That Was Awesome! Writers on Writing

Dialogue You’d Sell Your Firstborn For: Terry Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies

I’ve been a devoted fan of Terry Pratchett ever since I first read his work. Which would be, let me see… the first one I read was The Light Fantastic, shortly after it came out in paperback, after reading a review of it in Dave Langford’s book review column in White Dwarf magazine. (Yes, I know this dates me.) At first I was just buying the books in paperback after borrowing them from the library in hardback, but later on it got to the stage when I was buying them in hardback the moment they came out.

I’m mentioning this to explain why I had a copy of Lords and Ladies in my hands as soon as I possibly could. In the first blissful joy of reading, I galloped through the book, laughing at jokes, wincing at implications, and making myself a nuisance to everyone around me as I tried to quote the good bits (i.e., most of the book) to them. It was glorious.

I would at this point say spoiler alert, but it’s very difficult to babble about how awesome a book is without telling the reader anything about the book. So let us assume that you have accepted there will be spoilers, and go on from there.

The book involves the Lancre witches (Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlick) and elves. Elves are… well, it’s one of the main points of the book that elves are not nice. These are not your Tolkien elves. They’re from the other side of myths and legends and fairy tales, the stories that make people hide inside their houses and not go out at night.

The elves have been portrayed throughout the book as a major threat, and the witches have been reacting to it, defending rather than attacking. Each victory has been stop-gap, achieved against a clearly superior enemy. The witches are afraid. They remember the past, and how dangerous the elves are, and they know that they can’t afford for the elves to re-enter Lancre.

Returning to when I was reading the book: The climax of the story approached. Granny Weatherwax was a captive, Magrat appeared outnumbered and outmatched and generally out of luck, and I was deep in the delightful state of wondering exactly how the author is going to resolve the situation.

(How can you recognise this stage in a reader? Well, if you try to take the book off her and she threatens to kill you, bury you, and sow the ground with salt, then she’s probably quite deeply involved in the plot… There really ought to be a set of alerts for the situation, ranging from “reader is capable of putting the book down and making intelligent conversation” through “reader can respond to emergencies but will keep her place in the book” to “reader does not care that a meteor is about to hit the ground where she’s standing, she just wants to know what happens next.”)

The Queen was gloating, and seemed justifiably certain of her victory. The humans were helpless. The old night was about to return.

And then Granny Weatherwax sat down and started cutting the Queen to metaphorical pieces. With words, and with actions, and with power, but particularly with words:

“… Whereas you, of course, do not age,” she added.

“Indeed, we do not.”

“But I suspect you may be capable of being reduced.”

The Queen’s smile didn’t vanish, but it did freeze, as smiles do when the owner is not certain about what has just been said and isn’t sure what to say next.

If that were a movie, or even a television series, it would be at that point that the music changes. Up to then we’d have had whatever musical theme was associated with the elves, possibly growing in volume and complexity as the Queen and her followers displayed their dominance. And then comes that moment when suddenly the music stops. A new factor has entered the situation. Something has just changed.

The dialogue continues through several pages. Granny Weatherwax calmly, precisely, and with every word chosen and honed, explains why the Queen is wrong, why the Queen is not wanted here in Lancre, and why humans do not need elves. It’s a response to the growing darkness and terror that has been fermenting throughout the book, the elvish portrayal of themselves as something more beautiful than humans, more special, better than humans. The whole section culminates in a speech which was so beautiful that I actually stopped and went back to read it again several times, rather than continue with the story, despite desperately wanting to know what happens next.

“Go back,” said Granny. “You call yourself some kind of goddess and you know nothing, madam, nothing. What don’t die can’t live. What don’t live can’t change. What don’t change can’t learn. The smallest creature that dies in the grass knows more than you. You’re right. I’m older. You’ve lived longer than me but I’m older than you. And better’n you. And, madam, that ain’t hard.”

That’s the sort of speech which you read to yourself inside your head just so you can enjoy the cadence of it. “… you know nothing, madam, nothing.” And the final touch. “… I’m older than you. And better’n you. And, madam, that ain’t hard.”

I would seriously consider selling a firstborn child (if not mine, then at least someone’s firstborn child) to be able to write dialogue that cutting, that precise, and that perfect.

The scene continues from there: and for the sake of people who haven’t read it yet, I won’t go into exactly what happens, or who saves the day, or how it is saved. But Pratchett doesn’t let up on the tension. He keeps it screwed to a high pitch. Anyone trying to take this book off a reader during this section is likely to be murdered and buried in a shallow grave. (Though the burial wouldn’t take place till after the reader had finished the scene and found out how it concludes.)

Lords and Ladies is still one of my favourite Pratchett books. I reread it regularly. And indeed, when I was writing this piece, I could have just gone to the relevant section, but I ended up reading the whole book again…

Genevieve Cogman The Invisible LibraryGenevieve Cogman is a freelance author who has written for several role-playing game companies. She currently works for the NHS in England as a clinical classifications specialist. She is the author of the Invisible Library series, including The Burning Page, The Masked City, and The Invisible Library (out June 14th from Roc). Find out more about Genevieve online at her website.

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