Category Archives: writing

Pacing and the Function of the Transition Scene #amwriting

The transition scene is the most challenging part of the narrative for me to devise in the first draft. I get stuck, trying to decide what information needs to come out and what should be held back. I forget that the first draft is only the foundation of the bigger picture.

transitionsWe add the details when we begin the revision process. One of the elements we look for in our narrative is pacing, or how the story flows from the opening scene to the final pages.

Our manuscript is finished in the regard that it has a beginning, middle, and ending, but it’s not yet ready for a reader. Now that we have the story’s skeleton, it’s time to flesh it out.

Stories are comprised of a string of moments that are connected by common themes. These moments are scenes, and when you put them together in the right order, they combine to form a narrative.

story as an ocean of wordsThis string of scenes is like the ocean. It has a kind of rhythm, a wave action we call pacing. Pacing is created by the way an author links actions and events, stitching them together with quieter scenes: transitions.

Genre fiction has one thing in common regardless of the tropes: characters we can empathize with are thrown into chaos-with-a-plot.

But while the characters might be immersed in turmoil, the reader needs an underlying order in the layout of the narrative. This pacing is subliminal, but without it, the book is chaos.

  • action,
  • processing the action,
  • action again,
  • another connecting/regrouping scene

The scene’s arc is like any other: it begins, rises to a peak, and ebbs, ending at a slightly higher point of the overall story arc than when it started.

If you ask a reader what makes a memorable story, they will tell you that the emotions it evoked are why they loved that novel. They were allowed to process the events, given a moment of rest and reflection between the action. The characters can take a moment to think, but while doing so, they must be transitioning to the next scene.

While I am not always successful, I work hard to make each scene as emotionally powerful as possible without going overboard.

Here are a few things a transition scene can show:

  • Capitulation (defeat, surrender, change of heart, retreat, giving in).
  • Catalyst (spark, stimulus, goad, incentive, the means by which we can fire things up).
  • Confrontation (disagreement, opposition, conflict, dispute, sorting things out).
  • Contemplation/Reflection (thinking things through, analyzing, seeing events from a different perspective).
  • Decision (making a choice for good or ill).
  • Emotions (Feelings, passions, reactions, sentiments).
  • Information (receiving or offering knowledge, news, the data we must have to go forward).
  • Negotiation (mediation, arbitration, “I’ll do this if you’ll do that”).
  • Resolution (answer, solution, end, outcome, upshot).
  • Revelation (the “oh my god” moment).
  • Turning Point (the “it’s now or never” moment).

Make one or more of these functions the core of the scene, and you will have a compelling story.

Plot points are driven by the characters who have vital knowledge. The fact that some characters are working with limited information can create high emotional tension.

A scene comprised only of action can be confusing if it has no context. A properly placed argument or dispute gives the reader the context needed to process the action and understand why it happened. The reader and the characters should receive information simultaneously when they need it.

What concessions will have to be made to achieve the final goal? A transition scene must reveal something new and push the characters toward something as yet unknown, but which is unavoidable.

I picked up my kit and looked around. No wife to kiss goodbye, no real home to leave behind, nothing of value to pack. Only the need to bid Aeoven and my failures goodbye. The quiet snick of the door closing behind me sounded like deliverance.

The character in the above transition scene completes an action (departing for somewhere). It reveals his mood and some of his history in 46 words. Don’t waste words on empty scenes. This is why I find the revision process the most challenging aspect of writing.

Don_Quijote_and_Sancho_Panza

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Gustave Dore PD|100

We can’t natter on about nothing, but conversely, we can’t have non-stop action. Pandemonium is exhausting to write and more exhausting to read. The characters and the reader both need to process information, so the character arc should be at the forefront during these transitional scenes. That period of relative calm is when you allow your characters’ internal growth to emerge.

We allow the characters to justify the decisions that led to that point and plan their next move, making it believable.

The transition is also where you ratchet up the emotional tension. Introspection offers an opportunity for clues about the characters to emerge. It opens a window for the reader to see who they are and how they react. It illuminates their fears and strengths. It makes them real and self-aware.

Keep the moments of mind wandering brief. Go easy if you use italics to set your thoughts off. A wall of italics is hard to read, so don’t have your characters “think” too much if you use those.

Characters’ thoughts must illuminate their motives at a particular moment in time and explore information not previously discussed.

conversationsInternal monologues should humanize our characters and show them as clueless about their flaws and strengths. It should even show they are ignorant of their deepest fears and don’t know how to achieve their goals. With that said, we must avoid “head-hopping.” The best way to avoid confusion is to give a new chapter to each point-of-view character. Head-hopping occurs when an author describes the thoughts of two point-of-view characters within a single scene.

Visual Cues: In my own work, when I come across the word “smile” or other words conveying a facial expression or character’s mood, it sometimes requires a complete re-visualization of the scene. I’m forced to look for a different way to express my intention, which is a necessary but frustrating aspect of the craft.

Fade-to-black is a time-honored way of moving from one event to the next. However, I don’t like using fade-to-black scene breaks as transitions within a chapter. Why not just start a new chapter once the scene has faded to black?

One of my favorite authors sometimes has chapters of only five or six hundred words, keeping each character thread separate and flowing well. A hard scene break with a new chapter is my preferred way to end a fade-to-black.

Chapter breaks are transitions. I have found that as I write, chapter breaks fall naturally at certain places.

The struggle to connect my action scenes into a seamless arc with good pacing is why writing isn’t the most uncomplicated occupation I could have chosen. But it is the best job I’ve ever had.

storyArcLIRF10032021

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Why you should consider writing a narrative essay #amwriting

Many highly respected, award-winning authors began as freelancer authors, writing narrative essays, and other articles, humorous or serious in nature. Narrative essays are drawn directly from the author’s real-life experiences but aren’t necessarily factual or accurate.

narrative essayThey often detail an experience or event and how it shaped the author on a personal level. For those of us who wish to earn actual money from writing, the narrative essay appeals to a broader audience than short stories, so more magazine editors are looking for them.

I have mentioned one of my favorite narrative essays before, 1994’s Ticket to the Fair (now titled “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All“) by the late David Foster Wallace and published in Harpers. It is a humorous, eye-opening story of a “foreign” (east coast) journalist’s assignment to cover the 1993 Iowa State Fair. Wallace wrote it from his own point of view.

At the outset, Wallace tells us how he was born several hours’ drive from the fair but had never attended it. He was a slightly arrogant city boy without knowledge of farms, farm culture, or animals.

In pursuit of his dream, Wallace left the Midwest for the East Coast and never looked back after graduating high school and college. He was overjoyed when he was assigned to report on the fair for Harpers. As a naïve young correspondent, he didn’t think about the fair beyond the fact that he was getting his first official press pass, making him a “real” reporter.

Wikipedia summarizes Ticket to the Fair this way: Wallace’s experiences and opinions on the 1993 Illinois State Fair, ranging from a report on competitive baton twirling to speculation on how it represents Midwestern culture and its subsets. Rather than take the easy, dismissive route, Wallace focuses on the joy this seminal midwestern experience brings those involved.

He was shocked and repelled by some aspects of showing farm animals in a fair. Raising and caring for hogs or sheep can be a dirty business and he was unprepared for the sights and smells.

But he saw the joy and pride people have in their livestock and their skills. By connecting with their enjoyment, he was able to write a narrative that made his name as an author.

A-supposedly-fun-thing-first-edition-coverBut just what is an essay in the first place? The primary purpose of an essay is to offer readers thought-provoking content. The narrative essay conveys our ideas in a palatable form, so writing this sort of piece requires authors to have some idea of the craft of writing.

That means we must understand and write to the publishing industry’s standards of grammar and mechanics.

A narrative essay is a story that begins with an experience. You know how that experience began and ended, so you must plan how you want your account to be perceived. You must develop both content and structure.

Just like any other form of short fiction, a narrative essay has

  • an introduction,
  • a plot,
  • characters,
  • a setting,
  • a climax,
  • a conclusion.

It’s not a memoir, so we can’t ramble on. Authors must choose words that convey the intended mood concisely.

We must be intentional with how we phrase things because narrative essays often present profound and (sometimes) uncomfortable ideas. A skillful writer can offer these concepts in a way that the reader feels connected to the story, even if they disagree.

A good essay is a conversation in an entertaining form, one that expresses far more than mere opinion.

Names should be changed, for your protection, as narrative essays give readers the author’s personal view of the world, the places we go, and the people we meet along the way.

An honest narrative essay contains an author’s opinions. Sometimes those sentiments are not glowing accolades.

Those who write narrative essays can make a living because literary magazines have open calls for them. Editors and publishers are seeking well-written essays with fresh ideas about wide-ranging topics.

Some will pay well for first publication rights.

Original_New_Yorker_coverHOWEVER – if you want to be published by a reputable magazine, you must pay strict attention to grammar and editing.

Never submit anything less than your best work. After you have finished the piece, I suggest you set it aside for a week or two. Then come back to it with a fresh eye and check the manuscript for:

  • Spelling—misspelled words, autocorrect errors, and homophones (words that sound the same but are spelled differently). These words are insidious because they are actual words and don’t immediately stand out as being out of place.
  • Repeated words and cut-and-paste errors. These are sneaky and dreadfully difficult to spot. Spell-checker won’t always find them. To you, the author, they make sense because you see what you intended to see. For the reader, they appear as unusually garbled sentences.
  • Missing punctuation and closed quotes. These things happen to the best of us.
  • Digits/Numbers: Miskeyed numbers are difficult to spot when they are wrong unless they are spelled out.
  • Dropped and missing words.

If you want to work as a freelance author, don’t be afraid to use your words – readers of narrative essays have a wide vocabulary. That said, never use jargon or technical terms that only people in certain professions would know unless it is a piece in a publication geared for that segment of readers.

Above all, be intentional and active with your prose, and be bold. I enjoy reading works by authors who are adventurous in their prose.

And on that note, we must be realistic. At first, you will have trouble selling your work. This is because you haven’t gained a reputation yet, and your work might not appeal to the first editors you send it to.

If you put two people in a room and give them the most exciting thing you’ve ever read, you’ll hear two different opinions about it. They probably won’t agree with you.

1915NatGeog (2)Don’t be discouraged by rejection. Rejection happens far more frequently than acceptance, so don’t let fear of rejection keep you from writing pieces you’re emotionally invested in.

I always say this, but it is true: the way you handle critiques and rejections tells editors what kind of person you are to work with. Rejection gives you the chance to cross the invisible line between amateur and professional. Always take the high ground.

  • If an editor has sent you a detailed rejection, respond with a simple “thank you for your time.”
  • If it’s a form letter rejection, don’t reply.

When you receive that email of acceptance, do that happy dance, and don’t be shy about it.

There is no better feeling than knowing someone you respect liked your work enough to publish it.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=A_Supposedly_Fun_Thing_I%27ll_Never_Do_Again&oldid=1093971404 (accessed July 12, 2022).

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Camp NaNoWriMo #amwriting

July is Camp NaNoWriMo Month. (NaNoWriMo = National Novel Writing Month.)  I have a small project going, nothing too daunting. So why would I want to do NaNoWriMo twice in one year?

what is camp nanowrimoFirst of all, camp is relaxed, not an ordeal. You are only tied to the loose goals you set for yourself. You can choose any kind of project, whatever word count goal you feel comfortable with, and there is no pressure.

This year, I declared I would write 30,000 words, and my project began as a series of short stories, but now I don’t really know what it is. But you could declare your intention to write as few as 100 words.

Camp NaNoWriMo is a training camp that happens every year in July. If you plan to write a 50,000-word novel next November, you may find it harder to make time for writing than you planned. Participating in a Camp helps you develop time management skills before November’s big deal.

Family Camping Clipart

Family Camping with tent and campfire Clipart

The website, https://nanowrimo.org, offers Camp Counselors to help you through the difficulties of developing a writing routine. They have a terrific team of published authors to act as your guides, cheerleaders, and mentors during each Camp NaNoWriMo session. This year, they share advice via Camp Care Packages and live events. They’re doing Instagram takeovers, Zoom meetups, and more throughout July.

We know that daily writing is more manageable once it becomes a habit. Making the best use of your time requires a little self-discipline, which is something we all could use a bit more of.

If you are interested in participating, the link for that is https://nanowrimo.org/what-is-camp-nanowrimo. To participate in Camp, just announce a project, then make sure to check “Associate with a NaNoWriMo Event” and select the current year’s Camp NaNoWriMo event.

It’s the middle of July, but you could choose to write 10,000 (or fewer) words. Once you’ve done that, you should be ready to start your project. You’ll be able to start tracking your writing on their website.

The site will automatically confirm your win when you reach your writing goal. You will receive a certificate celebrating your achievement, along with other winner goodies.

Do you want to connect with other authors? If so, you could become part of the broader NaNoWriMo writing community by participating in their forums.  Check out the Camp NaNoWriMo forums.

Also, you have the option to start or join an existing writing group. Check out the “Writing Groups, Assemble” forum for open groups and much more.

Whenever we begin talking about NaNoWriMo, I always feel the need to mention saving your files. If you are a new author or are unfamiliar with using a computer or electronic notepad, saving your files is an important habit to develop.

Participating in camp is a great way to develop the good habits that will save your sanity farther down the road:

  • File_names_save_master_file_screen_shotEven if you don’t have a title, name your manuscript with a good, descriptive working title, such as The_Vampire_Story. You can call it something else later.
  • Never deletea manuscript. If you suddenly decide to make such radical changes that you need to start over, save it in the same master file but with a new descriptive name:

Save each new version separately so that you don’t lose the work you might need later if you change your mind.

Losing your files is a traumatic experience. Some authors lose several years of work in a surprise computer crash, which is an unimaginable tragedy. Entire manuscripts can go missing when a thumb drive is lost, or a hard drive is corrupted.

You must save regularly. This won’t be a problem if you are using a Chromebook or working out of Microsoft’s OneDrive. But if you’re using an ordinary word-processing program such as Word or Open Office, you should hit that ‘save’ button regularly.

I use a file hosting service. I have a lot of images on file, so I pay for an expanded version, but file hosting services have free versions that offer you as much storage as a thumb drive. I like using a file hosting service because my work can’t be lost or misplaced and is always accessible.

nano-computer-word-count

November’s Goal

I work out of those files, so they are automatically saved and are where I want them when I close my programs. But you can use any storage system that is free to you–Google Drive, OneDrive, or a standard portable USB flash drive.

The important thing is to save regularly.

The story I am currently working on is set in the Tower of Bones world. It began as a short story but edged into novella length (go figure). It’s nearly done and currently sits at just under 20,000 words.

In previous years I repurposed outtakes from existing projects. These were chapters, about 1500 words in length, that I cut because they had taken my novel in the wrong direction. With character name changes, two of my outtakes grew into novellas set in that world.

The option to repurpose work that no longer fits is why I never discard any manuscript.

A great deal of what I discuss here on Life in the Realm of Fantasy is how I devise a plot, build a world, and create characters. I like to do these things in advance of November, spending a few days on that part of the project.

But maybe you prefer to write by the seat of your pants. That is how I write poetry, so I understand “the joy of pantsing.” My favorite characters came into existence in 2010 for my first NaNoWriMo. Writing what became the Billy’s Revenge series was an exhilarating experience. I began with no plot, no characters, and no idea of where that story was going.

Julian_Lackland Cover 2019 for BowkersBut that first book was a nightmare to edit and straighten out. It became three books, Huw the Bard, Billy Ninefingers, and Julian Lackland.

The experience I gained in 2010 taught me that a bit of advanced preparation means I won’t lose sight of my story arc when I sit down to write it in November. Participating in Camp NaNoWriMo helps writers get organized and also gives you the confidence that you can finish a project.

There are 20 days left in July:

  • Perhaps you will add 10,000 words to that unfinished novel.
  • Or maybe you will write a haiku each day.

Whatever you choose, set a reasonable goal and have fun with it. Camp is a writing free-for-all, something I do that takes me out of the ordinary grind.

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Worldbuilding part 2: The Fantasy Map – Creating Geography #amwriting

Our modern lives are ruled by the geography of our area. Rivers, mountains, lakes, and ponds impede travel, forcing a road to go around them.

Untitled.pngworldbuilding-maps-LIRF07052022Unfortunately, maps have fallen out of favor thanks to satellite technology and the GPS in our cell phones. Many people don’t know how to read a map.

However, maps (and the ability to understand them) are a useful tool for authors of fantasy and speculative fiction, or indeed, any fiction set in any place and time.

1024px-Puget_Sound_by_Sentinel-2,_2018-09-28_(small_version)

Satellite View of Puget Sound by Sentinel 2

Where I live, Puget Sound‘s shoreline determines the interstate highway’s path and the locations of cities and towns. Those detours add to the distance we must travel and increase the time it takes to go from one place to another.

The stylesheet is one of the most valuable tools an author can have to aid them in worldbuilding. It costs nothing to create but is a warehouse of information about your work-in-progress.

I suggest you include a glossary of created words, names, a list of sites where you got your research, and myriad notes related to that novel. Those are bits of knowledge you will be glad you made a note of, as they will contribute to the believability of your narrative.

If you are writing a contemporary novel or historical work set in our real world, this is where you keep maps and maybe a link to Google Earth.

If you are interested, a post on creating a stylesheet is here: Designing the Story.

protomapIf you are designing a fantasy world, you only need a pencil-drawn map. Place north at the top, east to the right, south to the bottom, and west to the left. Those are called cardinal points and the position of north at the top and the directions east, south, and west following at 90-degree intervals in the clockwise direction is standard in modern maps.

Even if your story is set in a town, you need to map it out. Knowing which direction your people are going at the outset is critical if your characters are going from one spot to another. The lines and scribbles you add to your map are the information you can use to check for consistency in your narrative.

If, in chapter one, Hero leaves home and follows the river north to the Big City of Smallville, he won’t reach home in time to save his mother if he then races east in chapter ten. He must return south, and your notes on your little map will help you remember this.

Or perhaps Hero lives in a city and wants coffee at the shop two blocks north of his apartment. He will have to return past the same shops and buildings he passed on the way. If some of the action occurs in those buildings, you want to have your map out and update it as needed.

proto_city_map_LIRF07052022Use a pencil, so you can easily note whatever changes during revisions. Your map doesn’t have to be fancy. Lay it out like a standard map with north at the top, east on the right, south at the bottom, and west on the left.

You may need to note where rivers and forests are situated relative to towns, or in the case of towns, what streets and cross streets our Heroes must travel.

Map of Mal Evol, color full size, no roadsMany towns are situated on rivers. Water rarely flows uphill. While it may do so if pushed by the force of wave action or siphoning, water is a slave to gravity and chooses to flow downhill. When making your map, locate rivers between mountains and hills.

A river may emerge from a mountain spring or a glacier, but it will flow downhill to a valley where it will either continue on to the ocean or will pool and form lakes and ponds. Farms are usually situated near sources of water.

On your fantasy map, rivers, mountains, lakes, and ponds make travel difficult, forcing a road or trail to go around them. This creates opportunities for plot points, because the struggle is the story.

Those detours add to the distance and increase the time it takes to travel using the common mode of transportation.

Having a realistic grip on time is critical to keeping the narrative believable. I keep a calendar of events for each novel, which has saved me several times.

Map of WaldeynMaybe you aren’t artistic but will want a nice map later. In that case, a little scribbled map will enable a map artist to provide you with a beautiful and accurate product. An artist can give you a map containing the information readers need to enjoy your book.

Are changing seasons a part of your story?

In a first draft, it’s challenging to fit the visual world into a narrative without dumping it on the page because you are in the process of inventing it. Don’t worry about fine details when you are laying down the story. Go ahead and write “It was autumn” when you have an action scene that must be shown.

A blunt statement like that is a code embedded there for you to expand on in the second draft. It is there so that you can just get the story out of your head and move on.

However, in the revision process, I take those three words, it was autumn, and change them up, using them to lead into the action.

Ivan drew his cloak around himself, listening to the soft rattling of branches moving with the breeze. The occasional calls of night birds went on around him, as if he weren’t full of doubt and indistinct fears, as if he didn’t exist to them. Leaves fell, brown and harvest-dry, drifting, spiraling down to the forest floor.

3-Ss-of-worldbuilding-LIRF07182021In my part of the world, the native forest trees I see in the world around me are mostly Douglas firs, western red cedars, hemlocks, big-leaf maples, alders, cottonwood, and ash. Because I am familiar with them, these are the trees I visualize when I set a story in a forest.

When it comes to geography, the “three S’s” of worldbuilding are critical: sights, sounds, and smells. Those sensory elements create what we know of the world. What does your character see, hear, and smell? Taste rarely comes into it, except when showing an odor.

Silently, she ran back to the entrance, slipping from boulder to boulder until she disappeared into the shrubbery. Once hidden in the thick undergrowth, she breathed deeply. The metallic aftertaste of terror and bitter air lingered in her imagination, overriding the musty scents of earth and leaves.

What makes up your written world? How does your environment affect the way your characters live?

Seattle_by_Sentinel-2,_2018-09-28

Seattle, by Sentinel 2 Satellite

Cities have complex geography. It is created by the terrain the city was built on and its architecture.

The odors behind the Flamingo Bar and Grill offered a pungent counterpoint to the aromas of burgers and barbecue emanating from inside. Above the back door, the weak bulb flickered but remained on, illuminating the litter.

Seattle is built between the salty waters of Puget Sound, and the fresh waters of Lake Washington, the largest natural lake in western Washington. This geography affects our modern society by limiting where highways can be built, as well as determining the good places to raise tall buildings or create suburban neighborhoods.

Humans have always created communities where resources are plentiful. Rivers, forests, lakes–these geographical places provide resources that allow towns to become cities.

Your narrative will mention all the different terrains and obstacles your characters must deal with. A little map scribbled on notepaper will help you keep things on track.


Credits and Attributions:

Image: Satellite View of Puget Sound, Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Puget Sound by Sentinel-2, 2018-09-28 (small version).jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Puget_Sound_by_Sentinel-2,_2018-09-28_(small_version).jpg&oldid=670161517 (accessed July 4, 2022).

Image: Satellite View of Seattle, Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Puget Sound by Sentinel-2, 2018-09-28 (small version).jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Puget_Sound_by_Sentinel-2,_2018-09-28_(small_version).jpg&oldid=670161517 (accessed July 4, 2022).

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Worldbuilding part 1: Climate and How We Acquire Food #amwriting

When we sit down to write fiction, no matter what genre, we must consider two aspects of worldbuilding: food and how the climate affects what is served for our fictional meals.

WritingCraftWorldbuildingEvery fantasy world has a setting, and that environment has a climate. Certain climates limit the variety of foods available.

First, let’s look at real life. You can’t create a believable fantasy unless you have some idea of reality.

We had a normal June this year, with only one day rising into the 90s and the rest almost (but not quite) as they should be: overcast, rainy, and cool. Climate-wise, we Pacific Northwesterners usually have similar weather as those of you in Wales or England.

Washington_state_high_termperatures_June_28,_2021

United States National Weather Service via Twitter

Last year in June 2021, we had an unprecedented heat wave that killed much of our locally produced crops. How did that heat wave affect crop production here in the Pacific Northwest?

Wikipedia says:

Farms experienced serious losses, as the heat wave baked the fruits and berries or otherwise destroyed the crop and the drought conditions worsened.

10 million pounds of fruit a day were being harvested in the Pacific Northwest at the time the heat wave struck. Farmers in Eastern Washington, facing a loss of the cherry and blueberry crop, sent workers into orchards at night to avoid the heat in the day.

The British Columbia provincial fruit growers’ association estimated that 50 to 70 percent of the cherry crop was damaged, effectively “cooked” in the orchards.

Raspberry and blackberry farms in the Lower Mainland, Oregon and Washington also endured losses. In Whatcom County, Washington, which produces four-fifths of raspberries in the United States, estimates varied from quarter to half of the harvest; elsewhere, they went as high as 80-90%. Lettuce producers in the Okanagan Valley also reported crop losses, and so did those who grew Christmas trees and apples. [1]

This year, 2022, June had an overabundance of rain, but I didn’t complain because the memories of last year’s heat wave were still too strong. However, the excessive rain and lack of sunshine impacted our spring and early summer crops.

An article by Mai Hoang for Crosscut News (June 15, 2022) says:

This year, the cold and wet spring stunted the development of many cherries, leading to what looks to be the smallest crop of Northwest sweet cherries in nearly a decade. [2]

If I were writing a speculative fiction story set in Earth’s near future, I would look at current agricultural technology to see what is possible and to gauge future trends. After all, climate change is happening and must be accounted for, even in futuristic fiction.

Apples 8-25-2013We know from bitter experience that weather affects the food we produce and influences what is available in grocery stores. Abnormal heat waves across temperate states, category 4 hurricanes along the Atlantic seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico, and category 4 tornadoes down the center of the US and Canada, and even deep freezes in Texas and the deep south have been our lot in the last five years.

We humans must adapt our agriculture to withstand our increasingly unpredictable climate if we hope to survive. And, our fiction must reflect it, whether it is set in the current times or a not-too-distant future.

In real life, a new trend in agriculture is occurring. Farmers in Europe and Canada are increasingly turning to greenhouse agriculture, from small, owner-operated farms to industrial farms. Greenhouses in these countries reliably supply seasonal produce year-round, with far less need for chemical pesticides and highly efficient water use.

The Statistical Overview of the Canadian Greenhouse Vegetable Industry, 2019, tells us that the Canadian greenhouse vegetable sector is the largest and fastest-growing segment of Canadian horticulture. Greenhouse farming produces agricultural products in self-contained ‘controlled environments’ with systems supplying heat, water, and nutrients and often employing artificial lighting (in addition to sunlight) to nourish the plants. [3]

Wikipedia tells us: Greenhouses may be used to overcome shortcomings in the growing qualities of a piece of land, such as a short growing season or poor light levels, and they can thereby improve food production in marginal environments. Shade houses are used specifically to provide shade in hot, dry climates.

As they may enable certain crops to be grown throughout the year, greenhouses are increasingly important in the food supply of high-latitude countries. One of the largest complexes in the world is in AlmeríaAndalucíaSpain, where greenhouses cover almost 200 km2 (49,000 acres).

The Netherlands has some of the largest greenhouses in the world with around 4,000 greenhouse enterprises that operate over 9,000 hectares of greenhouses and employ some 150,000 workers. [4]

Lost_Country_Life_HartleyOnce you have decided your historical era, terrain, and overall climate, research similar areas of the real world to see how weather affects their approach to agriculture and animal husbandry. Look into the past to discover ancient agricultural methods to see how low-tech cultures fed their large populations:

Wikipedia says this about Incan Agriculture: Farmers usually had many different, scattered plots of land on which they planted a variety of crops. If one or more crops failed, others might be productive. In many areas of the Andes, farmers, communities, and the Inca state constructed agricultural terraces to increase the amount of arable land. [5]

Are you writing a narrative set in our current or near-future world? Post-apocalyptic stories often feature food shortages, detailing how starvation leads to civil unrest, making life unsafe for those clinging to their homeland. Refugees are driven to seek better lands where they may not be welcomed. This, in turn, often leads to more civil unrest.

Historical fiction must also be true to the type of food available in that area and era. Many common foods we now consume anywhere in the world were only available in South America, or in Europe, or in Asia, or in Africa. It wasn’t until after the time of Columbus that the cultivation and propagation of many now-common foods began to travel all over the world.

avacado dinner saladAlso, if your story is set in a particular era, how plentiful was food at that time? Famines occurring all across Europe and Asia over the last two-thousand years are well documented. Egyptian, Incan, and Mayan history is also fairly well documented so do the research.

Weather is a driving force in our real world. Rain, heat, storm, or drought—weather in its many forms destroys homes, destroys crops, and costs us billions of dollars annually.

How it affects our food supply is not just news for television. It is a reality our governments must consider if they hope to stave off civil unrest in the future. Subsidizing greenhouse agriculture could help resolve future food insecurity and make the best use of limited water resources.

Cucumbers waiting to become picklesWe have witnessed monumental changes since the turn of the millennium. We know California teeters on the edge of disaster, that a water shortage threatens the lives of millions, as well as one of the largest agriculture industries in the US.

Food and water insecurity leads to volatile politics.

Sit and think about your world, about the climate and how it affects the society you are writing about. Let your mind wander with no apparent destination. You will be amazed at what a mind technically at rest can come up with when it’s allowed to roam.

How well will your fiction hold up in two decades? Will you have the foresight of those who founded the genre of speculative fiction? Will you write another Nineteen Eighty-Four or Fahrenheit 451? How much will you get right?

Build detail into your world in a separate document from your manuscript. Blend what you know about the real world into it. Write out all the details that will never make it into your story.

When you can see your written world as clearly as that which exists outside your windows, that vision will come across in your writing. The food they so casually serve, a meal that involves less than a paragraph, will be a part of the scenery. It won’t jar a knowledgeable reader out of the narrative.


Credits and Attributions:

[1] Wikipedia contributors. 2021 Western North America heat wave [Internet]. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia; 2022 Jul 1, 03:55 UTC [cited 2022 Jul 2]. Available from: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=2021_Western_North_America_heat_wave&oldid=1095905315. (Accessed July 2, 2022.)

[2] Quote: NW cherry crop this year may be the smallest in nearly a decade, Mai Hoang June 15, 2022, ©2022 Cascade Public Media. All Rights Reserved. https://crosscut.com/news/2022/06/nw-cherry-crop-year-may-be-smallest-nearly-decade (accessed July 2, 2022). Fair Use.

[3] Statistical Overview of the Canadian Greenhouse Vegetable Industry, 2019, Statistical Overview of the Canadian Greenhouse Vegetable Industry, 2019 – agriculture.canada.ca updated, 2020-12-30. (Accessed July 2, 2022).

[4] Wikipedia contributors, “Greenhouse,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Greenhouse&oldid=1095255341 (accessed July 2, 2022).

[5] Wikipedia contributors, “Incan agriculture,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Incan_agriculture&oldid=1095070716 (accessed July 2, 2022).

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#FineArtFriday: Summer, Lake Ontario by Jasper Francis Cropsey 1857

Cropsey,_Jasper_Francis_-_Summer,_Lake_Ontario_-_Google_Art_ProjectTitle: Summer, Lake Ontario by Jasper Francis Cropsey (1823–1900)

Genre: landscape art

Date: 1857

Medium: oil on canvas

Collection: Indianapolis Museum of Art

What I love about this painting:

Cropsey paints a summer evening in New York State, along the shore of one of Lake Ontario’s bays. Near the bottom center, a pair of fishers are placed on the wooden bridge over a creek. This image has a fantasy quality, as if it depicts a dream or a fond memory.

Our point of view is from a hill, looking down to the creek, the bridge, and the bay shore, and then across low hills to the great lake beyond. Cropsey gives equal importance to the earth below and sky above.

Cropsey’s signature deep colors are featured in this panoramic view of a summer evening. Warm reds, browns, yellows, and dark greens are lightened by wispy mists rising in the early evening air, lit by the setting sun.

About the Artist, via Wikipedia:

Jasper Francis Cropsey (February 18, 1823 – June 22, 1900) was an important American landscape artist of the Hudson River School.

Cropsey was born on his father Jacob Rezeau Cropsey’s farm in Rossville on Staten Island, New York, the oldest of eight children. As a young boy, Cropsey had recurring periods of poor health. While absent from school, Cropsey taught himself to draw. His early drawings included architectural sketches and landscapes drawn on notepads and in the margins of his schoolbooks.

Trained as an architect, he set up his own office in 1843. Cropsey studied watercolor and life drawing at the National Academy of Design under the instruction of Edward Maury and first exhibited there in 1844. A year later he was elected an associate member and turned exclusively to landscape painting; shortly after he was featured in an exhibition entitled “Italian Compositions.”

Cropsey traveled in Europe from 1847–1849, visiting England, France, Switzerland, and Italy. He was elected a full member of the Academy in 1851. Cropsey was a personal friend of Henry Tappan, the president of the University of Michigan from 1852 to 1863. At Tappan’s invitation, he traveled to Ann Arbor in 1855 and produced two paintings, one of the Detroit Observatory, and a landscape of the campus. He went abroad again in 1856, and resided seven years in London, sending his pictures to the Royal Academy and to the International exhibition of 1862.

Returning home, he opened a studio in New York and specialized in autumnal landscape paintings of the northeastern United States, often idealized and with vivid colors. Cropsey co-founded, with ten fellow artists, the American Society of Painters in Watercolors in 1866. He also made the architectural designs for the stations of the elevated railways in New York. [1]


Credits and Attributions:

Image: Summer, Lake Ontario by Jasper Francis Cropsey 1857. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Cropsey, Jasper Francis – Summer, Lake Ontario – Google Art Project.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Cropsey,_Jasper_Francis_-_Summer,_Lake_Ontario_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg&oldid=618625179 (accessed June 30, 2022).

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Jasper Francis Cropsey,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Jasper_Francis_Cropsey&oldid=1093620569 (accessed June 30, 2022).

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How the Written Universe Works: Exploring Theme part 3, Escape From Spiderhead by George Saunders

Several years ago, I took George Saunders’ book, Tenth of December, to the beach as my summer guilty pleasure. For me, the most compelling tale in that collection of short stories was “Escape from Spiderhead.” 

how the universe works themeEscape from Spiderhead is a science fiction story set in a prison. It is built around several themes. The central theme is crime and punishment, and Saunders grabs hold of this theme and runs with it.

He asks us to consider where punishment ends and inhumanity begins.

He gives us the character of Ray Abnesti, a scientist developing pharmaceuticals and using convicted felons as guinea pigs as part of the justice system. The wider world has forgotten about those whose crimes deserve punishment, whose fate goes unknown and unlamented.

Saunders poses questions that challenge us to re-examine our own virtue. Do we have the right to treat a person inhumanely just because they have committed a crime?

Wikipedia gives us this Synopsis: 

Because he was convicted of a crime, Jeff has been sent to an experimental prison where inhabitants are guinea pigs for a man named Ray Abnesti, a sort of warden who develops pharmaceuticals. In an experiment to determine the strength of love, Abnesti puts Jeff in a room with a woman named Heather. Neither finds the other very attractive until a drug is administered and they suddenly fall deeply in love with each other and have sex. This continues until the drug stops being administered when they suddenly lose all love for each other. The process is repeated with Jeff and a woman named Rachel. The next day, Abnesti brings both Heather and Rachel into a room and asks Jeff to decide which woman should be drugged with Darkenfloxx, a drug that causes extreme mental and physical distress. Jeff wants no one to be hurt, but has no preference as to which should endure the drug. Satisfied, Abnesti decides not to administer the drug. Later, Jeff finds himself in a room with another man who he realizes also had sex with Rachel and Heather. He realizes that Abnesti is asking one of the women which one of the men should be given Darkenfloxx. The same result happens each time, and the drug is never administered.

Later, after Abnesti presents the love drug he is developing to his superiors, he says he must go into greater depth and gives Heather Darkenfloxx, saying that Jeff must say exactly what he feels while he watches Heather suffer in order to prove he has no romantic feelings for her. But the Darkenfloxx is so damaging that Heather commits suicide to escape the pain. When Abnesti reveals that he will do the same thing to Rachel to determine whether Jeff has a romantic attachment, Jeff refuses to participate. He insists that the drug should not be used. Abnesti leaves to get a warrant to administer drugs to Jeff that will force him to comply. To prevent Rachel from being tortured, Jeff administers Darkenfloxx to himself, and while under its influence kills himself. A voice tells him that his body is salvageable, and he can return to life, but Jeff declines, knowing he’s had enough of life. Jeff’s final emotion is happiness that, in the end, he did not kill and never would again. [1]

The_Pyramid_Conflict_Tension_PacingSaunders takes a deep dive into the theme of redemption in this tale. He didn’t take the expected path with his plot arc and didn’t opt for revenge by giving Abnesti the drug, which was the obvious choice.

Instead, he takes us on a journey through Jeff’s personal redemption, which is why this story impacted me.

Of course, the scenario is exaggerated, as it is set in a future world. It exposes the callous view modern society has regarding criminals and what punishment they might deserve.

That raises the theme of morality vs. immorality. Who is the real criminal here, Jeff, Abnesti, or the justice system that would even consider funding such a prison?

Then there is the theme of compassion. Abnesti explores love vs. lust for his own amusement. The different drugs Jeff is given prove that both are illusionary and fleeting. Yet Saunders implies that the truth of love is compassion. Jeff’s action shows us that he is a man of compassion.

What does it mean to be human? This theme is a foundational trope of Science Fiction. Saunders shows us that to be human is to be aware and compassionate.

Abnesti demonstrates that one may be genetically and technically of the human species, yet not human in spirit. They are not aware of others as people; without that awareness, they have no compassion, no humanity.

A common theme in science fiction is the use of drugs to alter people’s behavior and control them emotionally. That theme is explored in detail here, ostensibly as a means to do away with prisons and reform prisoners. But really, these experiments are for Abnesti, a psychopath, to exercise his passion for the perverse and inhumane and for him to have power over the helpless.

Jeff is aware of the crimes he and his fellow prisoners have committed. Still, he sees Heather struggling with her dose of Darkenfloxx and states his belief that every person is worthy of love.

Spiderhead (the movie) premiered in Sydney on June 11, 2022, and was released on Netflix on June 17, 2022. The film received mixed reviews from critics.

Tenth_of_DecemberI will say now – the story and the movie are two different things. The film bears some resemblance to the story it is based on but – it is not that story. All writers should be aware that you no longer control the direction of your story when you sell the movie rights.

In Escape from Spiderhead, Saunders’ voice, style, and worldbuilding are impeccable. It is a stark journey into the depths to which some humans are capable of sinking in the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge.

This short story was as powerful as any novel I’ve ever read, proving that a good story stays with the reader long after the final words have been read, no matter the length. His questions resonate, asking us to think about our true motives.

Where do we draw the line between crime and punishment? When is a legal act really a form of criminal behavior? What does it mean to be human?

For me, that is what good science fiction does—it raises questions and requires us to think.


Credits and Attributions:

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Tenth of December: Stories,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Tenth_of_December:_Stories&oldid=1093865742 (accessed June 27, 2022).

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How the Written Universe Works: Exploring Theme part 2, Don Quixote

The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra is known today as Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes. If you are a regular here at Life in the Realm of Fantasy, you may know I am a Don Quixote fangirl.

how the universe works themeThe main character, Alonso Quijano, is possessed of a mighty imagination. In search of chivalric adventure, he becomes Don Quixote, the great knight of La Mancha.

I believe my early exposure to this book was the subconscious inspiration for the Achilles heel of my own great knight, Julian Lackland. Both men believe in the chivalric code, and both are a wee bit insane. However, the plots and narratives have no other commonalities.

I first came into contact with Don Quixote when I was given a children’s illustrated version of the novel for my eighth birthday. I read that book, cover to cover until it fell apart.

Virtue-miguel-de-cervantesThe summer I turned ten, I was scavenging the house for something to read and discovered my father’s personal library. He had the entire collection of Encyclopedia Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World. To my surprise, volume 29 was Don Quixote as translated by John Ormsby.

Several years ago, I bought Edith Grossman‘s modern translation, published in 2003. I think her translation is the best of all that I have read. This excellent version is available as an audiobook for those too impatient to read literary fiction. It does require a bit of perseverance.

Cervantes wrote a brilliant, enduring story that has survived intact since it was first published in 1605. He took many risks with the vocabulary of his native language. He had as immense an effect on the Spanish language as William Shakespeare did on English.

The themes in Don Quixote’s story are timeless, as are his quirks and flaws.

The conflict between the modern world and outmoded values – No one understands Don Quixote, and he understands no one. Sancho, a modern man of the peasant class (and with his own agenda), has a basic understanding of morality that is rooted in common sense. Sancho often agrees with the morals of his day but then surprises us by supporting Don Quixote’s outdated ethics and chivalry.

a-knights-responsibility-miguel-de-cervantesKnightly virtues – This is a morality tale. Don Quixote strives to present himself as an example, becoming a knight-errant as a way to force his contemporaries to face their failures. In his eyes, noble society has abandoned honor. They have turned their backs on the traditions of morality and the chivalric code. His duty is to show them the way back to righteousness.

The nature of reality – Don Quixote doesn’t understand the priest’s rational view of the world or his objectives. Conversely, Quixote’s belief in enchantment is ludicrous to the priest, but it is real to him. Only Sancho, his good-hearted, loyal friend, can mediate between Don Quixote and society. He interprets for Quixote, a buffer who translates his philosophies to the world, and in turn, explains the world to him.

The Distinction between Class and Worth – Cervantes gives us philosophers in the walk-on characters, the shepherds. He challenges the notion that social class and worth are entwined. Cervantes demonstrates that Nobility of Birth does not necessarily confer wisdom or kindness. In the characters of the Duke and Duchess, he gives us thoughtless cruelty, casually delivered purely for its entertainment value.

These themes share equally in supporting Don Quixote’s narrative. The plot may wander, and so does the protagonist, but the themes keep the narrative glued together.

where-madness-lies-miguel-de-cervantesQuixote’s insanity is gentle and easy to sympathize with—he can’t understand the harshness of the people around him. He is a man of action and a champion of the oppressed.

And being a man of action, Don Quixote’s efforts frequently are not appreciated by those victims he steps up to help.

“For the love of God, sir knight errant, if you ever meet me again, please, even if you see me being cut into little pieces, don’t rush to my aid or try to help me, but just let me be miserable, because no matter what they’re doing to me it couldn’t be worse than what will happen if your grace helps, so may God curse you and every knight errant who’s ever been born in the world.”

~Miguel de Cervantes, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, 1605 [1]

The life of Miguel de Cervantes was worthy of a novel in its own right. In 1575, pirates kidnapped Cervantes and his brother and sold them as slaves to the Moors. Originally from Morocco, the Moors were the longtime adversaries of Catholic Spain, which they had once conquered.

Cervantes was taken to Algiers. His three or four attempts to escape his slavery were unsuccessful. Finally, he was ransomed in 1580 and returned to Spain.

He was a true indie author, a genius who never earned much from his writing and didn’t expect to. He just wanted to write.

After gaining his freedom from the Moors, he worked in many clerical capacities, notably as a purchasing agent for the Spanish navy (i.e., the Spanish King). His ill-placed trust in Simon Freire, an Andalusian banker with whom he had deposited Crown funds, led to his imprisonment for a few months in Seville after Freire went bankrupt. [2]

Don_Quijote_and_Sancho_PanzaHere are a few sayings you might hear every day in one form or another that were coined by Cervantes:

  • By a small sample we may judge of the whole piece.
  • Can we ever have too much of a good thing?
  • No limits but the sky.
  • Why do you lead me a wild-goose chase?
  • Thank you for nothing.
  • Let every man mind his own business.
  • The pot calls the kettle black.
  • Tilting at windmills.

Don Quixote’s story of insane genius and chivalric mayhem was born when Cervantes went to prison. All his life, Cervantes had to work a day job to support himself, writing at night and whenever he had the chance. Although he was wrongfully incarcerated, prison allowed him to spend his entire day writing.


Credits and Attributions:

[1] Quote: Miguel de Cervantes, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, 1605 PD\100.

[2] Information Source:
Royal provision of the judge of the Degrees of Seville, Bernardo de Olmedilla, to collect the assets of Simón Freire de Lima, amount that Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra had given him. Date 1595-08-07. Cervantes Universe (universocervantes.com)

Image: Don Quijote de La Mancha and Sancho Panza, 1863, Gustave Doré [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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How the Written Universe works: Exploring Tropes #amwriting

Epic fantasy, like all genre fiction, has certain tropes that readers look for and expect to find in one way or another. Tad Williams injected new life into the genre in 1988 with the epic fantasy, The Dragonbone Chair. Simon’s story is volume one of the trilogy, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn.

how the universe works tropesThe events set in this world are linked by family, warped by lies and secrets kept across three generations. Themes of hubris, truth vs. falsehood, heroism, and coming of age power this truly epic fantasy series.

In literature, the word trope describes commonly recurring literary and rhetorical devices or genre-specific themes and motifs. Literary tropes define almost every writing category, including poetry, television, and art. Tropes can be found in all literature.

What Williams did with The Dragonbone Chair was to take the tropes we expect to find and turn them on their head.

We lesser mortals hope to do that with our work, no matter the genre in which we write. We know what we want to read and attempt to make our work recognizably sci-fi, western, romance, or whatever.

We must play to the readers’ expectations and exceed them. To do that, we must give the expected tropes an original twist.

I love reading epic fantasy. Traditionally, epic fantasy features several recognizable elements, such as elves/fairies, dwarves, dragonsthe hobbit, demons, magic or sorcery, and multilayered quests. They often have constructed languages, coming-of-age themes, and multivolume narratives.

The way that Tad Williams changed epic fantasy was to take what J.R.R. Tolkien did with Middle Earth and create his own world, Osten Ard. It’s completely foreign, yet has a relatable flavor because it is built around a traditional fantasy model and takes clues from our real world history.

He peopled this world with human and non-human races, all of whom have roots in human history and folklore, but with his own spin on them.

With Jiriki, we have Williams’ introduction to his version of the fair folk. He and his people are recognizably elvish but with a trace that feels almost Japanese. They are a people who suffered a violent schism that split their society into two separate cultures, Norns and Sithi.

Norns are the bad elves.

Just sayin’.

300px-The_Dragonbone_ChairBinabik‘s people, the Qanuc, are called trolls by the humans and Sithi. They are a cross between Tolkien’s dwarves and hobbits, made wiser and less concerned about gold. The Hunën are brutish giants who serve the Norns and are often at war with the Qanuc.

There are often warriors embodying certain typical characteristics, such as the paladin or, conversely, the black knight. In Osten Ard, the broken knight, Sir Camaris, fills the paladin’s role. He is a noble knight serving the king and the religion of Usires Aedon, a riff on Medieval Christianity. Every death at his hands is a blot on his soul, and his commitment to honor is what ultimately ruins him.

As I mentioned in Monday’s post on Theme, Simon (the kitchen boy) and Miriamele (the princess) are the main protagonists and have the roles of unlikely heroes. Together and separately, they face overwhelming odds and must find courage in the darkest moments.

The hero represents hope, the human belief that salvation is just around the next corner.

Often in epic fantasy, the first villain is not the real villain. They may be the henchman of the true antagonist or a would-be usurper of the Evil One’s throne. Pryrates is evil. His henchman, Inch, is also evil.

They get what they deserve because they are not nearly as evil as the truly evil mind orchestrating the chaosIneluki, the Storm King. He is clever, immortal, and possesses a tragic backstory.

Inch and Pryrates are merely cruel and greedy for power over others.

When we write any novel, certain tropes will find their way into the narrative, often emerging from our subconscious without our noticing. The tropes appear because we know what we look for in a story and our subconscious mind wants to write that narrative.

Sometimes, we hear the comment that “certain tropes are overused.” This blanket statement is incorrect because a literary trope is a fundamental aspect of a subgenre.

They can be poorly written and framed by cliché treatments. Readers can and do eventually become bored with the books available when nothing written with a new and exciting spin emerges in their favorite genre.

Maybe you’re tired of Romance’s central trope, tired of happy endings.

magicIn that case, it’s time to widen your reading horizons and try reading something in a different subgenre. Maybe you’d like a space opera or a portal fantasy. You’ll never know what you are missing if you don’t read outside your favorite genre.

Maybe you will like it, and maybe not. But no one says you have to finish a book you hate.

Even if a friend swore that they loved it.

If you’re tired of the commonalities in the books you read, be adventurous. You might like something you wouldn’t usually read, which could inspire you to change up your palate.

You might paint the tropes of your genre with brilliant new colors.

And that can only be good for the readers.

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How the Written Universe Works: Theme #amwriting

Epic Fantasy is often dark in tone and always epic in scope. It usually explores the struggle against supernatural, evil forces.

how the universe works themeTad Williams’s Memory Sorrow and Thorn is a classic Epic Fantasy series. Many of the themes and tropes he explores are rooted in J.R.R. Tolkien’s work. However, Williams took those themes and tropes down a darker, more violent path, laying bare the evil and the good of which humanity is capable.

This trilogy revolves around a schism in the family of the late king, Prester John. That enmity drives the larger narrative. In this 3-book series, the underpinning theme is the circle of life represented through birth, growth, degeneration, and death. A prominent theme driving the action is the family dynamics, warped by lies and secrets kept across three generations.

The other fundamental themes are the hero’s journey and coming of age. Both Simon (the kitchen boy turned hero) and Miriamele (the princess turned hero) are driven by these themes, as are Jiriki and Binabik to a certain extent.

I’ve mentioned before that theme is the backbone of the story. It’s an idea, a thread that winds through a plot arc and connects events that would otherwise appear random.

Themes are often polarized, good vs. evil, faith vs. doubt, fate vs. free will, human vs. nature,

Epic fantasy novels, being longer in word count than other genres, leaves room in the plot for multiple themes to appear. This creates opportunities for the subplots to add depth, revealing the backstory without an info dump.

Polarity is a fundamental aspect of the inferential layer of a story.

The inferential layer is the unspoken, the knowledge a reader gains by extrapolation, interpretation, and reasoning. It is the layer that requires the reader to think. Polarity guides the reader as they make sense of the clues.

300px-The_Dragonbone_ChairWhen the story opens with the first novel, The Dragonbone Chair, events show the royal family is fraught with violent emotions, creating conflict. King Prester John’s sons, Elias and Josua, appear to be the center of a storm that will destroy Osten Ard.

In any story that explores the relationships within a family as part of the larger narrative, we begin with the circle of life.

Hubris is another theme that drives the plot and is expressed in the character of the apparent antagonist, Pryrates. Hubris refers to excessive self-confidence and the terrible decisions that arise from it.

This conflict allows Williams to employ the subtheme of chaos and stability. Evil is portrayed by taking this theme to an extreme: Pryrates enables Elias’s possession by the true antagonist, the Storm King.

Williams also riffs on the Hero’s Journey, the bonds of friendship, and the gray area between good and evil—moral ambiguity.

A crucial consideration in planning a fantasy novel is plot structure or how the story is arranged. As in all works, the central underlying theme is introduced in the early pages and supports the plot through to the end.

Subthemes are introduced and combined with the main theme to create a backbone for the story. Without that backbone, the narrative can wander all over the place, and readers will lose interest.

The hero’s journey is a theme that allows authors to employ the subthemes of brother/sisterhood and love of family. These concepts are heavily featured in the books that inspired me, so they find their way into my writing.

Tad Williams supported his themes by adding these layers to his narrative:

  • character studies
  • allegories
  • imagery

These three layers are driven by the central themes and advance the story arc.

Williams’s large cast of characters is portrayed as if they are real people. They are a mix of good and bad at the same time. Some lean more toward good, others toward bad. Either way, he has them act and react with good, logical intentions. Each desperately wants what they think they deserve.

Green_Angel_Tower_P1By the end of the third book, To Green Angel Tower, Williams has employed the theme of Truth vs. Falsehoods to completely corrupt the Circle of Life theme. All the characters – the antagonists and the protagonists – deceive themselves about their own motives.

Regardless of their race, they share some characteristics with humans. Each character hides the truths they can’t face behind other, more palatable truths.

I always think that inserting a whiff of human frailty into a character makes them more interesting, more relatable.

Memory Sorrow and Thorn is considered a cornerstone of modern epic fantasy. This is because in the early 1980s, when Tad Williams began writing this trilogy, he took traditional themes and tropes and applied his original angle to them, along with modern prose and phrasing. He took each of the themes binding his narrative together and went one step farther, adding a hint of horror.

The horror would have been gratuitous if he hadn’t supported his narrative so well with all the themes and subthemes. Williams was inspired by Tolkien, and in turn, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn has inspired countless authors.

Your assignment: on a new document, pick a theme from the following list, create a character or two, and write two paragraphs exploring that theme.

  • plot is the frame upon which the themes of a story are supportedFate vs. free will
  • Faith vs. doubt
  • Good vs. evil
  • Greed
  • Hubris
  • Humanity vs. nature
  • Justice
  • Lust for Power
  • Pursuit of Love
  • Revenge
  • Sacrificial Love
  • Survival against the odds
  • War

All genres are made specific by the tropes that define them. Epic fantasy shares some tropes with high fantasy.

It often includes elements such as elves, fairies, dwarves, dragons, demons, magic or sorcery, constructed languages, quests, coming-of-age themes, and multi-volume narratives.

My next post will discuss the tropes featured in the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy and how the themes we’ve discussed support them.

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