Sunday, November 15, 2009


Rules, as we all know, are meant to be broken. This statement leads, naturally, to the old maxim that you have to know the rules before you can actually begin to disregard them.

With that in mind, I recently re-read Darrell Schweitzer’s excellent essay ‘Sword and Sorcery, Dragon and Princess’, first published in ‘How To Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy and Science Fiction’, edited by J.N Williamson (a fairly so-so book, to be honest but with the odd nugget of pure gold here and there, such as the Schweitzer essay).

In it, Schweitzer lays out, briefly but succinctly a few pointers for sword and sorcery fiction:

1) An imaginary, pre-gunpowder setting, usually based on medieval or ancient societies.
2) Magic
3) A vigorous, heroic warrior as the central character.

It is the last of these that define S&S since such characters (from Conan to Elric to Druss to Thongor) are the central pleasure of sword and sorcery fiction.

In terms of writing, he then goes on give a few useful tips:

Use plain language
a. Make sure you know what a barbarian is
b. Learn the rudiments of swordly combat
c. Make sure the magic is an integral part of the story
d. Keep the magic both limited and consistent
e. You need an action plot.

Within these half dozen pieces of advice, Darrell Schweitzer manages to bring in issues of world and society building. ‘Make sure you know what a barbarian is’ leads on to notions of society – if there are barbarians who, if anyone, represents the civilized portion of your newly created world. If the only people in this world are swordsmen and sorcerers, then who does the actual work – who harvests the crops, builds the glittering towers and, perhaps most apropos, who makes the swords? ‘Learn the rudiments of swordly combat’ more or less means ‘get your research right’ and the short but learned sections on magic point out such important matters as ‘if anything can happen in a story, no one cares what does’. At its most basic this boils down to the hero being able to free him or herself from any tricky situation with ‘one mighty bound’ or the villain being able to summon up endless armies of the dead (which our hero is able to dispatch with ease).

Of course, any set of rules and regulations – particularly when it comes to imaginative fiction – should only act as a starting point. As Schweitzer says, ‘tough-guy detective stories don’t all have the plot of The Maltese Falcon’ (and to that I might add, not all westerns have the plot of Shane) but in terms of crafting genre fiction, it’s important, I think, to understand underlying structure – what the reader can justifiably expect when he or she sits down to read a story, even if those expectations are subverted or totally turned on their head.

In this brief but extremely knowledgeable essay (it runs a mere five pages) Darrell Schweitzer manages to sketch out the foundations of the sword-and-sorcery genre in an intelligent, literate way.

And now that you know the rules, there’s nothing to stop you from breaking them (or indeed following them).

*** Poul Anderson's On Thud and Blunder, an equally wonderful essay on writing Heroic Fantasy can be found here:, ***

No comments:

Post a Comment