What an assassin taught me about writing – the killer story structure of ‘Throne of Glass’


The hype is everywhere. There’s not a YA bestseller list that doesn’t seem to have at least two books with the name Sarah J. Maas next to them. I had to investigate.

And I like to start at the beginning, look at the book that began the phenomenon.

So. Then. ‘Throne of Glass’ it was.

I picked it up with two parts excitement, one part expectation, and a dusting of cynic.

Hoping for a great read.


And, phew, I got it. This is a fab book. So fab, I didn’t want to just attribute its awesomeness to world-building or characters or clever writing. Because there was something else. Something more.

Tension. Timing.

Ever increasing levels of evil and excitement. Heavy-eyelids, can’t-stop-reading, catch-up-on-sleep-some-other-day kind of something more.

So after I’d read it once, I didn’t just reread it – I plotted out the entire book. What did I find?

  • Exponential increase in gruesome deaths
  • Story and character arcs
  • Kick-ass third act.

If you don’t like spoilers, stop now… otherwise…

Maths and murder – how Maas uses death to keep us hooked

No joke. I plotted each time Champions got their insides and brains eaten by an unknown-other-worldly-evil creature, and they die in an exponential pattern. No wonder I felt like the stakes just kept on getting higher.

Don’t believe me? Check it out. Page1.jpg

I rest my case.

Until the 45% mark, we think this whole thing is just a tournament with side-serve of magic and intrigue. It’s only there, just before halfway, that Maas lets us know there is far more at stake. And promptly kills a few more Champions, letting Calaena understand more about how they died each time.

And see how the Champions stop being eaten at the 65% mark? That’s when the third act starts. After that, we don’t need dead people.

We have Celaena, fighting and proactive and ultra-awesome.


Arcs all over the place

It’s refreshing to read a book with two strong female characters – both Celaena and Nehemia are active and heroic.

The most passive character is Prince Dorian, who spends most of the book reacting, static. Only at the end do we really see his strength begin to show through. It’s a tantalising invitation to read the next book.

Lover-boy #2, Chaol – the one Celaena has the more visceral connection to – is active too. He arcs from despising her and what she’s done, to trusting her, understanding her, caring for her. And running the dark-infused back-stabbing Cain through with his sword to save her.

With Chaol’s first kill, the last wall he built to differentiate himself and Celaena falls down. Nice.

Celaena herself starts as defeated, but refusing to yield. One of the sweetest starts I’ve read, we learn so much without ever feeling like we’re in a boring history lesson. Halfway through, she is still rather self-absorbed, hiding her identity, fighting herself. She falls even further by the 70%, when she’s sure her best friend, Nehemia, has been lying and is the source of the evil within the castle. But she’s kissing Dorian by 75%, hunting ridderaks at 80%, and regaining her friendship with Nehemia as well. Taking things into her control. Realising she cares for others.

And by 100%? She’s happy. Powerful. Freedom beckons.

And the stakes are so much higher.


Hang on… that’s the essence of the awesome third act too…

The reason the third act is so strong is because Celaena is driving it. The deaths stop and everything hangs on what she can do. She’s helped. But it’s still her.

In terms of helping, it’s interesting that this book aligns with only two of the three rules for saving people that are outlined in the Better Novel Project. Celaena is saved by her Best Friend (Nehemia heals the ridderak bite). She is saved by a minor character (Elena drains the poison during the final duel). She’s even saved by a major character (Chaol and his first kill).

So we, the reader, know Celaena is special enough to save.

However, she should attempt to save a friend, and she doesn’t. She succeeds. Twice.

Twice she saves Nox, once with action on the climbing wall, once with words and truth when she advises him to run. It still works, we’ve already seen her weaknesses, what we need to see is her growing into her new strength. What we need to know is that despite her tough exterior and the fact she’s figuring out how to escape or kill someone everywhere she goes, deep down beneath the facade she cares enough to risk herself to save a friend.

And also that she’s cocky. She doesn’t care she’s saving a rival. She knows she’ll win anyway.


Top notch read. An editing error that had me scratching my head (she’s already been down to the tomb, so why does she instantly presume the footsteps in the dust are someone else’s?), but I can ignore it because the book is so fresh. So addictive.

I’ve already read Book 2. Someone has #3 out on loan from my library.


Now I have to wait until it’s available…


2 thoughts on “What an assassin taught me about writing – the killer story structure of ‘Throne of Glass’

  1. Pingback: My top six Young Adult and Junior Fiction reads of 2016 | hm waugh – writer

  2. Pingback: The spiky issue of positive relationship role models in YA – the clever ‘A Court of Thorns and Roses’ | hm waugh – writer

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