What You Can Learn from Joe Abercrombie’s The Heroes
I wanted to discuss The Heroes today because I have been thinking a great deal about action scenes recently. And if Joe Abercrombie is anything, he is an amazing action writer.
The Heroes takes place in Abercrombie’s First Law universe (if you haven’t read the First Law series, get on it!). The book spans 3 days of battle—well, technically 5 days—the day before and after, as well. It is a fast-paced, blood and guts packed, masterclass in the art of writing action.
I love all Abercrombie’s work, but to me, this book shines above the rest. The Blade Itself (book one of The First Law) was good, but it wasn’t anything special in terms of writing skill.
However, the thing that draws me to Abercrombie so much, is how quickly he’s improved with each consecutive title. He puts a lot of effort into his writing on all levels, and readers can tell he’s continually learning how to give them a better experience.
Abercrombie does three things extremely well, and we will discuss these today, using passages from The Heroes as examples. Say what you will of Abercrombie’s story. Not all people like the dark tone, or even appreciate his style. But there is a reason he has come so far, so quickly in his career. As far as I know, The Blade Itself was his first book and published in 2006. He is by no means the most popular or best-selling fantasy author out there, but he is definitely holding his own for someone who has only been on the scene for 10 years. Whereas most fantasy authors at his level have been at it for 20 years or more (with some exceptions of course).
Here’s what we can learn from Abercrombie: Pacing, Narrative, and Cadence.
Not only does the author have a firm technical grasp of all these elements, but he works them like magic into The Heroes. He uses all of these to add to the whole of his novel (the whole is greater than the sum of its parts) and creates something that can make the reader’s blood pump like no other book can.
Here’s how he does it.
Pacing is the speed at which the reader moves through your story. Simply put.
But it is so much more than that. When done correctly, it can manipulate your readers' emotions, it can control their breathing, and it can make their hearts sink and pound at your will.
I always like to think in Macros, and Micros. There is how a concept applies to the overall story, and how the same concept applies to the individual scenes, paragraphs, and sentences. I’m not going to touch on Macro Pacing today. Instead, I want to discuss the Micro Pacing of The Heroes.
Pacing uses emotion, tension, description, and imagery to either slow down a scene or quicken it to match the action. A slow scene is going to have longer (but still economic) descriptions, less dialogue and more exposition, less—I’m gonna call it—emotionally provocative language. Fast-paced scenes, on the other hand, use more dialogue (but no great monologues!), vivid, short descriptions, emotionally powerful language, efficient wording, and NO great exposition.
Here is an example from one of the many fight scenes in the book. It is quite long, but I want you to read the whole thing and pay attention to how he uses sentence length, emotion, tension, and quick, moving description to quicken the pace as the action gets more heated. You’ll notice sentences get shorter, and you are pushed through the action faster. But he never misses a beat.
Sidenote: Because I didn’t want to put too much of the book’s content into the post, I chose to take out the slower parts of the fight scene. Read the book! You will be able to see the changes in pace even better than I am able to show you here.
He saw a black weapon against bright sky, caught it on his own as it came down. Blades clashing, scraping, grunting in someone’s face, looked like Jutlan but Jutlan was years in the ground. Staggering around off balance on the slope, fingers clutching. His knees burned, his lungs burned. Glean of Shivers’ eye, battle smile creasing his ruined face. His axe split Jutlan’s head open wide, dark pulp smeared down Craw’s shield. Shoved him off, corpse tumbling through the grass. Father of Swords ripped armour beside him, bent mail rings flying, stinging the back of Craw’s hand.
Clash and clatter, scrape and rattle, scream and hiss, thump, crack, men swearing and bellowing like animals at the slaughterhouse. Was Scorry singing? Something across Craw’s cheek, in his eye, snatched his head away. Blood, blade, dirt, no way of knowing, lurched sideways as something came at him and he slid onto his elbow. Spear, snarling face with a birth-mark behind, spear jabbing, flapped it away clumsily with his shield, trying to scramble up. Scorry stuck the man in the shoulder and he fumbled his spear, wound welling.
So, what’s happening here?
Well, this is obviously a fast-paced scene. The sentences were short. Any descriptors were brief, sweeping declarations. Near the end of the passage, descriptions had even turned into single word onomatopoeias. The majority of sentences stayed under 10 words, and only 3 maxed out at 20.
But it’s not just sentence length that dictates pacing. You’ll notice that some of the sentences in the second paragraph were a little longer. However, the phrasing got shorter. The presence of periods, rather than commas, might have actually slowed the passage down.
Both paragraphs were jam-packed with emotional language. Words like snatched, lurched, slaughterhouse, lungs burned, fingers clutching, and creasing his ruined face. Notice that they are not describing emotion like sad and mad. That’s not what I mean by emotional language. Rather these words are affecting and powerful. For instance, “bellowing like animals at the slaughterhouse” is much more powerful than “men screamed and yelled.” The former evokes an emotion that the latter doesn’t. This kind of imagery helps to increase the pace.
I should probably also mention that the style Abercrombie uses for this book is a little different. You’ll notice that the POV adopts an extra level of realism by only including things that the character would be hearing and seeing in a high tension battle. But that is another side of the pacing in of itself. The author uses the chaos of action to increase the pacing of the scene.
I might have added an example of a slow-paced scene, but this is a post on The Heroes, and the book doesn’t have too many of those.
So, on to the next!
Narrative is a wide topic. Actually, it’s everything. It’s story, plot, characters, settings, beginnings, middles, and endings. It’s action, and tension, pacing, and perspective. So what does it mean when I say that The Heroes has great narrative?
Well, I’m referring to the way Abercrombie balances narrative types in his composition. Switching seamlessly from external dialogue to internal dialogue, to dramatic action, to exposition.
The following excerpt showcases the relationship between external and internal dialogues, but I think you will get a good idea of how all the elements of narrative might go together in the rest of the book. Pay close attention to the transition between the different forms of narrative. It might even help to read it aloud to fully grasp how smooth the passage actually reads.
Gorst led the way back down the crowded alleys. . . . He was disappointed. As so very often.
‘Colonel Gorst, I need to thank you. That charge of yours saved my division.’
Perhaps it will also have saved my career. Your division can all drown if I can be the king’s First Guard again. ‘My motives were not selfless.’
‘Whose are? It’s the results that go down in history. Our reasons are written in smoke. And the fact is I nearly destroyed my division. My division.’ Jalenhorm snorted bitterly. ‘The one the king had most foolishly lent me. I tried to turn it down, you know.’ It seems you did not try hard enough. ‘But you know the king.’ All too well. ‘He has romantic notions about his old friends.’ He has romantic notions about everything. ‘No doubt I will be laughed at when I return home. Humiliated. Shunned.’ Welcome to my life. ‘Probably I deserve it.’ Probably you do. I don’t.
And yet, as Gorst frowned sideways at Jalenhorm’s hanging head, hair plastered to his skull, a drop of rain clinging to the point of his nose, as thorough a picture of dejection as he could find without a mirror, he was swept up by a surprising wave of sympathy.
So, what’s happening here?
We will start by discussing the point of view. This passage could have been very short, and for most writers, it would have been. Jalenhorm could have said his piece, and Gorst’s views, as POV, could have been summed up in a sentence. Something like, “Gorst disguised his resentment as best he could but blah blah.”
Instead, Abercrombie used the many facets of narrative to show the reader the depth of Gorst’s personality. The resentment he feels toward a young man, with less experience, who, in his opinion, should be nowhere near the head a division. Abercrombie doesn’t just tell us what Gorst feels, he shows us through internal dialogue that contrasts the external, adding even more depth.
I don’t want to drone on about this, so I will just point out one last thing.
Abercrombie is great at using the different narrative types to bring his POVs to life. He takes the reader on an emotional ride with the character, following the path of their emotional shifts in real-time. Using contrasts in internal and external dialogue, like mentioned above, to add depth, writing description and exposition in a voice that is unique to each POV character, and adopting a conversational style to further connect with the reader.
The last thing I want to talk about is cadence. In short, cadence is the rhythm of your prose.
I’ll give you an example of this from The Heroes. It may not be the best example of cadence in the book, but is the one that most resonated with me.
Beck hunched his shoulders and stared at the fire. Not much more’n a tangle of blackened sticks, a few embers in the flame, whipped, and snatched, and torn about, helpless in the wind. Burned out. Almost as burned out as he was. He’d clutched at that dream of being a hero so long that now it was naught but ashes he didn’t know what he wanted. He sat there under fading stars named for great men, great battles and great deeds, and didn’t know who he was.
What’s happening here?
This passage shows two things really well. The use of cadence to create a tempo and strengthen flow, and cadence to build tension and evoke emotion.
Before we get into it, I do want to point out that cadence, although can lend itself to pacing, is not the same thing as pacing. Where pacing is the speed of storytelling, cadence is the dynamic rhythm that makes it beautiful. The BPM vs. the melody.
By no means does cadence equate poetry. But it should make the words flow from the tongue smoothly and naturally.
The last sentence in this passage from page 410 shows this best. The repetition of the word “great” acts as a beat for the reader, the rest of the sentence supports that tempo. He uses varied sentence length to make it dynamic and moving.
Even within those sentences, he uses cadence to make inflections and emphasize the points where he wants the reader to do the same. The emotional parts. In the above example, the reader is manipulated through cadence to focus on the words “whipped, and snatched, and torn about.” The line that best reflects the emotional state of the POV character.
I’m reaching the 2000 words mark so I’m going to stop today’s lesson here.
But go out and buy The Heroes. I don’t care if you don’t like the style, the subgenre, or any of it. The book is worth the buy for the lessons in narrative, cadence, and pacing alone. In a way, the entire thing is a course on how to write tense and emotional action scenes.