Story Starters #10: A Wizard of Earthsea

The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards.  From the towns in its high valleys and the ports on its dark narrow bays many a Gontishman has gone forth to serve the Lords of the Archipelago in their cities as wizard or mage, or, looking for adventure, to wander working magic from isle to isle of all Earthsea. Of these some say the greatest, and surely the greatest voyager, was the man called Sparrowhawk, who in his day became both dragonlord and Archmage. His life is told of in the Deed of Ged and in many songs, but this is a tale of the time before his fame, before the songs were made.

Image source

Good morning, everyone! Happy Monday and welcome to December! For this first Monday of the month, I am as usual analyzing the first paragraph of a novel. A Wizard of Earthsea is an excellent classic young adult fantasy by Ursula K. Le Guin (see my review for more!), which I highly recommend. Having been originally released in 1968, however, its opening isn’t quite as gripping as other’s we’ve looked at. Let’s break this down sentence-by-sentence.

  • The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts is peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards. So this might not be the most immediately engaging opening line ever written (personally, I prefer openings that start right off with character action or dialogue), but it still catches the interest, which, as K.M. Weiland writes, is required for a hook. Why? Well, I think the answer is in two things: genre and phrasing. Genre, because as a fantasy novel should, this describes an interesting setting far outside the average experience, which helps to catch interest. Phrasing, because of the short-long-short phrase structure within the sentence (look at where the commas are). There’s a graphic I’ve seen floating around the Internet about how varying sentence length and structure reduces boredom in the reader, and I think it applies here to phrases within the sentence as well. In fact, if you want to go really far, you could say it echoes the three-act structure typical of writing in general. No matter how far you go with it, the phrasing does keep reader interest, in a slightly intangible and intriguing way. And of course, the mention of wizards doesn’t hurt; it helps reinforce what we expect from the title.
  • From the towns in its high valleys and the ports on its dark narrow bays many a Gontishman has gone forth to serve the Lords of the Archipelago in their cities as wizard or mage, or, looking for adventure, to wander working magic from isle to isle of all Earthsea. Ah, back to my later point on the previous sentence, here’s a longer sentence to support that shorter hook. The hook can’t reveal everything at once, so this second sentence is here backing it up. By now we can gather that there’s going to be an omniscient narrator, not uncommon in older works, and that this narrator is currently setting the scene, giving us the historical context before we actually get to our character. Of course, it’s dangerous to do too much of this, which is called “infodumping;” we want to save tidbits for later reveals, both in the cases of backstory and worldbuilding. In this case, though, it’s appropriate; we have just learned a little about Gont, and now we learn a little more, and that there’s a whole Archipelago out there of which Gont is only a part. And the wizard theme is reinforced once again, which leads into our next sentence.
  • Of these some say the greatest, and surely the greatest voyager, was the man called Sparrowhawk, who in his day became both dragonlord and Archmage.
    Aha, our character makes an appearance (if only through the narrator talking about him)! And now that we have some background, we think, “Of course the greatest wizard came from Gont. Gont is known for wizards. Doesn’t everyone know that?” It makes sense with the information we’ve already been given. And the shorter sentence holds our attention better than if we’d been given another behemoth like the second sentence, which is good for introducing the main character. Oh, and dragons–don’t you want to keep reading now?
  • His life is told of in the Deed of Ged and in many songs, but this is a tale of the time before his fame, before the songs were made. Wow, this guy really is important–they made songs about him! Oh, but we realize now that this story is about something the songs don’t tell about, which heightens our interest, because even if said songs are fictional, we like having exclusive information. This sentence completes the hook started in the first sentence.

Overall, this paragraph led in very nicely from setting scene and historical context to the context of our character, which in the next paragraph, will become a sort of biography of his early life. Although not necessarily something used in today’s fiction, this “funneling in” technique works well for A Wizard of Earthsea.

That’s it for me today! Have you read A Wizard of Earthsea? If not, I’d love to know: did this post make you more interested in it? What do you think of setting the scene in your opening? Any further analysis that I may have missed? Tell me in the comments!

Advertisements

Thoughts on The Two Towers, Part I

Image source

Good morning, everyone, and happy Monday! Normally today I would do the Beautiful People link-up, but since this month it’s about NaNoWriMo and I’m not participating (anymore *cough* I gave up), I wanted to share some thoughts about one of my favorite books with you.

Every year and a half or so, I get a gut feeling that it’s Lord of the Rings time again. I love The Lord of the Rings. It’s my absolute favorite book ever and probably the single greatest influence on my writing over my lifetime. And (you guessed it) it’s Lord of the Rings time right now! Right now, I’m almost finished with The Return of the King, the third part, so that means I’ve recently finished The Two Towers, the (I think) underappreciated filling in the Lord of the Rings sandwich. And I have some thoughts on it, which I’ll share below! (There are, of course, spoilers here for anyone who has not read The Lord of the Rings.)

The Two Towers: The Bridge of The Lord of the Rings

As it says in the header, it is my opinion that The Two Towers (which, for simplicity, I’ll refer to as TTT for the rest of the post) is really the bridge of The Lord of the Rings (LotR). In other words, without it, The Fellowship of the Ring (FotR) and The Return of the King (RotK) would be lost and alone and probably make no sense. TTT pulls it all together in many ways.

Probably the most important thing about TTT is that everything is interconnected, at least within each of the two major parts, Book III (which follows Aragorn, Gandalf, and the rest of the fellowship after its breaking) and Book IV (concerned with Frodo and Sam’s journey to Mordor). In writing this post, I found that when thinking about one element of either book, three or four elements it was connected to would pop up. I attribute this to J.R.R. Tolkien’s seamless weaving together of storylines into one vast epic, and indeed this is one of the qualities that make LotR as a whole so enduring. TTT is an excellent example of this beautiful interweaving.

So what are some of those elements I was talking about? In Book III, let’s take Saruman. Saruman was introduced, but always off-screen, in FotR when Gandalf told the Council of Elrond about his imprisonment in Isengard, Saruman’s stronghold. In TTT, he is a much more present menace; for instance, it is revealed that some of the Orcs who captured Merry and Pippin at the end of FotR are acting on Saruman’s orders, to bring back hobbits, alive. They fail, of course, when Eomer and the Riders of Rohan intercept and destroy them. This leads us into the role of Merry and Pippin (who coincidentally constitute one of my favorite literary pairings ever), who, after escaping from the Orcs, wander into Fangorn forest and bump into Treebeard and the other Ents. This seemingly minor movement of two small characters proves to be earth-shattering (literally), when the information Merry and Pippin bring galvanizes the Ents to break Isengard.

This is one of the instances in which TTT reinforces one of LotR’s key themes: even the smallest people can change the world, especially when they don’t intend to. Merry and Pippin didn’t set out with Frodo to become great in their own right, but only to support him in his journey. But because they refused to be left behind, in the Shire and again in Rivendell, they became two of the most important movers and shakers in the War of the Ring. And their combined influence in TTT set them up to go even further when separated during the events of RotK.

Right, where was I? Oh, yes, Saruman. Another key personage who is intimately connected with Saruman is, of course, Gandalf. The end of FotR saw Gandalf fallen in the Mines of Moria, supposedly never to return. In TTT, however, it is revealed that he has in fact survived (or died and risen–I’ve always found the distinction rather ambiguous), and has returned to continue supporting Frodo’s quest by orchestrating the War west of the River Anduin. He takes up this role most fully in RotK, but first, Gandalf must deal with Saruman. He first throws Saruman’s influence out of the land of Rohan (more on that later), then rides on to Isengard, where he proves his primacy by asserting power to cast Saruman down from his high horse, as it were.

So in TTT, Gandalf grows (debatably–I suppose he always had this in him) into his new role as the head wizard and war-orchestrator, which he takes on more fully in RotK. His new primacy makes the reader wonder, though: if Gandalf is greater than Saruman, isn’t he on a level with Sauron? He is so wise and powerful; shouldn’t he have taken the Ring and taken Sauron on one-to-one, rather than sending Frodo with the Ring to Mordor? But deep down, we know that Gandalf would ultimately have been corrupted by the Ring, and that he did the wisest thing possible in sending Frodo. This also gives more impact to the climax of LotR; when the Ring is cast into Mount Doom, and Sauron is overcome, it has that much more impact because we know that little Frodo and Sam did something that great, wise Gandalf could not have done. Again, TTT reinforces that overall theme of the influence of seemingly unimportant people.

Then there are the other pieces on the chessboard of TTT: Rohan with its king, Theoden, and the other members of the Fellowship, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli. Like Gandalf, Aragorn grows during TTT into the king he was meant to be, and will become in RotK. He is sure of himself; he makes executive decisions, like when he goes west after Merry and Pippin rather than east after Frodo and Sam at the beginning of TTT, and it is clear that Legolas and Gimli acknowledge him as their leader. But he is not overconfident or over-proud; once they meet Gandalf, he submits to his authority, which he will continue to do in RotK, because he knows Gandalf is wiser. And he always treats Legolas and Gimli as equals, and befriends Eomer, who is much younger than he is. This last move pays off in RotK when Eomer and Aragorn are both kings and become official allies.

Rohan is also an important piece of the puzzle. Without Theoden and his host, Gondor would have failed in RotK at the Pelennor Fields, and the quest of the Ring most likely would have failed as well. But without the events of TTT, Theoden and his host could never have come to Gondor’s aid. For starters, it was Eomer’s Riders who ambushed the Orc host, allowing Merry and Pippin to be freed and having a domino effect on the rest of the story as discussed above. And if Theoden King had continued to despair after Gandalf cast out Wormtongue, or had given in to Saruman’s voice at Isengard, Rohan would have been bereft of a leader and probably overwhelmed by Saruman’s forces. Instead, they won the battle at Helm’s Deep (with the help of the Huorns, another piece moved by the hobbits’ escape) and lived to help Gondor and ultimately stand before the Black Gate of Mordor at the climax of RotK, with the other peoples of the world.

Well, those are my thoughts on Book III of LotR, the first book of The Two Towers. I was going to put my thoughts on Book IV in here, too, but I think this is long enough for one blog post. Come back next month for my thoughts on Frodo’s journey to Mordor!

That’s all for me today! What do you think? Do you have anything to add to my thoughts on TTT? Which installment of LotR is your favorite? Who are your favorite members of the Fellowship? Tell me in the comments!

 

Story Starters #9: The Two Towers

*Spoiler alert for anyone who hasn’t read this far in The Lord of the Rings*

Aragorn sped on up the hill. Every now and again he bent to the ground. Hobbits go light, and their footprints are not easy even for a Ranger to read, but not far from the top a spring crossed his path, and in the wet earth he saw what he was seeking.

Image source

Good morning, everyone! It’s the first Monday of the month, and that must mean I’m here analyzing the first paragraph of a book. I currently have the joy of re-reading The Lord of the Rings, for what must be the fifth or sixth time, and recently finished The Two Towers, the underrated middle of the epic. So naturally I thought I’d analyze the beginning of that book today! Let’s break it down line by line.

  • Aragorn sped on up the hill. This starts with a character, and it’s also an action, which is great for getting the reader interested in what will happen next. In addition, since this is a sequel, it picks right back up where The Fellowship of the Ring left off.
  • Every now and again he bent to the ground. Another action. We get the hint that Aragorn is looking for something, without needing to be told.
  • Hobbits go light, and their footprints are not easy even for a Ranger to read, but not far from the top a spring crossed his path, and in the wet earth he saw what he was seeking. This sentence makes up most of the opening paragraph, and the two shorter sentences before it lead nicely into the longer phrasing. It also reintroduces some things from the previous book: the involvement of hobbits in this story, the worldbuilding fact that they’re hard to track, and the fact that Aragorn is a Ranger, a Numenorean of the North, which will become important later on. Aragorn’s searching for hobbit footprints here also nicely foreshadows his spending most of the book searching for the two captured young hobbits, Merry and Pippin.

Overall, this first paragraph starts with a character doing an action, picks up where the previous book left off, and reminds the reader of things that have been and will be important to the story, particularly regarding our opening character. It also foreshadows events important to how this book will play out. A good beginning, all in all!

That’s all for me today! Have you read The Lord of the Rings? Did you like The Two Towers? What do you think of its opening? Anything to add to my thoughts? Tell me in the comments!

What I’m Reading: Persuasion by Jane Austen

Hello again! Normally I do book reviews on the third Saturday of the month, but since it’s a five-Saturday month, things got shifted around a little bit. And this will be a short review, since a) it’s a fairly short book and b) I’m writing this post rather last-minute (oops). So let’s jump right in!

Image result for persuasion book cover

Information for Readers:

Genre: Classic Romance

Age Level: Probably all ages from teens up

Extreme Content? Not really; this is a pretty tame book.

The Story: Anne Elliot, the plain middle daughter of a noble family suffering from her father’s extravagance, wishes she had married her sweetheart Captain Wentworth eight years ago. When he unexpectedly reappears, interested in another girl, and in the midst of her family’s move to Bath to rent out their house, she must discern what his true intentions are and whether he or the charming Mr. Elliot is the better man.

The Characters: The characters were quite interesting. I didn’t see as much of Lady Russell as I would have liked from the beginning of the book; considering she was so involved in Anne’s prior decision to not marry Captain Wentworth, I would have thought she would be more involved toward the end. I loved how Austen used Sir Walter and Elizabeth, Anne’s father and older sister, to critique society. Mary, Anne’s younger sister, was delightfully annoying. Captain Wentworth was well-developed and well-rounded. Anne was definitely my favorite character; she just felt real to me. I appreciated her sensible outlook on life and logical, calm approach to problems like dealing with pesky family members. I think so much emphasis is placed on having “strong” female characters these days that the strength in quiet kindness gets lost a bit, so I found it quite refreshing to read about Anne.

The Writing: It’s difficult for me to critique Jane Austen, since she did write two centuries ago in another country and social class. I enjoyed the little tongue-in-cheek comments, a hallmark of Austen (as I know from reading three of her books), that she slipped in during descriptions and so forth. I think she really succeeded in transporting me to another time and place, something the familiarity of living in that time and place did a lot to help her with. None of the rules of inheritance or anything like that was explained, since, of course, the nineteenth-century upper-class reader would already know them. I really enjoyed it.

Overall: A pleasant short read. It made a nice break from classwork, and it was lovely getting to know Anne Elliot. Definitely recommended!

Have you ever read Persuasion? What do you think of it? If you haven’t, do you think you’d like to try it out? Tell me in the comments!

The Science of Storytelling: Guest Post by Olivia Hofer

Anna here! As it’s a five-Saturday month, today I have a wonderful treat for you: a guest post about story psychology and neurology by Olivia Hofer, who blogs at Story Matters. I’ll be back next week with another science post, but for now, let’s all read what Olivia has to say!

Those of us who read know the wonder of stories. They transport us to places and times and cultures and customs beyond our own, so vivid we can hear and touch and taste them. They transform us into people we are not, drawing on our common human traits to allow us to feel things we’ve never felt before. They enable us to experience, in a sense, things that can be understood only through experience, so that we may both make sense of the world for our own sakes and empathize with others who have undergone trials we haven’t. It’s magic.

It’s also science.

Let’s look at a few of the ways fiction demonstrably impacts us — and what that means to writers.

Increased empathy

Empathy — the ability to understand and feel the emotions of another — is an essential social skill, and arguably one of the major factors that distinguishes human beings from other creatures. And fiction has the capacity to nourish that ability.

According to studies, literary fiction in particular develops emotional literacy. Rich with subtext and nuance, it forces us to try our minds and sort out for ourselves what various characters are thinking and feeling. With so much unsaid, we must fill in the blanks. It’s a bit of an emotional logic puzzle.

And perhaps because of this, when researchers tested one thousand participants in theory of mind, by asking them to identify the emotions of strangers based solely on photos of eyes, those with greater familiarity with literary works scored higher than those exposed primarily to genre fiction. Previous studies measured the theory of mind of participants who read either a literary or genre fiction excerpt. Those who were given the literary sample were better able to read others’ emotions afterward.

Genre fiction, in its defense, has virtues in its own right. Studies suggest that reading books such as the Harry Potter series may alter attitudes toward marginalized people groups. The potential for societal impact is enormous.

As we write, we should consider the value of subtlety, and the impact that our portrayal of different groups might have. The power of fiction, on the individual and the societal level, cannot be overestimated. We as storytellers have a unique potential for influence. Let us use it wisely.

Further reading:

Literary fiction readers understand others’ emotions better, study finds

“Did you feel as if you hated people?”: emotional literacy through fiction

Novel Finding: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy

The Greatest Magic of Harry Potter: Reducing Prejudice

Sensory and motor activation

Spanish researchers found that when participants read words associated with distinct scents—like the Spanish words for coffee and perfume—they showed activity in the primary olfactory cortex that didn’t occur when they read “neutral” words such as the term for chair. In another study, reading metaphors that drew tactile analogies—phrases like “velvet voice” and “leathery hands”—activated the sensory cortex. This didn’t happen when the participants read descriptions such as “pleasing voice” and “strong hands”, which didn’t evoke tactile imagery.

And something similar happens as we read about the characters’ exploits. The motor regions of the brain that we use when performing physical activities and observing others’ movement are also activated when we read about characters doing the same things.

It seems there really is science behind “show, don’t tell”. Evocative imagery immerses readers in the storyworld.

Further reading:

Metaphors activate sensory areas of brain

The Neuroscience of Your Brain on Fiction

Neurological changes

And these effects may last well after we close the cover. One study found that reading the thriller Pompeii by Robert Harris heightened connectivity in language and sensory motor regions of the brain that remained hours after reading assigned passages and at least five days after finishing the book. The researchers believe the changes may last much longer, especially when we’ve read one of our favorite novels.

Our writing will likely stay with our readers, consciously or subconsciously, for some time to come. Consider the emotional as well as the thematic takeaways you hope to impart to your readers.

Further reading:

A novel look at how stories may change the brain

And that’s not to mention the stress relief reading provides, as well as the enormous impact it has on young minds.

Stories, it would seem, are entwined with our very human nature. At last we are beginning to understand how they so move us. And if these are the effects we can see, how much greater those yet unseen?

Thank you, Olivia, for that wonderful post! It was absolutely fascinating. What do you think of these impacts of storytelling? Did you know about any of them beforehand? Does this change how you think about writing? Share in the comments (and be sure to thank Olivia)!