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Friday, September 14, 2012


I'm not quite sure how I feel about the news that The Sword of Shannara and its sequels are going to be a TV series. On the one hand, I started to read The Sword of Shannara once and stopped because the writing was terrible. On the other hand, TV and film may be just the thing to make The Sword of Shannara enjoyable, since re-telling a bad story in a visual medium chops out a lot of bad writing.

A lot of bad writing is bad because it's over-told, by which I mean it has too many trivial details. Somewhere, the bad writer has heard advice like "show, don't tell" and "describe your characters" and completely misinterpreted it. This is actually a big problem in RPG books as well, and I don't just mean game fiction. How many words have been wasted in various clones and the later editions of the D&D game itself describing what a fighter is? It's a fighter, dammit! Who doesn't grasp that concept?

In the RPG world, a lot of this bad writing comes from a fear of ambiguity. Gamers are obsessed with knowing exactly what a character or item can and cannot do, and they hate overlap. This explains things like niche protection, the linear-fighter-quadratic-wizard debate, bitching about Wisdom, and a great many other things. We can't have our peas touching our carrots, can we? And we want exactly 36 peas, arranged in a square, with butter applied evenly to the top of every pea with an eyedropper.


  1. Each to his or her own of course, but I do agree plenty with the general point you're making. It gets to the point where the writer is squeezing out space for interpretation, either in the reader alone or at the table.

    Fear of ambiguity could be why, but then what causes that? Maybe it's an effect of the passion, or the force of imagination spilling over, or an extension of the nature the writer might have if so interested in systems for representation and resolution.

  2. I remember we were passing around a copy of 'Sword of Shanarra' when I was in Junior High. I was a pretty omnivorous reader at the time and, as I can recall, even I thought it was bad. On the other hand, I found a shitty film like 'Krull' pretty entertaining to watch --- I don't know if there was ever a Krull novel, but maybe that means that Sword of Shannara on the small screen will be fun.
    I wonder if they are just trying to piggyback on the success of Game of Thrones? I never read the Game of Thrones books, but it seems to be sort of like a version of The Sopranos set in a fantasy world, with lots of intrigue, betrayal and sex and violence rather than just magic and dragons, which means that people who are normally not at all interested in 'fantasy' genre stuff can get drawn in.

  3. I felt the same way about The Hobbit. I couldn't understand why anyone liked the book. I was later told it was a writing exercise, and then I accepted it for what it was. Of course, this was way back in '86, before Peter Jackson made any of the LOTR movies...

  4. I imagine the filmic version will have a harder time hiding that TSoS is Lord of the Rings with the map flipped and a dopey world-reveal midway through.