By Ekta R. Garg
February 13, 2020
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
Release date: November 5, 2019
When I became a freelance editor nine years ago, I had no idea it would forever change the way I read books. Now, not only do I read for pleasure, but a small corner of my mind keeps a running tab on the essential elements of stories. Are the stakes high enough? Was there a sufficient level of conflict? Are the characters well developed?
For The Starless Sea, I would, sadly, have to answer No, No, and No.
Editors do many things. We keep grammar on task. We make sure (as best we can) that no typos slip through. We stay focused on the author’s Big Idea; that is, the main message an author wants to convey.
The Starless Sea, though, didn’t have a Big Idea. And I mean absolutely no disrespect to the developmental editor who worked with Erin Morgenstern on this book, but I wonder if the editor got just as carried away as Morgenstern did. I can see how. Her prose is exquisite. You can forget, with ease, that you’re reading a novel. Her ideas, her imagination, and her sheer creativity are enough to bowl anyone over.
An editor’s job, though, isn’t to be bowled over by dizzying heights of talent. It’s to make sure that talent is propped up by strong pillars of story construction so the whole thing doesn’t just tumble to the ground. An editor makes sure the foundation of a story will support it, all the way through.
I won’t go into a page-by-page analysis of the book, but I will touch on the elements I mentioned above. For writers, you’ll see how an editor’s mind works. For readers, you might gain a greater appreciation of just how hard this craft is.
Are the stakes high enough?
Non-writers: When authors and editors talk about stakes, we mean what’s on the line for the characters. In almost every single story/book, we want the stakes to be as high as possible. We want to push the characters as far as they can go before implementing the story’s resolution.
That doesn’t mean it has to be a life-or-death situation. The stakes could be as simple as just wanting to exit a room. Authors just have to make sure everything possible will keep the character from leaving until the story’s climax. The stakes have to be meaningful, because this is the story element that will change the character forever.
In the case of The Starless Sea, the stakes aren’t clear. What, exactly, is Zachary fighting for? What will happen if he doesn’t get it? How will he, or his world, change as a result?
Truthfully, we don’t know the answers to any of these questions. Some might argue that Zachary is fighting for “love,” but that’s kind of a vague concept. Vague concepts can only sustain a character for so long. If that love is rooted in something concrete—for example, if he were working against a timeline (like someone dying)—then the stakes become much clearer.
The stakes don’t feel high enough, which leaves readers stumbling along with the other story elements. It’s a testament to Morgenstern’s immense writing ability that she can keep readers engaged, but by the end, as an editor, I felt cheated out of that satisfying story conclusion. There wasn’t one, because we weren’t sure what Zachary was fighting for to begin with.
Was there a sufficient level of conflict?
At its most basic level, authors and editors see conflict as two opposing forces actively working against one another to achieve their own goals. If one force (or character) accomplishes his/her goal, the other force can’t fulfill theirs. Think Batman and the Joker.
Authors and editors know the more conflict they include in a story, the better. The more two opposing forces clash, the harder they’ll each work to win. With The Starless Sea, though, the conflict is more between the reader and the book. We’re told that Zachary is looking for something, but, again, because we don’t know exactly what that something is or what his “payoff” will be when he gets it, the fact that he’s searching so hard starts to lose its charm after a while.
Worse, there’s nothing other than his bumbling sense of direction to stop him from achieving his mystical goal. What is he fighting against? There’s that secret society with the doorknobs hanging from the ceiling, but once Zachary makes it to the world beneath the earth’s surface even the society doesn’t bother him anymore.
The reason why conflict is important is because it makes us worry about the characters. It makes us stay awake late into the night to find out if they’re going to be okay. While Zachary ran into some strange things in the world of the Starless Sea, I never really worried about his welfare because he never seemed to fight against anything that threatened him or his purpose in the story.
Are the characters well developed?
This one, I think, hurts more than the other misfires in the book. I really—really—wanted to like Zachary and Mirabel and all the others. Erin Morgenstern makes it easy to start feeling warmth toward her characters. She rounds out their world with several little touches, little details that draw us in. She builds an incredible story world.
In this book, though, the biggest problem was the sheer number of characters. For some reason, Morgenstern decided to include several independent short stories in the book. The stories were lovely; they gave us quick peeks into what else might be possible in that incredible mind of hers. But she took up precious story real estate by offering characters and mini plotlines not central to Zachary and his “quest.”
Because of this, none of the characters from Zachary to the bees ever get their due. We know a little about Zachary’s past and upbringing, but I’m willing to bet there was much more there. We get glimpses into Dorian and Mirabel’s lives, but that’s it. Only glimpses. And bees? Why bees? What’s going on there?
If we’re not offered the opportunity to get to know the characters, how can we feel personally affected when they’re up or down? How can we get emotionally invested in the conflict? How can we cheer them on when the stakes are sky high, and we’re staying up until 4 a.m. to make sure they win their final battle (whatever that might be)?
As an editor, I wished Morgenstern had pared back many of the fantastical elements of her book to allow Zachary and the main quest, such as it was, to shine through. More than anything, I wish this book had turned out differently.