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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.

about the author

Ian Irvine

  1. Valerie Stewart Lewis.

    April 24, 2012
    at 6:57 pm

    I found this so very interesting. I don’t write fantasy but I think it would apply to any form of writing. When I come up with a story line I let it simmer around my head for a long time, mostly telling myself a story, forming characters, learning all about them until they are real to me and then start to write. It can be a long time for me as I am elderly and mostly house bound and I also design lace knitted baby gowns and the sale of patterns help to supliment my pension so my days are split between the two loves of my life.
    Sorry this is such a long message, I don’t get the chance to speak with other writers very often and it is a joy to speak with such a successful one. Thank you for the time you have taken to help others.

    • Ian Irvine

      Ian Irvine

      April 25, 2012
      at 6:25 pm

      Hi Valerie, I’m really pleased to hear that you found this useful. It’s been a long road to storytelling for me, but I’ve had a wonderful time doing it, and I wish you all the best for your own stories. Ian.

      • Valerie Stewart Lewis.

        April 26, 2012
        at 5:29 am

        Thank you Ian. I have been writing for many years but for reasons I won’t bother with, my writing became secret and was hidden away. It has only been in the last couple of years that I have ‘come out of the closet’ and let a couple of people see my writings and was surprised at their comments even from a couple of professional writers. I now belong to a local writing group and am gaining confidence and with lots of help, self published a novel and book of poems and recieved a lot of praise.
        With having a computer I am able to get a lot of knowledge from writers such as yourself who give up your precious tiem to help and advise people such as myself.
        Thank you very much.

  2. sue knight

    April 25, 2012
    at 6:50 am

    Ian is one of my all time fave authors. Once I am reading one of his novels I lose all sense of time and purpose….I become the organic reader/fan ! I gnasn my teeth in frustration as he puts the hero thru the hoops and then when I relax the next obstacle comes along, mind you it is all beautifully written with lovely images and tho’ you are taken to many different worlds it is all entirely readable, enjoyable and addictive. The icing on the cake is he makes himself available to us fans via FB and you see glimmers of the real man, humourous and intelligent.
    Do yourself a favour and read his books and absorb his advice on writing.

    • Ian Irvine

      Ian Irvine

      April 25, 2012
      at 6:26 pm

      Thanks very much for saying so, Sue. Such kind words are like a starter motor in the morning; they help to get be rarin’ to go on the day’s writing.

  3. Gavin Patmore

    April 25, 2012
    at 7:40 pm

    I found this entirely too helpful, which really goes to show how much I still have to learn about writing. But the tips given here are so well thought out I cannot fault them, they can be applied anywhere, and I plan to try these steps out when I next plan a book. I appreciate the ability for Ian to stay in his characters’ lives for 17 hours a day, as I do find that once you start doing other things and remember you have your own life the harder it is to remember everything in your world and it only serves to slow you down once you try to start again. Definitely want to try this.

    • Ian Irvine

      Ian Irvine

      April 30, 2012
      at 12:46 am

      The very best of luck with your writing, Gavin. It’s a long hard road, but I have to say that, 25 years after I started, I’m still loving it.

  4. Nadine Maritz

    April 26, 2012
    at 5:43 am


    I was passed this piece of information via my editor. I think that it’s a great schedule to work with and that my future novels would definitely be done in such a manner. For now though, I’m still working on the first. the crux about it is that i never had guidelines when is tarted it so needless to say there area areas where I need to put in a lot of work. My editor is also not very lenient (which is good).

    Thanks for this

    • Ian Irvine

      Ian Irvine

      April 30, 2012
      at 12:54 am

      Hey, Nadine, none of my editors are very lenient either. But it’s a wonderful thing to have a professional, experienced editor – good feedback as hard to come by anywhere else. I wish you joy of it.

  5. David M Russell

    May 3, 2012
    at 1:25 am


    your generosity in providing so many enormously valuable insights for other writers is touching. That you take so much time out of an obviously frantic schedule simply enhances your humanity. Thank you sincerely for your gift and your willingness to share it. Your capacity to change readers’ lives is awesome enough; that you will also help foster another generation of writers is a surpassing legacy. You do writing a great cedit, sir.

  6. Ian Walkley

    May 15, 2012
    at 5:50 am

    Great article, Ian, as is your other page of tips. Half way through my second novel Travesty Creek, I am still battling with the planning vs organic. I find every time I plan, the chapters I’ve planned get tossed out as inadequate as I write the story. And interruptions are hell, as I am trying to market my first novel No Remorse. I’ve written the ending, but whether it will end that way is still a mystery to me. FB and Twitter are awful interruptions, conspiracies I think by publishers to keep would be writers busy while real writers actually write books.
    Your most important comment to me, was that every scene should end in a win or loss for characters, and where possible put the protagonist in a worse situation. I’m going back to review my chapters to see if they qualify on both counts.
    Ian Walkley

  7. Vanessa Henderson

    May 24, 2012
    at 12:14 am

    I love writing the history of a realm, fleshing creatures, and inventing culture. When it comes to plot and character development I find my imagination falling short. I’ve started several different stories, but only finished one novella and that came from a dream.

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