Regarding Gnomic Utterances

Hello, readers mine! Due to some submissions-related tomfoolery at work, I find myself with spare minutes this grey-skied morn. I thought this a good chance for a quick post about Gnomic Utterances. I suspect for many of you that’s presently an autological term, so allow me to clarify.

While the mechanic predates the term, “Gnomic Utterance” is the phrase which Dianna Wynne Jones coined in her (still excellent!) catalogue of fantasy tropes, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. I’m paraphrasing some of her conditions, so bear with me, but a Gnomic Utterance is a quotation slotted in at the start of a chapter which often has no clear relationship to anything that chapter contains.

They tend to be vague, attributed to some character who may or may not ever appear in the actual story, and otherwise full of mystical lore-master vibes. Jones seemed to regard them as quite silly, and I often praise the Tough Guide’s advice, so why are we chatting about them today?

For your first clue, Jones opened every “chapter” (arranged by letters of the alphabet, of course) in the Tough Guide with a Gnomic Utterance. Why do this if they’re pointless, distracting filler? Why, because they’re fun! Or, erm, they’re at least fun for the writer. I love these little blurbs; they take up minimal space and let me throw out figures from elsewhere in my setting who don’t have a place in the story’s core.

Now, like any writing tool, if you only squeeze one function from a Gnomic Utterance, you’ve let yourself down. I believe that, though they may appear cutesy, these quotes can do many things for you–and valuable ones even if it’s not readily apparent.

Let’s consider how the Gnomic Utterance relates to the story’s main body: it doesn’t. Or rather, it doesn’t have to. You’re free to pluck the quote you use from any point in world history, and that’s already a fantastic tool for messing with your readers. Should you want to do that? Only if you’re working towards some dire mystery’s unveiling. It’s easy to confuse your audience, but confusion tends to make humans angry, so–contradictory though it may sound–it’s vital they understand why they’re confused.

I’ll lead into a detailed discussion with the first of the guidelines I plan to offer here:
1. Because it exists outside the story’s main structure, the Utterance works best for bringing in or hinting at outside elements as well as highlighting themes. If it reinforces existing story elements, it should expand on them rather than just repeat them.

Cool. Sounds nice. What in blazes does that professorial jargon-jab actually mean?

Let me offer you a freebie from The Necromancer and the Reaping Spear–in fact, from the start of the very chapter I’m working on during my free time for the next few days:
“Warriors attract enemies. Seek them, hide from them, reject their challenges: it changes naught. Power grows best by challenging power. Foes seek you unless you perish. ” -Ten-zai

“Warriors attract enemies” is not new. It’s an existing story element which appeared throughout The Necromancer and the Revenant, and honestly, most fantasy stories understand this idea. The sentence after it is much more interesting; in a series with its fair share of espionage and magical disguises, Ten-zai remarks on the futility of hiding from challenges. This remark only becomes logical in the context of the Inferno Matriarch’s obsession with power dynamics, which has become a major element of the book as I write it.

“Power grows best by challenging power” merely condenses the remarks Gratai made at a few points during The Necromancer and the Revenant, such as when discussing the difference between power and “dominion”–that is, control. Gratai and Ten-zai express similar ideas on this count. None of these sentences quite work without each other, each acting as part of a continuing logic-chain, but the last is both the only totally new one and the most vital.

“Foes seek you unless you perish.” At first glance this looks like a remark on the futility of this entire power-by-conflict philosophy, and it can still be taken that way depending on your own priorities. A hint before I explain: until I started this paragraph, that line read “Foes seek you until you perish.” It’s a slight difference in words, but everything for meaning. “Until” refers to the passage of time and strongly connotes inevitability: you can put it off, but it’s coming sooner or later.

“Unless” refers to a condition, or in this case, to a possibility: an alternate outcome that may come to pass if you don’t take the right measures. The entire Utterance’s meaning hinges on this word. “Until” suggests that once you join this power struggle, it will consume you; you escape only through death. “Unless” says that if you seize the advantage, you may avert death itself. Because Gratai and Ten-zai’s characters have obvious psychological similarities, this reflects on Gratai’s necromantic obsession.

Any Utterance you choose to include should strive for at least this level of meaning and thematic connection. I don’t think this is the best or most inventive Utterance in The Necromancer and the Reaping Spear. I still like it a great deal, but I may replace it come revisions. Now that I’ve vivisected it for you, though, we can wrap this article up. Here are my full guidelines:

  1. Because it exists outside the story’s main structure, the Utterance works best for bringing in or hinting at outside elements as well as highlighting themes. If it reinforces existing story elements, it should expand on them rather than just repeat them.
  2. The Utterance must serve some specific purpose for its place in the story: it may set the mood or establish the chapter’s theme like a thesis statement. However, it should not seek to do work that ought to be done in the chapter’s core prose, such as developing characters or foreshadowing major plot points.
  3. Utterances are asynchronous; they don’t have to follow the same timeline as the story. Therefore, they work nicely to reflect on past characters or events. When doing so, they should still add new significance rather than simply repeating to the readers what they already knew.
  4. Utterances should only be provided by active main characters in very specific circumstances. Otherwise, they’ll likely do everything from spoil upcoming events to steal moments from those characters which would work better in their proper context.
  5. Utterances should never be used to create narrative tension or emotional energy for the core plot–for example, a quote from a main character about how something is going to go wrong in the upcoming battle. This should be established via context clues and plot elements during or just before the battle. I mean… it’s a battle. If your readers aren’t worried about main characters being hurt or killed, then you need to revise it. Also, “Someone will die in this battle” is just a sad excuse for a statement, no matter the placement.
  6. Flowing directly from #5, Utterances must never be used to substitute for true in-line depictions of major events or character interactions. A quotation at the start of the chapter after the battle isn’t remotely as good as taking a page or more for the characters to sit down, scrub the blood from their hair, and exchange war-weary glances.
  7.  The Utterance’s information should be as close as practical to self-contained, yet offer readers new opportunities if they think about it in the context of the main plot–that is, the Utterance’s own meaning should be clear, but its relevance to the main story obscured. Those who don’t engage with the Utterances won’t feel that they’re missing something, and those who do will get to feel clever. Everyone wins.

It’s easy to misuse Utterances, but with practice you’ll find they offer many possibilities. A good quote or excerpt contains material that would be difficult or impossible to write into the core narrative without breaking its flow. For example, another of my Utterances for The Necromancer and the Reaping Spear is an excerpt from the in-universe playwright Droven’s Anselm of the Ancient Hymn.

It’s my favorite of the book so far, and therefore I obviously won’t share it with you here because I want you to buy it when it comes out. Utterances like this help create the illusion that your story’s world exists outside your main characters, and that’s essential to selling its stakes. At its peak, a Gnomic Utterance delivers a microcosm of a story beat, a character, or the world itself. Seek to achieve the same effect as speaking to a long-time friend and only just now finding out that you both prefer the original versions of many of the tracks in Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. 

Of course, that example is unique to me and reflects on my personality, not yours, but you understand my meaning.

I do believe that should do it! As the Ansethi philosopher Rushiti Samar once said, “They who insist on saying everything there is to say should not be surprised when no one feels like saying anything to them.”

(As always, if you enjoyed my writing, please leave a like, share this post with anyone who may enjoy it, and do follow me on Twitter–everything helps!)

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