Writing is like sheer exultant fire when it goes well. And did I mention that I really like having new music? I got the Sonata Arctica, Nightwish, and Kate Price CD’s I ordered as end-of-finals presents today. Whoo-hoo!
Anyway, this is less a rant than a list of “This is how I really like to see language used in fantasy fiction.” And of course the usual, “Yes, if an author is skilled enough he/she can get away with anything” disclaimer applies. My liking of authors with really spare styles like Glen Cook proves that. It’s just that a) I see a lot more authors who can’t get away with it than ones who can, and b) the authors I treasure most use language very well and in what I think are the right ways.
1) The language adapts itself to what is happening in the story.
This means that when the author is writing a sword fight between two characters who have hated each other for a long time, it does not have this format:
*250-word paragraph of description about the sword’s origin, looks, and how well it has served its owner in battle*
*300-word paragraph of description about how Good Guy feels as he looks into Bad Guy’s cold obsidian eyes*
Ugh. No. A sword fight like this is a battle to the death, cold and hard as the blades it’s being fought with. It is not a court occasion where I don’t mind if the author describes every detail of the princess’s dress and what symbols the nobles are wearing and what the roof looks like. I don’t want clouds of purple prose to take away from the action and make me forget what’s happening between one strike and the next. It makes it seem slow, which a sword fight shouldn’t be.
Adjectives and adverbs are another problem in fast-paced scenes. Those suckers will pile up like you wouldn’t believe if you don’t look at them, and I have read far, far too many amateurs’ scenes which went like this:
“Her cold emerald eyes narrowed down the impossibly heavy iron blade with its golden pommel at her opponent, whose sleek blond hair was tossing in the wind, his crimson lips curved in a cruel smile and his eyes like a dark mirror.”
First of all, at this point in the story the audience should know what color your characters’ eyes and hair are, so you don’t need to keep mentioning them. Second, lips are usually some shade of red; it’s a useless detail. Third, “impossibly heavy” is obviously not true if the heroine is carrying the damn thing. Fourth, show me her opponent is cruel, do not tell me. Fifth, “like a dark mirror” is a very stupid and overused simile. And finally, what is this top-heavy blather doing in a fight scene?
The problem is that a lot of authors mistake “luxurious” language for suspenseful language. It’s not. Suspense has to be built up out of everything that came before and the atmosphere that the author builds into the story. Purple prose won’t help. Excitement does not live by description alone.
Where do I think description belongs? Court scenes, the ending of the book, marriages, funerals. Scenes you’ve built up to for a while and where nothing more urgent is happening. Even then I tend to skim the clothing descriptions and any panegyrics on how the women are wearing their hair (it just doesn’t matter).
2) ”The author uses the right word, not its second cousin.” -Mark Twain
I really hate seeing people haul out the thesaurus- or, alternatively, become so sure they know a word that they just charge ahead and use it without even looking it up. “Ravish” and “ravage” are not the same thing; “ravish” is the one that means to rape, if you must be poetic about rape. Nor are “monarch” and “regent.” Regents are the ones who hold the throne for a temporary period of time, usually while they’re waiting for a younger heir to reach the age of majority. (You know? The stereotypical evil uncle?) A woman is a widow, a man a widower. Someone who is prone is not lying in the same way as someone who is supine. And on and on.
Yes, I am an extremely picky reader. I’m also a writer who has a horror of making a vocabulary flub, and so if I’m at all uncertain of a word, I look it up. It’s saved me from scores of embarrassing mistakes in the past. When I can tell a writer hasn’t done that, it snaps me right out of the story and makes me aware of the book as little black marks on a page or computer screen. And that ends any feeling that the story is a remarkable journey into the imagination. It’s a remarkable look at the author’s lack of education, but I would rather not have seen that.
3) Continual use of “just,” “only,” “rather, “quite,” and “very” is scrapped.
These are weak words. Which is stronger in each pair?
John was very angry.
John was furious.
John was quite upset.
John could feel his teeth grinding together.
He rather wanted to speak to her.
He yearned to speak to her.
He was only a few feet from her.
He stood a few feet from her.
The sword was just a little bit further.
She imagined she could feel the sword brushing her fingertips.
The author can get away with some uses of this, but more and I start to notice. (“Very” is one of the few words I think Guy Gavriel Kay overuses, and I wish he would stop). The worst offense is in dialogue, where there are characters who repeat the words until I want to scream at them to stop. Even if you’re aiming for a social context where you imagine the characters really would use those words, vary them. Tighten the sentences sometimes. Make other characters notice and get annoyed. I often feel that way about people who hem and haw and say “very, very angry” instead of getting to the damn point in real life.
4) Dialogue tag + adverb= NO, OUCH.
I’m not a big fan of exotic dialogue tags in the first place. A few “murmured” or “muttered” or “sang” dialogue tags can ease the monotony of “said” and “asked,” but when the author never uses “said” or “asked,” he’s always forcing me to pay attention to the dialogue tags, and sometimes giving me extreme trouble picturing how the characters would really get the information across. (I am looking directly at you, R. A. Salvatore). But at least I’ve learned to put up with them most of the time.
I have never yet learned to stop flinching when I encounter:
- “Come on! They’re just over the hill!” he yelled urgently.
- “We can take them! Come on, Seris!” Hulinda shrieked meaningfully.
- “I’m coming! Hold your horses!” Seris exclaimed crankily as she staggered after them.
Cut out the adverbs. Please. They’re distracting; dialogue tags should be as invisible as possible, which is why “said” and “asked” are wonderful. They’re lazy; they tell me that Seris is cranky instead of showing me, and in the case of something like “meaningfully” they don’t even allow me to make up my own mind about whether Hulinda’s observation is meaningful or just stupid. They’re overexposing; this is another place where the author’s tendency to skydive without a common sense parachute shows up. I’ve seen characters “exclaim” things “quietly,” “hiss loudly” without sibilants (how do you hiss a shout without sibilants?), “spit dryly,” “bark calmly.” You want me laughing at the humor in your story, not you.
5) The author maintains an awareness of levels of formality.
The king doesn’t say, “We’ll send a couple of guys to check it out” in front of his court. The gutter whore doesn’t say, “Put the glistering coins on the table when we have finished coitus.” Those are the most obvious and wince-worthy examples, of course, but there are other, milder ones. All are capable of snapping me out of the story.
This is a tricky one because it crosses two levels: that of the story and that of English. You have to simultaneously keep in mind the social class of your character and what level of education they’ve likely received, and what impression your words will make on the ears of an English-speaking audience. “Coitus” is a very formal word for sex, a scientific or prissy one. You can argue that your gutter whore character was secretly educated by the Knights Templar, but is it likely that she would say that to a customer, even so?
- Your less educated characters should use fewer similes and metaphors. They haven’t got the time to come up with them, and they’ll be more used to dealing with the harsh realities of life, with less need to dress them up in fancy words.
- Your higher-class characters should be less likely to take shortcuts in their speech, especially in formal situations. That means fewer contractions, fewer English idioms (like “check out”), and no words like “whore” unless they’re looking to offend someone.
- Remember when/where you are. A dragon should not be described as “rocketing” through the air when the world doesn’t have rockets.
- Avoid English words that are characteristic of modern slang speech unless you’re writing urban fantasy. This means no “guys,” no “cool,” no “awesome!”
There’s a lot of fantasy I consider okay, some I consider good, but very little I consider great and will reread- and all of the great authors know what they are doing with language.
I just rather quite wish Kay would stop it with his “very.”