fantasy, epics, and genre blends

Macro world-building is to epic storylines what micro world-building is to…?

It’s occurred to me more than once that epic fantasy quests tend to be the standard cliche. Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’, Martin’s ‘Song of Ice and Fire’, Abercrombie’s ‘The First Law’. I might even accuse Neil Gaiman’s ‘American Gods’ of being an epic urban fantasy. There’s no shortage of untried boys off to save the land from the evil overlord in this genre or hard-hearted antiheroes stumbling into wicked schemes that demand their reluctant action. Our writers have a tenancy and a reputation to dream BIG. … Myself included. The siren call of royalty and massive catastrophes is hard to resist.

But what happens if we shy away from epic? What if the story is told on a smaller scale?

This isn’t a new idea, really. If contemporary novels used the same scale that fantasy novels used, the world would be overrun by Tom Clancy wannabes. We have mysteries of all different flavors, low-key romances, social dramas. An abundance of ideas and subjects to choose from. A multitude of things to work with, corporations, cultures, attitudes, ideas…

Maybe the real world just has more to work with. Maybe, when we go to draw out our world maps, we’re doing ourselves a disservice and cutting out ideas that don’t need maps to sketch out. Fantasy is a setting, not a genre. Perhaps an expectation of flavor… the same way science fiction, westerns, and historical fiction are all ‘setting genres’, where a content genre can be (and maybe should) be added.

Are there any really good fantasy stories that ‘write small’? Have they escaped notice? Or are they just not that interesting?

novel-writing and controlling information

A random subject, I must admit, but this has been on my mind recently.

Part of my book involves… we’ll call it a mystery. Unclear motives, conspiracy, a bigger picture than the protagonist sees. I’m exactly three chapters from ending the book according to my recent chapter plans, and as more and more climax-heightening information comes through, I have to wonder… is the big reveal, aha-moment too obvious? The characters have every scrap of information they’d need now to put things together. A stressful chapter, a distracting goal, and a wrong take on one of the events ought to keep the characters busy… what about the reader?

This is probably the most agonizing part of writing fantasy. Fantasy is a setting-genre. It has a great deal in common with sci-fi, westerns, and even historical fiction for that reason. And yet the genre constantly overlaps with the event-genres… action, adventure, romance, mystery, thriller (suggest that fantasy is an event-genre by the necessity of a ‘quest’, and I will vaporize you with my scary teacher-stare). So in able to be able to fully command the genre, one must be at least adapt at the subtleties of romance and mystery, the chill of a suspense novel and the tension of a well-crafted fight, no matter the era of weapon.

Back to my original question: how do you know when you’ve made the reveal too transparent? Like spotting a scratch on a piece of furniture– when you know where to look, it jumps out at you. I have some ideas– only a survey of test-readers can be accurate, but there are a few tricks that I’ve noted.

One upon a time, I was an admirer of the Harry Potter series. (Hey, at least it’s not ‘Twilight’). One thing that I admired about Rowling’s work was how thoroughly she would foreshadow her endings. By the fourth book, I caught on to her style enough to see them coming ahead of time, but the first three books left me hitting myself, declaring “Stupid! Stupid!” at the end of each one. Rowling also has a lot of characters, each involved with their own activities, and lots of quirky detail, to hide what’s important with what’s not. So what if the pet rat has a missing toe? It’s an old, pathetic rat that’s had one too many encounters with a garden gnome or something, nestled right in a description of how haggard it looks. And there was that vacation it was hauled off to in Egypt over the summer. It might have caught something. Plenty of reasons not to think it has anything to do with plot.

Use of detail, amid lots of other detail. Logical rationalization, yet a point unique enough to stand out. Foreshadowing each element as its own separate island, as if they’re not connected. Mistaken assumptions that the reader is lead to agree with can be startling to overturn.

But then, my next example uses something entirely different. Gosford Park, a murder mystery film… which was more about the people and less about the murder.

I will warn you, I really, really loved this movie. Watch it five times, and you might have picked out all the subtle sub-plots. Everyone is guilty of something… some more than others. There’s bickering behind closed doors, affairs, blackmail… in fact, all the sub-plots can be so interesting that they take away focus of the murder entirely. The reveal isn’t dramatic. On the contrary, it’s quiet, and not exactly a ‘pursuit of justice’.

So… is detail the secret? I haven’t made a habit of reading mystery for some time– I think I need to go back to it. Does anyone have any great references that they’d like to point to?

third draft theories

First, it’s probably safe to say that I’m feeling better. Thanks for the get-well comments, guys!

I’ve been going through my plot recently, as part of my scheduled plot-scrub (which is turning out to in fact be a beastly, terrible creature that seems determined to pin me down and chop me up– fie to whoever decided to hand that thing a chainsaw). After some study, I’m adding in another plotline, because I noticed that one of my protagonists seems to be lounging around when other characters aren’t looking. Add in another plotline, carefully consider the implications and how this will change the story… typical revision stuff.

But it also had me thinking about the structure of chapters, and how individual pieces (because chapters are pretty good examples of broken-up chunks of story) contribute to the overarching plot. While I’ve been re-planning chapters, inserting new ones, thrashing others, I’ve also been wondering what the best way to structure each chapter might be.

Simplistic as the idea is, what is a chapter, and what should it accomplish?

I don’t have the answer for that, of course. I’m not sure that there is one. But I do have some ideas, theories, some possibly even worth discussing.

A chapter should be enticing. The audience should want more. This is a cardinal rule of writing: make things that other people want to read. This point is entirely subjective; possibly the reasons we group books by genre. Fantasy, science fiction, and westerns are premises and settings, if you think about it. Romance, action, drama, suspense, and horror are plot and theme elements. This is why you can have a fantasy-action story, a scifi romance, a western horror, and other fun combinations (keeping in mind that setting seems to supersede tone in bookstores). While the genre lines don’t make complete sense in the matter of content, it’s really all reader expectation, desires to be filled. I don’t really like genre categories, but I think it’s important to realize what they really are: pre-defined tastes, not too unlike calling something sweet, salty, or chewy. Unfortunately, this ‘season to taste’ rule doesn’t help with the composition of a chapter.

As an aside, my personal solution to the problem of interest is: Think of book ending that would make you (the author) bounce up and down with manic glee. Go write. Try to get there.

What else should a chapter be? Why do we use chapters? Why not some other paragraph breaks, also used in fiction to end scenes, ect? Adult novels don’t seem to include a ‘table of contents’ anymore. Some chapters are titled, some are numbered. Some are neither. Some people write long chapters, others end them after only a few pages. Some use length to determine their chapters, others are fond of POV shifts and scene changes, while some use significant plot events.

I have a theory right now that when chapters are long and based on plot events, elements of short story form might be a very good way to construct them. You have your basic elements of plot: set up, rising tension, crisis, and resolution. While this works for a story, this could also be applied to the individual elements of the conflict in their own right, and if a chapter is being based around chunks of conflict, it might be a smart way to structure a chapter, daisy-chaining conflicts and resolutions with each other from chapter to chapter, introducing new problems after the minor climaxes.

Note: there is a difference between ‘resolution’ and ‘problems go away’. I once read a book where a chapter ended with a character learning a terrible secret, then getting pushed down several stories, maiming himself if he did manage to survive. Building tension, conflict, and resolution– just not a happy one.

That style, of course, would create something of a rhythmic motion to it, a lapping of waves on a beach, so to speak. It could be good, or it might not work. But it would almost certainly focus the chapter on at least one big problem, which immediately inserts tension into a story.

Any other thoughts on the use of a chapter? I’m particularly interested in thoughts on structure right now.

find a critique partner

I just found out that a fellow wordpress blogger-writer Kathleen has started up a networking site: Crit Partner Match.

The basic idea (to use Belinda‘s wording, as she alerted me to this) is that it’s a little like a dating site… except that instead of finding dates, you’re looking for compatible writing-critique buddies. You create an account, fill out how long you’ve been writing, your strengths and weaknesses, and what sort of things you’d like in a critique partner.

The site is only two days old, so it’s small right now. I hope it grows much larger– this was a great idea.

Hope to see you there!

sub-genre

In an attempt to distract myself from work (or clock-watching– it was almost lunch) I did a quick search on fantasy sub-genres to see where Blue Crystal fit in.

Low Fantasy: (grabbed from wikipedia) downplaying of epic or dramatic aspects; includes de-emphasizing magic; real-world settings; favoring of realism, cynical storytelling; and dark fantasy.

That… fits in with what I’m doing almost perfectly. Normally I’m not this happy to tag my work, but… it works.