Inspiring lines

This week’s topic for the Guild of Dreams is favourite lines from books of fantasy.

One of my favourite works of fantasy or magic realism is Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin (although reportedly, Helprin hates the term “magic realism”).

Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin

One of the most haunting images is from the first part of the novel, set in New York around 1900. In the harbour between New York and New Jersey is a mysterious, shifting and opaque cloud wall. Things and people that go into the cloud wall never return.

The line that I remember describes how occasionally the cloud wall parts or lifts, and trains take these unpredictable opportunities to dash across New York’s bridges and connect the city to the rest of the continent.

However, when I checked the book, this is the text I found:

Sometimes [the cloud wall] disappeared, bringing into view the rest of the country beyond (it was then that transcontinental railroad trains proceeded through the gap, rolling over blinding silver tracks that had been scoured to a gleam by the agitated base of the cloud wall), and sometimes it lifted like a stage curtain, disappearing wholly or partially into heaven.

When I first read the proposal for this round of blog posts, I thought of several lines that I remembered from favourite books. But like the above example from Winter’s Tale, I found when I checked that my memory was always just a little different from what I found on the printed page.

I could ascribe that to a poor memory. But I don’t like to think about that possibility. Instead, I’ll ascribe it to the Time War, a concept I read about in Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time. Do you remember that story? If you think you haven’t read it, it’s possible that your memory is worse than mine — or that you, too, are a victim of the Time War.

The idea is this: two powerful factions, the Spiders and the Snakes, are engaged in a ruthless, limitless war, and both are capable of time travel. They recruit people from all periods of history — Roman Legionnaires, American GIs, Napoleonic soldiers — and fight by moving back and forth through time to change historical events. However, time has inertia. Contrary to the “butterfly effect” theory, moving a single grain of sand in the past won’t have much of an effect in the future. It takes an awful lot of energy to change the course of history.

This brings me to another favourite line, this one from The Big Time:Fritz Leiber's The Big Time

“This hold’s Rome’s answer to Parthia on the Nile!”

This is from the character named Mark, a former Roman Legionnaire, now a fighter on one side of the Time War. He’s excited because he has just acquired a nuclear bomb, and wants to bring it to his former comrades in Rome. Imagine the impact on history if Rome had used a nuclear bomb on Parthia in the first century BCE!

How could the Change War affect you? Leiber explained that while it took a lot of energy to make big changes in the course of history — like how long the Roman Empire would persist — the constant fighting and changing by the opposing sides in the Change War often caused little things to change. So if you can’t find your keys where you’re sure you left them, that could be an effect of the Change War. You did put your keys where you remember, but the Spiders or the Snakes changed the past.

I like that excuse.

Here’s the irony: I remembered the line by Mark exactly; however, for years, I’ve been describing it as the Time War. Now that I go back and check, I see that my copy has changed it to the “Change War.”

Another victim of the Time — I mean, Change War.

While I truly enjoy good writing, artful phrases and prose that pays attention to its form and sound as well as its meaning, it seems that what persists is the idea contained in the words. Ideas from fantasy novels and stories haunt or tantalize me for years. Some that come to mind:

  • The way that Tolkien evokes the long, detailed history of Middle-Earth with a few sentences throughout Lord of the Rings. These references are a brilliant marketing ploy, making readers want to read more about Gondolin and the Goblin Wars, and the story of Luthien Tinuviel.
  • In Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude, the trail of blood that flowed from victim to murderer in straight lines that made right-angle turns to get around obstacles.
  • The enormous black cat in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, riding on the rear fender of the streetcar so that it would not have to pay the fare.cover of The Master and Margarita

There are more, but I’m running out of space. So I’ll end with a line from (Caution — SPW ahead: This has been a test of the Shameless Plug Warning System) my own work. This comes from the opening of Chapter 2 of The Bones of the Earth, and I’m proud of it:

Look down. Two young men, boys really, walk across the meadows and forests on the southern slopes of mountains that rise gently, then heave up suddenly to angry grey crags occasionally topped by snow.

I like that. It works for me on several levels, and I hope it works for readers, too.

Where do you take a great line?

In the previous post, Tami Parrington wrote “the first line they write has to be powerful.” That’s true, but that’s not the hardest part for me. I think most writers can think of great opening lines for stories or novels, or great opening scenes.

To me, the real test of a writer is figuring out the closing line, and writing a story that pulls the reader from the beginning all the way to the end.


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