What Makes Fantasy Work, The Continuation Continued


One of the elements that good fantasy needs happens to be part of world building, and it’s one of the genre’s tropes. Fantasy needs magic. I’m using the term loosely. A good number of Christian fantasies don’t have traditional magic. But they do have something mysterious or “other.”

In George Bryan Polivka’s Trophy Chase Trilogy, for example, the only “magical” element was the firefish, and that was enough. It was both mysterious and other—not of this world.

I personally like more magic, not less. I wanted Gandolf to overcome the Balrog and the Hobbits to escape the Black Riders. I wanted the Ents to stir up the trees and the Elves to shield the Hobbits from the Orcs. I wanted the White Tree to provide Gondor with protection and Boromir’s horn to bring the help he needed. I wanted to warn Pippin not to look into the palantir.

The more magic, the more intrigue. Anything can happen, and the reader is left equally to wonder and to worry because the best stories give magic to both sides.

Intrigue leads to the next point. Fantasy that works also has a plot that works. Rule one for a good plot is, Create conflict.

Like other fiction, fantasy is best when the character faces an external conflict and an internal conflict. Ideally the two battles will coalesce at the climax. That’s what J. R. R. Tolkien did so well in The Return of the King. Frodo wasn’t only fighting against Orcs and Sauron and Shelob. He was also fighting against becoming another Gollum.

Shockingly, the latter is the fight he lost. Which brings up another element that makes fantasy work—surprise. I think one of the reasons so much epic fantasy gets criticized is because of a lack of surprise. Readers and reviewers will say a story is “derivative” (the kiss of death to a fantasy) though you never hear that accusation made of romance or even of mystery. I have to believe that what the “derivative” accusers are actually saying is that the story tipped its hand and didn’t hold any surprise.

One of the things that kept me reading furiously through the last three Harry Potter books was the unpredictability. Was Snape good or evil? Would Harry be able to leave the Dursleys and go to live with Sirius Black? Would he win the Triwizard Tournament? Who was trying to kill him during the competiton? Why was he seeing such vivid visions of Voldemort? How would Harry find the horcruxes? And on and on.

Questions create intrigue, twists create surprise, and delay creates suspense. All of these elements, along with conflict, make a fantasy plot work.

There’s still more, I think, so I’ll tackle those last elements another time.

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Refreshing Fiction Continued


As most writers know, there are no “new” plots. That doesn’t mean there are no new stories, however. An oft-done plot can still be made into a fresh and entertaining story.

Take romance for example. Everyone knows that the traditional plot form of a romance is boy meets girl and they fall in love, but Things happen to keep them apart. In the end, however, they conquer or their love conquers and they get together.

No real surprise in a romance. Then how does a writer make a romance seem fresh? The easy way is to create seemingly insurmountable barriers—cultural or religious mores that keep the couple apart, personality quirks, misunderstandings, irreconcilable differences (until they are reconciled – 😉 ).

Perhaps one character is a faery and the other a human, in a wheelchair. Those are obstacles! Who would even see the romance coming? Which is precisely why R. J. Anderson surprised and delighted readers with Faery Rebel: Spell Hunter.

But what if the couple is already married—a union of convenience or position—and they barely tolerate each other? What if, in fact, the wife holds her husband in contempt because she admires a mysterious someone else who does gallant, selfless deeds to help others?

That set-up describes The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy, one of my favorite novels. I suspect one reason I love it so much is because of the surprise I experienced the first time I read it.

But now those two have been done, so how can a romance writer find a new something? Sometimes the newness isn’t in the plot but in the characters. An interesting character, quirky, engaged to someone else, perhaps single longer than most, with a family who values family and marriage above all else.

Add in humor (which comes from the quirky characters) and you have the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a surprising smash hit.

Or how about a widower not looking to remarry, with a little boy who longs for a mother, so much so that he makes a call to an all-night talk show and pours out his heart. Interested women start to write. MANY interested women. Now we have distance, reticence, an engagement, the many others, all standing in the way of true love. And that’s Sleepless in Seattle.

Another tack is to merge elements of “already been done” stories. Take Beauty and the Beast, for example, and merge that with Sleeping Beauty and you have Shrek. Of course, the brilliant writers who created all three Shrek movies did much more than staple two threads together, but the point for this discussion is that they worked from familiar storylines. By starting with two that seemed unlikely to fit together, they made a movie (three actually) that seemed familiar yet wholly new.

Fresh stories can also come from different settings. What would a romance set in Louisiana as the state battled the worst oil spill in history look like?

What would a romance between a 9/11 widow and a firefighter ten years after the Twin Towers attack look like?

New places, odd places, uncomfortable places can be fuel for fresh fiction just as much as plot twists or off-beat characters. The important thing, I think, is to imagine beyond the list of “first responders”—the ideas that present themselves when we writers first start contemplating a story.

Published in: on June 3, 2010 at 11:02 am  Comments Off on Refreshing Fiction Continued  
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What I Learn about Writing from Avatar


Those of you sick of this subject, feel free to click on over to a more interesting blog. I won’t feel offended (or even know!) 😆 I do have a tendency to camp on a subject (see ten-plus posts on The Shack, for example), but just so you know, I really tried to spark thoughts on a new topic. I visited other blogs, thought about the book I just finished, about what I read in my quiet time, and current events. Sorry, nothing there to share with you all.

So I’m back at Avatar one more time. I’ve thought about how this movie really seems to have three or four level. I identify the story level, the theme level, and the creative presentation level.

  • The story level includes the plot and character development (though some people might divide these two, which I would not disagree with).
  • The theme level includes the religious views and the sociopolitical ideology.
  • The creative presentation refers to the visual effect.
  • Most people agree that Avatar came up short on the story level. Sure, it had a sweet romance, but nothing was a surprise. From the moment Neytiri rescued Jake, it was apparent they would fall in love and that he would ultimately join the Na’vi.

    In addition, the characterization was weak. In a three hour movie, we learned very little about any other member of the Na’vi. And the earthlings were pigeon-holed neatly in their roles—the gun-happy military guy, the greedy and stupid capitalist, the tough on the outside but tender on the inside woman scientist, the geeky co-worker.

    I question whether anyone would come if Avatar, as written, were presented in the theater. I suspect the scathing reviews of the story would have the play shut down after the first week.

    The second level has to do with the message. Here Avatar either succeeded hugely or failed miserably, depending on whether or not you agreed with what James Cameron said. Some people camp on the environmental message or the anti-technology message, depending how you look at things. Some viewers wept because of the portrayal of the military while others wept for the loss of the Na’vi’s tree home.

    Another group of us either laud the movie or criticize it because of the religious views it espouses.

    On this thematic level, Avatar is steeped in controversy—never a bad thing for sales. But does it make for a quality movie?

    The last element is the creative presentation. This movie was a visual experience. I felt transported. I lived on Pandora for those three hours. I found myself frustrated with the sections of the movie that showed Jake on the military/commercial/scientific base and away from the real world of Pandora.

    Those latter sections made me feel as if I was running across the rim of the world after having been in a wheelchair for years, as if I had learned to ride a flying creature past the floating mountains. It was beautiful, stunning, exhilarating. It was an experience.

    Which brings me to what I as a writer learned about this movie. Reading should be an experience. Through story, characters, setting, the writer should transport the reader somewhere else.

    But not having the benefit of 3D or first-time technology, writers can’t afford to have flat characters or a warmed-over plot (and certainly never both in one story!) Nor can we afford to be heavy handed with our themes.

    Still, the goal for the novelist is the same—take the readers somewhere. Into the lives of your characters, into the world you’ve created, into the high-stakes issues you care about. Let them experience—beyond the adrenalin rush, beyond the tear-jerk moment. Transport them Elsewhere and keep them there to the last page.

    In the end, I have to believe such a book is more powerful, influential, timeless than Avatar can ever be.

    Now if I just knew how to write like that …

    Published in: on January 20, 2010 at 8:00 am  Comments (2)  
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    Avoiding the Predictable


    From the brief amount of study I’ve done regarding the topic of derivative fiction, I’ve come to believe that the real error a writer should avoid in any genre is predictability.

    A dragon is not just a big snake, and a magic sword is not merely a very sharp piece of steel; at least, not unless an author fails to make anything more out of them. The stock elements of fantasy are only as dull as we allow them to be.
    – “Quality in Epic Fantasy” by Alec Austin at Strange Horizons

    I love that quote. It challenges me as a writer to go beyond the expected, to avoid the cliches, not only in language but in character and in plot.

    When I was growing up and westerns were common, the classic character cliche was the bad guy wearing the black hat and the good guy wearing the white. The bad guy also often needed a shave, slouched, was cruel to women and children and animals, and spat a lot.

    As far as predictable plots were concerned, common ones included the restless cowboy being “tamed” by the beautiful maiden in distress; the cavalry arriving in the nick of time to save the surrounded wagon train/settlement; against all odds and without the support of the fearful citizens, the skilled/cunning/brave lawman cleans up the crime-infested town.

    I believe these character cliches and predictable plots nearly killed westerns. But along came Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and suddenly, no one cared that westerns weren’t done any more. We could debate what making outlaws into the protagonists said to or about our culture, but we can’t deny how much more interesting the story was than it would have been if the Pinkerton man was the hero.

    I suspect much of the complaint against Christian fiction is actually a complaint about its predictability. After all, if a character is a Christian, there are Scriptural parameters that dictate how that person will behave. And if a character isn’t a Christian, there will be a set of beliefs or anti-beliefs that define that individual. Where are the surprises?

    And how is a Christian to grow? Not by drifting from God. How is a non-Christian to grow? Not by remaining unrepentant. So the story seems laid out as soon as the players tip their hands regarding their worldview.

    Must it be so? One solution some authors apparently have come upon is to ignore Christianity, at least when it comes to playing a significant part in the plot or character development. These are the books I’d like to see renamed as clean fiction.

    But back to the subject of predictability. It seems to me, if a magic sword is only as dull as we allow it, then a Christian or a conversion is only as dull as we allow it.

    The Art of Storytelling, Part 6


    Style, as I see it, is an underrated component of artful storytelling, and I hope to learn much, much more about it, but the key element, of course, is the story. Once upon a time, I equated story with plot, but I now understand that character is just as central, though some argue it owns the prominent place.

    Some might think there is little left to say about plot and/or characters. I might have thought this myself, except I read another article in that recent Writer’s Digest magazine that opened my eyes to More. I’m referring to “Your Novel Blueprint,” an excerpt of the book From First Draft to Finished Novel by Karen Wiesner.

    The thing that grabbed my attention the most was the interplay between plot and characters that Wiesner clarifies. Here’s one example from the section entitled “Evolving Goals and Motivation”:

    Goals are what the character wants, needs or desires above all else. Motivation is what gives him drive and purpose to achieve those goals. Goals must be urgent enough for the character to go through hardship and self-sacrifice.

    Multiple goals collide and impact the characters, forcing tough choices. Focused on the goal, the character is pushed toward it by believable, emotional and compelling motivations that won’t let him quit. Because he cares deeply about the outcome, his anxiety is doubled. The intensity of his anxiety pressures him to make choices and changes, thereby creating worry and awe in the reader.

    I love this section, but the next is just as good – “Plot Conflicts (External)”:

    External plot conflict is the tangible central or outer problem standing squarely in the character’s way. It must be faced and solved. The character wants to restore the stability that was taken from him by the external conflict, and this produces his desire to act. However a character’s internal conflicts will create an agonizing tug of war with the plot conflicts. He has to make tough choices that come down to whether or not he should face, act on, and solve the problem.

    That’s probably enough to show how Wiesner interweaves plot and character, but it brings up one of the components of story I think is necessary—well, two actually. The first is that the character must have a want, need, or desire. More than one actually, and these can not be secret. The reader must understand from the outset what it is the character is after.

    The second is that the story is really all about the character working to achieve the goals, even as the goals change by growing “in depth, intensity, and scope.” Of course, to achieve these goals, the character must overcome the problems standing squarely in the way.

    Of late I’ve read a number of novels that don’t demand my attention until a third to a half way through. I’ve come to realize that I don’t have a compelling reason to keep reading because I don’t see the character taking action to achieve some deeply felt goal. I don’t have a rooting interest in continuing to read.

    So now I have a new goal for my own writing, a deeply felt one, I might add. 😉

    Published in: on January 14, 2009 at 1:00 pm  Comments (4)  
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    Books That Last – The Nancy Drew Model


    Not every book is intended to last. Some writers are perfectly fine writing fast and hard for a market that craves another one just like the other one. Surprisingly, however, even books that don’t intend to last sometimes do.

    Nancy Drew comes to mind. Good stories. Fast reads. Formulaic plots. Yet, in the face of many an imitator and many a ghost writer, Nancy Drew has lasted. Why?

    I think two factors come into play: tension and a larger-than-life character.

    Nancy Drew was a smart, independent teenage girl long before Title IX came into being. She lived an exciting life that many a young girl dreamed of living. And not much has changed. Today’s liberated women have become enslaved by the things men have been bound by for years. So the take-charge Nancy still resonates.

    Unfortunately, it’s the plots that suffer in these mysteries. No archenemy steps up to be Moriarty to Sherlock Drew. And yet the authors found ways to create tension. Nancy, captured and tied up. How will she escape this time? Will she find the note in the base of the clock? Can she rescue her friends in time and still stop the thief?

    The questions aren’t deep, but there is no doubt what her goal is, so readers hold their breath and cheer her on. The problem is in remembering any of the story the next day, or next week, or next month.

    Too many stories suffer plot problems while also lacking a character that resonates. These are the books that will not last. Some of them may actually be initial commercial successes, but unlike the Chronicles of Narnia, no one will be buying them forty years later.

    The added dimension that long-lasting books have is depth. There’s a point greater than entertainment to the writing, though entertainment is surely a by-product found in abundance.

    And what creates depth? Ideas. Ones that make readers turn the story over and over in their mind for days after they reach the last page.

    Back to the beginning. Some writers aren’t aiming to create the Great American Novel. They want to entertain, much as I’m sure the Carolyn Keen ghost writers did. But what would these writers think if they knew young girls today still read their work? Would they be pleased, wishing only that their relatives were pocketing a royalty check? Or would they cringe in horror, wishing they had included depth in their stories?

    Probably some of both.

    Published in: on September 17, 2008 at 6:22 pm  Comments (8)  
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    Writing – What’s after the First Five Pages, Part 2


    So what keeps the reader reading beyond those early pages?

    I mentioned engaging characters—ones that are interesting, well-drawn—but the truth is, good characters aren’t enough by themselves. These well-drawn characters must also do something interesting and believable.

    In my adventures through Christian fiction (what I’ve mostly read since becoming a full time writer hoping to publish with a Christian publishing house), I’ve found stories with truly wonderful characters. They are fun—even funny—and realistic, with age spots and crows feet as well as knight-in-shining-armor charisma and undeniable moral fiber.

    And yet, at times, something has been missing, something so integral that I can easily close the book and not finish reading because I just don’t care.

    Yikes! 😮 What would cause such a thing?

    In a nutshell, objectives. Actually, the lack thereof. In order for me to root for a character, which means I’ve arrived at the caring level, I have to see the character striving to accomplish something. The story can’t stall on bad things happening to a good character, over and over again. Instead, the character must take on a central problem and work to win out.

    Somehow, a character striving, especially against great odds, resonates. It is in the effort to overcome that a character’s mettle shines.

    That being said, I believe there is still more. In order for a reader to truly care, there needs to be the legitimate possibility of failure. Frodo was such a hero, such a tragic hero, in part because his ability to pull off a victory was in doubt until the last sentence of the climax. For much of the last book of The Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s spirit was willing, but his flesh was weak. Then his spirit gave out.

    Along the way, he’d experienced a good number of successes, so how did Tolkien make readers feel as if Frodo might not make it in the end? I think the main way was by not protecting his characters from hurt. The four hobbits were captured, Frodo was wounded, Gandolf was killed, Peregrin (or was it Merry) looked into the crystal and fell gravely ill. King Theoden came under Worm Tongue’s spell, Boromir succumbed to his desire for the ring and died. At every turn, the end seemed in doubt and victories weren’t had without paying a price.

    In summary, readers need to know what the character is trying to achieve so they can root for him. And winning can’t come easily or quickly. There needs to be the credible possibility that winning won’t be the kind of winning the reader was hoping for. With an engaging character trying to achieve the near impossible in the face of the real potential for failure, readers are bound to be scrambling for the book during every free moment.

    Published in: on September 16, 2008 at 4:49 pm  Comments (2)  
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    Piquing Curiosity


    Yesterday I mentioned some things that cause confusion—conflicting facts, improper motivation, a lack of adequate details to ground a scene, and a lack of foreshadowing. In trying to avoid confusion, however, I’m opening myself up to another novel killer—a boring story.

    Well, maybe not a boring story but a story told in a boring way. I suggest a story can turn boring for several reasons.

    First, the characters are flat (synonymous with cardboard, two-dimensional, stereotypical). A character who is not well-rounded is predictable, lifeless, a mere placeholder. There is no surprise, no wonder, no passion in such an individual.

    The point here is to avoid oversimplifying characters in order to avoid confusion. Instead, a character, like a real life individual, should unfold in increments. Readers are not going to expect a detailed character sketch when the protagonist first shows up on the page. Rather, there will be a process of getting to know him through his actions, words, and thoughts. In fact, that process should continue all book long. Part of what will keep readers engaged is this getting to know the characters on an ever deeper level.

    A second thing that makes the telling of a story boring, in my opinion, is a predictable plot. Again, it would be easy to fall into this writing pattern in an effort to avoid confusion. Even a “standard” premise, such as a romance, where the reader knows going in that boy and girl will meet and marry (or fall in love—I just liked the alliteration of meet and marry 😉 ), the story can be interesting, even exciting, because the how unfolds in an unexpected way.

    The real plot question I think an author should prompt in his reader’s mind is, How will the protagonist overcome? And the secondary question might be, Or will he? Overcoming, I think, is at the heart of plot. Yes, the character must want something and must want it desperately. This something must matter. But it is in the overcoming of the obstacles that stand in the way of the character obtaining his desire that has readers sliding to the edge of their seats and turning pages as fast as they can.

    But if the obstacles are ho-hum, nothing new, seen that one coming a mile away, or if they make the character look foolish because he didn’t see them coming a mile away when the reader did, the plot will fail to pique curiosity. Who is curious about what he is sure will happen?

    A third area that can spark curiosity in the reader is the story world. What’s it like in this place, whether it’s the world of a research scientist working in a name university, a missionary starting an orphanage in Indonesia, an astronaut landing on Mars, or a hobbit traveling in Middle Earth. Again, readers won’t want to know all about this place up front. Just as the author must introduce the characters gradually, so must the story world unfold gradually.

    Steve Almond gave a good way to determine what needs to be revealed when. I quoted it yesterday, but I think it bears repeating:

    [Readers] don’t need to know everything, just those facts that’ll elucidate the emotional significance of a particular scene.

    Makes sense to me. 😀

    Published in: on June 18, 2008 at 10:03 am  Comments (2)  
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