Book Review Follow-Up: What writers can learn from Across the Universe.

So today we’re looking at Across the Universe by Beth Revis. The review’s over here. But that post was long enough without this tacked onto the end, so I figured I’d make a new post of it and see how that goes.

Note that in this section, there will very possibly be spoilers, so read at your own risk! 

(Preferably after you read Across the Universe so you know what parts of the book I’m referring to, but I’m sure it’ll make sense either way.)

  • It is possible for your cover artist to do something right. I’ve heard so many first-time-novelist horror stories about the covers misrepresenting their protagonist, or even the book as a whole. But this is Beth Revis’s first novel, and just look at it. So… don’t give up hope?
  • Two first-person narrators may be frowned on, but it can definitely work. I’m sure you’ve heard a load of advice on the topic of points-of-view, on how third-person narrators can switch but never head-hop, and on how more than one first-person narrator is just plain too confusing. Across the Universe is a shining example of the fact that this just plain isn’t true, and also of how to make it work.
    • First, label the point-of-view at the top of the chapter. Yes, this may look tacky, but the reader needs to go into every single chapter knowing which ‘I’ they’re reading about. If they start reading a chapter even once and find out the narrator isn’t who they think it is, it’s going to sour their whole reading experience. Possibly even enough to put the book down.
    • Switch points-of-view in a consistent pattern. Across the Universe switches every chapter, Amy then Elder then Amy then Elder. This is the simplest method, and the easiest to understand. You can switch it up a little if you’d like, but the more you do, the more likely it is that the reader will get lost along the way.
  • A few well-placed hints go a long way. Across the Universe did something very right here, and it all stems back to the fact that Revis treats the readers like smart individuals. Many authors treat the reader like they’re an idiot, slathering on layers and layers of hints that all but put the puzzle together for you. But why do we write intrigue into our story in the first place? It’s so that the reader doesn’t figure it out. Not until the end, anyway. They’re supposed to want to know, maybe even have an inkling, but they should never quite be able to wrap their mind around it until the time comes. And for the average reader (who happens to be smarter than the average TV watcher, keep in mind), that really doesn’t take much.
    • Relatedly, weave your foreshadowing into characters and setting, not just plot and dialogue. You want your clues or hintings to feel natural–the more natural they are, the more the reader can appreciate them once they find out the truth and think back on the earlier chapters.
    • The worst way to hint is through the character’s thoughts or exposition. Ever been working a puzzle or playing a thought-provoking video game and have someone look over your shoulder and say, “You have to put this piece here, and that one goes there”? Or, “Three-across is ‘anteater’,” or, “You have to put your sword into the stone straight ahead and the door will open up, then you run down to the bottom and jump in the well.”  Or if you’re watching one of those investigator shows (CSI, NCIS, Bones, etc) and someone who watches a lot of those shows is sitting next to you rationalizing the case before the show’s characters do. Or whatever the puzzle is, you get my point. That’s exactly what it feels like, if you have your character sit down and try to put the pieces together in his head.
    • Dialogue and action are in the middle. It depends on how it’s done. Well-done dialogue can insert clues without even breaking a sweat. (For example, in Across the Universe, Eldest first mentions an Elder before the current one, but refuses to talk about him. Then later, when Eldest and Doc are down looking at the bodies of a couple of the murdered cryo-frozen colonists, he asks, “Was it him?” and Elder protests that he had nothing to do with it, but it becomes clear that Doc and Eldest are talking about something way over his head. Throughout the book, there are little clues that one-by-one add up to the mystery of the first Elder, but you never see the full picture until closer to the end.) However, poor dialogue can absolutely ruin suspense. The best way to do this is to make sure the dialogue is for your characters, not for your reader. Eldest’s “Was it him?” was for Doc, and it meant something to the two of them. If he’d just said to Elder that ‘It could have been him,’ but then refused to explain, that would have clearly just been a failed attempt to build suspense in the reader.
    • Setting and characters are the best. The way of life on the Godspeed is very specific, with love being more or less a myth and sex only occurring for breeding for a week every twenty years. But why? Eldest says it’s to prevent inbreeding, but you get the feeling that it’s more than that. It turns out that this, too, ties into Eldest’s ploy to keep the Godspeed’s secrets from reaching the light of day. Many authors build their plot around their setting, but Across the Universe ties every part of the setting (from the breeding restrictions to even the water they drink) into the secrets and mystery of the plot. Because if the world itself is hiding things from your character, things are suddenly on a much grander scale. As for characters (huge spoiler here), Orion is mentioned early on in the book, and the two primary details Revis gives him are that 1) unlike most of the population, he doesn’t get along with Eldest, and 2) he has a scar below his left ear, from when he ‘got tired of the chatter’ and took his wireless communication device out himself. Meanwhile, with the ‘first Elder’ subplot, it’s revealed first that he died, and then it’s revealed that Doc ruled him dead because his wi-com went dead on the tracker charts. This is right near the end of the book, and right when Doc reveals that, 75% of the readers put two and two together. But up until then, this is a perfect demonstration of giving your story mystery.
    • As a concluding note to this topic, give your readers a double-whammy. Using the above example, with Orion and the first Elder: The reader figures out before it’s truly revealed that Orion is the first Elder… But what the reader doesn’t expect is that when Revis reveals it, she also reveals that Orion’s been behind the attempted/successful murders all along. Know what the reader can figure out ahead, let them think they’ve got it all, and surprise them with just a little bit more.
  • Be specific with the meanings of your slang. There’s both good and bad slang in Across the Universe. The first word we meet is ‘frex’, a cursing substitute that actually ends up working quite well throughout the story. On the other hand, a single paragraph on page 30 introduces both ‘chutz’ and ‘brilly’, and also uses a third word we only recently learned (‘floppies’, though this is on the good slang list). Throughout the book, it’s… really never quite clarified what chutz or brilly mean. Each time I see it used, it’s used in a slightly different context.
    • Chutz is the worst offender there. “[…] but inside I hope Elder can see what a chutz I actually am.” (Reader thinks: prodigy? Good student? Intelligent person? Overall good implications.) “He’s thinking with his chutz instead of his brain.” (In this context, it sounds like a name for genitalia. Reader is confused and concerned.) “Even I don’t have the chutz for that.” (Here it sounds like bravery/guts, although maybe–pardon my crudeness–it could be a substitute here for ‘I don’t have the balls for that,’ which is used in the world today.) “Throw one pale-skinned freak your direction and your chutz shoots up to the stars!” (Baaaack to the genetalia. Maybe not literally, maybe it means just a drive to be intimate, but still.) “The game is life, you chutz!” (Here it sounds like ‘idiot’ or ‘imbecile’.) “I can feel my chutz rising at Eldest’s cocky attitude.” (Here it sounds like pride or indignation.) “I’m starting to feel like I’m a bit of a chutz just standing here while everyone’s so intent on their own work.” (Here, chutz seems almost lazy or useless, which doesn’t follow the general manliness/anger/sex drive theme of the other uses.)
    • I’m sure Revis meant to mimic the variety of ways slang is used in today’s world, but readers just can’t handle that as well as they might with slang in real life. In the 200-400 (on average) pages you have to convey your story, without being able to utilize body language or tone of voice beyond explaining what it looks/sounds like, you need to be very careful and specific with the slang you use. Even if it has multiple uses, make sure they’re all related enough that the reader’s mind can jump from one to the other without trouble.
    • (For an excellent example of slang, read the Uglies series by Scott Westerfeld.)

——

Got an opinion on anything I’ve said? Read the book and have something to add? Leave me a comment, I’d love to talk to you.

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