You can learn something from every book you read, regardless of its merits. Great writing teaches you what’s effective and poor writing helps identify issues in your own work.
Last year I started my journey to read a book in every subgenre of every genre, starting in fantasy. This had been a great reading motivator. I recommend you take up this life-long challenge yourself.
If you’ve read these books before and are interested in seeing my novel discussions, please check out this video playlist — or each individual video below:
- Contemporary Fantasy: American Gods by Neil Gaiman
- Fairytale Fantasy: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: Lewis Carroll
- Comic Fantasy: The Colour of Magic: Terry Pratchett
- Superheroes Fantasy: Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman
- Historic Fantasy: Shades of Milk and Honey by Marie Robinette Kowal
- High Fantasy: Throne of Glass by Sarah J Maas
- Fantasy of Manners: Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner
- Low Fantasy: The Windup Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
- Dark Fantasy: It by Stephen King
- Urban Fantasy: Storm Front by Jim Butcher
Even though fantasy was a genre I’m familiar with, this project introduced me to a whole new world of stories I wouldn’t have found otherwise.
In doing so, I read some novels that surprised me and some that disappointed me. Having to share my thoughts about the book during and after finishing it helped me understand what I’ve enjoyed and what I didn’t. In the end, I read 10 books across the spectrum of fantasy, and here 10 nuggets of insight I’ve unearthed from them.
1) Use Creative Verisimilitude: (American Gods by Neil Gaiman)
One way to colour your story is by bringing realism into your writing. This can be as simple as having your characters drink Coca Cola or eat at McDonald’s, but in American Gods, Neil Gaiman showed that you can push verisimilitude to the limits by understanding common human habits and traditions. Some things never change — at least, it doesn’t change that much. Take something that exists, something we all understand, and warp it a bit. Traditions have roots in every country and every culture. In American Gods, the characters find themselves in a town with a Groundhog Day-esque tradition. A beat-up car is driven out onto a frozen lake and citizens take bets on when the car will fall through the lake, and thus commencing spring. If you told me that such a tradition existed, I’d believe you because it’s as crazy as some of the traditions that do exist.
2) Leave Parts Open For Interpretation: (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carrol)
While a good story is believable that doesn’t mean you can’t include mystery and surrealism to it. Like life, not every aspect of your story needs to be explained. Leaving parts up for interpretations creates intrigue and gives your readers something to ponder after they close the book. Nonsense, when crafted in a way that’s interesting, becomes a puzzle for your readers to solve. Readers today are still offering their own interpretation of Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland. Take for example the riddle posed by the Mad Hatter: “How is a raven like a writing desk?” It’s never answered in the story, so it’s up to the reader to figure it out on their own, almost like a mental souvenir of the story.
3) Comedy is Best When It’s Relatable: (The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett)
If you want to write comedy, then you need to relate to your readers. This doesn’t mean you need to know all your readers’ interests and hobbies, but rather share an experience that is common to your audience. You know why stand-up comedians always make jokes about airports? It’s because most people have been to an airport. If nobody had been to an airport… it wouldn’t be funny. Nobody would “get it.” While reading The Colour of Magic, I found that the parts that made me smile and chuckle were the parts where I could relate to. For example, Twoflower is an insurance salesman on vacation in a magical world — I know what it’s like to take time off after working an unglamourous job to travel to a tumultuous destination. And for Rincewinder, the wizard, he’s always reminiscing about his time in university, which is an experience of my modern life that I too think about often. It’s with these relatable connections that support the comedy.
4) Use Foil Characters: (Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman)
To show off the strengths and weaknesses of a character, you can use another character with opposing traits to highlight the differences. These are called foil characters. In Soon I Will Be Invincible, a story about superheroes, we find that the hero and the villain are both intelligent, but it’s how they’re treated by their high school peers that sets them apart. Corefire was popular, while Doctor Impossible was an outcast. This helped develop the relationship between those two characters as well as establishing the roots of the characters’ motivations.
5) Every Character Serves a Purpose: (Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal)
When we think of fantasies, we often think of epic worlds with an enormous cast of characters, but I respect a story that has restraints. Being economical and ensuring that each character and each scene moves the story forward is a mastery that I hope to achieve one day. Shades of Milk and Honey is a localized story and each character (some of them foil characters) does exactly what’s needed to provoke conflicts, reveal details, or address solutions. There is no wasted energy or time introducing a character for the sake of it… there is always a payoff — and that type of creative control, I respect.
6) How to Show the History of a World: (Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas)
It’s easy to get carried away with world-building, especially in a fantasy novel. There is so much to deal with: the geography, the history, the language, etc. How do you share these scenic aspects of your story without pulling the cart completely off the rails? Well… in Throne of Glass, the story begins with a travel scene and then is continuously interjected with the character studying the history of the world. The world-building is scattered throughout the novel and is never unloaded all at once. The readers aren’t responsible for consuming the details on their own, but rather, they’re seeing their world from the character’s eyes. The discovery happens alongside the character as opposed to straight-up exposition.
7) Challenge Your Readers: (Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner)
Give your readers the tools, but don’t build it for them. There is something gratifying when you read a complex story with a bunch of stray dots and you’re able to connect them on your own. It’s like building a piece of IKEA furniture perfectly. A story that treats the reader as an intelligent person and reveals only the details necessary — leaving little bread crumbs or clues — without hand-holding offers a reading experience that feels so much more than merely an escape. As a writer, we should have confidence to challenge our readers. Don’t be afraid of tripping them up now and then as long as you can trust your writing to catch them before they fall. In Swordspoint, something as simple as giving different names to the same characters is enough to add another layer of complexity to the story.
8) Use Different Format: (The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami)
I often think of a novel like a musical album. It’s a collection of different songs with different styles created by the same artist. That is why I love it when a novel includes different prose or poetic styles. In The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, we see the story being told in letters, interviews, text on a screen, etc. These change-ups in the middle of a novel can behave like an act break or even create an unsettling feeling for the reader. Change is often unnerving and this type of disturbance is effective when applied at the right place and at the right time.
9) Transition Between Time: (It by Stephen King)
If nothing else, It was a great textbook on how to make dramatic timeline shifts. Going from present-day to flashback in a seamless way — especially repeatedly through a thousand-page epic — is not an easy feat. What King did was find unique ways to blur the time jumps. Instead of making a hard cut in-between time, what you can do is mimic the technique King used and that’s by transitioning right in the middle of a sentence. Have a character do or say something that is connected to something they will (or they have done) do or say in the future (or the past), and cut right at the end. This technique is common in movies (often known as a match cut) but it’s not that common in books.
10) Limit Your Scenes: (Stormfront by Jim Butcher)
Don’t overload your readers with too much information in the first act. In Stormfront, during the first half of the novel, each chapter took place in a single location and had the main character, Harry Dresden interacting with another key character. This type of confined scene establishes the relationship between the characters and their environments. How Harry Dresden relates to one character is different from another just like how we wear different masks in different situations. Slowly, one chapter at a time, the reader gets to go one layer deeper into the character and the plot.
There you go, those are 10 writing tips I learned from reading 10 fantasy books. I am continuing with my reading journey. Currently, I’m in the throes of reading the sci-fi sub-category with the suffix “punk.” Such genres include cyberpunk, steampunk, etc.
Follow me on YouTube to see how everything unfolds. And if you want to recommend some fantasy, “punk,” or any other genre of books to me, please share in the comments!