5 Things I Like about Stories

Since my online moniker is StorytellerGirl, you know that I like a good story. Long, short, fantasy, factual – if it’s a good tale, I like it. I could wax über-philosophical about storytelling, or write another post about plot or character development. But this time, I think I’ll just make a short bullet list. So what’s so great about stories?

Stories are fun

Stories take us away from reality

Stories teach us about reality

Stories are everywhere

Stories tell the truth

And there you have it. That about sums it up for me. Stories are life.

Why do you love a good tale?

The Case for Predictability in Fantasy Plots

New, different, unexpected – these are the things we all want in a story, right? After all, if the story is too predictable, too much like all the others we’ve read, then why bother with it? While this is very true – both readers and writers are always looking for the unique element – I believe there is room for some degree of predictability.

First off, there is the conventions of the genre. This can be very broad, but I believe it’s the most important form of predictability. Readers pick up certain genres because they enjoy the conventions of that type of story. A reader of classic sword and sorcery will not be pleased to find space ships and vampires half way through the novel. Pick your genre/sub-genre, learn your genre, and gain an understanding of what some of the most common or popular elements are. The fantasy/paranormal sub-genre of vampire romance involves – you guessed it – vampires and romance. If your story is lacking these key elements, then it’s not a vampire romance.

Another “predictable” element in most fantasy genres is the hero (or heroine). The hero is usually the main character, although there can be main characters who would not be classified as the hero. I won’t go into great detail about archetypal hero elements and classic storytelling techniques, and it’s certainly not a requirement to follow an archetypal path. But I would argue that most readers of fantasy genres (even dark fantasy) expect to see a heroic character or at least a heroic element in stories. The uplifting, the overcoming of all odds, the growth of the main character – all of these should be found to one degree or another in most any kind of story, but especially anything in the fantasy realm.

Another important element is good versus evil. This is more than a protagonist versus an antagonist. A “force of good” versus a “force of evil” – whether embodied by individuals, creatures, societies, or something else – is expected in most fantasy genres. Most readers of fantasy expect at least a few battles, and an idea of a good guy versus a bad guy. Conflict drives plot and character development in any story, and all of the fantasy genres provide rich fodder for conflict on every scale.

These are very loose guidelines, as they should be. Every genre – especially fantasy – should be open to the author’s creativity. But just remember that with all the unexpected elements, don’t neglect the expected.

What every Fantasy Writer can learn from Star Wars

I’m a few days late, but I thought I’d do a Star Wars-themed post in honor of May 4th (as in, May the Fourth be with you). Whether you’re a big-time fan of the series, or it’s just not your cup of tea, I believe that all writers of fantasy should watch and learn from Star Wars.

Yes, I said fantasy writers, not sci-fi writers. Of course, sci-fi writers can learn storytelling tips from Star Wars, but the Star Wars saga actually fits into the overall fantasy genre more than science fiction. So if you’ve never bothered much with Star Wars because you’re a sword-and-sorcery writer, then perhaps this can help you.

(Side note here – I’m drawing most of my examples from the original trilogy of movies. I’m not here to argue the pros or cons of the prequels, the books, the cartoon, or the video games. Please save your Jar-Jar Binks fan mail for a different post).

Star Wars is what I would call space opera or space fantasy. It’s an epic fantasy tale set in outer space with technology and aliens, instead of a setting of kingdoms, magical talismans, and monsters. The story would work just as well set on one planet, with all the magical trappings of standard fantasy. Here are some key elements of Star Wars that I believe any fantasy (or sci-fi) writer can use in their own work:

Archetypal characters and the hero’s journey. George Lucas followed the format of the hero’s journey, as laid out by Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler. This does not necessarily make the story “better” than anyone else’s plot, but the key stages of this storytelling format are common in folktales and classic fantasy alike. Character archetypes of the hero (Luke Skywalker), the guardian (Obi-Wan Kenobi), the skeptic (Han Solo), and so on can drive many fantasy tales.

It’s okay to use traditional fantasy terms. We all want our stories and the worlds we create to be totally original, and many of us like to invent our own terms or even languages. This is a good – and expected – element of fantasy: Sith, Jedi, Dagobah, Wookie. But Star Wars also shamelessly uses “classic” fantasy terms that we’re all familiar with: Light, Dark, Knight, Lord. Using these terms helps the audience to understand a plot point or a character’s role without having to devote a lot of time to explanations.

Redemptive story and happy ending. This is certainly not a requirement for fantasy – even the non-dark “high” fantasy genre. And many readers aren’t satisfied with a tidy “and they all lived happily ever after.” But most of the main characters should grow, overcome, and be victorious in at least some way. And everyone loves a good “redemption from evil” story – another staple of fantasy. Darth Vader’s rejection of the Dark Side of the Force, the destruction of the second Death Star, Han and Leia becoming a couple – despite all the pain and loss throughout the saga, things end on a high note.

Magic or technology that is unexplained yet consistently accepted. This is one of the elements that makes Star Wars more predominantly fantasy rather than science fiction. The futuristic, high-tech world is there, but there is little explanation given from a scientific or technical side. Yes, any good geek has read the tech manuals for the Death Star and knows all the specs of X-Wings versus Y-Wings – but none of those details are part of the story itself. Within the world of Star Wars, everyone knows that Jedi Knights carry lightsabers. No one wonders about how a lightsaber works, nor do they care. Like a magic sword in a high fantasy tale, the how’s and why’s behind the magic are (usually) of minimal importance. The point is that everyone knows the sword is magic.

Good versus Evil. Yes, the old good versus evil thing is the plot of most stories, fantasy and otherwise. And often – in any genre – good and evil are not absolutes. But a well-defined “bad guy” or “force of evil” is what drives a lot of good fantasy tales. In Star Wars, there’s never any doubt as to who the enemy is: the enemy is the Dark Side of the Force. Characters come and go and switch sides, but the Darkness is always there and is always the enemy.

So now go grab some popcorn and cue up Netflix or your old DVDs, enjoy Luke and R2-D2 and the gang, and then go write some fantasy!

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?