Throughout middle and high school my friends and I paid a lot of attention to what the others were reading. We didn’t spend much time talking about books, but we noticed what the others were reading and asked for recommendations,* something that we, as boys, never asked a teacher. This was before the internet and text messaging, so the thick paperback you carried on top of your algebra book sent a message to the rest of the world louder and more clearly than a tweet or status update, which easily get lost in the white noise that is the internet.
When I was fourteen and a freshman in high school, most of my friends were carrying around The Sword of Shanarra or The Elfstones of Shanarra. I never got around to reading this series, although the cover illustrations and the sheer thickness of the paperback editions were enticing. They were always on my to-read list, but it wasn’t until last year that I finally picked up the first book in this series and raced home to read it.
It didn’t take me long to understand why fourteen-year-old me and my fourteen-year-old friends would like it: it has elves, wizards, swords, a character called Flick (an early nickname of mine), castles, epic quests, and bad guys. It’s not quite a Tolkien clone, but it does owe a debt of gratitude to Lord of the Rings. Without that trilogy and a lot of thirteen- and fourteen-year-old kids coming down from the high that is LotR and looking for their next epic fantasy fix, the Shannara books would have found their way to the remainder bin in short order.
I wanted to like this book, because grown-up me has a great fondness for those things that fourteen-year-old me used to like. But I found myself waiting for the story and especially the writing to get better, only they didn’t. The plot is thin, the characters stereotypes, and the dialogue wooden yet lightweight, like a foundation with dry rot. Even though the characters spend a lot of time doing stuff, none of them seem to do anything important. They just putter around, waiting for next plot cliché.
The biggest problem is execution: Brooks can’t (or won’t) write a decent line of prose. It’s almost as if he is determined to break every rule of good writing he can lay his hands on.
If the cardinal rule of good writing is “show, don’t tell”, then a writer needs to avoid adjectives and adverbs whenever possible. Brooks writes as if he purchases them wholesale, and sprinkles them over his writing the way a muddy dog spreads paw prints on your new carpeting.
Show, Don’t Tell
Here is a perfect example from early in the story:
It was a dull, sunless day that followed, a day damp and chilling to human flesh and bone. Shea and his two companions found it devoid of any warmth and comfort as they journeyed eastward through the misty highlands of Leah and began a slow descent toward the cheerless climate of the lowlands beyond. There was no talking among them as they hiked in single file down the narrow footpaths which wound tediously about gray, hulking boulders and clumps of dying, formless brush. (86)
That passage comprises 83 words, of which 17 are either adjectives or adverbs. That means 21%—one word in five—is a modifier of some sort, and tells us, rather than shows us. Rewriting such passages can be both fun and enlightening. Here’s my attempt:
A morning heavy with mist and damp chilled Shea and his companions the next day as they journeyed toward an absent sun through the mists in the highlands of Leah. Once over the top, they began a silent descent in single file to the lowlands beyond, at times almost scrambling on all fours to avoid the boulders and dead brush that hid in the fog and either tripped up their feet or grasped at their shoulder and hips.
I haven’t shortened it much; Brooks’ original is 83 words and mine is 77. I use only seven descriptors, roughly half as many as the original. I am depending on nouns and especially on verbs to carry the weight of the narrative.
As for verbs, Brooks uses six (roughly 7% of his total), whereas I use eight (roughly 10%) in mine. But it’s not all about the numbers. Brooks uses:
We both use “journeyed” and “began” which is only fair, since we are both describing the same event. But let’s talk about the verbs that are left over. Brooks has followed, found, hiked and wound. Nothing wrong with these words in and of themselves, but they are all passive verbs; they describe no real intent or purpose. Anyone can do these things, often accidentally or on a whim.
On the other hand, I have chilled, scrambling, avoid, hid, tripped, and grasped. In contrast to Brooks’ selection, these are dynamic verbs. Anybody can find something, and even little kids and grannies go hiking, but nobody scrambles, avoids, hides or trips without a reason. These verbs imply a possible intent.
Dialogue attribution is Brook’s greatest weakness. I have written about this previously, where I pointed out that the best form of dialogue attribution is “he said, she said”. There is an eternal yet unfortunate quest to avoid the word “said”, but “said” not only gets to the point, it also gets out of the way.
Here’s a passage from page 97, in which I’ve removed everything that comes after the dialogue attribution:
“That’s fine, coming from you,” Flick blazed up angrily.
“All right,” soothed the lean hunter.
“I suppose your plan is the best one,” interjected Shea hastily.
“Agreed!” exclaimed Menion.
“Climb a tree,” Flick suggested casually.
“Climb a…” stuttered the other in unabashed amazement.
There’s not a single “said” in the entire passage, and there are precious few throughout the entire book. The only purpose of dialogue attribution is to tell the reader known who‘s speaking, not how. The how should be clear from the context. Context is the key to effective dialogue.
In fact, strenuously avoiding “said” requires the author and his readers to do some fairly awkward mental gymnastics. I’ve never seen anyone “blaze up” in a conversation, “soothe” is not a verb of dialogue attribution, the “lean hunter” is Menion, an interjection implies haste, the exclamation point at the end of “Agreed!” tells us that Menion is exclaiming (it is an exclamation point, after all), and although we are told that “the other…stuttered”, he actually didn’t. “C-c-cl-cl-climb…a tree…” is stuttering; “climb a tree” is merely talk.
And while we’re at it, a suggestion that isn’t casual is an order; the word “suggestion” carries the connotation of “casual”. Likewise, I’m not sure how unabashed amazement is any different from ordinary amazement.
When I was younger, I thought it bad form to give up on a book. But life is short and there are lots of books out there, and I don’t want to waste any time with the bad ones. Life is short, after all, and you eventually come to abhor wasting even the smallest of moments.
So I made a deal with myself: I would read to page 100 (out of a 726 page book), and if the writing or the story didn’t get any better, I would set it aside. (I haven’t even talked about the story elements yet, perhaps because there are so few: they travel, at first by day and later by night—or maybe it’s the other way around; none of the scenes are particularly memorable—they meet mysterious strangers.
I got to page 100 and set the book aside.
At this point, I was out eight bucks and a couple of hours of my time. I like books, and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t being too harsh, so I flipped ahead to a random page and found this:
Menion Leah was one of the last to enter the walled city, his lean frame battered and exhausted. The wounds on his feet had been reopened during the ten-mile march from the Mermidon to Tyrsis, but he had refused to be carried. It was with the last of his strength that he struggled up the wide ramp leading to the gates of the Outer Wall, supported on one side by the faithful Shirl, who had refused to leave his side even to sleep, and gripped firmly on the other by an equally weary Janus Senpre. (558)
This passage is a classic example of why you want to avoid the passive tense. Brooks uses quite a few past participles as adjectives in this passage, and they work. (They don’t work as well as they could, but they work.) We can tighten up the first half of the paragraph like this:
Battered and exhausted, Menion Leah was one of the last to enter the walled city. The march to Tyrsis had reopened the wounds on his feet, but he refused to be carried.
I’ve done quite a bit with this passage, so I’ll go over it point by point:
- I’ve moved “battered and exhausted” to the beginning of the sentence. This emphasizes Menion’s condition and keeps our focus on him. It also allows me to omit the phrase “his lean frame”. This passage is about Menion, not his lean frame.
- I’ve eliminated “from the Mermidon”. If you’ve read up to this point, you know where they’ve come from. The job of an author is to provide only those reminders a reader might need, not to recap the entire plot. I’ve kept “to Tyrsis” as it focuses on their destination.
- I deleted “ten-mile”. If it’s important that the reader know this march was ten miles long, then the author should have mentioned it previously. If it’s not important, it’s fluff. Either way, out it goes.
- I recast the sentence to avoid the phrase “had been reopened”. Brooks’ structure makes “the wounds” the subject of the sentence, whereas mine makes “the march” the subject. You can argue which is more effective, but my main goal was to avoid that weak phrase. In fact, Brooks could have avoided that construction merely by eliminating the word “been”:
The wounds on his feet had reopened during the ten-mile march from the Mermidon to Tyrsis, but he had refused to be carried.
It’s still wordy, but it is an improvement over its predecessor.
- I kept “he had refused to be carried” but changed it from a past perfect tense to a simple past tense by eliminating the word “had”. (Brooks has an annoying tendency to favor the pluperfect, making his writing sound like a legal brief. This is no surprise given the fact that he was once a practicing attorney, but this is still no excuse for sloppy story-telling.) Even though “to be carried” is still in the passive voice, this is an example where it works, because it both keeps the focus on Menion, and also because any active construction is awkward and wordy: “but he refused to allow anyone to carry him” just doesn’t work as well.
I wonder what the fourteen-year-old version of myself would have made of this novel had he found time to read it. I was a discriminating reader in those days—in some ways more discriminating since I eschewed anything that wasn’t science fiction or fantasy. But the pull of what your peers are reading is always strong, especially when you are already an outcast in so many ways.
In the end, I’m glad I didn’t devote any time to this book when I was younger, and I’m glad that I devoted less than a week (between reading the book and writing this review) as an adult. If legions of fourteen-year-old boys still find this book to be a good read, I hope they find other, better books to spend their time and money on. If you have read this book and enjoyed it, but couldn’t quite understand what it was less than perfect, I hope that you have a better understanding now. Either way, I no longer regret not reading this book in high school or giving it up after 100 pages. A friend of mine insists that the story improves, although the writing does not, which also describes the Twilight series. I am satisfied to let this series go and move on to greener pastures.
*Which usually went like this:
“Should I read it?”
Brooks, Terry. The Sword of Shannara. New York: Del Rey, 1977. Print.
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3 comments on “The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks”
I think that most of your analysis is purely opinion and your changes didn’t in any way improve what the author originally wrote. I would go so far as to say some of your analysis is just flat out wrong. For example, your analysis as follows:
The phrase “his lean frame” actually serves a purpose despite your cries to the contrary. I would say that it emphasizes the extent of hardship that would be experienced by Menion because he is so lean.
I also think you are incorrect on your statement that dialogue attribution should not have any conveyance of tone or manner of speech. I disagree completely. In addition to writing fiction I also write screenplays and teleplays and dialogue is almost always tagged with the manner or tone in which a person is speaking. In fact, the very things you’ve accused Brooks of doing, I also see in the great works of Dickens. It only took me a minute to find in A Christmas Carol the dialogue “Ghost of the Future!” he exclaimed.
These are just two examples where I disagree with you. I don’t have time to break your analysis down point by point, but I feel you are criticizing where it isn’t warranted.
Well, Dickens also had people ejaculating all over the place. I don’t think he’s the model you’re looking for here.
Your writing style makes me think that you are in high school, so I’m going to frame my approach based on that assumption. As a result, this response is going to be a bit longer than it might be otherwise.
First, everyone is entitled to their opinion and everyone is free to love junk books. Harlequin romance novels have a huge fanbase and every page just drips with purple prose. But if you’ve ever read one (and I have) you realize people aren’t reading these for the great literature.
I’m going to stand by my assertion. Brooks is a hack writer and his books are crap. He spends entirely too much time telling us what is happening instead of showing us what is happening. You may be happy to read a book where characters exclaim, interject, blaze up, and soothe, but I would much prefer to read a book where characters actually just say things and I can tell how they are speaking from the way the story is progressing. Authors have a duty to not insult their reader’s intelligence and spoonfeed them. If a fairly competent reader cannot tell how a conversation is going without having this information given to them, then the writer has done a pretty lousy job of doing what writers are supposed to actually do: tell a story without getting in the way of that story.
Again, let me reiterate: Brooks is a hack writer because he keeps getting in the way of his own story.
Case in point. This passage is from page 86. Surely, there should have been some explanation, discussion, or exposition around Menion’s background that would have explained the “extent of hardship” Menion has experienced. (And I feel obligated to point out that you are making a wild assumption here—Menion could be lean for a lot of other reasons, but without that context, readers are forced to jump to conclusions because again, Brooks is telling us instead of showing us.
Before I forget: yes, screenplays and play scripts do include how to speak certain lines. That is because these are instructions for actors, not stand alone pieces of literature meant to be read. (With the obvious exception of closet dramas, of course.)
Last, a few bits of advice:
First, your tone is oddly adversarial. Remember, when you are writing to persuade, you present a thesis and then back it up with evidence, as I have done above. You are arguing with my thesis and not really bothering to refute any of my evidence. And the one time that you do, you use evidence (A Christmas Carol) that is almost 200 years old.
Nor do you need to break it down point by point. I have no idea why that thought would even occur to you. Your time would have been better spent just arguing with one point that I present and making an effective argument with actual evidence.
Of course it’s warranted. Why wouldn’t it be? Brooks published a book and everybody is entitled to have an opinion about it. If authors can’t handle someone being critical of their work, they are in the wrong line of work. Better than they get a day job that pays the bills, and they can write in their spare time and never show their manuscripts to anybody.
This is not how you enter into an academic or literary discussion.
Second, you are a good writer. But you need to think more about your subject matter, and do a little research. If you hope to be a professional writer someday, I suggest that you take as many English courses as you can in high school (where they are free) and as many as you can in college. (I came in just shy of 50 credit hours of undergraduate English studies, which is about 15 more than was actually required for my major.) Read widely, read deeply (it can help to reread certain books more than once), and when you find something you like or don’t like, think long and hard about why you like it or don’t like it. See what kind of patterns emerge.
I wish you the best of luck.
I’ve been trying to get though this book for about a week now and the prose is so clunky and unengaging that it reads like a masterclass in how not to write. Brooks takes every opportunity to tell and not show. Instead of having dialog and characters conversing we’ll have ‘Flick explained this to him’ and ‘they discussed this and agreed’. It’s mindnumbingly boring and given that the plot is a lotr copy, it’s not worth the effort.