richard harland's writing tips

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3. Style




Fantasy isn’t a rat-tat-tat sort of genre, and doesn’t go with a hip, contemporary, urban style. In many of its forms, it can afford to be a bit old-fashioned.

When it goes off the rails, it’s typically by being too old-fashioned. For my taste, anyway. I don’t much like the language in The Return of the King, where Tolkien aims at a grand, epic-poetic style.

Stern now was Éomer’s mood, and his mind clear again. He let blow the horns to rally all men to his banner that could come thither; for he thought to make a great shield-wall at the last, and stand, and fight there on foot till all fell, and do deeds of song on the fields of Pelennor, though no man should be left in the West to remember the last King of the Mark. (Chapter VI)

And then [Aragorn] cast the leaves into the bowls of steaming water that were brought to him, and at once all hearts were lightened. For the fragrance that came to each was like a memory of dewy mornings of unshadowed sun in some land of which the fair world in Spring is itself but a fleeting memory. (Chapter VIII)

I guess everyone has their own limits. For me, the style is just too high-flown and consciously archaic. And yet … and yet … it seems much more mannered in brief extracts than when reading through The Return of the King as a whole.

I don’t much like the language, but does it spoil the last part of The Lord of the Rings for me? Not at all. And some of my other favorite fantasies—well, I wouldn’t call them exactly well-written. It takes a style as way-out quaint as in The Worm Ouroboros to turn me off.

I guess fantasy is a genre, more than any other, where we read beyond the words and into the world. We can overlook a style that’s less than perfect, even a little irritating, because the true rewards are elsewhere.

gene wolfeStill, that’s no excuse for not improving one’s style. I think the best way to improve is not by following rules but by reading and re-reading authors who do use language perfectly. My top three recommendations would be the Tales of the Otori series by Liam Hearn, Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan, and The Book of the New Sun volumes by Gene Wolfe. (The Book of the New Sun has to work as fantasy in the first place, although it may end up as something else.)

What I love about those authors is that their language is so clear and limpid, so deceptively simple. The words allow the colors of the world to shine through.

I was going to give extracts, but I’ve changed my mind. It would be misleading to focus on local passages of particular beauty. What matters is that these styles can be maintained for hundreds of pages without clotting or cloying—and it’s something to be absorbed over hundreds of pages too.





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1997 - 2010 Richard Harland.