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Plotting a Fantasy Novel – Some Hard Lessons for Writers

Plotting a Fantasy Novel

Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.

Ray Bradbury

Plotting a fantasy novel is an exceptionally important part in the overall process of writing. To many writers, plot comes very easily while others struggle to weave together every little element of story into a tight narrative.

Plotting a story is a skill in itself and a very useful one when we think of a writing a fantasy novel. Generally, fantasy novels are very dense in terms of subject matter. Thus, writers dealing with fantasy fiction have to be exceptionally competent at dealing with the plot of a novel.

Writers don’t need to be lectured on the importance of plot. A story can be something as simple as a man dealing with life. However, the plot stills needs to be compelling enough to help readers find intrigue and meaning in its simplicity.

How does one go about plotting a fantasy novel?

A plot, like a machine, has many different elements that come together to create a novel structure. While plotting a fantasy novel, writers need to have the skill to bring together each of these elements.

In this piece, we seek to bring together the different elements writers have to handle while plotting a fantasy book. Furthermore, we will help writers understand how each element contributes to the overall novel story structure.

But first, we will rid ourselves of an age-old misconception.

Story and Plot – What is the Difference?

Story is honorable and trustworthy; plot is shifty, and best kept under house arrest

Stephen King

If you are a writer, you must understand the difference between story and plot.

A story is a chronological reporting of events. It never strays from the fundamental linear nature of time. Think about a story in the same way you live your life. There are no flashback scenes or time machines. You live your life waiting for every second and minute to pass.

For instance, when you hear someone narrating an incident, it is usually a story. This is because in verbal form, the narrator is likely to follow a chronological order of events for the convenience of a listener.

A plot is not chronological. Instead, it is a dramatized version of events not constrained by time. A plot should follow a line of events that make the story as interesting as possible. This is why we see writers add flashbacks while writing books, scripts, and screenplays. The aim is to make the story as interesting as possible.

Telling a story is easy because writers only have to present a time-based assessment of events. A plot is a more dangerous animal. It must unravel itself at the right time to add punch and drama to the story. Whether it’s a secret revelation or a twist, the plot must reveal it at the appropriate time, not the chronologically-suitable time. 

Elements of a Fantasy Novel Plot Structure

Fantasy is an especially unique genre because it is much more dense and informative than its counterparts. For one, writers have to make a compelling argument to explain the fantastical elements of the story. This exercise, and a number of others, can win writers a trip down the rabbit hole.

The plot of a fantasy novel offers a way out of the mess. It presents writers with a single motive – make things as interesting and compelling as possible. This is important because writing a fantasy novel is an extremely distracting exercise at the best of times. Writers are prone to wasting their time on needless side quests that actually help contribute little to writing a fantasy novel.  

A number of elements come together to make up the plot of a fantasy novel. We will bring to these elements to light with the following points.

Setting

The need for a refined setting is crucial to a fantasy novel. Writers must clearly see the setting in which they wish to tell their story.

What is a good setting?

Generally, a good setting is one that adds value and intrigue to the plot. For instance, take Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Before writing the book, Rowling knows exactly what happens to Harry as the story progresses. However, creating a world like Hogwarts helps make the journey of Harry much more engaging and interesting. Since Rowling knew she was going to write multiple books, she made sure Hogwarts was layered enough to serve as a setting for seven books.

Now imagine if we strip away the magical elements of Hogwarts and swap them for a run-of-the-mill middle school, the story would lose its charm.

While plotting a fantasy novel, the setting takes on greater importance. This is because fantasy books generally involve the invention of an entirely different world.  

Many compare the development of a setting to world building.

The problem with world building is that it often becomes a self-indulgent exercise. Writers end up adding too many needless details that don’t enhance the plot. Developing a setting is better because it exists for the entertainment of the readers.

Characters

No writer needs to be explained the importance of making interesting characters. Traditionally, writers define characters within the binary of protagonists and antagonists. All other characters fall into somewhere within these two categories.

However, we have read enough books and movies to know that there are more nuanced ways to approach character development.

When writers think about characters, they don’t need to think about heroes and villains.

The only important question is this – who do I need to tell my story?

In the case of A Song of Ice and Fire, George RR Martin needed an entire ensemble of characters to tell his story.

In the case of Harry Potter, Rowling only needed Harry to tell her story.

No matter how many characters writers choose, they should remember one rule. Every decision and action of a character must have an impact on other characters. No character should exist like an island with no real connection to anyone else.

To progress a plot, writers generally have goals for their characters. Goals and milestones work well because they manage to give the entire plot some sense of direction.

There is one lesson writers must remember with regard to this. Any goal a character has must impact other characters in a story. This is because their feelings and position with respect to the protagonist becomes clear. A goal that doesn’t impact anyone is not a good goal for a character.

Frodo’s goal in the LOTR trilogy is to chuck the evil ring into the fires of Mount Doom. This goal doesn’t just put him in opposition to Mordor and Sauron. From Boromir to Denethor II, all characters desire the ring to some degree. However, Frodo also gains allies like Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas, the good people in Rohan, and friends from the Shire.

Plot Outline

Writers these days are awfully dependent on formula-based storytelling. Many creative writing courses and books urge writers to follow rigid formulas when writing a story. For instance, building up to a spectacle in the climax or working within the three-act structure are examples of writing formulas.

Do formulas work? Yes. The very existence of a formula suggests that writers in the past have succeeded using it.

Many writers confuse writing formulas with cooking recipes. While recipes work like computer algorithms and work well if the instructions are followed, writing and plotting a fantasy novel is a different kettle of fish.

This brings us to the plot outline of a story. Writers tend to follow tried-and-tested formulas when shaping the plot outline. The diagram below explains the three act structure. It is wildly popular amongst writers.

(Image source: Wikipedia)

The problem with these formulas is that it hinders writers from giving attention to the one thing that matters – keep the story interesting. The entire point of plotting a novel of any genre; fantasy, horror, or sci-fi, is to present information in a dramatic way for readers.

Over-emphasis on formulas always leads to writers forgoing the fundamental need to write something interesting. Take one of the best sci-fi movies of all time, The Empire Strikes Back. The main spectacle and confrontation happens in Act I itself on the ice planet of Hoth. Acts II and III are more about character development. In other words, the Star Wars epic abandons conventional storytelling wisdom and charts its own course.

Every story is different and needs a unique vision. Formulas help writers understand their craft, but they must not always be the solution.  

In Conclusion – Plotting a Fantasy Novel

There are a few distinct points writers need to remember while plotting a fantasy novel. Since fantasy and sci-fi  is much denser than conventional fiction, writers have to take care of the plot to keep the readers’ interest going.

In this piece, we brought to light important elements that together make up the plot of a fantasy novel. We also covered how each element plays a role in shaping the plot.

Also read: What is Speculative Fiction?
Also read: Indian Fantasy Novels: The Best Fantasy Fiction From India

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