Fantasy Writing: How to Get Your Claws in a Reader

So this isn’t a “perfect way to get more readers” kind of post. As with almost everything I share, I’m not an expert by any means. I just see things the way I see them and share my opinion. For me, I’d like to share things a writer can do for me to get immediately hooked. This may be various for different people, but I’d like to share what works for me. Hopefully, some others will share what works for them and we can all learn something about how writers can impress a variety of readers.

1. Choke the Crap Out of Me

Read my book “Confessions of a Misunderstood Father.” It will literally choke the crap out of you.
 Uh…what? I guess what I mean to say is hit me with all you’ve got from the get go and don’t let me breathe until your first chapter is done. This is something I think Saladin Ahmed, Jay Kristoff, Joe Abercrombie, and George R.R. Martin have all done for me. Whether it’s a shocking confrontation, vivid descriptions, awesome characters (with matching awesome dialogue) or any thing else, these writers sink their claws in me like runaway harpies. For me, if I get past the first chapter, I’ll most likely stick with a book from then on out. But I need to feel like I can’t put the book down at first. Long introductions or slow-moving beginnings don’t really do it for me. 

2. Present Something Different

It’s like a fantasy Moby Dick with trains. And China Mieville wrote it. Sold.

I’ve read lots of fantasy. LOTS. This means I’ve seen just about every conceivable thing that can be done. However, some writers often surprise me and make me go “Wow, that sounds like a cool book.” Yes, you can hook me before I even pick up your book. How do you do this? Have an awesome blurb and synopsis. Good cover art doesn’t hurt either. For writers who share their work on social media, having an awesome blurb goes a long way towards getting me to check out something I may not otherwise have thought to consider. If your story has a dragon in it, why is this dragon special? He teaches kindergarten? Well, OK, I’m more interested. He teaches a kindergarten of other baby dragons? Still listening. He’s actually teaching the baby dragons social skills after years of dragons being misunderstood loners? Nice. I’m sold!

The idea doesn’t have to be completely original to hook me, but having that one little something that I just HAVE to see executed helps a lot.

3. Snappy, Realistic Dialogue

Wait, Philip. This isn’t fantasy. No, but the dialogue is awesome and realistic. Check it!

 Sometimes I’m not into fantasy dialogue, I have to admit. Sometimes writers wow me, but I’m finding that list pretty small. Most writers wow me in other ways. Dialogue is the fuel that propels your story to the moon for me. The old advice of “listen to people talk” is good, but I’d also suggest that not all fantasy has to be “medieval-ized.” It’s fantasy, so I’m not sure why people obsess over stories that “don’t sound fantasy enough.” Fantasy is whatever we want it to be. If it works, it works.

4. Characters that Don’t Follow a Pre-Determined Path

 What path would you expect Arya Stark to take? Well, you’re wrong.

I’m not a huge fan of stories that feel like they’re on rails. Some writers do that well, but I feel like I want to see characters that don’t always make the right decisions and hell, sometimes they just outright screw up. I’ve screwed up before, so I can relate with that. If you have a cleric that is going on a pilgrimage to a holy land, have him be a horrible representation of his religion along the way. Maybe he turns away the sick, fights in bars, or does other things people JUST DO. But in the end, hey, he learns to do the right thing. Well now, that turned out more interesting than I thought. Especially when he pulled out the goblin’s eye and popped it into his martini.

George R.R. Martin’s unpredictable story arcs have won him many fans. He’s the master of “uh, what?” I’ve actually said that to myself when reading his books. And in a good way. If unpredictability makes sense, it’s awesome. If you just suddenly have unicorns raining from the sky for no other reason than because “it’s cool” then, yeah, maybe no?

5. Why?

Why? WHY???

I find myself most interested in stories where I’m constantly saying “Why?” This can come from unpredictability as mentioned above or it can come from world-building decisions. “Uh, why are there giant horses than trample whole cities under their golden hooves?” If the writer makes this clear and it works, then whoa, that could be cool. If I ask “Why?” and  I get a good answer from the writer through the story, then I’ll be hooked. There are several moments in Martin’s books where I have said “What? Why?” only to then later say “Oh, well that’s an interesting development.” The more I’m asking “Why?” the more I want to know what happens next. The more I’m saying “What?” could be for a good reason or a bad one. You don’t want “What?” for a bad reason.

OK, so there’s a little weird mixed reader/writer advice (?) I just felt by offering what works for me as a reader, I could also see what works for me as a writer. If other writers follow their own personal guidelines for why they like certain kind of books, it can allow a more solid way to get the most out of your writing and reading experiences.

So that’s all for now. Remember, all fantasy, all the time!