The Art of Writing Fantasy

Is your story the one you cannot bear not to write? Does thinking about it consume your idle moments? Do you lie awake at night worrying about bits that aren’t working? Do you leap out of bed in the morning with ideas that will improve it? Do you filter everything you encounter in your daily life through your story, to see what you can use to make it better?

If you want an editor or agent to be passionate about your book, you must be passionate first. Because a genre agent will get a couple of thousand submissions through the year. A Fantasy publisher can get over five thousand unsolicited submissions for the slush pile. That agent might take one or two new clients annually. A publisher might find one author in the slush pile every ten years.

So do you have the common sense to research and to follow submission guidelines? If you don’t, you send the message that you’re either hopelessly clueless or you think the usual rules don’t apply to you. No busy publishing professional wants those hassles. Can you present yourself as a writer with a professional attitude? Agents and editors read submissions looking for the reason to turn them down. That’s easy if the covering letter betrays basic inability to spell or punctuate, or wholly unrealistic expectations about initial advances and likely sales.

You will get nowhere simply writing a book that ticks all the boxes of fantasy cliché. As well as passion, editors and agents look for originality. At the same time, they must find books they can market within the established parameters of the genre. So read right across the gamut of speculative fiction, current and classic. Search out the unanswered questions still hidden in heroic fantasy. Examine the established themes in urban dark fantasy then look at them from unexpected angles. Look for unexplored territory on the margins between tales of swords and sorcery and ray-guns and rocket-ships? Then push your story as far as you can without actually breaking through those genre boundaries. No-one can ever define them but everyone can see when they’re broken.

Are you satisfied your plot leads naturally to a satisfactory conclusion and at the same time, plays against expectation? Your internal logic must be robust, and it must be apparent to complete strangers, who don’t know how you think, who cannot fill in the missing dots to get the whole picture. On the other hand, you have to astound friends who know you better than anyone else. You must also satisfy and yet still surprise readers who are steeped in fantasy fiction from Tolkien, Lord Dunsany and Poul Anderson onwards.

Why didn’t Gandalf call up an eagle and drop the One Ring into the Cracks of Doom from thirty thousand feet? Why doesn’t Superman rule the world and save everyone a lot of bother? Test your plot with the most awkward questions you can think of. Don’t rest until you have an answer to confound the fussiest nit-picker. If there’s a difficult choice to be made, take the harder route and search out the most creative solution. Never accept an easy answer.

Once you have your original, exciting idea, balance your passion with objectivity about your writing. Take the time and the pains to learn your craft. You’ll still get a ‘thanks but no thanks’ rejection if your story sinks beneath stereotypical characters, pedestrian prose and diabolical dialogue. Make every word count. Be ruthless with over-writing and revise and revise again. Every single passage must answer one of the following questions. How does this advance the story? Why do readers need to know this?

Your characters will doubtless fulfil one or more of the stock roles of fantasy fiction; hero, helper, heroine, villain but they must still come off the page as living, breathing, loving, hating, sorrowful, joyful, triumphant people. They must live beyond the confines of this story and they must be convincing within the story. If your characters are defined by one over-riding characteristic, you are not writing fantasy, you’re writing melodrama. Melodrama is essentially unbelievable. The best fantasy fiction is wholly convincing, a magic mirror reflecting real life.

Real people give themselves away every time they open their mouth, so use dialogue and body language to convey your characters. Actions can speak louder than words, especially when someone does something at odds with what they say. Remember each individual’s hopes and fears, their background, their likes and dislikes affect everyone else, no matter how insignificant. Make sure every character remains consistent.

Plot and character must mesh seamlessly and both must mesh with setting. Any original idea developed with vibrant characters must still play out in fully realised, three-dimensional surroundings, whether the story’s set in Middle Earth or Manchester. So consider what is felt, smelt, touched and heard as well as seen in any description.

Fantasy must be rooted in reality, to give readers points of contact to enable suspension of disbelief. If your readers believe this imagined world is real, they will follow you into the magic, into the unbelievable. So get your facts right, about travel, food, costume, weapons, whatever. Research, like icebergs, goes nine-tenths unseen, but inadequate research inevitably betrays itself and suspension of disbelief snaps beyond repair.

On the other hand, too much extraneous detail will bury your plot and stifle your characters. Focus your research on what you need to know to develop that convincing background for your characters and to facilitate your story. Then consider how tourists visiting a new country learn things when they need to. Explain something in most detail when it’s most directly relevant to the particular scene or character, or crucial to advancing the plot. Elsewhere, you can often paint the backdrop with broader brush strokes.

Thus, as this overview shows, the art of writing fantasy is complex. Yet it’s also simple. Ultimately, as with all fiction, the challenge is writing a book that an agent or editor cannot bear not to see published.

An article for Writers’ Forum Magazine, Christmas 2006

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