Dear Allyson and Meg,
Like you, I read through Blackbringer without taking a single note. When I reviewed chapters eight through fourteen, several areas of craft popped into mind. I had just seen an interesting blog post by writer Alexandra Solokoff about Plants and Payoffs, so my first notion was to write about how Laini Taylor planted important details and information in these early chapters that payoff later on in the book.
However, having heard Taylor’s keynote speech yesterday at the Western Washington SCBWI Conference, I decided instead to look at word choice and language. In her speech, Taylor said that one of her goals is for the reader to get caught up in the story so that “the words melt away” and “the page disappears.” At the same time, she spends a lot of time thinking about word choice, because the words themselves build the connection between her view as the writer and the fictional world conjured up in the reader’s head.
One of the things I love about Taylor’s writing, both in Blackbringiner and in Lips Touch: Three Times, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, is the richness of her writing. She has a lyrical style, filled with descriptive passages, distinctive dialogue, and unusual metaphors. It’s clear, as she stated yesterday, that she loves words.
Let’s take a look at elements of language and word choice in chapters eight through fourteen.
How someone speaks reveals much about character, background, and geographical location. Of course, it’s challenging to replicate sounds in spoken words. However, when I read lines of dialogue in Blackbringer, I can practically hear the words in my head. Here’s a line from Calypso, the crow that watches over Magpie:
“Aye, worms. Shivered herself some, I ken. The lass has got magic in her she don’t know what to with” (p. 92).
Calpyso sounds British or Scottish, doesn’t he? His accent and diction come through word choice (aye, lass, ken) as well as sentence structure.
In fact, the way the characters speak helps to reinforce the geographical location of Dreamdark, which appears to be in Scotland, according to the map at the beginning of the book.
Swearing and Exclamations
In addition to conveying geography, language and dialogue also reveals something about the characters’ social class and education level. Lady Vesper, the fairy who recently moved into the Never Nigh castle as queen, speaks in calmed, measured tones when she first meets Magpie, the heroine.
Magpie, on the other hand, has lived the life of a gypsy, and she talks and swears just like the crows. When she grumbles about putting on a play, she says, “Let’s do this skiving thing so we can get on with what we came for” (p. 78).
Taylor creates an entire vocabulary of curses and exclamations: skiving, jacksmoke, skiffle, piff, flummox me, and irkmeat. While I don’t know exactly what these words mean, I understand the emotions they convey. After all, it wouldn’t do for the fairies and crows to use slang words from our own contemporary society.
Since I don’t know how “bad” some of these words are (after all, every child knows that there’s a progression of badness to our own swear words), Taylor helps me to understand how uncouth these words are. For example, on pages 105 and 106, Magpie brings her old friend Poppy to the caravan she shares with the crows. There, she realizes that someone has disrupted her bedding.
“What the skive?" she growled, flying to it [her bed] and not seeing how Poppy’s eyes widened in shock to hear her curse.
Clearly, skive is not the kind of word a young fairy normally uses, which we see through Poppy’s reaction—an excellent example of “show, don’t tell.”
Fantasy writers set their works in fantasy worlds, complete with their own histories, geographies, vocabularies, and cultures. One way they build and reinforce those worlds is through names for places and characters. Here are just a couple place names that appear in these chapters: Issrin Ev, Dreamdark, Ismoroth, Pickle’s Gander, and West Mirth. The names are unusual and distinctive, and yet, readable. They tell me this is outside my normal world.
Taylor also provides her characters with distinctive names: Vesper, Talon, Nettle, Orchidspike, Calypso. The names seem to have some sense of order: many of the fairies in Magpie’s and Talon’s families have bird names (Robin, Kite, Covus, Shrike). Other fairies have plant related names, such as Poppy. The imps’ names are strange (Snoshti and Batch), while the crows’ names somehow reflect their gypsy-like existence (Calypso, Maniac, Pup, and Mingus).
I love the fact that I can pronounce these names easily—I find it frustrating to meet characters with seemingly unreadable names—and I also love the way some of the names—Magruwen and Bellatrix, for example—roll off the tongue.
It’s also interesting that the protagonist, Magpie, has a name that feels both of our own world and unusual, especially since the name gets shortened to “Mags.” I wonder if this was a deliberate choice on Taylor’s part to help the reader connect to the character. Maybe, since she doesn’t have a completely strange name, she feels more like someone I can identify with.
The last area I want to address is in descriptive language. As I mentioned earlier, Taylor has a lyrical style, which provides an enjoyable reading experience. Take this passage describing two fops hovering around the Lady Vesper: "The gents, both frocked in frippery to rival the lady’s, their hair fragrant with pomade, gaped at Magpie (p. 78)."
On page 88, we see Magpie reacting to Vesper’s accusation that she smells like a crow. Magpie sniffs the feathers on her skirt:
They did smell like cigars, she had to admit, just like the crows did themselves. They also held a hint of wood smoke from their campfires, and the tang of rainy skies, and the strong coffee they favored in the morning.
Smell is difficult to describe. These two sentences evoke smell as well as memory and imagery.
The pages of Blackbringer are filled with many more passages of lyrical language. As a reader, I enter Gardner’s “fictional dream” where the “words melt away” paradoxically because Laini Taylor pays such close attention to word choice and language.
StorySleuths Tip #62: Help the reader slip into a fictional dream through word choice in dialogue, names, and descriptions.