So a different poet whom I also like today, just because:
Percy Shelley, from “To a Skylark”:
Teach me half the gladness
That thy brain must know.
Such harmonious madness
From my lips would flow
The world should listen then, as I am listening now.
But maybe Shelley was mad on his own…
Personal time again. Because I like stories that tell stories, and not stories where the author is saying, “Look at me write pretty!” this list is focused towards attaining clarity, which I think is something that a lot of amateur fantasy writers sorely need.
1) Ask yourself, and ask others, if the reader can truly see what’s going on.
Some sentences look good, until you start asking yourself what they actually mean. One of my favorite examples is, no surprise, Robert Jordan, cited in a review by Dork Cynic:
“Gusts plastered Rand al’Thor’s cloak to his back, whipped the earth-colored wool around his legs, then streamed it out behind him.”
Apparently, the wind is blowing in two directions simultaneously. Or is it? Does Jordan mean that the wind blows first one way, then another? Who can tell?
Such sentences look good on the surface, and the audience may, possibly, be able to imagine it. But “may, possibly,” is not good enough, especially in fights and other action scenes where the description is important in convincing a reader that a character’s life is in mortal danger. Show these sections of your prose to readers. Study the way the wind is blowing. Try to read these as if they were by a stranger. What details are sitting on the paper in confusing wet lumps, and what details are still in your head and need to be transferred to the page?
2) Keep language as simple as possible.
This doesn’t mean absence of detail. It does mean not using two words where one will do, not using several full-blown paragraphs of exposition (actually a worse offender than description) where a few sentences will get the point across, and not wandering off into digressions when your reader wants to get to the point.
Look at this passage:
Princess Karyn had always enjoyed the end of the deep, green garden where the trees met the walls, where the shadows were deep and welcoming, where the scent of fruit hung strongly in the summer air. She liked to wander there and think about what could have been, if she had married Prince Falstein. After all, there was no law saying that she couldn’t marry him, was there? Nothing but the immutable law of her own heart. Princess Karyn had always dreamed what might be if she hadn’t followed that immutable law, and sometimes the dreams were more pleasant than the reality. But other times she came back to thinking of the reality, and looked around her with a satisfied smile, and was glad that she hadn’t married Prince Falstein.
Nothing particularly wrong with it, except that it’s full of kudzu words. It repeats the same things over and over again in slightly different ways (and sometimes even using the same language). This is better:
“Princess Karyn had always enjoyed wandering near the garden wall, under the branches of trees, in the company of the shadows and the heavy scent of summer fruit. Sometimes she found the spot particularly leading her to thoughts of Prince Falstein. Would she be happier if she had wed him than she was now? But the sunlight and the shadow and the scent of summer fruit never gave her any answer, just led her back to the prince-less reality.”
I think this is superior because:
- it cuts out things that don’t make much sense, like “deep, green garden.” How is the garden deep?
- it combines the description with what Princess Karyn likes to do there, cutting down on wasted space.
- it includes physical details twice, at the end and the beginning; the first passage abandons them entirely.
- it emphasizes the Princess’s uncertainty about what marrying the Prince would have been like as contrasted with the reality, without repeating it over and over, and without being vague, as the last five sentences of the first passage do.
Writing clearly is not only or always about cutting out excess verbiage, but also repetition and excess content.
3) Use sharp words.
If you mean knife, say knife. Don’t say “thing.” If you mean murder, say murder. Don’t say “event.” I know this seems to contradict the bad examples I gave above, where the author wanders and wanders and adds in too much excess detail, but the bad thing about a lot of fantasy description is that the description, in defiance of all common sense, actually remains vague. The author writes in long monologues about “things being different if she had married the prince,” instead of saying what would be different. The author notes the scent and colors and height of badly-described “trees,” when “oaks” gives a clearer picture.
If you don’t feel competent to use oaks instead of trees because you don’t know that much about oaks, for heaven’s sake go research them. I wouldn’t have known that oaks flower before their leaves come out, if I hadn’t looked it up. The author should know the sharp words and details so that she can use them. Then she can be detailed and compact at the same time.
4) Don’t have the characters use metaphors where they would confuse the audience with them.
If your character talks vaguely about an apple cut in half, and it’s supposed to be a metaphor for her broken heart, I say, “Huh?” (Actually, that’s only because I can’t reach into the book and beat the character to death with a tire iron). Similarly, the character talking for three paragraphs about how the broken apple represents her broken heart makes me dream wistfully of going into the book and using a meat hook on her.
Don’t get awed by your own poetry. Metaphors can be effective tools, but only when they’re serving the purpose of the story, not there for their own sake. (Poetry is where metaphors can shine for their own sake; put them there). Anything that requires the reader to make a leap across an intuitive chasm, or bangs the reader over the head with it, reeks. Stay within the context of a metaphor that can be explained in about a paragraph, and especially one that is unusual or has an ironic edge. The broken apple for broken heart example is pretty bad, but at least it’s not the ring representing the eternal circle of their love. I hate that one.
5) Don’t rely on fantasy clichés to get your point across, either.
I’ve read many scenes set in inns, in army camps, on high roads, and other “typical” fantasy situations where the author barely bothers to describe anything. They’re relying on the fantasy reader’s experience with dozens or hundreds of similar situations to carry the description for them. Amusingly enough, those details they do add are often the most stereotypical, such as the tavern wench with the cleavage falling out of her clothing and the fat innkeeper with piggish little eyes. Those don’t make me see the Swimming Mermaid; they make me see Generic Inn 2,300,456.
Close your eyes before you start writing such a scene. See the inn, the high road, the army camp, in your mind. Now ask yourself what makes it unique? This is the best detail to use, or plethora of details. The reader can still add in the tavern wenches, the dust, the tents in neat rows. But now they’ll know that the meat roasting over the fire smells horrible to your characters, that the road curves past that little clump of trees, and that the wind is blowing from the north and snapping the purple banner on top of the leader’s tent.
6) Always make sure that your plethora of details doesn’t contradict the other plethora of details.
This relates back to the problems of self-contradiction on all levels of writing, of course, but in fantasy, with its authors bearing the responsibility to create an alternate world, it’s especially important in the level of detail. Say an author spends a lot of time convincing me of the summer sun, the dust, the buzz of flies around open corpses, the nodding heads on the porches. Then the hero walks into the village inn, and there’s a fire blazing on the hearth, which the author proceeds to describe in location, size, color, and heat while I stare at the book in horror.
Fire in a summer that hot? These people don’t have air conditioning. They would probably set aside the profits that stew and hot meat could make them for cold meals of bread, cheese, dried meat and the like as long as the heat lasted.
Do keep this in mind. Don’t lovingly describe the princess’s silk robe when you’ve already lovingly described the rainstorm she’s walking through. Don’t lovingly describe the sea from the viewpoint of a character who’s also being violently seasick at the moment. In general, the details that come first should bind you, unless you have a truly compelling story reason to include the second set. Altering the first details constantly to conform to the second is a sign of lazy writing, not respecting what has come before, and always leads to the chance that you might run into other problems. Maybe you’ll really need that rainstorm in a few pages, while it won’t matter whether the princess is wearing silk or sensible heavy clothes.