Sunday, 16 September 2012

Writing episodic fantasy

What seems to be every writer’s dream is to create a credible character-world that can be continued, is immensely popular, is original, and goes viral.

Sounds easy?  Perhaps, not quite.  The Oz books, the Tarzan series, Conan, Fafhrd and Grey Mouser all create this mystique, also the Dying Earth books, Star Wars, the Indiana Jones series, Robin hood anthologies and more, including TV series of countless numbers.

I think the secret lies in incorporating some simple but powerful elements:

(i) Each episode comprises a complete mini-adventure, containing a beginning, middle and end.  Readers can be satisfied in short increments—with the possible exception of the first episode which introduces the main character(s), sets up the initial conflict and describes the world.  Depending on how much world-building is involved, the first episode may remain a teaser.

(ii) The episodes are preferably centred around a main character or group of characters.  The story gains lasting appeal because the viewers and readers come to know the character(s) and want to learn more about the them while expecting entertaining twists and turns.

Being a fan of adventure, I subscribe to the philosophy of introducing a legend or history behind a character, a monster, hero, talisman, demon or magic item.  The story builds upon this foundation.  With escalating tension, the tale has the chance to write itself.  The history of talisman, character or setting provides depth, interest and an inherent mystery to the unfoldment.  An implicit realism is built.  It is an effective world-building ploy.

(iii) The main character(s) ideally should be likeable.  Nobody wants to plod along rubbing nose to chin with unlikeable characters.  But then, where do villains come in to play?  If they are villains, how did they come to be villains?  If they are villains, are they are trying to become non-villains?  Often ordinary or benign characters are only likeable because of their contrast to villains.  Even villains can be likeable (a la Joker in ‘The Dark Knight’).  If the reader can empathize early on with the good guy or villain then the author has an elevated chance of creating an engaging tale that will become popular.  The key issue is readers like to read about characters they enjoy, even if they are startled by some of their actions.

Another monkey wrench is that not all readers have the same tastes.  For example, a reader looking for a Walt Disney Bambi  character is not going to be enthused about murderous vampires or bloodthirsty pirates; neither is the diehard sword-and-sorcery fan going to be empathizing much with a maudlin hero from a harlequin romance.  So, genre and target audience are important.  Storywriters cannot please every reader.  Scanning the reviews of any popular book online shows a surprising number of negative posts listed.

The problem of the ‘likeable character’ is a real one and another way around it is to create a variety of characters in the story, both evil and good, and with natures in between.  Readers can bond with the good ones and wish the knife for others.  This expectation of the knife is a powerful ploy.  George Martin does a good job in the Game of Thrones series.

Incorporating the above elements may sound easy, but is not necessarily easy to do.  It may take a lengthy time for a writer to develop these skills.  At least to be aware of these elements is helpful.  What is engaging for an author often is not engaging for a reader, and vice-versa, a dissonance which in itself is a tricky issue.

(iv) The character-world ideally should be interesting.  The immediate example that comes to mind is the era-gripping ‘Star Wars’—an incredibly rich, detailed world of planets, machines, spaceships and futuristic colonies.  The ‘world’, albeit, is only as interesting as the characters.  Take out Han Solo and Darth Vader and the world is somewhat lacking the same spice.  Discarding C3PO and Jar-Jar wouldn’t have the same effect.

Worlds don’t have to be so elaborate.  The Cube and Hypercube movies centre around a setting of only a series of empty rooms.  The idea is so bizarre, frightening and captivating that it works.  Successful worlds can be created out of practically anything.  The tremendously popular Indiana Jones, set in a 1940’s world, is larger than life, very colourfully engaging, and yet it is light on fantasy aspects, outside of the dramatic representation of the ‘magical ark’ and roller-coaster ride through the mines in the Temple of Doom.

(v) Setting up each episode as a mystery can be an effective formula too, though not essential.  Developing a mystery works well if the writing is effective.  Readers become interested in provocative situations and characters.  Readers are excited to learn more about the unanswered questions in the story.  As a tale progresses, a reader is more willing to learn about the central character(s) episode by episode.  Subsequent episodes advance the overall series, heightening the reader’s interest in the protagonist or quest.  The success of an episode’s coherency is largely dependent upon a storyteller’s writing skill.  An overused magic item, might cheapen the drama or deaden the pace.  A well-defined magic item used skilfully in the hands of a discerning protagonist moves the plot along at a steady pace.  The reader learns more about the item in question.  A hero who uses a magic lamp with no explanation can sacrifice dramatic tension, but one with an exotic magic lamp or carpet from a faraway land, crafted by a sorcerer’s hand, with a story to its telling and what hands it has passed through and why, is much better.

The formula I used to write my recent fantasy-adventure novel, The Relic Retriever, encompasses legends and a build-up of suspense around a single character, a treasure-hunting gambler and rogue.  There are seven episodes in the novel.  Each story is complete in itself:

I have introduced a unique setting in each episode.  The same picaresque character reigns throughout, with ultimately a resolution of the initial and central conflict in the final episode.  The beauty of the format is that each mini-story can be enjoyed on its own.  One does not have to know what happened before.  Generally, this is a difficult scenario to muster.  Most series need to be read in sequence.  From a marketing perspective, this is better.  If order remains unimportant it is more lucrative.  New readers can be introduced in the story at many entry points.  If they like what they are reading, they’ll read more, and possibly go back and read previous episodes or plunge ahead into later ones.  To get around discontinuities between episodes, I insert a short paragraph or prologue in italics at the beginning of each section.  This is a technique used by many authors (like in the Conan series), which has the possible side-effect of hooking the reader into reading more.  The italicized preambles briefly describe what has gone before the subsections.  I think this inclusion can be limited to a few sentences or avoided completely by constructing the story with enough skill that events and plot knit together seamlessly.  Likewise, the character and scene is best carefully and cleverly developed.

Movie series, such as, Game of Thrones, True Blood, Dexter, etc, take advantage of this stylistic technique—flashing brief recaps of events in the first five minutes of the episodes.  It is harder to achieve in print form because of the lack of time to dole out previous details, or resort to the dreaded info dump which quickly stultifies readers.  Few stories are engineered in such a way that a reader can start at page 100 and know what’s going on.  Much is reliant on the author’s ingenuity in keeping the continuity and in designing the story to fit an ‘easy-to-read’ model, not dependent on backstory.

The format of The Relic Retriever is similar to that used by Jack Vance in his incomparable Eyes of the Overworld—one of my personal favourites.