Writing Lessons From Reading Terry Brooks

December 16, 2009 at 5:02 am (fantasy, Thoughts on Writing) (, , , , , )


I’m trying to make the writing lessons a regular feature of the blog but it is probably going to be an every other week thing rather than a weekly inclusion.  I really like writing these posts because it makes me think about books I’ve read and loved and what works and what doesn’t.  The feedback I’ve gotten from readers of the blog seems to imply that others are finding these helpful as well so I’ll try to throw them up from time to time.

Terry Brooks is awesome.  I am not going to hid the fact that I am a fan of his work and that I definitely see the good rather than the bad.  If you aren’t into fantasy Terry Brooks is the writer behind the Shannara series followed by the Heritage of Shannara series, – literally the only time I thought the follow on series was better than the original – The Magic Kingdom of Landover Series and Word and Void series.  There are also a whole stack of other Shannara titles and he has written two novelisation of sci-fi movies.  Busy guy and fabulous writer.

My focus is going to be the Word and Void series because it was my favourite and it is the one I have read again and again.  Why is this series better than his others?  This one is set in the ‘real’ world and deals with a young female protagonist who in the first book gets her first real taste of tragedy and by the final book becomes a woman of great strength and poise.  Her development is amazing and as a young female reader I connected instantly with this story.

So, what did I learn about writing from reading Terry Brooks’ Word and Void series?

  1. You can give your characters really bizarre names if by the end of the story they have made the names their own.  This might sound strange but if you read the book you will understand.  The main character is named “Nest Freemark” and on the very first page of the first chapter she is woken from sleep by “Pick”.  My first thought as a young reader was why is this girl’s name Nest?  By the end the question is, why isn’t Nest one of the most popular names for girls.  Nest manages to endear herself to the reader and because she is a mostly normal girl with the slightly odd habit of having to patrol the park at night for wandering children being lead off cliffs by ‘feeders’ the name which sounds odd at first begins to fit her perfectly.  One thing is for sure, you never forget Nest’s name.
  2. Just because a book is fantasy doesn’t mean it has to be full of epic battles and sieges.  The Word and Void series covers three specific confrontations between the Word and the Void and though the confrontations take place in the real world, they barely make a ripple.  These books are focused on the relationships between characters and the choices that they make.  There is magic, but it comes at a very high cost (point three), and ultimately these books are about the characters in them.
  3. When characters have magic there need to be limitations and these have to be observed.  What peril is involved for anyone if they can magic their way out of any given situation?  Do you care for that character?  Does your heart race as they find themselves in jeopardy?  Probably not.  Nest has magic but she can’t use it very well and she is scared of it.  By the third book she has learnt some control but her power is still limited.  John Ross, the Knight of the Word, has a magic staff but in receiving it he was crippled and can’t walk without leaning heavily on the staff.  Using the power drains him and leaves him vulnerable to attack.  Other creatures have magic specific to one purpose and it isn’t easily used otherwise.  This allows there to be a real sense of danger surrounding these characters as they face off against demons.
  4. Everything has a price.  I know I’ve talked about it before but there have to be real consequences for characters.  Otherwise the reader feels cheated.  A wrong choice in youth will come back to bite a character and making the decision to walk away from a battle has to have disastrous consequences.   Think about it for a minute.  If the other characters are begging someone to stay because they ‘need’ their help and that person walks off and nothing happens, what is the point?  Why does the reader care?  If however many of those people begging for help are in  fact killed or injured because that person didn’t stay then there is a reason for the reader to care.  Terry Brooks is a master of giving us a reason to care about the choices his characters make but the consequence is never quite what you expect.

I’m going to say it again, Terry Brooks is awesome.  If you have ever wanted to read fantasy and haven’t, Terry Brooks is a great place to start.  Let me know if this advice has been helpful and which writers you think have helped you become a better writer.

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13 Comments

  1. Elizabeth Spann Craig said,

    Great advice, Cassandra! My husband is a big Brooks fan and I’ve been considering introducing my son to him, too. I think it’s cool that Brooks has helped you with your writing.

    Agatha Christie is probably my biggest influence.

    Elizabeth
    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. Corra McFeydon said,

    *This one is set in the ‘real’ world and deals with a young female protagonist who in the first book gets her first real taste of tragedy and by the final book becomes a woman of great strength and poise.*

    That’s my kind of character-driven plot.

    My biggest influence has been the American writer Margaret Mitchell. She’s from the home of my ancestors–Atlanta, Georgia–and I’ve read absolutely every book on her.

    Her energy inspires me. Hers is a novel much like the one I quoted here from your article. (Historical fiction.)

    Corra

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      I may have to check her out. I’ve been trying to branch away from fantasy all the time and I’ve found historical fiction fairly interesting – depending on the writer and the story. Thanks for the recommendation.

  3. Michelle said,

    Oooh, I love this post! One of the hardest parts in world building is establishing the limitations of magic–because if it doesn’t have limits and “rules”, then the book is a total free for all, and lacks tension.

    Also now you made me want to read Terry Brooks.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      Yes, it seems unnatural to limit magic powers but if you don’t you lose any chance of actual tension. Of course if you limit it too much what is the point of having it at all. Fine line.
      Thanks for your comment and I totally recommend Terry Brooks but, as I said in the post, I’m a little biased because I think he is amazing.

  4. Jane Kennedy Sutton said,

    You’ve included some excellent information here. The name thing is very interesting, although I would think you have to be very careful when introducing unusual names. If they are too way out, I think you could lose the reader. I don’t normally read fantasy, but your post makes me think I should try one of his books.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      I’ve always been fairly cautious with names but I think it is nice that occasionally you can just go for it.

  5. Carol Kilgore said,

    Good post. I especially liked the consequences reminder.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      I sometimes wish that life were more like what we expect from books and that consequences actually happen but maybe that’s why I like reading so much. Things have to make sense in books and in life they don’t.

  6. Margot Kinberg said,

    Cassandra – Like you, I’ve learned a great deal from other writers. Like Elizabeth, I’ve been influenced the most by Agatha Christie, but I’ve had other influences, too (Tony Hillerman, Rita Mae Brown and Carolyn Graham being three of them). I, too, have learned lots of lessons from them, so I know exactly what you mean about learning from one of your “influences.” Those lessons you outline are important, too!

    As it happens (and I have this in common with Elizabeth, too!) my husband likes Terry Brooks a lot, and I’m sure that he would agree with you : ).

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      I’ve never understood why Terry Brooks is read mostly by males. Sure, his Shannara series is very sword and sorcery but his other series are very much character driven fantasies with a grea deal of appeal for women.

  7. Fiona Skye said,

    I have to say that my all-time favourite fantasy series is the Landover series. I still remember the very first time I read “Magic Kingdom for Sale – Sold!” I did also enjoy the Word and the Void series and Nest was a fabulous character. I thought her name fit her so perfectly that I honestly never questioned it.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      I loved the Landover series – I found it very, very clever and the characters were amazing. I didn’t focus on Landover because I knew I would get caught up with the dragon and never get back to the point of the post. Thanks for the comment.

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