When writing a fantasy novel, there are things you should do and things you shouldn’t do. Today, we’ll be focusing on what you shouldn’t do to ensure that readers stick with your fantasy novel until the very end.
Fantasy writers should not work out every plot detail before writing, stray away from the main plot with accessory storylines, create magic systems where the use of magic has no consequences, or repeatedly rescue characters from life-threatening situations with miracles.
These are but a few of the cardinal sins that an aspiring fantasy writer should take great pains to avoid when constructing their story. Read on to discover other cardinal sins to steer clear of, along with practical strategies on how to work around these common writing issues.
1.) Don’t Plan Out Every Single Story Detail Prior to Writing
One of the most prevalent mistakes that inexperienced fantasy authors tend to make is coming into the writing process with the mindset that every little detail has to be laid out beforehand.
The reason that this mistake is so egregious is that it takes away from the life of the story. Attempting to control every facet of the story only disrupts its natural flow.
Ideally, the story should be allowed to proceed naturally and take on a life of its own. If the story is left without any breathing room, any opportunity for spontaneity goes out the window.
In fantasy writing, spontaneity is debatably an essential component to connecting with the reader. Readers that have been around the fantasy genre a long time can sense when a storyline has been forced into the narrative. Such inconsistencies detract from the reader’s ability to fully immerse themselves into the fictional world, which ultimately results in them putting down your book for good.
A far more effective strategy would be to create a rough outline of your story with chances for flexibility down the road. This way, you can adapt the story accordingly as you come across new ideas and different directions to guide the narrative.
2.) Don’t Include Storylines that Fail to Contribute to the Main Plot
It can be extremely tempting to lose yourself in your work during the writing process and start writing without explicit purpose or intent. Under these circumstances, fantasy authors are writing just to write without adding any substantial value to the story.
Don’t get me wrong, incorporating additional layers of conflict into the narrative does spice up the plot, but you must be sure that these supplemental conflicts somehow tie back to the main plot.
This can be somewhat difficult to do on your own, so you may want to consider hiring an external editing and proofreading service to do this for you. Scribendi does just that, offering professional writing critiques on book manuscripts from writers just like you. You can check out their manuscript editing service here.
Unfortunately, the more evil villains, opposing factions, and inconvenient complications you add to the narrative, the more difficult it becomes to manage all of these storylines. Although it may seem tedious, you should keep meticulous notes on what you intend to achieve with all these storylines as you continue to write. This way, you can keep the complexity of the narrative in check.
A prime example of a complex fantasy narrative where all the storylines converge on the main plot is A Song of Ice & Fire by George R.R. Martin. No matter how many conflicts are happening at once, they all have to with who will sit atop the Iron Throne. So if you struggle with this area of fantasy writing, draw inspiration from George R.R. Martin!
3.) Avoid Writing a Magic System Where Its Users Have Limitless Power
In addition, a substantial portion of aspiring fantasy writers run into major problems when crafting their magic system, mainly having to do with the fact that there are no defined repercussions for magical use within the narrative.
As a general rule of thumb, every magical use should have some considerable consequence attached to it. These consequences should not be implied. Rather, they should be explicitly stated within the novel itself.
In the absence of defined repercussions, the reader will assume that magical users possess near-infinite power. This can shake the very foundations of the reader’s experience in that it takes away from the integrity of the book and virtually eliminates all elements of danger or suspense.
The reader should feel as though danger could strike at any moment throughout the novel, regardless of how safe the protagonists may seem. This keeps the reader on their toes, which ultimately translates into sustained engagement on their part.
Furthermore, once you’ve specified the negative repercussions for magical use, make sure you don’t contradict these rules later on in the story. As aforementioned, there are few worse turn-offs to a reader than writing inconsistencies.
4.) Avoid Bailing Characters Out of Life-or-Death Situations with Miracles
Far too many fantasy writers are guilty of this mistake. When all hope is lost, and the heroes have their backs up against the wall, they somehow escape the situation by some inexplicable stroke of luck.
This plot device may be acceptable on occasion, but its overuse can drive the reader away from the story. Rather than appearing as a major plot twist, it will instead be perceived as a copout on the writer’s part. As an author, that’s the last thing you want to be attached to your writing prowess.
It’s a far better alternative to work around the sudden, miraculous act and find another way to resolve the situation. Remember, it’s okay for the protagonists to lose sometimes! They don’t have to win every battle they take part in. If your specialty is dark fantasy, the protagonists may not even have to reign victorious in the end.
Although it may be difficult, you need to have your protagonists win and lose often enough to keep the reader guessing. It will make for a superior story if you approach your narrative in this manner, as opposed to having your heroes triumph over every single obstacle that comes their way.
5.) Never Lose Track of the Special Terminology Used Throughout Your Narrative
In addition, it’s a cardinal sin in fantasy writing to mix up the special terminology that you choose to implement throughout the narrative.
In this case, special terminology is an umbrella term for whatever words or phrases that’s unique to your fantasy world. When used correctly, special terminology can add uniqueness to your fantasy world that enhances the immersive experience for the reader. If done incorrectly, however, it can sever this connection entirely.
For example, in the Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson, the standard currency isn’t referred to as money. Instead, the transactional currency of this world is the sphere. These spheres can be infused with Stormlight, which acts as a light source to power everyday items (source).
If Sanderson were to confuse the term spheres with dollars, it would be an obvious turn-off for the reader. Fortunately, Sanderson is one of the very best in the business and takes great care to avoid petty mistakes like these.
In your own novel, keep careful tabs on whatever special terminology you set in the early stages of the novel. For example, if you choose to refer to units of distance as leagues, don’t refer to your units of distance as clicks, miles, kilometers, or parsecs. It would seem fairly easy to carry out in practice, but with all the complexities of fantasy writing, it’s no wonder that minor mistakes like these can slip through the cracks.
6.) Refrain from Overwhelming the Reader with Unnecessary Background Story
Moreover, it would be best if you did not bombard the reader with a flurry of trivial background details in the book’s early chapters. Instead, the reader should be given time to acclimate to the flow of the story, the nature of the characters, and the makings of the world around them before delving into the nitty-gritty elements.
During the beginning stages, the reader still does not have a clear impression of what you have to offer them as an author. For this reason, you want to awe the reader with your entire writing arsenal rather than bore them with long-winded explanations of the history leading up to the present time.
Readers don’t have any interest in fictional historical retellings. They came to your book for action, humor, conflict, and creativity above all else!
So instead of over-explaining the particular mechanics of how your magic system works, trust that the reader will pick up on these elements as they read further into the story. Catch the reader’s attention with a dynamic scene instead. Then, once they’ve bought into the story, you can delve deeper into the finer details of your fictional world.
7.) Don’t Base Your Narrative Around Fantasy Clichés
Additionally, you want to steer clear of setting up your story around too many overused fantasy clichés. Otherwise, you’ll risk losing the originality of your piece. The last thing you want your novel to do is disappear into the clutter of all the other fantasy works that recant the same story over and over again.
With that being said, you shouldn’t be afraid of your story drawing similarities to other renowned fantasy works. You’re bound to run into some parallels at some point or another, as there are too many fantasy works out there already to craft something completely and utterly original.
There’s a reason why such a large degree of successful fantasy works utilize the same fantasy tropes. Like it or not, fantasy readers are drawn to these commonplace ideas. Rather than wholeheartedly embracing these tropes or completely dismissing the use of clichés, it would be best if you made an effort to find a middle ground between these two extremes.
The best way to accomplish this is to rework fantasy clichés to make them fit your narrative. By recreating these fantasy clichés with your own creative spin, you alter the reader’s expectations without totally alienating them from the story. It’s a delicate balance that takes time and effort to find, but it can be very rewarding.
If you struggle with the concept of reinterpreting fantasy tropes, click over to 17 Most Hated Fantasy Clichés & How to Fix Them. There, you will find all the information you need to craft a one-of-a-kind story to grab your audience’s attention.
8.) Abstain from Making the Protagonist Too Perfect
Another common mistake that fantasy authors make is portraying their main protagonist in too positive a light, to the point where it almost seems as if they have no flaws.
Readers are drawn to characters that not only have admirable qualities but shameful qualities as well. If there are no blemishes to speak of, there’s little to no opportunity for character development.
For this reason, it’s important to introduce your fantasy characters as imperfect at the onset of the novel. On the other hand, if you decide to introduce a noble, entitled character that has the world in the palm of their hands, there better be a rude awakening lying just beyond the horizon.
Aside from the added connectedness between character and reader, making your characters intentionally flawed also opens up further storyline avenues in the latter portions of the book. Such opportunities may come in handy when you’re scrambling for content down the road.
As we discussed earlier, the more conflict, the better. It’s hard to introduce intriguing elements of conflict to the story if the protagonist always makes the right choice.
In short, it may go against your base instincts to purposefully include character defects, but it will make for a better story overall in the long run.
9.) Don’t Mix Up the Timeline of the Story’s Events
Next, you mustn’t confuse the event timeline of the story. With all the moving parts of story writing, it can be relatively easy to forget about the chronological order of the narrative as you progress deeper into the tale.
Writing about historical details, past battles, old fables, current events, and future plans can quickly complicate things. If you’re perplexed by the event timeline as the story’s creator, you can bet that the reader will be even more confused than you are.
To avoid this disconnect, you must construct a bulleted list of the story’s timeline so that you can have a definitive reference point to work back to. Without this resource, there’s a much greater likelihood that your timeline will be inexplicably fragmented.
Not only should the chronology of the narrative be accurate, but the time it takes for characters to accomplish certain tasks should be accurate.
For example, if your protagonists are embarking on an extended quest into the unknown, the quest shouldn’t be over in a matter of days. Instead, it should take weeks—possibly even months—for the protagonists to reach their destination.
However long this quest may take, your reader should be well informed of the amount of time that has passed. The reader should be kept in the loop at all times (pun intended).
Even the finer details, such as the weather, should indicate the time that has passed. If you’re making a big leap in the timeline, consider having the weather reflect this change. The presence of heavy snowfall, percolating leaves, and blossoming flowers can all be subtle indications of how much time has passed since the reader has last seen the characters.
10.) Don’t Confuse the Reader with Multiple Voice Styles
This mistake may seem rather obvious at first glance, but you may be shocked to find how prevalent this issue can become when writing your novel.
As a general rule of thumb, you should stay true to one and only one voice style throughout the entirety of your story. Constantly switching from the first-person perspective to the third-person perspective will not have the intended effect on the reader you’re looking for. More often than not, it will befuddle the reader and leave them with more questions than answers.
Along those same lines, the tenses of your verbs should stay consistent as well. If your story is being recounted as though it has already happened, you better make sure that all your verbs are in the past tense. If your story is currently unfolding before the eyes of the reader, then keep all your verbs in the present tense.
Consistency in verb tense is key to giving off an air of professionalism to the reader, which ultimately helps establish writing rapport.
11.) Avoid Giving in to Others’ Traditionalist Views of Fantasy
Lastly, don’t second guess your own personal instincts because a fantasy purist opposes your writing style.
Sadly, the bold notions of aspiring fantasy writers are constantly put down in favor of traditionalist fantasy views. This ends up stifling any creativity that could change the fantasy book industry.
If you genuinely want to separate yourself from the competition, you’ll have to run into some resistance at one point or another. Unfortunately, it’s what goes with the territory of pushing the boundaries regarding what appeals to readers and what doesn’t.
The fantasy story that you write is yours and yours alone. At the end of the day, you should write the novel you envisioned, not what someone else sees. That might even mean abandoning some of the advice in the article. How’s that for a catch-22!