What Dune has Taught Me about Writing

For those of you who have read Dune, you understand that is nothing short of a masterpiece of fiction.  Unfortunately for me, I hadn't read it until recently (and I have yet to follow up with its half dozen sequels).  For those of you who have not read Dune, it follows the Highborn House Atreides from the lush planet Caladan to the wasteland of Arrakis.  But there are some things that I noticed that Herbert did really well writing Dune.

Narrative:  The reader gets to see inside everyone's mind, in nearly every scene.  Initially, this was hard to follow for me because I haven't read too many books where this occurs.  However, once accustomed to it I couldn't stop thinking why more books aren't written this way.  And because of this, I found myself caring more about the characters than about the events that happened to them.

Character:  The reader never wonders what a character wants.  The story is character driven.  There are so many egos and this work is rife with backstabbing and secret plans that it takes the mention of the Space Guild to remind you this is set in the far future.

Genre:  If not for the mention of shields, spaceships, and planets, you would think this was more akin to a low fantasy work.  We are lost within fantasy archetypes of Upper and Lower Houses, fiefs, empire, political marriages, and power plays.  Dogmatic religion and prophesy also play major roles in this book, something absent from a lot of sci fi works.

Structure:  This book takes place over the period of several years.  The main character is in his early teens when the book starts, but the work ends when he is in his late teens/early twenties.  Furthermore, this book doesn't have chapters.  I initially found this as jarring as the constant change of perspective mentioned above.  Instead, this book's segments are broken up by fictional quotes by the Emperor's daughter from her myriad biographies, studies, and reference guides.

Details:  Any text on writing will explain how details are crucial to the story.  However, hardly do you see a work weave in details so seamlessly you feel like you are watching Cable TV Drama.  Not only does Herbert use the slightest descriptions to give his characters distinguishing features, but the emotional connections to the characters serve the reader as well.  I found myself hating the Baron Harkonnen more than I had ever hated Voldemort or Emperor Palpatine.  It wasn't because the Baron was more evil, either.

In conclusion, while reading Dune I was reminded that a story has its own life.  While there are certain rules pertaining to plot, structure, and grammar, a story cannot be shoved into a box.  This helps me feel freer in my writing.  And if I can get rid of these hard edges of the boxes I have constructed around my craft, maybe my stories will flow a bit more naturally.


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