Monday, March 29, 2010

The judge delivered his instructions to the jury

Selecting the winner of The Harper's Pen Award is no easy task. Now that I come down to it, each of these eight stories are worthy, and my final selection, when it comes, will probably be a matter of personal taste.

Nevertheless, I thought I would outline here my thoughts about heroic fantasy and what makes for a good sword-and-sorcery story. These are the categories and what I am looking for in each:

Story hook - This is the first five paragraphs or so, in which the author grabs and holds the attention of the reader. None of the finalists would have reached the finals without a solid story hook.

Adventure hook - Different than the story hook, the adventure hook is what draws the characters into the plot and keeps them (were they not characters in the story) from walking away.

Believable, interesting setting - The setting must feel real even if it is utterly alien. It must have at least three dimensions, unless there is a good reason to have more or fewer. It must obey the laws of physics, unless there is a good reason not to. Even better if the setting is almost a character within the story, if it plays a vital role in the actions and decisions of the characters and serves as more than static backdrop to the play.

Interesting is subjective, but I don't put a lot of emphasis on settings that are entirely undreamt of. In selecting the stories for this award, I read pages and pages of chimerical worlds and heroes cobbled-together from things and ideas that have never been cobbled together before, all in some vain quest to come up with something entirely new.  Humans have been telling stories for a hundred thousand years, and most of those stories have been set in worlds intimately familiar to both the storyteller and the audience. The best new recipes are not born from never-before-tasted ingredients, they are concocted from the same ingredients put together in interesting new ways. As a reader, I am not often bedazzled by shiny things.

Engaging characters - Storytelling tells the story of people. Heroes are just people - flawed, imperfect, prone to mistakes. What makes them heroic is what they do despite their imperfections and how they go about fixing their mistakes. Neither perfect heroes nor perfect villains are interesting or believable. But what makes a character engaging is how he or she connects with the reader, and every reader is different.

Monsters - Human or otherwise, there must be monsters in heroic fantasy and sword-and-sorcery. Huge, queer hulking beasts or dainty, sprite-winged creatures, they must be more than an afterthought. They are the foil and the fodder of the hero, obstacles in the path to the big boss. Or they are unlooked-for allies and fonts of arcane knowledge to be found nowhere else. Or perhaps they are both. But there must be monsters here.

Mayhem - This is the sword in sword-and-sorcery - a hefty dollop of pulse-pounding, teeth-gritting action. People finding fairies in their cupboards might be fantasy, but it isn't heroic fantasy. Sooner or later they must draw swords and enter the fray.

Magic - Which is the sorcery part of the equation. Without magic, it's adventure fiction. I'm looking for a strong magical element which plays an important role in the action and resolution of the story.

Catharsis - Consequences that matter. The story delivers a strong emotional impact, both to the characters and to the reader, if the reader cares about the characters at all.

Satisfying end - I'm looking for a believable, complete, though not necessarily tidy ending. The villain may escape, the hero may fail, but in failing achieve some other, more desirable end, bringing the story to a satisfying close.

Storytelling voice - Vitality of delivery. This is the most difficult aspect to explain, but it's what makes a good story into a great story. The same tale, told by two different authors, can be entirely different based on nothing more than the life the storyteller breaths into the tale. Some people are just good at telling jokes, and some people are born storytellers. The best ones are able to draw upon a depth of personal experience and a profound understanding of the human puzzle. But defining it is difficult. You know it when you see it. They have a spark, a vitality that other people, telling the same story, don't.

I will announce the winner of the award by Wednesday, March 31, after which I will post why I chose that story and how the finalists fared in each of the above categories.


  1. Excellent categories and explanations Jeff. I concur on all the above and look forward with interest to your posts evaluating each finalist.

  2. Great explanation - it's a good list of strengths needed in a story. Thanks!

  3. This award is a great idea. Can't wait to see the results!