Writing Craft Lessons from Bird Box by Josh Malerman Pt. 1

I can’t recommend Bird Box by Josh Malerman enough. Maybe I’ll link to my Goodreads review of this masterpiece. But seeing as most of us are writers, I thought I’d take things from “read this” to “read this to learn how to write” territory.

josh malermanJosh Malerman made a number of technical writing craft decisions in this novel that we can learn from.

Here’s a list.

  1. Present Tense
  2. Limited Third POV
  3. Alternating Story Line Structure
  4. Simple language / “Minimalism”
  5. Delayed (or Late Entry) Planting & Paying Off

Last thing. Bird Box was published in 2014, so I’m not concerned with spoilers. Having said that, I’ll do my best not to ruin the book for you.

Let’s do this.

1. Present Tense

Sustaining a narrative in present tense is difficult. This is because the main desired affect of present tense is to give the story immediacy.

This is happening now.

Done well, the reader feels as if they’re living the action.

The pitfall is that the longer any gimmick is used, the less effective it becomes. Maybe it even becomes tiresome. The trick is to not do it in such a way that anyone in their right mind would call it a gimmick.

My take on present tense is that it’s most successful when the book couldn’t possibly be written in past tense. In workshop speak, “Justify its existence.”

I take it a step farther. I’d advise a writer to justify present tense in the first place, but then, in addition, provide mechanisms in the book that allow it for it to work at sustained length.

Josh Malerman does this masterfully.

Reasons why Josh Malerman Teaches Us A Present Tense Masterclass

The setting of Bird Box is a post-apocalyptic suburb in Michigan. There are two alternating storylines. One takes place in a house. The other on twenty miles of a river, located behind that house, as Malorie and Boy and Girl seek Rick’s promised shelter.

To begin with, in a post-apocalyptic world, the past does not matter. As a matter of survival. Modern conveniences go right out the back door with the filthy bath water, and in order to literally survive, people must live moment by moment. Where’s your next meal? A simple injury could mean infection and death, et al.

In the world of Bird Box, society was destroyed because when people see creatures from another plain of existence, their minds cannot comprehend it. As a result, they become violently mad, killing others and/or themselves. Thus, Malorie, our POV character, and every other character in the novel spends the majority of their “screen” time blindfolded.

When one’s senses are deprived in anyway, we rely more heavily on the others. Common knowledge. But think of this. Losing the (arguably) more important senses of sight or hearing, would cause you to have to focus much more carefully on the minutiae of making it through a moment-by-moment existence.

Thus, the employment of “survival mode”-justified present tense, operates on the deeper level of sensory-deprivation-justified present tense.

What We Can Learn

Simply put: how to do present tense well, and how to sustain it over the length of a book.

Put another way: the thought that should go into the big craft decisions of our stories.

Sure, part of what makes Bird Box a masterclass in using present tense is Malerman’s amazing premise/plot. But I think if we, as writers, apply this multifaceted approach to justifying the more conspicuous craft choices we make, our readers will thank us.

Farewell

I decided to turn this into a five part series. Each of the five craft lessons we can learn from Bird Box deserves its own post.

But honestly, I also knew that you wouldn’t read a post that looked like it would end up around 3,000 words long.

Hope you enjoyed part 1 of 5.

Spring Reading 2018: 7 Must-Read Horror Releases To Scare Those Winter Cobwebs Away

Spring is coming. The sun already lingers in the sky. Its warmth shines on our pale winter flesh. But as fans of horror literature, there’s no reason to totally say farewell to the cold darkness. Luckily, publishers in the horror genre have some excellent new chills to serve up for Spring 2018, from a diverse group of writers. Here are seven of the hottest Spring releases.

The Hunger – Alma Katsu (March 6)

The Hunger by Alma Katsu Cover

Everyone knows the harrowing story of the Donner Party. The ill-fated outfit of pioneers who journeyed westward only to end up cannibalizing one another while snowbound in the Sierra Nevadas. Alma Katsu chronicles their story, with vivid renderings of America’s natural beauty in sharp contrast to her unflinching portrayal of the dark outer rims of human nature. Be sure to pre-order this brilliant re-telling of an American (true) horror story with a supernatural twist.

84K – Claire North (May 22)

84k by Claire North cover

Being dubbed as a perfect read for fans of The Handmaid’s Tale and Never Let Me Go, this dystopian thriller revolves around a society where Wu Tang Clan’s acronym C.R.E.A.M (Cash Rules Everything Around Me) has been fully realized. North’s brilliant premise has nothing to do with rap groups, but does explore a dark world where nothing is too precious for a price tag. For example, monetary fines for paying your way out of murder charges.

Head On: A Novel of The Near Future – John Scalzi (April 17)

Head on: A Novel of The Near Future by John Scalzi Cover

USA Today says that Scalzi has the “scientific creativity of Michael Crichton” and the “police procedural chops of Stephen J. Canell.” Perhaps commenting on America’s bloodlust, the novel centers around the Colosseum-like entertainment of the sport Hilketa. Players are robotic “threeps” (think Westworld hosts), so the sport that calls for wielding swords and hammers in order to retrieve your opponent’s head, delivers the gore to the fans, while causing no actual death. Until a famous athlete is actually murdered…

Unbury Carol: A Novel – Josh Malerman (April 10)

Unbury Carol by Josh Malerman Cover

In advance praise for this novel, horror big-wig Stephen Graham Jones said, “Unbury Carol is a Poe story set in the weird West we all carry inside us, and it not only hits the ground running, it digs into that ground, too. About six wonderful feet.” In this twisted take on Sleeping Beauty, the protagonist Carol Evers has died many times. She falls into comas indistinguishable from death. Two people know her secret: the money-grubbing husband who married her for her fortune, and the notorious outlaw James Moxie.

The Feed: A Novel – Nick Clark Windo (March 13)

The Feed by Nick Clark Windo Cover

Kirkus Reviews: “Think The Road intricately wrapped around Station Eleven with a dash of Oryx and Crake…Windo pushes all the right buttons in this post-apocalyptic mashup.” This debut novel explores what it means to be human and to be connected in our digital age. The Feed, a digital conglomerate, is our worst nightmare about social media’s pervasiveness in our lives–in real-time, every person’s emotions, thoughts, interactions, along with breaking events from around the world can be accessed. Society becomes dependent on it, and then… It all crashes, leaving people in a dog-eat-dog Mad Max fever dream.

Blood Standard – Laird Barron (May 29)

Blood Standard by Laird Barron Cover

This is being marketed more as a crime thriller than strict horror. But, let’s be honest: Laird (dare I say Lord?) Barron, horror fiction’s wunderkind, is going to weave a disturbing, macabre tale regardless of what genre his publishers call it. Here, an Alaskan mob enforcer exiled to upstate New York crawls through a seedy underworld in search of a missing girl. The Locus and Bram Stoker Award nominee, and three-time Shirley Jackson winner, delivers with this gritty venture into new noir.

The Outsider – Stephen King (May 22)

The Outsider by Stephen King Cover

What’s a horror list without the King? It looks like one the all-time greats in the horror genre took a short enough break from talking politics on Twitter, to write another nearly 600-page tome. This horror/murder mystery involves suspect Terry Maitlan, beloved small-town Little League Coach, English teacher, and father of two girls–a man possibly harboring a dark secret. Early buzz says Stephen King is back in fighting form for this one.

There you go. These seven titles should keep your freshly Spring-cleaned bookshelves and Kindles stocked. Pre-order them now, and you might save a few bucks.