Why Writing Fantasy Is A Pain In
I recently finished a
class on "Pacing" by the incomparable
Mary Buckham. Pacing is, basically, the rate
at which you present things to your reader. The
plot is the overall shape of your story, and
pacing is the way you move through the events of
the plot. Assuming your plot is solid -- which
is a skill in its own right -- then your skill
at pacing is probably what will determine
whether your reader finishes your story or not.
If the pace is too slow, the reader gets bored
and puts the book down. If the pace is too fast,
the reader feels that he or she is missing
things -- and gets annoyed, and puts the book
Mary Buckham details a
number of things which can help with your
pacing: opening lines, placement of hooks,
character introductions, transitions, etc. I
won't repeat them here; go sign up for one of
her classes, or at least download the
curriculum. (It'll be money well spent, I
promise.) The element that caught my attention
(and sparked this essay) was the matter of
Essentially, you want
to introduce your characters in ways that make
them immediately interesting. You also want to
make them distinctive. You do not want to bore
your readers with huge blocks of history,
back-story, or other unnecessary detail. As the
author, you should know those things... but you
don't need to work them in until (and unless)
they become important to the story.
This requires some
serious strategic thinking. How much do your
readers need to know about your main character's
background? How soon do they need to know it?
Are you repeating yourself -- have you already
introduced element X? If you have two main
characters -- or a main character and an
important secondary character -- which one do
you introduce first? Do you introduce the second
as he or she meets the first, or do you
introduce them separately and then bring them
together? ...And all of those are just sample
questions. Any given project will produce more
specific problems, depending on what you're
trying to do and how you want to get there.
presents an additional strategic demand: you
have to introduce your world as well. After some
consideration, I'm forced to conclude that this
is a pain in the ass. Of course, a good many
fantasy stories -- or fantasy series -- are
built around an intriguing idea for a world, so
if you're going to work in the genre, you'll
probably have to deal with it.
Take a simple
situation: the hero wishes to contact his
friend, who lives across town. In a "real world"
story, I can simply say: "Jake called Phil, who
said he was free after work on Wednesday." It's
no big deal, because everyone already knows how
it works. Now put that in a historical story:
"Jake penned a letter to Phil, sprinkled sand on
it to dry the ink, then folded and sealed it.
Timothy, his dogsbody, could deliver it in the
morning." A little more complicated, but still
Now move it into a
fantasy world: "Jake seated himself in the
circle, gathering power as he chanted the
ancient words. Eldritch forces stirred around
him, reaching outwards, and after a moment he
had a sense of Phil's presence: Yes? Who is
it?" Quite a ways from just picking up a
phone, isn't it?
Now add a little
complication: Phil, as it happens, hates Jake
and wants to kill him. Jake knows this, but
needs to talk to him anyway. In the real world,
Jake can safely pick up the phone -- or use a
pay phone -- and call Phil. In our historical
setting, sending a servant calls for a bit more
consideration -- does it endanger the dogsbody?
If so, does Jake care? -- but the actions and
the risks are still easy to understand.
In our fantasy world,
though, all bets are off. There's too much the
reader simply doesn't know, and can't take for
granted. Can Phil use Jake's sorcerous link to
attack him? Or locate him? Is it possible for a
third party to listen in on Jake's spell? How
does this connection work? Can Jake use it to
read Phil's mind? All these rules need to be
established, and they need to be introduced to
the readers... and that has to be done in such a
way that you don't bore the reader to death with
pages of raw exposition.
Science fiction and
horror have the same problem, though in varying
degrees. Advanced technologies tend to resemble
existing technologies (only better), so while
they require introduction the explanations are
usually fairly simple. On the other hand, if
your far-future setting includes psionics
(psychic powers)... well, we're back to
explaining the whole world again. In most horror
stories, everything works the same way it does
in the real world... until, of course, it
doesn't. I'm generalizing, of course, as there
are a lot of sub-genres and cross-genre stories;
science fiction, fantasy, and horror all tend to
bleed over into each other.
Anyway, back to
introducing your world. There are tricks for
this. Pick up your favorite fantasy books and
see how those authors handled it. I think you'll
find some interesting possibilities... and some
interesting similarities as well.
The old-fashioned way
(as used by Tolkien, for example) is simply to
digress for as long as you need, and then return
to the story. Unfortunately, today's readers
tend to have less free time, and (more
importantly) less uninterrupted free time, and
modern authors generally don't get away with
that trick so easily. It can be done, I think,
but it had darn well better be an interesting
Having your characters
do the exposition for you is fairly common, but
it can also be somewhat clumsy. "I'll invest a
circle and contact Phil, Jake thought. Without a
circle of his own, Phil wouldn't be able to
strike at him. Of course, he'd have to talk fast
- Phil would break contact as soon as he knew it
was Jake... and that was assuming he didn't ward
against the attempted contact."
You can do something
similar with dialogue:
"How do you plan to contact him?" asked Timothy.
"A circle, I think." Phil looked thoughtful.
"Mind to mind."
Timothy looked dubious. "He'll fry your brain
"Can't." Jake said firmly. "He won't have a
circle of his own ready."
"Then he'll cut contact as soon as he realizes
it's you... if he opens himself at all."
...But, again, this is
tricky. The danger is that you'll have your
characters discussing, in detail, things that
they should already know perfectly well. That
sort of thing tends to strain the reader's
ability to suspend disbelief, which interrupts
the story and makes it more likely that they'll
put your story down.
The obvious solution is
to have your characters learn the system, which
allows your readers to follow along with them.
The Harry Potter books start in the real world,
and then add magic; the Wheel of Time series
starts with a relatively ordinary village (the
Two Rivers) and adds the more fantastic elements
as it progresses. Roger Zelazny's Amber series
has the main character wake up with amnesia, so
-- despite the fact that he has a long history
with everyone else -- the reader gets to learn
about the world while Corwin (re-)learns about
it. Series set in established fantasy worlds --
Forgotten Realms and the like -- largely avoid
this problem, since they can assume that their
readers already know how the system works.
Another trick to
remember is that your readers are probably smart
enough to figure things out. If you have one
scene where Jake invests a circle to contact
Phil, and Phil breaks the contact immediately,
followed by another scene where someone tries to
contact Jake and Jake wards against the contact,
then your readers are going to assume that
accepting a sorcerous mind-to-mind contact is
There's probably more
to say on this subject -- and there are
certainly other ways to avoid this problem --
but this should be enough to get you started.
Get out there and write!