“If you were in a room full of books,” Lev Grossman writes in his latest novel,The Magician’s Land, “you were at least halfway home.” For Grossman, no books feel more like home than C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, which provide the template for what he likes to read—and how he wants to write. In our conversation for this series, Grossman explained what The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe taught him about fiction, what makes Lewis’s work so radically inventive, and why his own stories must step through the looking glass into fantasy.
The Magician’s Land concludes Grossman’s acclaimed and best-selling trilogy, which has been praised in magazines like The New Republic andThe New Yorker for being a darker, grown-up, and more complex Harry Potter. At Grossman’s Brakebills Preparatory College of Magic, students drink, hook up, and take magic classes that are as difficult as Organic Chemistry—and dangerous, too, for some are devoured by the beasts their works unleash. The third and final installment finds our hero Quentin Coldwater as a 30-year-old man, now banished from the Narnia-like land of Fillory, as he rejoins old friends to try to find—and then save—the enchanted kingdom of their past.
Lev Grossman is a book critic and senior technology writer for Time magazine.He spoke to me by phone from his home in Brooklyn.
Lev Grossman: I can’t say with total accuracy when I first read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I wasn’t a particularly early reader, so I couldn’t have been much younger than 7 or 8 years old. But the Narnia books had a kind of special place in our family. My mother’s English; she was in London during the blitz, when she was about Lucy Pevensie’s age. To stay safe from the bombing, like Lewis’s fictional children, she was sent from London to the countryside. The book opens with the Pevensies arriving from London, so you have this strange, dark background—this sense of war going on, which the characters have only just narrowly escaped.
Of course, unlike the Pevensies, my mom failed to find adventures in a magical land accessed through a wardrobe. But, in fact, she claims she was so badly behaved that her host family actually had her deported back to London. I don’t know what she did—but apparently it was so naughty that being bombed by Hitler was a preferable fate. The cultural divide between poor urban Londoners and the country English was very great, and it was hard for the two factions to find common ground. I guess, in her case, they never did.
So the Narnia books had a special place for my mom. I think she must have presented them to us with a special flourish. And I’m fairly certain that The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was the first book that I ever was transported by. I think it’s the book that taught me what novels are supposed to do. It’s the book that taught me how books work, and what—if they’re good—they do for you. It was the template for all the great reading experiences I had ahead.
Why is Lewis so important to me? In part, it’s because—technically, from the point of view of craft—he tells the story with truly exemplary economy. By the time we’re only six or seven pages into The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, we already know all four Pevensies, we know how each child feels about the other three, and he’s gotten Lucy through the wardrobe and into Narnia. With incredible speed, he acquaints us with the characters—just one or two well-placed details, and we’re able to know each one—and delves right away into the adventure.
Even more than that, it’s the way he uses language—which is nothing like the way fantasists used language before him. There’s no sense of nostalgia. There’s no medieval floridness. There’s no fairy tale condescension to the child reader. It’s very straight, and very clean—there’s no Vaseline on the lens. You see everything clearly, not with sparkles or a flowery sense of wonderment, but with very specific physical details. Look at the attention to detail as you watch Lucy going through the wardrobe:
This must be a simply enormous wardrobe!” thought Lucy, going still further in and pushing the soft folds of the coats aside to make room for her. Then she noticed that there was something crunching under her feet. “I wonder is that more mothballs?” she thought, stooping down to feel it with her hand. But instead of feeling the hard, smooth wood of the floor of the wardrobe, she felt something soft and powdery and extremely cold. “This is very queer,” she said, and went on a step or two further.
Next moment she found that what was rubbing against her face and hands was no longer soft fur but something hard and rough and even prickly. “Why, it is just like branches of trees!” exclaimed Lucy. And then she saw that there was a light ahead of her; not a few inches away where the back of the wardrobe ought to have been, but a long way off. Something cold and soft was falling on her. A moment later she found that she was standing in the middle of a wood at night-time with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air.
She feels the softness of the coats, she hears the crunching under her feet, she bends down and feels the snow, she feels the prickliness of the trees, and just like that she’s through the wardrobe and into Narnia. There are no special effects in the passage. He’s making magic, but he’s making magic out of very ordinary physical impressions. It’s very powerful, and it’s very new. I don’t think anybody wrote this way before he did. He came up with a new way to describe magic that made it feel realer than it ever had.
It works because he’s writing fantasy—but he’s working with the tools of realism. Even though he had this wonderful romantic yearning nostalgia, he writes like a modernist. He writes like Hemingway, like the Joyce of Dubliners. Though he was writing shortly after the time of the modernists, he observes reality in the meticulous, almost disenchanted way they did—but he puts those tools in the service of a totally different effect.
As far as the modern fantasy novels goes, this is ground zero. You’re seeing the atom being split for the first time. So much of what’s written afterwards comes out of that simple moment, just emerges from Lucy going through the wardrobe.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a powerful illustration of why fantasy matters in the first place. Yes, the Narnia books are works of Christian apology, works that celebrate joy and love—but what I was conscious of as a little boy, if not in any analytical way, was the deep grief encoded in the books. Particularly in the initial wardrobe passage. There’s a sense of anger and grief and despair that causes Lewis to want to discard the entire war, set it aside in the favor of something better. You can feel him telling you—I know it’s awful, truly terrible, but that’s not all there is. There’s another option. Lucy, as she enters the wardrobe, takes the other option. I remember feeling this way as a child, too. I remember thinking, “Yes, of course there is. Of course this isn’t all there is. There must be something else.”
How powerful it was to have Lewis come along and say, Yes, I feel that way, too.
But I bristle whenever fantasy is characterized as escapism. It’s not a very accurate way to describe it; in fact, I think fantasy is a powerful tool for coming to an understanding of oneself. The magic trick here, the sleight of hand, is that when you pass through the portal, you re-encounter in the fantasy world the problems you thought you left behind in the real world. Edmund doesn’t solve any of his grievances or personality disorders by going through the wardrobe. If anything, they’re exacerbated and brought to a crisis by his experiences in Narnia. When you go to Narnia, your worries come with you. Narnia just becomes the place where you work them out and try to resolve them.
The whole modernist-realist tradition is about the self observing the world around you—sensing how other it is, how alien it is, how different it is to what’s going on inside you. In fantasy, that gets turned inside out. The landscape you inhabit is a mirror of what’s inside you. The stuff inside can get out, and walk around, and take the form of places and people and things and magic. And once it’s outside, then you can get at it. You can wrestle it, make friends with it, kill it, seduce it. Fantasy takes all those things from deep inside and puts them where you can see them, and then deal with them.
The thing about the Narnia books, is that they’re about Christianity. I grew up in a household that not only lacked Christianity—there was very little Christianity in our house, even though my mom was raised Anglican—there was almost no religion of any kind. Religion was, and to some extent has remained to me, a totally baffling concept. I wasn’t experiencing the book in any way as stores about religion: I experienced them as psychological dramas. This sleight of hand in which an apparent escape becomes a way of encountering yourself, and encountering your problems, seems to me the basic logic of reading and of the novel.
In this way, the portal in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe becomes a magnificent metaphor for reading itself. When she opens the doors to the wardrobe, it’s like Lucy’s opening the covers of a book and passing through it to somewhere else—which is just the same experience you’re having at the moment you’re reading the passage. You’re watching Lucy do the same thing you are, just in a way that’s dramatized and transfigured.
I think the standard psychoanalytic reading of the wardrobe has to do with a return to the womb—you know, passing through these furry coats back into a safe place. But that idea, while perhaps supportable on the grounds of textual evidence, never really seemed paramount to me. For me, the wardrobe’s doors open like a book, ushering Lucy—and the reader—into a new imaginative realm of imagination. That’s the kind of writer I aspire to be: one that helps the reader make that seamless passage, from the real world to the land of fantasy, from real life to the realm of reading.
It’s funny, because Lewis was in some ways a very sloppy writer. The world he created for The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe doesn’t really add up. It’s not like it has a working ecology. If he wanted fauns he put fauns in. If he wanted Santa Claus—well, here comes Santa Claus! Let’s have him in too. He took from everybody, and when he saw something shiny, he thought, “Ooh, shiny!” and put it in the book. This drove Tolkien crazy, because Tolkien was very meticulous in his world-building; Lewis didn’t care, and wrote in this exuberant, improvisational way. As sloppy as it is, people—myself included—believe in it utterly.
This flies in the face of conventional wisdom as it stands among fantasy writers today—which is that you have to be very, very careful. Today’s fantasy writers feel as though the fictional worlds they create have to be full-scale working models. People talk a lot about the ecology of [George R. R. Martin’s] Westeros, for instance—how do the seasons work? What are the climate patterns? How does it function as an ecosphere? You have to think about the economy, too—have I got a working feudal model? It’s gotten so extreme that when characters do magic, it’s very common to see fantasy writers talk about thermodynamics—okay, he’s lighting a candle with magic, can he draw the heat from somewhere else in the room so that equilibrium gets preserved?
This is the school of thought that extends from Tolkien, and his scrupulously-crafted Middle Earth. Lewis was of a different school from that. Magic, to him, was a much wilder, stranger thing. It was much less domesticated. And when I re-read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I feel as though we’ve wandered too far from the true magic, the kind Lewis wrote. Maybe we want to worry less about thermodynamics and work harder to get that sense of wonder he achieves with such apparent effortlessness.
And then, there are things that he does that are simply not replicable. The lamppost in the woods: there’s something indescribably strange and romantic about that image, which recurs at the end of the book. In some ways, you read Lewis and think: I can learn from this guy. But sometimes you have to sit back and think, I’ll never know how he did that. You know, I’ve seen the lamppost in Oxford which is alleged to be the Narnia lamppost. To me, it looked like an ordinary lamppost. I would not have seen that lamppost, and gone home and to write The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. You had to be Lewis to see it for what it was.
I should put on the record my mom’s other C. S. Lewis anecdote, which goes like this: After she went back to London, wasn’t blown to bits by Hitler, and grew up, she went to Oxford for college. It was her senior year, and she was on her way to her final exams, which were oral exams. As one does, she stopped into a pub to have a pint and stiffen her resolve. There was this old guy at the other end of the bar. They started chatting, and he said, “If you’re taking your exams, you should really have a brandy first.”
Well, up until that point in her life, my mom had never had any brandy. And the guy at the bar, of course, was C. S. Lewis. He bought her a brandy. She drank it. And she claims to have no memory of anything else that happened that day. She passed her exams, at least, so it can’t have been that bad.
AUG 5 2014, 9:19 AM ET found here
It’s 1 a.m; you are sitting at you desk, dumbfounded by this sudden, incredible idea that just popped up in your head. You pick up a pen and a few sheets of paper but you have no idea where to start – where do all the concepts that you just imagined fit into one cohesive story?
The only way to deal with your unorganized thoughts is to physically organize yourself. If you come up with an idea for a story, find a personal space where you know you can easily reach your supplies, a laptop and even a printer. This is specially important concerning fantasy stories – the amount of worldbuilding you need to do needs much more than a boring narrative – it needs maps, pictures, calendars, appendixes and family trees. Of course you won’t put all of that in your published book (although many writers select some of that preparatory material to help their readers through the reading process) but you need to keep that written and drawn worldbuilding at hand’s reach.
I believe that an idea takes five important baby steps before developing into the promise of a story. They are:
1- Write what you’ve already gotten – If you suddenly wanted to write a story is because there was something in your mind that lead you to it. Take a first piece of paper and write down the things that popped in your mind and urged you to write. Was it an image? Describe it. Was it a sentence, a word, perhaps a quote? Write it down in the center of the page. If you were inspired by someone, briefly describe that person. Do the same with any symbolic image or thought that triggered the story: describe it, draw it, give it attention as the center of the plot.
2- Brainstorm – Look at that first sheet of paper and analyse what you’ve got there. That first page is the Egg. It’s your everything, your first love. Never forget that page because the development of a novel can easily make you forget what lead you to it in the first place. After analyzing the wonderful premise in your Egg, take a second piece of paper. This is your brainstorm sheet. Write words, sentences, anything and everything that can inspire you. It can be and historical event, anime characters, a videogame battle system, even food. You’ll end up with two kinds of words: a bunch of ordinary words (apple, lighthouse, evening star) and a bunch of processed words, terms that are actually relevant and have a meaning of their own (e.g. “Napoleon”, “The War of the Roses”, “Sephiroth”, “King Arthur”, “The Elves”).
3- Simplify and Complicate: your next task is to pick up a third piece of paper. Look at the words that you’ve brainstormed and think about the ones that are the most meaningful to you and also the ones that, however simple, seem to contribute to your story’s idea the most. Write down those words in a list and leave some space between them. Now, you have to simplify and complicate. The rule is simple: remember those common and ordinary words? Try to complicate their meaning and turn them into something that can be transferred into your plot. Try to do the opposite with the processed words – simplify them in thought and turn them into ordinary things.
An apple is such a common word, but it’s the prop that makes Snow White a relevant story. Actually, the poisoned apple is the symbol of the story in its whole. Do you want a practical example? Think about the word “shoes” – shoes are something that we give for granted, and of course no one would ever write a story about shoes… right? Well, what if there was a distant kingdom where the use of shoes was forbidden? The monarch created that measure to prevent peasants from accessing certain parts of the city where he made his necromantic experiments. However, when a boy was able to make a pair of shoes from two pieces of wood, he could pass through a spike-hole and access a dungeon where he caught the king resurrecting the dead. There you have: a simple story idea created from the word “shoes”.
4- During simplify and complicate, you’ll find out that as you develop those words into plot-relevant concepts, some other words won’t fit into the picture at all. Of course you’ll have to discard those ones and that’s when the anagram comes in. Take a fourth piece of paper and start making a scheme where everything comes together. Perhaps you should write the name of your world (if you’ve figured it out already) in the center and make a spider anagram for any other terms that you come across. This is important because there are parts of your story that don’t connect at all and you should have a distinct image that shows you what influences other parts and what doesn’t.
Perhaps you have written down the names of two characters but they are supposed to never meet. If so, you have to figure out what concepts are important in their development and which aren’t and if there are any ones in common, you need to have the clear notion that if one is influenced by that concept, the other character will be as well.
E.g: you have two characters, one named Miriam and other named Lucas. Miriam and Lucas don’t know each other but they were both born in the same town, Orville; meanwhile, Lucas lives in City A and Miriam lives in City B. If City B was burned down, Miriam would be sad but Lucas wouldn’t; the same would happen if City A was burned down. However, if Orville was burned down, both Miriam and Lucas would be sad and maybe that event could bring them together – perhaps they went to the ruins of the town to find their lost families and bump into each other on the road.
5- Start your timeline. This is a rough timeline and further through your story’s development, you will need to have a timeline for your plot and a timeline for your world, figuring all the major and minor events that shaped the society you imagined into the way it is today. However, you’re still dealing with the baby steps in your story and what you need to do now is figure out when do those concepts meet and why do they meet the time they do.
When was Miriam born? When was Lucas born? Is their difference of ages relevant to the fact that they never met? When did both decide to leave their hometown, Orville? When was Orville burned down? When did Miriam and Lucas find out about its destruction? Did they decide to visit Orville’s ruins at the same time? If they met in Orville was it because there was some kind of delay on Lucas’s journey (e.g. bandits)? If Lucas was attacked by bandits on the road, when did it happen?
When you have your five pieces of paper together (they can be more than five pieces of paper, since they are organized into the five sections that I mentioned), just staple them together. You have to staple them because you can never, ever lose track of those first and simple ideas. They are the foundation for your story. Sometimes during a novel’s development, a writer thinks that his first ideas were too dull and ends up scraping his first love. When this happens, he will have a very complex and detailed plot and when he tries to re-make those baby steps, they will not fit into the world and the story he has already build. The result? The writer will throw it all in the garbage can. Keep your first love with you. That’s the key to a novel’s success.
Here’s a list of what I think are the top TED ED videos out there for fantasy writers.
How to build a fiction world by Kate Messner
What Makes a Hero by Matthew Wrinkler
Slowing Down Time by Aaron Sitze
Three Anti-Social Skills to Improve your Writing by Nadia Kalman
Capturing Authentic Narratives by Michele Weldon
The Power of Simple Words by Terin Izil
An Antihero Of One’s Own by Tim Adams
Fantasy Languages by John McWhorter
The Case Against “Good” and “Bad” by Marlee Neel
After years of searching around the internet, I’ve come up with many websites and articles that provide useful information about fantasy writing. I’ve also stumbled upon a lot of name generators that work as a good groundwork for further development and creation of your characters names.
- 7 Deadly Sins of Worldbuilding by Charlie Jane Anders;
- The Language Creation Kit by Mark Rosenfelder
- The Fantasy Novelist’s Exam by David J. Parker
- Maps Workshop by Holly Lisle
- How to Find a Fantasy Publisher by Greg Hamerton
- The Ultimate Mary Sue Test.
- Random Name Generator: this generator lets you choose from a lot of country based names to create your own originals. You can choose the number of names given, the gender of the character and a surname.
- Walk Time Calculator: this calculator is a good tool for anyone who is writing a novel that features a lot of travelling. It makes life much easier while trying to figure out how much time your hero needs to walk through all those miles of forest.
- Fantasy Name Generator
The three act structure is a method of structuring and organizing your story that was first mentioned by Aristotle and has been one of the most important and basic techniques that surround fiction writing. Aristotle first came up with the idea that all stories needed a beginning, a middle and an end. Throughout the years, writers and authors all around the world have adapted this concept and transformed it into the three-act structure, a division of your plot that consists on three large pieces of the story, separated by a major or relevant event that, as some believe, should always be a disaster.
Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy, two award-winning and best-selling authors, swear by this rule. In their book, “Writing Fiction for Dummies”, they describe the three-act structure as follows:
Act 1 takes up roughly the first quarter and ends with a major disaster. The first disaster comes at the end of Act 1 and links it to Act 2.
Act 2 takes up the second and third quarters, and each quarter ends with an even worse disaster. The second disaster comes at the midpoint of Act 2 (ending the second quarter) and serves as an antidote to what people often call the sagging middle. The third disaster strikes at the end of Act 2 (ending the third quarter) and links it to Act 3.
Act 3 takes up the last quarter and includes a climax (also called a resolution), which answers the story question — the question of whether your lead character will succeed. The climax typically falls late in the fourth quarter, and everything after it serves to wind down the story.
But why is the three-act structure so important? We can consider the three-act structure a fundamental tenet for both the writer and the reader. For the writer, it is the most helpful way to clarify your ideas, letting you hold the main points of your story and letting you assess the amount of drama and emotion that your plot contains. For the reader, it’s the disassembly of the story in three acts that balances the emotional “bumps” that the story delivers – before each disaster, tension rises, thrilling the readers and leading them to read the story through their own excitement to discover what comes next. After the disaster, there is moment of inactivity, where the characters “evaluate the damage” that the disaster induced; it is also the best moment to introduce the barren and necessary parts of the plot, mostly the ones where you explain a character’s background or probe a character’s feelings.
But how can you quickly delineate your own three-act structure? I will use Randy Ingermanson’s exercise, since it’s the simplest and clearest I could find:
1. Write a first sentence that introduces one or more characters and sets up the conflict. Name your principal characters and tell any essential information. You may even include key backstory details.
2. Write three sentences, each describing a major disaster in your story. The three disasters should be from a single character’s point of view, usually the lead character’s.
3. Write a final sentence that explains how you resolve the story. If you don’t reveal the details of the resolution, you should at least give some clear hints about how the story question will be answered.
4. Rework the sentence containing your first disaster, adding in the decision that sets the story goal.
5. Rework the sentence containing your third disaster, explaining why it forces the final confrontation.
6. Polish the entire paragraph until it flows naturally.
7. Save your one-paragraph summary in a safe place and come back to it periodically and make sure that it actually describes the story you’re writing.
In future posts, I’ll explain the best and fool-proof ways to make any storyline succeed – I’ll go deep into the three-act structure and teach you how to make the best out of the beginning, end and disasters of your plot.