Secrets of Goblins and Good Writing

Secrets of Goblins and Good Writing

I’ve in the middle of reading, with considerable delight, William Alexander’s debut fantasy novel Goblin Secrets. It just won a National Book Award for Young People’s literature, and it’s a wonderful piece of literary storytelling. I wanted to share one of his chapter starts, as it continues the “trick of particularity” point I made in a recent post about the writing of J.R.R. Tolkien, plus some other good writing techniques.

At the start of the third chapter, the young central character, Rownie, is sent on an errand to a gear-smith’s workplace (to fetch some oil for Graba, the witch) :

Broken gears and stacks of wood filled the alleyway outside Scrud’s workshop. Rownie heard shouting inside. He waited in the alley and rooted through some of the mess of gears until the shouting faded to a low mutter. Then he went in.

The noise did not actually stop. It never did. Mr. Scrud was always shouting to himself.

“Hello, Mr. Scrud!” Rownie called out from the doorway, hoping to be noticed now rather than later. The workshop smelled like sawdust and oil, with a rotten smell underneath. Scrud made very good mousetraps, but he never remembered to clean up the mice afterward.

Planks of wood, bars of copper, and gears stacked in piles and pyramids covered the floor. Dowels stuck out from the plaster of one wall, with ropes, chains, tools, and more gears hanging from them. Clocks hung on the other wall, so many that the wall looked like it was made out of clocks. They all worked, or most of them did – tocking and ticking in rhythms that clashed with each other. It sounded like an argument of clocks.

Scrud bent over his workbench in the middle of the room.

“Jellyweed and impsense!” he shouted at the bench. (. . .) He didn’t notice Rownie. There was a gearworked horse’s head on the workbench, and this did notice Rownie. The automaton’s eyes followed the boy as he picked his way across the floor and tried not to step on anything important.

Rownie took a deep breath. “Hello, Mr. Scrud!” he shouted again. The gearworker scared him, and always had scared him, but Rownie had been here often enough that the fear didn’t matter. He felt it, bright and burning, but it didn’t stop him from standing in the middle of the floor and shouting Scrud’s name.

As Joyce Carol Oates wrote, “Storytelling is shaped by two contrary, yet complementary, impulses – one toward brevity, compactness, artful omission; the other toward expansion, amplification, enrichment.”

In this passage, Alexander spins out a moment: the arrival of the young protagonist at the workshop of a cranky gear-smith. Notice a few tricks of the literary craft. First, the author uses a variety of senses, especially sounds and smells, not just a visual description of the workshop or the smith.

Second, Alexander gives the details from the viewpoint of the child, young Rownie (who is 8 or 10 years old, he’s not sure exactly). We see what Rownie sees, and we feel what he feels.

Third, notice the pacing, with a good amount of repetition (something Ursula K. Le Guin pointed out in her book Steering the Craft is a great tool for beautiful, powerful writing).

Next, the tone of the passage fits the book, which is full of tension and challenges. While this passage reminds me a bit of Zuckerman’s barn as described by E.B. White in Charlotte’s Web, this story of Goblin Secrets is a tougher, scrappier tale.

Finally, the passage is eminently suitable to read out loud – not surprising, as the author is also immersed in the lore of the theater, a professional interest that fueled this particular story in many ways, not the least in the fluid sound of the prose.

While this moment – as Rownie approaches and enters the workshop – pauses to look and smell and listen and allow the character to feel emotions, the book as a whole moves briskly, with an overall economy, unlike the oft-bloated tomes found in the fantasy genre. In Goblin Secrets, Alexander delivers a book with the economy of the theater playwright or the oral storyteller, with dialogue and scene movements and pauses valued, all meant to advance the story, not to describe or explain everything. This is the power of great writing, its ability to share words that fire up the reader’s imagination without overwhelming it.

From the National Book Award citation:

With a sure hand, William Alexander here creates a wholly convincing world of mechanized soldiers, chicken-legged grandmothers, sentient rivers, and goblin actors. In that uncertain landscape, young Rownie learns the mysterious craft of masking to search for both his brother and his own story, unaware that the solution to these searches may be the salvation of his city.

Goblin Secrets is a book that adults will enjoy as much as young readers. And for writers, it’s a worthy read, an enjoyable master class in delightful prose and captivating storytelling.


  1. Thanks for sharing this terrific example of expansiveness. Trained originally as a technical writer, it’s hard for me not to cut, cut, cut the life out of my scenes. Really helpful review, too.

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