As many people know, I’m a big fan of Cressida Cowell’s How to Train Your Dragon series of books. (If you haven’t read them, it’s worth pointing out that they’re very, very different to the movies.) I started reading them to my sons many years ago now, but I’m pretty sure I’m the biggest fan in the household.
The story is engaging, the characters are fun and inventive, and as the series goes on, it’s clear that the stories – for all that they’re about fantasy Vikings having adventures with their dragons – are really about the process of growing up and find your place in the world. Or, to quote the oft-repeated tagline in the books: They’re about becoming a hero the hard way.
I got a real sense of the magic of these books – and books in general – when I was reading the ninth book in the series (How to Steal a Dragon’s Sword) to my children a few nights ago.
Halfway through the book, the protagonist – Hiccup – puts a piece of paper hurriedly into his pocket instead of putting it away properly inside the secret compartment in the hilt of his sword. It doesn’t seem like a big deal at the time. It’s just something that happens in a single sentence during the transition between two scenes.
The moment is gone and forgotten within half a page, and never mentioned again. But at the end of the book, when it seems that all hope is lost, another character mentions that they could possibly still save the day if only Hiccup hadn’t lost his sword and the note that was hidden inside it.
In the book, Hiccup gingerly reaches into his pocket and extracts the very thing they need to triumph.
But in real life, before I’d read Hiccup’s reaction, my son sat bolt upright in bed, his eyes wide. “Hiccup has it in his pocket!” he whisper-exclaimed. He licked his lips, his eyes shining with joy and wonder. “You see?” he said, his voice hushed and reverent. “That’s the magic of authors! Cressida Cowell set this whole thing up so Hiccup would have the paper when he needed it. It’s genius. Authors are like magic!”
Now, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the majority of eleven-year-olds probably don’t react to plot twists by praising the genius of the author – a side-effect of having a parent who’s a writer, perhaps? – but that doesn’t make his words any less true.
Authors are like magic.
Stuck in the word mines as we are, practicing our techniques and polishing our skills, I think it’s easy to forget how magical and enchanting stories are to readers.
We approach our storytelling through a lens of character arcs, and narrative structure, and authentic characters, and ‘show don’t tell’ – except when we need to ‘tell don’t show’ – and adding description, but not too much description, and researching historical accuracy, and finding our voice, and creating a theme, and using dialogue effectively, and a billion other elements that we’ve studied and practiced.
And those things are important. Understanding the craft is important. Honing our craft is important.
But it’s just as important to remember that, at the end, what we’re crating is something magical; something that touches people and brings them joy and wonder; something that makes them laugh and cry and experience a whole range of emotions.
No one cares whether a baker understands the tools and techniques of her trade unless her cakes take their taste-buds on a journey of ecstasy. And no one cares whether an author has practiced the tools and techniques of writing unless her story delights their heart and mind.
Next time you’re trapped in the minutiae of your writing, and feeling like this is all too much hard work and you should have taken up something easy like brain surgery, take a step back and look at the big picture of your story. You’re creating something wonderful and magical, and one day someone is going to read your words and their eyes will light up and they’ll exlaim, “That’s genius! Authors are like magic!”
How do you see the genius and magic in your own books? When have you experienced that feeling yourself?
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