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Chapter 24 – Geography

Chapter 24

About this chapter

From Edition 2016a
Shared December 2016

Yet another chapter that you could be forgiven for thinking was all about Fantasy. But lots of books have landscape in them. Lots of stories have many locations. This chapter is just about how you get the relative positions of your locations into the readers *cough* mental map.

Chapter 24 – Geography

24.1 Placing the Action in the Landscape

Whether you are creating your own fantasy world, or leading the reader through part of the real world that the reader might not know well, or even at all, keeping the geography present is both troublesome and full of pitfalls.

Many writers will be tempted to begin with lengthy descriptions of the world, or the general area where the action takes place. An omniscient narrator’s voice can get away with this, and it is often worthwhile.

If you use strong points of view, you can’t do this. And you have to be really subtle if you want to sneak the exposition into dialog or internal monolog.

Dark Lord Bob knew that his territory stretched from the Divine River in the north to the Stinking Bogs of the south.

This is clumsy and obvious. Don’t even go there.

Many writers will be tempted to include a map. Opinions differ as to whether this is a good idea. “Opinions differ” is a polite way of saying that this is a significant source of flamewars. If the writer wants to develop his skill, he should not draw a map. Tolkien has maps because his world was originally a thought experiment in the development of imaginary languages. No, really, it was. Many readers will take pleasure in pondering over a map, but only once they have read the story. Others will take pleasure pondering over a map whether they have read the story or not. Others will decide that the book is not for them, merely on the basis of the presence of the map.


Because it tells them that they have yet another fantasy world to learn.​

Here’s the thing: having no map will only discourage readers who read your book and are confused over the geography as a result. Having a map, and having readers confused over the geography unless they consult the map regularly is just as much a failure of storytelling.

A good fantasy world is accessible without a map.

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But a beautiful and simple map can enhance the pleasure for readers. If it is there as an aid, it is proof that you need to re-work your geography.

24.2 Approaches to Geography

​24.2.1 Modular

Use this in multi-book series. Each book introduces a new part of the map, and maybe uses a familiar place in a previous book as a startpoint or anchor. Limit the action to as small an area of your world as you can in each book. This way you can gradually build up the world. This is especially valid in fantasy, SF and fairytale/historical settings. Each book can then apply any of the methods suggested below.

​24.2.2 Make the geography irrelevant

This works well in fairytales, and fantasy where questin’ is involved. You can do it by keeping the journey on a single line; A to Z via each letter in the alphabet in the proper order. In general, this is good advice for storytelling. If a character has to go back for something, or off on a tangent (whose consequences do not affect future events), then the storyteller has made an error. This is as true in a kitchen-sink drama as it is in retro Sci-Fi.

Locations that are big and vague are good, too. The Dark Forest and the Haunted Mall are both places you can wander without a map or any need for one (unless that’s the point, in which case it's still the characters, not the reader, who need a map).

​24.2.3 Radiate from a central point

Lots of writers use this without thinking about it. It is very sensible. It can be as simple as your character’s home, or his home town. It can be a device, like the Hell Mouth in Sunnydale. Either way, the action always starts and ends there - and movement radiates from there. This way, readers won’t even bother to try to place other locations relative to eachother. They only matter relative to the home location.

​24.2.4 Be a hardcore Storyteller

If some of this looks like cheating, then you can, if you really want, go for developing your storytelling mojo. No maps, no tricks. This ties in slightly with my belief that real storytellers are always omniscient narrators.

I'll say that again, just in case you think I don't mean it.

Real storytellers are always omniscient narrators.

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You have to know the geography of your setting better than you know your own home. You have to be able to go for walks there, overfly it, undermine it. You should be able to look in any direction from any location and describe in detail what you see.

The more detailed and accurate your knowledge of your setting, the less you will need to describe and explain it to the reader. The internal consistency of each of the instances where you make reference to the locations will gradually build up a picture of the geography with only as much information and detail as each reader wants.

Doing this takes time, effort and (most of all) retelling. If you don’t retell, you won’t learn enough about your own creation to be able to narrate it.

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Chapter 26 – Magic Items

Chapter 26
Magic Items

About this chapter

From Edition 2016a
Shared August 2016

This is one of those chapters that convinces a lot of people that my book is all about editing fantasy. But the principle behind this chapter - that giving too much power to a character destroys the story - can apply to any genre, any type of story.

Chapter 26 – Magic Items

Read this even if you don't write fantasy, SF or spec. fic. What those genres do explicitly, other genres do figuratively — or vice versa, depending on how you look at it.

26.1 The risks and rewards of powerful artifacts

In role-playing games, magic items are coveted objects of artifice or divine origins which enable the possessor to wield great power of various types. Players will go on quests to obtain them, or be rewarded with them.

As such, in gaming, balancing magic items is all about ensuring that players do not get granted Fabulous Godlike Powers, but rather are given a small advantage over enemies who would otherwise be on par with them. The Gamesmaster has to judge quite carefully what magic items players will obtain and when.

Players will note that a really crafty Gamesmaster will sometimes throw in a magic item that has a downside. It could be as simple as a curse, as annoying as a geas, or maybe even that the magic item, while powerful is not especially useful, or while useful is not quite powerful enough.

In a story, the situation is different from in an RPG. In an RPG, the players have to use their imagination, ingenuity, knowledge of the game and luck to come up with solutions to tricky situations. In a novel, the reader is following or discovering the line of a story, and the author's duty is to provide reader satisfaction.

In a story a powerful magic item is useful as a McGuffin (everyone is chasing after it, but noone actually uses it), or as a Doomsday Device (the Big Bad has it and is fixing to use it). If a protagonist has it, however, reader satisfaction rapidly wanes.

A magic ring that makes you invisible but not silent is great as long as both of those features are worked into the story together. If such a ring later turns out slowly to enslave its user... I guess you know what I'm thinking of.

A magic ring that makes you undetectable and invulnerable is called a "ring of drama killing"

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A magic ring that makes you completely undetectable and invulnerable to harm, however, soon becomes annoying. The reason is that it destroys Drama.

Drama can be hard to pin down, which is a good thing. When it is pinned down it often becomes banal and even irritating. This is what soap-operas (and long running US "drama" series) do. They create Drama using the simplest known formula: the characters do things that the audience knows that the characters should not do.

But suppose even in this debased and degraded drama, you give the main character a Ring of Absolute Blamelessness. All he has to do is slip it on, and the Universe reorganizes itself such that whatever happened was none of his doing. The Drama evaporates without so much as a puff of smoke.

Supposing your main character is a Thief who gets his hands on the aforementioned Ring of Undetectability and Invulnerability. Thievery is rather going to lose its excitement, not merely for the reader but also for the author and for the character!

All this can go awry in another way entirely; the way that leads to madness rather than boredom.

Supposing my Holy Warrior obtains the Sword of Ultimate Cleaving, that can cut through even the bonds of death itself. Unfortunately his enemy obtains the Shield of All Defense which is the only thing that can resist the Sword of Ultimate Cleaving, so our hero has to obtain the Amulet of Irresistible Piercing which enables him to get through any magical defense but his enemy gets his hands on the Helm of Amulet Immunity which etc, etc, etcetera.

Walk away quietly.

In a story you have a fine line to walk. A magic item must be essential, but at the same time it mustn't do more than give the character the smallest extra edge, and he must have his own skills and strength of character to back it up. Think of the spell imagined by PTerry which keeps you alive only as long as you don't think you're invulnerable. Think of the superpower of being able to turn invisible only if you are completely naked and everyone is looking the other way.

In a story, you see, magic is always a symbol. Usually it is a symbol for power and how it is obtained, but it can be many other things. As soon as a magic item transforms mild mannered Will the Goatherd into Super Billiam, it has become a cheap device for wish fulfilment and will do the worst thing that any device can do: make it too easy for the author.

When the story is too easy for you to write, you will write crap.

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That's probably the most categorical you'll ever hear me be, because so far it is the only sure rule that I have found for good writing.

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Chapter 25 – On Fantasy Worlds

Chapter 25
On Fantasy Worlds

About this chapter

From Edition 2016a
Shared August 2016

It's a stub - so if you want more sections about fantasy, comment on this page and I'll add them!

I added this chapter because I felt the following chapter on magic items needed some sort of lead-in.

Chapter 25 – On Fantasy Worlds

25.1 Conventions of Magic

Fantasy worlds contain magic, and magic is a strange force that responds to an intelligent will, in accordance with certain rules, to bring about alterations or other manifestations without other more mundane means. Magic is sometimes used to do things that are otherwise impossible (without it), or as an alternative to conventional means.

Describing magic being used is tough if you don't want to use conventions like wands, spells, whatnot; and if you do, it is all too easy to fall into familiar clichés. Terry Pratchett famously invented a color for magic (and a smell, and a taste in the air), giving him a familiar, personal and non-clichéd shortcut each time he used it.

Describing magic is tough. Spend some time thinking about it, and describing it to other people – e.g. your highly critical spouse who doesn't like fantasy.​

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