reilly–see the world and respond. These are things that I can then be aware of when trying to avoid making Lucky too feminine. 

(On the other hand, I love the way Robert Jordan portrays women in The Wheel of Time. They’re hilarious: planning arguments with lovers and explaining their decisions that seemed so strange from afar but somehow logical when it’s put that way… but whether you’re reading an accurate portrayal or an inaccurate one, you can use books to learn how you will write different points of view effectively. 

  1. Characters that have depth are characters that are morally uncertain.

I’m sorry to everyone who loves this series, I really am. Once I noticed this, I couldn’t un-notice it. So, um, if you love it, well, you have been warned.

The protagonist of this series is Jack West Jr., along with his band of loyal soldiers from around the world. They’re loads of fun, really, quite lovable, and make a cute sort of family. 

But they’re also a bit too good. 

There are moments where Jack has to make a choice, for example: should he continue the mission or postpone it to save his daughter Lily? 

Wow, what an interesting choice. Save the world or save Lily? What are you going to do, Jack? Which way will you go?

That… that way? Are you… are you sure? Yep? Okay, well, that’s good, I guess. You’re not slightly worried about–no? Alrighty, off we go then. 

He never hesitates, never makes the ‘right’ decision even when his gut tells him to go otherwise, or goes with his gut despite the temptation of the alternative option. There are so many times when he could be torn–be morally uncertain–but he’s sure of himself every time. 

Let’s try it again. 

Jack has to make a choice: save the world or save his daughter?

Let’s say he goes to save the world. He turns from the last place he saw her, heartbroken, weeping. He knows what he has to do, but his heart wants to run after her and make sure she’s safe. What’s the point of saving the world, but losing her? 

In an alternate timeline, he chooses to save Lily. Everyone tells him, No, Jack, leave her behind, she’s only one, but there are billions out there who could die. His heart aches for those families, hates that he’s the one who has to make the choice. But… what’s the point of saving the world, but losing her? 

Creating tough choices for your characters is great, even if it’s just the classic trolley problem. But try going an extra step, and making your characters unsure that what they’re doing is right. Or, if this works better, you can make them sure, but those around them (and the reader) knows that they’re wrong. 

I’ve tried this with my own protagonists and antagonist, with very satisfactory results. As soon as I made them decide between two equally worthy options, and made them doubt that what they were doing was right, it made them so much more interesting as characters. (I’d go through them but, well, spoilers :P)

Make your characters–and therefore your readers–morally uncertain. Not only will it make them more interesting to read and get to know, it will make them sympathetic to your readers. We all face difficult choices in life; we all have doubts as to whether we’re doing the right thing. Why not use this to make your characters more realistic? 

  1. Research, research, research.

This is one of the things that I love about this series: Reilly has done his research. It’s hard to tell what’s real and what he’s made up, which I both love and hate. I love it for the sense of realism it gives the plot, and I hate it because I love learning random facts from books, but I don’t quite know when to believe him… 

But above all, Reilly’s research gives the book depth and mystery. He plays off historical and scientific mysteries, spinning them further than reality would ever go. 

Good research is not a waste of writing time. It makes your story more detailed, more realistic and more believable, as well as showing how much you care about your book. 

  1.  Don’t force your characters into arranged marriages 😡

Have you ever read a book where the main character gets married at the end and you feel like you’ve missed something? Since when did that person like that person? Oh, gross, they just kissed? But they used to hate each other! Wait, when did this develop? This is book two, right?? Or did I skip one accidentally???

I get the feeling from these books that Reilly’s main focus isn’t romantic development (I can’t believe I just wrote that; it’s so obvious from the genre XP), and although I know his readers would probably cringe at any hint of romance, the pacing of it is jerky to me. The characters barely talk before they decide they’re in love with each other, so I don’t have time to get a feel for them as a couple before suddenly they’re married. 

It’s very awkward for everyone. 

Just like in real life, your characters’ relationships need time to develop in order for them to feel natural. When you force two characters into a relationship, you sound like a creepy aunt who sidles up to them and says, ‘So, um… [insert character’s name here] is nice…’ *pointed look* *character rolls eyes* 

But it’s not just that they need time, they need quality time. Imagine if two people only met at parties or social gatherings, never talked except making eye-contact, and then decided to get married. 

Let your characters have time to get to know each other, separate from a group. Put them through something together, and let them support each other through it, with no one else around or helping. Something that makes this person’s relationship with that person special, even before they are a formal couple. 

  1. Big plots demand bigger sequels 

This isn’t a good or bad thing; it’s just a hole to be ready to fall into. This series relies heavily on shocks and sensationalism. (Honestly, if one more person walks through an ancient door to an absolutely enormous underground ancient hallway covered in gold and unreadable runes and gasps, I may just–)

Each book in the series, the stakes have to become higher, the villains have to be more hateable, the oh-no-is-he-dead-moments more believable… and so on. As someone writing a science fiction novel, Reilly’s books make me realise that if I ever write a sequel, it will have to be bigger and better than the first one. I’m impressed with how well Reilly has done this in his series; he has pulled it off magnificently. The momentum from each book carries his readers to the bookstores to buy the next one each time. Reilly has built trust in his readers; by the end of the series, his readers are ready to be amazed. After all, he’s never failed them before. 

I’m still looking for the secret to a good sequel, but I think this might be a big part of it. The sequel can’t be “as good as” the first one; it’s either better or it’s worse. 

And each book in Reilly’s series has higher stakes, more evil villains, more powerful guns, and more exciting ‘oh no, is he dead??’ moments. 

I didn’t read TSC or FLK for the purpose of learning from what I didn’t like, and there are things about his writing that I do enjoy. But doesn’t it just go to show that if you keep your eyes open, you can learn from just about anything? 


What are some books you finished despite not enjoying them? Have you learnt anything from them?

Published by Debbie Coll

I'm a storyteller, songwriter and author who loves God, fairy tales and music. I write about tales, creative tips and process on my blog, debbiecoll.com.

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