#amwriting: Rothfuss and Gaiman, crafting good prose

Stardust, Neil GaimanSome fantasy qualifies as literary fiction because of the way in which the story is delivered.

One example of what I think of as literary fantasy is Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. In the very first sentence of chapter one, Gaiman commits the most heinous crime an author can commit, according to those critique groups armed with a little dangerous knowledge:

Quote: There once was a young man who wished to gain his hearts desire. 

And then, to make matters worse, he throws out a bit of background:

  1. Our story starts in the village of Wall, a tiny town about a night’s drive from London. A giant wall stands next to the town, giving it its name.
  2. There’s only one spot to pass through this huge grey rock wall, and it’s always guarded by two villagers at a time, and they are vigilant at their task.
  3. This is peculiar, because all one can see through the break in the wall is meadows and trees. It looks as if nothing frightening or strange could be happening there, but no one is allowed to go through the break in the wall.
  4. The guards only take a break from the wall once every nine years, on May Day, when a fair comes to the meadow

omg! Did he really do that? What was he thinking, starting a fantasy novel with a TELLING, PASSIVE sentence followed by an info dump?  To answer your question, he thought he was offering up a good story, and guess what? HE WAS!

And he did it with beautiful, immersive prose.

name of the wind -patrick rothfussWho else writes great prose? Patrick Rothfuss, for one. Take the first lines of The Name of the Wind. 

Quote:  It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts.

Rothfuss then goes on to commit what some purists (aka trolls) consider a heinous crime–he DESCRIBES THE SILENCE. He does this on the first page and guess what–the reader is sucked into the story and has no desire to leave.  To compound that crime, the story is a story within a story, told to a chronicler, and what most would use as the prologue actually comes after the first chapter, in chapter eight:

(quote) If this story is to be something resembling my book of deeds, we must begin at the beginning. At the heart of who I truly am. To do this, you must remember that before I was anything else, I was one of the Edema Ruh.

When we write, we are writing because we have a story to tell. (Yes, I said tell). To that end, every word must count, every idea must be conveyed with meaningful words, and sometimes you can just have a little fun with it.

In the opening lines of Gaiman’s Stardust, nothing unimportant is mentioned although the prose meanders in a literary way. Yes, he takes the long way, but the attitudes, mores, and personalities of Tristam’s village are conveyed with humor and the journey is the best part of this fairytale. He never devolves into purple prose.

The Elements of Style calls “Purple Prose” “hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating.”  To be fair, purple prose is subjective and each reader has a different level of tolerance for it, but it is something we definitely don’t want. What do you want to convey? Choose your words based on what you want the reader to see and feel:

  • Plain: He set the mug down. (conveys action–what’s going to happen next?)
  • Somewhere in the middle: He eased the tankard onto the table. (conveys a medieval atmosphere–what’s going to happen next?)
  • Bleah: Without haste, the tall, blond barbarian set the immense, pewter, ale-filled cup with a wooden handle onto the stained surface of the rough, wooden table. (conveys nausea–don’t care what happens next.)

Of course you are not going to devolve into sticky-sweet goo in your attempts to show the mood and atmosphere. But please, if I may use a cliché here, don’t “throw  the baby out with the bathwater.” Lean prose with well chosen imagery will express your ideas in such a way that the reader can hang their imagination on your words.

In direct contrast to Gaiman’s lighthearted opening prose in Stardust, the opening lines of Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, are dark and heavy with portent.  Rothfuss sets the mood, and conveys the subtle power kept restrained by Kote/Kvote, and he uses this atmosphere to drive the tale.

Both Rothfuss and Gaiman use words chosen for their imagery. Gaiman’s story is told with sardonic humor, which makes it all the darker, and Rothfuss’ prose evokes the dark of nightmares. They write with widely different styles, but both books are dark, both books are fantasy, and both books moved me.

Both authors write so well that the internet is rife with haters and trolls who can’t wait to trash their next book. THAT, sadly, is the mark of success, or genius, in today’s world of fanatics in dark rooms, armed with a rigid idea of what fantasy should be, and waging war via the internet on authors who dare to write outside those boundaries .

GRRM Meme 3Write from your heart, and dare to write what moves you. Think about the rush of “yeah, this is it!” that you get when you read a piece that takes you out of this world and changes your life for a few brief moments. That author knows something about the craft, or you would not have been so moved by it.

Study the prose of those whose work shocks, rocks, and shakes you. See how they craft the sentences, and form the moods and emotions that drive the plot. Learn from them how to show the true character of a protagonist, or the smell of an alley by the wharves. Read, and then apply what you’ve learned from the masters to your own work.


Filed under Fantasy, Humor, Literature, Publishing, writer, writing

4 responses to “#amwriting: Rothfuss and Gaiman, crafting good prose

  1. I prefer to begin with linear equations and a cookie recipe.


  2. Ross

    Great blog post as ever, and perfect choice of two of my favourite writers. It takes a lot of skill to get away with such style, and both pull it off.