Fantasy Fiction and Epic Battles

I had another writing question come up recently, asked by a friend of mine, this time about fantasy fiction.

The question was, “In fantasy, is there any other climax/last scene than the one where the good guy goes into an all out battle against the bad guy?

I started thinking about it, and ruminating over the examples the friend who asked the question gave, along with the fantasy stories I’d read.

And my friend was right.

In nearly every example, the climax involves an epic battle between the hero and the villain, which often involves an all-out war between good and evil.

Star Wars–Luke vs. Darth Vader, Rebels vs. Empire, Rebels vs. Death Star.

Harry Potter–Harry vs. Villain of the Book, ultimately culminating in Harry vs. Voldemort.

The Wheel of Time–Rand vs. The Dark One, Aes Sedai vs. Black Ajah, Good Guys vs. Bad Guys.

The Hobbit–Good Guys vs. Smaug, Good Guys vs. Orcs

Lord of the Rings–Frodo vs. Gollum, Fellowship vs. Sauron’s Army, Good Armies vs. Bad Armies.

The Librarian–The Librarian vs. Whatever Evil Person or Group is trying to recover the Object of Power for their own gain.

Think of all the good fantasy stories you’ve read, and you’ll probably come up with one or two exceptions, but for the most part, they follow a fairly standard arc, involving a quest of some sort (sometimes for a specific object of power, sometimes to a specific location, sometimes to accomplish a specific task), and culminating in an epic battle scene. And this is true across various brands of fantasy, as well, like dystopian and some sci-fi.

The reason for this is that fantasy deals so heavily in allegory. In a fantasy world you have the freedom to explore all the “what-if” factors that you’re thinking about. Dystopian fiction often features an oppressive government. “What if this particular ideology were allowed to grow and the government took this thinking to the extreme? What would that world look like? And what would the hero have to do to combat it?”

Fantasy usually involves an extreme level of ultimate power and oppression. There is an evil dictator who wants to rule the world, keeping all peoples and races under his thumb, like Sauron. These dictators want what they want, and don’t care who it hurts in the process. Power. Dominance. Luxury. Often, this dictator exemplifies pure Evil.

It is up to the hero to thwart the villain’s evil plot. Usually it’s some type of underdog character–a moisture farmer on an obscure desert planet, a hobbit, a band of merry outlaws. The hero exemplifies all that is good and pure and true. Friendship. Loyalty. Freedom. While the individual character may have strengths and weaknesses, what they represent is pure Good.

Therefore, since there is usually a fairly epic good-vs-evil quest, that scene of the good guy defeating the bad guy is fairly standard-issue in most cases.

These tropes have their individual flair, of course.

For example, the primary goal of The Lord of the Rings was throwing the One Ring into the fires of Mordor, so Frodo completing that quest was at least one climax. But that one had so many adjacent storylines that there were more. Frodo also defeated Gollum, in a way. And the ring being destroyed was what ultimately defeated Sauron. But then you also had the epic battle scenes with Strider ultimately coming out as victor/king.
So since fantasy deals a lot in good vs. evil tropes, it’s easy to build up to that ultimate showdown. The battle represents the ultimate fight in good against evil. Especially in fantasy stories with a religious undercurrent, that battle represents, to an extent, the final showdown between God and Satan, the ultimate battle with the ultimate outcome.
So, are there fantasy stories that don’t have this type of arc?
The exception is when you have a different goal for your story.
What are you trying to accomplish? If you’re going on a quest to unearth something, then the climax would be unearthing it, but you might have battles along the way as whatever or whoever is trying to stop your character along the way interferes. And of course, depending on what the artifact is, you might still have that type of ending, because the villain will be trying to retrieve it for his own use.
One notable exception to the typical arc would be The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where the goal of the story was recovering the lost lords and sailing to the end of the earth, so finding all the lords (or determining for certain they were dead) was the quest that needed to be fulfilled, and Reepicheep sailing off over the end of the world was kind of the climax there.
You might also have a hero dying to save the one he loves, the goal being sacrifice for the greater good. Or someone riding off into the sunset in order to keep from making things worse by staying. But the reason fantasy works as a genre is because it provides a platform to explore extremes. How bad can things get? How much worse will they get? What will it take to make it better? What will the character have to do to overcome? And because it is by its very nature so extreme, the showdown must be extreme enough to be a satisfying end to the drama of the build-up toward that climax.

Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing

One of my clients asked me my opinion on self-publishing, and whether or not I thought it was a good way for a newer author to go.

This is a question most writers will deal with at some point, unless they happen to be absurdly lucky and sell to a big publisher on their first try. Self-publishing vs. traditional publishing is an ongoing topic of debate. There are pros and cons to both.

The problem with self-publishing is that literally anyone can self-publish. Thus, you have a lot of people who write really bad stuff (whether story-wise, grammar- and spelling-wise, or whatever else) and publish it. It used to be where you had to go through a self-publishing company, so you still had that problem, but it was only people with $3000 (or so) to spare who produced really bad books.

With the development of Print on Demand technology, and companies like CreateSpace (there are tons of others, but that’s the most well-known and biggest, primarily because they’re linked to Amazon which is the largest book distributor), setting up a book is free, and all you have to pay for is to have the books themselves printed, which only costs roughly $3/book, so it’s cheap, and thus way more accessible for way more people. And so you have way more people producing really bad books.
Therefore, self-publishing has developed a bad reputation. The general conception is that if you’re self-published, it means you weren’t good enough to be traditionally published, which may or may not be true.

In addition to the general poor reputation of self-published books, you also have a much more difficult time selling your book. Most bookstores won’t take self-published books, and neither will many libraries. Libraries differ, so the library in your area might be willing to stock them, and they might have certain guidelines for doing so. The Phoenix Public Library System, which is where I live, doesn’t do self-published at all. You may be able to find some indie book stores that would be willing to take self-pubbed books on consignment, but again, that means doing a lot of legwork in order to find those places, and you may or may not generate sales that way. So you have to have a really good platform in order to generate sales, and a really good book in order to get people to talk about it and share it with their friends.

On the plus side, you have complete creative control. You get to decide what your cover looks like, what story elements you keep (whereas a traditional publisher may ask you to change things), and so on. You also get to keep all your royalties, so you make more per book than you would if you were sharing that profit with a publisher and an agent.

Traditional publishing, on the other hand, has many benefits. There’s usually a professional cover, a professional edit, a marketing budget, an advance of some sort, and the ability to get your books on shelves in actual bookstores where people shop.

Unfortunately, it’s really hard to get published with a major publisher. Most publishers won’t even look at a manuscript from an unagented writer, so before you can even start trying, you have to get an agent. Most agents receive hundreds of submissions per week, so you have to really stand out from the crowd to get noticed. Then, if you manage to sign with an agent, they have to go through the same steps with the publisher. And the whole industry is very subjective. What one person loves, another hates. Or they may love it, but it might not be what they’re looking for or what’s selling well, etc. Publishers are businesses, and they have to make money, so they aren’t going to take on projects that aren’t likely to make a lot of money. So the percentage of writers who get published by big, traditional publishers is extremely small.

Now, there are many small, indie publishers cropping up. Those have some of the pros and cons of each. You’re more likely to get a better cover (but check the website and see what else they’ve produced–some indie publishers have really low-quality cover designs), a professional edit (but again, they may hire someone who says they’re an editor but doesn’t have experience in fiction, so doesn’t really know what to look for as far as story structure and plot lines–you have to do the legwork and read some of the books they’ve produced and talk to some of their authors about their experience), so even though they’re a “real” publisher, you might not get what you’re hoping for as far as quality. Also, they may have a better shot at getting your books into bookstores, but not necessarily. You will still have to do a lot of the work on marketing and promoting and advertising. Their royalty plans tend to be better than bigger companies, and you don’t necessarily need an agent to submit to them.

So, all that to say, it’s really a personal choice. You have to weigh the pros and cons of each option and decide which things are most important to you and which you’re willing to sacrifice. Are you willing to invest years and years in improving your craft, attending conferences, meeting and wooing agents, waiting, etc., for the chance that you might eventually get published (which even then is not a guarantee of success)? Or would you rather get your book out there and do the work of marketing in order to make it successful, knowing you likely will never have the same level of success in terms of book numbers ?

Either way, you have to have a really good product. If your book stinks, you’re not going to get it in front of an agent or editor, and if you self-publish, you’re not going to sell many copies, because the people who buy it won’t recommend it to their friends. This usually involves some level of professional editing, whichever way you decide. Professional editing can mean the difference between a mediocre product and a really compelling story.

Self-publishing is a very viable option, and one many people are turning to. It takes a lot of work, but you have the potential to make it work. I think if you’re going to do it, you need to do it well. Put the very best product you can out there. For me personally, I self-published my short story collection/novella, The Heir. I had it professionally edited. I paid for a professional cover. And I’ve had a moderate amount of success as far as sales. However, I’m still working toward traditional publishing for my novels. If you’re going to self-publish, make sure you don’t put out a poor-quality product. Learn the craft. Get a good editor. Get a good cover. Make it something you’re proud of, not something you just threw together hoping to make a quick buck.


Do you have any questions? Leave them in the comments or contact me, and I’ll answer them!

Crutch Words

Crutch Words are words that a particular author uses frequently in their work. Most authors have them. They’re different for everyone. Some people also have crutch phrases and crutch sentence structures.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with using a particular word, phrase, or sentence structure, but if you use any one thing too often, it starts to sound repetitive.

For example, next time you’re in church and someone prays, count the number of times they say the word “just” or “Lord” or “Father” and so on. You’ll start to see how people rely on standard words and phrases to fill gaps and propel their words along, without really saying anything. The same is true in writing. Almost all of us have something we overuse, and almost none of us know what that is until we start looking for it, or, better yet, have someone point it out to us. Once we see it, we can’t unsee it, and we become much more aware of when we’re using those things.

For example, one piece of writing advice is to use strong words instead of adjectives or adverbs. So, instead of saying “beautiful,” you might say “stunning.” This is good advice—unless you only ever say “stunning” throughout your manuscript. If you have a stunning woman wearing a stunning dress looking out over a stunning vista at a stunning sunset, very soon the word “stunning” will lose its impact.

This applies across every aspect of writing, including actions, descriptions, conversations, and so on. If you have a character who rubs his nose when he’s nervous, and you use rubbing his nose as an action tag more than a few times, it gets boring and repetitive. If you use the word “small” to describe a dog and then again to describe a car a few lines later, and then again to describe the way the character says something, as in “a small voice,” the reader will catch that repetition and it will draw them out of the story. If you have a character who likes to tell people his opinion, and then follows it up with, “Just saying,” you can convey that he’s a little bit of a know-it-all by throwing that line in sporadically. Putting it in every time he has a line will overuse it and annoy your reader.

For me, I had a crutch sentence structure. Beginning with an action, I launch into another action or explanation of the action.

“Running from the shadow, she turned and glanced over her shoulder.”

“Taking the stairs two at a time, she raced to the third floor.”

Now, there is nothing wrong with this sentence structure, and when used sparingly can add variety to bland writing. When I had every other paragraph (or more!) starting this way, however, it gave my prose a formulaic feel.

Some people use short sentences. Choppy sentences. They’re quick. Snappy. Direct. This can be very effective when you have a fast-paced action scene and you want to convey a sense of urgency. However, if your entire novel is written this way, it will feel incomplete.

Other people tend toward long, flowery sentences, which go into great detail to describe the setting and the character and the action, and which give a lot of information, but which, though grammatically correct, tend to go on too long, which can confuse readers and typically is very boring to read. Long, descriptive sentences here and there can help with pacing and giving necessary information, but when every sentence has three or four points, it’s easy to get lost.

In short, mix it up. Ask someone to read your work and highlight any time you use a particular word (or phrase or structure) more than three or four times in a chapter. Experiment with other ways to phrase things. Use a thesaurus to find synonyms that you can use instead. Switch between long sentences and short ones, between dialogue tags and action tags, between plain, straightforward sentences and eloquent, poetic phrases.

Figure out which words, phrases, and sentence structures are your crutches, and come up with new ways to convey the same information so your work doesn’t sound repetitive and therefore boring. Mixing it up will help to engage your reader and keep them turning pages.

Writing Craft 101: Pantsers and Plotters

Pantsers and Plotters: This refers to your particular style, whether you prefer to write “by the seat of your pants,” making things up as you go along (pantser), or whether you prefer to create a detailed outline of your characters and plot arc before ever beginning to write the story itself (plotter).

There are those who will advocate for one method above the other, insisting that one or the other is the better way to write, but in truth, there are pros and cons to both methods.

Pantsers are the people who make up the story as they go along. They start with an idea for a plot or a character and the story evolves around that idea. Pantsers tend to have more freedom because their story evolves as they go along, leaving room for plot twists and added characters or character deaths or all kinds of things they didn’t see coming when they first had the idea.

Pantsers listen to the story and follow it where it wants to go. These are the people who talk about characters making decisions on their own and doing things the author didn’t expect them to do.

The downside of this is that it typically takes more revision and editing because there are often inconsistencies that come along with making a story up as you go along.

Pantsers also have a greater risk of writer’s block, because if they don’t know where the story is going to end up, they don’t know what has to happen along the way.

Plotters, on the other hand, plan out in great detail the story and character arcs, making extensive outlines to plan where the story will go and what will happen.

Plotters tend to be more detail-oriented and structured. They like to know as much about the story before they start writing the actual scenes as possible. The more information they can put into the outline, the better. They tend to write very fast, because they know exactly what each scene should contain and what they want to accomplish.

They know where the lines are for each act, and how they’re going to get from here to there.

Plotting takes a lot of time, but when plotters actually get to the writing itself, they tend to work fast, because they don’t have to work out any kinks or plot holes.

This helps to minimize the risk of plot holes and tangents, but it doesn’t leave a lot of room for the story to evolve. Thus, if a plot detour does present itself, it’s much harder to work into the story, because the outline changes and there may be things that need to be rewritten in order to make the new thread work.

There is no right or wrong way to write. More than anything, it comes down to a choice based on personality and preference. Most writers naturally lean toward one style over the other. If you strongly prefer one, don’t try to force yourself to write the other way because someone has told you it’s better.

That said, it’s still a good idea to try something new and stretch your writing abilities. If you’re naturally a pantser, try writing using an outline, even if it’s a basic one. You may find it helps you to fill in details and avoid plot holes.

If you’re naturally inclined to plot everything out beforehand, try writing something completely off the cuff, and just allow yourself to follow the story.

Incorporating styles and disciplines that aren’t your natural tendencies will help you stretch your writing craft and ultimately make you a better writer. You may adopt those styles, or you may decide they don’t work for you, and either is fine. But having tried them will give you a better idea of what does and doesn’t work for you.

Writing Craft 101: Genre and Target Audience

Genre: This is the category into which your story fits. There are many, many genres, but some of the popular genres include Romance, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Chick-Lit, Action/Adventure, and Young Adult, among others.

These category headings are what you’d see at the tops of shelves in a bookstore.

Within these major genres are sub-genres and mixed genres.

For example, in the Romance category you could have Paranormal Romance, Historical Romance, Contemporary Romance, LGBTQ Romance, Amish Romance, and countless others.

In the Sci-Fi category you could have Hard Sci-Fi, Space Opera, Time Travel, Near Future, Alternate History, Dystopian, and so on. Your story may span multiple genres and sub-genres, but if you went into a bookstore, where would you look for it? What books would you find it next to? What expectations might a reader have when picking up your book based on the section they found it?

Knowing your genre is important for finding your target audience, and vice versa. Many authors want to break out of traditional genre labels, and create their own genre. While your story should be new and fresh and unique, discarding all labels won’t really help you, because no one will know how to find your book and publishers and marketers will have a very hard time placing it. Agents, editors, and publishers want to know where your story fits so they know whether or not it will be something they can sell.

For example, if you purchase a YA Dystopian novel on Amazon, Amazon will then suggest other books in the same genre, rather than suggesting some obscure, label-free mash-up, which may be excellent but that their algorithms don’t recognize as similar. The same thing applies in bookstores. If you put “sci-fi” as your genre but your book really appeals more to epic fantasy lovers, the people who are browsing the sci-fi shelves will put yours back and move on to things that are more appealing to them.

Narrowing your story down to one primary genre and one or two sub-genres will help you sell your book. Knowing your target audience will help you to narrow it down.

Target Audience: Your target audience is the readers who are most likely to buy your book. If you’re writing romance, your target audience is probably women in the 25+ age range. If you’re writing Young Adult, your target audience is probably teens and twenty-somethings. If you’re writing suspense or hard sci-fi, your target audience is probably men. These are very broad generalizations, of course, but getting an idea of who you’re trying to appeal to will help you in your genre categorization.

Your target audience will parallel to an extent with your main character. Is your main character a woman on a search to find herself in a male-dominated corporate environment? If so, your target audience is likely 30-something women, and you’d categorize your story in Women’s Fiction or Chick Lit.

Is your main character a battle-hardened Special Forces male, trying to finish one final mission before retiring? Then your target audience is probably going to be men, and your primary genre will be Action/Adventure or Suspense.

Are your main characters a group of teens who discover they have special powers and have to balance figuring out their gifts with leading normal teenage lives? Then your target audience is probably teenagers and your primary genre is going to be Young Adult.

There is plenty of room for crossover and expanding your fan-base beyond your target audience. For example, a lot of people read Young Adult fiction. The Harry Potter series, the Divergent series, the Hunger Games series, and many others are marketed as YA, even though they have mass market appeal. If your story is good, you’ll draw in readers beyond your initial genre and target audience, but you have to start somewhere.

Take some time to browse around a bookstore or on Amazon and check out what books that are similar to yours are categorized as. Think about who your main character is and who is most likely to read your story. Then, add all those components together and label your story in a specific genre.

Show and Tell

Show and Tell refers to the way you get information to your reader. You can tell your reader, “It was just about sunset when he kissed her goodnight,” or you can show them, “Rosy fingers of fading light painted her cheeks with a soft glow as he leaned in to kiss her goodnight.” There is a time and a place for telling, but for important scenes, showing is much more engaging to your reader.

Learning to show instead of tell your scenes is vital for making your reader feel. This is important, because the more your reader can feel, the more he or she will be involved in the story and the less likely they are to put your book down. The closer your POV, the easier it is to show something.

Showing is about letting your reader experience the action along with your character. Showing is about taking your reader on an emotional journey. Showing is about making your reader feel for your character and become invested in how the story plays out.

Sometimes, there are things you simply must tell your reader. There is certain information that you have to convey. Things about your world, about your character’s past, or other things you have to let your reader in on for them to understand the story. The goal, then, is to show this information in the most interesting way possible.

Not every scene has to be an exquisite, poetic masterpiece. You don’t need to describe every sunset or the way the rain feels every time a drop lands. Sometimes it’s okay to simply say “It was raining.” But the more you can let your reader feel the splash of water on her face as your character trudges through a storm, the more you can convince your reader that he is tasting the foul slime as your character eats the bug he must consume to survive, the better.

As with backstory, you want to insert necessary information in as small of chunks as possible, only as much as your reader needs to know right now, and do it by making it as interesting as possible.

Do this by having your character interact with the world as much as possible.

For example, if your character needs to convey something about his past that he already knows but the reader doesn’t, have something trigger a memory, like a song or a picture in a store window. Or have him tell another character about the experience. Or have someone else point it out, like, “You always do this, ever since that one time.”

Or, suppose a specific religious ritual is important for your plotline, and you need to convey how the ritual is performed. Have your character go to the church or the temple or the altar and perform the ritual in a context that isn’t vital to the plot, so that when you get to the plot point and performing the ritual is a pivotal moment, the reader already knows why the character is going through certain motions and performing certain motions.

You can also use internal monologue, especially if you’re in a deep POV. Let’s say your character is a demon hunter and you need the reader to know that the only way to kill this specific type of demon is by a silver sword through the heart. You can show the demon appearing in the character’s path, and then have the character say to himself, Oh, great. A stoneheart demon. And I left my silver sword at home.

Again, you’re showing the information by letting the character interact with the world in order to bring that information to light.

How can you tell if you’re telling instead of showing?

Imagine your story is a movie. As the camera pans the scene, anything you can see in the shot you can describe, in order to set your scene. Anything the character notices from his point of view can be described, along with his reaction to it. Anything the character says or reads can be shown.

If, as you’re imagining your story in movie form, you need a narrator to explain something—if you need the narrator to talk about the architecture or the religious symbolism or the history in a scene, or so on—you’re telling instead of showing.

You want your reader to hear the narrator’s voice as seldom as possible, if at all. The more narration you have, the less engaging your story will be. If there’s a way to have another character play the part of narrator and explain things you need explained, that’s better, but ideally, you should have as much as possible come out as your character interacts with her world.

Writing Craft 101: Active Sentences

Using active sentences instead of passive sentences is a technique that will elevate your writing to a much more advanced level. This concept has to do with the active voice and the passive voice in grammar.

As you might guess, as in many other aspects of life, being active in writing is better than being passive. “Active sentences” is another grammar term, having to do with active voice and passive voice. In the active voice, the subject of the sentence is doing whatever is being done in the sentence. In the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is acted upon by the verb.

To put it simply, active = doing, passive = being done.

For example: “Dr. Jekyll consumed the potion,” vs. “The potion was consumed by Dr. Jekyll.”

You’ll often in writing circles to avoid using the word “was” or any other form of the “to be” verb.

Notice the difference in this story:


Passive: She was running through the forest as fast as she could. Her legs were getting tired, but she couldn’t stop. The beast was after her. Soon, she’d be at the village, and then she would be safe.

Active: She ran through the forest. Her legs burned, muscles throbbing, but she couldn’t stop. The beast behind her growled. She only had to push on for a few more steps. Safety lay at the village, just ahead.


See how much more engaging the second version is? They use the exact same number of words, but one is infinitely more interesting to read.

As with all of these “rules” for writing, there is a time and a place for passive writing. Sometimes it’s just more concise. Not every sentence needs to be a poetic masterpiece. Depending on what your paragraph or chapter is trying to accomplish, sometimes, “It was hot,” is better than, “the blazing sun scorched him as soon as he stepped outside.” Sometimes the passive voice works.

But, as a general rule, writing active sentences is more engaging, more interesting, and more professional than writing in the passive voice.



Writing Craft 101: Backstory and Info-dumping

Backstory is information about your character that has shaped who he is and why he does what he does. This includes his past, his personality, his relationships, and so on. Certain things are pivotal to your character arc, and there are certain beautiful and painful moments that simply must come to light if the reader is to understand why your character is who he is and why he does what he does.

Info-dumping is exactly what it sounds like. It’s telling your reader what you feel she needs to know about your character’s backstory in a way that is boring and inorganic to the storyline. Info-dumping is piling information, necessary or not, into your story that your reader has to wade through to get to the meat of your story. The difficulty is figuring out exactly what to put where and when.

Here are some pointers for effectively writing backstory.

  1. Don’t Info-Dump.

Backstory should be done in little bits, not pages and pages at a time.

Example: Bill and Frank walked down the alley toward the warehouse. A German Shepherd jumped against the fence, barking and growling. Bill’s heart began to race and the back of his neck broke out in a sweat. He couldn’t see a German Shepherd without having a panic attack. When Bill was seven, he got bitten by a German Shepherd. He was innocently playing in his own back yard, but there was a hole in the fence. A new neighbor had just moved in, and had a huge German Shepherd. Even though Bill did nothing to taunt the animal, it rushed through the hole in the fence and jumped on him, gnawing at his arm until its owner came and grabbed it. Bill had to get eleven stitches, and he couldn’t stand to be in the same house with a German Shepherd, despite how many years had passed.

Notice that only the first three sentences are relevant to the action with Bill and Frank walking toward the warehouse. Now look at the same scene without the info-dump.

Bill and Frank walked down the alley toward the warehouse. A German Shepherd jumped against the fence, barking and growling. Bill’s heart began to race and the back of his neck broke out in a sweat.
“You okay?” Frank asked.
Bill rubbed the scar on his arm where he’d had to get eleven stitches. “I’m not a dog person.”

I’ve conveyed the same information, but in a much more interesting way.

  1. Use dialogue to convey information.

Your reader gets to know your characters just as he would get to know a new friend, by talking to them and spending time with them. As your character interacts with other characters, your reader will see what they say and how they say it, and what they do and how they do it. This is how they will start to get a picture of the backstory.

Example: Joe admired his wife’s new dress. That color of blue reminded him of the first time they’d met at the arboretum. She’d been standing next to a patch of forget-me-nots. She looked up, saw him, and smiled, and he’d commented on how the flowers matched her eyes.

Now, contrast that with a conversation.

“How do I look?” Lisa asked.
Joe kissed her cheek. “Beautiful. I love this color on you.”
She smiled. “I know. That’s why I bought it. Just like the forget-me-nots on the day we met.”

Do you see how the dialogue conveys the same information, but keeps the reader engaged in the action of the story?

  1. Use information sparingly.

Add only as much as the reader absolutely needs to know to understand what’s going on. Treat backstory like a piece of glass. Drop it, let it shatter, and then pick up the pieces and insert them along the way in the manuscript. Don’t just insert them wherever, of course. Insert the necessary information only when and where it is absolutely necessary. If something in your character’s past is vital to something that his happening in his present, insert that when it’s happening.

Example: Indiana Jones is terrified of snakes. In the first movie, he has a moment with a snake where he flips out. At that point, we as the viewers know he’s afraid of them. There’s no explanation, no reason, just enough of the fact to know, when he later gets dropped into a tomb full of them, that this is one of the worst possible situations for him. The reason why is really inconsequential.

Eventually, in the third movie, Indy’s fear of snakes is linked to an event in his youth when he was trapped in a box full of snakes while he was being chased by bad guys. If that scene had come as a flashback near the beginning of the first movie it would’ve just been annoying. All we really needed was the one line, “Snakes. Why does it always have to be snakes?” We get it.

Which brings me to my final point:

  1. Trust your reader.

They get it. Trust that your readers are smart enough to read between the lines. You don’t have to spell everything out for them. In the first example, with the character who is afraid of dogs, they don’t need to know the whole situation to infer that Bill got bitten and is now afraid of dogs. They get it. Give them just enough information to figure it out for themselves.

Writing Craft 101: Tense

Tense has to do with when the story is told.

Tenses are past, present, and future. You can study tenses further in a grammar book, but primarily what you’ll see in fiction is past tense and occasionally present tense.

Present tense is when you’re telling the story as though it’s unfolding right now. Present tense locates the situation in the present time. In fiction it is useful when trying to create a sense of urgency and immediacy. When you’re writing in present tense, the reader experiences the action along with the character and there are no guarantees for the ending.

Past tense is by far the most common tense used in fiction. It places the action in the past and indicates that the events taking place have already happened. This does not mean it’s not as interesting or engaging as something in present tense. If it’s done well, it can be just as captivating. And, it’s much easier to do well than present tense, and in most cases it’s easier to read than present tense, which is why most authors prefer it.

When you mix tense with person, you start to develop the voice in which your story will be written.

Imagine a scenario. For example, the character is trying to unlock a door.

First person, present tense: I stick my key in the hole and jiggle, but nothing happens. Please, please tell me he didn’t give me the wrong key. I do not have time for this.

Third person present tense: She inserts the key slowly, listening for every click of the tumblers. She tenses as the key sticks. This has to work. It just has to.

First person past tense: I jiggled the handle. Locked. Could this day get any worse? On TV they always picked locks with hair pins. Was that even possible? Could I even find hair pins in the bottom of my purse?

Third person past tense: She glanced around. No sign of anyone watching. Listening. Good. She pulled the pins from her hair and inserted them into the lock, feeling the clicks as the tumblers slid into place.

As you can see, different tenses can be useful to accomplish different things, and how you want your story to play out will be accomplished, in part, by what person and what tense you use. As an exercise, try writing the same scene in several different ways and see what works best for you and your story.

Writing Craft 101: Person and Point of View (part two)

Third person is when your narrator isn’t actually part of the story. This allows you to develop a much broader world. The reader can see what’s going on in multiple locations and through multiple viewpoints.

Within third person, there are multiple levels of POV, which determine how close you get to the character’s thoughts. Your options are omniscient, objective, limited multiple, and limited close.

Third person omniscient is when the narrator is basically God. The narrator can see everything that is happening and knows all the characters’ thoughts and feelings. Omniscient POV was very popular in classic literature, such as Dickens and Hardy, but has fallen out of popularity, primarily because a closer POV is more engaging to the reader.

Third person objective is when the narrator describes actions and events, but only tells about them objectively, and does not intrude upon the characters’ thoughts. This is even less engaging than omniscient because the reader never really knows what a character is thinking or feeling and therefore doesn’t empathize with the character nearly as deeply.

Third person limited POV is a little closer, limited to the thoughts, feelings, experiences of one character at a time. You can have multiple limited POVs within one story, but be careful to differentiate between them so the reader knows whose POV they’re experiencing at any given time.

Third person close is very similar to limited, as in it is limited to one character at a time, but it is so close it’s almost like first person, except it’s still “he/she” instead of “I”. Like limited, you can get into a close POV for more than one character, but be sure to be clear about whose mind you’re in and whose eyes you’re seeing through.

The preferred style for most modern storytelling is to use limited/close POVs. Like first person, this style draws the reader in and helps them to experience the story along with the character. So, unless otherwise specified, most of my advice will be given with the assumption that you’re going to be writing your story in either a limited/close or first-person POV.

Head Hopping is a term that is used when you switch POV characters mid-scene. If you’ve been in Helen’s POV, describing Troy and her trauma of being kidnapped, and then switch to the servant who is overwhelmed by her beauty without a scene break, you have hopped from Helen’s experience to the servant’s. This is confusing to your reader, because all of a sudden, instead of being Helen, they’re seeing Helen. It is a quick way to pull your reader out of the story and then you risk your reader losing interest. Stick with one POV character per scene, and if you must switch POVs in order to move to another location or reveal critical information that Helen can’t know, then have a scene or chapter break.