Terry Brooks’ Sword of Shannara is a fantasy classic. I was warned it’s a Lord of the Rings copycat, but I knew nothing about the story or any of its characters. Naturally, I decided to read it – or try to.
Whether it’s because Brooks was still inexperienced when he wrote the first chapter of the first book, or simply because it was written in the 70s when standards were different (and probably lower), the writing is surprisingly bad. Luckily for us, it’s bad in ways fiction writers can learn from. So I’ll go through it for you, critiquing it and occasionally comparing it to Lord of the Rings.
Open Your Story With Something Interesting
The sun was already sinking into the deep green of the hills to the west of the valley, the red and gray-pink of its shadows touching the corners of the land, when Flick Ohmsford began his descent. The trail stretched out unevenly down the northern slope, winding through the huge boulders which…
The first paragraph is possibly the most important place in the entire series, and Brooks uses it just to set the scene. Now, scene setting is important; it minimizes confusion and helps the audience visualize what’s happening. But it’s still supporting information. A book’s opening paragraph needs to bring out the central plot hook, or at least lure in the reader with something novel or exciting.
This paragraph doesn’t mention anything interesting. Tolkien did go on about the scenery, but usually it was scenery that, for instance, had trees that menacingly crowded in, steering your party in a direction you didn’t want to go. These are just normal trees.
Don’t Favor Tiny Details Over Important Ones
Flick followed the familiar trail with his eyes as he trudged wearily along, his light pack slung loosely over one shoulder. His broad, windburned face bore a set, placid look, and only the wide gray eyes revealed the restless energy that burned beneath the calm exterior. He was a young man…
Wait, he’s young? That was jarring, because his windburned face, calm demeanor, and restless eyes made me think he was a seasoned adult. You might have interpreted it differently, but here’s the point: when crafting description, present the broad strokes first, details second. The longer you go on about details, the more your audience will fill in the big gaps themselves. If they make big assumptions that are wrong, they’ll be disoriented when they figure it out.
Use Words That Mean Something
Because he had traveled this same route a hundred times, the young man noticed immediately the unusual stillness that seemed to have captivated the entire valley this evening.
Stay clear of the “everything’s too silent, something must be wrong!” trope yourself; at this point it’s overused. But in 1977, it might not have been.
The paragraph this appears in has some lovely language, but here we see the wordcraft problems that mar this chapter over and over and over again. Instead of “the unusual stillness that seemed to have captivated the entire valley,” he should have used just “the stillness that captivated the valley.” We already know the silence is unusual because Flick notices it, “seemed to have” only weakens the effect, and “entire” doesn’t change the meaning.
Give the Main Plot Some Respect
Flick listened intently for some sound of life, but his keen ears could detect nothing. He shook his head uneasily. The deep silence was unsettling, particularly in view of the rumors of a frightening black-winged creature sighted in the night skies north of the valley only days earlier.
He forced himself to whistle and turned his thoughts back to his day’s work in the country…
Wait right there! We have two huge paragraphs full of mundane description, and then a scary flying creature is tacked onto the end like an afterthought? “Oh, and by the way, there could be a super scary monster nearby, but let’s move on to boring exposition.” This is the plot. It’s supposed to show up first.
Based on what I’ve read so far, here’s roughly how I would reconstruct the opening paragraph:
Flick had traveled the valley a hundred times, so he noticed the silence. The familiar buzzing and chirping of insects normally present in the quiet of the night, the cries of birds that awoke with the setting of the sun to fly in search of food — all were missing. He shook his head uneasily, remembering the tales he’d heard of a frightening black-winged creature. They said it was sighted in the night skies north of the valley only days earlier. He forced himself to whistle as he hurried homeward.
This puts tension in the first sentence while still setting the scene. From this, we know Flick is traveling home through an unpopulated valley at night. The second paragraph could describe Flick in more detail and build the tension further.
The sentence with the familiar buzzing and chirping is from the middle of paragraph two. It’s a strong “showing” sentence. Brooks doesn’t have to repeat how the woods are silent after that, but of course he does.
Don’t Awkwardly Stuff in Useless Exposition
He forced himself to whistle and turned his thoughts back to his day’s work in the country just to the north of the Vale, where outlying families farmed and tended domestic livestock. He traveled to their homes every week, supplying various items that they required and bringing bits of news…
Flick thinking on his day’s work is an awkward excuse to talk about things we don’t need to know. We don’t even learn anything about the day’s work he’s supposed to be thinking about.
And after some nice demonstrative prose, now Brooks isn’t trying. He can’t come up with anything more illustrative than “various items that they required”? He might as well just say “things and stuff.” Even “goods from town” would be better.
Don’t Drone on During the Boring Parts
He was deep in the lowland forests now and only slivers of moonlight were able to find their way through the tick boughs overhead …
Again he recalled the strange rumors. He felt a bit anxious in spite of himself and glanced worriedly around …
He walked slowly, picking his way along the winding path that had narrowed beyond the clearing…
zzz zzz zzz zzz zzz zzz zzz zzz zzz zzz
Don’t “Seem to” Do the Thing, Just Do the Thing
He was so intent on the trail ahead and the open land beyond the forest that he failed to notice the huge black shadow that seemed to rise up suddenly, detaching itself from a great oak tree on his left and moving swiftly toward the path to intercept him.
That sentence needs some serious work. First, let’s look at “the huge black shadow that seemed to rise up suddenly.” Flick has failed to notice this happening, so it’s clearly told from omniscient perspective, rather than the limited perspective he was using when he directed Flick’s thoughts as an excuse for exposition. How could this shadow seem to rise up? No one is watching except a narrator that knows exactly what it is and isn’t doing. I’m also fuzzy on the difference between seeming to rise up and just plain rising up. Something like “he failed to notice a huge shadow rise behind him” would be better.
Then we have “detaching itself from a great oak tree.” What else could it be detaching, its lunchbox? Plus, whenever there are “ing” verbs, it indicates simultaneous action. So this shadow is simultaneously seeming to rise up, detaching itself from an oak tree, and moving swiftly toward the path. These “ing” verbs also soften actions, making them less powerful. The sentence reads stronger as “he failed to notice a huge shadow detach from a great oak tree and move swiftly to intercept him.”
Pronouns Are Your Friends
The dark figure was almost on top of the Valeman before Flick sensed its presence looming up before him like a great, black stone which threatened to crush his smaller being.
Haha! Just “crush him” wasn’t good enough? Brooks must hate pronouns, because he uses oddities like this and like “the Valeman” or “the other” when it’s completely unnecessary. If you have multiple characters in a scene that all have the same pronoun, labels like these may be needed for clarity – but use plain ones only.
It’s also unclear why Flick “sensed its presence” rather than seeing it, as it was right in front of him.
Body Parts Should Be Attached to Characters
With a startled cry of fear he leaped aside, his pack falling to the path with a crash of metal, and his left hand whipped out the long thin dagger at his waist.
Is that a startled cry or a fearful cry? That’s forgetting neither is necessary, because Brooks has just shown there’s a huge shadow in front of Flick, so we can guess what the cry is about. It’s also strange that his left hand is whipping out a dagger of its own accord. Just “he whipped out…” would have worked.
Even as he crouched to defend himself, he was stayed by a commanding arm raised above the figure before him and a strong, yet reassuring voice that spoke out quickly.
There’s a disembodied arm and voice holding Flick back from the fight! Wait, never mind. I guess another person has entered the scene.
Characters Should Do Things That Make Sense
“Wait a moment friend. I’m no enemy and have no wish to harm you. I merely seek directions and would be grateful if you could show me the proper path.”
It’s the shadow thing talking? I didn’t see that coming. Was it really too much to say “the figure raised a commanding arm and spoke in a strong, yet reassuring voice?”
As for the dialogue itself, it may sound stiff to you if you aren’t used to high fantasy. It’s a genre convention that’s appropriate here.
Flick relaxed his guard a bit and tried to peer into the blackness of the figure before him in an effort to discover some semblance of a human being…
“I assure you, I mean no harm,” the voice continued, as if reading the Valeman’s mind. “I did not mean to frighten you, but I didn’t see you until you were almost upon me, and I was afraid you might pass me by without realizing I was there.”
You want to know a good way to alert someone you’re there? How about calling out with that disembodied voice that can speak and read minds?
Slowly the pale moonlight began to etch out the stranger’s features in vague lines and blue shadows. For a long moment the two faced each other in silence …
Then suddenly the huge figure lunged with terrible swiftness, his powerful hands seizing the Valeman’s wrists, and Flick was lifted abruptly off the solid earth and held high, his knife dropping from nerveless fingers as the deep voice laughed mockingly up at him.
“Well, well, my young friend! What are you going to do now, I wonder? I could cut your heart out on the spot and leave you for the wolves if I chose, couldn’t I?”
Flick struggled violently to free himself, terror numbing his mind to any thought but that of escape. He had no idea what manner of creature had subdued him, but it was far more powerful than any normal man and apparently prepared to dispatch Flick quickly.
Oh, I see, the voice is evil after all! The whole “I’m harmless” business was just to catch Flick off guard. Then there’s more redundant telling – we already know it’s powerful because it grabbed Flick and lifted him into the air, and the “cut out your heart” line made it clear it can dispatch him easily.
“Enough of this, boy! We have played our little game and still you know nothing of me. I’m tired and hungry and have no wish to be delayed on the forest trail in the chill of the evening while you decide if I am man or beast. I will set you down that you may show me the path. I warn you–do not try to run from me or it will be the worse for you.”
Wait, now the voice is letting Flick go again but threatening him if he doesn’t provide directions. I think this character might need some motivational coaching; its behavior is inconsistent. If it really just wanted directions, it could, I don’t know, just tell Flick what creature it is rather than making him guess. Maybe tell him where it’s from?
Don’t Use Vague Description to Lie to Readers
Flick could see the fellow more clearly now, and a quick scrutiny of him revealed that he was definitely human, though much larger than any man Flick had ever seen.
He’s human? But he flies! Wait a second… he doesn’t fly. This blew my mind. I had to go back and investigate why I thought he was a flying creature. It comes down to the mention of a blank winged creature in the beginning, setting an expectation it would appear again. The description Brooks uses for this character is so vague, it’s easy to see whatever you expect. For instance, I thought “detaching itself from a great oak tree” and “moving swiftly toward the path” meant it had been gripping the branches, then it swooped down. I now have a wonderful image of this guy hugging the tree trunk before reluctantly pulling himself away.
Again, Characters Should Be RATIONAL
The overall appearance [of the stranger] was frightening …
“You must learn to know a friend from an enemy. Sometime your life may depend upon it. Now then, let’s have your name.”
Flick hesitated and then continued in a slightly braver tone of voice.
“My father is Curzad Ohmsford. He manages an inn in Shady Vale a mile or two from here. You could find lodging and food there.”
Flick, what are you doing?! Don’t invite him home! Don’t you remember the part where he gripped your wrist so hard your hands went numb, discussed cutting your heart out, and then threatened you if you ran off? Is that normal in your culture? Is the wrist lifting thing your village’s secret handshake? He looks frightening, it’s been established that most Valeman prefer isolation, and at best he’s a terrible bully. Now you’re pals for some reason.
On a more technical note, those last three paragraphs should have been in the same paragraph together. Unless your character goes on at length, wait until you narrate about a new person to start a new paragraph.
Obvious Hints Will Be Obvious
… he rubbed his craggy face with crooked fingers and looked beyond the forest’s edge to the rolling grasslands of the valley. He was still looking away when he spoke again.
“You… have a brother.”
It was not a question; it was a simple statement of fact. It was spoken so distantly and calmly, as if the tall stranger were not at all interested in any sort of reply, that Flick almost missed hearing it.
So that’s super random and oddly dramatic. You know what that means…
BEHOLD THE FORESHADOWING
If you want your foreshadowing to be painfully obvious, make sure there’s no other possible reason for inserting whatever it is into your narrative. Then make a big deal out of it.
Boring Things Are Still Boring the Second Time
They passed out of the deep forest and entered rolling, gentle hills which they would follow to the hamlet of Shady Vale…
Except for the rushing of the wind, the night remained silent. …
After a while, Flick began to have trouble keeping pace with the tall man …
The stranger did not speak a single word during the brief journey…
zzz zzz zzz zzz zzz zzz zzz zzz zzz zzz
Melodrama Will Freeze the Depths of Your Soul
“Quickly! Hide in the bushes ahead. Go now, run!”
… They ran quickly to the dark wall of foliage some fifty feet ahead…
… the sky was suddenly blotted out by something huge and black that floated overhead and then passed from sight. A moment later it passed again, circling slowly without seeming to move, its shadow hanging ominously above the two hidden travelers as if preparing to fall upon them. A sudden feeling of terror raced through Flick’s mind, trapping it in an iron web as it strained to flee the fearful madness penetrating inward. Something seemed to be reaching downward into his chest, slowly squeezing the air from his lungs, and he found himself gasping for breath. A vision passed sharply before him of a black image laced with red, of clawed hands and giant wings, of a thing so evil that its very existence threatened his frail life.
It’s a sudden and abrupt attack that happens suddenly! Just like the word “seem,” “sudden” and “abrupt” are rarely appropriate. Unless you deliberately slow the pace of your narrative, everything that happens already feels sudden to readers, and adding the word “suddenly” won’t make it feel more so.
Brooks has stuffed as much drama as he possibly could into this first impression of the forces of evil. There’s penetrating and fearful madness, things that seem to squeeze air from lungs, and the existence of life-threatening evil. For comparison, here’s how Tolkien describes the moment the hobbits are hiding next to the road, and the Nazgûl almost find them:
The sound of hoofs stopped. As Frodo watched he saw something dark pass across the lighter space between two trees, and then halt. It looked like the black shade of a horse led by a smaller black shadow. The black shadow stood close to the point where they had left the path, and it swayed from side to side. Frodo thought he heard the sound of snuffling. The shadow bent to the ground, and then began to crawl towards him.
Once more the desire to slip on the Ring came over Frodo; but this time it was stronger than before. So strong that, almost before he realized what he was going, his hand was groping in his pocket.
This is chilling, without the words “terror,” “fear,” “maddness,” “evil,” or other language that tells you to be scared. While Tolkien leaves the Nazgûl as a black shadow, he communicates clearly about what it’s doing. We’re creeped out because it’s doing creepy things. Brooks just has melodrama.
“That thing! What was that terrible thing?”
“Just a shadow,” the man replied easily. “But this is neither the place nor the time to concern ourselves with such matters.”
Hey… this guy is a Gandalf, isn’t he? A Gandalf that has an unfortunate habit of assaulting and threatening people who are frightened of him.
Then we have more traveling I won’t bother to fall asleep for.
At Least Take Your Own Melodrama Seriously
Already [Flick] was considering how much he ought to tell his father and Shea, not wishing to worry them about strange shadow that could easily have been the product of this imagination and the gloomy night.
After “Something seemed to be reaching downward into his chest, slowly squeezing the air from his lungs, and he found himself gasping for breath,” now he thinks it was all his imagination?
I’ll summarize what happens next. Flick and Evil Gandalf finally get into town; Evil Gandalf clearly knows where he’s going without directions. They enter the inn, and Flick goes to get his Father and brother Shea, asking them to join him and Evil Gandalf for dinner. Shea is conveniently out on an errand, but his father joins them and they finish dinner.
Choose a Perspective and Stick to It
Then Shea finally arrives.
For the first time, Flick saw the hooded stranger take more than a passing interest in someone. Strong hands gripped the table as the black figure rose silently… For one frightening second, Flick believed that the stranger was somehow about to destroy Shea, but then the idea disappeared and was replaced with another. The man was searching his brother’s mind.
He stared intently at Shea, his deep, shaded eyes running quickly over the young man’s slim countenance and slight build. He noted the telltale Elven features immediately–
Ahhh! Brooks has been throwing in whatever viewpoint he feels like throughout this chapter, but this is the worst case of head jumping yet. We go straight from Flick’s mind to Evil Gandalf’s mind without any warning. I thought I was still in Flick’s head, until coming across thoughts that were definitely not his. Very jarring.
Reconsider Eating All That Candy
… the young man’s slim countenance and slight build. He noted the telltale Elven features immediately–the hint of slightly pointed ears beneath the tousled blond hair, the pencil-like eyebrows that ran straight up at a sharp angle from the bridge of the nose rather than across the brow, and the slimness of the nose and jaw. He saw intelligence and honesty in that face, and now as he faced Shea across the room, he saw determination in the penetrating blue eyes–determination that spread in a flush over the youthful features as the two men locked their gazes on each other.
I can only assume by this Mary Sue level gushing that Shea is the actual main character of the book. Why, oh why, did we just spend the first chapter with Flick? My current guess is that Brooks wanted Evil Gandalf to be scary but didn’t want candy-coated Shea to be scared of him, so he put Flick in there instead. Because if Shea got any spinach, it would ruin everything.
Now any readers that have grown attached to Flick will have to let him go in favor of Shea. Since Shea is clearly a wish-fulfillment character, that probably pissed some people off.
…the stranger reached up and pulled back the cowl of his cloak to reveal clearly the dark face…
You could have done that to make your meeting with Flick easier, just sayin’.
“My name is Allanon,” he announced quietly.
There was a long moment of stunned silence as the three listeners stared in speechless amazement. Allanon–the mysterious wanderer of the four lands, historian of the races, philosopher and teacher, and, some said, practitioner of the mystic arts.
Okay, we get it, Gandalf. Or rather, a poor imitation of him. Here is how Gandalf is introduced in the Lord of the Rings.
…the old man was Gandalf, the wizard, whose fame in the Shire was due mainly to his skill with fires, smokes, and lights. His real business was far more difficult and dangerous, but the Shire-folk knew nothing about it. To them he was just one of the ‘attractions’ at the Party.
Gandalf is cool because he’s unassuming but has great power underneath. We find out he’s a wanderer and all that by watching him do it during the books. For an introduction, Tolkien says just enough about his real nature to invoke curiosity, without flattering him.
Then Allanon declares he came specifically to find Shea, and there ends the chapter.
Most of the problems in this chapter stem from two things:
- Brooks doesn’t distinguish what’s important from what isn’t.
- Brooks prioritizes style over substance.
There’s a very good chance this book would be better without the first chapter. We don’t have a real plot or even a main character. Instead of a belabored journey to the hamlet, the story could start there with Shea. The dragon thing could appear briefly, and then Allanon could show up to tell Shea he’s the chosen one.
Instead of making his scenes genuinely interesting as Tolkien does, Brooks tries to make them interesting with overdone language. In this chapter we have two allies meet up, briefly see a flying shadow, and go to town. There’s no conflict there. So he tries to disguise Allanon as this scary creature via confusing description. Allanon has no reason to act like a scary creature, and Flick has no reason to bring a scary creature home, so they act inconsistently and irrationally to hold up the charade.
Between blunders, Brooks has shown he is capable of great illustration. But even when his prose is good, he doesn’t trust its effectiveness. He dilutes it by telling what he just showed and then repeating that several times. Perhaps I’ll find that his writing gains confidence as the series progresses, becoming more like the unadorned elegance of Tolkien.
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