What's the Secret Sauce in Gaiman's Neverwhere, D&D's Planescape
March 17, 2021 5:51 AM   Subscribe

What is the secret sauce in Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, Dungeons & Dragon's Planescape, and other similar stories? These stories all feature worlds filled with portals and doorways that lead hither and yon. These doors are often opened by specific keys or methods. These stories and fantasy worlds also contain an in-world culture that is unusually detailed or intricate by most fantasy standards.

These stories have a consistent popularity. I'm trying to tease out what the ingredients are creating this kind of love and appreciation.

I'm specifically interested in concrete elements, aspects, or ideas that I can adapt or incorporate as a writer.
posted by jibberish to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
For my money*, what makes Gaiman stories engaging isn’t the intricacy of the portal or worldbuilding, it’s the close identification with a main character who’s unfamiliar with the rules of the magical world and how the rules all work. As readers, we spend a little time with that character—Richard in Neverwhere, Charlie in Anansi Boys, unnamed narrator in Ocean at the End of the Lane, to some extent Shadow in American Gods, etc.—before they have to start figuring out the puzzles and portals, and so we’re sympathetic to their surprise and then their quest as they learn the world is bigger and stranger than they knew beforehand.

Gaiman didn’t invent this, obviously, but it’s a setup & common trope he understands and executes very well.

For the worldbuilding itself, he leans heavily on magic-as-a-binding-contract stuff from fairy tales & mythology. Less about whimsy and more about rules. But Gaiman’s greater skill, for me, is how he sets up the encounters with magic in the first place. (See also Miéville’s King Rat, Novik’s Spinning Silver, and Cat Valente’s Fairyland books for other good practitioners of both parts: contractual magic and the protagonist who’s tossed in and must learn the rules to save themselves / get home / etc. Fairyland has lots of whimsy too, but there are unbreakable rules undergirding it all.)

*Might be fairy gold.
posted by miles per flower at 6:34 AM on March 17, 2021 [10 favorites]

I love Neverwhere, I love the plural worlds existing simultaneously, and particularly the "above vs below" flavor of it. Also, so much yes to unusually detailed and intricate (layered, reflexive) worldbuilding. This is why I can read The Hitchhiker's Guide books by Douglas Adams over and over.

I think that character development (in particular, capturing the real weirdness of people and their inner narratives) is key. I think most people who read Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars by Daniel Pinkwater end up fully invested in the characters and the worlds inside the story.

Lastly, I believe it really matters if the multiple worlds concept is meaningful and inspired by the multiple worlds we all have to navigate IRL every day and references the idea that moving through doors is complicated and can be impossible because injustice and often comes with a cost (As in, you need a key to open a door to get into another world? Sounds a lot like code-switching).
posted by RobinofFrocksley at 6:37 AM on March 17, 2021 [6 favorites]

For me, a big part of the appeal of those places isn't just that there are portals or doorways, it's that there's always more to see and the portals are an easy symbol of that. These are settings with tremendous explicit and implicit complexity, huge histories that we only ever get to glimpse, and a constant sense that there's always another epic story behind every random comment and scrap of detritus.

"There are infinite adventures you can go on in this place. This is the story of one of them. What would yours be? What others might you hear about?"
posted by Tomorrowful at 7:15 AM on March 17, 2021 [3 favorites]

Endorsing all the above comments re: skillful use of glimpses, hints, and references to imply the existence of some far vaster corpus of history/lore/culture... but with Gaiman in particular all these elements are utilized in service of the story's deeper themes regarding loss, regret, etc.
It's a masterful kind of storytelling sleight-of-hand: "Look at all this sparkly narrative! Behold these flashes of wit and wonder! Pay no attention to the grimness at the heart of this tale which lies behind the intricate curtains!" This allows the darker themes to sneak up on the reader and deliver a more effective emotional payload when the punch inevitably lands.
posted by BigLankyBastard at 7:49 AM on March 17, 2021 [2 favorites]

Gaiman also uses things that are really familiar (names, legends, places) in a different way than you are used to, and that forces you to look at everything from a different angle. Like, you know that dark hallway leading to the bathrooms in dive bars and clubs, where you can't tell what color the walls are because the light is so dim? but it might be red? and the style of the floor or the trim on the doors doesn't match the rest of the place, and the pictures on the walls are there but don't really register? I've seen that hallway so many times I started to wonder if they are all the SAME hallway, because i've read Neverwhere.
posted by th3ph17 at 8:58 AM on March 17, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Long ago in a "how to write" book whose author I have now forgotten, there was an exercise which helped me answer this question for myself. It was a simple enough exercise: you begin by writing down a list of all the stories that set fire to your heart and mind. Movies, books, poetry, oral storytelling, comics, songs, whatever. And once you have your list, you sit down with a big blank piece of paper and allow yourself to mind-map (also free-write, no editing yourself or censoring yourself) the words and images and personality traits and story beats, etc., that you are most drawn to in your list.

Because the secret sauce is you. There is no universally appealing set of concrete story things that makes those stories work: you are responding to the writer's soul in the story (and what you respond to is different from what anyone else responds to in the same story). I don't mean this in an iffy or nebulous way but rather a super concrete way. This isn't about the woo. You should identify concrete elements in stories you are drawn to which you are fascinated by.

For example, here's what one particular section of my list of "compelling stories" looks like:
-The Prestige (movie)
-The Weaveling (short story)
-Ishqiya (movie)
-Beloved (novel)
-The God of Small Things (novel)
-Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (novel)
-The Crux of the Matter (fanfic)
-Let Me In (movie)
And here's what I wrote in my mind-map that was inspired by this section:
"(1) Identity: losing/gaining/bartering self
(3) Backstory is the bomb that goes off in climax. Anything but the past is boring and pointless (to me). Also when the past is made real in current story via a tangible piece of it hidden in plain sight all along... I live for this!
(4) Smoke, incense, oil lamps, soot, kerosene.
(5) Dolls buried in dirt.
(6) Parenting - inherent monstrousness & heroism
(7) Magic realism. Never explain magic except when breaking something/someone.
As you can see, this list is very personal. (If I tried to make myself write a magical world with rigorous rules and extensive worldbuilding, I would find it torturous.) And as you can see, this stuff is still very far off from a story outline. But when I sit down to write, I'll incorporate several of these elements into it. Through the writing, I will work out my own psyche's fascination with these elements via the story. That's me imbuing the story with my own personal weirdness, my soul.

If I had to guess what Neil Gaiman's enduring artistic obsessions and compulsions would look like, it might be something like:
(1) Nighttime. Big open spaces enclosed by the dark. Grimy old buildings after hours. Night skies. Black oceans.
(2) Boys and young men whose loved ones die, who want to chase after the dead ones, this is what makes them run out the door into adventure.
(3) Doors (portals?) always open into death, the afterlife, the beyond.
(4) FOOD!!! Love = food. Hope = food. Goodness = food.
(5) Games, riddles, puzzles, poetry, chanting, songs - always as a distraction, something that keeps the inevitable at bay for a while longer.
(6) Shiny stuff. A spot of color in a grey world. Objects that glint. Something that stands out because it doesn't belong.
(7) Gambling and gamblers, luck and the lucky, characters who control chance and fate (and of course death).

I could go on but you get the point. The above is a partial list of the pieces of Neil Gaiman's soul that I've recognized from his work. I doubt he actually made a list to work from, and you don't really *need* to either, except that you're asking this question so making this list would probably be a good exercise for you. When we write, it just happens automatically and unavoidably that we choose elements that we are entranced by, whether or not we have a list we are working off of.
posted by MiraK at 8:58 AM on March 17, 2021 [6 favorites]

I think the same is true of Sir Terry's Discworld. Yeah, sure, wizards and witches, elves and dwarves, yadda yadda.

But at the end of the day, you are left with CMOT Dibbler and his dubious sausages (onna bun!). Captain Carrot, a six-foot dwarf (adopted). Or Granny Weatherwax or Tiffany Aching or Ponder Stibbons or Lord Vetinari (or Om help you, Moist Von Lipvig). DEATH, of course, said it best, "A MAN IS NOT DEAD WHILE HIS NAME IS STILL SPOKEN."

THAT I AM QUOTING, ahem, Death, speaks to my point: we regale in the characters and how they interact with the world. Bilbo Baggins is memorable because he ran out of his comfortable home without even a pocket handkerchief. Bilbo doesn't set out to change the world, oh my no. But the world surely changes him. And if, somehow, Bilbo found an old wardrobe that led to Narnia, he'd be all, "well, here's this then."

Discworld, Middle Earth, Narnia, Hogswarts are just places. Vimes, Samwise, Lucy and Hermione are why we visit, again and again.
posted by SPrintF at 10:57 AM on March 17, 2021

It sounds like what you especially enjoy is portal fantasy, and its innate ability to show different facets of the characters by dropping them in a dramatically different setting and seeing how that forges them into a different person. I think you'd enjoy Seanan McGuire's series that starts with Every Heart A Doorway - the key concept is a school / shelter for ex-heroes of portal fantasies who were changed by their adventures and still keep looking for their Doors (though every other book is expressly a portal fantasy telling character backstories) and via those characters she dissects elements of fairytales and portal fantasies in a way that's a fascinating look at how the bones of these kind of stories work.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 1:38 PM on March 17, 2021 [3 favorites]

Gaiman is especially good at not just portals between worlds, but complex and subtle layering of worlds - Sandman especially is a layering of the worlds of myth, of gods, of magic, of legend, of the self-identity of nations, of the mundane, of the emotional inner worlds we all have, and he allows those worlds to refract and intermingle and illuminate each other from a hundred angles. Which all makes sense from the point of view that none of those worlds are, to him, separate things, but are all aspects of how we shape and measure our lives by telling ourselves a story about it, and how those stories interact with those of others, with their personal stories and with cultural and historical narratives - that in a sense we are our stories. This, to me at least seems to be the thread tying all of his work together.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 6:07 PM on March 17, 2021 [1 favorite]

Previously on Metafilter: Portals in Science Fiction & Fantasy

(Also see this previous Ask for more examples of portal stories.)
posted by Syllepsis at 7:02 PM on March 17, 2021

Response by poster: Super, thank you all. There's a lot to think about here, and you're all coming to my meager feast with full baskets and ready recipes. I appreciate your help, and will keep you posted when I finally make the leap into publishing something related to this.
posted by jibberish at 8:46 PM on March 17, 2021

« Older Is it a good idea to ask how my date sees things...   |   Eating disorder specialist recommendations Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.