What draws you to read fantasy fiction? Is it the imaginative, fantastical worlds? The glorious sword fights and epic battles?
The best fantasy books are fun: they capture the reader’s imagination and whirl them into an adventure. But underneath the fun premise, fantasy stories also have a strong, beating heart: they are tales of courage and sacrifice, friendship and love.
Fantasy fiction authors, in some ways, have it extra hard. Not only do they have to create compelling characters – they have to introduce the reader to mythical worlds and supernatural beings. The climax of their story is never just an important conversation or discovering who the killer is. Fantasy authors craft thrilling battle scenes, dark curses being broken, and entire worlds saved from destruction… just in the nick of time, of course.
If you’re crafting your own fantasy fiction book, here are some scene writing tips to help guide you through some of the special challenges you may face.
- Be thorough and specific about your world. If you’re creating a world from scratch, map it out – and then think about how that terrain might shape the world. If there is a city on a bay, do the people who live there get to see people and things from lots of different places because it’s a harbor for trade? How does that affect their local culture? Not all of these details need to end up in the book, but thinking through some implications of your choices will help you get a clearer picture for these places and their peoples.
- Include cultural details that get emotions involved. What kinds of traditions do these people have? Mythologies or religions? What kind of class systems or hierarchies or prejudices have they inherited? What kind of values do they prize? What are their fears?
- Put your own spin on it. If you find yourself filling in blanks with a fully-formed idea (Oooh! What about a dark tower with a villain in it?), chances are it’s because you’ve seen it somewhere – or in several places – before. You don’t have to try and reinvent the wheel, but do try to make it your own somehow. Spend a little extra time thinking about whether your great new idea is actually too informed by other stories you’ve read or watched recently.
- Only tell the reader details that are doing something important. Once you’ve created a great big world full of interesting details and rife with emotions, try to bring in snippets of these details throughout your scenes—instead of one big info-dump at the beginning. What you choose to show the reader should help set the tone of the moment, reveal something about the characters, or create a mood for what’s about to happen.
- Carefully consider and plan physical descriptions. Many authors do want to convey to their readers how they’ve pictured their characters, so dropping in a few lines as characters are introduced can be a good way to shape those mental images. But it’s a big turnoff for readers when authors describe only characters that fall outside of the main character’s default lens (for example, only dark skin is described, while all other characters are assumed to be the default: white). Be aware of how certain physical descriptors can offend and alienate. The same goes for fantastical creature descriptions. Along with describing their actual bodies, treat your fantastical peoples like you would any other characters and look beyond the surface. Our first impressions are often imbued with a sense of what a person is like – their demeanor, expressions, and how they carry themselves – and not just the details of their physical appearance.
- Give your characters – even minor ones – motivations and problems. Every character in your book should be compelling in some way. They need to have their own goals, their own needs to meet, their own obstacles getting in the way. The fastest way to bring life to flat, boring scenes is to fill them with characters that WANT things and NEED to solve problems. How do their goals bring them into conflict with the people around them?
- Chart the growth of your significant characters. Each major character needs to have an arc. The point of the story is that they will be forced to change, in small or large ways, over the course of the plot. If your characters are essentially in the same place at the end as they are in the beginning of the story, what was the point? You need to know what journey each character is on. In the classic “voyage and return” story format, remember: your characters don’t just head off on adventure and return with the treasure/prize – they also return with a new personal worldview, the result of all they have experienced. This has the added benefit of giving you an easy way to check the soundness of your plotting. If where you want to take the story requires a character to make a choice that’s wildly out of their arc, something needs to be changed.
Jaw-Dropping Fight Scenes
- Keep track of body parts! Chances are, as you’re taking the reader through the whirlwind of a swordfight or fistfight or grand battle, there will be a moment when the reader will stop and think: Is that really possible? Many authors find it helpful to get toy figures – or even friends – to choreograph fight scenes with, so they have a visual way to make sure the scene makes sense. And that no one ends up with three hands.
- Keep it fast and to the point. Fight scenes should feel fast and tense. So things that interrupt that flow – like dialogue, description, and inner reflection – should be kept simple and quick. People could get seriously hurt or even die! If your characters are stopping to have long flashbacks or conversations, the reader will begin to wonder why this fight is such a big deal after all. The same goes for extended play-by-plays of fight sequences. No one wants to read through pages and pages of blocked parries and side steps. Get to the good stuff and keep it snappy and exciting.
Jaw-Dropping Plot Twists
- The twist needs to significantly change the direction of the story. Unlike learning new information that doesn’t change much or a character acting in an unexpected way, a true plot twist changes EVERYTHING. The story can no longer go on exactly the way the protagonist – or reader – thought it would. That’s why it’s called a plot twist: the plot must change track in reaction.
- Do not blindside the reader. Twists are fun because they’re unexpected, but keeping the reader completely in the dark is cheating (and no fun for them). They must have a chance to see some clues and foreshadowing dropped in earlier. Once the reader can see that the signs were there all along, the twist both surprises and delights.
- The twist can’t be obvious. This is a tricky game. The clues must be there – but not so obviously that the reader thinks the protagonist is stupid for not figuring it out earlier. If the reader has known what’s up for a long time, it’s extremely anti-climactic to have the protagonist be the last to figure it out.
Jaw-Dropping Epic Moments
- The climax has to be life or death. It sounds obvious, but this scene is the moment the whole book has been leading up to. What happens has to matter deeply to the main character – and the main character MUST play a big role in what happens. They cannot be there just to react. The climactic scene should tie in both plot elements that signal a big shift in the direction of the story, and a turning point in the character arcs of the main players. There should be both practical and emotional consequences – if there aren’t, you don’t have an epic moment. You just have a moment.
- Plot it out. Your climax may very well have tons of moving pieces: groups of characters, big fights, supernatural forces, villains wreaking havoc, mayhem and death and the thing that stops it all. It’s a good idea to chart it all out in a way that helps you figure out what to put on paper when (for example, postcards that you can move around or drawings that help you visualize it all). Tracking your plot threads and character arcs will help you make sure that you don’t miss something big!
- Show the reader this moment – don’t tell. There are times when what’s happening in the plot can be summed up and relayed to the reader. This is not one of those times. The climax must play out for the reader to “see,” or they will feel cheated out of this vital moment.
- Keep the pace going. This is not the time to have your villain tell your protagonist their life story. Keep in mind what events are happening in the world, what kind of momentum has been building, what clock is ticking down. While there can be a kind of quiet in the eye of the storm (unless it’s one long fight scene, characters will have time to have conversations), there should still be a sense that whatever is happening, is happening quickly. There is not enough time to turn back the tide now.
Keep these core tips in mind and you’re ready to begin crafting involving and exciting fantasy fiction scenes. Go forth, write your epic stories, and give readers the “wow” effect they’re looking for!
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