FANTASY WRITING MASTERCLASS

As promised, here’s the outline of the Fantasy Writing Masterclass I gave at Supanova Sydney on June 13.

Key Points

  • Who are you, and what do you want to know?
  • My Story
  • The Art of Storytelling
  • Key Elements of Great Stories
  • Getting Published Today
  • Staying Published in a Changing World
  • My Books
  • Key Resources
  • Contact Details
  • Questions

The Art of Storytelling

  • Want
  • Obstacle
  • Action
  • Resolution
  • Emotion
  • Showing

(Key reference, Cleaver, Immediate Fiction)

Want – the Hero’s Goal

  • He must want something desperately (to survive, escape, win the girl or contest, achieve his destiny, save his family or the world). The story doesn’t start until your hero forms this urgent goal. It doesn’t have to be earth-shaking, but it must really matter to him.
  • What are his motives? Your readers have to understand what drives him so desperately. Make his motives strong and clear.
  • What’s at stake if he fails? Life, love, career, health, sanity? Friends or loved ones? The fate of his country? Raise the stakes to the limit.

Obstacle – Why Opponent must Thwart Hero

  • Who is the Opponent?
  • He/she/it must want to stop the hero just as strongly. Why is she so determined to defeat the hero?
  • Opponents can be: an enemy; ally or lover; animal, monster or alien; force of nature (eg flood, fire); an organisation; or society itself.
  • Constantly ask yourself, How can things get worse? and When is the worst time for them to get worse? Then make it happen.
  • True character is revealed by how the hero deals with adversity. The worse things get, the more strongly readers will bond to her.
  • Make sure your hero also faces inner obstacles (eg the ring’s effect on Frodo) and strong inner conflicts.

Action – How Your Hero Fights Back

  • Your hero must do everything possible to defend herself against the opponent, defeat it and achieve her goal. The opponent must fight back, just as strongly and cunningly, to defeat the hero.
  • Show their struggle vividly and dramatically, with progressively rising suspense until the climax.
  • Any scene that does not directly contribute to this struggle will come as an anti-climax. Cut it.
  • Dialogue is action taken by the characters to get what they want. Every character, in every exchange, should have an agenda.
  • If you’re stuck, make a list of what wouldn’t happen next. Now, list what could happen. Discard your first 5 ideas; always try to surprise.
  • Every interaction, between every character (even friends and allies) should contain dramatic conflict, ie conflict related to the hero’s goal – either furthering it or blocking it.

Resolution – Win or Loss

  • Every scene must have an outcome (a win or a loss), and so must the story.
  • Most scene endings (even if they seem like a win at the time) should result in the hero being in worse trouble.
  • At the climax, test the hero’s strength, convictions and conflicts to the limit. Force her to make the impossible choice.
  • The story ending must resolve the hero’s goal: either a win; a hollow or worthless victory; a compromise; or an outright loss.
  • How is the hero changed at the end, if he is? Note that some characters never change: eg James Bond, Stephanie Plum, Mr Bean, Hercule Poirot.

Emotion – What’s your Hero Feeling?

  • Readers identify strongly when you show your hero’s hopes, fears, doubts, guilt and inner conflicts on every page.
  • Don’t name emotions/feelings (‘He felt guilty.’). Show them the way the character would think; in what he says; how he acts/reacts.
  • Your readers need to know the hero’s emotions and feelings (and how they’re changing) in every part of every scene.
  • What are his expectations? Are they too high, or too low? Either way, constantly build them up – only to dash them.
  • Readers bond strongly to heroes with emotional conflicts eg: love vs revenge, honour vs duty. Heighten such conflicts; show them often.
  • Inner conflict is at the core of the greatest stories and the most memorable characters in fiction. Make it strong.

Show and (sometimes) Tell -1

  • Have you Shown, or are you Boring your Readers by Telling? Telling is the author talking. It’s OK for low intensity parts of a scene, but intense emotions & conflicts must be shown, otherwise they won’t resonate with the reader. Showing is the hero revealing what’s happening at each moment, in his own words and actions, filtered through his feelings and attitudes. If it doesn’t create a clear mental picture, it’s not showing.
  • No reader wants a clichéd version of another author’s story world. Have you created a unique world & setting (how Harry Potter differs to The Lord of the Rings, Casablanca, Gone with the Wind)? Don’t show it in generalities – show it in specific, unique details.
  • Every setting, and every description, must create a clear mental image – show the blood under the fingernails.

Show and Tell – 2

  • Have you created a number of memorable, knee-to-the-groin images that bring the story alive?
  • Are you constantly looking for new twists to overturn clichéd characters, settings, dialogue, action scenes and plots?
  • Are your chapter beginnings and endings dull and repetitive, or striking, original and compelling?
  • Do you use the minimum number of viewpoint characters needed to tell the story, and keep to a single viewpoint in each scene?

Are your Characters Ordinary – or Extraordinary

  • Most characters in most books are dull & forgettable. They fail from too little exaggeration, not too much.
  • Show your hero’s strengths, humanity and flaws vividly; the opponent should be as strong or stronger, and just as complex.
  • What’s the hero’s inner need (often unknown to her). What personal flaw must she overcome before she can attain her need?
  • Bring out your hero’s strongly held attitudes, passions and beliefs. Have him rage, harangue, sneer, scream, mock, be sarcastic etc.

Ordinary or Extraordinary – 2

  • Give each character a unique voice. Have them say & do things ordinary people never do. That’s why we like to read about them.
  • Give each character a controlling motivation for the story, eg: Frodo – destroy the ring. Sam – help Frodo. Boromir – save Gondor.
  • Don’t restrain your characters. Heighten their reactions, emotions, language and imagery until they’re out of control.
  • To broaden your characters, give each one a secret. Do they have health issues: major or minor, physical or mental? Most people do.

Key Elements of Great Stories

  • Compelling and Unforgettable Characters
  • Creating and Heightening Suspense
  • Powerful External Conflict
  • Intense Inner Conflict
  • Showing Inner Conflict and Intense Emotion on the Page.

Compelling Characters

  • Readers want to care about the characters. They should either be sympathetic, have human virtues or desirable qualities
  • Readers read for the emotional experience –

–      To share the hero’s experiences, feelings, emotions as he tries to reach impossible goal; and

–      Experience reader emotions – anticipation, wonder, hope, dread, doubt, shock, joy, sadness

  • Take readers inside your characters via sympathy, identification and empathy, using sensory & emotion-provoking detail
  • Transport your readers by showing the hero’s inner conflicts – the storm raging within him, the doubts, guilt, indecision etc.

Suspense

  • If a writer can maintain suspense, many readers will keep reading even if the characters are flat and the plot is weak (Lukeman).
  • Suspense arises out of readers’ anticipation of, and worry and fear about, what’s going to happen next.
  • You create suspense by making your readers fear the worst for a character they care deeply about.
  • Ask, What can I promise will go wrong?
  • Make these disasters to come emotionally wrenching.
  • Make sure you keep every promise to your readers.

External Conflict

  • Relating to the characters is what makes a story real
  • We can’t identify with the hero unless her character is revealed. How do we do this?
  • Through conflict. It forces characters to act in ways that reveal who they really are
  • The worse things get for them, the more deeply their true character is revealed
  • And the better it is for the reader.

Inner Conflict

  • Memorable characters are often tormented by powerful inner conflicts
  • Intense inner conflict bonds the hero and reader strongly – because hero has everything to lose
  • Inner conflict creates powerful suspense. Readers don’t know:

–      what the hero will do in a crisis
–      If his choice will be good or disastrous
–      What the consequences will be

  • The reader takes sides with the hero and her terrible choice.

Showing Emotion on the Page

  • To deepen flat characters, show how they react to every event – specifically & personally
  • Show it in real time, ie, as it happens
  • Show what your hero wants, why she wants it, and what she expects. Dash her expectations
  • Use all the senses to describe each moment
  • Use specific detail that the reader can picture clearly
  • Show her attitudes and judgements in her unique voice
  • Show how her emotions change through each scene.

Story not Working?

  • Either readers don’t care about your hero (work on your characters).
  • Or there’s no suspense because you haven’t made your readers fear the worst.
  • Solution: rack up the tension.
  • Promise emotionally-wrenching disasters to come that will devastate the hero and his allies, and shatter his plans.

Great Storytelling References

  • Lukeman, The Plot Thickens.
  • Cleaver, Immediate Fiction. 
  • Maass, The Fire in Fiction. 
  • Lyon, Manuscript Makeover.
  • Vorhaus, The Comic Toolbox.
  • Bell, Conflict and Suspense.
  • Iglesias, Writing for Emotional Impact.
  • Cron, Wired for Story.
  • Palmer, http://www.crackingyarns.com.au/.
  • Pixar’s 22 rules of story.

Getting Published Today

  • Most authors never get their books published.
  • Of those who do, most books are never reprinted, and never pay royalties.
  • Few authors make much money from their books. But some do, eg Aussies Garth Nix, Trudi Canavan, Sara Douglass, me, Kate Forsyth, Fiona McIntosh, Kim Wilkins, Richard Harland etc etc.
  • Publishing is in flux – Amazon, Apple, Kobo

Publishing Yourself

  • Ebooks are changing everything – anyone can be published now.
  • Lots of indie authors have done brilliantly, eg JA Konrath, Hugh Howey (Wool, etc).
  • How to self-publish. There’s a big learning curve
  • But ebooks never go out of print, and this can only drive book prices down and down.
  • The way to succeed is to write the very best book you can, no matter how long it takes.
  • Then another and another. Most successful authors write series. Your next book keeps your backlist selling.

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