Words to Live By: Best Writing Advice from J.R.R. Tolkien, Philip K. Dick, and Franz Kafka
Here are some more of my favorite quotes on writing* to follow up on the previous words of wisdom from Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, and Alan Watts. Feel free to pin these above your desk, paste them on your laptop, or tattoo them on your arm.
1. J.R.R. Tolkien on Fiction as a Form of Magic
“Enchantment produces a Secondary World into which both designer and spectator can enter, to the satisfaction of their senses while they are inside; but in its purity it is artistic in desire and purpose…To the elvish craft, Enchantment, Fantasy aspires, and when it is successful of all forms of human art most nearly approaches.”—J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories
I like this quote because it reminds you that writing itself can be seen as a form of magic: if you can transport a reader to another world and make it seem as though fiction were reality, you’re not just a good writer, you’re a goddamn conjurer.
From a craft perspective, there’s a lot to unpack in this quote: “satisfying the senses” touches on the importance of things like concrete detail (using descriptions that draw upon one or more senses) and verisimilitude (the idea that something may not be true, but has the qualities of something true). Thirty years after Tolkien wrote On Fairy Stories, John Gardner published On Becoming a Novelist, which described the goal of fiction as creating “a vivid and continuous dream.” Even though they use different words, Gardner and Tolkien were talking about the same thing.
Another key idea writers often reference is the concept of “unity of effect” (which is usually attributed to Edgar Allen Poe). The idea is that everything in a story should be working together to create the effect the author is trying to impart on the reader, such as a sense of melancholy. Tolkien’s quote touches on that, too: the description of the secondary world as being “artistic in desire and purpose” evokes the idea that the fantasy world isn’t just a believable backdrop for the events of the story, it’s a manifestation of the story’s themes and key ideas, and works with the plot and characters to fulfill the author’s purpose.
2. Franz Kafka on the Truth
“The truth is always an abyss. One must—as in a swimming pool—dare to dive from the quivering springboard of trivial everyday experience and sink into the depths, in order to later rise again—laughing and fighting for breath—to the now doubly illuminated surface of things.” –Franz Kafka
I searched for a long time to find a quote that summed up the experience of reading a great story or watching a good film, and this is it. The stories I like the best are the ones that terrify me and leave me in awe, the ones that genuinely hurt or cause little bubbles of joy in my heart. They remind me that the range of experiences in life is dizzying, almost an abyss. Exploring those depths is exhilarating, and doing so changes the way you look at your everyday life. They also remind me what a gift it is to be alive, even if it means feeling heartbroken or scared.
If you want an excellent example of this, read the essay I wrote about Doki Doki Literature Club, the infamous dating-sim-turned-existential-nightmare by Team Salvato. Thinking about the game makes me genuinely exuberant and excited, even though the experience of playing through it was depressing and even disturbing.
I think it’s easy to get caught up in the mundanity of life and forget that there’s so much more to it than the errands we have to run, the 9-to-5 we have to work, and the bills we have to pay. There’s drama, and love, and things to die for. Even though most of life may seem trivial and passing, stories remind us that there are things that burn bright and never grow stale with time. Still, it’s easy to forget. As a writer, I want to stoke those coals and burn those feelings into a reader’s heart.
3. Philip K. Dick on How to Destroy People (and Characters)
“There exists, for everyone, a sentence—a series of words—that has the power to destroy you. Another sentence exists, another series of words, that could heal you. If you’re lucky you will get the second, but you can be certain of getting the first.”—Philip K. Dick, Valis
There’s an old adage that the best stories have conflicts that zero in on the protagonist’s weakest point, then hammer that point until the character breaks. It’s a guaranteed way to create tension and stakes that matter to the reader, but it’s also an excellent test for characterization. To find that weak point, you have to understand what makes a character who they are: what do they hold most dear? What line do they refuse to cross? What’s the one thing they refuse to face? What would break them?
A good, straightforward example of this is Batman in The Dark Knight. Batman has one rule: he doesn’t kill. Batman chooses this rule to separate himself and his vigilantism from the people who killed his parents, so this rule makes up a large part of his identity. Accordingly, it’s this rule that the Joker zeroes in on and exploits over and over, until he finally forces Batman to choose between saving the woman he loves and the person who embodies his ideals. In fact, you could argue that it breaks him a lot more effectively than Bane snapping his spine.
But those are still actions, rather than words. To really get at the heart of PKD’s quote, you have to realize that it doesn’t take an elaborate plan involving timed explosives and hostages to destroy someone’s whole world—sometimes just articulating the one, deep-seated fear a character has had all along is enough. An example of this is in Game of Thrones, when Cersei Lannister tells her father Tywin (who is obsessed with preserving the Lannister family legacy) the truth about herself and Jaime: they’re lovers, meaning all of Cersei’s children are the products of incest, making all of them illegitimate heirs to the throne. In this case, the exact string of words is “Your legacy is a lie.” Though Tywin probably suspected it deep in his heart, knowing the truth prevents him from pretending any longer.
*For the sake of keeping this article series PG-13, I’ve decided not to include any quotes from the Wu-Tang Clan’s multi-volume work of literary criticism, “Writin’ ‘n Shit” (1998, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).