Bad news! Life is remarkably hectic for me right now, so the next review (Clayton Emery’s Sword Play, the first of a new trilogy) is probably not going to be out for another few weeks. But I love my regular readers, so I figure you deserve an update of sorts to tide you over until then.
One of several reasons why the next post is going to be late is that I’ve volunteered to be an alpha reader for a forthcoming fantasy novel, and that means I’ll have to critically read over a 400-odd-page book a couple of times and make scores of suggestions and corrections. It’ll take a fair amount of time and brainpower, but obviously it’s the sort of work that I enjoy doing, and it’s giving me some thoughts about the construction of fantasy novels that seem relevant to this blog.
But first, settle in for a tale…
Twenty years ago, a user by the name of “Sagiro” started posting summaries of his long-running D&D campaign on ENWorld, a busy D&D fansite. Over the course of the next ten years, they gradually evolved from simple play-by-plays of a complex campaign (“this happened, then this happened, then this happened”) to novel-quality prose that captured the exciting battles, the dialogue between characters, and the convolutions of the increasingly metastasizing plot. By the time the campaign ended in 2011 it had been running for sixteen years, and yet somehow managed to tie up almost every loose end in a satisfying, dramatic manner by the finale. Reading Sagiro’s Story Hour taught me more about running a tabletop game than I thought possible, giving excellent examples of how to pace, plot, and plan efficiently. (Fellow ENWorld user StevenAC collected the hundreds of forum posts that comprised the story into a set of very nice PDFs, if you want to get stuck in.)
For years people asked him “So when are you going to make novels out of this story?” And indeed, after several years of downtime, Sagiro (real name Dorian Hart) finally sat down and started doing just that. The first book, The Ventifact Colossus, came out in 2016, and three more followed. Now he’s nearly done with the fifth and final book in the series, and I’m looking forward to reading the manuscript and seeing how he sticks the landing. It’s a good tale, well told — especially given that these books are his first published works as an author.
So why am I going on about some small-press fantasy series? Well, because over the past four years or so of reading and reviewing Forgotten Realms novels, I keep noticing that I have a number of recurring complaints. So many authors seem to make the same mistakes, over and over, until I get tired of pointing them out. But this series manages to avoid all of the common pitfalls I’ve noticed in the Realms novels, and I quite enjoy seeing how Sagiro pulls it off. Some examples:
It’s hard to write a five-book series without digressions and pointless flab. The fewer constraints you have on page count and the more time you have to wrap things up, the stronger the temptation to add useless characters and side plots that are just fun clutter. And the more subplots and arcs you’re juggling, the more likely you are to drop some on the floor when you get to the end. I think every one of my reviews of the Cleric Quintet pointed this out; the plot meandered all over the place, and it felt like Salvatore was writing without a solid plan. But Sagiro is adapting an existing story, not writing a whole new plot from scratch, so his Story Hour effectively serves as an outline for the overarching plot that he can divide into five discrete chunks. With all the major story beats planned out in advance, it’s easy to set up hooks early on that will pay off in later books.
I don’t think that you need to plot out an entire series scene-by-scene ahead of time, mind you. I believe that there’s a happy medium between obsessive outlining and stream-of-consciousness writing, and each author needs to figure out where on that continuum they feel most comfortable. But for a long multi-part work, I think that at the very least you should know the theme of the series, the important details of the overarching plot, and a few story beats that you want to work into the narrative for each book. Without that bare minimum, it’ll be obvious to the reader that you’re improvising because finding a consistent tone, setting up foreshadowing and callbacks for future payoffs, and keeping the plot coherent and compelling are all much harder.
Having lots of viewpoint characters means we don’t get to know any of them very well. Books like Song of the Saurials and Pools of Darkness suffered badly from this: characterization takes time, and if your point of view flits around between a large number of characters broken into separate groups, you don’t have much time to spend with each one. The inevitable result is a large stable of characters defined by a couple of obvious character traits apiece instead of the rich texture you get from spending a lot of time with a small number of characters. But although Sagiro’s story focuses on a party of six to seven characters, all of whom get point-of-view scenes, he still manages to fit in the characterization. Two reasons:
First of all, each chapter is told solely from the point of view of a single character, cycling through the entire party as the book goes on. In each chapter, the narration takes on some of the qualities of the character whose eyes we’re seeing through: one character is snarky and irreverent, one is educated and logical, one is naïve and earnest, and so on, and everything we see gets filtered through their perceptions. The diction subtly changes and they pay attention to different things. The upshot is that the characterization for each protagonist comes not just from the dialogue but from the narration as well, and it has the nice side effect of varying the tone of the story to avoid monotony.
Second, Sagiro’s party almost always sticks together, so you don’t have long stretches where each character is only present in half of the scenes. Every scene gives every character a chance to demonstrate who they are and react to anyone else, which gives the author a lot of flexibility in choosing where and how to spread the characterization around. Plus, it keeps the plot moving along at a rapid clip and avoids the jerky, start-and-stop feeling you get when you’re reading a narrative that constantly jumps between too many people and places. (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the weakest book of this series is the one that splits the party up the most.)
Fantasy villains are often ineffectual. Books like Viperwall and Tantras give us antagonists who accomplish basically nothing, sitting around waiting for the heroes to show up and then going down like chumps at the end. But the villains here are better-organized and better-informed than the heroes, they have sensible plans that they pursue in a reasonably intelligent manner, and they’re more than a match for the protagonists when encountered on their own terms. Later books do a good job of keeping that “scrappy underdog” feeling even after the party has become more capable and dangerous, since they’re still way behind on figuring out what’s going on and how to stop it.
Magic solves every problem without effort. In books like Elminster: The Making of a Mage or Tangled Webs, the heroes resolve almost all their problems by suddenly doing some magic thing that we didn’t know they could do, murdering all potential drama by making problems disappear with a wave of their hands. Here there’s not a lot of magic — magical items are usually unique, named things, and magic-using characters have a small enough toolbox of skills that you’re not surprised by what they can do. It often has significant consequences for the user, too, so they can’t throw magic around willy-nilly.
Stories based on D&D campaigns are boring and don’t have a good narrative structure. This isn’t a topic I’ve brought up yet, but you’d better believe I’m going to have some things to say about it when we get to the Dragonlance Chronicles. D&D campaigns don’t have the same narrative flow as books, movies, or any other story that’s told by a single person — there are lots of digressions, side quests, random encounters, and abandoned plot hooks, since the story is being made up on the fly over a long period of time by a group of people. Fights in D&D are fun, so campaigns are also generally more combat-oriented and less plot-heavy than traditional stories.
The solution is obvious: use the D&D campaign as inspiration rather than as the text itself. Build a new plot loosely based on the campaign’s plot, with all diversions ruthlessly lopped off and all dangling threads pulled out. Merge multiple characters into composites. Condense any sections that run too long. Remove or pare down combat scenes in favour of plot-relevant scenes and character interactions. Alter anything that feels overtly game-mechanical — if your readers can fill out your protagonists’ D&D character sheets after reading the novel, you’ve probably done something wrong. When I first read Sagiro’s books I feared that they’d be just a straightforward rehash of the Story Hour material, but he’s gone to great lengths to make them feel like two different but related stories.
I’m not saying these books are perfect. The third book in particular has some sloggy bits in the middle, and there’s no way to avoid having the sometimes clichéd Dungeons & Dragons roots poke through in some places without significantly changing the story. But it’s quite refreshing to see a new author take the same material that the Realms authors were working with — a fairly standard D&D campaign setting, with all the good and bad that that entails — and do a better job at writing a long-running series than any of the TSR authors we’ve seen thus far. (Amazon link)
Don’t worry, I’m not planning on turning this blog into a review site for whatever fantasy novels I happen to read. I like my theme, and I feel that I need the tight focus afforded by the “classic TSR” scope to keep this project structured and on track. But the construction of stories has been on my mind lately — not just the micro level of “how to write compelling prose,” but also the macro level of “how do creators successfully manage the evolving complexity of long, multi-part stories?” It’s a rare talent that few people seem to be good at and that’s not easy to practice, given the vast amount of work involved and the scarce opportunities to try it.
Anyhow, I may be temporarily busy but I haven’t forgotten about this project. I’ve gotten a little way into Sword Play already and have been enjoying the abrupt shift in genre from the usual Western European high fantasy setting to classic sword-and-sorcery. It’ll be fun to pick it back up and find things to say about it once my life stops being so crazy. Until then, stay safe and be good to each other!