My first trip to the London geekfest known as Nine Worlds taught me a thing or two about writing.
Firstly, fights needs to mean something, according to panellists and authors Oliver Langmead, Sebastien de Castell, James Barclay, Danie Ware, Lucy Hounsom and Liz de Jager. This, they agreed, was done in the setup. The best fight scenes always have established characters and stakes.
Hounsom, author of the Worldmaker Trilogy and the only panellist who bothered to turn up in cosplay (I thought the Daenerys Targaryen hair was her own for at least half an hour), put it best when she said: “My favourite fight scenes are the ones that show character development.”
De Castell, author of several stabby stories and the panel’s fighting expert, agreed, but pointed out that fights shouldn’t reveal characters, they should destroy them, because “it’s a degrading act”.
The entire panel stressed that fights should have consequences and they’re no good if a difference in the participating characters isn’t effected. Violence should indeed not solve anything.
A good fight, stylistically at least, needs to be drawn in short sentences, otherwise the author will lose the reader’s attention. Barclay, author of several fantasy series with elves and ravens in their titles, quoted David Gammell as saying that readers tend to go through fight scenes 25 percent quicker than the rest of the book.
Ecko author Ware said this predisposition to skim reading means a fight scene has to be broken down to instinct and base emotions so that it can be digested easily. “Noise, mess, smell, chaos,” she neatly summarised.
Langmead, author of a sci-fi noir written as a poem, likened a good fight scene to a song, in which the rhythm builds until a climax can be reached. “Hitting the climax by breaking the rhythm is what it’s all about,” he said, drumsticks nowhere to be found.
WHAT WRITERS SHOULD LEARN
Fights have consequences—characters have to respond emotionally to the fight
Motions are quick
Characters should develop during a fight, some argue destroyed
Stakes should be established beforehand
Always look for the drama when deciding where to take the fight next—actions must be dramatic
Nothing says ‘world builder’ quite like one’s own society, but deciding which is right for your characters and story can be quite tricky.
Creating a societal structure entirely from scratch is about as difficult as it can get for an author, according to Lamb, who pens space operas. The further an author moves away from the society he or she knows, the more work the author has to do to bring it to life, he said.
Perhaps that is why a lot of western fantasy tends to lean on feudalism, Hounsom said, with hidden heros at its heart.
The British in particular are obsessed with class, to the point where only the hidden hero, who is usually a peasant with royal blood, saves the day and gets the girl. “You don’t get many peasants who are born and bred,” Hounsom said, and even then, they are usually destroyed come the end, with Frodo of The Lord of the Rings being the most obvious example.
The panel agreed that more societies should be based on non-western cultures, or organised in novel ways. Of course, the current political upheaval in the US and UK, with the rise of a certain billionaire (who will be named here over my dead body) in the US and the UK’s vote to leave the EU, is full of material that authors can mine.
This is particularly true if the upheaval is signalling the return of fascism, as some are predicting.
Lamb ended by saying that he would like to see more context and effect in sci-fi societies. Changes are never good for everyone concerned, so it would be interesting to see what happens to those who lose out. As with fights, authors need to ask themselves, what are the consequences?
WHAT WRITERS SHOULD LEARN
Societies have to be grounded in something—entirely novel ones are a lot of work
New structures should be investigated and tested
Move away from western structures, particularly the hidden hero, which is overused in fantasy
They argued that the best unreliable narrators are never outright liars. Dracula’s Jonathan Harker was unreliable through his naivety, lending greater weight to what the reader could infer from his journal entries but he ultimately missed. So too was the unnamed protagonist of Fight Club, for far fundamental reasons. Unreliable narrators can also nail facts but make mistakes with their inferences, lie through omission, or be contradicted by a second perspective.
The aim, according to the panel, has to payoff for the reader, who is already agreeing to be lied to by the author with the very act of picking up the book. To lie to the reader twice and then fail to show the narrator as unreliable would be unfair.
WHAT WRITERS SHOULD LEARN
First person perspective works best, because the betrayal is all the sweeter
Readers who have been misled deserve a payoff
Humourous unreliable narrators are just as fun to write as evil ones, but the author cannot let him or herself creep into the latter, as the illusion will break
Now I suppose I should go and put this all to work…