It’s hard to know what to say with Shadow and Bone. Are these lessons in writing? Are they lessons in adaptation? I think they must be a bit of both since there’s only 8 episodes to work with, a popular book to draw from and all sorts of things to say.
**there’s like spoilers everywhere in this. mostly for the book, so if you’ve read it you should be good. a little bit for the series. more specific moments are hidden but this post is not recommended if you’re not familiar, really, with the book**
How balancing action and character can make your story shine
The first lesson has to be balancing action and character since that’s like storytelling 101, right? The lesson we learn from Shadow and Bone is not to be top heavy.
In both the book and the series, it opens with a lot of action and then… it slows down. After all the of the discovery and running and fighting we settle into the characters. In the book, this ends up with a second act that is a lot of training montages with Baghra and Botkin and not a lot actually happening in the story. In the series, the result is the first 5 episodes are a lot of action–all the running and fighting. They’re slightly balanced by quieter moments such as the flashbacks of Alina and Mal’s childhood. But the whole pace of it feels quick and, maybe a little rushed.
Then the last three episodes settle down and the characters talk considerably more and fight less. Episode six, especially, slows down with most of Mal and Alina’s moments compressed into one episode.
Granted, it’s difficult in an instance like Shadow and Bone because the series can only work with what the book gave it. Not a lot happens at the Little Palace before she unleashes her power, and even then not until the night she displays it for the court. So how do you adapt that second act? How do you bring in the character moments if Alina only has Kirigan, Baghra and Genya to really interact with?
I suppose the lesson is, at some point, take a step back and decide if your story has a balanced pace or if it’s all run around and fight and then sit and talk. Where you can, try to mingle the character moments with the action, discovery or frenetic energy rather than swinging too far in either direction for too long.
Why key moments matter so much to your story
So, any adaptation is going to have to face the things it added and the things it left out. Every fan is going to have their favorite moments they’re hoping to see brought to life. They won’t always be the same moments for everyone so someone, at some point, is going to be disappointed.
But what are the key moments that make the story? The ones that if you change them or leave them out the story isn’t really itself? And how do you keep the key moments without making a slavish adaptation of every single scene? Beyond even that, how do you keep those moments if you’re going to alter the plot?
There are no easy answer to those questions or any version of an answer that works for every story. Maybe I only make it an essential lesson because Shadow and Bone eliminated my favorite moment. And yet….
If you skipped the spoiler then let me just say, one of my favorite parts is when Alina sees Mal leaving the Little Palace. I think that confrontation plays such a part in the evolution of their relationship and I missed getting to see it. Also, the quote which I expected to get cut but missed nonetheless.
Regardless, on to the second part of this lesson…
It’s ok to be inventive and add new elements. Goats and battles with grisha and assassination attempts. It’s ok to have fun with your story. It’s great to make it a little more exciting with a dash of action and a layer of humor. When you’re not making an adaptation then editing is the playground where you can have this sort of fun. The foundation of the story is in place so you get to start playing with it. Enjoy!
Don’t make choices you can’t take back
It’s good to take risks, to include big things in the story and see where it leads (that lesson I learned from Amie Kaufman). But you have to be cautious about the choices you can’t undo.
Like the bond between Alina and Kirigan.
Nina may be the biggest risk they took. I understand wanting to include her because she’s a part of the Crows books and a well liked character (though it’s hard to find an unliked character in the Grishaverse unless it’s like a villain, and maybe even then). Eric Heisserer acknowledged that “doing a time jump when the story is fresh to audiences is dangerous.” He was talking about messing with the whole Crows storyline and when it lines up with Shadow and Bone but it applies to Nina, perhaps, even more than he intended when he said it.
So now Heisserer and the writers have a conundrum. Hold the timeline and leave Nina out. Or fast forward her story since she would have been at the Little Palace and, like, twelve during Shadow and Bone. I get why they went with the fast forward when it’s easy enough to fit the first part of her story with Mattias into the narrative.
But where do they go from here?
What kind of stories are those?
Also, now the Crows have been introduced, because Kaz and Jesper and Inej are great characters. But having made these choices, what do they do with them next? What are they going to do for the next two seasons during the Ravkan civil war? Cross the fold again and be involved in some way? Be about idle heists in Ketterdam? Or do they fast forward that too and Six of Crows now coincides with Siege and Storm? And if they do that, how does jurda parem exist during the civil war without messing with that story too? Or how do you handle the auction when… there’s a whole piece of that con that doesn’t exist quite right until after Ruin and Rising.
I understand why they made the choices they did. The problem is often when changes like these are made in an adaptation, you have to keep making more changes to keep the story even somewhat lined up until eventually you go off the rails.
Which I guess is more of an adaptation lesson than a writing lesson.
The writing lesson is thus–be bold and include the big moments and the fun stuff. Don’t hold back. But also pause and look ahead to consider the consequences of those choices. And make sure you’ve got somewhere to go with your characters.
…and by ‘somewhere’ I mean, somewhere that isn’t going to make your readers angry.
The Importance of Casts and Characters
One of the most important parts of any work, adaptation or not, is the cast. In fact, it’s almost more important in an adaption where character integrity is so vital. The characters of Shadow and Bone are largely in tact probably as a result of Leigh Bardugo‘s involvement. Still, there were a lot of little moments where I thought, ‘they’d never do that.’
But those are the little things writers do to make the plot work better. Maybe they think they’re not such a big deal but when fans go sour on the characters because of those little things, it lessens enthusiasm. And no where is this more true than with casting.
I liked Alina a lot. I think Jessie Mei Li did a great job of balancing Alina’s vulnerability and the naïve side of her character with a determination and conviction she needs to become the saint. I almost like her better than the book version of Alina.
Baghra was great. Zoë Wanamaker‘s voice! And she is as delightfully ruthless as Baghra needs to be.
Ben Barnes is, well, Ben Barnes.
I like the Crows other than the aforementioned discrepancies. But the casting was good. I would have gotten a voice coach for Freddy Carter, though, to deepen his voice. He looks the part but doesn’t sound the part.
I suppose if there’s a lesson in any of this it’s the more variety you include in your characters, the more likely it is one of them will appeal to readers.
Spoilers, man, be forewarned
If this must be a writing lesson, this applies to a series rather than a standalone story. And the lesson is be careful not to let foreshadowing topple over into spoilers.
And if you’re working on an adaptation, don’t spoil things too early. Because the series lets a few things slip that the books hold back.
The biggest lesson may be if readers get excited about your work then that’s magic.
Whether it’s a book or an adaptation or a song. Make it more than a synopsis or a trailer, more than a cover or an image. Give it the heart and depth to sustain that excitement that’s so easy to create in a trailer or a teaser. Balance the action and the character so that even a story flows like a song.