Essential writing skills: how to avoid being ‘derivative’ at all cost

News that Terry Brooks’ Sword of Shannara books are going to be made into a TV series for US distribution, in New Zealand, set alarm bells ringing in my mind.

Plus side is that, twenty years on from Hercules: the legendary journeys, Auckland will once again be venue for a major US TV production. That’s excellent. I am certain Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings movies wouldn’t have been made in the same way – maybe not at all – had the ground work not been laid by Robert Tapert and Sam Raimi’s Hercules and Xena during the 1990s. They didn’t just draw attention to what was possible in New Zealand, they reinforced and built production experience here. So it’s good to see something new happening. Who knows where that will lead for the New Zealand film and TV industry?

Gandalf and friend...
Allanon, I mean Gandalf, and friend…

But Brooks? Gaaah! I read the eponymous first Sword of Shannara book in 1978 and my jaw dropped. It came across to me as a blatant and execrably bad fan-fic re-write of The Lord Of The Rings. I wasn’t the only one to notice, at the time and later. Just perusing the online comments today, nearly 30 years on, paints a clear enough picture.  ‘Almost parodically derivative of The Lord of the Rings,’ one blogger noted. ‘A shitty, lifeless point for point rip off of Lord of the Rings, said a Goodreads reviewer. I could go on, but I think the point’s clear.

To me that highlights a key challenge all authors face. Being ‘the same, but different’. One of the reasons why tales such as Tolkien’s catch popular imagination is because they capture story archetypes – proven forms that address key elements of the human condition: ambition, pride, good versus evil, and so on. Stories that do something radically different risk losing – or never gaining – an audience, because nobody can identify with them. They become fringe literature – fodder for torturing schoolkids during English lessons, devices for pretentious wannabe literati to assert their supposed intellectual superiority. But not something that offers an accessible emotional journey for ‘the rest of us’.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was - you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian'.
Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was – you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian’.

That’s why ‘the same’ is actually a virtue for most writers. But that doesn’t mean ripping off somebody else’s narrative. It means driving to the heart of the story concept and idea – something at the very depths of its foundations, well below the superficial artifice of narrative, and springing a wholly original narrative from that. This is the ‘but different’ part. Shakespeare was a master at that particular art, and so was Tom Stoppard whose play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead used Shakespeare’s Hamlet (the archetypal tale of the foolish hero) as the setting for something original.

Tolkien did much the same with Nordic mythology and deep western symbolism to create something both new and – yet – absolutely classic, a mythology with which we can all identify. His approach was first exemplified by The Hobbit. Would you believe it was exactly the same story – at this archetypal level – as the original Star Wars? It is. Both are mythic ‘hero journeys’ with the classic elements and character arc. But at narrative level they are utterly different; and that, to me, is the key point. Same theme, same idea – but totally different stories. And that, to me, was also where The Sword of Shannara fell down.

Yes, by all means, address the mythic archetypes Tolkien used in The Lord Of The Rings; challenged heroism, faded glory, pride, hope, the loss of innocence, and above all of the conflict between the light and dark sides of the human condition, framed around events of utterly epic scale. All these things are keys to a great story. But don’t write a monkey-see-monkey-do narrative!

Apparently the later books in Brooks’ series are way better. But I haven’t found out for myself. And won’t. Once bitten is enough for me.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


18 thoughts on “Essential writing skills: how to avoid being ‘derivative’ at all cost

  1. You are talking about writers following a formula. Gag! The only worthwhile writing that has a chance is from those following their own imagination. Sometimes this is very bad. Sometimes it is very good. But even the worst is far superior to what you say about this substandard writer who is going to be televized—and apparently we in the U.S. are going to be subjected to this. My deepest sympathies that you in NZ have to go through this. Well, if this is any consolation, some of us will reject this garbage. But I have to get my mind around a basic reality—lots of people love this kind of crap.

    1. It’s good for the film & TV industry here – there’s that! The Avatar sequels just got pushed out a year, which means there’ll be a lot of talented artists, set designers etc floating about in NZ looking for work in the interim. And as you say, there will be people who enjoy the results. And good on them; it takes all sorts. I won’t be among them, of course – and I figure you won’t be either! All this raises a general point, well beyond Brooks; the general shallowing of entertainment these days. We’re deluged with Z-grade SFX-based fantasy/SF TV. Reflective of the mainstreaming of science fiction, but a lot of it could be far better made and scripted. The fact that it keeps being made – because it’s popular and sells advertising, I guess – is, I think, a fairly sharp commentary on the nature of modern pop-society as it’s evolved. Should we be worried?

  2. Just a quick fact check, Mr Wright. It is in fact The Elfstones of Shannara that’s being turned into a televised series. It’s the second book and really much better than Sword. And people giving Brooks so much flack for Sword are also being a bit unfair – it was the very first novel he ever published. Give a man some room to grow!😉

    Having read several of his novels I do have one major critique: he lacks consistency. In the same series one novel would be brilliant, while the other would be utter rubbish. Usually the rubbish one is the second one in the particular series. I get the idea he’s only using it as a build-up for the final one every time. Elfstones is the happy exception to this, but perhaps that’s because the three books of the original Shannara trilogy are separated by one generation each time, so each one is a distinct story with its own characters.

    I haven’t yet made up my mind how I feel about Elfstones being televised, though. If I consider how they mangled the Dresden Files in the televised version…

    1. Oh sure. Writers must – and should – learn, constantly. I have heard that Brooks’ later books were better – though a glance at the Wikipedia entry relative to ‘Elfstones’ suggests that this particular one was only at the beginning of the learning curve. And there are still things such as some of the names which look to me like portmanteaus of Tolkien’s. In many ways, ‘Sword of Shannara’ was of its time – fantasy was only just being mainstreamed as a big-selling genre in the late 1970s, and publishers weren’t quite sure why, or what might sell.

      Set this against the fact that the genre had been re-defined by Tolkien and it’s clear what was going on. The original D&D had the same issues – it was so derivative of Tolkien in particular that the Tolkien Estate, as I understand it, took them to task over the issue. But when I set ‘Sword’, particularly, against stories such as the masterful tale Lucas developed for Star Wars at the same time (which also helped mainstream F&SF) I can’t help thinking that Brooks should have been gently guided back to his typewriter by his publisher (Lester Del Rey) and told to start again – as he actually was, apparently, with ‘Elfstones’.

      The other issue, of course, is just how it’s going to be adapted – another issue that offers more pitfalls, I suspect, than anything else in this day of formulaic TV…

  3. I’ve never read those books, but I have seen my fair share of Tolkien rip-offs. It’s so very annoying. I see it as laziness, truth be told.

    1. To some extent it is. I think a large part also flows from the way that these rip-offs are often by beginning authors – effectively, these days, ‘fan fiction’. The original creates an emotional response in the reader; and one way of extending that response is to produce their own version of it – writing substituting for reading to extend the satisfaction they get from the subject. You don’t usually see ‘rip-off’ writing by established authors, though the latter will sometimes use somebody else’s concept as a starting point for a lateral and original thought of their own. I’m thinking of the way Tom Stoppard, for instance, re-cast Hamlet from the viewpoint of Rosenthal and Guildencranz. But he didn’t just re-write Hamlet.

  4. It seems to me that being derivative of Tolkien is almost an accepted part of fantasy nowadays. I think Shannara was the first example of this, but there’ve been tons since then. I guess that’s what happens when a genre more-or-less exists because of one single author.

    1. There certainly is. To be expected, I guess, when someone re-defines the genre so completely in the way Tolkien did – a truly stunning achievement. I don’t think it was his specific intention, either – he was consciously trying to create a mythology for England, which he felt lacked one. The possibility that this might ‘take off’ and capture the imagination of the western world never occurred to him – or to his publishers, I suspect; Rayner Unwin was unwilling to publish The Lord of The Rings as a single volume, and sales figures for the first decade (which were dismal) bore out that judgement. The fact that Tolkien’s imaginarium ‘took off’ from the mid-1960s and captured the imagination of the western world was never anticipated.

  5. I never got around to reading the Shannarra series. I tend to shy away from fantasy unless many people convince I should read it. It seems I didn’t miss out on anything. My experience with fantasy novels is a bit limited. I was too busy reading Arthur C. Clarke and Jerry Pournelle to have time. I think derivative works happen in SF just as easily as fantasy. Mostly I see that in movies, where something is an obvious ripoff of “Alien” for instance. If I ever find that in a book, I won’t be reading it for too long.

    1. That’s precisely why I didn’t bother with any more Brooks after the original! Though I suspect I have annoyed a few Brooks fans by saying so. Of course I respect their views; the books work for them, and that’s great. But the books don’t for me.

      It’s funny you mention Clarke and Pournelle – I was just thinking about them this afternoon as I wrestle with a short story. Needless to say, it’s SF, and I am debating with myself whether to do the math needed to properly calculate the mass-ratios possible with the propulsion system I have in mind – gas-core nuclear thermal (neon with super-hot critical mass of uranium in suspension) which NASA actually did check out with a proper study. Which may sound stupidly geeky, but to me it’s a kind of ‘job satisfaction’ aspect…

      1. Oh well, “hard” Scifi is my favorite type of the genre. I’m no scientist like Pournelle, but I always crave the “nuts and bolts” scifi where the specifics of a drive system, for instance, are clearly detailed. If you need a test reader let me know. I would love to see your story.

        1. Thank you! You’re on! Drop me a note at my gmail address (via the contact tab on my main website http://www.matthewwright.net) and I’ll send you a draft by return email when it’s done. Completion is a little way off yet, but I expect 4-6 weeks… (‘short’ is not translating into ‘quick’ or ‘easy’ for me…)🙂

  6. I read Sword of Shannara in my teens and stopped after the second…Elfstones, I think. A couple of years ago when I had bronchitis I binge-read A LOT of them. To say they get better is to say he became masterful at ripping-off himself (having already ripped-off Tolkien). I plowed through one trilogy after another, each lightly seasoned with some new element, but the bottom line was they little changed. Sure, there were moments when I’d sit up and take notice, but then it’d become retelling again. Worse, as you say, each trilogy is a new generation, but each new generation is the old generation with new names. It swiftly reached the point where I could hear a characters dialogue before it was spoken (I won’t get into the internal dialogue that often went on for pages). The best characters were the new characters (you get a few per trilogy), but I’d cry when they weren’t the focus. Since then the books have all blended together in my head. Still, if people enjoy the series (and they must, judging by the sales), then all the power to them. I’m not a fan.

    1. Yes – the essential purpose of writing is to convey an intended emotional experience. Brooks certainly has done so; and, as you say, all power to those who receive it. I wasn’t among them – and it seems nor were you. But, indeed, we can’t deny the pleasure the books have brought to many. And boy, do I wish I had his sales figures.

      That said, I can’t help thinking that a more original take on the genre might have had even greater effect. When I look at what Tolkien did with Nordic mythology and the Saxon tale-telling tradition; and when I look at what Rowling did with English boarding school stories and classic magic – giving them a twist that was pure genius – I can’t help but think that the ‘same but different’ principle, properly applied, actually creates something new and – thus – original. And I can’t but lament. Imagine what Brooks (and, I have to say, a fair number of other fantasy authors) might have been capable of, given a few doses of that style of originality.

  7. There are some truly original and well written new books in the fantasy genre. R. Scott Bakker and Patrick Rothfuss for example. George Martin took the fantasy literature to a new dimension, too. None of these authors are Tolkien rip-offs and you don’t even see Tolkien influence in their works. R. Scott Bakker took pains to avoid the typical cliches of the fantasy genre and his books are just stellar. Rothfuss went experimental with his no plot stunt and was extremely successful (NYT best seller)

    Mark Lawrence’s work is also quite original and interesting.

    1. NYT best seller status is indicative, I think, of the degree to which fantasy has been mainstreamed. As is the fact that talented authors can draw audiences with them into new forms of the genre. Good stuff.

      1. There some brilliant books out there. Grimdark/dystopian fantasy without the Tolkienesque cliches seems to be the new trend (since we are living in dark times). Also realistic characters, which are shades of grey rather than the heroic good guys and the typical villains, are a huge trend (thanks to George Martin). Readers want strong female characters, realistic characters they can identify with, and dark dystopian medieval settings. I also noticed that the people are getting tired of the typical medieval European settings in the fantasy genre and demanding exotic, different backgrounds and cultures (R. Scott Bakker has done this successfully). I also noticed a big demand for strong female characters (not the sword wilding type with physical strength, but those with mental strentgh and cunning) and antiheroes.

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