Some hard-core fantasy qualifies as literary fiction because of the way in which the story is delivered. Because of the style in which they’re written, these books appeal to a broader fan base than work pigeonholed into either the “genre fantasy category” or the “literary fiction category.”
Neil Gaiman’s Stardust qualifies as a novel that is a “literary fantasy.” This is because it is a fairy tale told with beautiful prose in an unhurried fashion.
Among the burgeoning population of authors who are just learning the craft, opinions regarding style and voice run high and loud.
According to those critique groups armed with a little dangerous knowledge, in the very first sentence of chapter one, Gaiman commits the most heinous crime an author can: he tells the story with leisurely, poetic prose.
Quote: There once was a young man who wished to gain his heart’s desire.
OMG! He did he really write “There once was” in a genre fantasy novel? Passive Voice! Passive Voice!
Well, guess what? Neil Gaiman knows what he is doing when he sits down to tell a story, and his rabid fans and best-selling novels are a testament to that.
Those megalomaniacal gurus armed with tattered copies of Strunk and White, limited talent of their own, and who believe themselves the fount of writerly knowledge really lose their minds over what he does after that first sentence:
- He sets the scene: In a style reminiscent of traditional fairy-tales, he explains how our hero, Tristam, lives in the village of Wall. It’s a tiny town about a night’s drive from London. A giant wall stands next to the town, giving the place its name.
- He goes on to explain that 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.
- Gaiman comments that this guarding of the gap 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, and yet no one is allowed to go through the break in the wall.
- Only then does he bring us to the point: Once every nine years, always on May Day, a unique, traveling fair comes to the meadow. That is the only day the guards ever take a break from their posts on the gap in the wall.
I can hear the group’s de facto emperor pontificating now. What was Gaiman thinking, starting a fantasy novel with a TELLING, PASSIVE sentence followed by an info dump? Why, everyone knows real authors only use active prose and never, ever, offer information up front.
To that breathless expert, I say “not true, my less-than-widely-read friend.” Lean prose can be leisurely and poetic, and still pack a punch. That is what true writing is all about, conveying a story in a style that is crafted and has a voice that is uniquely that of the author.
In Stardust, each character is given a certain amount of importance, and even minor players are clearly drawn. The circumstances and events gradually pick up speed, and in the end, the reader is left pondering what might have happened after the final words on the last page.
If you saw the movie that is loosely based on the book, you might be surprised at how different the book is from the movie. There are no cross-dressing sky pirates in the book, although Robert De Niro was awesome in that role in the movie. The movie is excellent but bears little resemblance to the book, and, like The Hobbit movie, should be looked at as a different entity entirely.
Neil Gaiman trusts his readers. That is something we all need to do. Sometimes a story needs to emerge slowly and be told with beautiful, immersive prose, and we need to trust that our readers will enjoy it if we craft it well.
There is room in the bookstore for books with a less urgent story to tell as well as those that ambush the reader and beat them bloody with non-stop action.
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 fairy tale. He never devolves into florid, overblown purple prose, yet it has a poetic feel.
True authors are driven to learn the craft of writing, and it is a quest that can take a lifetime. It is a journey that involves more than just reading “How to Write This or That Aspect of a Novel” manuals. Those are important, but they only offer up a part of the picture.
You must read widely, and outside your favorite genre. When you come across authors whose work shocks, rocks, and shakes you, study how they crafted the sentences that moved you.
Let their works show you how to use words to form the moods and emotions that drive the plot.
Learn from the masters how to show the true character of a protagonist, or the smell of an alley by the wharves, painting pictures with words.
Read widely, and then apply what you’ve learned to your own work.