One of my favorite quotes for writers comes from the Buddha. “There has to be evil so that good can prove its purity above it.”
J.R.R. Tolkien understood this quite clearly. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a significant reading commitment, one fewer and fewer readers are willing to undertake. It was written in a highly literate style that everyone understood a century ago.
Lengthwise, the saga isn’t as long as people make it out to be when compared to Robert Jordan‘s or Tad Williams’ epic (and highly literate) fantasy series. The LOTR series totals only 455,175 words over the course of all three books.
Tolkien shows the peace and prosperity that Frodo enjoys and then forces him down a road not of his choosing. He takes the hobbit through personal changes, forces him to question everything.
Frodo’s story is about good and evil, war and peace, and the hardships endured in the effort to destroy the One Ring and negate the power of Sauron. Why would ordinary middle-class people, comfortable in their rut, go to so much trouble if Sauron’s evil posed no threat to their peace and prosperity?
Tad Williams’s masterpiece, the Dragon Bone Chair, is the first book in the fantasy series Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. These are the first three books in the epic Osten Ard series. I read this book when it first went to paperback and had to re-read it again immediately upon finishing it. This book (and indeed the whole series) had a profound impact on me, and also my children when they became older teens.
In both the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Tad Williams’ Osten Ard books, we have two of the most enduring works of modern fantasy fiction. Both feature an epic central quest and smaller side quests, all of which must be completed for the protagonists to arrive at the final resolution.
Through it all, we have joy and contentment sharply contrasted with deprivation and loss, drawing us in and inspiring the deepest emotions.
This use of contrast is fundamental to the fables and sagas humans have been telling since before discovering fire. Contrast is why Tolkien’s saga set in Middle Earth is the foundation upon which modern epic fantasy is built.
It’s also why Tad Williams’ work in The Dragonbone Chair, first published in 1988, changed the way people saw the genre of epic fantasy, turning it into hard fantasy. His work has inspired a generation of fantasy writers: George R.R. Martin and Patrick Rothfuss, to name just two of the more famous.
In all his works, whether it’s the paranormal Bobby Dollar series or his epic Osten Ard series, Tad Williams’ novels come to life because he juxtaposes emotions in his characters and builds contrasts into every setting in his worlds. Ease and beauty are juxtaposed against harshness and deprivation.
No matter where we live, San Francisco, Seattle, or Middle Earth, these fundamental human experiences are personal to every reader. We have each experienced pain and loss, joy and love.
When the author successfully uses the contrasts of our human experience to tell their story, the reader empathizes with the characters. They live the story as if they were the protagonist.
So, what do I mean by contrasts in world-building? It can be shown in subtle ways.
Contrasting plenty against poverty in your world-building shows the backstory without requiring an info dump.
First comes the sunshine, and then the storm, and then the aftermath. Feast is followed by famine, thirst followed by a flood. Love and loss, safety and danger, loyalty and betrayal—contrast gives the story texture, and pacing turns a wall of words into something worth reading.
In our real world, war, famine, and flood are followed by times of relative peace and plenty. The emotions and experiences of people living through all those times are the real stories.
This is not just played out in fantasy novels; it’s our human history and our future.
I say this regularly, but I must repeat it: education about the craft of writing has many facets. We learn the architecture of story by reading novels and short stories written by the masters, both famous and infamous.
We shouldn’t limit our reading to the old favorites that started us on this writing path. You may not love the novels on the NY Times literary fiction bestseller list but it’s a good idea to read one or two of them every now and then as a means of educating yourself.
What you don’t like is as important as what you enjoy. Why would a book that you dislike be so successful? No matter how much money a publisher throws at them, some books are stinkers.
It’s alright to admit you disliked a book that Oprah or Reese Witherspoon recommends.
I despised House of Sand and Fog from page one but read it to the end. It begins in a bad place, and continues downhill, an unrelentingly depressing novel that left me with a bad taste in my mouth. Ugliness followed by more ugliness doesn’t make the ugliness beautiful.
Plot, in my opinion, is driven by the highs and lows. You don’t need to pay for books you won’t like. Go to the library or to the secondhand bookstore and see what they have from the NYT bestseller list that you would be willing to examine.
Give that book a postmortem. Why does—or doesn’t—it resonate with you?
- Did the book have a distinct plot arc?
- Did it have a strong opening that hooked you?
- Was there originality in the way the characters and situations were presented?
- Did you like the protagonist and other main characters? Why or why not?
- Were you able to suspend your disbelief?
- Did the narrative contain enough contrasts to keep things interesting?
- By the end of the book, did the characters grow and change within their personal arc? How were they changed?
- What sort of transitions did the author employ that made you want to turn the page? How can you use that kind of transition in your own work?
- Did you get a satisfying ending? If not, how could it have been made better?
Reading and dissecting the works of successful authors is a necessary component of any education in the craft of writing.
Answering these questions will make you think about your own work. You will put more thought into how you deploy the contrasting events that change the lives of your characters.