story craft #6 Building the Maze

Mike Grist Story Craft 1 Comment

I was writing several scenes (of my first Dawn book) set in a graveyard recently, trying to get across the wealth and variety of gravestone types within it, but not really succeeding. I got frustrated and disappointed. If I couldn`t show-case the bizarre variety of an ancient and storied graveyard, how could I expect to sell people on a whole fantasy world?

In the past I`ve got over that stumbling block by entering a kind of trance-like state (which I`ve dubbed a flashbang writing style) where I make up words, over adjectivize, pile clauses on top of each other, and turn the paragraph into a boggy maze.

The Maze

This maze seems essential to me for a milieu story set in a bizarre fantasy world. It needs to feel bizarre. The reader should feel comfortably lost almost all the time. There`s a great joy to be had in reading a story where you have to figure out what the terms mean as you go along. I was wowed by the power of it in the book A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. By the end I was actually thinking in terms from the world, like real horrorshow, the red red krovvy, and so on.

A more recent example is Anathem by Neal Stephenson. In places he almost overdoes it, and we`re left reeling from sentence to sentence with almost no clue what is happening. These monk-like guys are doing things with bolts, chords, and orbs, waiting for Apert, getting planed, and so on. Finally coming to understand, through inference and context, what the terms meant was a large part of the fun of it all. It made the world live and breathe in my mind, as I started thinking in terms of planing other people.

It`s what I want from the Dawn books. I want a vast Chinese puzzle box of a Maze, layered through language, culture, and time. At times this need strangles me as the writer. I get afraid I`m going to fail in my mission. Sitting down to write becomes like a performance, one I feel I may not be ready for. Do I have the words? If not, perhaps I can make them up. If I can`t make them up, then I find another way to add confusion and a lost sensation- the grammar tricks of multiple nested clauses, long rambling sentences creaking with adjectives, and so on.

But that can be bad. A Maze that is impenetrable and just annoys people is no good at all.

The maze from Labyrinth.

What`s in a Maze?

At this point I fall back on my learnings as an English teacher. I`ve learnt to pitch learning materials to the appropriate level. I won`t give Newsweek articles to beginners or intermediates. I won`t give beginner texts to advanceds. At each level they watn challenge, but either too much or too little is very demotivating.

7-10 items is the size of human RAM. It varies from person to person, and of course with training, but that`s about how any ideas we can hold in our mind at any one time. 7-10 new vocabulary items is the content for an hour-long lesson. 7-10 bits of unusual vocabulary is perhaps a few pages in a fantasy milieu story.

A good Maze will thus have plenty of the obscure and new, to cause mild disorientation. Here`s a few rules on what works well and what doesn`t-

Multiple adjectives– Bad. Readers don`t want to read so many words and have to figure out how they all modify each other.

Complex grammar– Bad. Readers don`t want to puzzle over something that should be simple.

Overly intense words- Bad if overused. Words that carry too much weight, like blood, rage, torture, scream, pain, tears, etc… will only exhaust readers.

Made-up words– Good, if they`re repeated, used in moderation, and at some point there`s enough context for their meaning to be inferred. Also good if they`re in some way related to the language as we know it. In English, that means sounding like a real word, perhaps using Latin or Greek roots, perhaps taking a familiar word and giving it a new spin.

Little-used real words– Good, perhaps the best. Words that we`re perhaps not quite sure of the meaning of, but feel we can guess. Words that give us an uncanny feeling of both familiarity and other-worldliness.

And that brings us to Thesauruses.

Building the Maze

I`m sure other writers have figured this out before me. Can China Mieville really have all those words in his head, waiting to be plucked out, dusted off, and used just one time before being relegated back to the back-brain. Perhaps he does, but if so then he`s got one prodigious head. I tend to think I have a good vocabulary, along with a pretty good grasp of ancient Greek and Latin, but I often run out of words.

So I enter my flashbang state. And that`s not so bad, really, but it leaves a lot of confusion in its wake- probably too much. The run-on sentences and made-up verbs and extreme intensity are often beyond the pale. I don`t want to throw up a wall between me and the reader. I just want a maze between us.

I think a thesaurus may prove to be an invaluable maze-building tool. Of course I`ve had a thesaurus (a small Collins Pocket Gem dictionary/thesaurus) for years. It`s traveled with me to to school in the US, to University in the UK, and now to Japan. I keep it on the shelf near my desk so I can grab it at any moment and put it to use. But I rarely ever did, until recently.

As I said at the beginning; I was racking my brain to think of synonyms for grave, graveyard, and so on, for several scenes in my first Dawn book. After struggling blindly for a while, and feeling too tired to dive into the flashbang state to churn out something I could later wrangle into shape, I reached for the thesaurus. This is what I found:

mausoleum, pit, sepulchre, vault

I hadn`t used any of those, and was happy to add in their color. It was totally painless, took only a few seconds, and sidestepped a lot of effort poured into flashbang-ing the passage to an appropriate level of maze-ness.

The right Thesaurus

The next day I went thesaurus shopping. I wanted a bigger tool for building my mazes, with stranger words still and yet more color. It also had to be portable- as I do most of my writing in McDonalds these days. I found a full-size Roget`s Thesaurus. It was massive, and when I looked inside seemed to be organized oddly. It turns out Dr. Roget decided to organize words not only in alphabetical order by synonym, but also by concept and type. Hence I could search for words generally connected to death, instead of only hunting for grave synonyms.

That may be useful in some cases, but it seemed too time consuming to me. Search by synonym is just faster and more accurate, so I put Roget`s full edition to one side and searched through multiple handbook-sized thesauruses for synonyms on grave. I variously found-

cinerarium, potter`s hill, tumulus, God`s acre, necropolis and many more.

That afternoon I set to some writing. I was mostly revising, but I didn`t have to enter a trance at any point. Any time I needed a new word, a momentary bit of unfamiliarity to disorient and delight, I could look it up in the thesaurus. If the word wasn`t there, a surrounding word nearly always did the job.


Have I just revolutionized my writing style? I wonder. Time will tell. I`m oddly excited to read the thesaurus some more though. I love words. I love making up words, or re-assigning words, or just creating a maze out of words. I also want my copy to be clear, concise, and not confusing for the wrong reasons. I think the thesaurus will help. I feel slightly like I`m cheating to use it, but am starting to think of it just like a prop. What actor goes on stage with nothing to work with? What mechanic goes to fix a car without any tools?

My thesaurus helps expand my brain. Hopefully it`ll make my writing better too.

Comments 1

  1. Really i am on the exact same page as you. I dont want to go into detail cause i will cause confusion. But im making me self crazy by staying in the “flashbang” state haha. i like the way you put that. reminds me of call of duty. I want to expand this. And maybe we can work together or you help point me in the right patch. also i dont ever look at mazes. I can really say i look at your maze in the picture and figured it out in like 30 secs. but remember the world says trust no one lol. get back to me with something at least.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *