Revisiting a Forgotten World

Writing Updates

I’m still working on my fantasy trilogy that has been my writing project for a couple of years now. But lately I’ve been thinking a lot about some stories I wrote and a world I created many years ago. I don’t want to neglect my time spent on my current projects, but I also want to make some time to revive this older set of stories. Those stories were the ones that got me to where I am today.

Birth

This fantasy world of these old stories was my first foray into epic fantasy – I created a complex world, dozens of characters, and enough of a history and timeline to cover several novels. Initially it didn’t start out with all those elaborate details – it began as just one book, and the story was a rather obvious copy of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.

I wrote it in fifth grade, and it was probably barely 20,000 words (I don’t have a word count, since the story was hand written in pencil on notebook paper). Still, not a bad middle-grade “novel,” I suppose – and it was the longest story I had ever written and completed to that point. It spawned a two-part sequel, part one of which I wrote in middle school. Then for a while I left that world behind in favor of Star Wars fan-fiction, a lengthy story about horses on a magical island, and other assorted short stories.

Revisit

I revisited this world sometime in high school, with some fresh ideas and a slightly more mature command of writing and storytelling techniques. I wrote another novel which was intended to be a prequel to the one I’d written in elementary school, and I made plans to re-write that one.

The world was becoming more complex: I crafted different races and cultures, deities and religions, history and geography. I planned out a seven-book saga, even though one novel (and one and a half MG novelettes) is all I had written at the time.

In my college and post-college years I moved away from that world again, launching a new fantasy series, amid more short stories and some pitiful attempts at poetry. But even with all the school assignments, Shiny New Ideas, and other creative projects, I never forgot my first fantasy world that I built.

Revive

And now, even though I’m deep in the middle of something else, I’m feeling a burn to go back to this ancient world that has lain quiet and patient for so long. It requires another revamp – a bigger overhaul than just rewriting a childhood story. Change of format, change of storytelling structure, some changes to the timeline of history that I had created.

But the bones of the world are still there. I spent collectively years creating the complex societies of the centaurs, and the religion of the elves. I came up with detailed descriptions and biologies of several species of dragons, and a magical treasure that managed to make it through all the different versions of the world.

Even though I’m not fond of editing and rewriting, this revisiting is not the same thing: it’s a foundation, dusty but firm, that I can use to build on anew. Editing, revising, and rewriting will come much later, once I’ve got some new stories. But for now, I’m excited to be once again exploring a world that was my first love, in a sense. Let’s see where the stories take me this time.

Please share with me! Have you ever done a complete overhaul of a story idea, keeping it the same yet creating something new? Do you have a story or idea that’s stuck with you for years?

Advertisements

How to Begin a Story

I’ve written a couple of posts about beginning a story, but I thought I’d come at this subject from a slightly different angle. Lately I’ve had a few people congratulate me on being a writer, while in the same breath proclaiming that they would love to write a book but wouldn’t know where to begin. This is not so much an “anyone can be a writer” post as it is some (hopefully helpful) tips on how to actually get started.

Start writing something. This is the simplest step, but often the hardest. Just put a few sentences on the page. If the story begins slowly, awkwardly, or just plain wrong, you can always fix it later. Even the best first draft needs revising, editing, and probably rewriting – don’t stress about producing a publishing-worthy book before you’ve ever written a line.

Introduce the main character. This doesn’t have to be done in the first line or even first paragraph, but very early in the story (like in the first scene or chapter) the main character should either make an appearance or be referenced strongly in some way. After all, even plot-driven stories are still about characters. If you wind up writing twenty pages of boring day-in-the-life stuff about your character that you cut from the rewrites, that’s okay – it’s a great exercise in getting to know your character and their world, and it gets your creativity flowing.

Save the polished first line for the rewrite phase. As I’ve already emphasized, it’s okay to write mediocre and uninspired prose while you’re first getting going – it’s the action of writing that helps you improve your actual writing. While we all want that magic hook or that memorable first line that people will be quoting for decades to come, it’s probably not going to be the actual first thing that you write down.

Begin later in the story than you think is appropriate. This is one that I’m slowly learning myself. If you’re a plotter or outliner (like me), or you tend to be overly wordy in your first drafts (like me), chances are you’ll start your story way too early on in the plot. Like I said before, it’s okay to write pages and pages of boring drivel about your character’s daily habits, elaborate back story, and deep thoughts – but most of that should get cut (and/or mixed in throughout the story) in revision mode. I once began an epic fantasy story, and wrote probably at least 20,000 words of it before I realized that I hadn’t yet arrived at the start of the main plot. So I saved that novella-length prologue for the first half of an entirely different book, wrote a new beginning that started about five scenes into the main plot, and it was a much better start to the story.

What are some of your favorite ways to jump-start a story or get yourself into the writing process? 

Storytelling Tips from Babylon 5: Ending an Epic

This is part of a series about storytelling techniques for epic fantasy. I’m drawing my examples from the 1990s sci-fi TV show Babylon 5. If you’ve never seen it, that shouldn’t affect the validity or usefulness of my storytelling tips. If you do want to see the show, you can probably find it on Netflix or the DVDs on eBay.

The plot of Babylon 5 was told over five television seasons and a few TV movies. Never mind the ‘90s hair and CGI that’s outdated by today’s standards. The story itself was a sprawling epic fantasy with a space-opera setting, a story that spanned thousands of years and dozens of characters. J. Michael Straczynski was the mastermind behind this dramatic tale of humans and aliens, ancient prophecies and futuristic empires, villains and heroes.

I don’t know if there are hard and fast “rules” for writing the conclusion to an epic story. And I have no personal experience in doing so myself, since at the time of this writing, I’m still in the first draft stage of book two of a trilogy.

I have ended individual stories before, and I know that can be challenging. Beginning an epic is sometimes easy by comparison to ending a long tale, but it can be done well. Here are a couple of elements that I’ve observed in well-concluded epics.

Tying up loose ends

This is the most important element to ending most any kind of story, in my opinion – unless the point of your tale is to leave readers with more questions than answers.

Because of its length, and its multiple sub-plots and side threads, an epic’s conclusion can often be relatively long. In Lord of the Rings, several “endings” were gone through before the actual conclusion of Frodo leaving for the Grey Havens and Sam returning to his family.

Similarly, Babylon 5 had several moments when the series could have ended: the ending of the Shadow War in “Into the Fire,” the liberation of Earth in “Endgame,” or the thoughtful, time-spanning fourth season finale “The Deconstruction of Falling Stars.” But there was still more story to tell, and many questions still open.

Yes, even after the series’ conclusion, some details went unanswered. What was Lennier’s ultimate fate? What happened to David Sheridan and the Keeper that Londo left for him? Whatever happened to Lyta? But despite these small hanging details, all of the plot lines were brought to a close – all of the sub-plots, and the main plot of war encroaching on peace.

A sense of conclusion is important for an epic, I believe. Even if there’s room for more story, the main plot has reached an end and the goal has been accomplished. In Babylon 5, the wars are won, and a new era of peace has been ushered in. The tale of war, for now, is over.

Saying Goodbye

This is another important element in concluding an epic fantasy tale. Epics frequently feature a large cast of characters, many of whom are thrust together for the duration of the plot. By the end, some characters may be dead, and all of them have been changed.

It may be appropriate for the story for the characters to return to their lives that were interrupted by the main plot (such as happens in the Lord of the Rings). Or it may be that the characters need to move on to new lives, now that the adventures of the main plot have changed them (this is the case in Babylon 5).

Some characters part on friendly, tearful terms, excited about their new lives – like Sheridan and Delenn’s goodbyes to Garibaldi and Lochley. Other characters part with less joy and hope, because of who they have become during the course of the story: Lennier’s parting with Sheridan and Delenn, or Lyta’s parting with the entire cast.

Spending some time with partings and goodbyes is important for the reader, too, not just for the characters or for the sake of plot. In an epic tale, the reader (or viewer) has spent countless hours and hundreds of pages falling in love with the characters and their world. Goodbyes within the story give the audience a chance to say goodbye, to find closure and contentment in knowing the final path of the favorite characters.

The final fifth season episode of Babylon 5 – “Objects at Rest” – is all about partings and goodbyes, as the characters leave the Babylon 5 space station that had been their home and the crux of the plot. The series finale “Sleeping in Light” – which takes place twenty years after the plot of the series – is the ultimate of goodbyes.

At the end of Lord of the Rings, both the characters and the reader experience the conclusion of a final farewell as the main protagonist Frodo says goodbye to the other characters and to the main world of the story. Likewise, Babylon 5 ends with the main protagonist Sheridan saying goodbye to the other characters, the world of the story, and the audience. Both are bittersweet, but quite conclusive endings.

Never underestimate the power of a well-presented farewell to wrap up an epic story. What is one of your favorite epics and how did it end?

“Every part of this station has somebody’s fingerprints on it, layers and layers of people’s lives. There were times I thought none of us would get out alive. Some of us didn’t. But we did everything we said we were going to do, and nobody can take that away from us.” – Zack Allen, “Sleeping in Light”

Storytelling Techniques from Babylon 5: Good versus Evil

This is part of a series about storytelling techniques for epic fantasy. I’m drawing my examples from the 1990s sci-fi TV show Babylon 5. If you’ve never seen it, that shouldn’t affect the validity or usefulness of my storytelling tips. If you do want to see the show, you can probably find it on Netflix or the DVDs on eBay.

The plot of Babylon 5 was told over five television seasons and a few TV movies. Never mind the ‘90s hair and CGI that’s outdated by today’s standards. The story itself was a sprawling epic fantasy with a space-opera setting, a story that spanned thousands of years and dozens of characters. J. Michael Straczynski was the mastermind behind this dramatic tale of humans and aliens, ancient prophecies and futuristic empires, villains and heroes.

Good and Evil

It’s a struggle truly as old as time itself, and therefore the basis and framework for our stories – fantasy and otherwise. The Good versus Evil battle can range from great wars that span kingdoms or galaxies to the inward personal struggle of morals versus one’s darker nature.

Like most fantasy epics, Babylon 5 covers both. As the character of Delenn notes: “The war is never completely won. There are always new battles to be fought against the darkness. Only the names change.”

War in Macro – Epic Battles

Fans of fantasy and science-fiction expect a few good fights scenes. And the more long and epic the story, the more opportunities for battles. While not a requirement for fantasy in the broadest sense, the “epic” storytelling style usually involves numerous plot threads, places, and characters – all of which provide the fodder for large-scale battles.

Battles usually increase as the epic story moves towards the climax. Babylon 5 features more than a few large dramatic space battles as the Army of Light fights the Shadows (note the archetypal names for the two sides of the war, making it clear – at least at first – who is Good and who is Evil).

If you’re writing a book trilogy or series, this increase in tensions between Good and Evil applies to each individual book as well as the over-arcing storyline. In Babylon 5, each season was like a novel, with the episodes as the chapters. Each season (or “book”) had its own plot and set of conflicts, but all were part of the overall plot of the series: war encroaching on peace.

War in Micro – Internal Conflict

While less flashy than space battles or sword fights, the internal battle of an individual character can be just as important for the story. A well-rounded character – even the most perfect of good guys – should have darkness or imperfections lurking deep within. This is not only realistic, it provides another sort of tension and conflict for the story.

The character of Londo Mollari is one of the main protagonists of Babylon 5 – but calling him one of the Good Guys might be a stretch. He is one of the most conflicted characters of the story, one who is constantly at war within himself. The Good in him wants to serve and protect his people, but the Evil in him drives him to make dangerous choices and hurt many people. Though the Good in Londo causes him to feel tremendous guilt about his actions, ultimately the Evil triumphs and leaves him a broken man with a wake of destruction behind him.

In contrast, G’Kar starts out violent and filled with hate, giving free reign to every Evil aspect of his nature. But during the story, he grows as a character and begins to listen to the Good within him; in the end, he finds personal peace and overcomes the internal conflict. These two characters of Londo and G’Kar are almost reflections of one another, or opposite sides of a coin. Their personal stories within the larger story are every bit the archetype of Good versus Evil.

Good vs Evil – Sometimes it’s Gray

In real life, Good and Evil aren’t always so black and white. And even in an archetypal Good versus Evil fantasy tale, having that gray in-between area brings depth and realism to the story. In Babylon 5, there is never any doubt that the Shadows are the bad guys – they’re bent on war and destruction, and nothing will change their minds.

But even the evil Shadows have a reason for their actions – and it’s guided by their belief that they are right. Right and Good are not necessarily the same thing, especially in a story, but this brings a humanizing element to the bad guys.

Similarly, the Vorlons – touted for the first three seasons as being the good guys and creatures of light – turn out not be as pure and Good as everyone thought. The battle is still about Good versus Evil throughout Babylon 5’s story. But the lines often blur into gray and the characters struggle to decide who or what they are fighting, and why.

“War encroaching on peace” – the main overall plot of Babylon 5 – does not have to be the main plot of your epic fantasy tale. But the Good, the Evil, and the Gray in between should be present; explore that tension in the macro and the micro, and you have the foundation for a tale of epic proportions.

“The Babylon Project was our last, best hope for peace. It failed. But in the year of the Shadow War, it became something greater: our last best hope for victory.” -Susan Ivanova, third season intro

Storytelling Techniques from Babylon 5: Main Plot versus Sub-Plot

This is part of a series about storytelling techniques for epic fantasy. I’m drawing my examples from the 1990s sci-fi TV show Babylon 5. If you’ve never seen it, that shouldn’t affect the validity or usefulness of my storytelling tips. If you do want to see the show, you can probably find it on Netflix or the DVDs on eBay.

The plot of Babylon 5 was told over five television seasons and a few TV movies. Never mind the ‘90s hair and CGI that’s outdated by today’s standards. The story itself was a sprawling epic fantasy with a space-opera setting, a story that spanned thousands of years and dozens of characters. J. Michael Straczynski was the mastermind behind this dramatic tale of humans and aliens, ancient prophecies and futuristic empires, villains and heroes.

Plot is essential for any story, and most stories feature sub-plots or side threads that run along with the main plot. This is especially true of epics, as this format is defined by its length and complexity.

There are no hard and fast rules about how many sub-plots a story should have, how long each one lasts, etc. But in general, what I have found is that the best way to handle sub-plots is to: a) make sure they relate to the main plot in some way, and b) make sure they don’t detract from the main plot.

Main Plot

When you sit down to write a story, you should have at least some idea of what your main plot is going to be. Even if you’re a pantser, and you have to write two-thirds of the book to discover your main plot, that’s okay – when it’s all over, there’s still one main plot.

The main plot of Babylon 5 is war encroaching on peace. The very first episode begins with an assassination attempt and a surprise attack. Even as the series winds down in “Objects at Rest” – the last episode before the finale – there is conflict. War is the main plot of Babylon 5’s epic story.

The main plot should be introduced fairly early on. Even in an epic story, where things can be expected to take longer to develop, the main plot should be apparent within the first few scenes. You don’t have to begin with a bang the way Babylon 5 does, but if you’re a third of the way into your tale and are still in intro mode, some revising might be in order.

Sub-Plot

Most every story has a sub-plot or a semi-related side plot. Epic fantasy – because of the length and the conventions of the genre – is a great place to explore multiple plot threads. Babylon 5, being a five-book series, after a fashion (each season was like a complete book, with the episodes as chapters), was filled with sub-plots.

Each season (or “book”) had its own plot. Season 2 – called The Coming of Shadows – focused on the approach of war, with its rumors and threats and darkening mystery. And by season 5 – The Wheel of Fire – two wars had been fought and won, yet the struggle for peace and unity proved to be a war of a different sort. All of these individual plots fall under the series’ main plot of war.

And of course, within each season’s sub-plots were smaller plots: the Mars rebellion, Byron’s telepaths, the madness of the Centauri emperor Cartagia, Dr. Franklin’s struggle with addiction, and on and on.

The key here is that all of these sub-plots are related to and are influenced by the season (or book’s) main story, and the overall series story. It is also important to note that a sub-plot – even an important one – should never completely take over the story. If you’re writing and you discover that your sub-plot is becoming the main plot, there’s nothing wrong with that as part of the writing and discovering process. Just make sure that you eventually figure out what your main plot actually is – even if it turns out to be that storyline formerly known as the sub-plot.

Side Threads

A side thread, as I call it, is smaller and less important than a sub-plot, but it’s an element that adds richness and dimension to the fantasy world of a long epic. Babylon 5’s story is rich with side threads: Garibaldi and Lennier building the old-fashioned motorcycle, Sheridan and Delenn’s multiple dinner dates and adventures with eating flarn, Rebo and Zootie’s periodic visits to the station, and so many more.

The scene involving Sheridan’s less-than-perfect attempt to cook flarn for Delenn had nothing to do with the main plot of the episode, the season, or even the entire series. The Shadow War coming to a head – the main plot of season three Point of No Return – could have been told without Delenn politely choking down Sheridan’s cooking. But that little side thread added another layer to those two characters, and provided a moment of humor in a high-tension story.

Think of side threads as a form of world-building and character development. The little things are the foundations of life – in reality and in fantasy. You can help your readers (or viewers) buy into your world and your story by adding in those little side threads.

What are some of your favorite main plots, sub-plots, or side threads in stories?

The ABCs of Writing Fantasy

This isn’t so much a list of do’s and don’ts or advice. It’s more of a list of elements that I’ve found to be common in most fantasy tales. Feel free to make suggestions about what words you’d pick for this list!

A – Adventure. What good fantasy tale doesn’t involve an adventure? It doesn’t have to a thrill-a-minute tale, or involve more traveling than Frodo’s hike from the Shire to Mordor, but “going on an adventure” is a foundational element in many fantasy stories.

B – Bad Guys. Whether the villain is the personification of evil itself, or a conflicted, misunderstood character, it’s not much of a story without an antagonist.

C – Creatures. Everyone expects some sort of fantastical beasts in a fantasy story. Whether traditional or made-up just for that one tale, a creature not found in real life should make an appearance.

D – Destiny. Not a requirement for fantasy, of course, but it’s a common theme in many tales. It can be as complex as a prophecy, or as simple as the hero choosing the righteous path to determine his own destiny.

E – Epic. Again, not a requirement for a story of the fantasy genre. But more so than most any other genre, fantasy easily can lend itself to epic tales that span decades or centuries and scores of characters.

F – Fights. Everybody likes a good fight scene. Sword fights, orc battles, slaying a dragon…there’s usually a battle or two in any fantasy story.

G – Good Guys. Somebody’s got to oppose the Bad Guys, right?

H – History. Most fantasy tales involve complex world-building, and that word includes a history that may or may not impact the current story. Also, real world history is often a great source of inspiration for fantasy writers.

I – Imagination. Without it, there would be no stories – fantasy or otherwise.

J – Journey. Frodo takes the Ring to Mordor. It’s a long trip, but he also goes on a personal journey as the story progresses. Good fantasy involves either kind of journey, or both.

K – Kings and Queens. Or emperors, or evil over-lords. Somebody’s got to be in charge, to either fight for or fight against.

L – Life and Death. Isn’t this the subject of every good tale?

M – Magic. Pretty much a staple of the fantasy genre. The great thing about magic, though, is that it’s different in every tale. Anything is possible – and believable – with magic, as long as it fits within the rules of the fantasy world of that story.

N – Non-humans. Similar to Creatures, but other non-humans are often sentient races like elves, rather than a monster like a dragon. Not a requirement for fantasy, but usually expected.

O – On-going. There is such a thing as a stand-alone fantasy tale, but fans of epic fantasy enjoy the on-going series, or at least a nice thick trilogy.

P – Plot. A plot is required for most any fiction, really. But fantasy is usually far more plot-driven than, say, character-driven literary fiction.

Q – Quest. Like a journey, many fantasy stories involve a quest for a treasure, a cause, or a person.

R – Reluctant hero. There’s something appealing about the reluctant hero, the character who is forced to adapt to a strange situation or is trying to hide from their true calling.

S – Setting. This is a part of world-building, but the setting is primarily the physical location, rather than creatures and cultures and everything else about the world. Fantasy provides for settings of most any kind, from castles to mountains to haunted forests and beyond.

T – Treasure. The treasure in a fantasy story doesn’t have to be the dragon’s gold or the king’s long-lost magic sword. But conflict often can be driven by desire for something of value – a treasure – to the characters and their world.

U – Unexpected. While fantasy readers may be expecting and wanting magic, destiny, and epic battles, they also want something different and new, too.

V – Vision. This can apply to a lot of different things in fantasy. Vision can refer to a character with magical sight or prophetic talents. Vision can be the rich visual details that the author paints to describe the world and the characters. Vision can be the broad scope of the over-all plot that runs through an epic.

W – World-building. This is necessary for the fantasy genre – even if the tale is urban fantasy set in the real world. The rules of magic, the types of non-human beings, places and names – all of that is part of the world, and needs to be fully realized by the author, even if not every detail makes it into the book. The fantasy world has to feel full and real.

X – Excitement. See adventure and unexpected. Anticipation and tension and a riveting plot keeps a reader interested.

Y – YA. This stands for Young Adult, an age-range and literary genre that is very popular for fantasy stories right now. YA is enjoyed by young and old alike, though, and even if the main character is under the age of 20, most stories are relatable to readers of any age. Harry Potter, anyone?

Z – Zeal. Zeal is having passion and enthusiasm for someone or something. This can describe many characters in fantasy stories, as well as describing the fans. Being zealous is a good thing – life can be pretty dry if you have no excitement for anything.