You’re a fantasy writer. You’ve created an amazing and original world, full of wondrous magic, mind-blowing monsters, and fascinating new cultures. You’ve got powerful heroes, menacing villains, and mysterious mentors. There’s just the right amount of romance.
In short, you’ve got all that good stuff you’d expect to find in a fantasy novel.
Only, somehow it’s still not coming out quite as awe-inspiring as you’d envisioned it.
Today, I’ve got three tips for you on how to make your awesome stuff seem more awesome.
Establish the Norm
“When everything is awesome, awesome becomes average.”
Every now and then, I come across a book that begins with the writer very obviously trying to impress me with how cool their main character is, and what an amazing world they have created, and how scary the villain is. All at once. In the first chapter.
It rarely works.
Let’s say there’s a ballroom full of ultra-rich and mega-powerful vampires, and then someone flies in on a golden unicorn and starts shooting fireballs the shape of grinning skulls.
That would probably look rather spectacular as an introduction to a movie, but does it work in a book?
Sure, there are vampires and fireballs and unicorns, but I’m probably not going to be as impressed as the author wants me to be. It’s just a bunch of special effects that I don’t have any attachment to, and no reason to care about.
What would I do instead?
If it were me, I would begin with establishing what the norm is. That way, once something happens that is outside of the norm, I won’t have to tell my reader it’s special – they’ll understand it on their own.
Consider Harry Potter. The book doesn’t begin with the sorting hat ceremony at Hogwarts, but it could have. Instead, the book begins by showing off Harry’s miserable and awful life before he gets his invitation to go to an amazing school of magic.
That beginning does a lot to establish where Harry comes from and what’s normal to him. Throughout the book, this helps the reader appreciate the magic and wonder of the rest of the story.
Build Things Up
“Many small streams become one great river.”
My next advice is to first establish basic concepts, and then combine them into more complex ones. In a way, this is just a different take on establishing the norm.
Let’s say I’m writing a story about some kids studying magic at a school. My main character, Bob, struggles with learning to cast a fireball. He eventually pulls it off, but his fireball is small and feeble and really only singes his fingers before it burns out.
Next up is flight magic class. Just hanging still in the air is a challenge for Bob and he keeps falling down as soon as something distracts him.
In this way, the reader knows that magic is difficult and that neither flying, nor shooting fireballs, is easy.
Later on, when Bob explores a hidden chamber at the top of a tower, he hears footsteps coming up the stairs, and realizes he’s about to be discovered. His only way out is through the window, but it’s a long way down to the ground below.
Fortunately, Bob manages to cast the flight spell, and avoids a messy death on the rocks at the foot of the tower.
Unfortunately, Bob wasn’t quite fast enough, and the person coming up the stairs flies after him in pursuit, and they’re catching up. And, as if that’s not enough, they’re starting to throw fireballs at Bob, while flying.
Here, I’ve taken two concepts (fireballs and flying) and established that they’re really difficult. Then, I combined them in an enemy that can fly and shoot fireballs at the same time. I’ve not mentioned that the enemy is a more skilled or powerful magic user than Bob, but it’s not really needed. The reader will be able to figure that out on their own.
Don’t Tell Me How To Feel
“The impression I create in my mind is stronger than any words on a page.”
This ties in with the old saying “show, don’t tell” that’s often bandied about when discussing advice for writing. However, for the purpose of this article, I’m going to break it up and rephrase it a little bit:
- It’s okay to tell me how something looks.
- It’s okay to tell me what’s happening.
- It’s not okay to tell me how to feel about it.
It’s not that big a deal if the descriptions aren’t the most evocative. If a wizard’s robe is blue, it’s fine to describe it as “a blue robe.” It doesn’t have to be “a robe the colour of cloudless summer skies.”
Both are fine, and both have their place.
What’s not so fine is “an awe-inspiring blue robe.”
Here, the description is trying to tell me that the sight of the robe inspires awe in me, which it really doesn’t. It’s just a blue robe. Most likely, the awe isn’t even inspired by the look of the robe, but rather by the fact it’s a wizard’s robe.
Let’s go back to Bob at the magic school. As a student, he’s wearing a brown robe. It’s not until he finally graduates, after twelve years of studying, that he’s allowed to wear blue robes.
In this case, the awe comes from knowing how much hard work went into earning the right to wear the robe, and from what the robe says about the person who wears it. If I already know that, I don’t need to be told that the robe is awe-inspiring.
These are three simple tips for making sure awesome things come across as actually awesome, and not just flashy or spectacular. If I were to sum it up, I’d say “don’t tell me that something is awesome, make me understand that it is.”
There are other ways to achieve that effect too, but these are my favorite ones.
What’s your favorite method for impressing your readers?
What books have you read where you felt the author did a really good job of impressing you?