Frank Herbert’s Dune: Writing Lessons Part 1
Cover of the Avalon Hill board game for the Frank Herbert classic
As anyone who reads this blog knows, I am a huge J.R.R. Tolkien fan. I’ve read everything he has written including his letters. I used his letters to write a few blog posts about what Tolkien had to teach us about writing and those do pretty well and still see blog traffic.
However, I have a confession to make: I’ve never read Frank Herbert until now.
The one author who is to science fiction what Tolkien is to fantasy has been looming on my bookshelf for years but I’ve never had the guts to pick up one of his books and read him.
Well, last week I began reading Dune and may I say that the journey is long, but the payoff is amazing. I am enthralled with the characters, the backstory, the depth that is Frank Herbert’s masterpiece. Why have I not read him before?
As I turn the pages (or click the pages…I’m reading it on my Kindle) I find lesson after lesson about writing space opera plainly seen written between the lines. So I decided that I would share these lessons here on the blog for a few weeks as I burn through the first novel.
Lesson 1: Unexpected is Necessary
There is a plot to kill Duke Leto Atreides that is instigated by the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. Harkonnen kidnaps Doctor Yueh’s wife, the personal doctor of Duke Leto Atreides. The good Doctor has been to a school of conditioning and wears several markers (a diamond tattoo on the forehead, etc.) that speak of his absolute loyalty. However, since the Yueh loves his wife so much he betrays the Duke and paralyzes him for eventual execution by the Baron. In a fatal twist, he replaces one of the Duke’s teeth with a poison capsule that the Duke is to use to breathe poison in the Baron’s face when he comes close to gloat. Nothing of Yueh’s plan goes according to design. The Duke bites the tooth in the face of Harkonnen’s servant Mentat because both look like a blur due to the drug Yueh gave him, and the Baron escapes his fate.
I had seen the David Lynch film when I was a teen many eons ago, knew this plot well, but when it happens in the novel it is weighted with such melancholic verbiage and adjectives that it is much more sad and tragic. It is expected that Yueh’s counter-plan succeeds, but it does not and a much more terrible result develops: an angry Baron Harkonnen.
Of course, I’m working on the sequel to The Terminarch Plot and in practice of this technique I caused my heroes to suffer some very ugly losses that will affect them for the rest of the series. These losses are deeply sacrificial and at the same time cripple their ability to act right away to remedy the situation.
The Bottom Line: Instead of moving the plot along in a normal direction, think of taking the plot in a direction that it wouldn’t normally go. Throw a perilous complication into the story that permanently harms the hero, leaves them disfigured, or damages them emotionally to where they do not recover. That in itself can become the kernel of a story that can keep the plot moving forward and at the same time make your characters that much more real.
Bad stuff happens. That’s just life. Your characters shouldn’t be immune to that just because they only exist on the page.