Love Tropes in Stories

Even though Valentine’s Day was yesterday, I feel obligated to write a Valentines-ish post, just because. Even those of us who don’t call ourselves readers of the romance genre usually enjoy a good love story. So here are a few of my favorite couples from books/movies/shows, and the different types of loves stories they represent:

The Against-All-Odds Love – Sheridan and Delenn

This couple is from the sci-fi show Babylon 5, which I’ve blogged about many times, and which I hold up as one of the best examples of storytelling in any media. The main plot of the show is war, good versus evil, and the shades of gray in between. But there’s a little romance, too. Sheridan and Delenn have everything going against them: they’re busy leading an army, trying to save their respective governments, and dealing with cultural difficulties between the two of them because they are two different species. But they fall in love anyway, determine to make it work no matter what, and their unity makes them and those who follow them stronger for it.

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Stories about Stories

I like stories, and so stories that are about stories seem doubly cool to me. I decided to analyze three of my favorite “stories within stories” and the different ways that this concept can be handled.

A Tale: “The Tale of the Three Brothers” in Harry Potter

I’ve read various cautionary articles about inserting a “tale” into fiction. Interrupting the flow of the plot for “storytime” can slow the action, take the reader out of the story, and is often a thinly veiled excuse for an unnecessary flashback. While all of these are true, I think there are still ways to use the “tale” inside a story without interrupting the main plot. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows does this very well with the “Tale of the Three Brothers.” One of the main things that makes it work is that this tale is vital to the rest of the main plot of the book. This tale isn’t an excuse for lame backstory or filler for a slow plot—without this little story-within-the-story, Harry wouldn’t learn everything he needs to know about the Deathly Hallows, which is vital to the rest of the story.

Plus, the tale was treated beautifully in the film. Honestly, it’s my favorite part of the movie:


Nested Stories and Flashback Tales: The Historian

If you’re not supposed to use tales within a story as an excuse for a flashback, then this book breaks that rule with every single chapter. This book is a bit unique, though, because the entire thing is a flashback within a flashback, and the different time periods of the story mesh perfectly to create the larger plot. I blogged about this book in a post I did about narrators, because all of the flashbacks are told in the first person, but by different people. This book isn’t really a good model for the average writer to follow, even though this author handled the writing style brilliantly. If you want to write a story within a story, it would probably be wiser to stick with a Harry Potter-esque “tale,” or a story about a story, as in the following example.

A Story about a Story: The Princess Bride

Since the book of The Princess Bride is very different from the movie—and probably more people have seen the movie—I’ll focus on the film for my example. The “main plot” of the story is the relationship of a little boy and his grandfather. Very little action happens, but there is character growth as the impatient boy realizes that his old-fashioned grandfather really isn’t as out of touch as he first thinks, and that they both share a love for a good story. The bulk of the movie, of course, is the fairy tale that the grandfather reads to the boy, The Princess Bride. The occasional hops out of the tale, like when the boy complains about the kissing scenes, are just frequent enough to remind the audience that this is a story within a story, but they don’t interfere with the flow of the plot.

Now over to you! Do you have a favorite “story within a story?”

Or a favorite Princess Bride quote? Just because.

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.

A Mother’s Day tribute to Great Moms of Literature

Mother’s Day is this coming Sunday, so I thought I’d devote this post to some of the great moms in books. I have a wonderful mother, as I’m sure you do, too. But here are my top five favorite fictional mothers.

5. Mrs. Rabbit, from Peter Rabbit, by Beatrix Potter

Poor patient Mrs. Rabbit, who had a son who always did exactly what she told him not to do, and lost his shoes and his jacket repeatedly. Even so, she didn’t punish him harshly—she just put him to bed with some chamomile tea. For all the headaches Peter gave her, she stayed a gentle and loving mom.

4. Missis, from The Hundred and One Dalmatians, by Dodie Smith

Sure, we all loved Perdita in Disney’s various film versions of this story, but I’m talking about the original. In the book, Perdita was a different dog—Missis was Pongo’s wife. First off, she gave birth to fifteen puppies. Props to her for that alone. Then, when the puppies were kidnapped, Missis risked her life facing the wild outdoors and Cruella De Vil to get her kids back. And she wound up being a mother to 97 puppies by the time it was all over. Now that’s a mom.

3. Leia Organa-Solo, from The Thrawn Trilogy, by Timothy Zahn

There are hundreds of post- Return of the Jedi stories out there, but the ones I have in mind are the Thrawn Trilogy, which basically launched the Star Wars multi-media franchise back in the 90s. In this story, Leia gave birth to her twins Jacen and Jaina Solo. She dealt with all the joys and struggles of raising two infants while traipsing around the galaxy, rescuing Luke, fighting off the remnants of the Empire, and holding a government post in the New Republic. A true super-mom.

2. Molly Weasley, from the Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling

Molly raised a herd of wild red-headed kids, and managed to keep a lid on things despite those kids doing things like quitting school to open a magic shop and flying their father’s car into a Whomping Willow. But she still had enough love to all but adopt Harry into her family, and she had enough ferocity to take out some Death Eaters and Bellatrix Lestrange. Another super-mom.

1. Marmie, from Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott

Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy lovingly called their mother “Marmie” when they were young, and as they grew up, Marmie stayed central to their lives. Through marriages, births, deaths, career struggles, and the general pains of growing up, Marmie kept her family together. She encouraged her daughters’ creativity and independence, wasn’t afraid of disciplining them, taught them how to be loving by showing kindness to strangers and neighbors alike, and stayed strong while her husband was away at war. Marmie was just an all-around awesome mom.

Any other literary mothers you’d like to add to this list? And don’t forget to wish your mom a happy mother’s day!