General Writing

Connotations in Fantasy

For me, nothing kills the mood of a fantasy faster than modern language. I don’t expect writers to use Old or Middle English, still less what used to be called “speaking forsoothl” in the Society for Creative Anachronism — an imaginary dialect cobbled together from swashbuckling books and movies that no one every actually spoke and does ungrammatical things like adding “est” at the end of every word. I understand, too, that just because the culture in a story is medieval, it doesn’t have an exact copy of the actual Middle Ages. However, nothing is more jarring that modern phrases that carry a whole set of associations that are dependent on our culture.

Let me give you some examples I recently found. I won’t mention the title or the author, because it’s a first publication, and my point is not to shame anyone. Still, here are five example from the first fifty pages:

  • “estimated time of arrival:” An obsession with time and time-tables is no more than a couple of centuries old. It began with the regular running of coaches and later of trains and airplanes. A culture at any less advanced technological stage would have no interest in the implied concern with exact time.
  • “maximum potential”: This is the language of self-help, which is no more than a century old at best. Probably the closest most past eras would have to this concept is the idea of living a godly life and being concerned with charity.
  • “a feeling of weightlessness:” This phrase only makes sense if you understand that mass and weight are two different things in certain circumstances. Seventy years of space flight makes that concept familiar to most people today, but people of the past would know nothing of the theory. At most, they might notice that they felt lighter when submerged in water.
  • “toxic”: We talk all the time about people being psychologically toxic. However, that usage is no more than a couple of decades old.
  • “doing the math”: High school blurs the distinction between mathematics and arithmetic. However, that distinction would not have existed more than a century ago. Before that, it is doubtful that the average person would have heard the word “mathematics.”

I could continue, but I think these will give a sense of what I am talking abut

The trouble with these words and phrases is that they are tightly connected to modern culture. Hear “estimated time of arrival,” and visions of an airport arrival and departure board are likely to flash through your mind. Similarly, “maximum potential may bring visions of a room full of people on their yoga match. Nothing is wrong with such connotations in a modern setting, but in a different setting, they can take you out of the story and kill the atmosphere. At the very least, they are a distraction. In extreme cases, they can spoil the story.

A concern for connotation can, of course, take you too far. Technically speaking, for example, a story set in the Renaissance should avoid the word “Mind” because the concept of mind originated in the Enlightenment. But this example is obscure, and is unlikely to ruin the story for more purposes. In addition, some fantasy, like Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series, uses such connotation for comedy. However, connotation is something fantasy writers need to consider in their editing — perhaps even more so than typos or grammar.

General Writing

Lessons in Pacing

As I make my final revision before I query, one of the last aspects of writing that I am learning is pacing.

I long ago learned the trick of varying sentence length to increase tension. I’ve learned, too, such tricks of spacing dialog at regular intervals in a scene to increase or decrease readers’ attention, and half a dozen other tricks besides. However, I never learned how to pace an entire book until I had a nearly complete manuscript.

Like many writers, in my first draft or two, I had no idea of how long my finished manscript might be. I originally planned on a single book. However, two-thirds of the way through the first draft, I realized that the complete story would need to be divided into two books at a minimum. At the same point in the second draft, I realized that I would need a trilogy – something I swore that I would never write. I could persist in one or two books, but the story would be rushed and poorly told.

However, I didn’t worry much about the pacing until I accepted that I was doing a trilogy. Deciding where to end the first book, I found a natural climax almost immediately. However, in the first two drafts, the climax took a chapter. It was not that important, although I had always felt that the next chapter was a new start. To serve as a climax, the chapter had to be expanded to two or three. So, right away, I had to find a way to draw out the action and keep it interesting.

That was just the start of the change in pace. With the climax’s increased importance, I had to change the pace throughout. If the story were to rise to an exciting climax, I had to replot to have more encounters between the protagonists and the antagonists. That meant three new chapters, and heavy revision of several more. Mindful of the fact that Dracula works largely because the titular character has limited appearances, I also wanted to find ways to limit my antagonists’ appearances.

These changes had a ripple effect, throwing off the pace of the romance between my two main characters. Their personal story also needed to be re-paced, interwoven reasonably seamlessly around the main conflict. I was especially proud when one of the new chapters managed to advance both the main conflict and the romance sub-plot at the same time.

As I write, I am wrapping up the first book. However, already, I can see the ripple of changes continuing, and meeting other currents of revision. Most notably, the name of the second book means that events that originally started towards the end of the second book now occupy the whole of the second, and that another sub-plot has become much more important. As I turn my attention to the second book, I expect still more ripples, some scenes gaining importance and others becoming less important, rearranged, or even deleted altogether.

In the middle of this process, I have also learned that the distinction I once had between outlining and discovery writing has changed. As I think about pace, I have to outline far more than I did in my first drafts. Yet, at the same time, while revision of the whole means that I have to define my goals more clearly that in early drafts, I still need to allow room for innovation as I write. The distinction has far less meaning than I once imagined – both outlining and discovery, I have learned, are necessary to my way of working.
I doubt I would have learned any of these things except for refining my story. For that reason alone, I am glad that I persisted.

Fiction, General Writing

Good Intentions vs. Imagination

“Good intentions never wrote a story worth reading: only the imagination can do that.”
-Philip Pullman

Some years ago, the Vancouver Folk Music Festival would feature one country each — preferably one undergoing social strife. My wife and I used to refer to this habit as the revolution of the month. Reading the frequent discussions online about diversity in writing, I am reminded of those times, and my mixed reaction to them.

You see, the problem wasn’t that I disagreed with the sentiments of each revolution of the month. I was a supporter of the causes, and even donated to them. However, it was a music festival, so I thought it only fitting that musicianship be at least as important as a band’s political opinions. For me, choruses like “US Out of El Salvador” lacked a certain artistry, no matter how loudly they were shouted, or how many of the crowd joined in. The bands meant well, but they were so caught up in their causes that they had forgot that they were supposed to be musicians as well as activists.

Reading recent discussions about diversity in fantasy, I have much the same ambivalence. Posters frequently discuss representation in their stories, and what stories they have the right to discuss. They talk about how to depict people of color (POC) and the LGBTQ+ community. All these topics are major concerns of mine, and I cannot fault the earnestness and sincerity of the posters. Yet, aside from the occasional reminder not to make a checklist of representation among your characters, I rarely see much discussion of technique.

Often, it sounds as though diversity is the aim, not storytelling. When samples of writing are posted, often they are wooden and unconvincing. Some posters are so focused on diversity that they fail to see the unintentional humor of developing stories concerned with the socially aware name for demons. Many more agonize so much about doing representation properly that they nobble themselves and never write out of a fear of doing something wrong.

Part of this lopsided focus is a matter of age. With rare exceptions, few writers in their twenties have developed their social awareness far more than their writing skills. So, for many, it is unsurprising that they dwell on what they are most familiar with.

However, the problem is not just one of age. At least once, I made the same mistake without the excuse of inexperience. In my current work, I wanted to make the ghost of my main character an example of toxic masculinity, and give him his comeuppance. I thought of several creepy things for him to say –some of which, much to my surprise, were later said by Donald Trump, which suggested uncomfortably that I had understanding of such a character. I thought of even creepier ones for the ghost to do. But do you think I could make that ghost interesting? Nor in the least. He refused to become a character. He remained a puppet, with his strings clearly visible, through several drafts. I could hardly write him, because I was bored with the contrivance.

In my desperation I remembered the advice that Carl Gustav Jung was supposed to have given to his students of psychoanalysis. He told them that the first thing they should do to prepare for their careers was to learn everything they could about symbols and metaphors. The second thing, he added, was to forget everything they had learned.

Jung did not mean that his students should totally ignore their study of symbols. Rather, he meant that they should learn it so well that they no longer had to think consciously about their knowledge. They had to let their knowledge become part of their unconscious, freeing their conscious minds for interaction with their patients.

The same advice, I realized, could help me with my writing. I tried and tried until I could hear the ghostly father speak and imagine how he would move. Then, I carefully submerged my knowledge that the ghost was a satire of the ultra-macho. Even more importantly, I did not let myself think how clever and woke I was in making the portrayal. Instead, in the scenes where he appeared, I focused on my main character’s reactions and the drama of the encounter. The scenes were still a struggle, but I inched forward, and completed the scenes at last. In the end, the ghost was stronger, I believe, because the character was not simply a piece of heavy-handed didacticism.

From this experience, I learned something important: My well-meaning political opinions could only take my writing so far. To write even halfway decently, I had to think about storytelling and suspense first, and my political outlook second. Otherwise, I was writing propaganda, not fiction, and wasting my time, as well as that of any future readers. I don’t know why that surprised me — after all, which would most people prefer to read, Ayn Rand who never forgets her purpose for a moment, or George Orwell, who tied his political purposes in Nineteen Eighty-Four to the life of an average man?

Social awareness, I discovered, might be desirable, but it was not nearly enough. To work, it needed to take second place to storytelling. Once the social awareness is fixed in my mind, I need to switch my focus to storytelling if either is to succeed.

General Writing, Queries

How to Improve Your Odds When Querying

Writers who are querying love to drive each other into despair by citing the odds against them finding an agent. The odds of success vary – two or three out sixty, or even a hundred I’ve heard – but they are never in a writer’s favor. However, citing the odds on social media is always an occasion for despair laced with stolid determination to push on through. Yet while the despair is understandable, and I admit to sometimes succumbing to it myself as I prepare to query, I believe that it is based on a fallacy: that each writer is a fallacy. After all, a statistic is not a prediction – just an average.

I first learned this fact from science writer Stephen Jay Gould. Gould was diagnosed as having peritoneal mesothelioma – cancer of the abdomenal lining – and was told that he could only expect to live another eight months. But Gould was a researcher and a trained statistician, and instead of preparing for an early death, he researched his condition. He soon found out that his own odds were much better than average. Even more importantly, by making some changes in his lifestyle, he could improve his odds. He made those changes, and lived another twenty years. Gould’s example showed me that while the statistics are useful to know, they are not all you need to know.

A querying writer can learn a lot from Gould’s example. Sure, the odds are not good. For every writer who finds an agent, there are dozens who never do. But browse the online writer groups, and you soon notice that the average is low. Many writers are working on stale ideas borrowed from anime, and many more struggle with grammar and spelling. Few have any sense of how to develop a story, and react to suggestions for improvement with hostility. Under these conditions, becoming above average is easy enough so long as you are willing to do the work.

However, the struggle to stand out only begins with the quality of writing. Look at blogs like Query Shark, where pitches and queries are criticized and improved, and you soon realize that most writers are not very good at the query process, either. Despite no shortage of blogs where we can learn, most of us have no idea of how to structure a query, or what its structure should be.

So not only can the quality of your writing lift you above average, but so can mastering the query process. As long as you are willing to put in the work, whatever statistics you hear are not a prediction of your failure. Rather, they are a sign of how many people are querying ineptly. Make up your mind that you are not going to be average, and your odds can improve significantly.

General Writing

9 Signs A Fantasy Is Not Worth Reading

In Facebook groups, dozens of people post pieces of their fantasy works every day. Often, they ask for readers of their entire manuscripts. However, I, couldn’t possibly read all of them, even if I cared to. As a result, I’m become skilled at predicting the quality of the whole work. These are some of the warnings that the work is likely to have problems:

  • Maps without any sense of geography: If continents are shown, do they look like continental drift occurs? Do cities occur at crossroads, or key points where a city would spring up? Is there a gradual transition from desert to forest?
  • Dull or awkward names: Names should create a sense that the people or places that carry them might actually exist. On the map, the names should create a sense that people with different languages have crossed the map. They should not be full of apostrophes – those are for contractions, not just cheap atmosphere, or, in some cases, meant to indicate a particular sound. In addditon, they should be believable. Nobody is going to name an ocean The Silvery Depths or a wooded area the Forest of Fear. They’re just not.
  • Use of anachronistic language like “Okay:” Unless the story takes place after about 1820 in our world, seeing “Okay”on the page is like grindng your teeth over tin-foil. It destroys the mood. In the same way, a character in medieval fantasy is not going to “change gears” – cars haven’t been invented yet. Nor are they likely to go for a workout or a date.
  • Tolkien races: Like many would-be writers, I grew up on Tolkien. But unless I’m reading fanfic, where the rules are different, any variation of dwarfs, elves, or orcs is just plain lazy. More important, races defined by morality are so out of keeping with modern sensibilties that even Dungeons and Dragons is finally dropping the concept.
  • Anime and Blockbuster Movies as Influences: I like animation and film as much as anybody. However, they are different media to the written word, with both advantages and limitations to it. You are unlikely to learn to write from anything except books. If you are more drawn to film than books, you really should consider writing screenplays.
  • Making Social Awareness the Only Priority: Diversity and racial issues are a social priority, and the publishing world specifically needs change. However, while representation and writing the Other are skills that every writer should learn, they need to be developed hand in hand with learning writing skills. You can learn to balance them from dozens of books, like Nineteen Eighty-Four or The Dispossessed. And if you’re not equally interested, perhaps you should consider non-fiction?
  • Commodified or Pseudo-Cultures: Is your China a place of tea-houses amid the rocks and the mist, with every second person a martial artist? Do your First Nations have a single culture across North America, with Sasquatches and dream-catchers? If so, then you haven’t done your research, and you need to live with the actual cultures.
  • Self-Published Works Full of Typos: Nothing is wrong with self-publishing. It’s a legitimate way to present your work. However, if you’re going to self-published, take the time to do it right. Hold yourself to the same standards as traditional publishers – or even higher.
  • The Writer Is Looking for Rules: Beware of writers who ask things like: how long should my chapters be? Am I allowed to delay the inciting incident to the fifth chapter? Such questions reveal a crippling inexperience. Worse, they show a desire for rigid rules that simply don’t exist. A writer who wants rules may outgrow their desire, but it’s not a promising start.

What these practices have in common is a lack of effort – a decision not to put in the research and practice that is needed for an original work of fiction. They steer me away from reading because they suggest that the writer is looking for shortcuts, a way to make writing easy. A writer may outgrow one of these warning signs, but the more they display, the less likely they are to produce anything worth reading.

Unfortunately, what I am discovering in my own efforts is that there are no shortcuts. And maybe that’s the way it should be. If writing wasn’t hard, then anybody could do it.

Characters, General Writing

The Fallacies of Character Flaws

“What are your main character’s flaws?” I scroll past this attempt at conversation several times a week. I never try to answer it, because it is usually based on the assumption that a main character, if not all characters, are only realistic and sympathetic if they have defects. This assumption is so cluttered with fallacies that I have never taken the time to answer it until now.

So far as I can tell, the assumption seems based on a misunderstanding of Aristotle’s Poetics. In discussing tragedy, Aristotle introduces the term hamartia. Harmatia is often popularly translated into English as “flaw,” but, according to Wikipedia, is a much more neutral term, better translated as “to miss the mark” or “to fall short.” Harmatia is the misunderstanding or lacking piece of information that determines the events of the tragedy.

So, right away, the belief that a personality flaw is needed is based on a misunderstanding. This misunderstanding explains why it can be difficult to assign a flaw to a classical tragic hero. What, for example, is the flaw that leads to Oedipus marrying his mother? By every indication, Oedipus is a conscientious, upright soul with a strong sense of responsibility. Similarly, nothing is lacking in Orestes when he kills his mother. Rather, Orestes is caught between his duty to his mother and his responsibility to avenge his father’s murder. Neither Oedipus nor Orestes can be assigned a flaw without stretching a point, although many teachers have tried.

The tradition continues when Shakespeare is taught. I remember being told in high school that Othello’s tragic flaw was jealousy, while Hamlet was unable to make up his mind. Such over-simplifications create the illusion that we have a handle on complicated stories, but do we? Othello does not leap to jealousy by himself, but has his relationship with his wife poisoned by the whisperings of Iago. As for Hamlet, he delays only until he is convinced that what his father’s ghost has told him is true. If you had to assign Hamlet a flaw in Act V, it would be that he acts far too rashly.

Harmatia is a flexible enough term that it can cover Oedipus, Orestes, Othello, and Hamlet, but the hunt for flaws simply doesn’t work. However, few writers today are producing tragedies, so harmatia is irrelevant. Aristotle was not analyzing the structure of stories, but of tragedy, which is only a subset of stories. No matter how you translate Aristotle, his comments have no more than an indirect insight into a modern novel or short story.

Still, believers in flaws are apt to say, a flawed character is easier to identify with. And it is true that an impossibly noble hero is unlikely to be sympathetic. Often, an anti-hero, an amoral rogue with some redeeming traits is more likely to keep readers turning pages. However, all stories cannot be about anti-heroes. More importantly, I have to ask whether a personality flaw really makes a hero more relatable. Do we actually like a character more if they are weak-willed? If they drink too much? Or sleep around? At the very least, flaws only make a character more sympathetic if they are carefully selected. We might identify, for instance, with a ruthless killer who shows mercy, or only murders the corrupt. However, flaws alone do not seem a consistent tactic to make readers identify with a character.

Besides, fiction is not a role-playing game, where characters exist in isolation because the story is shaped by the DM. In fiction, a character depends largely on the needs of the plot. Does the story require someone who changes sides? Then the character involved is likely to be someone with imagination and empathy. Does it depend on a betrayal? Then the betrayer needs a motive like a lost cause or a wish for revenge. Successful characters rarely emerge fully-formed — they develop in a complex interplay with setting and plot where it is hard to say which comes first. If they are created in isolation, they are likely to be unconvincing. No matter how many flaws you sprinkle over them like spice, there is no hiding that you are serving up a bland dish.

Anyway, who is to say what a flaw is? A character who is rash could be praised in one circumstance for resolution, and in another for thoughtfulness. By contrast, working with the concept of flaws seems almost certain to result in puppet-like characters whom no one wants to read about.

What characters do need is an arc: a movement from one state to another. They might set out to accomplish a certain task. They might learn as the story continues, becoming fit to realize their goals in a way they weren’t at the start of the story. Such arcs are what engage readers — not a set of arbitrary flaws.

General Writing, Marketing, Reviews and Analysis

How I Learned to Love Series

Shamefacedly, I have to admit: I’m now writing a trilogy. And to make matters worse, I feel pretty good about it.

It wasn’t always that way. For much of my life, I’ve looked down on trilogies. Tolkien may have needed to divide The Lord of the Rings into three books in order to be published, but that was something imposed on him, not something he planned. Those who have come after him usually don’t have the same excuse. As a result, trilogies have come to mean one book’s worth of material stretched over three, with a sagging second book that should be hurried over as quickly as possible to get to the better stuff. To me, trilogies were a sign of flabby writing and imagination.

As for series — well, I’d say don’t get me started, but I’m already on the backstretch. While I’ve read series, too often they seemed to me to be shameless catering to readers’ demands for more of the same. Nothing a serious writer (sniff!) would consider. Something always died in me when I heard aspiring writers cheerfully planning a twelve book series. “Why are you planning to be a hack?” I always wanted to ask.

Weighed down by these prejudices, when I became serious about writing fantasy, I resolved to only write single books. The trouble was, my current work in progress kept bolting and trying to become a duology. No, a trilogy. No, a series. Two-thirds of the way through and worried about length, I finally admitted the obvious: there were three sharply defined arcs in the tales, and I would have a far better chance of publication if I placed them in separate, shorter volumes.

I take comfort in the fact that in the marketplace, if not necessarily the canon, I am following in the footsteps of Tolkien. The only difference is that I am doing so before being asked. These days, that’s the likeliest way of getting agents or publishers to even consider me.

More importantly, I have to admit that a trilogy or a series does not condemn me to literary mediocrity. Plenty of respectable writers do series. Lois McMaster Bujold, for example, has kept her Miles Vorkosigan saga fresh for over twenty books. She does so by making each book independent of the others except for the same background and many of the characters. Mostly, they center on her hero Miles at a different stage in his life. More recently, though, the series have centered on Miles’ cousin, mother, and wife. And throughout, books have borrowed from genres ranging from space opera to mysteries and romantic comedies. Similarly, her forays into fantasy like the Curse of Chalion, The Paladin of Souls, and her Penric novellas share little more than their background. With tactics like these, Bujold manages to keep the individual books in her series fresh. They benefit from the shared background, but stand on their own.

More recently, I have come across Daniel Abraham’s five volume series, The Dagger and the Coin. According to my former attitudes, this work should be twice-damned, because it is not only a series, but one with multiple points of views — a choice many writers have followed down the path to disaster. However, Abraham manages to pull off these challenging choices, largely because of his unusual characters. Ensnared by genre tropes, how many other writers would make one character a young girl learning the intricacies of banking, of all things? Or an utterly conventional noble woman forced to struggle for her family’s and country’s survival? Or a villain who is a lonely introvert out to revenge himself for bullying, who cares for his young ward? Each of his leads is so strongly motivated that arc could be a novel in itself, and the fact that most books in the series have a minimal resolution hardly matters. Like Tolkien, the books are really one novel, and kept me too busy hurrying on to the next one to exercise my prejudices.

As I should have known, the problem was never with series in themselves. It was with mediocre writers, mindlessly following conventions. If there are any limitations to trilogies or series, strong writing and originality can overcome them.

So, yeah, I’m writing a trilogy. Want to make something of it?

General Writing

Why I Use Chapter Titles

Chapter titles are rarer than they once were. Today, chapter titles rarely go beyond listing the point of view in the coming chapter. Instead, chapters are simply numbered. When I started to write, I had the vague impression that numbered chapters were a sign of seriousness — of being more literary. Yet many of my favorite childhood novels used titles, and, halfway through my first novel, I added them on an impulse. It was only as I went on that I realized that there were several solid reasons for chapter titles.

The first reason is the simplest: on the whole, English-speaking culture is not numerically literate. Or, to put it another way, most of us do not remember numbers as well as words. You might be a person who remembers where they left off reading, or a reviewer citing a chapter, but, either way, you are like to recall a title more easily than a number. Titles, I believe, are a more efficient way of identifying a chapter than numbers.

More importantly, a well-chosen title can serve as an additional hook. Just as the opening sentences of a novel lure readers into the book, so a chapter title can lure readers into continuing onwards in the book. The only difference is that a title has fewer words to develop the hook — usually no more than half a dozen words. Usually, a title usually needs to be less subtle than a conventional hook. At the same time, it should not give too much away. Yet, within these restrictions, you can still hope to catch readers’ interest. Offer them “The Unexpected Guest,” and with any luck readers will stay around to learn who — or what — puts in an appearance. Similarly, “Blame and Betrayals” promises conflict, while “The Salmon Road” might lure readers onware for n explanation of the unusual phrase. More elaborately, if you can trust most of your readers to know their Chaucer, “The Craft So Long to Learn” suggests that somebody in the chapter learns something important to them. Used as a hook, a title can encourage readers to continue for just one more chapter — and maybe just one more after that.

Titles can also indicate themes. For example, when I retrofitted titles to my own work, I noticed that many titles referred to the relationships between families. It was only after seeing a table of contents that I made this observation — and after I did, it helped me to unify my writing by more specific references to families. Without seeing the titles in a table of contents, I might never have realized what I was doing, or had any control over it.

Other, more astute writers, can choose titles for themes deliberately. For instance, a story set in the early 1960s might borrow quotes from Bob Dylan to emphasize the setting. The Canadian fantasist Dave Duncan (who deserves to be much better known) once used lines from the old folk song “Sir John Peel” and named his characters after dogs in the song to emphasis, obviously but powerfully that the story was about a hunt, although of people rather than game.

However, perhaps the greatest advantage of titles is for the writer rather than the readers. In a one hundred thousand word novel, writers get all sorts of opportunities to practice different aspects of their craft. Yet if you number your chapters, a notable exception is the title — that you only do once. Perhaps that is one reason why so many writers agonize over titles. I myself generated at least three dozen titles over a year, and the final candidate did not even originate with me.

By contrast, after generating some thirty chapter titles, the next time I came to choose a title was much easier. I produced three titles in an hour, and in another half hour had my title. The next time, I was just as quick. I can only conclude that finding a title, like most aspects of writing, becomes easier with practice. Chapter titles, I conclude, on warmups for the main event.

Numbering titles do give you one less thing to worry about as you write. Yet when I stop to consider, titles are more useful for readers, and can help with thematic structures in general. I once thought that choosing numbered or titled chapters was mostly a matter of whim, but, having experimented, I am never going to willingly do without titles ever again.

Fiction, General Writing

Making Infodumps Work

Like most writers, I struggle with back story. It’s often necessary, especially when writing fantasy, but how do you provide it with bringing the story to screeching halt? I’ve tried making the details interesting. I’ve tried doling out the information in dribbles and drabs. I’ve tried epigraphs at the start of each chapter. Whenever possible, I develop characters who would naturally think about certain matters. All these tactics can have limited success, the most effective tactic, I’ve found can be expressed in a single word: dramatize. Make the inclusion of the information a natural part of the story. If possible, have something else happen as the information is being given.

The simplest way to dramatize is to arrange a situation in which one character gives information to others. For example, have a student writing an essay. Place a general in a situation room, describing battle plans. Have a newcomer who needed to be brought up to speed. However, in writing any scene like this, you need to avoid writing a lecture, or of providing what TV calls “talking heads.” Such results are no better than a congealed mass of info-dump, and could mean that your extra effort to be reader-friendly is wasted.

Another tactic might be to have the point of view character overhear other tactics. The difficulty here is that it is difficult to have one character overhear everything they need to know without straining readers’ belief. It seems unlikely that your viewpoint character could conveniently overhear all they need to know.that the same character could conveniently overhear all they need to know — moreover, the overheard conversation is a cliché. Perhaps, though, you might give the cliché new life by having the viewpoint overhear a fraction of a conversation, or a few cryptic comments that they have to puzzle over, or else combine with information from another source

I suppose you could have a nervous character doing something for the first time, and muttering instructions. For example, a thief breaking into a secret room could be reminding herself, “Tenth brick from the fire place, press the acanthus leaf above it. Damn, why do secret rooms have to be so — secretive?” Similarly, a character might analyze information found in a book or in a film. So long as you establish that the character acts that way, mixing the information with a character’s self doubts and thoughts might dilute the dry, encylopedic tone of a recitation of facts.

Most of the time, though, at least two characters are needed to dramatize successfully. After all, you can hardly populate your novel with a dozen people who talk to themselves. But when you play one character off against another, the possibilities open up. For instance, imagine that it is important to your story that two ethnic groups have a hereditary feud. You might place a representative of both ethnicities together, and have them argue with each other. They could hurl insults and accusations. They could bring up the events of the past century, example being met with counter-example. While the information is being given to the reader, the characters’ argument can escalate, possibly to the point where they have to be separated before violence to begin. As they argue, the characters can also reveal their personalitiess.

To give a more specific example, recently I decided to give the history of a war through an alcoholic who fought on the losing side. He is at a dinner held by his former foes. He wants to show a generous attitude to his hosts. In his befuddled state, he concludes that the best way to do so is to stand up and praise them. However, his audience is impatient, because they already know the facts. Even worse, he is undiplomatic, mentioning incidents that embarrass his hosts. Worst of all, his audience includes his teen age daughter who is mortified by behavior. In his drunken state, he insists on not only having his say, but, interpreting the responses to him as an affront to his host, also starts scolding everybody. The situation works because the information is delivered with other purposes in mind as well: showing his character and his daughter’s, and the attitudes that linger between former enemies. If I have done what I intended, readers will absorb the information while being entertained by the dramatic cross-currents, the story being uninterrupted.

Presenting backstory as part of the story requires ingenuity. If you are like me, it may require several drafts before all the cross-currents work together. Yet, in the end, it provides a solution to one of aspiring writers’ biggest problems: giving back story without sabotaging their storytelling. Try it for yourself, and you will see what I mean.

General Writing

Why Mood Matters in a Story

Writing about writing is hard. Everything from world-building and outlining to opening hooks and sentence length has been covered so many times that finding some useful tidbit to add sometimes seems impossible. The truth is, though, that most articles repeat the same banalities and half-truths and plenty of room remains for originality. More importantly, some topics are never covered at all. As someone who started as a poet, I particularly notice the lack of discussion about mood (or atmosphere or tone, if you prefer). Perhaps as a result of this lack, many modern novels come across as flat and distant. So far as mood is created, it is usually by accident, with little control.

By “mood,” I mean the feeling that a passage invokes in a reader. In fantasy, mood used to be so common that it was a defining feature. Fantasy was supposed to be about sense of wonder, whether of awe or terror. The classic fantasies of Lord Dunsany or E. R. Eddison were all about leaving readers breathless in their descriptions of settings and events. As late as Tolkien, mood was an essential part of fantasy. Think of Tolkien’s home-like Shire, or the twilight glories of Rivendell and Lothlorien, or the wasteland that is Mordor, and you will understand immediately what I mean. The descriptions of these places are as important as the characters and plots. They are a main reason why some readers fall in love with The Lord of the Rings. A poet himself, Tolkien offers readers a poet’s eye view of his world.

Yet as fantasy has gained in popularity, mood has been de-emphasized. Part of the problem may be the amount of generic fantasy published. By definition, generic fantasy concentrates on the more superficial aspects — imitators copy elves and orcs more often than Tolkien’s worldbuilding or writing style. Another problem may be that blockbuster movies and games have made fantasy fiction a genre of action or plot, with less attention being paid to subtler aspects like mood. When attention is paid to mood, it is usually to admire the animation or green screen effects, rather than the audience’s response to special effects. As a result, mood has all but disappeared in fiction. With the emphasis on plot, mood is viewed as extraneous to the art of storytelling.

I find this state of affairs unfortunate (by which I mean, comparable to an alien invasion or a tidal wave followed by Godzilla’s relatives arriving all at once for a family reunion). Not using mood is as odd as writing an entire novel without using the letter “e”: you can do it, but why limit yourself so arbitrarily? Especially when the result is so unsatisfactory?

If you doubt what I say, take The Return of the King from the shelf and open it to “The Battle of Pelennor Fields.” The chapter describes the siege of the city of Minas Tirith by the forces of Mordor. The city is vastly outnumbered and waiting for allies who may not come. Detail after detail accumulate to create a feeling of hopelessness. As the chapter ends, Gandalf the wizard confronts the Lord of the Nazgûl, who mocks him and promises destruction. Things could not get any worse. Then:

And in that very moment, away behind in some courtyard of the city, a cock crowed. Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of war nor of wizardry, welcoming only the morning that in the sky far above the shadows of death was coming with the dawn.

And as if in answer there came from far away another note. Horns, horns, horns, in dark Mindolluin’s sides they dimly echoed. Great horns of the north wildly blowing. Rohan had come at last.

Just like that, the mood of despair, that keeps readers turning the pages with growing apprehension, is replaced by relief with a sentence of five words. The entire chapter, and especially the ending, is a masterpiece of mood control, and proof enough of the importance of mood. I would call it the best writing Tolkien ever did.

But how do you capture some of the same power in your own writing? I have no idea how Tolkien did it, but I have found a technique that works for me. I start by deciding what mood I want to create, and reduce that mood to a single word, such as grief or relief or strangeness. Then I open up the thesaurus and note all the synonyms for that word.

However, I do not use that word, nor any of its synonyms. Besides being unsubtle, that would simply not work. You do not create a mood of horror by using the word “horrible.”

Instead, as I write, I try to choose words and descriptions that create that word. For instance, to give an unsubtle example, to invoke grief I might mention shadow and night, and funeral hymns. Possibly, I might choose a viewpoint of someone who grieves. One word, one phrase at a time, I work, and, if I am successful, a reader will receive the impression I want. If I want to orchestrate a change in mood, as Tolkien does, I repeat the process, and figure how I want to make the transition from one mood to another. In effect, choosing the word is a form of outlining, but for mood instead of actions.

Sometimes, the effect is as simple as a simile or a metaphor. For instance, if I write, “Silence spread like a stain,” the comparison carries a hint of the ominous, of something out of control and wrong. At other times, the effect works through an accumulation of details. For instance, in describing a keep, I could have written simply

He remembered now that the cellars and parts of the curtain wall were older still. Built by Valicon’s legions, most said, to mark the north-eastern end of an empire.

However, I wanted to create a sense of the uncanny, so I wrote:

He remembered now that the cellars and parts of the curtain wall were older still. Built by Valicon’s legions, most said, to mark the north-eastern end of an empire. Giant-built, said others, pointing at the outsized stones. Built by others, harpers said when the fire was reduced to ember. Other folk, human only by whim.

The additional two sentences and fragment steadily move readers from history to legend, to hints of the supernatural — to ghost stories. And with their addition, a snippet of info-dump suddenly becomes more interesting.

Strictly speaking, mood is unnecessary to the story. Yet by working to create it, writers can add to readers’ experience. It may even be the case that, when readers remember a scene or re-read a story, the reason may be that they have been struck by the mood.