Welcome to my science fiction novel breakdowns! As a sci-fi writer who studied English and benefited from a lot of writing workshops and critiques over the years, occasionally I like to dig into the process and structure of particular sci fi books to show readers what’s behind the curtain. Today, I’m going to analyze the first chapter of One Word Kill, by Mark Lawrence, which I recently read for a book club.
Here I’ll be breaking down different style elements and seeing how the first chapter accomplishes a difficult job of drawing in the reader, building the world, and setting the stakes. To do that, I like to look at a few elements of each science fiction book I read:
- The first line – does the book grab you from its first sentence?
- The hook – what unique twist keeps the reader engaged as they move deeper?
- The main character – is this someone we want to learn more about and empathize with?
- The plot – overall, are things moving in an intriguing direction at a solid pace?
- The nuts and bolts – how are details delivered to build the world? Is the language up to par, is the narrative easy to follow, etc.
So, without further ado, let’s break down One Word Kill
Sci-Fi Book Analysis: the First Line
When Dr Parsons finally ran out of alternatives and reached the word ‘cancer’, he moved past it so quickly I almost thought I’d imagined it.
What does the first line tell us? Our character is facing a life-or-death threat, and the doctor is reticent to discuss it (which gives us the impression that the prognosis isn’t good. We also get a sense of the “bubble” that our main character, Nick, is pulling around himself – he’s been expecting what’s coming (note the “ran out of alternatives”), but it still doesn’t quite register. So, right off the bat we’re building some solid empathy for our main character.
Sci-Fi Book Analysis: the Hook
Writers are always looking for a way to draw in and keep our readers’ attention. And we’ve got to deliver the goods quickly in a world of endless entertainment. One of the strongest elements in the chapter, in my opinion, is the last line of the first paragraph:
But as it turned out, I would die even before February got into its stride.
This is an intriguing line, and one that raises all the right kinds of questions that keep a reader engaged. How is this character telling the story if he’s already died? The setting seems realistic, but maybe that’s an illusion? This line is a good, meaty hook that keeps us turning pages.
Sci-Fi Book Analysis: Our Main Character
We meet Nick during a traumatic period of his life, and his behavior (and thoughts) tell us what to expect from him as a character and whether we like him enough to want to follow his story. So what do we learn about him?
- He’s very much an intellectual, analytical personality: look at the language he uses in assessing Dr. Parsons and his summary of how his professor father influenced his conversational speech (“we talked like that” at the end of a discussion of mathematics and probability). Later in the chapter, Nick refers to the O.E.D. for its definition of cancer, how he takes comfort in reading Bertrand Russell and recounts the history of syphilis. This is pretty intellectual, heady stuff for a 15-year-old.
- He’s lost in his own thoughts: for much of the chapter, Nick ignores what people are saying and zones out. This is understandable for someone who wants to reject the trauma they’ve received, and allows for some nice reflective writing (the lines about his mother and the doctors’ faces, the note that “cancer drops a bell jar over you”). At the same time, he clearly has trouble relating to others (his interactions with Eva, his own admissions about his number of friends) and these interactions do a good job of showing (without telling) his loneliness.
- He’s not a traditional hero: Nick is very clearly a describer rather than a doer. Look at how passive he is during the chapter – the only thing he does, rather than lets happen to him, is read. He’s very much trying to avoid his current state of affairs and lose himself in other thoughts, which gives us a good path to our character’s self-discovery.
Sci-Fi Book Analysis: Plot
At the end of the first chapter, One Word Kill’s plot kicks into gear a bit subtly when Nick sees his mother talking to a strange man who scares her. The lights flicker, and time appears to be repeating itself when Eva asks the same question.
When the chapter concludes, you want the reader to be on the edge of their Kindle. And we end things with our main character somehow knowing the date of his death and a strange visitor who may be the source of that death. This is a good setup for intrigue.
One quibble here – I would have liked to see Nick react a bit more to what happens at the end of the chapter. His mom is clearly threatened, and something strange has just happened (dimming lights, a glitch in Eva’s matrix). His passivity fits with the character, but I think him raising a ruckus would have cemented the tension a bit better in the chapter.
Sci-Fi Book Analysis: The Nuts and Bolts
Sometimes I think that writing science fiction is one of the harder challenges for a writer to take on because you have to deliver a lot more information to the reader about your world’s rules, what things look like, etc. while still keeping your plot moving and trying to work in your exposition as naturally as possible.
I think One Word Kill does a good job of this – we get a good sense of Nick’s family life and his loneliness and fear while moving at a fairly brisk pace. The descriptions orient us to place and time quite early on, and we’ve got a very clear sense of what’s happening.
One area that I found interesting was word choice – to me the tone here is adult instead of a 15-year-old. Think about lines like the nurse delivering “virulent yellow toxin”, “I needed to see the edifice raised in all its glory”, the use of the word tableau. These are educated adult words, and they set up Nick as overly mature for his age. It works for this character, but something to keep an eye on in your own writing because this tone won’t work for every character.
So what’s going to happen to Nick? You’ll have to keep reading to find out. And judging by the number of reviews on the series I think many people have.
I hope this sci-fi book analysis was valuable and that you enjoyed it. If you have suggestions or requests for another review, please email me and I’ll work it into my reading list!