I want to write a couple more posts about my experience at the Stonecoast residency this winter. As you know if you read my last post, Stonecoast is a low-residency MFA Program in which I teach, which means that I go up to Maine for residencies in the winter and summer, and then mentor students during the spring and fall semesters. This past residency, I led an elective workshop on writing fantasy. Most of the workshop was spent critiquing the stories students had submitted. But we also talked about the particular challenges of writing fantasy. The first day we talked about setting, then characters, then plot, then style. I thought I would talk for a bit here about creating setting in fantasy fiction, because it presents problems that realistic writers don’t have to deal with.
Basically, when you’re writing fantasy, you may be setting your story in a world that doesn’t exist. It can be much easier for a realistic writer, because he or she will have points of reference for the reader. “I walked through Central Park” immediately conveys an image to most readers (who have been in Central Park, or more likely seen it in movies or on television). “I walked through the gardens of the temple of Ashera” tells the reader exactly nothing. It conveys absolutely no visual image, except perhaps a green horizontal thing beside a gray vertical thing. So as a fantasy writer, you often have to work harder.
The day we talked about setting, I brought in a quotation for us to discuss. You’ll recognize it at once:
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that meant comfort.
“It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with paneled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats–the hobbit was fond of visitors. The tunnel wound on and on, going fairly but not quite straight into the side of the hill — The Hill, as all the people for many miles round called it — and many little round doors opened out of it, first on one side and then on another. No going upstairs for the hobbit: bedrooms, bathrooms, cellars, pantries (lots of these), wardrobes (he had a whole room devoted to clothes), kitchens, dining-rooms, all were on the same floor, and indeed on the same passage. The best rooms of all were all on the left-hand side (going in), for these were the only ones to have windows, deep-set round windows, looking over his garden, and meadows beyond, sloping down to the river.
“This hobbit was a very well-to-do hobbit, and his name was Baggins. The Bagginses have lived in the neighborhood of The Hill for time out of mind, and people considered them very respectable, not only because most of them were rich, but also because they never had any adventures or did anything unexpected: you could tell what a Baggins would say on any question without the bother of asking him. This is a story of how one Baggins had an adventure, and found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected. He may have lost the neighbors’ respect, but he gained — well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end.” — J.R.R. Tokien, The Hobbit
That’s Tolkien at his most brilliant, getting you right into the story by describing where we are, by giving us setting. But notice how cleverly he’s doing it, and what risks he takes. In a hole in the ground lived . . . what? A hobbit. We have no idea what a hobbit is, so he has to tell us, not by telling us, but by describing that hole in the ground. He’s not actually going to tell us what a hobbit is until later. The reference to a hobbit can make us feel displaced, so he’s going to place us: we’re in a hole. He starts by doing something I was taught not to do in writing workshops: telling us what isn’t there, what that hole is not like. It’s not dirty or wet or dry or sandy. No, it’s comfortable. And then he describes it.
One thing I’ve come to understand from teaching writing is that to work, writing needs tension: you need to feel things pulling against each other. Tolkien starts that pulling right at the beginning: the tension between our assumptions and the truth. We think a hobbit hole might be nasty, but it’s not. Look . . .
And then Tolkien takes us on a tour. One continual problem with how writers describe setting is that they stop, and then they describe. We are still. Tolkien describes the hobbit hole, but notice that we are on the move: we enter through the door, move down the hall, hang up our hats. (Just as the dwarves will, later in the chapter. We are the hobbit’s guest before they are. We are the storyteller’s guest, and only at the end do we realize that in a sense, the storyteller was the hobbit all along.) Then we keep moving down the hall as it follows the curve of the hill. We look out the window, over the garden and down to the river. Then we are finally introduced to our host.
And do you notice where the novel begins? At the end of the third paragraph! There it is, bam: this is the story of how one hobbit had an adventure. So we have another source of tension: a hobbit went on an adventure. He found himself doing and saying things, and he lost . . . something. Found and lost, lost and gained: can you see the wonderful balance of the passage? We’re at the beginning, and we’re already talking about the end.
Tension comes from the juxtaposition of opposites, which we have plenty of in this passage. Suspense comes from things we don’t understand: we start by not knowing what a hobbit is, and we end by not knowing what the adventure is. And so we begin our story.
This is one of the most brilliant openings in English literature. By the end of the chapter, a great deal will have happened, and in the second chapter Bilbo will be off . . . no dawdling for the hobbit or Tolkien either. And from that second chapter on, he will always be in trouble. The narrator will be throwing rocks and rings and wargs at him.
These are the sorts of things we discussed in our workshop. In my next post on Stonecoast, I’ll talk about character . . .