Five Writing Lessons from A Darker Shade of Magic

There’s a lot of debate about whether authors should write book reviews, particularly when we have less-than-glowing things to say. I can see both sides of the argument (check out Cristina R. Guarino’s take on some of the pros and cons, for instance), and to be honest, my jury’s still out on this one.

But! I do want to be able to talk about books I’ve read, so rather than write outright reviews, I thought I would follow the example of other writer-bloggers and instead share some of the writing lessons I learned whilst reading. (Yes, I just said whilst.) Less helpful for readers looking to know whether the book’s worth reading, but more useful for writers trying to improve their craft.

And so…


Five Writing Lessons from V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic

[WARNING: Ahead there be spoilers!]

1. Not all foreign words have to be translated.

ADSOM moves between three parallel versions of London, in each of which a different language is spoken. In Grey London it’s English, in Red London it’s English and Arnesian, and in White London it’s…something that looks Danish. Schwab does a good job translating some things while letting us figure out others, erring on the side of more translations rather than fewer.

In general, I like when an author gives me enough context to guess for myself, perhaps providing a translation later in the book rather than right away. Not all of the commands in ADSOM, for instance, needed to be translated—if Kell says a spell and the pavement breaks into pieces, chances are the reader can make an educated guess. Don’t confuse your readers with made-up words, but don’t underestimate their deductive abilities, either.

2. Settings shouldn’t just look different, they should feel different.

This is one of the things Schwab NAILED. Red, White, and Grey London all have distinct feels—vibrant, tense and terrifying, and dull yet dangerous respectively. Even Black London, which we never actually visit, has a distinct vibe owing to the way the characters talk about it. Sights, smells, and sounds all contribute to how we experience a setting, but so do the feelings of the characters visiting those places and the behavior of the denizens who live there—the Red Londoners are cheerful and energetic, the White Londoners are starved and desperate and cruel.

The great thing about ADSOM is that this not only creates distinct settings, it also makes the world’s magic feel incredibly well-rounded, a character in itself which takes on very different forms and feels in each world depending on how the human characters interact with and use it.

3. Use one character to make us like another.

Let’s just pause and grin over Prince Rhy.


Okay, set. Moving on! How much Rhy did we actually see in this book? Not very much. I think he’s in Kell’s thoughts/flashbacks almost as often as he is in the flesh. In the first paragraphs, Kell’s already thinking about how Rhy’s been a bad (well, fashionable) influence on him and imagining what his brother would say in certain scenarios. The result was that I liked Rhy before we even met him properly, all because of the way Kell thought and felt about him.

If you can get your reader to like and trust your protagonist, you can project that onto other characters who are close to him, creating a reader connection to people we rarely see, or haven’t even met.

4. Connect your character’s internal conflict and external struggle.

This is one that worked less well for me, though admittedly I was paying extra-close attention because it’s something I’m struggling with in my own WIP.

I never felt like I got a strong handle on what Kell as a character wanted—love, acceptance, and belonging seemed to be his primary concerns, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The larger problem, though, was that Kell’s desire to be loved and belong wasn’t tightly connected, in my mind, to his external problem (destroying the stone). I think it was supposed to be “give up family or let world be destroyed,” but Kell’s already conflicted feelings about his family—is he a son or just a possession?—lessened the punch considerably. There was less for him to give up because he wasn’t even sure he had their love to begin with.

In the end, make your character’s inner want and exterior goal as opposed as possible. The further you can take them from their comfort zone and the higher you can raise their personal stakes, the better.

5. Be clear about your characters’ motivations.

Now, I don’t mean “beat your reader over the head with reasons for absolutely everything your character does.” What I mean is…well, Holland.

I started out feeling creeped-out by Holland, moved on to feeling really sorry for him after hearing his backstory, and then didn’t know whether I was supposed to keep feeling sorry that he was being forced to be a jerk, or start hating him for being a jerk in his own right. Was Holland actually evil, or was Athos making him do evil things?


Giving your villain a human side, a point of sympathy, is absolutely a YES—unfortunately, I felt like Holland’s humanizing point, being sealed to Athos and forced to obey, was suddenly much less meaningful when he didn’t seem bothered by what he was being made to do. Only at the end was there any hint that he regretted his actions, and by that point it was a bit too late. Perhaps I’ll get more in the next book (because, let’s face it, there’s no way he’s dead).


Have you read ADSOM? What did you think? What did you learn from reading it? Share your thoughts in the comments (but no AGOS spoilers, please!).


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