Monthly Archives: November 2015

Fanfiction Writing Tutorials – Part 4: Developing Description

In today’s tutorial, we’ll be examining:

  • Why less is more in description
  • Why it is important to be choosy about what you do and do not describe
  • How to fully immerse your reader in your fictional world
  • How to use description to slow down and speed up your story

Description is one of the most useful yet most often abused tools in writing. When used sparingly and for a specific purpose it can bring the story to life. But when it’s used too frequently and for no reason other than ‘it sounds good’, then it becomes meaningless waffle that bogs down your story.

Let’s take a closer look at four things that help craft good description:

  • Use it sparingly – less is more
  • Fulfil a specific purpose
  • Engagement with ALL of the senses
  • Awareness of pace

To illustrate these points, let’s look at an example of bad description.

Example paragraph:
Lara walked around the tomb. It was enormous and very old. The walls were purple marble, so dark it was nearly black, with brighter cartouches of jade-ish green covered in hieroglyphs painted in shades of ochre, gold, charcoal, scarlet, and lapis blue. The vaulted roof was supported by two hundred and twenty-seven pillars decorated with images of the Pharaoh, the Nile, and soldiers with chariots. Golden torches were spaced along the walls. Just then a massive monster came out of the shadows. It looked like a giant Sphinx with a big mane, a lion’s body, and huge white teeth. Lara shot it with her pistols until it died and then went into the next chamber.”

From this paragraph we know that Lara has entered a tomb, that it’s likely to be Egyptian, that it contains a Sphinx-like monster, and that Lara shoots this monster dead. However, the writing reads more like a shopping list instead of a piece of dramatic storytelling. It tells us what happens, true, but that’s it. There’s nothing else that immerses us in the narrative or stimulates our imagination. There’re no clues as to what is or is not important to the story. The only sense being engaged is sight, so it feels very one-dimensional. Let’s look at ways we can improve it!

1. With description, less is more.

Too much information – trying to describe everything – overloads the reader and suffocates the story. Instead, try to only describe certain details, i.e. the characteristics that set the subject of your description apart from everything else in the scene or story. For example, it is very taxing and annoying for a reader to try and remember every last detail about a jewelled artefact if you spend a whole page describing it down to the last faceted diamond. Be choosy and selective. Your reader will find your description easier to read and remember, but also more enjoyable because you are purposefully leaving some of the description to their own imagination. Remember: reading is an interactive experience between you and the reader. Invite the reader into your description with a few important and intriguing clues, but then allow them to explore and fill in the gaps in their own unique way.

Table 03

2. Use description to fulfil a specific purpose.

The legendary short-story writer and playwright, Anton Chekhov, has many astute quotes on the subject of writing, but this one is perhaps most important to illustrating our second point:

Part 4 - Chekhov

From our example paragraph, it’s unclear what – if anything – is actually important to the plot. Is the jade-ish colour of the walls going to be a clue to a puzzle later on in the story? Or is the appearance of the Sphinx going to be pivotal to Lara’s escape? With so much description, any important stuff becomes lost in the waffle. As Chekhov says, if you take the time to introduce or describe something in your writing, then it must be for a specific reason. If there isn’t a reason for the description, then it shouldn’t be there. It’s just a waste of words.

You might be thinking that this will severely limit your descriptive potential. However, there are more valid reasons than purely plot-critical ones to include description in your stories.  For example, the dramatic principle known as ‘Chekhov’s gun’ has other, similar principles (i.e. excuses to describe things), and you will no doubt recognise these examples:

  • Red herrings: these describe something in the style of Chekhov’s gun, but lead nowhere – they’re deliberately put into the narrative to mislead the reader. These are especially popular in mysteries or thrillers.
  • Foreshadowing: hints – in dialogue, props, or actions – of events still to come.
  • Symbolism: the use of similes, metaphors, and other types of placement to enhance a character, prop, or action’s impact.

Another valid reason for using description lies in immersing the reader. Writers construct their stories purely from the written word, therefore words alone have the power to manipulate the imagination and emotions of the reader. Rich, unique, and immersive description can help you achieve this.

3. Engage with ALL of the senses and empathise with your reader.

To fully realise and accept a piece of fiction, it must fully embrace our imagination. We have already pointed out that the example paragraph felt flat because it only described what we could see. There are practically no limits to the sensations you can stimulate in your readers, but here are some examples:

  • Sights: colours, brightness, shadows, softness, harshness, patterns, symbols, writing, signs, body language, landscapes, skies, movement, stillness.
  • Sounds: loud, soft, noisy, harmonious, human speech, animal noises, machine noises, ambient sounds, invitational, warning, frightening, intriguing, sensual, annoying.
  • Textures: soft, furry, matted, damp, wet, drenched, dry, scratchy, itchy, hard, metallic, sticky, yielding, waxy, rough, smooth, glassy, silky.
  • Temperatures: warm, cool, clammy, cold, freezing, hot, burning.
  • Pains: discomfort, stabbing, aching, burning, sharp, thudding, hot, cold, itchy.
  • Motions/movement: swaying, rumbling, vibrating, quivering, shaking, up, down, sideways, backwards, forwards, rushing, falling, dizzy, turning, spinning, balancing.
  • Tastes: salty, meaty, sweet, sickly, sugary, bitter, rich, watery, acidic, melting, spicy, bland, sour, buttery, tangy.
  • Smells: fresh, stale, damp, dry, fruity, sterile, spicy, floral, woody, musky, citrus, refreshing, stinky, odorous, oily, rancid, inviting.
  • Emotions: angry, furious, irritable, snappish, embarrassed, amused, content, gleeful, hysterical, ecstatic, aroused, curious, flustered, confused, exhausted, disinterested, bored, eager, excited, nervous, scared, terrified, paralysed, numb, interested, flirtatious, giggly, determined, stubborn, humorous.
  • Hungers: peckish, craving, starving, famished, thirsty, parched.

So, the next time you have Lara carefully pick up an ancient artefact from its alcove, be sure to tell us how it feels unusually heavy, that it sends goosebumps rushing up Lara’s skin because of the sudden chill of metal against skin, that soft clanking noises hint at mechanisms hidden within its burnished golden shell, that its ruby eyes seem to flicker with inner fire, and that she feels a flush of triumph to have claimed it before anyone else. Oh, and that she’d sell her soul for a cup of tea. Raiding is thirsty work, you know!

Tea in the ruins 01

It is possible to describe things in vivid detail even during action sequences if you remember to engage all of the senses. For example:

Lara’s out-thrust hands shattered the water’s surface. Her palms scorched as though pressed against a scalding kettle. Icy darkness filled her nose, choking and absolute. She was blind and lost in cold so intense it was like a furnace against her bare skin. Tentacles like oily ropes clasped her wrists, ignoring her struggles. Torrents raged in her ears. Her screams were drowned in bubbles. Her legs kicked but her underwater captor held firm. Anger suddenly boiled in her gorge. She wouldn’t die. Not here. Not like this.”

There is specific mention of Lara being blinded and underwater, so the focus is moved to what she can feel and hear. We also choose descriptors, especially verbs, that reflect the sensations Lara is experiencing and the situation she is in: shattered, scorched, scalding, choking, clasped, raged, drowned, kicked, boiled, etc. If we had used floated, drifted, held, wriggled, or gasped instead, then this paragraph would give the reader a very different impression. We want the reader to appreciate Lara’s sense of panic and anger, and so we need to make the reader empathise with her feelings. One way to help build empathy is to pick out specific sensations that will trigger an instant and recognisable response. For example, the sensation of striking a surface so hard that it burns your palms ‘as though pressed against a scalding kettle’ is something that nearly everyone has done, albeit accidentally, at some point! This is why keeping a journal of your observations – from the colour of mists at dawn to the metallic, clean scent of fresh snow – can be a gold mine to your powers of description.

Being specific and customised to the setting or character in question, rather than vague and one-size-fits-all, will instantly lift your description and make it stand out in your reader’s mind. For example, a jungle doesn’t have to be hot when it could be sweltering; wine doesn’t have to be red when it could be crimson; and a character doesn’t have to settle for being angry when they could be raging. There is a wealth of vocabulary out there for you to exploit – so go and exploit it!

Part 4 - no limits

4. Have an awareness of pace.

Passive description is the opposite of action; it literally presses ‘pause’ on the story to show something to the reader, in greater or lesser detail. For example, if you’re writing from Lara’s point of view as she slowly and warily enters some ancient ruins for the first time, then you might want to indulge in a rich, detailed description of her surroundings. Conversely, if Lara is running from her life from a horde of skeletal tomb guardians, then it will seem awfully odd for you to spend paragraphs describing everything down to the intricate details of their bronze-enamelled armour. An awareness and appreciation of pace will help you decide the quantity, quality, and subjects of your description at any given time.

Another factor governing pace in your writing is punctuation and sentence length. Generally speaking, excessive punctuation (e.g. commas) and longer sentences slow the pace down, whereas shorter sentences and fewer punctuation marks speed it up. However, this is only a general observation; check for yourself how easily you can skim through a page of text and then judge how your reading pace was affected by the punctuation and the length of sentences. When you bear this in mind and adjust your writing style to suit the situation at hand, you can speed up or slow down the pace of your description – and the story in general – with greater confidence.

Those are the four golden rules of description. However, here are just a few more useful tips for using effective description in your stories:

  • Make use of similes and metaphors. These are essentially examples of symbolism (discussed earlier), but they also have specific forms. Similes occur in the forms: “the [something] was [something] as a [something]” OR “the [something] was like a [something]”. For example, “her eyes were as brown as hazelnuts” or “the air was like a cool caress”. Metaphors are similar to similes in that they use comparisons, but they don’t use ‘as’ or ‘like’. For example, “her eyes were flashing sapphires” or “the wind was a knife against her cheek”.
  • Keep your description appropriate. It would sound extremely silly to describe a priceless Grecian statue as ‘it looked just like that blonde chick in Game of Thrones.’’
  • Remember your research! The Mayans did not generally build their temples out of concrete breeze-blocks, and legends agree that dragons collected treasure, not trading cards. Unless you’re deliberately writing a parody or about an alternate reality then be authentic!
  • Don’t overload on adjectives – learn to love the verbs! Which is the more effective description: “Kurtis had dark, curly, gorgeous hair that made him even more handsome” OR “Kurtis grinned, flicking his unruly hair from his eyes as he leaned nonchalantly against the wall”?
  • Show – don’t tell. Don’t tell us that Lara is facing an evil villain, show us that he’s an evil villain by having him do evil and villainous things like whisper threatening dialogue, murder inept underlings, and plot to enslave the world. Don’t tell us that the escape car’s engine has failed, show us it has failed by having it make horrendous clanking noises and the exhaust fall off as soon as Lara turns the ignition key.

Key points for Developing Description:

  • Less is more. Be choosy about what, how, and why you describe things.
  • Fulfil a specific purpose. If it’s not helping your story or immersing your reader, get rid of it.
  • Engage with all of the senses and empathise with your reader.
  • Be aware of your story’s pace and adjust your description accordingly.
  • Show, don’t tell!

Chekhov’s Gun

Special thanks to Inna Vjuzhanina (, for her advice on the renders!

Image credits:


Next time – Part 5: Creating Action

Creative Commons Licence
Fanfiction Writing Tutorials – Part 4: Developing Description by J. R. Milward is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.



Filed under Uncategorized

Fanfiction Writing Tutorials – Part 3: Hooking Your Reader

In today’s tutorial, we’ll be examining:

  • What makes a good hook and why it is important
  • How to decide where to begin your story
  • Why your endings are just as important as the beginnings

What is a ‘hook’?

The first thing a person usually does when they browse the bookshelves (or a kindle library) and spot a book they think looks interesting, is to pick it up and read the blurb or the first few lines. Unless they have purposefully and specifically set out to buy or borrow that particular title, they will normally decide within the first couple of sentences whether they are going to read the rest of the story. Not the first few pages – sentences.

Your opening lines are therefore of singular importance. You want and need those first impressions to be “I’m falling in love, all over again!” and not “I hate tombs!” if your readers are going to expend their precious time and energy reading all the way to the end.

This first impression is often called the hook because it literally ‘hooks’ the reader and draws them into turning the next page. The first thing most novice writers do when writing their stories is start off with something like:

It was a beautiful sunny day, with clouds like wisps of cotton wool. Birdsong and the sound of running water from a nearby stream filled the air. All was still and peaceful. Lara felt happy and contented.”

Lara sleeping 01

From this example, our wannabe writer of Tomb Raider fan-fiction seems to have become confused and stared writing a yoga meditation exercise instead. While the actual words aren’t bad per say, as the introduction to a story they’re lulling us to sleep instead of hooking our attention! It’s pure description, with nothing actually happening and no questions being raised to pique our interest. A good hook is designed to grab your readers’ attention and make them interested enough to keep on reading. Even under the best of circumstances, it’s asking a lot of people to expect them to read through an entire story. The situation becomes nigh-on impossible if you begin your stories with too much tedious, dull description. The answer is to identify the story’s hook and put it right at the beginning. You can always fill in explanations later. It’s your job to grab your readers’ attention right from the start!

So what makes a good hook? Beginning your stories in the middle of death-defying action scenes certainly puts us right in the middle of the excitement. However, this approach can get very predictable and stale. A subtler and more effective way of creating a hook is to make the reader ask questions. For example, these are the opening sentences from my novelisation of Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness:

A creature dreamed fitfully, tossing and mumbling in its sleep. Perhaps it had slept since the world began, and the dreams were all that remained of its memories. Perhaps it died long ago. If asked, it would not be able to say. It would blink and stare and wail, gnashing its rotting teeth, cursing and snarling. It was man-shaped beneath its bindings, but no one in their right mind would class the creature as human. Not any more.

The reader is instantly drawn into asking questions: What is this ‘creature’, and why is sleeping? Why is its sleep so disturbed? Why is it ‘bound’, and why is it unable or unwilling to speak? The ‘not any more’ and the remark about memories suggests that it has been in this state for a period of time – but how long? These sentences don’t just describe what the creature looks like, but what it is doing and would potentially do. Actions, not just a static description, give us a better sense that this creature is unstable and possibly dangerous. There is a sense of menace and of dark, disturbing mystery that instantly tells the reader what kind of story this is going to be (we can probably agree that it’s not going to feature fluffy bunny rabbits or twinkly unicorns).

Here are some more examples of story openings. Spot which ones make you ask questions, and which ones are purely descriptive:

  • “It was a cold morning and Lara was at home at Croft Manor.”
  • “The man leaned closer and whispered, “If you accept, we’ll make sure you’re paid double.””
  • ”Lara was happy as she walked through the jungle, wearing her customary aqua tank top and brown shorts.”
  • “The engines coughed, jolting Lara awake as the intercom buzzed, “Uh… Miss Croft? We have a… ah, slight problem…””

Choosing where to start – narrative versus plot

You might think that digging straight into the writing would be at the top of your ‘to-do’ list after you’ve finished outlining your plot. After all, you know what your story is about – don’t you? Unfortunately for anyone in a rush, there is still a lot of thinking and planning to complete before you can dive headlong into writing your prose.

As we mentioned in the last tutorial, your plot is just the summary of your story, written as a linear sequence of events linked by cause and effect. Your narrative, however, is the plan of how you will unfold and present the story to the reader from a narrator or narrators’ viewpoint. You need to spend some time planning your narrative after you’ve sketched out your basic plot. Your narrative is what will ultimately decide the beginning, middle, and end of your story.

Suppose we wanted to write a classic Tomb Raider story in which Lara sets out to find a lost artefact, is beset by obstacles and enemies, and finally returns home with her prize. The plot is fairly predictable, so you might choose to present your narrative with an opening like this:

The silver-topped cane thumped every other step as Lara approached the cabinet, wincing only slightly. Her reflection in the golden talisman broke into a tight, satisfied smile.

Clearly, this is taking place after Lara has retrieved an artefact (and by the sounds of it she’s gone through quite a lot of punishment to get it!). This opening shows Lara doing something, and invites the reader to ask questions about the situation – the two golden rules of story openings. However, it also shows that the narrative is going to have a retrospective style; it will show the reader what has happened, rather than what is happening, with the end result – a triumphant Lara admiring her prize – as the opening scene. It’s difficult to generate tension on Lara’s behalf with this approach (after all, we know in advance that Lara survives whatever ordeals get thrown at her!). But having a narrative that loops back on itself – and even pops back and forth from Lara telling the story to Lara living the story – can be fun to write and interesting to read. This is just one example of how the narrative can differ from the plot. It also shows us why it is important to plan your narrative before you even write the first line. It’s up to you to decide where and how to begin your story, but make sure your hook is right at the start and is juicy enough to whet your reader’s appetite for more.

Part 3 - hooks

Sometimes writers like to have a prologue ahead of the story’s opening chapter. A prologue is simply an introductory scene that comes before the first chapter. It can be a convenient way for your narrative to build tension, set the tone of the story before the action starts, or foreshadow future events. However, some writers find that these get in the way and spoil the story’s momentum. Simply put, it’s up to you and your story whether you include one or not.

Beginnings and endings

So far this tutorial has been concerning itself with identifying the hook and putting it in the opening sentences or paragraphs. But the endings of scenes, chapters, and complete stories are just as important. The ending of a scene or chapter needs to do two things: 1) it must, to some extent, resolve what has happened in that scene or chapter, and 2) it must make the reader want to continue reading to find out what happens next. There is also the option of having an epilogue, which can sometimes provide the closure that the actual climax of your story might not manage on its own.

Cliff-hangers are the classic example (or cliché) of how to hook the reader with an ending. Our hero finds themselves in a situation that seems impossible to resolve or escape. Cliff-hangers are commonly action-orientated, but they can also be subtle. Good ending hooks, like their opening counterparts, also make the reader ask questions. Compare the opening and closing lines from these two chapters (again taken from my novel Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness):

Opening line: “There were a hundred reasons why I didn’t want to come to Paris.

  • Who is the narrator?
  • Why didn’t they want to come to Paris?
  • They obviously are in Paris at this moment (hence the use of ’come’ instead of ‘go’), so what has driven them to overcome their inhibitions?
  • Where was the narrator before, i.e. where have they travelled from to get to Paris?

Closing line: “ There was nothing I could do but run.”

  • Where did the narrator run to?
  • Will the narrator reach their destination?

Opening line: “The woman hurried, ten minutes late for her meeting.

  • Who is this woman?
  • Where is this meeting taking place?
  • Why is she late?
  • Why is she hurrying?

Closing line: “She could only smile, and nod, and pray her secret remained hidden.”

  • Why can she only smile and nod?
  • What is her secret?
  • Why is she praying that her secret stays hidden?
  • Who is she keeping this secret from?

Your endings should always leave your characters with unfinished business. If Lara has managed to retrieve the Golden Sceptre of Quetzalcoatl in one scene, she should still have to face the dangerous escape in the next. Last-minute clues to salvation are juicy alternatives to cliff-hangers, but don’t be tempted to reveal too much at the ending; save the explanations and answers for the next chapter!

Lara and the Ankh 01

Key points for Hooking your Reader:

  • You must hook your reader from the very first sentence.
  • Effective hooks make the reader ask questions.
  • The narrative will usually dictate where your story starts, rather than the plot
  • Endings can often serve as hooks for the next chapter or scene.

Image credits:

Next time – Part 4: Developing Description

Creative Commons Licence
Fanfiction Writing Tutorials – Part 3: Hooking Your Reader by J. R. Milward is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Fanfiction Writing Tutorials – Part 2: The Shape of a Story

This tutorial will focus on:

  • The differences between plot and narrative, and why each is important
  • The overall structure of a typical story
  • The Hero’s Journey as an example of classic storytelling
  • The deus ex machina, and why you should avoid it

Good storytelling is all about immersing the reader into the story. However, the story, or narrative, is a finely balanced and controlled structure; it is never randomly thrown together from flashes of inspiration.

Differences between plot and narrative

Firstly, let’s define what we mean by narrative. You might have encountered the term plot as synonymous with narrative (or story), but they are subtly different from each other. The narrative is the overall sequence of events that make up a larger structure (the story) as told from a particular viewpoint (that of the narrator or narrators), whereas the plot is a series of connected events that can be summarised in the form, “a caused b, and so led to c” (cause and effect). Plot can therefore be a much simpler (abridged) version of the larger, more intricate, and narrator-led narrative.

For example, the plot of Tomb Raider III: The Adventures of Lara Croft could be summarised thus:

“Lara finds an ancient meteoric artefact in India, and is commissioned by Dr Willard to find three similar artefacts hidden in various locations around the world. Finally, in Antarctica, Lara discovers that the artefacts can accelerate evolution when Dr Willard uses the artefacts on himself to become a mutated monster. Lara kills him and successfully escapes with the four artefacts.”

However, the narrative is somewhat more complicated, as anyone who has managed to overcome the challenges of this game will agree!

Cave opening 01

Good stories don’t happen by accident. They evolve out of carefully arranged components – the scenes and pauses we examined in Part 1: Planning Your Adventure. For now, let’s draw back and take a look at the overall shape of a story.

Story structure

There are several different kinds of story structure, but one of the most common and widely-recognisable takes the form of three parts or ‘acts’:

  • In the first act, we meet our main characters and the goal of the story (Introduction)
  • In the second act, our characters face a problem (Crisis)
  • In the third act, the characters overcome the problem (Resolution)

It sounds pretty banal to reduce something as complicated as a story to just three parts. But let’s apply it to some familiar examples and you can see how it can instantly reveal the shape of the story:

In Tomb Raider (1996):

  • Act I: we are introduced to Lara and Natla; Lara agrees to find a lost artefact.
  • Act II: Lara learns that the artefact she’s just recovered will allow Natla to destroy mankind.
  • Act III: Lara defeats Natla and saves the world.

In Tomb Raider (2013):

  • Act I: we’re introduced to Lara, her shipmates, and the leader of the island’s castaways. The goal is to survive and get off the island.
  • Act II: Lara discovers that a god-like supernatural being is preventing them from escaping the island, and hordes of bloodthirsty cultists and supernatural creatures are closing in on the survivors.
  • Act III: Lara defeats the island’s inhabitants – supernatural and human – and escapes with her surviving shipmates.

All the little bits and pieces that happen in the story suddenly fit into a much larger and simplified structure. Everything – from individual lines of dialogue to explosive action set-pieces – exists to fulfil one purpose, which is to advance the story onwards to the next act.

These two stories have other similarities in common. For example, both Natla and Mathias start out as friendly but are later revealed to be villains. Both Natla and Mathias engage Lara in a climactic final battle. Themes like this have become so ingrained in our storytelling toolbox that we usually refer to them as tropes or clichés.

Some people have made it their life’s work to compare cultures from all over the world and identify common or universal tropes and themes. It turns out they are more common than you might think! One of the most famous and influential scholars in this field was Joseph Campbell (1904-1987). His books, especially The Hero With a Thousand Faces and The Power of Myth, identify themes that crop up repeatedly in cultures despite them being separated by entire continents and many thousands of years. Tomb Raider fans should already be familiar with Campbell’s concept of the monomyth from Tomb Raider: Legend. During a visit to Peru, Lara, Zip, and Alister comment that the South American legend of Tiwanaku bears a striking resemblance to the European story of King Arthur. Obviously, Lara’s education included the works of Joseph Campbell!

Part 2 - Tiwanaku

The Hero’s Journey

The monomyth is sometimes called the Hero’s Journey, and I’m mentioning it here because it is one of the oldest and most widely-recognised example of story structure. It’s also a path of character development, whereby a character undergoes a transformation from one state (often young, innocent, and uninitiated) into another (usually mature, wise, and experienced). It is by no means the only story framework out there, but you will certainly have encountered it numerous times in fiction, in everything from Back to the Future to The Lord of The Rings.

Here, we’ll use examples drawn from the Tomb Raider universe to illustrate the stages of the Hero’s Journey. There are seventeen in all, but here they are listed in the three groups that conform to the three ‘acts’ we mentioned earlier:

Part I: Departure or Separation

  1. The Call to Adventure: our hero lives in a mundane world, but is presented with information that leads him to venture away from all he knows. Example: Lara eavesdrops on Father Patrick and Winston talking about a mysterious island, and this fires Lara’s curiosity to the point where she decides to stow away on Father Patrick’s boat to see the island for herself (Tomb Raider: Chronicles).
  2. Refusal of the Call: sometimes the hero refuses to act on the call to adventure for one reason or another – usually out of a sense of duty, responsibility, disinterest, or simple fear of the unknown. Example: Lara initially refuses Natla’s offer by stating, “I’m afraid you’ve been misled; I only play for sport.” (Tomb Raider (1996); Tomb Raider: Anniversary).
  3. Supernatural Aid: a magical or initiated helper appears to the hero to act as their guide once the call to adventure has been accepted. Example: Von Croy is the ‘renowned archaeologist-adventurer’ who acts as Lara’s guide on her first adventure in Angkor Wat (Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation).
  4. Crossing the First Threshold: the hero leaves the world that they know and actually passes into the unknown  – crossing the threshold between the normal world and the unknown world – for the first time. Example: Lara and Von Croy ‘breach the sanctum of the ancients’ in Angkor Wat (Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation).
  5. Belly of the Whale: the hero is taken fully into the unknown, and truly appreciates for the first time that they have left their old life and normality behind. Example: Lara and Von Croy enter the mysterious Iris chamber in Angkor Wat, which is distinctly different and more otherworldly than the style of locations they have encountered before, hinting that strange powers beyond our heroine’s understanding are at work (Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation).

Part II: Initiation

  1. Road of Trials: our hero must undergo a series of trials or tests as the first stage of their transformation. Example: Lara must defeat traps and activate complex ancient machinery to reach… oh come on, this is THE heart and soul of ALL Tomb Raider!
  2. Meeting with the Goddess: our hero meets with a powerful feminine character or representation of the goddess with whom he shares a special, usually enhancing, bond. This ‘goddess’ is a holder of knowledge or wisdom, a guardian, or the custodian of a particular object or information. They are benevolent towards our hero; Campbell talks about this stage as a return to the happiness or security of childhood. If the hero is herself female, she will meet the male version of this character. Example: Lara encounters Kurtis in the Louvre, who proves – by stealing the Obscura Painting but not harming her, and by demonstrating his Lux Veritatis powers – that he is a very special ally (Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness).
  3. Temptation: the hero is tempted to stray from or abandon their quest for some reason, for example material gain, the prospect of respite from their quest, or through threats if they continue. Sometimes this stage is called Woman as the Temptress, because it can involve a female figure who, consciously or not, tempts the hero away from their true path. Example: Bouchard asks Lara if she would “prefer somewhere safer than her friend’s apartment?” (Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness).
  4. Atonement: this is the point in the hero’s journey where they encounter the pivotal power that holds the balance between good and evil, success or defeat, in their grasp. Usually this figure is male, which is why this stage is sometimes known as Atonement with the Father. At this stage the hero often ‘dies’, either literally or figuratively, to undergo the next stage in their transformation. Example: Lara is reunited with Von Croy in Egypt, only to have them argue and him seal Lara inside the Tomb of Semerkhet, which symbolically ‘kills’ her and traps her in ‘the underworld’ (Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation).
  5. Apotheosis: meaning ‘to elevate to a divine or god-like state’, this stage sees the hero enter a state or place where they gain vital knowledge, peace, rest, or some other powerful fulfilment before returning to the ‘normal’ world. Example: it is while she is trapped in the Tomb of Semerkhet that Lara learns about the sun-god Horus, and how he must be summoned to defeat Set – which is the knowledge she needs in order to achieve her ultimate goal (Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation).
  6. The Ultimate Boon: the hero achieves the goal of their quest, which was the reason why they set out on their journey in the first place. It is the proof of the hero’s strength, skill, determination, and courage. Example: in Nepal, Lara reassembles all the collected fragments of Excalibur so she can wield it against her enemies and activate the dais to find her mother (Tomb Raider: Legend).

Part III: Return

  1. Refusal of the Return: having achieved their goal, the hero is reluctant to leave this state of enlightenment and return to normality. Example: Lara meets her father again thanks to the power of the Triangle of Light, and expresses her wish to stay with him/him with her (film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider)
  2. Magic Flight: often, having gone through many trials and dangers to get to their goal, the hero must now escape through even more dangers and trials. Example: having entombed Set deep beneath the Great Pyramid, Lara must still face the long and dangerous climb to reach the surface and safety (Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation).
  3. Rescue from Without: the hero might require assistance from guides or helpers to return to the everyday world. Sometimes this is because the hero has been injured or weakened by their adventures, or they don’t even know that return is possible. Example: Lara cannot escape the lost city’s Planetarium in Siberia before it collapses and traps her without the help of her faithful sled dogs (film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider).
  4. Crossing the Return Threshold: the hero must integrate the knowledge or boon that they gained during their Initiation back into the ‘normal’ world, often by sharing critical information or wisdom with others. Example: Lara asks Zip and Alister to start researching and contacting Professor Eddington because, “my father was right about everything, and there may still be time to do something about it.” (Tomb Raider: Legend).
  5. Master of Two Worlds: the hero returns to the ‘normal’ world they left behind. The hero has irrevocably changed, having proven their strength, determination, and wisdom beyond doubt. Example: Lara returns to the normal world on board a rescue ship, but stands apart from the rest of her shipmates, and a crew-member mentions that her scars suggest she’s been through things he doesn’t want to ask her about (Tomb Raider (2013))
  6. Freedom to Live: the hero’s newfound mastery means that they no longer fear death, and consequently have no fear of taking on challenges, going on more adventures, and achieving future goals, i.e. they are now free to live life in the moment, neither regretting the past or fearing the future. They often go onto become rulers, or mentors to the next generation of heroes, or they might set out on more adventures. Example: Lara bids farewell to her mother, formally laying her memory – and the journey that has driven Lara so far for so long – to rest, and she returns home (notably carrying Excalibur with her as a mark of her mastery) (Tomb Raider: Underworld)

As a writer you should remember that this structure, although famous and useful, is not the be-all and end-all of storytelling. There are literally dozens of different story frameworks. Some are naturally more suited to particular genres (for example, the ‘heist’ framework is a cornerstone of crime thrillers). It is well worth your time to research and compare different frameworks so you can better understand your own stories. It is fascinating and instructive to peel away the surface and analyse the mechanisms that are whirring and clicking away underneath.

The deus ex machina tripwire

A word of caution is appropriate here. You may have come across the phrase deus ex machina. Meaning, ‘god from the machine’, it originated in ancient Greek tragedy and has become a commonplace plot device in everything from novels to movies. A deus ex machina is any unexpected event, character, ability, or intervention that appears out of nowhere to solve an apparently unsolvable problem. Depending on how they are used they can be outrageous, funny (for comedic effect), or plain cringe-worthy.

Part 2 - deus ex machina

For example, let’s say that Lara has succeeded in defeating the villain but is now trapped in a cave full of steadily-rising lava and certain death. How shall we resolve this situation? If we decide to have another character suddenly appear with a rope and rescue helicopter – especially if we have given them no prior reason for being there at that very moment – then our resolution has become a deus ex machina. Even though this might make for a dramatic scene, your readers will feel pretty let down that Lara wasn’t able to use her own resources – for example her wits and athletic abilities – to make her own escape.

It is very common for writers to plan out elaborate and entertaining stories, but then realise that they have no obvious way to resolve the plot. They have, to paraphrase, ‘written themselves into a corner’. It can be tempting, under these circumstances, to write in an external factor that can swoop in and save the day – in other words, to make use of a deus ex machina. However, I would urge you to do everything in your considerable power to avoid this plot device. It hardly ever works convincingly, and even when you twist the rest of your story into pretzel-knots to make it seem justifiable, it will make your writing feel contrived, lazy, and artificial. Good plots should be able to resolve themselves using the characters’ own resources and abilities – they shouldn’t need to have something external to appear out of nowhere to solve your plot problems.

Key points for Shape of the Story:

  • The plot is a summarised version of what happens in your story (a leads to b, which causes c), whereas the narrative is a description of how your story unfolds from a particular character – the narrator’s – point of view.
  • Most stories are told in three acts that comprise an introduction, a crisis, and a resolution.
  • The Hero’s Journey, or the monomyth, is just one example of a universal story structure.
  • Deus ex machinas are often used when the writer is too lazy or too stuck to resolve the story using existing means – avoid them!


Joseph Campbell
The Hero’s Journey

Image credits:

Next time – Part 3: Hooking Your Reader

Creative Commons Licence
Fanfiction Writing Tutorials – Part 2: The Shape of a Story by J. R. Milward is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Fanfiction Writing Tutorials – Part 1: Planning Your Adventure

In this first tutorial, we’ll be discussing:

  • How to critically examine and develop your initial ideas
  • How to identify scenes and pauses
  • The importance of recognising and exploiting themes
  • Why research matters, and how to improve your research skills

Initial inspiration

The first and most important part of setting out on your writing adventure is knowing where to begin. Lara may well venture into uncharted territory on a regular basis, but you’re going to have to know in advance what lies ahead.

You’ll probably already have a rough idea of what it is you want to write about. It’s good practise to pin down your initial inspiration with notes – even if they’re only scribbled down in a dog-eared notepad at 3 a.m. Maybe you’ve heard a piece of music, or seen a piece of artwork that’s gotten under your skin and suddenly you just KNOW that you have to commit your thoughts to paper.

For example, here is a simple introductory paragraph that could be the inspiration for a new story:

“At this altitude the ice was as black and unyielding as iron. Driven sleet froze to her eyelids. Her shattered snow goggles dangled useless from their strap. Blinking furiously, Lara glared through the narrow gap between her scarf and hat and hurled every last ounce of strength into her barely-responsive arm. Her curse of defiance turned to a triumphant grunt as the ice pick gained purchase, and she hauled herself a few more precious inches up the cliff.”

Lara climbing 01

The creative urge is a lot of fun, but it’s going nowhere as a story if you don’t ask yourself how it fits into a larger narrative. So jot down your initial ideas and get ready for the next step: asking questions.

Good writers are always asking questions. The best questions are those that start with what, where, when, why, and how. Sit back and allow yourself to explore your inspiration with these questions in mind. This is where your sense of exploration can roam freely and, with luck, bring back some intriguing ideas as souvenirs.

Using the above paragraph as an example, we might ask:

  • What exactly is happening in this scene? Think of the important details that will be relevant to the wider story, but that also make this scene stand out from all those that came before or will come later. What makes this scene unique?
  • Where is it taking place? Is this a real location? Is it a place from mythology? Is it both, or neither of these?
  • When does it take place? At what point in the story does it take place – beginning, middle, end? Where is Lara in her life at this point? What period in history are we in?
  • Why is Lara here at this moment? What has made Lara come to this place, at this time, under these circumstances? Where did she come from and where is she going? What are her goals in the short-, medium, and long-term?
  • How did Lara come to be in this position? How did Lara physically, emotionally, and intellectually get to this point in the story?

Story length

After you’ve grabbed hold of your initial ideas and given them a thorough talking-to, you’ll need to decide roughly how long you want your story to be. This isn’t a straightforward step, because you have to consider the depth of your initial ideas and their potential for exploration. The typical length of a short story is usually up to 5,000 words, whereas a novel can easily run to 40,000 – 90,000 words, with novellas or novelettes fitting somewhere in between these brackets. Word counts, however, can be deceiving. On their own, they give no indication whether a story is tightly-written or crammed with pointless waffle. It’s important to decide how far you want to go in exploring your story, whether it includes sub-plots, how many characters and locations are involved, and so on. It’s often a good exercise to practise writing to specific word counts, because it can help you build discipline and make you more familiar with these rather abstract numbers (e.g. what does 2,000 words look like, and how long does it take to write that amount?). It’s also sage advice to start with shorter stories and work your way up, rather than diving straight in with a full-length novel (walk before you run!).

Scenes and pauses

The most basic components of stories are scenes and pauses. They advance the plot in small but crucial steps, just like Lara collecting a dozen scattered fragments that will eventually be reconstructed into a fully-functioning artefact. If you miss a piece out, or try to use one that doesn’t slot neatly into place alongside all of the others, then Lara’s going to be the proud owner of a mangled paperweight instead of the Jewelled Crown of Queen Hapshetsut. Likewise, missing out a crucial component will lead to plot holes in your story, and confusion or annoyance on behalf of your readers.

Scenes are the moments when things are happening or your characters are doing something, e.g. action set-pieces. Conversely, pauses are the moments when your characters stop and think about what has happened, plan what to do next, and show the reader their emotions and thought processes. To work well, your story needs to incorporate a balance of well-executed events (scenes) and deliberate catch-up moments (pauses).

For example, in the first movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, there is a major action-scene where Lara grabs the first Triangle of Light fragment in Cambodia; we have a fight with stone monkeys and mercenaries, a climax battle with a giant Brahma, and Lara’s frantic escape through the jungle culminating in a swan dive off a waterfall. This is exemplary Tomb Raider action! However, what follows is a much gentler, calmer sequence of Lara having a conversation with Powell via satellite phone, and a meditative reflection with the monks in Angkor Wat. This is the pause – the period after a rip-roaring action sequence where the reader (or viewer, in this case), can catch their breath, relax for a moment, and prepare for the next big action scene. The pause contains crucial information about what the characters are thinking and planning.

Story themes

Another aspect of story-telling is a theme or themes. It’s possible to decide on a theme first, and then gather inspiration for how to convey that theme in your story; however, it is also acceptable to come up with a great story idea and then decide what themes it contains.

Themes are the central message (or messages) that your story conveys, whether you explicitly say so or not. You’ll often hear them called ‘the big idea’ or central topic. In Tomb Raider, the themes are often ‘exploration’ or ‘discovery’, but can also include ‘mystery’, a ‘race-against-time’, or others. For example, in the Tomb Raider 2013 reboot the central theme was ‘survival’, but there was also ‘loss of innocence’ and ‘self-discovery’ in there, too.

As a writer, it’s extremely useful to identify and exploit your themes. Not only does knowing your theme help you understand what kind of story you are trying to tell, but it can also help you get back on track when a plot seems to have lost its direction, or characters don’t seem to know what to do next.

Part 1 - themes

The importance of research

Once you have started developing your initial ideas into possible scenes, and worked out what kind of theme you’d like your story to pursue, you can start organising the story’s overall structure and do your background research. We’ll tackle the overall structure in more detail in Part 2: Shape of the Story. For now, let’s take a look at research and why it’s so important.

There has never been a better time to be a researcher. There is more and better-quality information available through the Internet than ever before. However, researching is actually quite a complex skill that requires you to sift through seemingly endless quantities of data to find exactly the information you need. Anyone can type ‘Aztecs’ into a search engine and get fifteen-million hits, but it takes a certain amount of patience to specifically discover what political policies were adopted towards prisoners of war in Aztec culture between 1365 and 1401 A.D.!

There are a few simple ways you can improve your research skills when you’re preparing to write a story:

  • Decide what you want to achieve before you begin. It’s terribly tempting to spend hours meandering from one fascinating article to the next, drawn along by curiosity rather than your initial objective. Before you know it you’ve spent an hour reading around the edges of your subject, instead of getting an answer to a specific question that will be central to your plot.
  • Get a broad understanding of the subject first, then narrow it down. For example, I would not dream about writing a story set in northern India without first reading about its climate, famous locations, cultures, and history. Wikipedia is brilliant for gaining this kind of broad overview.
  • When narrowing down your research, choose credible specialist sources. For example, having given myself a crash course in northern India, I might decide to check out legends of a famous duel between two deities that supposedly took place at a particular temple. For this I would look at websites and books by people who have spent time studying this in great detail, who cite their sources in references, and who are mentioned by others in the same field. Don’t assume that just because something is written down on a shiny website that it’s correct.
  • Use Boolean operators to help refine your searches. Boolean operators are the terms ‘AND’, ‘OR’, and ‘NOT’. You can use them when you use a search engine to radically improve the specificity of your results. For example, typing ‘”northern India” AND Shiva NOT monkeys’ will return a list of hits that specifically mention the phrase ‘northern India’ and that include mentions of Shiva, but that don’t mention ‘monkeys’.

Why is research so important? After all, you might argue, we’re writing fiction. Our stories are made-up fantasies.

It’s important because believable fiction is grounded in stone-cold reality. A reader is not going to suspend their disbelief or empathise with an otherwise well-realised character if your facts turn out to be wrong. For example, in order to believe that Lara Croft exists and is a world-famous archaeologist, you can’t have her confidently declare that the great Pharaoh Tutankhamen fought in the Battle of Waterloo. Such a mistake would destroy Lara’s credibility – and yours.

Readers will quickly spot if you haven’t done your homework properly. Having a good grasp of your topic, in addition to researching authentic information and details, will keep your reader immersed and not jar them out of the narrative and back into the real world (we call reading ‘escapism’, after all). For example, I once made the mistake of assuming that the Czech Republic was subject to Schengen in 2003. I later found out that it wasn’t, but that error really spoiled the illusion for one of my readers. By all means invent your own lost kingdoms for Lara to discover, but make sure that you ground the details of the location and its culture so that they are believable. We can swallow the notion that Lara discovered a living tyrannosaurus in the Peruvian Andes, but we would choke on our own incredulity if the dinosaur turned out to be buttercup yellow and playing a bassoon.

Part 1 - castles in air

It is possible to combine the need to research with the single most important rule of writing fiction. In fact, it’s been done so many times in ‘how to write fiction’ books that it’s become a mantra in its own right. Put simply: Real life doesn’t have to make sense, but your fiction does.

In real life events can happen at random, people do things according to internal logic rather than external stimuli, and coincidences are rife. However, you cannot get away with any of these in fiction. A work of fiction is not simply a chronicle of real events. It is a carefully-constructed edifice of causes and effects, where every stimulus has an appropriate and logical response.

For example, we could write about a break-in at Lara’s mansion where armed thieves steal an artefact from her private collection. If Lara was a real person, she would likely be woken up by a burglar alarm and call the police. The thieves would make off with the artefact, get into a getaway car, and drive off into the night. The police would appear a few minutes later, statements would be taken, a forensics team would arrive to dust for prints, Lara would be on the phone to her lawyer… and well, you get the picture. The reason why we find Lara Croft and her Tomb Raider universe so fascinating is that it isn’t real life. It’s fictional, which means that it’s bigger and better than real life. It also has the luxury of making sense, which is not a requirement of real life!

The mantra of stimulus and response / cause and effect applies to every aspect of your storytelling. Moreover, each response also acts as the stimulus for the next response, which is the stimulus for the following response, and so on. We’ll examine how this mantra applies to different areas of creative writing in later tutorials.

Key points for Part 1: Planning your Adventure:

  • Keep a journal or notepad for recording your inspirations, ideas, and observations.
  • Stories are made up of scenes and pauses.
  • Identify your story’s theme(s) early on.
  • Research as thoroughly as possible: if you aren’t sure or don’t know, find out!
  • Remember that nothing happens by accident – everything that happens in your story must happen for a reason.

Image credits:

Next time – Part 2: The Shape of the Story


Creative Commons Licence
Fanfiction Writing Tutorials – Part 1: Planning Your Adventure by J. R. Milward is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized