Beer Is Not Juice; The Questionable Value of Originality

Ok, so check out my bad-ass new plot: A poor farm boy, orphaned at a young age, discovers on his sixteenth birthday that he has unusual abilities. Then a mysterious and malevolent stranger appears, a black-cloaked man on a black horse. The boy flees, but not before his foster-parents reveal his hitherto unsuspected parentage, and…

Wait, what? Tolkien already has a black-cloaked man on a black horse? David Eddings has one, too? And Robert Jordan? Dammit. Well, at least I have my farm boy. What?? Eddings has a farm boy, too? And Jordan? I hate writing fantasy. I quit.

For those of you who hope to avoid my pain, here’s a quiz that will tell you just how original (or un-) your prospective novel will be. It includes questions such as the following:

Who serves as comic relief in your group?

a)     a court jester or clown

b)    a bumbling magician

c)     a talking animal

d)    a chubby person, dwarf, or an obnoxiously conceited rich person

e)     none of the above

You can decide for yourself which is the most novel answer, but I’ll give you a hint: it’s not a, b, c, or d.

In fact, if you wanted to concoct the most original fantasy novel ever written, you could compile a list of all the relevant clichés – magic swords, white dudes on dragons, villains whose names begin with Z or M – then systematically purge those elements from your book. Once you’ve removed all prophecies, quests, orphans, monsters, and magic you will have something utterly new. But here’s the thing – will it still be fantasy? No one will accuse your book of re-treading Tolkienesque ground. The work is absolutely original. Only, maybe originality isn’t an absolute virtue.

We didn’t always revere originality. Imagine if Luke had glanced over the gospel of Mark and thought, “Well shit, this guy already wrote about Jesus.” Or if Michelangelo skipped his Pietà because it was, you know, old news. Or if Shakespeare who, not wanting to retread ground already well-stomped by Saxo Grammaticus and Belleforest, skipped Hamlet to write “Jim and the Red Shoe.” And don’t get me going about the sonnet or the minuet. I picture Bach in Leipzig thinking, “Well, I was going to write another mass, but fuck it. I want to do something new.”

This isn’t to say that originality is bad. The joy of listening to a Bach ciaconne or Alannis Morissette’s outstanding cover of My Humps lies partially in discovering the myriad ways in which the artist can remake a familiar genre or form. But then, in order to remake a genre, there must be something there, something necessary and essential, to remake.

As I write, I’m drinking an unusual beer from one of my favorite breweries, Dogfish Head. It’s an IPA brewed with apricots. It’s original. It’s good. I appreciate the unusual take on a classic brew. I would be pissed, however, if Dogfish Head had pawned off on me an entire bottle of apricot juice. That would be even more original, more unexpected, but it wouldn’t be an IPA. When I drink an IPA I expect the beer to fall within certain parameters of hoppiness and maltiness, and the fun lies in seeing what the brewers can come up with inside of those parameters.

As Robert Frost famously said, “Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.” I think he’s off the mark on free verse, but the point is that structure and expectation can bring pleasure and purpose to games and art alike. Watching Federer and Nadal idly bat tennis balls in random directions would get dull pretty quickly. We enjoy the game – playing it and watching it – because of the net and the lines.

The hoary old tropes of fantasy, even its clichés, are the net. They condition our expectations and allow us to appreciate the virtuosity of the writer. This isn’t to say that every fantasy needs to have dragons, or magic swords, or ancient prophecies, but the writer who, in the quest for absolute originality, purges all vestiges of tradition from her novel is writing something else, something that is no longer fantasy. Police procedurals, maybe. Or instruction manuals.

So I say, bring on the country tunes involving tractors and heartbreak! Bring on the hoppy IPAs! Bring on the white wedding dresses! I’m ok keeping six strings on the guitar and gin in my martini. The question for all of us, I suppose, is this: Which tropes in fantasy make the genre what it is? What, if anything, can we not do without?

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Please Take Your Hand Off My Thigh; Intimacy in Narrative Voice

I don’t trust the Huggers. You know the people I’m talking about: that guy you only met that one time at that party (the one where some asshole flushed the metal doorknob and no one could use the toilet all night), who, despite not having seen you in three years and misremembering your name, insists, when you run into him at the ABBA cover band concert, on shouting, “Dude, what is up?” And then hugging you.

Or that woman you work with who you hugs you every time you see her, saying, “It’s so good to see you!” as though you’re the survivor of a wrecked whaling ship lost two years at sea instead of the guy who works three doors down from her every day. I don’t think the Huggers are evil, mind you, and I love a good hug when the time is right, but I’m always a little leery when people I would definitely make no effort to save in a zombie apocalypse insist on hugging me warmly and repeatedly. As they’re patting me on the back, I want to whisper, “When the undead come, I will let you die…”

Which leads me to my point about third-person narration: just as there are physical huggers, there are narrative huggers. Oddly, though, while I’m wary of the former, I find that the latter can make for quite effective storytelling.

Narrative huggers? Take a look at these lines from David Eddings’ delightful and venerable novel Pawn of Prophecy:

“In the early autumn just before Garion’s fourteenth birthday, he came very close to ending his career. In response to some primal urge all children have – given a pond and a handy supply of logs – they had built a raft that summer.”

This seems to be an objective little bit of narration; we learn the season (autumn), the location (a pond), the unfolding action (raft-building), and the second sentence could read simply: “Garion and his friends had built a raft…” Only, the narrator isn’t content to furnish us with the facts only. He wants to comment on those facts, to make a larger point: it’s not only that these particular kids at this particular time are building a raft, he wants to remind us, but that all kids in similar circumstances will tend to build rafts.

This is a move away from the action at hand. Toward what? Toward you, reader. Prepare to be hugged. The assumed agreement here, the sense that this proclamation regarding kids and rafts is one that the reader will readily accept, provides a type of literary intimacy, a bond inviting trust between the storyteller and listener. “You know how kids are,” the narrator seems to say, “and so do I.”

Tolkien is a great hugger. Right near the start of The Hobbit, we find this sentence: “There is little or no magic about [hobbits], except the ordinary everyday sort which helps them to disappear quietly and quickly when large stupid folk like you and me come blundering along…” The most obvious hug here is, of course, the assumption that the narrator and the reader are similar, that both are large, stupid blunderers. This sentence, however, asserts its intimacy in another way. The narrator claims that hobbit magic is “the ordinary everyday sort.” Both of these adjectives – ordinary, everyday – assume a shared frame of reference with the reader, shared values. In just the same manner as the Eddings narrator above, this narrator suggests, “We have the same view of the world. We will agree as to what constitutes ‘ordinary’ and ‘everyday’ because we are fundamentally alike, you and I.”

Maybe a hug isn’t quite the right analogy here, but you can imagine the narrator pausing in his tale to wink or put a conspiratorial hand on a shoulder. Different readers have different tastes, and reasonable people can disagree over how much hugging and pawing they want from their narrators. There can be dangers with this approach, which I’ll get to in a future post, but I’m curious, at the moment, to hear how people respond when the narrator leans in close and puts a hand on your thigh. Do you pull away? Or let yourself be drawn in?

Shakira and Usher Hate Tolkien; Opening Sentences in Fantasy

I suspect something horrible may be happening to us; I suspect that someone – the CIA, aliens, maybe that dude who works at the late-night burger place down the alley – is siphoning away our brain power a little bit at a time. My suspicions were first aroused last night, when my wife and I sat down to watch the premiere of The Voice. If you’re not familiar with the show, all you need to know is that the singers get ninety seconds to impress the judges. Not a full song, or, heaven forbid, a set of songs that might showcase different abilities: ninety seconds. And it was awesome. We were never bored. While watching the show I forgot that boredom existed.

Then I remembered a writer’s conference I attended many years back in which I went to a number of pitch sessions entitled “Two Minutes; Two Pages.” Sorta like The Voice, but with literary agents instead of Shakira and Usher, reading instead of singing, and an extra thirty seconds to hawk your shit. Also, I don’t seem to recall a cheering live audience of thousands. At any rate, these sessions made a real impression on me, as the agents, all of the agents, kept saying things like, “I see a million submissions a day. If you haven’t hooked me by the end of the first paragraph, I’m done.”

I really wanted an agent. I rewrote my opening paragraph.

Let me be very clear: I’m not complaining about these agents or their advice. They were passing along what I think is the overwhelming opinion of readers, the people who actually buy the books. It is their job to know what sells and they were excellent at that job. They were just a little ahead of me in the realization that aliens are thieving our attention spans.

These days, it seems that many readers want something good, and by good I mean awesome – a bomb threat, a zombie, someone naked, several naked people, naked people defusing a bomb while fending off zombies –  by the end of the first paragraph if not the end of the first sentence.

Was it always this way?

Well, I didn’t have time for an exhaustive study of opening lines, but I did have time for some half-assed Googling. Half-assed Googling, I realize, runs a distant second to actual statistical analysis, but I was so surprised by the results that I wanted to share them here. I Googled eight fantasy novels, famous novels. The first four were published before 1990, the next four, after. I ignored prologues where they existed, focusing instead on the opening sentences of the first chapters.

Consider:

Old Stuff:

“The first thing the boy Garion remembered was the kitchen at Faldor’s farm. For all the rest of his life he had a special warm feeling for kitchens and those peculiar sounds and smells that seemed somehow to combine into a bustling seriousness that had to do with love and food and comfort and security and, above all, home.” Eddings, Pawn of Prophecy (1982)

“The sun was already sinking into the deep green of the hills to the west of the valley, the red and gray-pink of its shadows touching the corners of the land. The trail stretched out unevenly down the northern slope, winding through the huge boulders which studded the rugged terrain in massive clumps, disappearing into the thick forests of the lowlands to reappear in brief glimpses in small clearings and thinning spaces of woodland.” Brooks, The Sword of Shannara (1977)

“The Island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards. From the towns in its high valleys and the ports on its dark narrow bays many a Gontishman has gone forth to serve the Lords of the Archipelago in their cities as wizard or mage…” Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea (1968)

“When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.” Tolkien, Fellowship of the Ring (1954)

New Stuff:

“Locke Lamora’s rule of thumb was this: a good confidence game took three months to plan, three weeks to rehearse, and three seconds to win or lose the victim’s trust forever. This time around, he planned to spend those three seconds getting strangled.” Lynch, Lies of Locke Lamora (2006)

“The morning had dawned clear and cold, with a crispness that hinted at the end of summer. They set forth at daybreak to see a man beheaded…” Martin, Game of Thrones (1996)

“The lapping of water in his ears. That was the first thing. The lapping of water, the rustling of trees, the odd click and twitter of a bird. Logan opened his eyes a crack. Light, blurry through the leaves. This was death? Then why did it hurt so much?” Abercrombie, The Blade Itself (2006)

“In the dark of waking, a soul has died. Its flesh, however, is still hungrily, savagely alive. The Reaper’s task is not to save.” Jemisin, The Killing Moon (2012)

You don’t need to be a literary scholar to see the differences.

Kicking off the old books we have: a birthday party, some geography, the description of a trail, and the sights and smells of a kitchen. Eddings, for his part, seems determined to absolutely destroy any narrative tension right at the outset, giving us love and security instead of mystery or suspense. Of the early works, Le Guin’s opening is probably the most exciting, but even she doesn’t zero in on a particular scene, providing us instead with something that sounds suspiciously like history.

In the new books, by contrast, we have: a beheading, a strangling, the potential death of the POV character, and a soulless Reaper. I can tell you right off the bat who’s going to end up on The Voice.

Now, I don’t want to suggest that the old books are weaker. In fact, the old books are classics, and deservedly so (whatever you think about Brooks ripping off Lord of the Rings). I do want to suggest that it looks as though the way readers and, therefore, writers approach beginnings is changing. The question is: is this bad? I have no idea. I’ve lost the ability to focus on the question long enough. Maybe one of you, however, someone who has escaped the brain suckers, could tell me what it all means…

The Good Kind of Beheading

SPOILER ALERT: This post contains a major spoiler for Game of Thrones, the first book in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. There is also a semi-spoiler regarding Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, although nothing that should really ruin the story.

Most writers aren’t killers.

It doesn’t bring any sort of pleasure to create a character out of that magical mixture – two parts thin air, one splash of that girl we knew back in high school, a sprinkling of voice from the conversation next to us in the coffee shop, a liberal dollop of bullshit, boiled up with our own sublimated fears and desires – only to murder that character a few pages or chapters or books later. I often find myself reluctant to kill off even the characters I created for that very purpose. Even odious villains. Once I’ve spent all the time dreaming them up, I want to keep them around a little bit longer, to find out what awful shit they’ll get up to next.

And yet, the power of killing a major character, the necessity of it is undeniable. I still recall, as does just about everyone who has read Game of Thrones, the moment that Ned’s noble head is lopped from his equally noble shoulders. The whole world of the novel seemed to shift at that moment. “Oh shit,” I thought to myself. “It’s that kind of book.” And suddenly, all possible outcomes were in play. Anyone could die at any time and, of course, they do. The book was better for Ned’s beheading.

A lot of older fantasy wasn’t quite like that. All the main characters except Boromir survive in Lord of the Rings, and even Boromir’s death is a sort of liberation, a badly needed rehabilitation. I loved the Belgariad as a child, but I always got the feeling that nothing really bad could happen to any of the really key players. In the these “gentler” forms of fantasy when someone you like is going to die, the death is telegraphed pretty far out, so you have time to prepare; it is also generally ennobling. Death becomes a sacrifice necessary for the ultimate triumph, not a meaningless, avoidable slaughter that occurs just because a character you’ve come to like makes a stupid mistake.

And yet, as noted, this second kind of death – the senseless and unexpected – is what really puts a reader on edge, what makes her keep flipping the pages, wide-eyed, wondering if the good guys are actually going to pull off a victory. It seems like an ingredient every fantasy writer should employ, almost a necessary formula: “In Book I of your series, kill a major and likeable character.” Writers and hostage takers share a rulebook here: “Let the bastards know you mean business.”

As formulae go, I like this one, but I think it’s dangerous.

A story is a contract between writer and reader. When we open a book, we expect certain things: mysteries introduced in the opening chapters will be resolved by the close, obstacles faced will be overcome (even if only partially), and, perhaps most crucially, we will follow the characters we’ve come to know to their ends, happy or sad.

I’ve more or less arrived at the conclusions that a writer can get away with killing one major character, someone in whom both she and her reader have invested time and emotional energy, per book. Much more than that, however, and I start to feel as though I’ve been bamboozled. If these folks are going to die on page four hundred (out of a two thousand word series,) I start to wonder, “Why did we spend so much time with them in the first place?” After all, if they’re gone from the picture by a quarter of the way through the story, it can’t really be their story. The contract feels violated.

This problem is compounded when the writer introduces entirely new characters in books two, three, four, five, etc, to take the place of those who have fallen. “Ok,” I sometimes find myself saying, “if it was all going to depend on this other asshole in the end, why weren’t we paying attention to him in Book One?” I also have more trouble investing in characters introduced later in the game.

It all comes back to that unwritten contract, of course. Writers like Steven Erikson let you know pretty much up front that their stories are actually histories. We are following the grand sweep of events, not the fate of a particular hero or group of heroes. As such, we accept that plenty of people are going to die – that’s what happens in history. When he kills off crucial characters in book two, he hasn’t violated his contract.

George R.R. Martin also scrapes by because of the scope of his series. He can kill a handful of characters while retaining others that we still care about. Imagine, however, if all the Starks were dead by book six and we were expected to read about the Martells for the rest of the story…

So a writer walks a fine line. A reader expects the people to whom she’s introduced in the opening pages to be (mostly) around by the end – that’s why she bothers learning about them, caring for them. On the other hand, if the writer doesn’t stab a few in the back, that reader grows complacent; the character lives, but the story itself dies.

I’m curious to hear the thoughts of others on this question. How much killing is too much? Where have you seen it employed to good effect, and where does it undermine the story?