Obscurer subject again. Don’t hurt me.
But first, some lines that have a lot of poetry and hints of storyteling in them, from Swinburne’s “A Ballad of Death”:
By night there stood over against my bed
Queen Venus with a hood striped gold and black,
Both sides drawn fully back
From brows wherein the sad blood failed of red,
And temples drained of purple and full of death.
Her curled hair had the wave of sea-water
And the sea’s gold in it.
Her eyes were as a dove’s that sickeneth.
Strewn dust of gold she had shed over her,
And pearl and purple and amber on her feet.
I have no doubt whatsoever that lots of arts can be used to add flavor to fantasy, among them painting, music, mosaic (Guy Gavriel Kay does a good job of this in the Sarantine Duology), sculpture, and sketching. But I’m not familiar enough with them to talk about them, so this is about literature instead.
Well, and fairy tales.
And, basically, any words that are not the story.
1) There’s a golden mean between infodumping and pure storytelling; find it.
One reason a lot of people complain about Tolkien is that he inserts poems and references to Elvish mythology in Lord of the Rings, irritating readers who are there for the story and breaking up the narrative flow. However, I vastly prefer this to the kind of infodumping “story” that’s all too commonly inserted into a fantasy narrative (and not just because I happen to like Tolkien’s poetry). Tolkien may have gone overboard with the ornamental poetry and songs, but they do add flavor to his world, and they’re there for their own sake. Creation legends or stories about miracles that are only there to explain the hero’s heritage make me sick.
The best thing to achieve, of course, is a golden mean. When you’re writing the tale of the hero’s origins, or that neat little poetry-prophecy, ask yourself if it could stand on its own without the story context, or if it would be something you were tempted to put in the story even if it didn’t explain anything. If the answer to both of those is no, then you should revise the poem or story. Try to make it worthwhile on its own. The more “informative” it is, the more likely it is to be infodumping.
Similarly, ask yourself if the poetry or story is into invention for its own sake, and whether it would slow the narrative down. If the answer to both of those is yes, then revise it in the direction of fitting into the story- not necessarily being more informative, but being shorter, smoother, and a natural utterance of the characters.
If it comes down to it, I would always prefer a story or poem that was there to add depth to the world to one that was there merely to inform me how Speshul the hero is or get out of explaining things. But since this isn’t a widely-held preference, you’ll want to try to strike the middle line.
2) Remember that not all the original fairy tales were moral.
And not even the modernized versions are, really. What is the moral of “Hansel and Gretel?” Not to eat gingerbread houses? That you should push people who want to eat you into ovens? It’s hard to say. But quite often fantasy novels are full of these neat little moral stories, often delivered in lectures from the wise old wizard to the hero.
Stories don’t have to be moral. Aesop’s fables are relatively rare in this area. And they don’t have to avoid death and sex. The original French version of “Little Red Riding Hood” had Little Red Riding Hood disrobing piece by piece of clothing, then climbing into bed with the wolf, after which he ate her. I think more fantasy fairy stories, and creation myths when the authors include them, should follow these stories, rather than the sanitized modern ones. If the culture is based on medieval models, then it is more likely, not less, that their stories would resemble the original oral fairy tales.
3) Easy on the symbolism.
The single tear dropping on the flower is the worst example I can think of, but there are other instances in which the author lets the desire to be literary take over the story. Carefully watch the gestures your characters make, the birds they observe, the places they come to. If they function on two levels- fulfilling a place in the story as well as having some “deeper” meaning that, say, relates back to the creation myth at the beginning of the story- great. But if they’re only there for lecturing reasons, or because you have begun to believe that Campbell’s books are the Bibles of fantasy writing, cut back. (And lay off the Campbell for a while).
I believe that fantasy is a beautiful, powerful, and creative genre that can easily teach the people who read it many lessons about the human heart. But it shouldn’t do that by imitating the more easily imitated tricks of “literary” writing, and sacrificing the fantasy world or storyline- or both- for the sake of a symbolic bird flying overhead. If it doesn’t serve the purpose of the story, get rid of it. If it’s to teach an overtly moral lesson that you’ve already taught elsewhere with a sanitized story, get rid of it. If it levels all you’ve built for the sake of referring to a real world story or legend or moral lesson, do not only get rid of it, stick a stake through its black heart and cut off its head. Then burn the body and scatter the ashes far and wide.
Fantasy teaches by building an alternate world in which the teaching is naturally included, not by being built of tinfoil so that the author can reflect her own face back.
4) Consider how literature is transmitted in your fantasy culture.
If the culture is pre-writing, then it will rely on singers and storytellers like bards, who had immense memories and could recite long epics with little variation. If it does have writing, but not the printing press, books will still be rare and treasured, and those who can write might spend much of their time copying knowledge from the past, not making up new things. It’s only in a world with a printing press (or magic that cheaply and easily copies words) and ready supplies of paper that anything like a modern literature can be established.
Your world doesn’t necessarily need writing, and your characters don’t necessarily need to know how to read. Peasants who can’t afford the training in literacy or the books to read will probably rely on oral culture anyway. It does mean that priorities will need to shift, and that you might need to watch your writing carefully for phrases like “This story was written long ago,” if no one in that particular village can read and write.
5) Study the forms of what you want to include in the story.
Many fantasy rhyming poems are written in the same form, simple quatrains: a b c b, or, at most, a b a b. Most authors are apparently uncomfortable working in other forms.
The problem is that these quatrains usually suck, too.
Study the forms of poetry, or the forms of stories, in the case of creation myths and fairy tales, that you want to include. See what’s been done, what the easiest rhymes are, how the authors use repetition and refrains to unite the poem or story. And don’t only read fantasy author examples, either. Go back to the originals. Read poems written in other centuries, where rhyming poetry was more common. Read the creation myths of other cultures, fairy tales in modernized and original forms, and folktales from all parts of the world. This will teach you things; learning can take place by osmosis. Even if you still think that your poetry’s bad at the end of it, at least you’ll know that, instead of just blithely sticking the poetry into the book.
And, come down to it, if the poetry’s bad, you can probably explain it better in prose anyway- and vice versa. The other thing study teaches you is what kind of writing is most akin to yours, and what can most easily be adapted and reused.
6) Make the literature adapted to your world.
A group of people living in the desert should not be telling stories about life in the high, cold mountains, particularly if the mountains are hundreds or even thousands of miles away. A group of people to whom arranged marriages are a normal thing will probably have romance stories revolving around that, rather than Romeo and Juliet kinds of stories. A non-human culture that has a vengeful goddess may tell stories in which the goddess punishes mortals and is lauded for it, rather than scolded by the righteous Victorian voices that so often prevail in fantasy.
Don’t just assume that the story you’re telling would fit in. Go and look at the people telling it, and then adjust the tale accordingly. It might not quite make the point that you want to make- that tragic love story you were originally going to tell might not fit in here- but it will probably make far more of a point about your world.
If nothing else, more reading in the genres that gave birth to fantasy, especially past fantasy and epic poetry, is not to be sniffed at.