Novel writing rules – part 3

Previous blogs discussed the two of three books dealing with rules for writing novels. In this one, I talk about the third — The Fantasy Fiction Formula.

As I presented before, the situation is summarized by the famous quote by W. Somerset Maugham –

“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

Nevertheless, I plunge on.

The Fantasy Fiction Formula (FFF) is written by Deborah Chester, author of over forty novels and a professor at the University of Oklahoma. As might be expected, unlike the first two books discussed here, one does not have to dig a bit to find what is relevant to writing fantasy novels. Indeed, for anyone starting out, I think FFF is required reading.

The scope is encyclopedic, covering the usual topics of story structure, characterization, viewpoint, etc. The material is dense and would take many readings to be absorbed fully. A beginner might well be overwhelmed and perhaps start that first novel on some other day.

One thing in particular that I liked was Chester’s use of examples. Reminiscent of the format for newspaper bridge columns, she first illustrates the incorrect way to accomplish a writing goal and follows it with a much better way from her own writing.

There are rules aplenty in FFF, but unlike Contagious and Save the Cat, they do not serve as chapter titles or section headings. Instead, they appear in the text without fanfare as part of the ongoing exposition. So, my goal here was not one of twisting rules as presented to make them relevant for novel writing, but instead to detect them when they were encountered. It was like a treasure hunt, extracting pithy gems from the surrounding matrix.

What I found is presented below. I make no claim as to its completeness. I am sure that I missed many more ‘rules’ than I discovered. And presenting them without the surrounding context does them no justice at all. The serious fantasy writer should read the book from cover to cover. No, that’s not quite right. The serious fiction writer should read FFF from cover to cover.

The beginning

“Get your protagonist into trouble in the opening sentence.”

Not the first chapter, not the first paragraph, but the opening sentence! Chester does not pull any punches to soften what she has to say.

In the first few paragraphs, “introduce the protagonist, the story goal, and the central story question.”

In the first thirty pages in addition to the above, present:

“A clearly established viewpoint

Setup of story situation

Location and time of day

Introduction of immediate antagonist

Scene action and conflict

Hints for later developments

Small hooks to grab reader curiosity

First complications”

In the first paragraphs! In the first 10,000 words! This strikes me as a pretty tall order, but Chester asserts that it can be done and easily.


“For your protagonist, select four or five positive traits…and then mix in a couple of flaws”

Complexity of character “is achieved when a character’s inner problem or flaw is in conflict with that character’s external situation or behavior.”

“True nature is revealed by what a character does under stress”

“George R.R. Martin’s popularity notwithstanding, its best if you avoid tacking an ensemble cast of multiple protagonists until you’re an extremely skilled and experienced writer.”


Chester has an interesting take on the basic elements of a novel — narration, scenes, and what she calls sequels. She devotes several chapters to discussing scenes and sequels, and I found them to be the most instructive part of FFF.

Scenes are “confrontations between at least two characters in disagreement over a specific objective.”

“Every scene. . . is designed to remove the protagonist’s options, one by one, until the protagonist has no choice but to face the villain in the story’s climax.”

“Following a scene,…it is necessary to give your readers a breather. You do this by allowing your protagonist some processing time, plus a chance to react to whatever hurtful things have been said or done to him.”

“Dialog advances plot by stating the scene goal.”

“Never shift viewpoint within a scene.”

The middle

“…you can’t set up a novel with only one, super-huge, overwhelming plot question…and nothing else…You need more than that because no matter how clever or intriguing it is, if that’s all there is, readers will grow tired of it.”

The ending

“[The] protagonist is cornered and faced with a moral dilemma. All the options are poor but the protagonist must choose one and act on it according to his or her true nature”


“Don’t even think of adding a glossary at the end of your manuscript. You are not Mr. Tolkien and do not rate his privileges.”

Now, I learn this! The second editions of my three books are already going to press. One of my motivations for producing them was so that I could include glossaries. Some readers of Master of the Five Magics complained about the usage of archaic architectural terms in my description of the Iron Fist castle and that detracted from their enjoyment of the novel.

And once I got rolling with glossary entries, I discovered that it was a lot of fun to include expanded material on other little grace notes in the text. Oh, well.


As I said, the list above is only the tip of the iceberg, a sampling of ‘rules’ that happened to resonate with me. What gems did you find? I would like to see your comments.

© 2016 Lyndon M. Hardy

Novel writing rules – part 2

My previous blog discussed the first of three books dealing with rules for writing novels. In this one, I talk about the second — Save the Cat.

As I presented before, the situation is summarized by the famous quote by W. Somerset Maugham –

“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

Nevertheless, I plunge on.

Save the Cat, by Blake Snyder, is a book about writing screenplays. As one might expect, not all of the material there applies to novels — things which have a much broader scope. But I think it is an interesting exercise to examine what is presented through the lens of a novelist.

The first five chapters cover many aspects of screen writing:  developing the logline, ten movie genres, characteristics of the movie protagonist, and so on. There is a lot well worth reading there, even for the novelist, but for my purposes here, I will focus on chapter six: The Immutable Laws of Screenplay Physics.

Immutable Laws — is that on topic or what!

I found that some of the immutable laws apply to novel writing and some did not. Here’s the roll call

Save the Cat — applies

“The hero has to do something when we first meet him so that we like him and want him to win”

When I look back at some of the reviews of my first novel, Master of Five Magics, written over thirty years ago, I am struck about some on the comments that said that the hero, Alodar, was driven, competent, etc. but he was also arrogant — not a likeable character.

Now I never had Alodar kick old ladies out of the way or stomp on babies, but there it was — arrogant. Who knew?

Shortly after finishing my read of Save the Cat, (within hours)  my wife and I saw the movie “Me Before You”. In the very first scene, the male protagonist is hurrying off to work, and as he crosses the street is hit by a car and becomes a paraplegic. But in a single line tossed off to his wife as he had left the apartment had been something like, “I will take care of dinner tonight”.

Wow, I marveled. He had saved the cat!

In the second scene, the female protagonist who would eventually become the caregiver for the injured man tells two women standing before her counter at a bakery  something like, “They have fewer calories if you eat them standing up.” The customer guilt is swept away. She too had saved the cat!

Thereafter, I paid much closer attention to the structure of the movie than I had ever done before, and was agog at how much advice of the book had been followed in the screenplay. The movie was written by the author of the novel, which is unusual I guess, but either Jojo Moyes was also a reader of the book or she has incredible screen writing instincts.

So why not go ahead and save the cat in a single protagonist centered novel? It only takes one line or so, and if no big deal is made of it, it should only help.

Now, before reading Save the Cat, I had already finished my revisions to the second edition of Master of the Five Magics, and it was cast in concrete for the production process. I hurriedly reread what I had written in the new Chapter Two, and to my relief, coincidentally there happened to be a line or two that might qualify as following the rule.

Yes, cat saving is definitely something to be aware of when writing a novel.

The Pope in the Pool — applies — but how does one do it for a novel?

Bury the “backstory or details of the plot that must be told to the audience in order for them to understand what happens next.”

Well, OK. No argument on the validity of this one. But how does one do this? How does one bury essential information so that it does not get in the way?

The book does go further than just stating the rule. It presents a technique that works for movies — have some interesting visual going on for the viewers to watch while the explanatory words are happening as a voice-over — like the pope taking a swim in the Vatican City swimming pool.

Double Mumbo Jumbo — doesn’t apply

“Audiences will accept only one piece of magic per movie”

This is a rough one to follow in a fantasy novel, although it probably has merit for a more general audience. What Snyder is saying is something like – “Magic, OK. but magic and aliens, and time travel and …” is definitely not OK.

Laying Pipe — applies

“Audiences can stand only so much pipe”

Snyder defines pipe as all of the initial setting structure that is necessary in order for the story to get off the ground.

My reaction to this was, “of course, but in so doing one is creating downstream problems that in movies are solved by Popes in the Pools. Not so easy to follow in an novel.

Too Much Marzipan — maybe applies

I suppose that all of us writers aspire to be more than just formula hacks — churning out prose that does not have literary value. So we introduce little tidbits along the way and they all tie together in the final satisfying reveal of what is actually going on.

Perhaps having something like:

The nursemaid who vanishes when the castle is stormed and Destiny’s Darling is kidnapped. – Turns out she secretly was his aunt and gave him a crucial power needed in the climax.

The sword that could never be drawn except in uncontrollable rage? – It was forged from no less than steel taken from the ruins of the castle.

The feather he wore in his cap? From his guardian wren who had sang at the protagonist’s cradle side

that are all crucially needed for the hero to defeat the dragon in the end.

Snyder says, “You cannot digest too much information or pile on more to make it better.”

Clearly, I was guilty of this in Master of the Five Magics. My editor, Lester del Rey, in analyzing the first draft of Master of the Five Magics said something along the lines of

“OK, you have set up five types of magic in detail and have Alodar move from one to the next. But why? What is the purpose of all of that?”

So for my second draft, I wove back in the threat of demons and what the wizards had prepared as a defense. It answered del Rey’s question, but at the expense of a huge long exposition at the end of the book, violating Snyder’s rule.  I knda liked what I did, but perhaps it was too  much marzipan.

What would I do differently now? I do not know. Even after reading Save the Cat, I don’t know.

Watch out for that Glacier – applies

Snyder says that the danger to the protagonist always has to be imminent. Gradually getting closer just does not hack it. Heros need challenges right here and now. Sure, the aliens are going to be here in a decade or so, but right now, he has to deal with the boa constrictor that is swallowing him. If he is in a movie for which the danger is not immediate, Snyder’s instinct is to yell out in the theatre, “Watch out for that glacier!”

The Covenant of the Art – applies – but, gosh, everybody

Every single character in your movie must change in the course of your story”

Well, sure the protagonist must change. However, except for the bad guys who remain bad, Snyder says that everyone else must change. That’s a tall order.

Keep the Press Out – does not apply

Do not have exposition or advances in the plot occur though the actions of the media.

Summing up

These brief paragraphs do not do Snyder’s book justice. It is a very enjoyable read. Totally unacademic in tone, breezy, funny, and chocked full of examples. While I was reading it, I found myself repeatedly thinking, “That’s why I enjoyed that movie so much,” or “That’s why I did not.”

A treasure trove of advice for the novelist as well as the screenwriter. Highly recommended.

Next time I will be finishing this series by discussing The Fantasy Fiction Formula by Deborah Chester








© 2016 Lyndon M. Hardy