Scythe: How to Read Like a Writer
Not all stories are filled with easy to identify, built in conflict. Neal Shusterman set himself quite the challenge with the utopic society of Scythe. From his novel, writers can learn how to find the conflict in any situation, constantly make things worse, and utilize journals to advance the plot as well as deepen characters.
Making Utopia Interesting
Dystopias are riddled with problems. They are the result of everything going wrong and therefore have conflict built into the nature of the worlds themselves. Utopias are the opposite of that. They are worlds where everything has gone right and most conflict is petty. A story without conflict is boring, so I’ve often wondered how an author could make a utopian story interesting. Shusterman answers that question.
The premise of Scythe is humans have defeated disease, pain, and death. They’ve built utopia, but the Earth can’t support an ever expanding population. Scythes are the people charged with keeping the population in check, and new scythes are chosen as teenagers to apprentice the old ones. Shusterman’s novel follows two teenagers who are chosen for this grim honor.
Even though the world itself is a utopia, people are still people in Scythe. That’s what makes the story interesting. Disease, pain, and death may have been conquered, but some people are still greedy, power hungry, and evil, and they’ve managed to infiltrate the scythedom.
Your world, setting, or character relationships can be mostly good. You don’t have to create a dystopia in order for your story to be captivating, but you do need conflict. Even utopias are subject to the darker sides of human nature. Find the dark sides of your story and use them to create conflict.
What Could Be Worse
When building conflict into your story or deciding what should happen next, ask yourself what could be worse. Have that happen. Shusterman constantly throws new obstacles at his characters in Scythe.
Witnessing death in an utopic society as a teenager is the worst experience of Citra and Rowan’s lives, but that’s only the inciting incident. Soon after they are chosen to become death dealers themselves, to join the scythdom. Throughout the story they will be separated from their families and each other, accused of atrocities, feel the lonely isolation of being social outcasts, and even experience death and torture. Citra and Rowan are not the same characters by the end of the book. How could they be?
When you ask yourself what could be worse and do that thing, your characters will naturally grow and change. The plot and character arcs will inform and build upon each other, and your readers will not get bored.
Journals That Add Insight into Characters and Plot
Authors often use journals as a tool to show their character’s inner thoughts and emotions, but not all characters are the type to write. Journals take readers out of a story when they are an ill-fitting device. Shusterman doesn’t just use journals to dive into his characters’ heads; he built them into Scythe’s plot and world.
Each scythe is required by law to keep a daily journal. These become public documents, a record of their lives and jobs. Because they are public record, Shusterman is able to use them to provide multiple perspectives on his world and deepen his characters. For example, one entry says:
In my early years, I wondered why it was so rare to catch a scythe out of his or her robes and in common street clothes. It’s a rule in some places, but not MidMerica . . . Then, as I settled in, it occurred to me why it must be. For our own peace of mind, we scythes must retain a certain level of separation from the rest of humanity (76).
Here Shusterman reveals nuances of his world – how the scythes separate themselves by their outfits to help retain their sanity and a necessary distance. He’s also showing how one character grew as a scythe and came to believe the things she does today.
Some of these sections might verge on information dumps, but Shusterman keeps them in check by never allowing a journal to continue for more than a couple of pages. Most are only a single page long.
Format is key to a journal’s success as a story tool. Length is one aspect of format. Shusterman also changed the font of the journal entries just enough to make it clear what they were, bordered them by single lines spanning the width of the page, and only placed the entries at the beginning of each chapter. This made it clear where each journal entry began and ended.
If you’re thinking about using journals or some other written document, make sure it fits into your story and world. Some characters wouldn’t right their personal thoughts down, so it rings false in a reader’s mind when authors force them to do so. Other journals don’t reveal any new information. They don’t advance the plot, so they slow the pace and bore the reader. Make sure your journals fit your characters’ personalities, reveal new information, and keep your story moving.
Why an Editor Recommends Scythe by Neal Shusterman
If you’re searching for a unique take on science fiction/fantasy, read Scythe. The idea of teenagers being trained as grim reapers is unique and fascinating and the story’s execution does not disappoint.
In particular, pay attention to Scythe’s ending. As a reader, I was satisfied with the way Shusterman tied up the loose ends of the book and hooked for the next one in the series. Shusterman didn’t need to use a cliff hanger or gimmick. He found an ending that concluded the major conflicts of Scythe while hinting at what might come next. This is something all series writers can use.
There are a number of reasons writers should read Neal Shusterman’s Scythe, including learning to add conflict to utopic situations, how to make things worse, what journals should do for a story, and how to end a series with satisfaction and a hook to Ignite Your Ink.
What other techniques did you notice in Scythe? Share them in the comments below. For a free chart comparing the different points of view, subscribe to Ignite Your Ink.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.