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Saturday, January 23, 2010

Suspending Disbelief While Writing Fantasy (Harder Than It Sounds)

I may have talked about this before (in passing), but I wanted to bring the subject up again, and in a little more depth. And then I'm going to ask a question.

I've been struggling as of late with writing fantasy. While I love the genre, I can't seem to get past the third or fourth chapter in any fantasy novel I try to write (and from my reading statistics over the last few years, I apparently have read more fantasy than science fiction, as shocking as that may sound). The problem? Every time I start a fantasy idea (mostly in novel form), I end up burning out, not because of the usual (I'm bored of the story or characters), but because I cannot suspend my own disbelief in terms of the "cliches." I have no problem doing this while reading, though, and this poses a bizarre dilemma.

How exactly can I write in a genre I enjoy if I can't get past my own nagging guilt that I'm "telling the same story all over again?" Other authors do it (and let's face it, most of them aren't writing anything "original" at all, because that's not really what fantasy is about). I read it. I love it. And I rarely dislike fantasy if the writer can pull off the cliches with grace (meaning they write in a way that makes the cliches irrelevant). I don't know if that's my problem. Am I graceless when it comes to fantasy? Maybe. When I write fantasy I get a good twenty or thirty pages into the story (maybe even 50) before I tell myself "I've seen this before" and lose interest. No, I'm not consciously trying to copy others (in fact, the novel I was working on for a while, Watchtower, had what I thought was a fairly unique use of old ideas developed outside of fantasy and then shoved into the middle of it for what the genre offered to the story). I may be doing this unconsciously, and, if so, I wonder if that is also a problem all fantasy writers (published or otherwise) deal with on a regular basis.

On the flip side, what makes it easier to suspend disbelief while reading fantasy (again, in terms of the cliches) than while writing it? Is there a switch that needs to be turned on somewhere in my head?

So, I'll ask those of you who are writers (published or otherwise) what you do, or would suggest I do, to get past this? Is this a normal nagging thing for all writers of fantasy?

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  1. I wonder if deep down inside, you really just don't like to write in the fantasy genre. I say that because I really don't care for the genre and yet I love SF. So you shouldn't feel like because they are shelved together you must like them both enough to write in both genres.

    I think it's okay to not like to write fantasy. If every story you start seems cliche to you perhaps you really just don't like to write them. You may enjoy reading them, but that does not mean you have to write fantasy stories.

    I enjoy the occasional thriller novel, but I have no intention to write one. Paradoxically, I don't really read many mysteries, yet I write them. Primarily, because there are no mysteries like the ones I write. So I feel like I'm adding something to the genre to make it more appealing to people with my tastes.

  2. This is strange. I'm going to guess it's because when you read a fantasy book, you're completely entrenched in that work and the outside world is blocked out completely, but when you're writing, you're drawing on dozens of outside influences and references to develop this story, and your mind will invariably make connections b/t something you read and something you're writing. When this has happened to me, I go back to what I think my story is like, and find out that it may be obliquely similar, but there is enough difference that I feel comfortable in continuing with the idea. Also, you're bound to have at least one idea in a story that's similar to someone else's, but it gets swallowed up by all the other ideas that are more unique.

  3. Ken: I actually want to write fantasy, I just have problems with it. But, that's something to think about for sure.

    Adam: That's true. You just made me think about my science fiction, though (which you're now reading). Some of it tends to be very...fantastical. Lots of mysticism and what not. I don't know what that means. I love writing that stuff...

  4. I'm going to echo what others have said and say that's not typical. I agree with Ken that you might not enjoy writing fantasy, but I'll also add that maybe part of the issue is your conception of what it means to write fantasy.

    If you think fantasy is not about originality, and even when you're not incorporating fantasy cliches, you still use "old ideas developed outside of fantasy" - it seems to me that for you, writing fantasy = re-writing old ideas, in some shape or form (I don't mean all fantasy is original, just that you seem to feel that unoriginality is a fantasy requirement). So it's not too surprising that you'd feel it was cliched and lose interest.

    But if what you really want is to write trope-y fantasy, I'd make sure the world is built just the way you really want it (which may mean a more sci-fi-ish setting, even) and your characters are acting rationally/honestly. That should help make the story its own thing, even if it's retreading old plots.

  5. Intertribal: I don't think any fiction is about originality. The very notion that you can be "original" is an impossibility.

    The whole "old ideas outside of fantasy" thing is secret code for "I'm basing a story off of the lyrics for a song." Writing in general, for me, is re-writing old ideas. I may do it in a fun or slightly different way, but it's always retelling something already been told in some form or another.

    And no, I don't feel that un-originality is a requirement of fantasy. It's simply an inevitability of all fiction. I just want to write a fantasy. That's it. I don't care what kind. My problem isn't that I don't want to write it. My problem is that when I do, I get to a point where I can't get past my own problem with retelling the same stories, and this is not a problem with any other genre I write it.

  6. I guess it depends on whether or not your focus is on writing a fantasy novel, or writing a story that just happens to be in a fantasy you find you focus in on your characters and the plot first, or do you get bogged down in the world building? I realise you need to focus on both, but maybe tackling the characters and plot first, and then letting the world build around that? ... Is that useful?

  7. Paul: I think when I try to write fantasy (novels) I tend to focus on the plot on a basic level first (and then insert characters into the mix). I have to have some idea of what is to happen, so plot is certainly there. I don't spend a lot of time world building. I like world building, but I find it to be tedious and a waste of time if it prevents you from actually writing. But, when I get free time, I do like to draw maps and name places and all that fun stuff.'s not exactly useful, no :P, only because I don't do what you feel is a negative anyway :P.