Three Lessons from Patricia McKillip

I’ve spent a lot of my reading time lately going through Patricia McKillip. A year ago, I’d never reead a thing of hers; now I’ve read the Riddle-Master Trilogy (Riddle Master of Hed, Heir of Sea and Fire, and Harpist in the Wind), A Song for the Basilisk, and the Cygnet books (The Sorceress and the Cygnet, the Cygnet and the Firebird).

I started this quest based on a recommendation, and then pursued it to the bitter end as an exercise to work on my poetry and mysticism. McKillip’s language is amazing: beautiful, evocative, dense with challenging layers of metaphor and elliptical meaning. My own storytelling runs to the linear and direct, or at least it used to: after a year of McKillip immersion, I think I’ve gotten a far better sense for the “beautiful prose” part, at least.

That’s the Zeroth Lesson I learned from McKillip: her astounding skill and craft at writing beautiful, layered prose. I’m calling that #0 because I want to get into three specific lessons from the last books I finished, the Cygnet duology. Minor spoilers follow:

First lesson: “You win, therefore you lose” is an unsatisfying conclusion to anyone’s arc. This is a lesson I first ran into long ago in roleplaying game design, and unfortunately it crops up at the end of Firebird. Rather than the protagonists determining the outcome, the villain succeeds, but his success destroys him, without any further involvement or intervention of the main characters. It’s a bit close to a deus ex machina, sadly: villain summons godlike entity, god turns out not to be villainous after all, sucks to be that guy. Thus Firebird was my least favorite of the six McKillips I read.

Second lesson: Your twist can be as meta as you want, as long as it rings true. I’ve long since recognized that an ideal twist (climactic or otherwise) is one that makes the reader say, “I never noticed that before, but now that you say it, it’s so obvious.” The first Cygnet book accomplishes this so wildly, I had to come back and reread the climactic scene the next night. At the moment when the external plot (action in the world, as opposed to character development “internal arc”) comes to a head, when the cruel gods/constellations are about to overthrow the Cygnet, the plot reveals itself to not be an external plot at all. It’s been there to serve as story and metaphor: not just to the reader, but to the characters themselves. McKillip twisted not just the plot, but the structure and nature of narrative itself. It took me some real work to wrap my head around it, but after it sunk in, you can be sure I’ll never forget it.

Third lesson: Never give a character a plot-stopping power. In both Cygnet books, one character is the Gatekeeper, with a deep-rooted mystical power over who comes and goes in the citadel where he works. Yet he fails at his job regularly! In fact, I don’t think we ever see him successfully noticing or keeping out a trouble-maker. Of course, there’d be no story if he kept the villains from coming in and mucking with the lives of our protagonists. But that’s precisely the problem: if his power works, there is no plot. Therefore his power has to fail, and he’s going to look like a loser. Unless you want your character to seem like an incompetent, better to avoid giving people plot-halting powers at all!

This post might sound critiquey, but only because I’m trying to distill specific writing lessons from a pair of her books — to find the rare bits of rough amidst the diamond. Let there be no doubt: I loved my McKillip Immersion Experience, and would recommend it wholeheartedly for anyone who wants to read or write amazing, gorgeous fantasy.

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