Sunday, October 14, 2007

Six Days to Save the World

In the first chapter of the book 'Death is No Obstacle' writer Michael Moorcock explains the structure of most of his sword & sorcery and heroic fantasy novels. "An object to be obtained-limited time to obtain it." That's about it. You set up a talisman (a Mcguffin in Hitchcockian terms) of some sort that the heroes need to save the day. Then you set up a ticking clock, so if they don't get it in a certain amount of time, everything goes boom. Next Mike says he draws a map just so he won't get lost, and sends his heroes out to save the world. Now of course he's making it sound much easier than it is. You still have to type those 150 thousand or so words to get a book, but this really is the basic structure.
This is also known as the quest structure and it's the structure that most modern heroic fantasy is based upon. I can certainly see why. It gives you an immediate plot and an immediate sense of urgency. Sending your heroes on a journey is also a great way to generate plot incidents because as they travel they're going to run into all kinds of interesting people, places, and things. Helps with characterization too, because you see how different characters react to the obstacles you throw in their path. Someone once said that you never truly know someone until you travel with them.
Having enjoyed the two new Terry Brooks novels, I did a little research by going to his web page and reading the synopsis for each of his Shannara books. The formula is the same for each book. An object to be obtained-limited time to obtain it. Brooks usually mixes this up by having more than one quest going at a time. This group of heroes needs to find the black Elfstone, and this group needs to find a missing wizard. Only the wizard can wield the stone, see, so we have to have both of them. This allows him to jump back and forth between two sub plots. This creates suspense. Just as a nasty demon is about to attack the first group, we switch to the second group who have found the cavern where the wizard lives. Just as the second group is attacked by the stone guardian of the cavern, we switch back to see how group one is doing with the nasty demon. This is an old trick. I can remember Edgar Rice Burroughs doing much the same in any number of Tarzan novels. But it still works.
Anyway, Mike offers many more helpful hints for fantasy writers in Death is No Obstacle, so I heartily recommend anyone interested in writing in the genre to track a copy down. But hurry. You've only got six days to find the book or everything goes boom.

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