Focusing on The Order of Altare first draft. Making progress and hope to post again soon. Thanks!
Fiction, stories, books, novels, that is.
Why do we read stories? What is it about this form of communication that draws us in and absorbs our attention and focus until the words The End? What do we seek from reading? What do we receive from reading?
Conversely, why do some of us write stories? What are our goals or intent? Why do we do it?
Rather than go into all the many ideas I have about either of these I am including two polls below. One for readers and one for writers.
All you writers out there should also be readers and should answer both polls.
Mark all that apply and then add a comment below to keep the discussion going.
First, thank you for answering the polls and discussing more detailed thoughts. For me, the answers to the above poll questions are evidenced in the creation of the questions themselves. In effect, I created polls that closely reflect my own motivations for both reading and writing.
The only exception may be my desire to be famous. I would rather not be famous, actually, and would prefer to be successful and relatively anonymous.
So, let’s discuss. Why do we read and write, really?
Who is willing to go first?
I had a conversation with a writer friend recently (by conversation you should understand that to mean I.M. chat) about magic as used in fantasy fiction. He noted that the wonder and awe of magic in a story was what appealed to him. He also mentioned that for him as a reader, if the magic was too well-defined, into a system of sorts, then it became more of a technology than a mysterious force.
We discussed how this point of view was reflected in Tolkien’s works, particularly in Lord of the Rings, where magic is used infrequently, is so rare that only a few possess the power to perform magic, and the source of power and how to use it is never really explained.
I agreed that that approach in a story is very powerful and keeps magic at a distance so it feels like a big unexplained and awesome force. For many readers this is what they want and expect of magic in a story, and a story written in this manner can be successful on multiple levels. If Tolkien’s works are an example of this, and many consider him to the grandfather of the epic fantasy genre, then this model is a good one.
However, there are caveats to storytelling with magic as a rare, mystical force. This is where the author must balance the power of magic within the story with the influence arcane powers can have on the plot. Best selling author, Brandon Sanderson, devised what he calls Sanderson’s First Law–you can read his article here, where he discusses the limits of how magic can influence the plot based upon how well said magic is defined for the reader. The text of the law is below.
Sanderson’s First Law of Magics: An author’s ability to solve conflict satisfactorily with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic. (*”satisfactorily” added later by Sanderson).
So, Sanderson is arguing that the reader derives story satisfaction in fantasy fiction by the relationship between magic and solutions to conflict or problems for the characters.
In Lord of the Rings, Gandalf possesses great magic and it isn’t really explained how he got it, how he uses it, and what is the scope of his powers, but it doesn’t bother us because he uses magic so infrequently and his influence on the story is minor or indirect in most cases that it never feels like we need to know more about the magic. Gandalf is ancient, wise, magical and it seems that he always has always been. He is a true wizard. We don’t need to know if the source of his power is the earth, the sky, the moon, a mutation, part-Elven blood, a talisman he wears, or formal words of power he has learned. We accept that he is a wizard and his actions provide us with wonder and awe at what he can accomplish in certain situations. But he can’t save the world alone with his magic, he can’t destroy the One Ring, and he can’t defeat Sauron alone. So, although we love when he can use magic and its effects are powerful, he solves many more problems with his leadership, his blade, his wits, or his allies.
Would Lord of the Rings be more satisfying if we knew how Gandalf’s magic worked, how Sauron’s magic worked, how the Elves’ innate magic worked, or what power enlivened the Ents? I think for that great story, it would take away the wonder of Middle Earth. It is a magical realm and thus many places, races, and people are touched by magic. That’s all we need to know to be satisfied by the story.
This is what I think my writer friend meant in our discussion.
On the other hand, my writing and reading preferences lean towards the other end of the spectrum noted in Sanderson’s First Law. Like Sanderson, I like a well-developed magic system that the reader learns along with the characters. I like that a particular setting can possess great magic and much of it can seem powerful, wonderful, and awe-inspiring when it isn’t known, but can also be seen as highly useful, practical, and influential when understood and the magical power is harnessed by those characters who acquire or discover their own innate arcane capabilities.
With a defined magic system, the author can then use magic more often and in more various plot circumstances to solve problems or have characters overcome conflict because the reader will possess enough understanding to know how the magic should work, what its effects are, and most importantly what the limits of magic are.
Magic then becomes a sophisticated tool, weapon, cure, power, or method that operates within known boundaries that operate like real world laws of physics do for us. In this perspective, magic is indeed science that we don’t yet understand. Those that can learn it, can use it in a defined manner. The usefulness of the magic isn’t in the innate power of the magic itself, but in the judicious, clever, or appropriate application of its power by the characters. So, magic can’t solve problems, but the characters can use magic in a way that can solve problems.
Sanderson’s own Mistborn world has such a defined magic system. Allomancy as one of his magic systems is called, is the ability of a character to ingest metal flakes or powder suspended in liquid, and then harness that “source” to achieve a desired effect. Ingesting steel powder, for example, allows the allomancer to “push” with force against sources of steel in the world around him. If the object has less mass than the allomancer, the object moves away from him in a telekinetic manner, like a thrown ball or knife. If the steel object is fixed or weighs more than the allomancer, his body is propelled or pushed away in the opposite direction. A competent allomancer can use this to push down on a steel beam and propel himself into the air in huge leaps that can be timed to resemble flying if there is a constant source of steel on the ground below him to push upward on.
As an element of magic, this steel pushing power has defined attributes, logic, and limits. It behaves within the known laws of gravity and forces of wind, rain and other elements. It is a power we do not have in the real world, but if we did, theoretically we could learn how to use it ourselves.
That last phrase, ‘theoretically we could learn how to use it ourselves’ is what appeals to me as reader and writer. I like the wonder and awe of magic, but even more, I love the idea that if I had the innate power, I could actually learn to use these magics because as a reader, I’ve learned to understand how the magic works, and I can connect with the characters even more so because I want to be those characters for the duration of the story. I want to use the magic they have. I want to be the hero who has wits, weapons, and magic to face down evil and save the good people of the world from destruction or enslavement. I become the viewpoint characters and use magic with them, because I know how to use the magic the way they do and am thus more fully vested in the outcome of the story.
That is what resonates for me as a reader and because of that, I write in the same manner. I have developed a complex magic system that has rules, economics, defined attributes, a specific source, varying levels of power, and both known and unknown qualities that can be learned, studied, and pursued. This magic systems interests me and hopefully, when applied to my epic fantasy series, will interest my readers.
Magic in fiction seems to be applied in a spectrum or scale of wonder on one end and system on the other. Most writers of fantasy fiction fall somewhere on that spectrum.
Where do you fall?
Do you agree or disagree with Sanderson’s First Law?
What style of magic to you prefer to read? To Write? A defined system or an arcane power? Both?
Please share your thoughts as either a reader or writer and let’s continue the Great Magic Debate.
Once upon a time I was a pantser*, I had no problem coming up with great story ideas, interesting (I thought) characters, especially the antagonist, and was able to dive right into the first draft.
Alas, that inertia was like a ball rolled up an incline. The ball rolled as far as my initial throw, but then part way up the slope, the ball would apex and start rolling backwards. This happened to me on three consecutive novel projects. My initial momentum slowed and then stopped, and then my first draft progress started backsliding as I began rethinking or reworking the first act of the story. I was unable to move forward, feeling compelled to fix what I’d written before I could continue.
The problem of course was that I hadn’t thought through the entire story. I wanted to discover the story as I went along. I wanted to be both the writer and the first reader of the story. I wanted to be surprised by what the characters did and what happened. I didn’t want to write the story, I wanted the characters to write the story for me. This is the way Stephen King does it, so why shouldn’t I emulate one of the masters?
Upon reflection and analysis–although I didn’t figure this out until much later–I discovered one main problem with this approach. In essence, I didn’t really know the main characters well enough to know what they would do in the setting I created with the story premise/idea I had. Where/when would they really become involved in the story problem? What was their life like before the inciting incident? How would they react to sudden changes? What inner demons do they struggle with? What goals would they put aside to solve the story problem? And perhaps the biggest question, how would the inner and outer goals of all the main characters oppose each other and what conflict would result?
If the characters have the proper dimension and depth for the type and genre of story you intend to tell, the answers to most if not all of the questions above would be answered. Knowing the characters is really the main way to maintain story inertia. When you know the characters well enough, it’s easier to decide what they’ll do in each scene, how they’ll react to situations and the actions/reactions of other characters.
Of course, this is easier said than done.
So what are ways to better understand your characters, and thus the entire story?
First, I suggest getting over the hangup I had about trying to keep the unfolding events of the story a surprise to you the writer. You are the writer, not the first reader. Most of us simply cannot tell a proper story without knowing the entire story from beginning to end. How else will you properly foreshadow, plant story seeds that bloom later, flashback or reveal mysteries, expand on motivations, introduce subplots and red herrings, and have a proper character arc for your protagonist if you don’t know the details of your plot? If you can do this without any planning, stellar. I cannot.
Second, know your characters better than you know anyone else. The writer must know the characters’ deepest secrets, worst fears, fragile hopes, emotional scars, fervent desires, social needs, hidden and obvious talents, attitudes, biases, opinions, childhood traumas, moments of joy, and anything else that creates characters readers want to spend time with. How you do this as a writer is up to you. Interview the character, write a biography page or two, use a character profile sheet or tool, write a series of journal entries in first person from the character’s POV, or simply write down everything you know about yourself that would be needed in a story and change it all to match each main character. By main characters, I mean the viewpoint characters, protagonist, antagonist, and any prominent character whose actions in the story drive change. Secondary characters do not need as much depth, but you should know them at least as well as you know members of your family or your friends, so you can predict their behavior and attitudes in each scene.
Third, write an outline. I’ve posted about this previously here and a follow-up here. An outline is a roadmap for your story. Use whatever level of detail you wish. Some writers, write a single page to describe the main events of the story. Others write a hundred page detailed scene by scene breakdown. I’m still experimenting with my outline style, but suffice it to say, I use both synopsis style narrative outlines, spreadsheet style scene lists, and plot timeline charts. An outline will help you know the full story, help you see the pace and rhythm of events, and will help you see where the characters are acting on the story problem and where they are reacting to the story problem or other characters.
Fourth, and this is a lesson I’ve learned this past month, don’t be a slave to either character profiles or your initial outline. Treat these planning materials as first drafts.
These past two months, I’ve been stalled on my current novel project, The Order of X, Book One of my epic fantasy series. I had used The Snowflake Method to design the story and characters. Additionally, I completed five-page character profiles for each main character and abbreviated profiles for secondary characters. I had more planning and preparation references that I’d ever used before, and STILL I got stuck at the end of the first act of the story, about 30,000 words in.
My initial characters ideas were flawed. One viewpoint character was so unique and against type, she was unlikable. The protagonist had no emotional depth and reaction to serious events in the story. The initial obstacles were tough, but got too easy and predictable after they got through them. I didn’t have enough suspense or conflict with the antagonist.
My story inertia had stalled and I could feel that ball hitting an apex and starting to roll backwards. Rather than give up and switch projects, like I’ve done so often in the past, I went back to my character profiles, outline, and scene list and revisited it all, spending most of the past month making changes. Predictably, I found several story gaps that require entire new scenes and chapters.
After all, I know the characters better now that before I started the draft. I also know what story path follows the least resistance and therefore is the least interesting.
For me, the way to get unstuck was to be willing to change my initial planning documents to get to a better, fuller, more complete story, and I’m much happier with the story now.
I wrote the first new scene in over a month last night.
I’m now unstuck and the ball is again rolling uphill. This time, however, I’ll stay with the ball and keep nudging it so it maintains momentum until the story is concluded and I can write “The End.”
What strategies have you used to navigate the vast maze of the middle of a story?
* a writer who writes by the seat of their pants, just winging the story by pure inspiration and/or force of will with little or no planning or preparation.
Recently, I wrote about the importance of hooking a reader with a great first line or paragraph in your story. The goal is to entice the reader to keep reading.
So after you’ve written a killer first sentence or paragraph, what comes next? How do you keep the reader engaged where they feel compelled to keep turning pages?
Fantasy author Michael Sullivan posted on this topic recently and rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ll point you to his post, “Writing Advice 17 – A Reason to Read.”
Sullivan focuses on several key areas to improve the quality of the storytelling that keeps a reader on the proverbial hook.
- Add layers of mystery to your story. Parallel or overlapping story questions keep the readers intrigued.
- Add or increase conflict, a key requirement. Stories are really about characters in conflict.
- Add or increase tension and suspense. Tension creates the emotion of anticipation where the reader expects something important to happen.
I highly recommend this quick refresher on the elements of story that will keep your readers engaged in your stories and eager for the next ones.
Has anyone discovered or used any other techniques to keep readers turning pages?
Amazon just announced the launch of another publishing imprint, 47 North. This new imprint focuses on speculative fiction genres, namely science-fiction, fantasy, and horror.
See the link below for commentary from both The Passive Voice blog and author Michael Stackpole.
Link to article on The Passive Voice.
As for me, I find it interesting that the kings of digital self-publishing distribution, Amazon, have now become actual publishers and are releasing both new and backlisted novels.
What does this mean for digital self-publishing pursuits?
As with any publisher, I suspect they’ll solicit deals with those indie/traditional published writers who are making a splash in the market with consistently high sales.
I’m not sure if 47 North will be open to direct query or agent contact. That remains to be seen.
This announcement, while intriguing, doesn’t change my publishing plans at this moment.
What do you think about this new development? Does it change anything for your writing/publishing plans?