What our authors say…
Characters live in the world. For them, The Chirurgeon’s Philter is a commonplace type of soda pop. Introduce it as such. It’s a disservice to the reader and the character when exposition is explained in a way that doesn’t fit the character or the world. -William Boyd
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The title of this rant is arrogant, yes. I am feeling like being ranty.
1) Don’t assume that you need stage-setting chapters.
Common wisdom is that you cannot jump right into the story, that you must show how boring/wrong/simple the protagonist’s life is first before you show why she’ll leave town with a bunch of random strangers, or why she’s willing to accept that she’s the heir of Bloodline Whatever.
I say start as close to the real beginning of the story as possible. If that means a stage-setting chapter first because it introduces characters who are going to be important later, or because the main character isn’t going to travel anywhere and the fantasy story is going to stay in the same setting- which is pretty damn rare- then use a scene-setting chapter. But most of the time that first chapter only functions to dump a bunch of existential angst and backstory at readers. If it’s not actually plot, cut it.
This is one reason why expository writing can be so boring, especially if it’s expository writing about everything that happened in the character’s life before the story did. It doesn’t have a true reason to be in the book. It’s only extra pages of flab. If it has a true reason, then it should be just as exciting as the rest. If not, take a good, long look at it, and ask yourself if it really needs to be there.
2) Recognize the perils of the Long Conversation.
I really like Stephen Donaldson’s The Mirror of Her Dreams, which is crossover fantasy (bringing a character from modern Earth to a fantasy world). I think it works in spite of the heroine’s passivity and the convoluted plotting, which irritates a lot of people.
But there is one section I would happily cut out of the book and set fire to- the long conversation where Terisa Morgan gets told the entire history of the Kingdom of Mordant from the back of beyond to the present day.
Yes, fantasy backstories are complicated. Yes, heroes often can’t really participate in those conversations because they don’t know what’s going on. But there has got to be a better format than dumping it on the heroes, and the readers, all at one go, whether that’s in a long conversation with the wizard in the bowels of the castle or a long ride cross-country.
This is another place where the plot slams to a jarring halt. It’s a convention of fantasy, but a clunky and crappy one, and deserves to go. Keep the story tied to motion. It’s a problem of pacing to some extent, but a story can be brilliantly paced elsewhere and still have one of these scenes. There’s just no reason for one of these conversations, other than that people model themselves on other writers- usually Tolkien- and put it in the story. Just get rid of it.
3) Remember that secondary characters are not marble statues.
They move. Those characters might be pawns without a hope of ever becoming anything more if they aren’t the protagonists, but they should still not pause helplessly on the board while the story follows the hero. Instead, get used to having the characters do things offstage and then gently inserting the information at the correct places.
This is one reason that a lot of fantasies feel badly-plotted to me. The hero is the source of everything in the story- moral vision, interest, dramatic action, and the deeds of other characters. He does something, and everyone reacts to it, which might be possible if the “something” includes saving the world, dramatically denouncing a dictator, breaking the magic of the world, etc. But in the pause between his first “something” and the next big “something,” no one else does anything. They simply stand around waiting for him, so they can react again.
A story with multiple viewpoints can, possibly, have less problems with this, but even there the author often latches on to one character and makes him or her the center of everything. The other viewpoint characters spend their time reflecting or reporting on the actions of the protagonist, or possibly the reactions of other people important to the protagonist.
If the reports and reflections are not in themselves events- for example, if they don’t really lead to character development or add new information to the story- cut back on them. They’ll probably still be necessary to indicate that the hero isn’t alone in his world, but they should not contribute to the impression that the other characters are there only to be fans of the hero. (Fantasy has enough problems with that already).
4) Introduce plot elements that rely on each other.
One (legitimate) criticism of big epic fantasies, or for that matter any fantasy novel with more than two subplots, is that the subplots don’t seem to rely on each other. Character A is off in the northern continent, learning how to be a priestess of the Secret Yadda-Yaddas. Character B is in the south learning how to defeat King Aveddiwhoop. Character C is doing nothing much, except sitting around in a tower and brooding (see point 5). Character D has been given a crystal pendant and told she’s the secret ruler of the free world.
Do these plotlines intersect? Probably. At some point. Does the author do the simple, sane thing and tie them together, so that, say, Character D may become the ally Character B needs, or Character C gets dragged off her lazy ass and kidnapped by the Secret Yadda-Yaddas? Not on your life.
Subplots should comment on each other, and some fantasy authors are good at doing that; something that happens to Character B is reflected in what happens to Character C. They may also intersect pages (chapters, books, years…) down the road. But they also need to fucking interact and influence each other. If Character B topples King Aveddiwhoop, and his soldiers were besieging the caves of the secret Yadda-Yaddas, don’t you think they would eventually get called home, or desert, or decide to march somewhere else when they hear the news of the death of their monarch? Yet the author forgets that that news will influence other people in the plot. It’s treated solely as the property of Character B, and maybe of Character D if she’s supposed to rule the kingdom King Aveddiwhoop usurped. (Poor King Aveddiwhoop. No one ever feels sorry for him). The other plotlines can proceed alone in their insane loneliness for pages (chapters, books, years, Robert Jordan novels…) without one fucking clue that something has happened which should link them together.
Get over the hero-worship. Think of how any large event- or, for that matter, the ripples from events which may appear small to the protagonists- will affect other people in the story. Just because your main character doesn’t consider the event all that important doesn’t mean it isn’t.
5) Brooding, angsting, chewing on your own angst, and staring out the window don’t make much of a plot.
This is the “plotty” equivalent of the Long Conversation or the exposition-filled first chapter. Supposedly, after the hero’s been defeated or had something big happen and is locked in a dungeon cell/his room/a private place to recover, it is the perfect time to start out the window.
And think about how his childhood sucked donkey balls.
Yes, stories need recovery periods. However, learning how to get out of the recovery periods and move on with the plot are things that fantasy authors in particular (though I’ve seen it in other books) have a problem with. They get the hero into the dungeon cell, and they can’t seem to decide how to get him out again. Even things that happen to him in the dungeon cell, like torture, are usually softened and abstracted, not seeming quite real. I think this is one reason so many rescues feel artificial (well, that and that the author hasn’t bothered to spend time deciding how the rescuers learned where the protagonist was): the author is literally kick-starting the story from the outside because it has sunken too deep in angst.
I think the best solution here is to let the hero make some plotty decisions, and/or combine that with a solution from outside. Just because a hero has time to think about the effects of a strange magical injury on him doesn’t mean he is going to be calm about it. He might come out of the cell spitting with anger. Or he might not have sorted through all the implications of it yet before his friends decide to call on him, assuming the exile is willing. Fantasists often treat an exile before the story as not solving all the hero’s problems, so why should one in the middle of the plot do it?
A very few times I’ve read scenes where the author simply seems to believe that having the hero “reflect” is advancing the plot. No, it’s not, not unless the hero actually comes to conclusions that he hasn’t thought through before. Most brooding heroes don’t. Get yourselves over it and let other things start happening.
6) Character and plot cannot be separated.
This is why fantasy novels as “character studies,” or scenes as “vignettes,” or anything in the plot that seems to just serve to “illustrate” a character without actually contributing to the story as a whole, doesn’t work for me. I don’t believe that the person Princess Carlotta is at the start of the story, when she’s staring romantically out the window, is the same person she is when she’s walking down the stairs and contemplating escape, or the same person she is when she cuts her hair short and leads an army. At least, she isn’t if the author knows what she’s doing, and lets the actions spring naturally from the character and also affect the character.
Put your hero in isolation from the plot, and it’s very hard to change him without sounding forced about it. A “character arc,” in which the character learns a lesson or transforms, is possible only by interaction with the world, not acting on it. This is the other side of the coin for number 3. If the other characters and the setting itself aren’t dynamic, you can have a hero who acts and acts and acts, and still only looks like a wind-up toy. He has to have responses from his environment and family and lovers and children and enemies and home and environment he travels through and everything else in order to alter.
Use things that happen to your character to change him, and then have him strike out or lash back or march grimly in the direction of freedom from those things, and more things will happen. Then other people will come influence the plot, acting in response to the hero and doing things that he must react to. It’s great.
It’s certainly a preferable way of plotting to the “put one person in the center of the story and concentrate on painting him in lavish colors” school of thought.
Oooh, I know what rant I want to do next. About advancing the plot in ways other than having battles or big destructive things happen.