I’ve just received three messages from readers. They’re utterly different in their concerns, and yet somehow they all bring me to the same place.
Reader One told me that he’d finally gotten his hands on The Night of the Swarm. He added, “Sandor Ott had better die horribly at the end.” [Something everyone can agree on, I thought]
Reader Two explained that she’d just reached that end, and loved it, BUT:
As I was reading it and seeing how Pazel ________________ I just wanted to cry. And then to end it with _______________ was so heartbreaking…[it] hits too close to home. Great job in rousing deep feelings in how this story ends. I will probably think about this for weeks to come and carry these feelings of sadness for days.
[It’s strange—about half the readers who contact me find the end of the series heartbreaking. I didn’t expect this. I mean, it’s no dancing-Ewoks conclusion, I realize. But…heartbreaking?]
Reader Three, finally, asked a great question about writing description. After we talked about that, he followed up with another:
How do you go about building your characters? I understand that cliché’s not a bad thing and I also know that using real people is good too, but can you give a more in-depth explanation?
What could I tell these readers? To the first, who hoped the venomous Sandor Ott would suffer and die, I confessed that I, too, kept waiting for some force to come along and chew him to pieces. I can easily imagine his response: Then why didn’t you just make it happen?
To Reader Two, I wrote that I’d watched my beloved character Pazel walk through the story’s close with my mouth agape. “I thought he’d buy a house in Ballytween! I didn’t think he’d become a drinker and a wreck.” I can imagine her response as well: But wasn’t that… your choice?
To Reader Three–well, I hope this is the in-depth explanation you wanted.
1) Storytellers are explorers, not architects.
This is key. Great fantasy writers are often called “the architects” of their respective worlds, but the term is deceptive. Mountains don’t have architects. Enchanted mountains, where spirits drift and the shadow of a god troubles the heather, sure as hell don’t. Fantasy realms are, alas, partly constructed. But long before that they are found. The marrow (if not the bones) of these lands is our common inheritance. They are born of myth and folktale, ghost story and ancient yarn. Peter S. Beagle may go a bit too far when he says of Tolkien —
…the world he charts was there long before him…. He is a great enough magician to tap our most common nightmares, daydreams and twilight fancies, but he never invented them either: he found them a place to live, a green alternative to each day’s madness here in a poisoned world.
— but only a bit. That notion of “tapping” is a good one. How do you tap a vein of nightmare, daydream, twilight fancy? Not with graph paper or genealogy charts. There are tools that just don’t exist in such realms. If you go there, you’ll find they’ve vanished from your hands. All this is to say that
2) Planning alone never brought a world to life.
It has even, when done obsessively, kept the spark of life from entering well-made worlds. You can do all the outlining, diagramming, plot-balancing, language-inventing, magic-system modeling, warhorse-feedbag nutritional analyses and ogre skeletal-structure weight-bearing trials you like [believe me, I have]. It’s honest work and may well pay dividends. But when you actually write the book the unexpected will happen. Indeed, must happen, if the story’s going to breathe.
Of course world-building is absolutely vital. It’s simply not the same thing as storytelling. The latter requires a different kind of effort. It requires dream.
3) To tell a story is to inhabit a waking dream.
It’s very easy to be woolly and mystical about this, especially if you’ve just finished a long and complex tale, and especially if you’re me. But the fact is that the act of writing shares many characteristics— singular focus, loss of present awareness, altered time sense, emotional conviction, personal vulnerability—with dreams. And that’s a problem, because
4) It is in the nature of dreams to elude control.
Nearly every writer who addresses this subject will tell you: the best stuff catches you by surprise. You think your heroine’s going to cross the Old City, climb the Long Stair to Raven’s Landing, sneak through the gardens of the Viceroys and knock on the door of the piano tuner. Because, see, the piano tuner’s shop is where the next plot element is going to snap into place. We know it is. We planned it that way.
But halfway up the Long Stair she smells smoke. She looks up from her reverie and sees her aunt—her once-beloved but long-since-vanished aunt, the one nobody speaks of anymore, the one who made her father sob like a child on the night she disappeared–gazing down at her with a look of horror. She doesn’t speak. In her hands smoldering book. She glances back over her shoulder, gasping a little, turns our heroine a final glance and dashes into a side-street.
HOLY TWO-HEADED ACID-SPITTING TOADS FROM HELL! Where did that woman come from? Where’s she been all these years? What’s frightened her? Why didn’t she speak? And what in God’s name is she doing with a half-burned book?
Now, it’s very possible that what’s waiting in the piano shop is of greater importance than the aunt and her burning book. If so, you must banish her to the Demented Visions folder (doesn’t everyone have a Demented Visions folder?). But what if this business with the aunt, this unplanned business, has you writing with more eagerness than you’ve found in weeks? What if it’s going somewhere that thrills you, and your paint-by-numbers plan is not? Remember the inscription that Digory Kirke
finds in the dead world of The Magician’s Nephew
: Make your choice, adventurous stranger Strike the bell and bide the danger Or wonder, ‘till it drives you mad What would have followed if you had.
Of course he gives in—every gun must go off—and hell, or hell’s queen anyway, immediately breaks lose and goes on a rampage. It’s a moment that captures the best of the Narnia books—economy of vision, a shockingly vivid scene, a reversal of the myth’s gender rolls (Eve resists, Adam succumbs). And then, pages later, the very worst. Lewis can’t help himself. He spells out not just the consequences, not just Digory’s mistake, but the absolute truth—that he knew better, that he betrayed his own soul, that the unchaining of evil is all his fault because he didn’t stick with The Plan.
Sorry, kid, you blew it. At least you’ll have a story to tell.
This is your choice as the writer of the scene on the staircase. Following your muse, following the voice of the weird in the waterfall, almost certainly will play havoc with your own version of The Plan. You don’t have to do it. You won’t actually go mad. But no story ever came from leaving the forbidden apple on the tree.
Two and a half centuries ago there was a spat between Voltaire and the latter-day champions of Shakespeare. The feud turned nasty and nationalist, but it brought to light a vital difference between the literary men. Voltaire is a thinker and a landscape gardener. Shakespeare is a bard. The former gives us systematic philosophy and logical argument. The latter gives us pain, love, rage, betrayal, hilarity, hope, catharsis. Voltaire offers shining ideals; Shakespeare, scalding experience. No one remembers Voltaire for his fiction per se: the wit, yes, the ideas, certainly. He’s a genius with a reason for everything. A precise reason, one he can both articulate and defend. Before a judge if necessary.
I doubt very much that Shakespeare could defend Lady Macbeth, or Hamlet, or Lear. He didn’t plan them, contrive them as symbols, make them jerk and dance (like C.S. Lewis) to a moral-proving tune. They aren’t devices but forces of nature, famished bears at a picnic; they make a mess of things. Shakespeare’s genius is to achieve order anyway—to create world and music and meaning to encompass these monsters. Voltaire shows us what ought to be. Shakespeare conveys what terrifyingly is.
When you perceive that—when you sense what’s most true about your vision, rather than most cozy or entertaining or in vogue—your job, quite simply, is to capture it as best you can. Not to tame it, and never to squash it into the service of some lesser thing. Of course this makes your job much harder. And what’s so bad about that? Yes, empty, featherpuff books sell more copies, as a rule. But no one reads an essay this long in pursuit of featherpuff.
Sooner or later, if we’re after something real, we step beyond the tidy garden of the book we’ve planned and light out for the territories. All hell breaks lose. The sword descends, Eden withers behind us; we sense a world ahead that is vast and frightening and raw. That is where discovery can happen. That is the step that must be dared.