Writing Thrilling Fantasy part 1

We’re going to dig into writing craft a little bit today and talk about writing thrilling stories. Because I’m a fantasy writer I’ll stick to writing thrilling fantasy but these tips could work in other genres. I don’t know, try it out.

Here’s the thing about thrilling – it’s a separate quality from good. That’s not to say that thrilling and good can’t exist together – they most certainly can and I’ll try to use examples that are also both thrilling and good in this post. But it’s worth noting that Dan Brown is an occasional master of thrilling despite being generally received as a bad author.

What makes a story thrilling

Largely thrilling stories are ones where the stakes are escalated quickly and kept high throughout. Furthermore they use bits of literary trickery to drive people through the story and keep them turning pages.

These tricks include the use of frequent hooks and the use of cliffhangers. They often function by (on the good end) providing small payouts while piling more tension into the story leading to the ultimate payout at the end or, on the bad end, by denying the reader any resolution, increasing tension by piling in new problems without dealing with the existing ones.

Setting the Stakes

Yesterday I talked about Pacific Rim and its masterful use of stakes to increase tension. However an action blockbuster movie has a lot of other tools available to create a thrilling atmosphere that an author just doesn’t have. (We can’t use sound editing to produce a boom and our explosions have to be made of orderly rows of print.)

So this makes the setting of stakes, both large and small scale, all the more important to an exciting book.

Dead Beat, the seventh book in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series isn’t a perfect novel but it’s basically a masterwork of setting stakes and as a result it’s one of the most thrilling novels I’ve ever read. I went through it in a single sitting (as I do with plenty of these guilty pleasures.)

What’s more, the stakes are set early on. They include:

  • Dresden has to protect a friend from a blackmail attempt even though doing so means giving an evil monster access to power.
  • He has to save the city of Chicago from a spell that will kill most of the people in the city. (He eventually learns that the end result of this spell would allow somebody to become a dark god – generally a bad thing for the world.)
  • He has to protect a likeable helper from the attentions of a necromancer.
  • He has to take on a veritable gang of powerful wizards without calling for much of his usual help.

These varying stakes run the gamut from the personal (protecting friends) to the wide scale (stopping evil necromancer murder god rituals). And they’re thrown at Dresden fast. By the end of chapter 2 he’s already perfectly aware of what’s at risk for his friend. A few chapters later he’s protecting the coroner from zombies too… and these aren’t long chapters (more on that later). The various antagonists are all introduced well before the end of the first third of the novel – which isn’t that easy considering that this book has no less than seven antagonists of varying significance (possibly eight depending on whether you count the demon coin).

The tension ramps up in Dead Beat incredibly fast. By the end we’ve seen Dresden escape certain death by the skin of his teeth on several occasions. We’ve seen him have pressure to succeed piled onto his shoulders by his allies, his enemies who aren’t on-side with the local necromancers, the local Mafia kingpin, and just about every other character in the story not actively trying to murder him. We’ve seen his meagre list of allies dwindle down until any hope of odds levelling goes out the windows.

By the time the words zombie tyrannosaur are mentioned we’re willing to buy not only that something that patently ridiculous is necessary but also that it has been earned.

And, having consented to allow this silliness past the walls of suspended disbelief it’s a quick roll downhill to the climax from there. The story to the point prior to reanimated dinosaurs builds pressure so effectively that we couldn’t possibly NOT see it through by that point. I’ve never successfully set the book down from that point onward over the course of several reads.

Keep it punchy

This is a matter of prose styling and this one goes back to Hemmingway. Because you know what’s another really thrilling little book? The Old Man and the Sea.

Part of the reason why is because of Hemmingway’s legendary succinctness. At around 27,000 words it’s not a lengthy tome. And it doesn’t need to be because Hemmingway uses stunning economy of language.

He could feel he was inside the current now and he could see the lights of the beach colonies along the shore. He knew where he was now and it was nothing to get home.

Brevity is the friend of language, whether it is a shorter book, economical language or the use of short chapters. And short chapter lengths are one of those literary tricks that can be used to increase how thrilling a book feels. Each chapter shares certain qualities with a story. There is a beginning, a middle and an end to it. There is action rising throughout mounting in a moment of highest tension before easing off a bit (though not all the way, never all the way unless it’s the very last chapter).

By shortening chapters you can create a bit of a rollercoaster, revving up the tension, easing off momentarily and then diving right back in again. These little peaks and valleys give hints of the climax to come and keep the reader ever so slightly uncertain.

Of course this can frustrate readers so it’s important to not run on forever. I know this is running against the grain in fantasy since the current paradigm of fantasy stories is that it’s the one genre in which we can let our word counts bloat to proportions of Wheel of Time excess.

As much as I love a few of the bloated fantasy epics I have to say that, at the end of the day, this is a bit of sloppyness that we just happen to allow within our genre. That doesn’t make it best-practice.

Tomorrow we’ll pick up this discussion with a talk about hooks, doors behind doors and the dangers of aiming for a thrilling novel.

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