I belong to a librarian book club that reads a different genre every month to improve our reader’s advisory skills. The idea is to get us better-acquainted with the types of books we may not normally read. In addition to improving my recommendations, I’m also studying these books from a writer’s perspective. Just because I don’t write a certain genre doesn’t mean I can’t learn from those who do. If you want to see other posts in this series, check out the “genre lessons” tag.
I read a lot of fantasy already, partly because I write it, so some of this month’s genre lessons are a bit narrower in focus, looking at things on a word/sentence level. But I think they can still apply to writing any genre. Here are my three main takeaways from this month’s reading.
1. The right description can add enormous depth to characters and worlds. I’m not talking about long, flowing passages here (though they have their place when used correctly). I’m talking about one or two well-placed words. For example, one of the books I read this month takes place in a very violent world, where soldiers rule and slaves are routinely beaten and raped. When one of the narrators, a reluctant soldier, describes a slave he just met, he notes that she smells “like fruit and sugar.” In other words, edible. Though he respects and even cares about this girl, this brief description shows how much the world he’s grown up in has subconsciously affected him. Maybe I’m getting nit-picky here, but the author could have chosen any words to describe this girl’s scent. These four say a lot about both the narrator and his world.
2. You should know everything about your characters’ histories and cultures, but you shouldn’t put all of that into your book. The book I described above is set in a world with numerous cultures, though the focus is on two main characters, so we only get the details on their peoples’ histories. However, we still see minor characters from other cultures, and because the author know those characters’ backgrounds, these brief interactions give us glimpses of other worlds. Even passing characters have rich histories, and watching them interact for just a few paragraphs left me with a solid impression of their background. I haven’t spoken with the author, but I’d bet she knows a lot more about these people than we see on the page — that’s why what we see rings true.
3. End every chapter with uncertainty. The main thing that keeps someone reading is a desire to know what happens next. A character is about to die. A spy is about to get caught. The heroes are about to enter the villain’s lair. One of the books I read this month did this very well. The story is told by two narrators in alternating chapters, and every chapter ends with a question. To get the answer to that question, first I had to read a chapter from the other narrator’s story — which answered another question I’d been left with earlier. “One more chapter” very quickly became two, then three, and so on. If you’re writing a book with dual narration, I highly recommend reading other books that have this kind of back and forth.
So, those are the main lessons I learned from reading fantasy this month. What have you learned from the books you’ve read lately?