What all writers can learn from fantasy writers

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I'm George, and I'm a book coach. I'm a cheerleader, mentor, coach, editor and project manager for aspiring authors.

What every writer can learn from fantasy and sci-fi

In any story, it feels like there is so much the reader needs to know first before they can appreciate or understand the meaning or emotion of the story itself. In fantasy, that might even be the species of the protagonist! But fantasy just pushes to an extreme the challenge that any writer has, which is to draw the reader into a story, ideally in medias res, without them being utterly confused. 
For this reason, every writer can learn from fantasy and sci-fi which manages to achieve clarity while avoiding the dreaded info-dump. This is analogous to how we might teach a child addition or fractions. We show them physical objects to add up, ideally hooking them in with something they already understand. Then we use an analogy, “imagine if you had a piece of cake, and you wanted to share it with 4 friends’). Then we tell them the principle. We come at the concept in different ways until it sinks in. This layering process also adds nuance and complexity to the concept.
As I discuss the examples below, look out for these elements which help the text to drive home what is being shown, so that readers are not confused. 
 
  • Strategic use of narrative explanation, exposition, or telling.    
  • A series of scenes which fully show or dramatize what a reader needs to know, each time in a slightly different way. 
  • Scenes which do what Robert Mckee advises and use ‘exposition as ammunition’. They use a piece of information to ‘turn’ a scene.
  • Dialogue which underlines and confirms what appears to be happening.
  • Interiority in which the scene triggers memories, associations or epiphanies which serve to land the setup.
  • Have characters act as surrogates for the reader, asking the questions they may be asking.
  • Layering all of the above.

 

In practice, some examples:

In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry and Hagrid are attacked in the sky as they fly on Hagrid’s motorbike. They crash, and the crash itself and immediate aftermath is told very closely through Harry’s point of view.
He has no understanding of what has happened and the reader shares his confusion. This makes it a visceral experience for the reader, they experience it as if they are Harry:
“Harry struggled to raise himself out of the debris of metal and leather that surrounded him; his hands sunk into inches of muddy water as he tried to stand. He could not understand where Voldemort had gone and expected him to swoop put of the darkness at any moment. Something hot and wet was trickling down his chin and from his forehead. He crawled out of the pond and stumbled towards the great, dark mass on the ground that was Hagrid.”
Rowling uses describes action focalized via Harry’s perception: “Harry struggled to raise himself”.
She shows us the state of the motorbike, now a “debris of metal and leather.” 
She describes how Harry’s hands sink into “muddy water”,  this is evocative but not entirely limited by Harry’s point of view, which might have been more sensual (she could have said cold liquid, brown liquid etc.). This strikes a balance between evoking the sensation and maintaining clarity.
Rowling lets us into Harry’s thought process, “He could not understand where Voldemort had gone and expected him to swoop put of the darkness at any moment”. This both puts us in Harry’s shoes and echoes the queries in the reader’s mind, acting as a promise that this will be explained.
She describes the sensation of blood trickling down Harry’s face rather than telling us that Harry is bleeding. The reader is offered the pleasure of putting that together for themselves, making it fresh and visceral and engaging. That interpretation is bolstered in the very next scene, where Harry is told by a man, “I’ve fixed your ribs, your tooth and your arm”.
Rowling describes Hagrid as a dark mass to evoke his stillness and Harry’s concern that he might have been killed. This line also mimics the sensation of moving through darkness. But, Rowling also clarifies with “that was Hagrid” so that we are not too unclear.
Before Harry passes out he hears a voice saying “They’ve crashed, Ted! Crashed in the garden!” This use of dialogue to clarify what has happened counteracts Harry’s confusion, helping to make sure that the scene lands (or crashes) with certainty in the reader’s mind.
    
In the dialogue of the next scene, the question of what happened to Voldemort is explained, as Harry tells Ted Tonks they were attacked by death eaters:
    “‘Death Eaters?’ said Ted sharply. ‘What d’you mean, Death Eaters? I thought they didn’t know you were being moved tonight, I thought-
    ‘They knew,’ said Harry.
    Ted Tonks looked up at the ceiling as though he could see through it to the sky above.
    ‘Well, we know our protective charms hold, then, don’t we? They shouldn’t be able to get within a hundred yards of the place in any direction.’
    Now Harry understood why Voldemort had vanished; it had been at the point when the motorbike crossed the barrier of the Order’s charms. He only hoped they would continue to work: he imagined Voldemort, a hundred yards above them as they spoke, looking for a way to penetrate  what Harry visualised as a great, transparent bubble.”
Harry’s understanding is communicated very explicitly to the reader, underlining what is learned through the dialogue, landing the information in a way that is both crystal clear, natural to the scene, and anticipated by an earlier question in the point of view character’s mind.
Another thing worth noting, the question of how the death eaters knew Harry’s movements remains mysterious. Rowling solves the immediate mystery of how Harry got out of the most pressing danger, but leaves one ball up in the air, for the reader to watch as they read on, trusting they’ll be offered a chance to catch it when it is the most necessary to do so.

Another example

In Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb, the nature of the protagonist, Fitz’s bond with a hound pup called Nosy is revealed and explained over a much longer period.
It begins by being completely taken for granted, as focalized by a child who knows no different. Hobb begins by evoking the sensation of sharing senses with a hound. She does not explain or tell, she just evokes the sensation, she shows:
“I remember that first night well, the warmth of the hounds, the prickling straw, and even the sleep that finally came as the pup cuddled close beside me. I drifted into his mind and shared his dim dreams of an endless chase, pursuing a quarry I never saw, but whose hot scent dragged me onward through nettle, bramble and scree.” (12)
Hobb evokes or shows what it feels like to be in the mind of a puppy.
We are told, “I drifted into his mind and shared his dim dreams”, but this language is vague enough that we might imagine this is a projection of the boy, a particularly sympathetic identification with the hounds whose bed he shares, or perhaps a suggestion that he feels more affinity with the animals than the humans who are so unkind to him. If you treat a chikd like a dog, they may come to feel like one. 
In chapter two we are fed more clues:
“Some of what I was feeling passed to Nosy, who dropped over onto his side and showed his belly in supplication while thumping his tail in that ancient canine signal that always means, ‘I’m only a puppy. I cannot defend myself. Have mercy.’” (22)
Again, is this just an affinity between man and dog? The use of narrative exposition, or telling, with, “some of what I was feeling passed to Nosy” explains the significace of Nosy’s body language, but we are still not certain as readers. It is presented matter-of-factly, as if it doesn’t deserve explanation. The truth is hidden in plain sight. Some might describe it as a setup.
The next two hints are more intriguing and we then know there is more to this than empathy or a sense of identification: 
“His words made me aware of the covered platter on the table. Flesh, Nosy’s senses confirmed, and I was suddenly full of the smell of the meat.” (p. 33).
Similarly, we get:
“The wind gusted and the man swayed shallowly against it. It brought us a whiff of him. Sweat and beer, Nosy informed me sagely.” 
This is such effective use of focalisation, showing us exactly how their communication operates.
Incidentally, it operates both through showing and telling, filling Fitz with the sensation of the scent as well as literally telling him what the scent is.
Nosy does not just evoke sensations, he also tells. 
The extent of their bond becomes increasingly well-defined, communicating with the nuance and clarity of language, sharing the specific information collected by a heightened sense of smell.
As readers, we are now crystal clear about the reality of their connection, if not the mechanism for it. 
    
Later in the same chapter, we are offered reflection, for the first time, on how this bond between the boy and the puppy might be perceived by others. Hobb begins to place this power in the world she is building, giving a sense of its social significance.
“Nosy was with us, as always. The other children had come to accept him as a part of me. I don’t think it ever occurred to them to wonder at our singleness of mind. Newboy and Nosy we were, and they probably thought it but a clever trick that Nosy would know before I threw where to be to catch our shared bounty.” (p.33)
The communication about the magical ability is getting more and more explicit, as it impacts the characters’ actions and interactions more and more.
Then Fitz and Nosy are caught stealing sausages by Fitz’s guardian, Burrich. We are alerted to watch for more to unfold by a question raised in Fitz’s mind:
“I wondered at the look of disgust he gave me.” (34). 
This is a set up. We now know how the power works and we are beginning to get information about how it is perceived in this world. We suspect that Burrich is disgusted by Fitz’s bond with the dog, something that does not accord with his earlier approval of Fitz’s kindness towards Nosy.
It raises a question in our mind which is also voiced by the protagonist.
However, the reader may believe Burrich is simply disgusted at their theft. There is still a chance the ball will not be caught.
Burrich finally confronts Fitz about his relationship with Nosy, and we have the pleasure of seeing the dots joined up for us, confirming our own sketchings, and paying off the setup from the page before, when Fitz noticed Burrich’s look of disgust. But the scene itself raises questions about Burrich’s kind voice, questions that also get answered or paid off by the climax of the scene in which Burrich reveals or tests how Fitz and Nosy relate:
 “I hesitated, and Nosy whined in an agony of indecision. 
    Burrich glanced down at him in puzzlement. I could see his mind working through a wine-induced haze. His eyes went from the pup to me and back again, and a sickened look spread across his face. He shook his head. Slowly he stood and walked away from the table and the pup, favouring his damaged leg. In the corner of the chamber there was a small rack, supporting an assortment of dusty tools and objects. Slowly Burrich reached up and took one down. It was made of wood and leather, stiff with disuse. He swung it, and the short leather lash smacked smartly against his leg. ‘Know what this is, boy?’ he asked gently, in a kind voice. 
    I shook my head mutely.
    ‘Dog whip.’ 
    I looked at him blankly. There was nothing in my experience or Nosy’s to tell me how to react to this. He must have seen my confusion. He smiled genially and his voice remained friendly, but I sensed something hidden in his manner, something waiting.
    ‘It’s a tool, Fitz. A teaching device. When you get a pup that won’t mind – when you say to a pup, “come here”, and the pup refuses to come – well, a few sharp lashes from this and the pup learns to listen and obey the first time. Just a few sharp cuts is all it takes to make a pup learn to mind.’ He spoke casually as he lowered the whip and let the short lash dance lightly over the floor. Neither Nosy nor I could take our eyes off it, and when he suddenly flipped the whole object at Nosy, the pup gave a yelp of terror and leaped back from it, and then rushed to cower behind me. 
    And Burrich sank down slowly, covering his eyes as he folded himself onto a bench by the fireplace. ‘Oh, Eda,’ he breathed, between a curse and a prayer. ‘I guessed, I suspected, when I saw you running together like that, but damn El’s eyes, I didn’t want to be right. I didn’t want to be right. I’ve never hit a pup with that damn thing in my life. Nosy had no reason to fear it. Not unless you’d been sharing minds with him.’”
The dialogue continues, culminating in this statement:
   […]‘Fitz,’ he began, and then paused. He took a deep breath and started again. ‘Fitz, this is wrong. It’s bad, very bad, what you’ve been doing with this pup. It’s unnatural. It’s worse than stealing or lying. It makes a man less than a man. Do you understand me?” (35-36)
The dialogue in this scene embeds the fantastical element in the world and society Hobb is building. It makes it seem real and begins to give the reader an understanding of what they have been witnessing and what it means, the internal and external conflict it will cause in the protagonist.  Shame.
The revelation that this power is taboo is used to turn the scene, which begins with Fitz struggling to read Burrich, sensing “something hidden in his manner, something waiting”. 
With Fitz, we anticipate violence when Burrich raises the whip, but we also notice his kind voice, which, in hindsight we understand is part of the test. That tension builds and then turns, in a surprising yet inevitable way, with the revelation that Burrich knows and understands what has been happening between Fitz and Nosy, and has just proven it to himself, though he “didn’t want to be right”.
This is exposition as ammunition.
Information is not dumped on the reader but used to turn the scene. This scene clinches our clue gathering,  as well as Burrich’s, making Fitz’s power seem real, defined and undeniable. We can stop worrying about catching that ball. The new question becomes not, literally what is going on between Fitz and Nosy, but more interesting questions around Burrich’s feelings about the power, whether Fitz really should be ashamed of it, or whether that is a misbelief, and we anticipate internal and external conflict for Fitz.
These questions have the substance and complexity to play out over the entire trilogy, rather than just a few opening chapters. But the reader wouldn’t be able to focus on that conflict if they weren’t clear about the factual status of Fitz’s ability to mind meld with Nosy.
Because fantasy writers are so often dealing with communicating unfamiliar or strange and unexpected ideas, when and if they avoid too much clunky exposition, their work can be a masterclass for writers in all genres,

 

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