Learning From the Pros: Leviathan

Scott Westerfeld makes his Steampunk entry with the YA heavyweight, Leviathan.  Bestselling author of the Uglies novels, Scott creates a gripping alternate history based in Europe, shortly before the start of World War I.

The most notable history alternating that takes place in the novel is easily the differentiating the Central and Entente powers by way of their speculative technology.  The Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary are termed ‘Clankers,’ users of your typical steampunk war machines, such as mechanical walkers, spider-shaped tanks, and Zeppelins.  On the other side of the conflict, the ‘Darwinists’ represent the Triple Entente of Britain, France and Russia.  The Darwinists are the result of Darwin’s biological research resulting in the discovery of not only evolution, but DNA as well.  The Biopunk ramifications of such a discovery leads to the bio-engineering of micro-organisms for wartime uses, particularly the titular Leviathan airship itself.

Plot-wise, alternate history is also evoked by setting the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand at night, allowing the initial inciting event to take place the same night, allowing the setting increase the effect of tension.  Likewise, the existence of Archduke’s son, Aleksander, is completely fabricated, but by being an only child allows for the importance of royal inheritance to drive the conflict between Alek and the Clanker forces that pursue him.

The pacing is tense and frantic, but somehow manages to conjure a reasonably sizable word-count for a Young Adult novel.  How he manages to do this is through managing a multitude of scenes of intense pace, but spacing them in such a way that the main characters get only a brief time to react and deal with each tight situation before they are thrust into another.  Secondly, he employs a two-pronged plot, each revolving around the two main characters, runaway prince Alek and the Darwinist GI Jane-type protagonist, Deryn Sharp.

Their stories intertwine with each other, up to the point where their paths cross, and the story truly takes off from there.

Leviathan is a great example of a well-written novel from which I can draw certain methods and techniques for my own novel.  After a nice re-read of my own manuscript, I can already see a few glaring differences between my story and Westerfeld’s.  The first glaring comparison I made was in my word count and pacing.  As I’ve already mentioned, the author manages to squeeze out a reasonable length from a relatively fast-paced read by incorporating multiple plot threads, but fleshes each one out with the proper detail and pacing so that each side feels like an independent novella on their own.

Guardian has a whopping three plotlines, centered around the three protagonists.  However, the characters themselves overlap with each other and interact with each other more often that I seem to like.  Perhaps it’s due to the quick pacing that I gave to each plotline that they seemed to meet each other at every turn.  I think I will keep them more separated from each other, not only to assist with the development of the characters themselves, but also to build the tension that grows between each character whenever they meet and separate.

This will probably require the incorporation of more secondary characters, fleshing out their respective secondary antagonists further (they are all set up against a common enemy, but there are other obstacles that they should overcome first), and treating each line as its own story, weaving through each other with great importance, to the penultimate point where they are all united at once to make their stand against the common enemy, making for an increased climactic effect.

If I follow these guidelines, I’m sure to increase my anemic word count to something more  marketable to literary enthusiasts of the steampunk genre.


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