Friday, May 30, 2008

Understanding Fantasy Genres - Part 2

In Understanding Fantasy Genres - Part 1, we looked at epic fantasy, high fantasy, adventure fantasy, comedy fantasy, heroic fantasy, and urban fantasy in an effort to aid the fantasy novelist in pitching their book to publishers interested in specifics. In part 2, we'll continue to define popular fantasy sub genres.

Sword and Sorcery

This genre tag is self-explanatory. Sword and Sorcery involves tales of high adventure in a medieval setting. Stories involving King Arthur, Merlin, or the Knights of the Round Table (Arthurian Fantasy) are included within the Sword and Sorcery genre in which sword-wielding heroes battle the bad guys.

In Joanne Hall's Hierath Trilogy, young King Alex fights various enemies throughout the kingdom, but each battle links to the same villian. The one who ripped the kingdom from Alex's hands and kidnapped his child. With his sword, trusty steed and a handful of friends this sword and sorcery fantasy hero fights his way through three novels.

Dark Fantasy/Horror

Dark fantasy/horror involves supernatural beings or monsters. Vampires falls into this category. The supernatural element is what makes it fantasy.

Stephen King's dark fantasy works include the nightmarish, darker side of magic creatures, evil and demons. In his dark fantasy novel Thinner, his main character, Billy, wanted to lose a few pounds. It's something many readers relate to in the real world. He has an accident, sideswipes a car belonging to a gypsy's daughter. This results in the old gypsy cursing him with one word--thinner. The curse works as the agent of change. That one-word topples Billy into to the realm of dark fantasy. Six weeks later and ninety-three pounds lighter, he becomes terrified. Desperate choices lead him to a nightmarish showdown with forces responsible for dwindling body mass.

Magic Realism

In Magic Realism, magic (although it isn't always referred to as magic) is an expected part of the culture and belief system. The setting itself can be modern or not, with an element of change such as technology or unexplained science which instills a new set of parameters as to how things work. It may even involve an alternate or parallel world.

In Alice Hoffman's The River King, division splits the small town of Haddan, Massachusetts, separating those born in the village from those who attend the prestigious Haddan School. The "magic" agent of change is an inexplicable death which unravels the town's complex history.

Often these stories can be referred to as thrillers or action/adventure. The realism aspect involves limitations and consequences to 'the magic' cure, fix or discovery which in the real world rests beyond the realm of possibility.

Romantic Fantasy

A romantic thread can run through any of these sub genres. If the central theme is romance and your main character learns they possess either magical or psychic powers, then your novel is Romantic Fantasy.

In Kelley Heckart's first book, Of Water and Dragons, she weaves together Roman history and Celtic lore of ancient Britain, creating an unforgettable story of love and sacrifice. One of the main characters is a faery woman, which adds the fantasy element to the novel.

What About Speculative Fiction?

What about speculative fiction? Does it fit into the fantasy genre?

Speculative fiction is often set in a distant future-but not always. Because of high-tech futuristic technology some would place this in the Science Fiction genre-and that would be right--sometimes. But what of time travel fantasy?

Light at the Edge of Darkness presents a collection of Spec Fiction written from a Christian perspective. Within these pages, futuristic characters travel across time or within time. This ability provides the magical agent of change allowing someone in the future to return to biblical times. This is only one among several scenarios presented in this unique, controversial book. Not all speculative fiction is fantasy, but some fantasy is speculative fiction.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Understanding Fantasy Genres - Part 1

When putting together a book proposal, pertinent details include providing the publisher with the genre of your book. If your novel is fantasy--they'll want to know what kind of fantasy. We looked at this some last week, and today and tomorrow will take a deeper look. Why? Because as publishers consider their editorial calendar, they want specifics. Is it High Fantasy, Epic Fantasy or something else?

What's the difference?

When an editor's guidelines say they want strong fantasy, magic realism, or genre-bending stories that don't quite fit a specific style, it helps to know how to identify fantasy sub-genres to sell your idea. Sub-genres overlap. More than may be represented in your manuscript. An adventure story line like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade has an Arthurian thread. Yet when presenting it to a publisher, a storyline like this would fall under Action/Adventure Fantasy. Following the historical Arthurian plot thread to find the Holy Grail will interest those who enjoy that genre, but the real plot moves through a World War II setting loaded with action.

Epic Fantasy

The overall theme of Epic Fantasy is good vs. evil. The protagonist tends to be a person of no importance, influence, or power who unexpectedly finds themselves thrown into the mist of a battle to uphold what is right. The reluctant hero/protagonist experiences personal growth as they journey to learn not only about the fantasy world but also about themselves. In Donna Sundblad's, the young Manelin learns lessons in forgiveness before the magic of The Land works for him.

The scope of the epic fantasy world is large. Characters travel great distances looking for answers, which often involve a quest to find a missing magical piece to solve the plot puzzle. This magic often has ties to mythology and has limitations when it comes to solving the protagonist's dilemma. This missing piece will offer the magic necessary to rescue a heroine or free a down-trodden or enslaved people.

High Fantasy

High Fantasy can also fall under the Epic Fantasy category. Lords and ladies sporting medieval styles grace the pages and plots of High Fantasy. Here too, you'll find dragons, knights, castles and kingdoms. The theme of High Fantasy often focuses on good vs. evil and is rooted in medieval European legends or mythology.

Adventure Fantasy

Adventure Fantasy takes characters beyond their current reality, and into a new dimension where the rules of reality shift carrying characters on a roller coaster of adventure in a world where magical realism rules.

In the screenplay Mimzy, two siblings develop special talents after finding a mysterious box of toys. Soon the kids, their parents, and teacher are drawn into a strange and sometimes terrifying world. It's their new adventure-filled reality.

Comedy Fantasy

As you work down this list, you'll see that the fantasy genre has something for everyone. A storyline like Ghost has elements of comedy as Whoopi Goldberg takes on murdered Patrick Swazy's spirit so that he can make things right on earth. A thread of romance also runs through this thriller. So although it could be listed as a thriller, it is also comedy. As a writer, you'd present it as both in your proposal or pitch.

Fantasy novels like Return to UKOO by Don Hurst are another form of Comedy Fantasy known as satire. Return to UKOO's 40-year-old homicide detective Dale Hern is drawn into an alternate world to discover who and what he really is as he survives such obstacles as the stink of Poo Pool. Hurst's use of irony, sarcasm, and ridicule allow the reader to smile at human vice and folly.

Heroic Fantasy Magic is an accepted part of the culture in Heroic Fantasy. Usually written in a pre-modern fantasy world with almost a medieval flavor, Heroic Fantasy includes traditional magical characters like wizards, soothsayers, or oracles who wield magical powers for or against a hero as the plot works out in a fantastic world where creatures like dragons, ogres, unicorns, griffins, and other traditional fantasy animals roam. Heroes traditionally are males out to rescue a damsel in distress.

Urban Fantasy In Urban Fantasy, magic invades modern times. One of two scenarios plays out. Either characters stay the same while the world changes, or characters change and the world stays the same. In both, a magical agent of change introduces the magic that makes the storyline possible. Often characters learn a life lesson that changes how they think when they return to their "real world" lives at the end of the story. In Back to the Future, the protagonist, Marty, returns to his real life with a new respect for his parents.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Character Arc and Fantasy Plot - Part 2

Conflict: Once on the quest the plot arc follows encounters that try the hero's strengths and weaknesses. Having decided on the hero's character, the author must create an antagonist or threat that will offer scope for the epic tale.

The antagonist in Fantasy can be a unique creation, but must hold enough recognizable traits to remain believable or plausible, even if unrealistic. If a threat looms as the major theme, the antagonist may be an inadvertent foe, a jealous companion or even a character flaw in the hero. If the antagonist is the hero's nemesis then they must hold the reader's fascination. Natural disasters, plague, famine, or destruction of a global scale brought about by an evil force are all reasonable threats in Fantasy. The scope for plotting threat is only limited by the author's ability to resolve the dilemma in a reasonable way.

As the quest begins, the plot evolves like a maze or map. Every event along the journey, every meeting with a new character, conflict or misadventure must lead toward the final climax. Even though the hero's troupe seem to diverge from the direct goal, the outcome of each scene should give a vital clue, artifact, companion or knowledge to drive the story toward the conclusion.

As the journey continues, the threat must increase. Tension is built as the importance of the quest's success increases. While romance, conflict, internal struggle and growth are part of the epic plot arc, without tension and direction toward a goal, the best Fantasy lacks the components for success.

Climax: The quest reaches the climax when antagonist and threat are faced and an outcome reached. Everything the hero has learned, gathered, or gained, is finally used in the climax. Mysteries are solved, riddles answered and developing traits in characters consolidated. Although in Fantasy, there is always an element of magic, it is not a good idea to have the threat resolved by a sudden or unexplained power solving problems that face the questing troupe. Magic must be consistent and the author should explain its use, limits and benefits during the journey, not rely on magic to solve flaws in the plot.

Denouement: Tying up all the loose ends, resolving any left over romance, conflict, need for revenge or character changes are done during the denouement. To write a successful Fantasy novel, the author must leave the reader feeling satisfied. If the story continues, as it often does in epic Fantasy novels, the author should still finalize many of the loose ends, even if an underlying quest remains unresolved.

Drive the Plot Forward: When writing Fantasy every character, every action, every scene must drive the plot forward. Avoid the temptation to delve into back-story or flashbacks and keep the story moving. Diversions, and meandering is fine as long as each setback has a logical reason revealed by the time the climax takes place.

Magic: As part of the plot must be consistent. The author must understand exactly how the power works, who can use it, how those who can't use it react to its use. Amulets, swords, healing potions are useful but should be integral to the tale not introduced to solve flaws in the plot.

Things To Do
Look over the plot of your favorite Fantasy novel. Consider how the author has contrived to create a character arc to suit the epic tale. How does the antagonist's character give scope for the hero's development? Are all the loose ends tied up satisfactorily?

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Character Arc and Fantasy Plot - Part 1

Every successful story has a beginning and an end, while what happens in between follows a defined course to become the plot. For an epic or fantasy plot there is one basic style of plot arc that has proved popular and we will discuss this Quest plot arc here.

Quest: The plot arc for fantasy begins with the hero discovering a quest. The reasons for this vary from personal determination, to responsibility for saving the world from disaster. Since the characters involved take the journey, their character development is intrinsic to the plot evolution.

Character Arc: Type One Two main types of character development form the basis of most epic plot arcs. There is the radical character change, where the hero begins his quest as one type of person, develops through conflict to become the opposite type of person at the conclusion. Think of a timid hero, thrust into danger, who makes heroic decisions through determination and resolve and realizes, that they have the moral fiber to save the world. Conversely, consider the dark hero who through circumstance embraces compassion. Their character offers the same type of radical development.

Character Arc: Type Two The second character arc is defined by more subtle developments, where the hero finds the strength to accept challenges, but retains his original persona. Here the timid hero might stumble through misadventure after misadventure, until he finds the courage to over come the problem and achieve his goal, but he reverts to his original character once the tension eases. Or the dark reformed hero reverts back to the dangerous combatant to achieve a result, but the alteration is only temporary. The hero adapts but doesn't make a permanent change in this type of character arc.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Fantasy Subgenres

The word fantasy usually brings to mind tales of a magical world where dragons, heroes and incredible lands are filled with dangers at every turn. The reality is fantasy writing is so much more than that.

A fantasy world is a world where anything can happen. Magic is real and works. Heroes do save the damsels in distress. Even mythical creatures can be found roaming around. This is only the tip of the fantasy iceberg.

There are many subgenres the fantasy writer can use to create their story, and take their work down a whole new path - a path to a whole new world. Here are some of the more popular subgenres.

Fantasy Subgenres

Heroic Fantasy - The hero is strong and skilled in fighting. The damsel is beautiful and in distress. The villain is powerful and can only be defeated by the hero, all others will fail. Mystical creatures abound and magic is part of everyday life. Often this subgenre has a medieval quality to it.

Epic Fantasy - In this subgenre the hero is an average person thrown into an extraordinary situation. He or she must complete their task or their world will be in danger of being changed forever or even destroyed. While they are often aided by people who can defend them, they usually end up being on their own to finish their quest. This tale has many characters, both for and against the hero, and a large dangerous world.

High Fantasy - This is the kind of fantasy the casual reader expects to read. This story will have lords and ladies, kingdoms and castles, and dragons and knights. A true medieval story.

Magic Realism - Magic is a way of life in this subgenre. Wizards and sorcerers are as common as blacksmiths. Magic is used, but always at some cost. This can be used on its own, or as a part of another subgenre to add an extra dimension to the character's plight.

Dark Fantasy - This subgenre is harsher and more nightmarish than regular fantasy. Demons and evil mystical creatures run rampant. The hero must face numerous creatures sent by the villain to destroy him.

Sword and Sorcery - High adventure tales with a middle ages feel highlight this subgenre. The buff swordsman hero must defeat the evil villain to save mankind and the woman he loves.

Modern Fantasy - These are tales of might and magic set in modern times. The hero can be a present day fighter, or a warrior from the past brought here to battle an evil.

Comedic Fantasy - These can be parodies of serious fantasy stories, or fantasy stories told in a humorous way.

Any of these subgenres can be combined to make a very unique and fun fantasy story. It only depends on what you, the writer, want to do with your story idea.

Writing fantasy means knowing your genre well and following the rules without getting trapped by them. As a fantasy writer you want to spark not only your reader's imagination, but your own as well.

Dawn Arkin is an author on http://www.Writing.Com/ which is a site for Creative Writing. Her portfolio can be found at http://darkin.Writing.Com/ so stop by and read for a while.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Day to Day in a Primitive Fantasy World

Creating a primitive fantasy world offers writers the challenge of incorporating amenities provided in ways foreign in today's culture. Amenities include things like:
  • bathing
  • using the privy
  • sources of drinking water

To garner details to create a realistic primitive setting, it helps to look at history, back to times when harsh circumstances greeted individuals each morning. Imagine waking without running water. No bathing, flushing a toilet or adding water to the coffee maker.

Bathing In a Primitive Fantasy World

Do people in your fantasy world take baths? Is it a luxury? Fantasy writers have options. Characters bathing in lakes or rivers can be found out by passersby. Another bathing option includes a wooden tub hidden beneath a canopy or tent for privacy. During the summer months, this tub could be found outside in a garden setting. In the winter, it would be found beside a raging fire indoors. Either makes for a setting spilling over with possibilities.

In most primitive fantasy settings, wealth separates classes. The wealthy have more amenities available because they have servants to do the work. One such servant would be the bathman. This servant readies bath accessories and helps their lord or master to get dressed.

Other than the wooden tub, a lavabo makes for an interesting bathing scene. A lavabo is "a large stone basin equipped with a number of small orifices through which water flowed, used for the performance of ablutions." Some of these lavabo were rather ornate. Fantasy writers can carve a lavabo into a shape of a creature relevant to the plot. Although such a tub is historically tied to rituals, it's existence makes for an interesting possibility when designing your fantasy's amenities.

In the Old Testament the Jewish priests washed in a laver. This large basin sat on a pedestal of ornate bronze oxen statues. This bath set outside the Hebrew tabernacle, and represented a spiritual cleansing. Fantasy writers can add an element like this for cleric-like characters.

Growing up, I visited my great-grandparents before they had running water. A basin sat at the door for washing hands as each person entered the house. Such a washbasin can be included in a primitive fantasy world for washing before and after meals. In fancier settings a refillable tank can be placed above the basin to help keep wash water clean, but remember it is someone's job to fill the tank.

The Privy or Latrine In A Primitive Fantasy World

Where do fantasy characters go when it's time to relieve themselves? Privy and latrine are names for toilet commonly used when writing fantasy. Remember, primitive times were crude. Chamber pots were a common household item, used to collect urine and feces and later dumped. For this article we'll look at the more aesthetically pleasing privies that were often used in castles. Much like an indoor outhouse, privies consisted of stone or wooden seats that emptied via a chute into water like a moat or stream. As primitive as this sounds, a privy was a bit of a luxury and unfortunately had to be cleaned. People with this job were called gong farmers.

Another consideration when designing your fantasy privy is lighting. Is there a source of natural light or do characters have to carry a lantern, candle or torch? Is it drafty enough to blow out the light? Also, consider information from the above section and think about whether your privy is equipped with a washbasin. How advanced is your society?

When designing the privy, think about the chute. Is it a way for enemies to gain access, or is it equipped with bars to keep invaders out? If so, who cares for the condition of the bars? Do they rust? Do they need cleaning?

For wealthier fantasy characters, you may want to add a chamber privy. This is nothing more than a seat protruding out form the wall of a private sleeping chamber, but such a convenience may make for an interesting setting in your fantasy novel.

And what about privacy? Do all your characters use the same facilities? What about the guards? As a writer, you can develop facilities that work for your story. Historically, large castles built special towers so guard privies could be located in one place. These emptied into a pit in the basement that made invasion to overcome the guards more difficult. Another common location for guard privies would be within the castle wall construction. Check my article on castles for more information.

Wells As a Source Of Drinking Water

When writing fantasy, strategically place clean water sources to make sense in your plot. Capture the source of drinking water and you capture the people. In primitive cultures wells were a common, essential source of drinking water. When creating larger castles, fantasy writers can dig more than one well in the courtyard or bailey. It may be located within a wooded structure known as a well house or if the society has the technology, the pump house. Wells can also be placed inside a castle setting. If you do this in your fantasy writing consider logistics and keep it near the kitchen or other places where water is often needed.

Because wells are necessary in a primitive setting, another idea when developing your fantasy is a secret well. If you create it, give it purpose. Hide it in the basement or dungeon as a secret way into the castle, or give it magical properties like something that could be used by a healer or in a wizard's dorm.

You've most likely seen buckets tied to ropes to pull water from a well. This method was even used to draw water from one floor to another within a castle as buckets pulled through trap doors from one floor to the next helped avoid carrying water up long staircases. Biblically, in nomadic societies, wells were conquered and filled with large stones so they couldn't be used. Women draped cloth over the mouths of wells to dry grain, which biblically was used as a way to hide men from those searching for them. Be creative. Wells should exist in your primitive fantasy world. Use them in your plot.

Don't Forget the Sense of Smell

With all that we've learned about amenities, consider the sense of smell when writing about a primitive fantasy world. Where do characters draw water? How does the moat smell? How about within the castle? And just think, we didn't even talk about garbage or livestock.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Ancient Cultures and Society in Fatasy

Fantasy writers create worlds using their own style and voice. The process follows a path of logic. Even within similar fantasy settings, distinct points of diversity set scenarios apart. Carefully chosen words change the flavor of the backdrop. This backdrop establishes components that make up everything from authority structures, belief systems and even the geography of the landscape. These details lay the groundwork for a Pre-modern society and culture. Environment, learned behaviors, social organizations and beliefs all influence this culture. Adding culture gives the characters a structure within which to make choices, take sides and interact.


In a pre-modern fantasy world, religion is often tied in with government structure. In such a culture, laws reflect the religion's belief in right and wrong. For example, if the religion believes it is wrong to speak of those who have died, it would not be uncommon to find a law in the fantasy world that enacts punishment if one of its citizens speaks of the dead.

Religion can be based on superstition or reality. The fun of writing fantasy is that the writer can create a bizarre belief system as long as it makes sense within the plot and fantasy characters' lives.


Every fantasy contains some element of magic. It's part of what makes the world work. It doesn't have to be called magic, but the element must exist. Unlike Science Fiction, the magic in fantasy is not based on science but on a form of mystical magic that still must make sense to the reader. A base line of how and why it works must be drawn.

In my novel Windwalker, an ancient necklace holds healing properties. The history of the magical properties is passed from generation to generation through the oral telling of history. However, the magic of the necklace only works for characters from a specific bloodline. It's not called a magic necklace, but readers not only understand its powers, but also know when it will work and when it won't.


Language reflects origins. Fantasy writers develop different regions and languages for only one reason--to bring the two cultures together in some fashion within the plot.

Does your fantasy world have one language or more? Learning to communicate is a vehicle for character growth. Fantasy characters that survive a hostile environment only to find one other survivor that can't speak their language adds elements of conflict while forcing the two characters to work together.


Who is in power? How did they get to this place of prominence? When developing a pre-modern fantasy world, government plays an important role. Without structure, every character is free to do what is right from their point of view. However, if the government treats its citizens unfairly, it opens the door to a power struggle on some level. How the quest for justice develops and what it involves will depend on the government's structure. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

bullet Are indigenous people ruled by outsiders or enemies?
bullet Do settlements or colonies populate the fantasy world?
bullet How is the country, state or area divided?
bullet Is the government a democracy with rights exercised by the people?
bullet Are representatives elected?
bullet Is the government a monarchy?
bullet Does a patriarch or matriarch sit on the throne?
bullet Is there only one kingdom or several friendly or rival kingdoms?

Get Started Writing Fantasy

These basic elements will get you started. Plan to set aside time to write each day to develop the habit of writing. Have fun, take a class and hone your skill.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Time Travel Fantasy

Time travel is a popular concept in writing Fantasy and Science Fiction. In Fantasy, the mode of travel is provided by some magical happenstance whether purposeful or by accident. Many times, this fictional travel moves to a colorful era from the past. In popular movies like Back to the Future, characters return to a time before they existed. Writing time travel fantasy opens the door for writers to pull intricate and long-forgotten details from popular history, or to push their characters into the future building on present day situations and asking the question What if? such as the Planet of the Apes series.

What Fantasy Readers Want to Know

When time travel carries characters to the past or future, author need to make the concept believable and interesting. What readers want to know is:

  • Where characters are and when are they?
  • How did they get there?
  • How does the character feel?
  • Why is the character there?
  • Who else is there?
  • Can they get back to their own time?

No matter where or when fantasy characters travel in time, a thread of logic needs to connect them to their home point in time. Fantasy writers face the challenge of not only creating a reason for the character’s arrival to this new place but a logical explanation as to how they arrived.

Time Travel Circle of Logic

Fantasy writers carry their characters to destinations in the past or future with a purpose. In the 1980 movie Somewhere in Time, staring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour, an old woman gives Reeve’s character a watch as a young man. Later in life, the painting of a woman in a 19th century hotel becomes an obsession. He determines that he must meet that woman, and uses a physics professor’s theory to will himself back in time where he meets the woman.

The two fall in love. The main character accomplishes his goal, and gives the woman his watch as a gift. The romantic tale is bitter-sweet as Reeve’s character discovers a modern day penny in his pocket, resulting in an instant return to the present. His quest to meet the woman in the painting was more than realized, but the time travel theory laid down the groundwork. To stay in the past, the character could not look upon anything from the present. When the love-sick Reeves returns to his own time he doesn’t realize the old woman who gave him the watch as a young man is the woman in the painting. This is a good example of the circle of logic within time travel stories.

How Time Travel Works

No matter how your characters travel through time, it’s important that you make the process understood. If you use time travel terms like pacetime curvature, make it clear to the reader that this is a property of spacetime that causes freely falling particles initially moving along parallel world lines to then move together or apart. Find a good source for time travel terms to create a time travel terminology that makes sense. Studying these terms may even inspire creativity to generate a new time travel theory to work within your story.

Why Travel in Time?

Some readers don’t like time travel fantasy, yet it is a popular subgenre. Time travel creates romantic settings (Somewhere in Time), opportunities to learn about oneself (A Kid in King Arthur’s Court), improve or change the past (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court), or the quest may even start out as a source of curiosity to see if it can be done, like H.G. Wells' The Time Machine.

Traveling to another time and place allows a modern character to experience an alternate history. It opens the possibility to create a paradox. The premise of most time travel plots is that points throughout time exist now. This provides the basis for visits to one of these points in time much like we might visit a place in an everyday experience. Even Einstein thought of time as another dimension.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Satisfy Readers With an Effective End - Part 2

Ends With a Twist

Many readers enjoy ends with a twist as writers skillfully bend the reader's imagination one direction only to trick them with an unforeseen conclusion. However, even an end with a twist must make logical sense. A cleverly crafted finish with a twist will mentally send readers back through the storyline to see if the end really works. One good example of an expertly crafted conclusion can be found in the Sixth Sense written M Night Shyamalan. He keeps viewers distracted by the young boy that can see dead people. It's not until the end that viewers realize the main character is dead. That's why the boy sees him. The end hits with impact, but sends the mind racing back over even minute detail to see if it really works. It's then that viewers realized no one could see the main character. How could we miss that? Good writing.

Fantasy and Sci-fi often present mystical or magical elements that add a surprise factor useful in fashioning a good end. In the first Planet of the Apes movie, viewers enjoyed the magical end as the lead character rides down the beach with the girl he's rescued. They made it and are ready to start a new life. The sense of accomplishment and freedom is short-lived when they come upon the remains of the Statue of Liberty reaching like a mountaintop tossed beside the shoreline. This detail at the end added a thought provoking twist that left viewers thinking long after the theater emptied.

Let It Rest

After you finish the story, don't look at it for a couple of days or more. By that time, a writer disconnects enough to read the text as a reader rather than the author. This is the time to read the manuscript out loud. Take a red pen or highlighter and mark areas that cause you to falter. Don't stop to fix things, just read and mark rough areas (anything that needs work). Keep notes in the margins. If you note a detail lacking at the end, you'll want to work through the manuscript marking plot threads that need to change to make the end work.

As your read the last sentence, you'll know if the end works or not. Does it satisfy? Or, does it seem like something is missing? Did it generate questions or make you realize you dropped a detail? Go back and fix the highlighted areas, put it aside again and go through the process again in a few days or more.

Tune the Beginning and Middle

Once you know you've nailed the end, double check the beginning. Where does the conflict start? What engages the reader—that's the hook, the real beginning. Follow it to the climax. Don't rush it. Let readers savor minor resolutions as you weave details that lure them along in a way that makes them hunger for more and engages them through a blend of heightening conflict and tension. Each detail should be relevant and lead to your perfect ending where every plot thread finds an answer. Your story is ready to submit. The End.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Satisfy Readers With an Effective End - Part 1

While perusing writers' markets, one offered a tip to writers attempting to break into that market explaining that the most frequent flaws are stories that don't have a proper ending.

Many times writers focus on perfecting the hook or lead in their story but think nothing of rushing the end. Without an effective hook the reader loses interest, but no matter how well you hook them if the conclusion doesn't deliver, the manuscript will most likely land in the rejection pile.

An effective end wraps up each emotional and logical thread spun throughout significant events and character activities in the plot. The conclusion needs to satisfy the reader. By satisfying, I mean it resolves every shred of conflict and tension without being predictable. Instead of leaving the reader confused, a well-written end allows the reader to ponder how cleverly the author knit significant plot threads together, leaving them amazed they didn't see it until the end.

The End Must Be Visual

Writers work to sharpen skills to create their entire story using active language that brings the story to life with the use of strong verbs. The end is no different. The writer's goal should be to create a lasting impression that provokes further contemplation. Use active language that leaves a vivid impression. Don't tell the end; show it. A visual impact lasts because it burns an image into the reader's memory.

Where The End Starts

The end starts with a calamity or disaster. The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler breaks the writing process into three acts. I highly recommend this book as a guide to include all the elements in the Hero's Journey Model. Steps outlined in Vogler's book help bring the story to a clear resolution. The crisis leading to the conclusion starts within the second half of the second act, builds to a climax in the third act and leads to the end.

Knowing when to end the story becomes a matter of instinct. As a writer, you've given birth to characters and settings. You know every detail encountered in the process. Drawing them to a conclusion will provide a feeling of completion. It will feel right.

The length of the story will be dictated by the story line. At times, what starts out as a short story may develop into a novella or even a novel once characters take on lives of their own. The trick is to write until the story is finished. Editing and rewriting can bring it into line with word-count guidelines after completion of the first draft.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

How to Write a Fantasy

How do fantasy writers create a fantasy world tangible for readers? It doesn't matter if you are writing Contemporary Fantasy, Epic or Heroic Fantasy, Historical Fantasy, Mythic Fantasy, Humorous Fantasy or Science Fantasy--every fantasy story must include the following:

Characters and Plot

Characters and plot are introduced through dialog and action. Although the fantasy genre earns its label through fantastic settins in otherworldly realms where magical ingredients factor in, without believable characters and an interesting plot you would not have a story. Characters must capture the readers interest and usher them into the magical realm--without the character and without the plot, no one will care about the world no matter how awesome.

Element of Surprise

Fantasy authors must hook the reader at the beginning of the story. Introduce information readers can identify with, something that actively gets them involved. Dialog and/or action introduces a character or characters involved in a situation that gives the reader enough to make them want more. Incorporating the element of the unknown can start here. Weave a thread of information about something that readers don't immediately understand. Make it interesting and the reader continues on the quest of discovery. Keep the quest interesting by leaving enough enticing breadcrubms to lead them through the story. For example, consider the opening paragraph of Donna Sundblad's Windwalker

"Fires burned in the bellies of small stone statues forming a circle within the Kiva. An orange glow warmed the chamber to the center of the gathering. In the back of the crowded cave, Awena sat against the wall resting her arm across her stomach. The baby kicked. Soon, her life with Cedrick would change. What kind of world would their child find? Cedrick's talk of fulfilled prophecies and the cycle of death scared her."

In this opening paragraph, readers can identify with having hope for an unborn child and the fear of death. What does it mean for these characters?

Don't bog down your first paragraphs with telling description. Instead, introduce descriptive elements as the story unfolds. This way they make an impact on the reader because they experience them rather than hear about them. Let the reader see the world through the character's eyes.

Learning From the Character's POV

A great fantasy world alone does not create a good story. It's a good start--a place for the story to evolve--but without interesting characters to bring the world to life, it will lie one-dementional among the unread pages of your manuscript. Use your characters to open up your new fantasy world to the reader's imagination. Let them see through the eyes of your characters. If trees can walk, let the reader experience it first hand through the character's viewpoint. Engage the reader and keep them reading--keep them walking in the character's shoes.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Writing Prompts to Promote Creativity

Over the years I've learned that using writing prompts can generate stories I didn't even realize I had in me. In fact, my first published short story came about through a writing prompt. The story had to include a crime that took place in a bathroom. Now who would ever think of that story without being prompted? It generated the story Shelter in the Shadows which can be found in the anthology Who Died in Here?

How and When to Use Writing Prompts

1. If you're a seasoned writer, you may have had times where you run into that wall known as writer's block. I've known some writers who give up for months or more when battling this creative blockade. Instead, turn to writing prompts as a source of inspiration. They can jump-start your imagination and get your writing again.

2. Use writing prompts as your warm up for the day like a primer to pump your muse.

3. Visual prompts work too. To practice writing description, challenge yourself with a visual prompt. A good source for this is children's encyclopedias. They have all kinds of interesting items to choose from whether it's from nature or history. If you want to learn how to describe a knight's armor or flowers in the valley this is a great resource.

Another resource to turn to are the numerous stock photo sites available today on the web. You can look up photos by category and use them as visual writing prompts which help focus your creativity in the direction you want it to go.

4. In my creative writing book Pumping Your Muse, I often challenge writers to step outside and go for a walk to promote creativity. In fact, that's what inspired this book. I went outside at dawn and thought about how I could describe the beauty I witnessed in one sentence. Thus that morning gave birth to a writing exercise I call the once sentence rule which can be used as a prompt each day.

This book is full of prompts and exercises and following them has contributed to the completion of both of my fantasy novels. In fact the fantasy world found in my book Windwalker gave birth in a drainage ditch while on one of these walks...but that's another story for another day. The thing to note is that it all came about by using a prompt!

5. Shopping for prompts is a fun way to get out of the house and nourish your muse. You don't even have to go into a store. Just wander through the mall looking in store windows. Find interesting items and make note of them. Take a little notebook or recorder to store up your treasured prompts for later. The following week choose items from your list and challenge yourself to write about them.

Or while at the mall instead of looking for items keep your eyes open for characters. People watching extends an invitation to a variety of interesting characters to enter the realm of your imagination. Take the ideas spurred by the people you see home and write.

Plan to Write

Don't let writer's block beat you. Instead, make a plan to write. Even if it is 20 minutes a day, exercising your muse will keep it strong healthy and vibrant. Consider writing prompts as a source of vitamins that promote creativity.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Dialog - to Tag or Not to Tag

To Tag or Not to Tag

There is a lot of debate about whether to use or not use dialog tags. Dialog without some indication of the speaker is confusing and the common comment is that dialog without action is boring. As creative fantasy writers, we take this perspective into consideration as we work. But even with this, don't go extreme. Hold on to your writer's voice and follow this ancient rule of thumb, 'all things in moderation.'

Drawing your reader into your fictional world is as easy as using the descriptions you have generated, while extending your ability to show not tell.

Compare these examples.
"You have it all worked out then. To survive I must escape your hunters?"
"You have one chance to leave this world. You can use it how you will."
"This is how you would help me? Gods give me strength. I will stay alive. More than that, I cannot do."
"More than that, we cannot ask."

Add Dialog Tags to Avoid Confusion

"You have it all worked out then," Caleath said. "To survive I must escape your hunters?"

"You have one chance to leave this world," the old mage said. "You can use it how you will."

"This is how you would help me?" Caleath said. "Gods give me strength. I will stay alive. More than that, I cannot do."

"More than that, we cannot ask."

Involve the reader:

"You have it all worked out then." Caleath raked his hands through his hair and peered into the shadows with increasing anguish. "To survive I must escape your hunters?" He gestured with raised hands.

"You have one chance to leave this world." Bitterness sharpened the old mage's voice. "You can use it how you will."

Caleath could almost believe the mage regretted needing to make such an agreement. "This is how you would help me?" Caleath's voice was no more than a whisper. "Gods give me strength. I will stay alive." He moved to his feet and paced like a caged cat. He wanted to shake the old man until his teeth rattled. Instead, he sighed with resignation. "More than that, I cannot do."

"More than that, we cannot ask."

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Setting the Hook in Fantasy Writing

Good writers engage a reader’s imagination, enticing them to keep reading. When readers turn the page, the fantasy writer’s job is to lure them to want to know more. Fantasy writers must generate questions about what happens next or awaken musings to wonder why an event occurred. Without these essential elements, interest wanes, the book is closed and set aside. If the initial hook works, it engages the reader to want to know more and prods the imagination to consider the possibilities.

When you walk into a bookstore, how do you determine what book to buy? Potential book buyers scan titles within the genre that interests them. Effective titles work as the first hook. A catchy title gets the book picked up to learn more. An appealing cover appropriate to the fantasy genre helps raise curiosity to know more. Once the book settles into the hands of an interested customer, the cover blurb works as bait. An effective blurb snags the attention and drags it along enough to open the book and scan the first few pages. Does it meet their expectations? It’s important that the fantasy writer develops an effective hook within those pages. It’s the hook that sells the book.

Setting the Hook
Consider the hook to be the DNA of your fantasy novel. Popular crime dramas take a drop of this chain-like chemical, and follow the detail it provides to solve the most baffling cases. DNA is embedded in the nucleus of every cell. Fragments of this chemical chain incorporate genetic code. When writing fantasy, the hook contains the code that advances and directs the storyline.

Once you hook a reader, it’s important to sustain the right amount of tension. The goal is to keep readers interested. As curiosity is satisfied, stir a new question or two in their mind by baiting them with a new hook. Evoke another emotion. Keep the reader hungry. A literary hook spawns questions. Tension and conflict make the reader turn the page looking for the solution.

What to Avoid

How many times have you flipped through flowery description that attempts to set the scene at the beginning of a book? Description dilutes intended conflict. The story is not about descriptive detail, although it’s important to set the scene. If the detail doesn’t generate a question, it isn’t a hook.

A Good Place to Start

An advantage to writing is that the author has the opportunity to convey conflict and struggles experienced by the characters both inwardly or outwardly. These conflicts are a good place to start. They generate curiosity. Try to include conflict within your first sentence or paragraph. Don’t confuse conflict with physical fighting. It can be as simple as your character experiencing day-to-day turmoil stuck in a dead end job and wondering what they are going to do to change it. They have a family depending on them so they are stuck. Or are they? That’s the hook.

Remember to include tension throughout your fantasy novel. Offer the reader a bit of resolution to one thread as you create a new hook. Too much constant tension without relief desensitizes the reader, they’ll grow bored. Hook the reader at the start of the book, and at the beginning of each scene or chapter. One hook should lead to another uniting the DNA of your fantasy novel into an interesting, compelling story.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Fantasy Character Skills - Swordsman - Part 3

Well Rounded Characters

Develop characters with strengths and weaknesses. No one is proficient at everything. A squire's training covered everything from code of conduct to social skills including courtly etiquette, dancing and jousting. They practiced fighting with sword and buckler, learned acrobatics, fighting with a quarterstaff and how to operate siege weaponry.

Each aspect of training offers room for the plot and characters to take new direction. A character full of self-confidence on the practice field may feel shy and even timid on the dance floor. As a whole, the sum of experience should take your character from boy to man, girl to woman or man to changed man and so on. The process engages the reader, make them care, and keeps them reading to learn what happens next.

Swords in Fantasy

In fantasies like The Sword and the Stone by T. H. White, Arthur went through this maturing process. The sword plays an integral role within the plot when the king dies without an heir. The prophetic blade found thrust through an anvil on a stone in London bears an inscription that presents the central theme of the story. "Whoso Pulleth Out the Sword of the Stone and Anvil, is Rightwise King Born of All England."

In fantasy, the sword itself can take on a role almost as if it is a character. In T. J. Glenn's Warrior Priest, crystal swords grown magically from the blood of the warrior make the weapon uniquely part of the warrior. Swords grown from blood crystal connect with the owner almost as if it is part of their body.

In Star Wars, the sword-like lightsaber forms a blade-like shaft of pure energy. It hums, shimmers and can cut through almost anything in the hands of a Jedi. The magical element of the Force allows the Jedi to predict and deflect incoming blaster fire. The color of the energy forming the blade tells viewers whether the energy is from the Dark Side or the Force.

Crafting a Fantasy Sword

Fantasy writers involving a sword as a significant part of the story line must make the weapon unique and interesting. In medieval times, the sword served as the knight's main weapon. Is the sword in your story the main weapon or a treasure sought? Consider what the fantasy sword can do, what it can't do, and what your character knows and needs to learn.

Here's a bit of detail to consider as you fashion a sword on the anvil of imagination. Double-edged swords bore a groove called a fuller that runs the length of the blade making it lighter. Decorative handles also worked as counter weights making the sword easier to handle. However, if your character is fighting futuristic armor plated foes, more pointed swords make for better thrusting through gaps between the plates.

Historically, sword handles included decorative details like fish-tails, fig-shapes, and other unique-shaped pommels. Take an element unique to your fantasy world and incorporate it in the sword—stamp it with the maker's mark. As you design the sword handle, think of your character's fighting style. Handles for one-handed swords were shorter, whereas swords built for two hands added enough length to be gripped by two hands.

Today's photo provided by
sjtodey at

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Fantasy Character Skills - Swordman Part 2

Training Your Fantasy Character to Fight

Train fantasy characters to fight (even if it is by default). What does your character need to know? Training techniques followed by squires in medieval times make a useful how to for preparing your fantasy character for battle. Squires practiced sword against a pell (a wooden post or tree trunk). This ancient training device served as a target. One training technique required practice with weapons double the weight of those use in combat. This built muscle. Time spent one on one with a tree trunk also provided plenty of thinking time and introspection.

Training time for fantasy characters develops the appeal, integrity and charm of the protagonist or the opposite where the antagonist is involved. They change not only physically but psychologically, learning that they are someone different than when the training began.

Consider the time Luke Skywalker (Star Wars) trained under the revered Jedi Master, Yoda, on the swamp planet Dagobah. The weather and wildlife made for an arduous training site, but through it viewers learned and grew with Luke Skywalker. Luke leaves the planet pondering future possibilities as he sorts out visions and magical powers available to fight the Dark Side. Through this training, viewers understand the fantasy technology enough to comprehend how lightsabers work, that Luke's technique still needs honing and to recognize those fighting on the Dark Side and that the path of a Jedi is difficult. His training added to tension and conflict within the plot.

Another medieval training event included putting. Today we are most familiar with the shot put event. Putting requires throwing in a pushing motion. Squires practiced throwing big stones--the stone put. It increased strength and stamina. Writers can take an event like this and make it their own. The Jedi accomplish this feat with their minds. Depending on culture and technology, the throw can include objects and rules that work to move the plot along.

Don't limit training to these two events. Do some research.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Fantasy Character Skills - Swordsman - Part 1

In medieval fantasy settings, and even futuristic fantasy worlds, writers lean toward swords or sword-like weapons as a favored choice. As writers, it's important to convey realistic detail so readers see the sword in their mind's eye, feel it and know how to use it. Fantasy writers must learn how to verbally swing, slash, jab, jump, gyrate, tumble and roll through the acrobatics necessary to avoid the blade of an enemy while engaging the rules of honor that dictate honorable swordsmen behavior. (What is honorable may change from one world to the next.)

Fantasy Character Skills

Equip fantasy characters with needed skills and resources to make the plot work. Swords make interesting weapons; the fight becomes personal—face-to-face. Samurai swordsmen prized their swords, how does your character feel? Does his sword hold sentimental, spiritual, mystical or superstitious value? Did the character inherit it, earn it, buy it or find it?

Samurai also carried a smaller sword thrust through their belts. Defensive strategy positioned this smaller sword with the cutting edge upward. This allowed swordsmen to deliver a swift, lethal blow from scabbard to target in one move. When the enemy pins your character into a tight situation, what avenue of escape have you created? What skill sets does your character have to fall back on? Research history for interesting techniques, mixing and matching skills to create a unique warrior type character (even a reluctant warrior).

How do soldiers or military characters move about your fantasy world? Do they ride steeds? March in rows? Travel in an underground tunnel system? Roman soldiers traveled on foot. Each one carried a short sword, a dagger, a spear and a shield. Soldiers' backpacks included provisions like cooking pots, bedding and enough food to last up to three days. How do your characters survive in the field? Do they travel in troops or is your character a lone wolf? Does almost everyone carry a sword or is that reserved for an elect group?

In the realm you've created, who fights and why? Is every character equal? Is slavery permitted? Is war a military function? In ancient Rome, slaves captured in battle could sometimes earn freedom by fighting wild animals in the arena as gladiators.

Tomorrow: Fantasy Character Skills - Swordsman - Part 2

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Fantasy Character Magic

Fictional writers have a multitude of diverse sub-genres from which to choose within the fantasy genre. Examples include high fantasy (Magic Kingdom of Landover by Terry Brooks, and Tolkien's, The Hobbit), contemporary fantasy (King Rat by China MiƩville) fairytale fantasy (The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi), super-hero fantasy (Lois and Clark: A Superman Novel by C. J. Cherryh), and sword and sorcery (Conan the Barbarian by Robert E. Howard) to name a few. A common element found in all fantasy sub-genres is magic in some form.

Fantasy characters exhibit vast magical differences from one sub-genre to another. In the short story fantasy collection Tales of the Warrior Priest by Teel James Glenn, the main character learns the magic of healing with song. He's not a wizard or warlock but a priest. Magical powers are as limitless as the fantasy writer's imagination.

For the sake of this article, consider some of the more common magical characters.


  • One who practices magic; a sorcerer or magician.
  • Archaic. A sage. Wizards are often presented as wise older looking gentlemen bearing white beards, long hair and a pointed hair, or hooded cloak. However, a character can take on the role of Wizard and look nothing like this. Consider Harry Potter.

  • A woman claiming or popularly believed to possess magical powers and practice sorcery.
  • A hag. Fantasy writers can portray witches as good or bad. In the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis, the white witch casts a spell on Narnia that trusts the land into an endless winter without Christmas, while Glenda the Good Witch from the North in the Wonderful Wizard of Oz uses her magic to help and protect Dorothy and her traveling companions.

    For clarification, a male witch, sorcerer or wizard is also known as a Warlock.

    Beyond the obvious wizards, witches and warlocks, unique life forms such as fauns, unicorns, trolls, elves, dwarves, faeries, mages, telepaths, shapeshifters, heroes with superhuman powers and time travelers can be considered a list of ingredients from which to draw as you create your own fantasy realm.

    For example, in the fantasy novel Windwalker by Donna Sundblad, the most special of the Windwalker fantasy characters not only walks on the wind, but has telepathic and shape-shifting abilities. The goal is to make the magic understandable to readers and unique to your storyline.

    Combining Character and Magical Traits

    Common characters found in fantasy novels include: Knights, jesters, kings, queens, prince and princesses, paladins, warriors, priests, shamans, bards, knaves, thieves, alchemists, wraiths, nomads, nobles, merchants, guards, mistresses, dancers, travelers, minstrels, mediums, spies, barmaids, inn-keepers, wenches, swashbucklers/sailors, blacksmiths, silversmiths (and other such trades), slaves, doctor/healer, archer, and woodsman. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but a list for aspiring authors to choose from.

    Any fictional fantasy character included in the list above has magical potential. A barmaid casting enchantments with beverages she serves or an alchemist crafting enchanted medallions bestowing special powers to those that wear them fall within the realm of possibility when writing fantasy.
  • Saturday, May 3, 2008

    Characters and World Building

    World building sets the stage for believable characters to live within the charmed borders of the fantasy world. Fantasy authors supply characters with a working knowledge of how the magic works. For example: Flora and fauna may transform into characters with unexplained capabilities such as casting a spell of forgetfulness, or cursing anyone pricked by a thorn with 100 years sleep, while inanimate objects like rocks can take on life to become an indestructible foe. Flower people, rock monsters and other entertaining characters come to life when the magic works, and fantasy characters with more human-like characteristics accept these other life forms as a genuine part of reality.

    For instance in Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf visits Frodo and passes on the history of the ring. Readers accept not only hobbits, the powers of the ring, and the rising of the Dark Power in the Land of Mordor, but when Frodo and his friends have barely left the Shire, their encounter with the Black Riders, although mysterious, is believable. A working knowledge of mythical magic unique to the world aids readers in understanding characters, supplies a knowledge of what’s at stake and a comprehension of what resources are available as characters enter epic battles of good versus evil with a full understanding of what to expect.

    This coming week we'll take a closer look at how develop believable fantasy characters. If you have questions or a specific topic you'd like covered feel free to email me at dsundblad (at) theinkslinger (dot) net.

    Friday, May 2, 2008

    How to Create A Fantasy World - Part 3

    Construct a History

    Fantasy novel writers work out a history as they build a fantasy world. This involves anything from politics, religious views, and anything similar that may divide or bring people together.

    Books with pictures stimulate world-building ideas. Encyclopedias for older children present one potential source. Flip through the pages and glance at the pictures. When you find an item or event that stimulates your imagination, consider it. Text included in this type of book is short enough to peruse information in minutes. From there you can either research it further, use what you've learned or dismiss it entirely. The bottom line is that it doesn't waste a lot of time.

    Don't allow character or plot to sidetrack from the task of pulling together geographical details; jot down exciting but distracting ideas to get them out of your head and into a safe place until the basic world has evolved enough for characters to walk about. If your story takes place in a specific city investigate the history of that city. Even when writing fiction you need to use enough facts to make the story believable.

    Once the landscape is in place, add characters and build a rough timeline. The past and future don't need to be well defined, but exist enough to help the fantasy writer know where characters came from and where they are going.

    Thursday, May 1, 2008

    How to Create A Fantasy World - Part 2

    Fantasy World Seasons and Weather

    The same town or setting, with a different climate makes for a different scene. Sounds of wind and rain change the setting's mood. Depending on other known factors, weather elements add a sense of suspense to an otherwise ordinary day. Use weather to provide an obscure foreshadowing. For instance, according to weather folklore a condition known as storm moon occurs in March. A fantasy writer can take a tidbit like this and incorporate it as fact within the fantasy world to give the moon powers that change the weather, thus setting the scene for the plot to unfold.

    Does the expanding fantasy land experience four seasons? Are any of the seasons harsh or extreme? Are the seasons changing and unpredictable?

    Take a look at the weather channel, or even your local weather broadcast. Jot down weather in various parts of the world and problems that arise. Use the information to add a splash of weather to your world to stimulate your imagination and see what happens.

    Tomorrow: How to Create A Fantasy World - Part 3: How to Construct a History