What I’ve Learned

I wish I knew everything I know now, because when I began writing fantasy, I didn’t have a clue about the art of storytelling.

How I began

I devoured books from the age of four, I was good at English, and I wrote all the time in my work (I’m a marine scientist). Yet when I started writing my first book 25 years ago (A Shadow on the Glass), I discovered that I didn’t truly understand how fiction worked, and the books I read on writing, worthy though they were, weren’t much help. I understood their messages but couldn’t see how to apply them to my story.

My first novel had a long gestation, because I’d been world-building for ten years before I started writing. I’d created maps the size of doors (small versions can be seen here) designed a whole world of nations and ecosystems, and worked out 10,000 years of history, as one does. I’d also spent a lot of time planning the book. At least, trying to.

But the story plan didn’t seem real. I had no idea where it was going and every idea seemed dumb and derivative. In despair, and sure the book wasn’t going to work, I started to write ‘organically’ – that’s the technical term for ‘making it up as you go along’.

I put my main protagonist, Karan, into a bad situation and kept writing until she got out of it, straight into something worse. I never had a clear idea of where I was going; often I didn’t even know how the page was going to end, much less the chapter. I kept making stuff up, scene after scene, making things worse and worse until the climactic scene. I thought I was writing a stand-alone novel, so you can imagine my surprise when the book ended on a colossal cliff-hanger and, after a month of frantic planning, I discovered that it was going to take another three books to resolve everything in the quartet now called The View from the Mirror. But finally, after 22 very hard drafts of A Shadow on the Glass, over many years, I was happy with the story.

What I’ve Learned

After I’d written five novels, or maybe ten, I’d gained a basic understanding of storytelling (I must be a slow learner!). So what have I learned?

1. The driving force behind any story is conflict – two dogs, one bone, as James Scott Bell puts it. Every interaction, between every character (even friends and allies) should contain conflict. But not meaningless or random conflict, or bickering. The conflict needs to be related to the character’s goal – either furthering it or blocking it.

2. The protagonist must want something desperately (e.g., to survive or escape, win the contest or save the world). As soon as she takes action to achieve this goal, the story begins. But the opponent will do anything to stop the protagonist, and their struggle needs to intensify all the way to the climax. Any scene that doesn’t directly contribute to this struggle will come as an anti-climax.

3. Once the protagonist forms a goal, your readers begin to identify with her and worry about whether she can succeed. The more you reveal your protagonist’s true character, the more strongly readers will identify. Character is revealed by the way she deals with adversity – the more pressure you put her under, the more she’ll reveal her true self. So make her suffer – and I sure do!

4. Your readers can’t deeply identify with the protagonist unless you show her true feelings. Show her hopes, dreams, fears, dreads and conflicts, and how they’re changing, at every stage of the story.

5. Suspense arises from unanswered questions – Can she survive? Will he win? – and it’s the lifeblood of story, because it’s what keeps your readers reading. Your readers’ hope that the hero will succeed, and fear that he will fail, creates rising suspense until the climax, where his goal or problem is resolved one way or another. Never tell the reader anything upfront when, by withholding it, you can create or heighten suspense.

6. Most characters are weak, dull and forgettable. They fail from too little exaggeration, not too much. Make your characters louder and larger than life. Give them agendas, and show their attitudes and passions, powerfully, in their own unique voices.

How I Write Now

These days I plan my books scene by scene in great detail before I start writing. For instance, my plan for Vengeance was more than 50 pages, and I spent about six weeks on it, doing draft after draft, before I wrote a word of the story. These days I work this way because it’s invaluable in creating a solidly structured story, but also because it allows me to analyse the story in detail before I begin, then fix flaws and eliminate repetition. Having written 3.9 million words of fiction in my career, I’ve used up an enormous number of characters, plots and situations, and it’s hard not to repeat myself.

Once I’m happy with the story plan, I set aside a block of time and try to write the first draft at furious pace, 16 hours a day, 7 days a week – in under a month if I can. I find that this works best for me, and books I write this way require a lot less editing than ones where I grind out the first draft over a period of months. I assume this is because I’m ‘in the zone’ the whole time – i.e., inside the heads of the main characters as they live the story. When I write stories slowly, other commitments repeatedly force me out of the story and it takes a long while to get back into it. Often I find that I’m writing analytically rather than creatively.

After I’ve done two or three drafts, and feel that the story is working well, I do a scene-by-scene analysis of the whole book. For Vengeance, which has 110 scenes, I tabulated each scene, summarised it in a few lines, then analysed each scene for key elements such as:

• The protagonist’s goal for that scene.
• The obstacles in the way of achieving his scene goal.
• What he does to try to achieve his goal, and how his opponent tries to block him.
• How the scene is resolved – in many cases, by landing the protagonist in deeper trouble.
• One or two striking images that can be used to bring the story alive.
• Twists that can be employed to break the expected.
• Emotional high points.
• Ways to reveal the protagonist’s true character more clearly.
• Ways to make the setting more original, and to wring more out of it.
• Ways to heighten tension and suspense even further.

I use the flaws and new ideas thrown up by the scene-by-scene analysis for the final revision of the book, which will generally take another few drafts. Vengeance, my 27th novel, was the first for which I used the full process, and I feel that it’s a better book for it – though it still took 10 drafts. I’m using the same process on Book 2 of The Tainted Realm, Rebellion, which I’m editing now.

Funny thing is, after all my experience, writing doesn’t get any easier. I still hate my first drafts – as, I suspect, do most other writers. But at least I know to persevere, because I now know how to turn a rough, flawed draft into a well-structured book.

For more, see The One-Page Guide to Storytelling.

For tips on creating suspense: 41 Ways to Create and Heighten Suspense.