The Terry Pratchett School of Prose

The Color of Magic_cover terry pratchettOne of the earliest influences on my sometimes smartassed style of writing was Sir Terry Pratchett, O.B.E.‘s watershed fantasy series, Discworld. Sir Terry takes  J. R. R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft and William Shakespeare, as well as mythology, folklore and fairy tales, and mashes them up in this hilarious series of tales. There are 39 books in this trilogy!  Talk about prolific!

Discworld is a flat disc balanced on the backs of four elephants which, in turn, stand on the back of a giant turtle, Great A’Tuin. Oh my goodness – what opportunities for mayhem were locked in that kernel of a plot!  The series begins with “The Colour of Magic.”

One of my favorite books in the series is “Mort.” It is the 4th book and is the first to give Death the main storyline.

As a teenager, Mort had a personality and temperament that made him rather unsuited to the family farming business. Mort’s father, named Lezek, felt that Mort thought too much, which prevented him from achieving anything practical. Thus, Lezek took him to a local hiring fair, hoping that Mort would land an apprenticeship with some tradesman; not only would this provide a job for his son, but it would also make his son’s propensity towards thinking someone else’s problem.

The conversation between Lezek and his brother Hamish as they discuss Mort’s future in the opening pages is hilarious and quite revealing in its simplicity. In this snippett, Lezek and Hamish are observing Mort as he attempts to frighten some birds away from the crop.

“He’s not stupid, mind” said Hamish. “Not what you’d call stupid.”mort - terry pratchett

“There’s a brain there all right,”Lezek conceded. “Sometimes he starts thinking so hard you has to hit him round the head to get his attention. His granny taught him to read, see? I reckon it overheated his mind.”

At the job fair, Mort at first has no luck attracting the interest of an employer. Then, just before the stroke of midnight, a man concealed in a black cloak arrives on a white horse. He says he is looking for a young man to assist him in his work and selects Mort for the job. The man turns out to be Death, and Mort is given an apprenticeship in ushering souls into the next world (though his father thinks he’s been apprenticed to an undertaker).

I love the snarky way Pratchett takes clichés and runs with them. He grabs the boring, bland, overdone themes of western literature by the tail and swings them.  When he sets them down they are SO much more fun to watch!

What I have learned from the Terry Pratchett school of prose is that dialog tells us as much about the speaker himself as it does about the words expressed.  In the quoted passage above we see enough of the two men who are speaking to have some idea of who they are.  Pratchett gives us the personality and demeanor of the character in those simple lines.  We can see them, fully formed in our minds eye as they speak. .

That is the hand of the master, and it is what I someday hope to be able to bring to my own work.  The important thing to remember is you must read the works of the masters, because if you have no idea of what good writing really is, you can’t write it. Read the best works in your genre and continue writing your own stories and never let the struggle of getting your work out there take away the joy of writing it. It’s not easy, going indie, but it is so rewarding!


Filed under Books, Fantasy, Humor, mythology, writer, writing

11 responses to “The Terry Pratchett School of Prose

  1. So very true! Oddly, I’ve found fantasy dialogue easier to write than contemporary dialogue (perhaps because I’m pretty awkward in speaking to people anyway). It’s incredibly hard to give characters distinct mannerisms in speech when writing – the ideal is to be able to read a spoken line, and know immediately who said it. I imagine I have a ways to go!


  2. Great post. I love Terry Prachett. I remember sitting in an airport getting stared because, while reading one of his books, I would burst into laughter.


  3. Satis – My work tends to be dialogue heavy, so I need to pull out a bit of Pratchett to keep things light!

    Joan – I’m notorious for that! Two weeks ago I was reading a book by Jim Bernheimer and I woke my husband up with my maniacal laughter 😛


  4. I’ve never read Terry Prachett, but I’m wondering if his writing style is similar to Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.


  5. Johanna – in many ways they are similar. If you liked Douglas Adams, you may like Terry Pratchett. I loved Adams’s sarcastic view of middle-management and the inherent flaws in the system!


  6. I read Good Omens which Terry wrote with Neil Gaiman, a writer with whom I feel an incredible rapport. Well, at least I would if we ever met and had a conversation. I read something else by Terry alone, but can’t recall the title just now, and found him to be much more whimsical than Neil. I will undoubtedly find my way back to read more of his writings. Sounds like Discworld is a good place to start.


  7. i have not heard of terry pratchett. but these sound like great reads! thanks for the recs. new follower, hi!!


    • Pat – I have only read one book by Gaiman, Stardust, but I loved it. I’m a smartass though, so I tend to like the snarky prose of Pratchett and Adams!

      Tammy – Pleased to meet you! Books are my life, so I’m always happy to share the love!


  8. Couldn’t agree more about TP and the late, great Douglas Adams, Connie.

    You might like ‘Neverwhere’ by Neil Gaiman or even ‘American Gods’ ( I found the latter to be not quite up to the mark). Neither is as sharp and funny as any of the works by Terry and Doug, but both demonstrate a degree of imagination and powerful writing I think you might enjoy.

    If you ever get down your reading list, that is!


  9. Oh, J.D. Hughes – you have me there! My reading list is a tall as Mount Everest! Fortunately, the Kindle can hold a LOT of books!


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