Lessons in Brevity

Dear writers, if you’re going to write a 700+ page novel, please have more than one central point-of-view character – especially if you’re writing a portal quest Fantasy which spends 1/3 of the book inside the POV’s home city and/or the POV is an adolescent. Listen. No matter how interesting your character is, no one wants to live in one teenager’s head for 700 pages. Our teenage years were hard enough. Don’t make us relive that angst.

I suppose I should mention the title of the book I’m ranting about. Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory’s Obsidian trilogy is actually half decent – once it starts going. Although the first book, The Outstretched Shadow (2003) is a slow crawl, by the second book, To Light a Candle (2004), Lackey and Mallory seem to have learned their lessons and we see the perspectives of a number of protagonists. In the first book we meet Kellen, son of the Arch-Mage (Head of the High Council which rules the city). We are also introduced to the city of Armethalieh, ruled by a totalitarian system of mages (the High Council). Within the first few pages, we are given a description of how magick effects every single facet of the city: “There was virtually no aspect of life that could not be enhanced by magick” (p. 5). This statement is bracketed by detailed examples, establishing just how integral and integrated magic is in the city. Once this is confirmed, we move swiftly into seeing the extent of the High Council’s authoritarian rule: “They, and not the merchants, determined what could be sold in the marketplace” (p. 8), right down to the patterns and colours allowed in ribbons for decorating clothing. As these details are established within the first 10 pages, it seems a bit… overkill to spend the next 150 pages reinforcing this message.

Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory’s Obsidian trilogy

We finally get to our first exciting incident at the quarter mark, as Kellen is expelled from the city. And the sense of urgency and suspense is handled-well, showing us that the authors are equipped to write exciting scenes. But once Kellen finds safety, the pace slows to a crawl again, as Kellen begins to gather information and evaluate his pre-conceived notions. Although there are a number of interesting events to keep the plot moving – as Kellen encounters a number of fantastical creatures that are outlawed from the city – the emphasis is on his reactions to these encounters which, unfortunately, take the form of introspection, a lot of quiet solitude ambles as Kellen ponders the nature of good and evil (seriously).

I should note that throughout the trilogy, we also see the perspectives of a handful of antagonists, a device I deplore except when handled in prologues like in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. If your readers don’t like living in the head of a 17-year-old, they’re also unlikely to like seeing the perspectives of an evil – no nuances, wholly dark – character. It’s boring. And uncomfortable. So your character enjoys torturing people and doing other nasty unspeakable activities. Yuck. Do you really need to hammer out that detail over and over again? We don’t need continued reminders of why we should be rooting for the good guys. And, if you ARE going to keep reminding the reader, then we don’t need to have nearly 2/3rds of the book dedicated to introspection with the hero worrying that he’ll turn evil. I assume the contrast was supposed to establish a sense of horror if the hero gives into “temptation” and turns dark. But if you’re having such an all out black and white binary, it seems extremely unlikely that this good-hearted, conscientious person is going to turn so evil that he’ll sacrifice others for profit or pleasure.

In Story Engineering (2011) Larry Brooks describes the ideal structure of a novel. I’ll highlight the key points here:

  • Set-Up – first 20-25% – introduces character backstory, backstory, foreshadows antagonist
  • First Plot Point – everything changes for the hero
  • The Response – hero’s reaction (analysing, responding to)
  • The Attack – hero becomes proactive and tries to fix things
  • The Resolution – wrap things up (I.e. no new information introduced. The hero has everything they need to handle conflict)

Let’s apply this outline to The Outstretched Shadow. As I said above, the first 25% of the book gives us background information. While the first few pages describes the totalitarian government, we then spend the next 150 discovering just how extremely authoritative the government is. At 25%, right on cue (according to Brooks’ structure) Kellen is summoned to appear in front of the High Council and is then banished. So we have our first plot point, where everything changes for the hero. From there for the next 350 pages, the story is in “Response” mode. But, as I said above, this response mostly takes the form of deep introspection each time new information is revealed. 350 pages… in Response mode is… a snoozefest. Luckily Kellen is introduced to a number of interesting things that makes the reader preservere on and push past the tedious introspection bit. But you really don’t want your readers to “push past” any point of a book. At page 510 we get to “Attack” – except, significantly, the plan to attack does not come from Kellen himself. HE is not proactive. Instead, he is made to follow strict instructions, and, to top it off, he is given very little accompanying information about the whys. Kellen is sent out as a champion without being told even the smallest tiny detail about the antagonist. Heck, he’s not even told there even IS an antagonist. The language is all very vague and obscure and it’s only at page 592 that Kellen learns that he’s been sent off to face Demons. Let that sink in. Page 592. It’s at this point that we can really see the narration move into “Attack” mode, where the hero is given enough information to make a decision. But – even here – Kellen is in a position where he’s reacting and responding to the information. He’s already well into his journey that he doesn’t have a chance to make many active choices.

At about the 630 page mark we are introduced to a new character – one that is absolutely fundamental in helping to resolve the first novel (and ultimately the trilogy as a whole). From there, I would like to say that the final 80 pages go quickly. They don’t. The resolution itself is another series of introspection as Kellen faces temptations and internal conflict. It follows a fairly Cambellian and Jungian trajectory where the Shadow / Antagonist that the hero must face is himself. Which is absolutely fine, as a central goal of a journey. But not when you have nearly 710 pages dedicated to the deliberations of a single 17-year-old man-child. If you’re a writer and want to go down that route, then my advice is take a page from Jordan’s Wheel of Time and add enough characters that the introspections and self/shadow themes are varied and interesting. (Despite this rant, though, I’d like to add that I thoroughly enjoyed the next book in the series. So I still recommend it to read, but perhaps not if it’s your first introduction to Fantasy Fiction).

A New Year. The Same Cycle. (Reflecting on the Epic and the Star Wars Franchise)

The year was 2015. Obama was President. Same sex marriage was – finally – legalized in U.S. And Star Wars: A Force Awakens released in theaters.

Although the film was generally positively received, there was a thread of criticism that underscored the new production; the repeated mantra that A Force Awakens was basically a rip-off of A New Hope. It was repetitive. Derivative. The same story told again and again.

Despite it’s long history (going all the way back to the great sagas of the Illiad/Odyssey, The New and Old Testaments, Ramayana/Mahabharata, etc, etc, etc), the Epic today is often derided for being unimaginative. It’s too repetitive; derivative; or – gasp – formulaic! However, as I argue in The Shape of Fantasy being repetitive isn’t a bad thing. As Patricia Waugh discusses for metafiction:

There has be some level of familiarity. In metafiction it is precisely the fulfilment as well as the non-fulfilment of generic expectations that provides both familiarity and the starting point for innovation.

Patricia Waugh, Metafiction, 64, original emphasis

Roland Barthes likewise stipulates that the pleasures of the text come from expectations, which, for the Epic tradition, means a familiar narrative:

The pleasure of the text is not the pleasure of the corporeal striptease or of narrative suspense. […] the entire excitation takes refuge in the hope of seeing. (Barthes 10, original emphasis).

Roland Barthes, The Pleasures of the Text, 10, original emphasis

Thus, I argue that the latest Star Wars trilogy does an incredible job of delivering a familiar story in a new way. Is the plot line similar to the original? Of course it is. But it is also recognizably different, with a distinct ending, perhaps one that may alter the course of the universe enough that evil won’t rise up again (or at least, not too soon).

More importantly, these criticisms that Star Wars is repetitive misses the point. Brian Merchant (Motherboard) argues that “science fiction is supposed to be about exploring the unexplored, not rehasing the well-trod.” I disagree wholeheartedly. Science Fiction, like any literature, is about exploring the human condition.

There was another important event in 2015 in America that eventually had global significance. Donald Trump, on the campaign trail, trademarked his “Make American Great Again” slogan.

And, whether coincidental or not, A Force Awakens reinforces the idea that even when you overthrow a tyrannical fascist government, another one will rise up to take its place. We are doomed to repeat the cycle – and have narratives that repeat themselves – until we are able to break away from this cycle of oppression.

As the latest Star Wars trilogy draws to a close, the same criticism has been launched at the final installment: it’s repetitive. Redundant. Flat.

To which I would like to loudly reply, “Don’t you all understand the point of the Epic?? That’s how it works!”

Any attempt to break the formula is only going to result in audience dissatisfaction. As we’ve seen with the end of A Game of Thrones, the televised adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s unfinished novels, it is impossible to solve a good versus evil story-line without some hint of a messianic figure. A sacrifice is necessary to restore the balance. That’s the Epic. That’s how it works. You can play around with the formula, and toss red herrings to distract the audience from identifying the final messianic Hero, but, at the end of the day, the restoration of balance requires a Messianic character. And, more importantly, the bigger the unbalance, the more special the hero has to be. Not just any sacrifice will do (as evidenced by the number of soldiers that meet an unhappy fate at the front lines of the final battle). No, balance to the universe can only be restored by someone special. Maybe someone who has special powers or abilities, or perhaps are special due to bloodline (parentage is especially important in this patriarchal narrative structure).

So while I agree with the criticism that franchise did a great disservice to any hint of non-heteronormative or miscegenetic relationships, I disagree that the plot is a disappointment. The plot follows exactly the pattern of the Heroic Epic that I outline in The Shape of Fantasy, a pattern that includes repetitions and cycles.

Why? Why is the epic repetitive, but incredibly necessary? Because – as historical and current events have shown us – this story will continue to resonant in our society so long as evil exists in the world. Melodramatic? Maybe. But I feel entirely suitable for the state of the world today. So long as there are groups of people that oppress another, there will be stories about rising up and defeating it.