The Art of Mirriam Neal

//it’s like in the great stories

lotr20-20the20return20of20the20king20191“What kind of stories are your favorite?” my friend David asked me.

I began to try and scramble up an answer, but since I have favorite stories in almost every genre, I told him I could name my favorite story elements, ubiquitous to all genres – and then we decided it would make a good blog post, and he was willing to wait. So here we are, and onward!

  • Humor. Anyone who knows me probably isn’t surprised that this is first on my list. I adore humor. While I can read a humorless novel and occasionally enjoy it (although to be honest, I can’t currently think of a time that happened) humor is to me what salt is to food. Without it, most stories feel a little bland, a little less colorful. Examples of novels with fantastic humor: Anything by Terry Pratchett, The Graveyard Boy by Neil Gaiman, The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer, Tolkien’s Middle-Earth novels, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, anything by Diana Wynne Jones, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard, and the Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb. (This is by no means an exhaustive list.)
  • Romance. I’m not saying every story needs romance, but be real – everyone loves a good romance. The unique relationship, the drama, the sexual tension, the self-sacrifice, the tough choices, etc… While it’s hard to find a well-written romance plot (I’m not a fan of ‘romance novels,’ but I’m a huge fan of romance IN novels) it’s usually worth the wait. Some examples include The Silmarillion by Tolkien, anything by Jane Austen, the Inkworld trilogy by Cornelia Funke, the Stormdancer trilogy by Jay Kristoff, The Camelot Caper by Elizabeth Peters, and most Sarah Addison Allen novels.
  • Love. And I’m not just talking about romance here; I’m talking about sisterly love, brotherly love, familial love, friendly love – all kinds of love that many novels seem to forget exist. We seem to have separated ‘love’ and’ like’ as if the twain shall never meet in most novels (particularly the YA genre) but this is a mistake that I love to see remedied. Good examples are the Riddle-Master Trilogy by Patricia McKillip, Blink by Ted Dekker, anything by Stephen Lawhead, the Inkworld trilogy by Cornelia Funke, and anything by Tolkien.
  • Character interactions. This might seem like a big, fat ‘duh’ statement, but I’ve read so many books where character interactions lacked a) depth b) fun and c) depth. (Depth is important.) Simply having characters say ‘hi’ to each other, or revel in the occasional banter, is not enough. Think of the person you’re closest to, and how you both interact. It’s probably full of humor, insults, deep conversations, and comfort, right? Not just some snippy remark about how someone takes their coffee (although that might be in there somewhere.) Novels with good character interactions are Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson, the Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind, The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher, Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer, and Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones.
  • Beautiful prose. Who doesn’t love rich, vivid descriptions and wording that sets fires in your imagination, placing you directly in the center of the unfolding tale? I know I sure do – maybe it’s because my style has never been particularly lush in the vivid description department, but I adore reading it either way. (There is, obviously, such a thing as ‘overdoing it’ but that’s a different subject.) My favorite examples are The Riddle-Master trilogy by Patricia McKillip, Plenilune by Jennifer Freitag, anything by Alison Croggon, Dandelion Summer by Ray Bradbury, the Inkworld trilogy by Cornelia Funke (it’s about time to re-read these, wow), Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, and Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa.
  • Deep, complex themes. It’s easier to find these themes in Kdramas, honestly (examples: Liar Game, White Christmas, Hello Monster, Healer, Faith, Vampire Detective); they seem to be lacking in most modern fiction. It’s much harder to think of examples for these, so I’m mostly turning to classics: Anything by Tolkien, anything by C. S. Lewis, The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton, and Beowulf. Modern examples include most things by Ted Dekker or Frank Peretti, and Madeline L’Engle. (I told you this was hard.)

My other favorite elements are the ‘fantastic’ (i.e. fantasy, science fiction, steampunk, etc.), danger (what’s a good novel without a little – or a lot of – danger?), subtle writing (as in, writing that doesn’t hit you over the head with a 2×4 saying ‘DO YOU SEE HOW CLEVER THAT WAS’ but rather lets you acknowledge that yes, it was clever, without help), and bittersweet endings. I’m a huge fan of bittersweet endings.

What are your favorite story elements? I’d love to know!

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