Analysis, inspiration, Reading

The Style of The Expanse

TLDR: The Expanse authors manage to plan their novels and stay true to their characters.

I recently started reading Babylon’s Ashes, the sixth book in The Expanse series by James S. A. Corey, the pen name of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. I’ve been taking long breaks between The Expanse novels, but jumping back in, I was immediately struck by the clean, straightforward style of the narrative.

Learning the craft of writing changes how a person reads. I’m regularly interrupting myself to think I see what you did there. Nonetheless, the streamlined style of The Expanse makes it an easy read.

I could go through with different colored highlighters, marking character development, foreshadowing, plot movement, and even reminders of what happened recently for those of us disinclined to read a nine book series all in one go. There wouldn’t be much book left un-highlighted.

And that’s not what every reader wants. I found at least one reviewer that thought the first book in the series was dull and slow. That wasn’t my experience, but I wonder if that reviewer found the book too mechanical in its feel.

Let’s analyze a single chapter and see how it accomplishes its tasks.

There will be excerpts from Chapter 13 of book 6. There aren’t really any major spoilers for this novel, but it will be spoiler-adjacent for events in the universe if you’re not on book six yet. Here’s the opening line:

The thing that surprised him the most when it all changed was how little it all changed.

This is a classic sort of opening line. It does the bare minimum that an opening line ought to do, begs the question, what changed?

It’s also kind of vague and bland. I like it as a reminder that I don’t have to be fancy as a writer. Corey excels in writing tense plot and truthful characters, not punchy opening lines. This whole chapter is a case in point, by the end, a character makes a difficult and honest-to-their-values decision.

Next we have a transition from abstract to concrete as we move into the immediacy of the character:

They were keeping their heads down, doing the things they’d always done, hoping no one took notice. … The food carts in the station served the same fried corn mash and bitter tea.

From the abstract to the concrete, to the concrete things that represent trouble:

When Free Navy uniforms started appearing on corners, no one said anything. … When loyalists went silent, no one talked about it.

There are certainly echoes of the “First they came for the communists…” poem here, but if someone brought this to critique group I might tell them to write about a particular instance when the character first noticed the uniforms on the corner. I might say, “Make it immediate. Make me feel like I’m there.” But the truth is that this more distant form is perfectly acceptable, especially if the story is ready to move on.

From there, the crux of the problem becomes clear, a group of people who wanted to stay out of the fighting have become collaborationists. Next comes an ethical dilemma: whether or not to release a proprietary plant genome that could produce more food and save lives or go about business as usual even though people are already starving.

The tension was there every day. And it came out at strange times. Like reviewing trial report data.

The final sentence about the trial data prepares the reader for the next line which is an emotional line of dialogue and transitions from the floaty, distant, summary prose to a scene written with immediacy. Everything that came before is so much stage setting. The perspective character is worried about getting involved, worried for his daughter:

“There are people starving all over the Earth right now. How safe are they?”
Oh, Prax thought. This isn’t anger. It’s grief.

Although the sentences are mostly kept short and simple, the occasional simile or metaphor is elegantly handled:

The door slammed closed behind him so hard that the latch didn’t hold. The door ghosted open again, like someone invisible was coming to take his place.

The dialogue is always, always on point. Would-be rebels ask the perspective character to join them:

There’s a meeting tonight. Just a few people. Hear us out.

In real life, people say less and read more between the lines. The perspective character’s answer is simple:

I have a daughter.

His actions are also simple. He proceeds to password protect the data that the others want to distribute.

It’s elegant and effective because of the focus on characters and their emotions. I had suspected that the authors were plotters, planning out the entirety of a novel rather than writing and seeing where their characters took them, but I sought verification and found this quote in which Ty Franck compares his style to that of George R.R. Martin.

[H]e is much more of a sit down at the keyboard, wait for the muse to strike, and bang out whatever chapter is sort of banging around in your head at that time. That works for him; he’s able to produce work, so more power to him, but that just seems like a really inefficient way to get a story out, from my perspective. For me as a writer, I could not do that. I have to know where I am going, and I have to know what the next chapters are about so I can start layering and foreshadowing and all the other stuff that you want to do. He’s much more comfortable rewriting chapters over and over and over and over again than I am.

I still have so many questions:

  • How do the authors stay truthful to the characters if they are plotting out all the twists and turns ahead of time? When does a character bend? When should the plot bend?
  • How do the authors decide how much to pack into a story? How many big events before the climax? And this is particularly weird in The Expanse books because some books in the series are fairly focused on the alien threat and others are purely concerned with human politics.

All of these issues arise as I struggle to make the most of a story I wrote by the seat of my pants, the one I published on this blog. I am revising it, trying to make sense out of the plot that spilled out and determine where characters should change and where the plot should change. I’m trying to optimize impact and sensibility.

It’s a pain.

But right now it’s important for me to finish. I plan to self-publish a heavily revised version as a novella, but after that, I don’t think I’ll write without a plan for a long time.


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