NB This post contains LOTS of spoilers. Be warned!
As I said yesterday, the sheer quality of Pratchett’s writing tends not to be mentioned. It’s possibly because there are so many other wonderful things to talk about in his books, but I think it’s also because his writing is so good that you don’t notice it. It’s just there, holding up and framing and illuminating the stories and everything in them, not drawing attention to itself while doing an extraordinary job.
So I thought I might end this series of posts with a bit of an example of Pratchett’s writing – of course with full acknowledgement that it is copyright his estate, and I hope they don’t mind me quoting it. It’s from Going Postal, and involves one of a set of characters so unimportant in terms of the story that they barely exist. They’re the crew of a clacks tower, and the character in question is a thirteen year old girl called Princess. The tower master is called Grandad, because of his advanced age of twenty six, and there are other characters too. Their role in the story is to tell us stuff that it’s important for us to know (they are Team Exposition, in other words), and in the hands of a lesser writer they would barely exist. In Pratchett’s hands they have names and personalities and lives, and the only reason we don’t know more about them is that it isn’t necessary for the story, but you could write a book around them with no problem at all.
But that isn’t the reason I included this excerpt. I do a bit of (hem hem) creative writing, and one of my tutors, a wonderful writing teacher, recently asked us to look at how we describe things. As she described it, there are three ways of describing: visual, which is the default way for most of us and how most writers write, aural, which is used by a smaller percentage, and kinaesthetic, meaning descriptors drawn from feelings, which are rarer still. For real immersion in a scene so that you feel as if you were there, as if it’s really real, all three are needed. This scene has them all – he hardly describes it, but reading this you feel you really are at the top of a remote clacks tower on a winter night, somewhere in the mountains of the Discworld. Enjoy.
“Princess went out onto the little platform, to be out of the way. Underfoot the snow was like icing sugar, in her nostrils the air was like knives.
When she looked across the mountains, in the direction she’d learnt to think of as downstream, she could see that Tower 180 was sending. At that moment, she heard the thump and click of 181’s own shutters opening, dislodging snow. We shift code, she thought, it’s what we do.
Up on the tower, watching the starlike twinkle of the Trunk in the clear, freezing air, it was like being part of the sky. And she wondered what Grandad feared more: that dead clacksmen could send messages to the living, or that they couldn’t.”
Sir Terry Pratchett, author: 28th April 1948 – 12th March 2015. RIP.