How to Read for Writing - The Prologue of "The Revenant"

Why do we read? Usually I read because I want to know something, and sometimes I read because I want to be entertained. More recently, however, I read because I want to see how it was written, and it is a different experience.


Many writers espouse slightly different philosophies on reading. Stephen King says that you should probably be reading about as many hours a day as you are writing. Brandon Sanderson says that your first read is for plot, and your second read is for character. These are all just personal methods and suggestions, things that work for individuals. But, I have noticed my own reading changing. I want to see what works and what doesn't and why. Ayn Rand in her book The Art of Fiction presents a very simple format for this. First ask, "Do I like this?" Then ask "Why?" I may expand on this somewhat and ask, "How could it be better?"

Today I am working with the prologue of The Revenant. I have watched the movie and I really like it, but I have not read the book. This prologue is beautiful, it is more like a teaser for a television show. I have noticed with some novels that the author adds a prologue to do an information dump, to just get us up to speed on the setting. I don't like that. I prefer to start fast. Let's see how Michael Punke does that here piece by piece.

SEPTEMBER 1, 1823

Do I like this? Yes. Why? It is so easy to move past while also allowing you to get your bearings. It is good because it is fast. How could it be better? You could add the location to give us more of the setting, but I think that would take away from some of the discovery we experience as we read the story. So no, I don't think it could be better.

THEY WERE ABANDONING HIM. The wounded man knew it when he looked at the boy, who looked down, then away, unwilling to hold his gaze.

Do I like this? Yes. Why? Oh crap, that is my reaction to the first sentence, and I have to read the second sentence. I like the fact that the first sentence is in all caps, but then it backs off for a more subtle feel in the second sentence. The all caps says WTF without saying WTF. Who is the wounded man? Why is he wounded? How? Where is this? Who is the boy? How do they know each other? These are all things that I want answered now. Obviously something is going on between them, what? You can feel the tension, that is why it is good. I really like the pacing of the commas in teh second sentence. How can it be better? I can't think of anything. I thought about adding an exclamation after the first sentence, or breaking the second sentence into two, but both would make it worse.

For days, the boy had argued with the man in the wolf-skin hat. Has it really been days? The wounded man had battled his fever and pain, never certain whether conversations he heard were real, or merely by-products of the delirious wanderings in his mind.

Do I like this? Yes. Why? There is another character and there has been conflict. There is conflict between the wounded man and the boy, the boy and the man in the wolf-skin hat, probably the wounded man and the man in the wolf-skin hat, maybe the boy with himself, and the wounded man with himself as well. So much conflict with a little uncertainty, even on the part of the narrator himself. What is going on? I want to know this and the protagonist needs to know as well, that means as it is revealed to the protagonist it will be revealed to us as well. I like that the second sentence is a thought that questions the thought in the first sentence. I have seen that used by many of the writers I really like. How could it have been better? This is how I would have written the last sentence.

The wounded man had been battling the fever and pain. He was never certain whether the conversations he had heard were real, or merely by-products of the delirious wanderings of his mind.

I think they are both pretty good, but the original seems superior to me. Why? The original is shorter and faster, it gives more ownership to the character, it sounds more final, but that's not fully it. "Had battled" is better than "had been battling" because it sounds like the battle has been concluded, and it is not with a win. "His" is better than "the" because it is more personal. One sentence is better than two because it is more of one thought than two. "He heard" is better than "he had heard" because it is more present and ongoing. "In his" is better than "of his" because it is more vivid, better for a feeling of imagery. At least, that's why I think it's better.

He looked up at the soaring rock formation above the clearing. A lone, twisted pine had managed somehow to grow from the sheer face of the stone. He had stared at it many times, yet it had never appeared to him as it did at that moment, when its perpendicular lines seemed clearly to form a cross. He accepted for the first time that he would die there in that clearing by the spring.

Do I like this? Yes. Why? It gives me a clear picture of our surroundings, I like the metaphor, and I like the serene tragic finality. How could it be better? I think I can improve on this in a couple of very small ways. Let's see me try.

He looked up at the soaring rock formation above the clearing. A lone, twisted pine had managed to grow from the sheer face of the rock. He had stared at it many times, yet it had never appeared to him as it did now. Its perpendicular lines seemed to clearly form a cross. He accepted for the first time that he would die there.

On comparing the two pieces, I think the original is better. As I look at each difference I think the stylistic peculiarities that Punke has included are wonderful. Mine is shorter with a little more punch, I think, but it just doesn't flow as well.

The wounded man felt an odd detachment from the scene in which he played the central role. He wondered briefly what he would do in their position. If they stayed and the war party came up the creek, all of them would die. Would I die for them . . . if they were certain to die anyway?

Do I like this? Yes. Why? I can feel what he is saying, I would think this as well. It is a messed up situation for them too; he knows that. I just became very much attached to this character. How can it be better? I would write the second sentence differently.

What would he do in their position? he wondered.

I can't decide which is better between those two. I probably would have put a comma in the last line instead of the ellipsis, and I think the ellipsis is better.

"You sure they're coming up the creek?" The boy's voice cracked as he said it. He could affect a tenor most of the time, but his tone still broke at moments he could not control.

Do I like this? No. Why? It seems to me that this part is important to the prologue and shouldn't be removed. I think that it is just a personal thing. I like the first two sentences, it is really the last one that seems like it is just a small bit tedious to me. I see that it more precisely reveals the approximate age of the boy. How could it be improved? I think that last line could simply be cut and at least not decrease the effectiveness of this piece, maybe even improve it.

The man in the wolf skin stooped hurriedly by the small meat rack near the fire, stuffing strips of partially dried venison into his parfleche. "You want to stay and find out?"

Do I like this? Yes. Why? The man in the wolf skin is in a hurry and he is dismissive of the boy. He's going to be the one making things happen. How could this piece be better? Other than the fact that I have never heard of a parfleche before, I don't think I can improve on this piece, and I can tell it is a pouch of some sort from the context.

The wounded man tried to speak. He felt again the piercing pain in his throat. Sound came forth, but he could not shape it into the one word he sought to articulate.

Do I like this? Yes. Why? I can feel the struggle and the frustration, and the exhaustion. I am wondering what the one word is, and the anticipation is pulling me forward in the story. How could it be better? I might have connected the first two sentences, but I don't think that would improve it.

The man in the wolf skin ignored the sound as he continued to gather his few belongings, but the boy turned. "He's trying to say something."

Do I like this? Yes. Why? This shows both the concern of the boy and the lack of concern of the man in the wolf skin. How could this be improved? Nothing that I can think of.

The boy dropped on one knee next to the wounded man. Unable to speak, the man raised his working arm and pointed.

Do I like this? Yes. Why? It paints a clear picture. Where is he pointing? In my minds eye I am following along with the direction he is pointing. How can it be better? I don't know a way to improve it. Notice that Punke is using limited third person and past tense.

"He wants his rifle," said the boy. "He wants us to set him up with his rifle."

Do I like this? Yes. Why? Oh, that makes sense. That was my reaction. He is going to take up his rifle and wait for the war party, a heroic end. At the same time it is weak. The wounded man is obviously weak, but the boy is also shown to be weak here. A strong person would have just grabbed the rifle and set the wounded man against a tree with the rifle. The last sentence is a statement, but it is also an implied question asking for permission. How could it be better? I have nothing to add, or take away.

The man in the wolf skin covered the ground between them in quick, measured steps. He kicked the boy hard, square in the back. "Move, goddamn you!"

Do I like this? Yes. Why? It gives me a little more hate for the man in the wolf skin and a little more contempt for the boy. It also shows the strength and confidence of the man in the wolf skin and the submissiveness of the boy. How could it be better? I think it is strong the way it is.

He strode quickly from the boy to the wounded man, who lay next to the meager pile of his possessions: a possibles bag, a knife in a beaded scabbard, a hatchet, a rifle, and a powder horn. As the wounded man watched helplessly, the man in the wolf skin stooped to pick up the possibles bag. He dug inside for the flint and steel, dropping them into the pocket on the front of his leather tunic. He grabbed the powder horn and slung it over his shoulder. The hatchet he tucked under his broad leather belt. 

Do I like this? Yes. Why? I feel some of the outrage that the wounded man must be feeling, and the helplessness. I don't know what a possibles bag is, but I figured it out quickly enough. Spelling out piece by piece what he is taking just increases the frustration. How could this be better? I don't have any suggestions. I wonder at this point if I have just gotten used to the style.

"What're you doing?" asked the boy.

Do I like this? Yes. Why? The surprise of the boy shows his innocence. Improvements? No.

The man stooped again, picked up the knife, and tossed it to the boy.

Do I like this? Yes. Why? This reinforces the lack of concern of the man in the wolf skin, as well as his certainty in action. Improvements? No.

"Take that." The boy caught it, staring in horror at the scabbard in his hand. Only the rifle remained. The man in the wolf skin picked it up, checking quickly to ensure it was charged. "Sorry, old Glass. You ain't got much more use for any of this."

Do I like this? Yes. Why? The action is moving quickly, even though it is only the dividing up of the wounded man's goods. You can tell the man in the wolf skin isn't being mean to just be mean, he is just a to the point hard man. To a certain extent, it only seems rational. How could it be better? I thought about having the knife land in the dirt rather than the boy catching it, but I am not sure that would be better.

The boy appeared stunned. "We can't leave him without his kit." The man in the wolf skin looked up briefly, then disappeared into the woods.

Do I like this? Yes. Why? The surprise of the boy and the to business nature of the man in the wolf skin are juxtaposed once again. Up to this point maybe it was going to change, but hope just disappeared into the woods with his supplies. The man looking up briefly adds just that small touch, even he didn't want this, but it is the way it is. Improvements? None from me.

The wounded man stared up at the boy, who stood there for a long moment with the knife - his knife. Finally, the boy raised his eyes. At first it appeared that he might say something. Instead, he spun around and fled into the pines.

Do I like this? Yes. Why? Maybe the boy will at least leave him the knife, maybe even something else, but no. I was anticipating the boy helping him in some way, right up until the boy left. The last small shred of hope has been taken away. Improvements? None, Grammarly says that there should be a comma after first, but that is not the pace that Punke intended, and the pacing of that sentence is good.

The wounded man stared at the gap in the trees where they had disappeared. His rage was complete, consuming him as fire envelops the needles of a pine. He wanted nothing in the world except to place his hands around their necks and choke the life from them.

Do I like this? Yes. Why? I like the use of a metaphor for him being consumed with rage. We know he can do almost nothing, but his motivation is so strong, blinding strong, that I am saying in my head, "Do something!" How could this be better? Even though this is a great piece, I have not been fully sold on such a complete rage against the boy. Kicking the shit out of him makes sense, but choking him to death, I am not completely sure. It is close enough that I can get there, and it makes complete sense for the man in the wolf skin. I feel like I might be able to improve the second sentence. Let's give it a go.

His rage burned, as a fire consumes a tree.

No.

His rage was burning him from within, spreading as a fire spreads through a forest, consuming everything it touches.

Maybe it is an improvement. My second attempt and the original seem about even to me. In the last sentence I would have said "out of them" rather than "from them." From I believe is better because it seems more like he is taking their life force for himself, and into himself.

Instinctively he started to yell out, forgetting again that his throat produced no words, only pain. He raised himself on his left elbow. He could bend his right arm slightly, but it would support no weight. The movement sent agonizing bolts through his neck and back. He felt the strain of his skin against the crude sutures. He looked down at his leg, where the bloody remnants of an old shirt were tightly wrapped. He could not flex his thigh to make the leg work.

Do I like this? Yes. Why? He is trying to do something, he is so desperate that he must, he has been left with no choice, but he can do almost nothing. The pain and the rage are at odds with each other within the same man, it is a struggle of his emotions against this body. Improvements? None.

Marshaling his strength, he rolled heavily to his stomach. He felt the snap of a suture breaking and the warm wetness of the new blood on his back. The pain diluted to nothing against the tide of his rage.

Do I like this? Yes. Why? He is accomplishing something, but he is paying the price for it. Can I improve on this? I may have some small changes. Let's see if any of them work.

Marshaling his strength, he rolled to his stomach with a grunt. He felt the snap of a suture breaking and the warm wetness of new blood on his back.

I think the first sentence is about the same, and I improved just a tiny bit on the second by removing "the." The last sentence is difficult, I feel like it needs a change, but I am not sure where to go with it. I like the metaphor of diluting something in the water of a rising tide, but I feel like it is out of place in just a small way here. Maybe . . .

The pain was bearable, his rage was not.

The pain was almost unbearable, his rage was worse.

The pain retreated to nothing in the face of his charging rage.

The pain reduced as his rage grew.

I am not sure I can actually make an improvement, I just feel like there is one to be made there.

Hugh Glass began to crawl.

Do I like this? Yes. Why? Oh, snap. That is my reaction. This man is so motivated, so angry, that he can marshal resources he shouldn't have. This man is obsessed, possessed, and scary. How could I make this better? I can't. Deadpan is perfect, this is not an understatement, it is the perfect statement.

So . . . what do I think of this overall? Do I like it? I love it. Why? Because it makes me feel the motivation of the wounded man. I can feel his pain, his abandonment, his rage; and, I am on his side. I want him to win, I want him to live, to get vengeance. I am so invested in this character that I would probably be willing to read the entire first chapter even if it starts out slow, or is even written poorly, I don't want to abandon him now. I think there is a lot I can learn from going over a piece like this, I think I have learned a lot from this piece. I am not sure what I will be doing next, but I will be doing more. You are welcome to join me at JeffreyAlexanderMartin.com

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