What our authors say…

Going back to the basics really helps me evaluate and move the story along. Each chapter is like a microcosm of story. It will have a beginning, a middle, and an end. I like there to be a reversal in each chapter that keeps the reader involved and rooting for the protagonist. -Patrick Burdine

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Because characterization is a huge problem in fantasy, but pacing often isn’t much better, even among some published pieces.

1) Sequences of ordinary events reported in intense detail are intensely boring.

Now, there are lots of places in fantasy where the audience will want to know all the details—a duel, a marriage, the climactic confrontation with the villain, a scene where you’re setting up one character to trick another. It’s even possible to think of conversation scenes as extended sequences of ordinary events. However, that’s because, in such scenes, a tiny action can change the whole course of the story. If everything depends on the heroine’s “yes” answer and she says “no” instead, your audience will want to know that. They may look ordinary on the surface, they may be stuffed with small details, but each contains the potential of something extraordinary.

Compare those with this:

She rose from her bed that morning after staring at the ceiling for almost an hour. She brushed her teeth with mint-flavored toothpaste. Then she shuffled downstairs and put on fresh clothes. She chose a green blouse and black pants. Then she picked up her bookbag, brushed her hair, and headed out the door.

This is the kind of thing I’m used to seeing, and skimming. Most of it is not interesting, extraordinary, or—this is the most important part—useful to the kind of story you want to tell. If you want the audience to know what the character’s wearing, you can do it without including all the extraneous boring detail. If you want the audience to know that she uses mint-flavored toothpaste, even, you can note the toothpaste resting near the sink in a more interesting scene, or have another character comment on the heroine’s minty-fresh breath.

There are three reasons authors do this that I can think of. None of them excuses it.

a) Author’s Darling syndrome again. The character so fascinates the author that she thinks her flavor of toothpaste is exciting. Not so. Murder the Darling and resurrect a normal person in her place.

b) Misguided attempt at characterization, often from a character profile. There’s a reason that I regard character profiles with deep mistrust. If they ask a question like, “What’s your character’s favorite color?” and the author answers it, then often the author assumes that information must be worked into the story, come hell or high water. However, that kind of thing is not characterization. Tell me why the favorite color matters to the character, or that she chose it to conform, or that it once helped her to solve the Mystery of Bathsheeba, and you’ve got me.

c) The author thinks she can write mystery or “clever” scenes, and tries to include one extraordinary detail in the mess of ordinary ones, on the premise that she will pull out the detail later and wave it in the reader’s face as the clue that was there all along. Here’s a clue: If you think this is a good way to do a mystery, you’re already going about it wrongly.

Know which parts of your story are meaty and which are not, and learn to skip the gristle, especially…

2) If a journey is short and nothing important to the plot happens on it, then skip it.

I will want to know if your urban fantasy hero meets the guy who can control bats on the way to his girlfriend’s apartment. However, if you already know that he’s going to her apartment to break up with her, that the confrontation is the important thing, and that nothing happens on his walk across the park, then there’s no reason to describe the walk across the park. It’s a pretty ordinary setting. If you have an important scene that happens in it later and want to give the audience an idea of what it looks like, describe it closer to the important scene. I get extraordinarily annoyed when I’m anticipating a nice confrontation and the author delays it to give me a travelogue. In fact, I’m less likely to pay attention to the travelogue at all, which means the author’s good intention backfires.

Another concern is the method of travel. Yes, I’d probably be more interested if your character is a mounted policeman and rides his horse across the park. But if he’s walking, or taking the subway, or driving, or some other means that most people reading your story will know about, what’s the point in saying “He crossed the street and walked under the line of pretty shade trees that ran across the lawn?” Nothing special, nothing important.

Give me a scene break, and show him knocking timidly on the door of his girlfriend’s apartment. Most readers will not demand to know how he got there.

3) Flashbacks should be at least as interesting as the ordinary narration.

I grit my teeth when it becomes obvious the author is heading into flashbacks. They’re grounds for infodumping, quite a bit of the time—“She suddenly remembered the night Tommy showed up in her apartment and showed her the portal to Narnia’s next-door neighbor, Corlinland”—and they interrupt the main narrative. If I’m caught up in the main narrative, I don’t want it to stop. An interesting flashback can justify this. A slow one won’t, or one too packed with sticky information that the author wants me to swallow (see point 4).

So, if you must use flashback, make it interesting, get to the point, and don’t set it during the scene where the hero is just about to reveal who the mastermind is. Also, as good practical advice, stop using the past perfect tense as soon as you can, and ease back into past. The past perfect is “had” plus the verb. Compare these two sets of sentences:

She remembered the morning she had gone to the lake, when she had been intent on picking up a specimen of a rare shell for Master Barnabas. She had turned to look out over the lake, and had seen a shape moving far out in the water. As she had watched, mouth agape, a shining white horse had swum towards the shore, and that had been the answer to her dreams.

She remembered the morning she had gone to the lake, intent on picking up a specimen of a rare shell for Master Barnabas. She had turned to look out over the lake, and saw a shape moving deep in the water. As she watched, mouth agape, a shining white horse swam towards the shore. It would turn out to be the answer to her dreams.

With the second set, we’re obviously still in the past, but it flows more smoothly and doesn’t constantly remind the audience, “Flashback! Flashback!” Again, the purpose of this flashback is to tell the audience something necessary that happened previously, and then get back to the story. Don’t stretch it out, and don’t worry that your readers will forget about the interruption. You want them to forget about the interruption, and then flow seamlessly back into the main narrative.

4) If description is honey to the narrative, exposition is molasses.

Exposition is straight-forward infodumping, especially about history, genealogy, the magic system, or any of the other things that many fantasy authors think their audience will wander off cliffs without. I prefer fantasy authors who throw me into the sea and expect me to sink or swim, or tuck the information off in nice little appendices and glossaries I have the option of reading if I want. I understand not everyone does. However, there are much better ways of getting the information to your audience than several molasses-filled paragraphs all at the beginning.

I would have a hard time keeping my attention keen and my memory intact all through the wilderness of this paragraph:

Prince Keldorn smiled and waved at the people who crowded around his table. They had come to see him crowned, the twenty-seventh King of the City of Eternal Sleep. The City of Eternal Sleep had been built by the first King generations and generations ago, when the hordes of Drusslin were still a problem in the north. The chieftains of the Drusslin tribes, who thought there could be no strength in the King, had tried to conquer the City of Eternal Sleep again and again, but had failed. They would send emissaries now, clad in their thick furs and chains of gold, and they would bow down to the Kings. They had even provided a Queen a few generations ago, Queen Elsilla, whose portrait still hung in the great hall. From the north of their lands they sent the sweet-smelling esetsa wood of which the table was built.

It’s a bad, bad paragraph. We’ve wandered totally away from Prince Keldorn, had a highly unnecessary history lesson with stupid repetition—one would assume that since Keldorn is the twenty-seventh King of the City of Eternal Sleep, it was the first King who founded the city, and that the Drusslin didn’t destroy it—wandered further into the Drusslin tribes, encountered a Queen who’ll probably never be mentioned again, and ended on the wood of the table, which, for some reason known only to the author, is “important.” Was there any explanation for all this peregrination? Are these things ever going to come up in the story again? Probably not.

Yet there go the fantasy authors, adding them in again.

Basically, the histories, cities, dynasties, and magic systems of your stories are a lot like those extra fields on a character profile sheet. They’re fascinating to know, they can help you with future stories, and if you need to bring them in, you have them ready. But if they don’t matter to the story, you have no business interrupting something that does, like Prince Keldorn’s welcoming of his guests, to insist that your readers pay attention to them.

There are lots of different ways to adapt explanations. Scatter them as you need them; close to an important scene, describe the location. When we meet a character for the first time, describe them then, rather than as part of an expository paragraph a long way before. Use your hero to show the appropriate reaction to an unexpected custom.

Or you can make up things at need, then organize them later. I do this all the time. Sink or swim.

5) Have things happen in the middle.

Fantasy middle books, especially middle books of trilogies, have a bad reputation. The author sets up the story in the first book and ties it up in the third. Too often, the middle one or two (or nineteen, if you’re Robert Jordan) do nothing at all to advance the story. The important people moon around, admire their surroundings, and angst. This goes by the name of “character development.”

I would recommend coming up a bunch of interesting, neat, incredible scenes that you can’t wait to get to. Come up with a hundred, if you like. Not all of them will fit in, but you’ll want to fit in as many as possible. In having things happen at people, you’ll avoid the mooning character problem.

You might not use scenes. You might use another method. Whatever. The point is that characters repeating conversations they’ve had already, or staring at art when they’ve never been connoisseurs, or suddenly doing anything to avoid their quests, need to be poked with sticks until they do stuff.

6) The climax is a large part of the book’s point. Don’t shortchange your readers.

It seems I’ve read an incredible amount of climaxes, both in fantasy short stories and novels, where the author suddenly panicked, threw a bunch of random shit together, and declared herself done. That happened in Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels trilogy, and in the Patricia McKillip book, Alphabet of Thorn, that I reviewed a short time ago. Authors who could take the time to describe every irritating nuance of a drawn-out romance suddenly couldn’t give me a proper sketch of the grand confrontation.

This is moronic.

Word counts have something to do with it in books under contract, maybe, but that’s just an explanation, not an excuse. Don’t rush through it because you want to finish the story, or because you’re more interested in describing the marriage between the hero and heroine than you are in describing how they defeat the villain. The happy ending is a large part of many fantasy books, but it feels cheap if you skip the price the characters pay. I’ve read fantasy climaxes that lasted for one hundred pages, and needed every bit of that space. If you’ve been building for two books or more, this is especially true. If J. K. Rowling has Harry Potter defeat Voldemort in two pages in book 7, then I will introduce the book to the wall; I don’t care how expensive it is.

I think this holds true across the board in fantasy, even if your book has a tragic ending, a twisty one, or one that smashes the expectations of the audience to bits. In fact, it’s more important then. If you haven’t properly set up your twist, it will seem as if you’re pulling it out of your ass. If you haven’t made your tragedy seem inevitable, your audience will be sure that the heroes could have done something about it, and go off and write fanfiction that will probably be better than the book itself. If you intend to smash expectations to bits, you have to smash them, not give them a little tap and declare that now everything is different. Attempts to do this are even more pathetic than the rushed happy endings.

I’ve read too many stories lately that rush at the end, and until then don’t move. Stories are living creatures. Living creatures move too, you know, as well as contemplate their navels.