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

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