Animals in Stories

A common way to use pets in stories is to get us all emotionally attached to them… and then kill them off. And then we all hate you for it because WHY? How dare you kill off Fido! Pets have been introduced and killed off in nearly every book I’ve read or movie I’ve watched, and it’s always sad. Obviously this is a great way to evoke emotion from readers, but what if–what if–I told you that you could let the pet live? No really, you can do that.

Pets can be more than just your twisted idea of a sad chapter to bum out the protagonist (and the rest of us). They can do so much more for the plot line and your MC.

In the high fantasy I’m working on, one of my characters has a wolf who she often leans on for support in difficult times. He is her comfort and safety net. Without him she feels alone. Having an animal who is important to the protagonist in such a way can really give them the courage to face all the conflict ahead of them in the story–especially when separated from the pet at times when they need the pet to be brave.

Animal senses can also be implemented into the story to provide little hints, such as a dog growling or barking at a character who is revealed to belong to the dark side later, or a horse who gets skittish in certain parts of a forest rumoured to be cursed.

Pets can warn characters of danger or stop them from doing something dangerous. Instead of the MC risking their life fighting the minor thugs of the story, the pet can protect them instead. This shouldn’t be used as a crutch, but it can be used at the start of the story–before development–to establish the trust between human and pet. (Later, the MC must be able to stand on their own to show how far they’ve come.)

Not all animals can be on the protagonist’s side, of course. In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, humans clash against the apes in battle, and in The Hunger Games, animal-like creatures try to take a bite out of the heroes.

Just be careful what you write where animals are concerned (or violence in general). No one wants to read about animal cruelty. It isn’t cool and it certainly isn’t entertaining, and you’ll find your story being thrown aside pretty rapidly. But, of course, I shouldn’t need to point this out… unless you’re the kind of monster who grins the whole way through Marley and Me.

Happy writing,

Sandra

Writing an Intro For YA

I’ve decided to do one more post about this topic, but this time with a YA novel as the example. While I have many, many young adult books lying around, I chose one that I remember had an introduction that stood out to me: The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern.

TheNightCircus

I will admit that I didn’t like the plot line (or some of the characters) towards the end of the book, but I always found the writing really intriguing. The idea of a circus that could appear one day and leave the next without notice sparked my curiosity.

Let’s have a look.

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The circus arrives without warning.

No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.

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I love that mysterious feeling you get while reading this. It only gets better.

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The towering tents are striped in white and black, no golds and crimsons to be seen. No color at all, save for the neighboring trees and the grass of the surrounding fields. Black-and-white stripes on grey sky; countless tents of varying shapes and sizes, with an elaborate wrought-iron fence encasing them in a colorless world. Even what little ground is visible from outside is black or white, painted or powdered, or treated with some other circus trick.

But it is not open for business. Not just yet.

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Can I just say that this was exceedingly hard to type out when I had to use American spelling? Whew.

I love the idea of a circus only in black and white, and the descriptions really give life to the world. In all honestly, I loved the little page of text before each new part begins more than anything else; it breathed life into the circus, and the circus really did feel magical.

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Opens at Nightfall.

Closes at Dawn.

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I can’t imagine that’s terribly good for business, but it does give it a more mysterious feel.

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“What kind of circus is only open at night?” people ask. No one has a proper answer, yet as dusk approaches there is a substantial crowd of spectators gathering outside the gates.

You are amongst them, of course. Your curiosity got the better of you, as curiosity is wont to do. You stand there in the fading light, the scarf around your neck pulled up against the chilly evening breeze, waiting to see for yourself exactly what kind of circus only opens once the sun sets.

~

This a great way to immerse you in the world, by showing you the circus through your own eyes. I love the way Morgenstern did this.

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The circus looks abandoned and empty. [..] The people around you are growing restless from waiting […] You yourself are debating departing when it happens.

First, there is a popping sound. It is barely audible over the wind and conversation. A soft noise like a kettle about to boil for tea. Then comes the light.

All over the tents, small lights begin to flicker, as though the entirety of the circus is covered in particularly bright fireflies. […] When the tents are all aglow, sparkling against the night sky, the sign appears.

Stretched across the top of the gates, hidden in curls of iron, more firefly-like lights flicker to life. […] you can see that it reads:

Le Cirque des Reves

[…] Then the iron gates shudder and unlock, seemingly by their own volition. They swing outward, inviting the crowd inside.

Now the circus is open.

Now you may enter.

~

I skipped a lot of text (there is a lot of text) but the personal viewpoint remains all the way to the end of the introduction, and I thought it a new and original way to introduce the story. The intro is filled with mystery and intrigue, and although no characters are revealed, the setting is described in such an interesting way that you feel you must learn more about it.

Many YA novels start out with a line about how the protagonist is going to die, or there’s a time limit to do something that could potentially save the world. This one starts with a mysterious circus that pretty much every person who reads the opening page wishes to visit (that includes me, because I’m a sucker for circuses and fairs).

As a bonus, here’s an opening line from one of my favourite YA novels, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynn Jones:

In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.

What’s your favourite YA opening lines?

Happy reading,

Sandra

Writing a Fantasy Novel Intro

So I’ve gone over a few topics concerning high-fantasy novels, but I haven’t really touched upon what makes a great first impression when opening a 900-1200 page novel. Obviously the hook needs to be great for you to invest your time in reading a monster that size. I’d like to bring in The Fellowship of the Ring as an example. While The Lord of the Rings is one of my favourite epic fantasies, the first chapter is incredibly long and tedious, to the point where many potential fans stopped reading after ten pages of party planning and paragraphs of descriptions that are all irrelevant to the plot.

Of course, that was a different time and fantasy writers have changed the way they write over the years.

Let’s take a look at The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss.

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It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts.

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I absolutely LOVE this first line. It reeks of mysteriousness.

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The most obvious part was a hollow, echoing quiet, made by the things that were lacking.

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Now we have the first part of the silence, and it creates the setting. The paragraph continues on, describing what the silence lacked, before showing us the next part of the silence.

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Inside the Waystone a pair of men huddled at one corner of the bar. They drank with quiet determination, avoiding serious discussions of troubling news. In doing this they added a small, sullen silence to the larger, hollow one.

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This is intriguing to us: Why are the men so quiet? Why aren’t they talking about the idle gossip around town? What do they find so troubling?

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The third silence was not an easy thing to notice. If you listened for an hour, you might begin to feel it in the wooden floor underfoot and in the rough, splintering barrels behind the bar. It was in the weight of the black stone hearth that held the heat of a long dead fire. It was in the slow back and forth of a white linen cloth rubbing along the grain of the bar. And it was in the hands of the man who stood there, polishing a stretch of mahogany that already gleamed in the lamplight.

The Waystone was his, just as the third silence was his. […] It was deep and wide as autumn’s ending. It was heavy as a great river-smooth stone. It was the patient, cut-flower sound of a man who is waiting to die.

~

We have a main character, and he is interesting. Now I want to know why he’s waiting to die, or if the troubling news the huddled men are avoiding is the same kind of troubling thoughts this man has.

I found this introduction so intriguing that I hurried onward towards the next chapter. It’s fairly long, so I won’t go over every detail like in the introduction.

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It was a felling night, and the usual crowd had gathered at the Waystone Inn. Five wasn’t much of a crowd, but five was as many as the Waystone ever saw these days, times being what they were.

~

We get a few more hints in the opening line about the world’s situation. Times are troubling and it gives an eerie feel to everything. The next few pages introduces the men who were huddling in the tavern, and one of them tells a sort of tale that to some is simply a bedtime story, while to others it seems like more. We learn a few things about the world this way, and about its religion/history. Then another character stumbles into the inn after being attacked by one of the creatures related to the story, and things become eerily real for everyone.

That’s where the barkeep, our main character named “Kote”, comes to the rescue, and he becomes even more mysterious. He knows things others don’t, he keeps company with a creature human in appearance but stranger than mortals, and he has several names to which he answers to. Then we get these lines:

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[…] without willing it his [Kote’s] eyes fell on the chest at the foot of the bed.

It was made of roah, a rare, heavy wood, dark as coal and smooth as polished glass. Prized by perfumers and alchemists, a piece the size of your thumb was easily worth gold. To have a chest made of it went far beyond extravagance.

The chest was sealed three times. It had a lock of iron, a lock of copper, and a lock that could not be seen.

~

We’re not buying that you’re just a simple innkeeper, Kote. Everything in this chapter screams that this character is shrouded in a complex mystery, and it’s honestly extremely fun to read. He wants to live normally and at peace, but his past seems to be catching up to him in some way. What secrets his past holds, I don’t yet know. I’m only a quarter way through the novel, but the introduction just grabbed me and reeled me in so fast I couldn’t turn down this book.

This is a fantastic example of a compelling hook. It summarizes important points, doesn’t give away too much, doesn’t tell or over-explain, and it leaves you wanting more. It slapped the “conflict in the first chapter” rule in the face and shined on its own merit. The pacing was great, also; there were no extreme details on the setting or the people–just snippets to give you a general picture. I’ve read far too many fantasy novels with entire pages of describing a tree or a rock in the intro (looking at you, Goodkind) and this book’s intro was certainly refreshing.

Now to finish it.

Happy writing,

Sandra