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The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

28 October 2008

Evoking a sense of wonder

The tie that binds together speculative fiction—uniting the disparate genres of fantasy, science fiction, horror, alternate history, myth, and, I would argue, often historical fiction—the golden fairy dust that transforms even run-of-the-mill prose into words of magic, a gateway to a new world, or a new way of seeing, is a sense of wonder.

None of my writing books contains the recipe for this fairy dust.

There are worksheets aplenty for creating characters, plots, conflicts, and other basic elements of novels, but I’ve yet to see one for creating a sense of wonder. Earlier in this blog, I discussed what makes a legend in my posts on Gilgamesh, John Henry, Black Bart the pirate, and El Cid (see Today I propose a list of elements (some of which overlap) that contribute to the reader’s sense of wonder.

Juxtaposition of the familiar and unfamiliar

“A vampire shouldn’t be afraid of the dark, he told himself. Yet the short walk from where a cab had let him off on Metairie Road through these gloomy woods, barely lit by a weak moon, had seriously creeped him out. He wished he’d worn a shawl. His lightweight linen dress and lace hosiery were fine for the Quarter, but here they left him feeling chilled. And the heels of his pumps sank into the gravel, nearly causing him to twist an ankle several times.”
—Andrew Fox, Bride of the Fat White Vampire (horror)

“The wargs chased the elf over Pittsburgh Scrap and Salvage’s tall chain-link fence shortly after the hyperphase gate powered down.”
—Wen Spencer, Tinker (fantasy)


“Surpassing all kings, powerful and tall beyond all others, violent, splendid, a wild bull of a man, unvanquished leader, hero in the front lines, beloved by soldiers—fortress they called him, protector of the people, raging flood that destroys all defenses—two-thirds divine and one-third human, . . .”
—Stephen Mitchell, editor, Gilgamesh (myth)

Appeal to the primitive part of the psyche that believes in magic

“Carrying the white crystal in her hand, Raeshaldis crossed the Court of the Novices through luminous blue darkness, climbed the rock-cut stairs still higher up the bluff. Well above the rest of the Citadel, she came into the Circle, the open space in which the rites of the Summoning of Rain were worked each spring.”
—Barbara Hambly, Circle of the Moon (fantasy)

Evocative or mood-altering language that conjures a different time or place

“Any human life lies in the future as well as in the past, of however short duration that future may prove to be; the two are hinged together like a door that swings, and that swinging is the present moment.”

“The ceiling was of wood, the work of Saracen carvers, very delicately fretted, with painted stars between the bosses. There was a thin band of Greek scrollwork in marble, running all round the walls, a frieze of tendrils and fronds.”

“It has been with me from my early days, this sense of a crossing point between man and God that can lie in the work of hands. And on that April morning, still, the touch of heaven was the touch of my King, whose power was celebrated in that wood and that stone. My trance of mind was wonder at Gold’s power and the King’s; the voices around me still sounded, now loud, now soft, but the voice I heard was that unwavering one of majesty.”
—all three examples from Barry Unsworth, The Ruby in her Navel (historical fiction)

Appeal to the belief that there are wonders in the world yet to be discovered

“The tendon at the base of Kargen’s war-spike ached. He flattened the heavy quills that armored his back and sides, and stepped out of the tree to drop quietly toward the earth. Falling, his thoughts were on the weak, and on how they must be eliminated if his people were to survive.”
—Charles Gramlich, Cold in the Light (horror)

“We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto”

“Henna was thirteen when she was gleefully married off to the eldest son of one of the best families in Calcutta, and her marriage was achieved by an audacious network of lies as elaborate and brazen as the golden embroidery on her scarlet wedding sari.”
—Roopa Farooki, Bitter Sweets: A Novel (contemporary fiction)

“Sister glared at Na-tanh, Corn Flower, sprawled on his stomach in a curdled puddle of half-digested beans and bad booze. If she put the chile powder into his breechclout now, he probably wouldn’t even notice it. He looked dead, but he snored like a bear. He had made himself stupid with pulque, a brew that smelled worse than old moccasins.”
—Lucia St. Clair Robson, Ghost Warrior (historical fiction)

A place whose rules are unknown, either to the reader or to the character

“Papa was dead, and they had to move to the country when Mama’s year of mourning was up. Now that Papa was dead, Mama said, they didn’t own the house any longer. It seemed strange that someone they had never met could own a house that had always been theirs.”
—Caroline Roe, A Potion for a Widow (historical mystery)

“Among the Blood, males were meant to serve, not to rule. He had never challenged that, despite the number of witches he’d killed over the centuries. He had killed them because it was an insult to serve them, because he was an Eyrien Warlord Prince who wore Ebon-gray Jewels and refused to believe that serving and groveling meant the same thing.”
—Anne Bishop, Daughter of the Blood (fantasy)

“He had never seen human food, he didn’t know what to do. Then Shamhat said, ‘Go ahead, Enkidu. This is food, we humans eat and drink this.’ Warily he tasted the bread. Then he ate a piece, he ate a whole loaf, then ate another, he ate until he was full, drank seven pitchers of the beer. . . .”
—Stephen Mitchell, editor, Gilgamesh (myth)

The road not taken

“Some of the silver and copper coins he set on the counter bore the images of Isabella and Albert, others—the older, more worn, ones—that of the deposed Elizabeth, who still languished in the Tower of London, only a furlong or so from where Shakespeare stood.”
—Harry Turtledove, Ruled Britannia (alternative history)

Extrapolation from today into the future

“From Mahout Station he took a bus. Fuel-cell powered, electric-engine drive, it contributed no emissions to befoul the already dangerously polluted urban air. Sanjay was able to breathe freely as he stepped off, however. It was nearing the end of the monsoon season, and recent rains had washed the atmosphere above the city blissfully free of contaminants. If the climate was kind, he would not have to wear his face mask for another month or two.”
—Alan Dean Foster, Sagramanda: A Novel of Near-Future India (science fiction)

The “wow!” factor: gadgets, gizmos, magic, surprises, and other cool stuff

“The day war was declared, a rain of telephones fell clattering to the cobblestones from the skies above Novy Petrograd.”
—Charles Stross, Singularity Sky (science fiction)

“I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.”
—John Scalzi, Old Man’s War (science fiction)

“Krebs winced when Fluff, or maybe it was Puff, looked up at him. Its ears stood straight up and drool slid down over its teeth, dripping onto the hardwood floor. “If they leave any bunny slipper turds around you have to clean them up.”
—Linda Wisdom, 50 Ways to Hex Your Lover (romance)

Description that hones in on the alien, the strange, the exotic, the extraordinary
See every example above

I’m curious: Do you agree? Would you add other factors or subtract some of mine from the list? Do you have any techniques for adding wonder to your writing?


Charles Gramlich said...

This is a great list, and worth some consideration. This is also why I like so much the kind of literarture you're sampling here. I don't get excited when I read about something that is very familiar to me. But to think that the next turn in a path might reveal some wonder is a powerful thing. In a way, it's kind of like gambling, where the next "roll" of the dice could be the winner. The next page of a book of speculative fiction could have wonder there. Or beauty. Or both at once.

Ps, thanks so much for including a passage from "Cold in the Light." Much appreciated.

steve on the slow train said...

Thank you, Shauna, for this list. I wasn't sure how you were going to put together this post, but the list of themes with examples works well. I especially appreciate your use of the Epic of Gilgamesh. I listened to the Stephen Mitchell translation recently, and was entranced by it.

Now to go through my WIP and try to see how well I've projected a sense of wonder.

Steve Malley said...

Wow. What a great, thought-provoking post!

Shauna Roberts said...

CHARLES, I feel exactly the same way, and that's why I love speculative fiction so much. Cold in the Light was a good example of a book in which wonder followed wonder, right until the end.

STEVE, I view this list as a first pass of a work in progress. The themes overlap so much, there must be a more elegant (in the mathematical sense) way to list them. I wrote this up because I'm starting a new book soon and wanted a checklist to keep near my computer. I'm glad you enjoyed the Gilgamesh examples.

STEVE M., I'm blushing. Thanks!

Lana Gramlich said...

Good advice here. I don't know that I'd have anything to add, but I'm no writer & unfortunately I'm not much into fiction these days.

Shauna Roberts said...

LANA, you do something similar with your art, right? I don't know the right arty terms, but you've used paints with a pearly sheen and other special paints to create special effects, and many of your paintings have an otherworldly feel. You created that mood on purpose with techniques you knew, right?

virtualjourney said...

....Strange, we were in unusual weather conditions for photography yesterday, and some of the resulting shots fall within the parameters of what you have described in the post.

Suspect my sense of wonder has migrated from fiction to the visual arts as well, though partly through assigning a low priority to reading fiction for one reason or another - time pressure, mostly.

Carleen Brice said...

Your list makes me think of 2 comments about Star Wars. My father said, "I'd never seen anything like it." It blew his mind. And my husband's father was blown away because of a rust bucket space ship. He said he'd been waiting his whole life to see a beater ship.

WH said...

I can get behind every one of these, and I love your point that there are no seminars on creating wonder. I especially like exaggeration, wonders yet to be discovered, and the road not taken. This is an excellent post that I am printing out. It's a great guide with sage advice for anyone who wants to put a little "magical realism" into play. Bravo!

Shauna Roberts said...

Julie/VV, I think you're right. I can see many of the elements I listed in your photographs. Do you purposely look for those things?

CARLEEN, that was a memorable moment for me too. I remember more about seeing "Star Wars" for the first time than about my wedding reception. Those images were fantastic.

Thanks, BILLY. I'm glad the post was useful to you.

Virginia Lady said...

Good post. I need to review my writing and look at the wonder aspect.

It's funny how many things a writer needs to think about, and people think it's such an easy thing to do. it's actually very complicated and really requires thinking in different ways. Thanks for the post.