Monday, July 06, 2009

The Art of Language

By Ali Cross

Recently I had the privilege of taking a workshop on world building for children given by Stacy L. Whitman. The biggest thing I took away from the class, was the importance of language in a YA/Middle Grade fantasy.

In an adult fantasy (and I hope you’ll forgive me, I’m lumping all varieties of fantasy, including sci-fi into the word “fantasy”) you can take your time, and it’s expected of you to paint the picture of the world your story is set in. Adult readers relish in the details and love to see the world you’re creating.

Maybe it’s because kids typically have more active imaginations than we adults, but they don’t need us to paint-by-the-numbers for them. With just a few well-placed lines, a kid has enough to build the world in their mind and any extra information can in fact be cumbersome.

So how do you build a world for your reader without using a lot of description? The answer, according to Stacy, is language.

Our language not only defines who we are, but what we see. Through a few lines of dialogue we can see through the character’s perspective, what their world looks like, whether they are educated or not, what time period they live in, and how they view themselves in relation to their world.

Whenever I think of this topic, I think of the movie The Forbidden Kingdom. In it, there is a girl, Sparrow, whose parents were killed by the evil warlord. She grew up as an orphan and trained her whole life for one purpose—to kill the warlord and avenge her parents. Because of her focus, she doesn’t even see herself as a person. She only sees her mission.

Sparrow is a supporting character, so how do I know so much about her? Because of the way she speaks. She refers to herself in third person, i.e. “She must find the warlord and kill him.” That’s not an exact line, just an example. But what it tells me, is that she is outside of herself. She is not looking at her heart or examining her feelings. She is a weapon, a tool.

At the end of the movie, Sparrow and her goal come together. Everything coalesces for her and in that moment, she refers to herself as “I.” It is so powerful because in one line, we learn so much. We learn that she is wholly present, that she is no longer on the outside looking in.

Imagine what you could do in a book with just a few well-thought-out you have an extra space before “out” personal attributes for each of your characters. Imagine how your story would grow and you could show so much without telling much at all.


Mary Campbell said...

It's funny that we took different things away from the same seminar. I'm glad you posted this. It helped me remember what Stacy said. You're right, the descriptive language in dialogue is so important. It's something I need to work on. You can read what I posted about the seminar at

L.T. Elliot said...

I need to work on my dialogue too! Thank heavens for some examples that Shanna gave me to check out!

ElanaJ said...

Very true. Kids don't want to be bogged down by anything, least of all scenery and world-building. Great post, Ali!