Breaking down prose: Raven Boys

I just finished reading Maggie Steifvater’s Raven Boys. Great book! It’s got two separate plot ideas that are woven together: a girl whose true love will die after she kisses him, and a group of teen boys who are tracking leylines to find an ancient Welsh king who may or may not be sleeping, not dead, like Arthur.

So it deals with ghosts and psychic reading stuff as honestly as it deals with the messed-up home lives of all the main characters. It’s exciting and endearing and intriguing. I wanted to highlight some passages I thought were great writing. It’s a way to analyze her technique and figure out how to improve my own writing with it.

Description is always used to set a mood. I don’t think there’s a superfluous bit of description in this whole book.

Gansey had once told Adam that he was afraid most people didn’t know how to handle Ronan. What he meant by this was that he worried that one day someone would fall on Ronan and cut themselves.

And later …

“Come on, Gansey,” Adam said with some heat. “Don’t you feel it? Don’t you feel …?”
“Feel what?” Gansey despised fighting with Adam, and somehow this felt like a fight.
Unsuccessfully, Adam struggled to put his thoughts into words. Finally he replied, “Observed.”
Across the parking lot, Noah had finally emerged from Nino’s and he slouched toward them. In the Camaro, Ronan’s silhouetted form lay back in the seat, head tilted as if he slept. Close by, Gansey could smell roses and grass mowed for the first time that year, and further away, he smelled damp earth coming to life beneath last year’s fallen leaves, and water running over rocks in mountain crooks where humans never walked. Perhaps Adam was right. There was something pregnant about the night, he thought, something out of sight opening its eyes.

And a bit later …

Outside, a midnight bird cried, high and piercing. The little replica of Henrietta (the town) was eerie in the half-light, the die-cast cars parked on the streets appearing as though they had just paused. Gansey always thought that, after dark, it felt like anything could happen. At night, Henrietta felt like magic, and at night, magic felt like it might be a terrible thing.

A character description:

Pushing open the door, Blue found Persephone sitting at the card table beside the window. When pressed, people often remembered Persephone’s hair: a long, wavy white-blond mane that fell to the backs of her thighs. If they got past her hair, they sometimes recalled her dresses–elaborate, frothy creations or quizzical smocks. And if they made it past that, they were unsettled by her eyes, true mirror black, pupils hidden in the darkness.

A piece of conversation:

“You’re the wedding planner,” Gansey said as a dog ripped out of nowhere. It barked furiously, trying to bite the Camaro’s tires. “Shouldn’t dates be your realm of expertise?”

“That means you don’t remember,” Helen replied. “And I’m not a wedding planner anymore. Well. Part-time. Well. Full-time, but not every day.”

Helen did not need to be anything. She didn’t have careers, she had hobbies that involved other people’s lives.

The narrative is always used to paint pictures and feelings. Forget the technicalities of adverbs and dialogue tags. This is some good stuff here.

Or how about this one, with all its latent horror. Perfectly ordinary fear becomes something else.

Two narratives coexisted in his head. One was the real image: the wasp climbing up the wood, oblivious to his presence. The other was a false image, a possibility: the wasp whirring into the air, finding Gansey’s skin, dipping the stinger into him, Gansey’s allergy making it a deadly weapon.

Long ago, his skin had crawled with hornets, their wings beating even when his heart wasn’t.

Look at how punchy the sentences are. When it comes down to shock value, it’s delivered in one sentence. Wings beating even when his heart wasn’t.

I guarantee you this didn’t happen in the first draft. This is revision work, polishing, pushing from the editor and the author slaving over every sentence to make them sharp as knives.

Notice the rising tension in these paragraphs. They build to a punch line, almost. The full scene is the same way–rising action or tension that keeps your fingers ready to turn the page.

I looked up Maggie’s interviews about this book. She said she wrote it when she was 19, but it was a giant sprawling mess. After she wrote the Shiver trilogy and Scorpio Races, she went back to that old story and rewrote it.

I think that’s one reason the characters feel so alive. They’ve been in her head for a long time. 🙂


One thought on “Breaking down prose: Raven Boys

  1. This is one of my favorite book series EVER. I’m in the middle of reading the sequel, The Dream Thieves, and I’m finding myself purposely reading slowly to make it last longer :).

    You are so right about her prose–not a wasted word. And the emotion she invokes…I get chills and find myself holding my breath. Incredible.


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