Fantasy and Structure

This will probably not turn out to be that interesting, and perhaps I’ll revist the topic once I’ve actually thought about it – this is experimenting with the idea of using this blog for working out thoughts rather than presenting them.

I believe in Fantasy – that is, I believe that, despite all evidence to contrary, it is a genre in which great writing can occur. One reason for this is the inherent freedom that the genre affords – but another is the fact that, quite contingently, it has become a genre in which works can be written that would not be permitted in most other types of books. Works that are… massive.  The scale of this is almost hard to overestimate. The internet tells me that an ‘average’ novel is between 75k and 100k words. Other sources tell me that it’s crept up, and is now more like 100k-120k.  By comparison, Robert Jordan’s posthumously-completed “Wheel of Time” looks as though it will end up around 3.5m words.

Some people see this as a problem. Having grown up reading this sort of thing, I don’t see it as a problem at all – I see being 3.5m words long and taking twenty years to write as being a GOOD thing. This gigantic size allows more content, more depth, more exposition, and more development. This is not to say, of course, that these opportunities are commonly seized…

The point of this post, however, is to think about the big problem that large structures pose to the writer (after all, I would like to deal with these problems one day – while I’m currently writing a tiny little novel only tangentially fantastic, and have no hope of ever being published, I nonetheless have always wanted to be a writer, and for me being a writer has always meant composing a multi-volume epic fantasy – George RR Martin may have been a successful short-story writer, and not done too badly with his early novels, but he will always ‘be’ the writer of A Song of Ice and Fire – to me, on a primitive and by-now-unquestionable level, being a writer simply is writing such a series). The big problem: what to do with all those words?

Every story has a structure, and in the modern world the structure is generally the same: protagonist faces problem, protagonist overcomes problem. This creates, ideally, a lopsided mountain of tension – tension slowly builds as the problem is worked through, rises exponentially, peaks, and then quickly falls away down to the epilogue. Tension – Resolution. The problem of epic fantasy is how to expand this to cover a greater scale. Some expansion occurs in most novels by ‘texturing’ this mountain, by adding some smaller summits on its edges – typically one at the beginning to introduce tension quickly while the main plot is being introduced, but sometimes also one at the end. The classic example here might be James Bond films – Goldfinger’s sudden appearance at the end of his film, or Klebb’s shoe at the end of From Russia with Love, or the sinister gay caterers at the end of Diamonds are Forever. All these add a little to the running time by giving quick, easily-solved problems after the main climax, making sure the audience hasn’t made themselves too comfortable. A similar coda in fantasy is the Scouring of the Shire in the Lord of the Rings. The coda often demonstrates the changes wrought (either in the characters or in the world) by the main climax.

This, however, is too small a scale for epic fantasy. We can envisage the whole of the above – main climax and minor texture – as a single ‘cadence’. Large structures require a new scale. There are, broadly, two ways to make a longer plot – add more cadences, or make the cadence slower.

The simplest extension of the plot is to add a second cadence. Hence, we have what we might call the first of several potential forms that occur in fantasy: the sequel form. The sequel form balances the importance of the two cadences, but in doing so is faced with the problem of how to link them. To keep the importance the same, and not to devalue the first, the writer cannot make the second cadence counter the first. Instead, similarities are created through repetition – often the protagonist will have his adventure, and then his son will have his own, encountering similar problems and characters as his father. This leaves the first cadence untouched, intact. Sequels can then be written to the sequel, and so on.

Unfortunately, this can also create a lack of tension. Moreover, the writer has to build up investment each time – he can’t simple assume the investment in one protagonist will be transferred to the next. Such structures usually only work, therefore, on the largest scale, between series, allowing excitement to be created on the lower level, and even there they be criticised if they repeat too often. A prime example of the structure is that linking the Midkemia novels of Feist. Each novel or series is, more or less, independent (pace the retconning), and attempts to inveigle investment through recurring characters and ideas.

To avoid repetition, the simplest way is to make each cadence distinct. This creates what we might call mythic form – a series of independent stories that are connected by setting, and sometimes by theme. This, too, is common on the larger scale – the Empire novels by Feist and Wurts fit together with his Midkemia novels into a single myth, but are thematically distinct. On a smaller scale, examples include A Canticle for Leibowitz and Asimov’s Foundation (both the original book and the overall series). Large parts of the Silmarillion are also connected in this way.

If, however, an author wishes to create more unity, they may give us two cadences that form part of the same story. The boldest, and probably rarest, option is opposing form – it is revealed that the first cadence has itself created problems for the protagonist, and he must revisit his earlier actions to partially undo them. An example from fantasy is Hobb’s Tawny Man trilogy, which is placed in opposition to the earlier Farseer trilogy. In it, the protagonist of the first series, a decade or two later, is forced to realise that he has only been ignoring his problems, and that this has caused problems for those he loves. Thus he must return to the world and clear up his own mess, as well as what has grown from his botched job the first time round.

This form can be quite powerful, with the reader’s assumptions undermined and inverted. However, it also runs the risk of alienating the readers by making the first series seem irrelevent – it can diminish its importance. If the first cadence ends happily and the second does not, readers may feel the happiness has been stolen from them – if the second ends more happily than the first, readers may feel the earlier pain has been devalued. That pain has become part of them, something they have accepted (note that this is different from a work that includes a transitory low point that is always known to be passing). On a personal note, the ending of Tawny Man made me angrier than any other novel – although I’ve loved rereading it.

So, how can a second cadence link to, but not devalue, the first? Two ways. First, the second can devalue itself, making itself clearly less important – to make people still care, it can then be placed in time before the first cadence, creating prequel form. How did we arrive at the problems of the first cadence? It doesn’t matter that the prequel is devalued, because readers know that from the beginning. But prequel form only works once – prequels cannot be added indefinitely, as they will diminish further and further in importance.

The alternative is trilogy form. Despite the name, the classic trilogy only features two cadences – but to avoid the sens of the first cadence being devalued, it is purposefully made smaller from the beginning, both in size and in importance. Typically, the first novel deals with the Evil Underling, while the remaining two novels face the Evil Boss Guy. A classic of film is Star Wars – the original film is more or less independent by itself, while the two sequels form a single cadence on a larger scale. Tawny Man is similarly structured. Often, the first novel is about coming of age, and the second two about adulthood – in Farseer, Fitz grows into his role as an assassin in the first novel, and finds himself thrust into the wider world in the second two. Likewise, in the Empire trilogy the first novel sees the young Mara rise to secure independence for herself and her family, while the second two see her use that independence for her country and her world.

The Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, while a trilogy, does not follow trilogy form – just as a sonata need not have sonata form. The whole of the final five of the six books (as written) follow the primary cadence, with the flight from the shire, and the return to it, serving as textural introduction and coda.  The flight from the shire resolves nothing – the problem (we’re being hunted down!) is not resolved but merely transformed (we’ve got to take out the guy who’s hunting us down!), and in the process transfigured from the dramatic plane to the heroic through the realisation that the problem the protagonists faced is only one facet of the Big Problem that the world faces, which the protagonists take responsibility for fixing. Much of the investment, however, comes from the initial conflict – we don’t like Sauron primarily because he tried to kill our heroes. The ‘abominable evil reducing the world to slavery’ just adds colour. This, alas, is a realisation far too few fantasy writers have had.

So, we’re done with repetitions? Well, no.  One last variation is the attempt to escape devaluation by creating a contrasting viewpoint. In a karmic form tale, the first cadence creates the problems of the second cadence – for a different character. In some ways, this can be even more challenging than opposition – which character do we care about, the original protagonist or the new one, whose life has been damaged by the events of the first cadence? At the same time, though, we should not feel that we have wasted time with the first cadence, as it is left more or less untouched, its conclusions valid. We merely see that those conclusions have an alternative viewpoint. I cannot off-hand think of any examples of this form in a pure state, but we will return to it later. Parts of the Silmarillion do follow this structure – the empathy we feel for Feanor in his escape is subverted by the damage we see it do to his children.


If, on the other hand, we choose to expand, rather than multiply, our Prime Cadence, we face the problem of boredom. If it takes so long for the main conflict to be confronted, what’s going on in the interim? Three possible forms are obvious – the meditation, the saga and the picaresque. In meditation form, the main cadence takes a very long time while the protagonist does some pondering and philosophising and socialising and so forth. This is exceptionally difficult – the meditating has to be interesting in and of itself, and to lead in some clear way to the resolution. Hence, the picaresque form – while the protagonist is undergoing all the spiritual growth that will lead him to resolve his problem, he happens to encounter a series of other characters with their own problems. A series of subordinate cadences in thus built as the main cadence rises. But what if we end up caring more about these than about the main character, who may end up with little screen time? Or if we do care about the main character, why should we sit through all these minor characters solving minor problems? The solution is the saga form – where all those minor cadences are undergone by the main protagonist, with each element contributing to the final resolution. This is often seen in the ‘collect the ten magic jewels’ plot, where a series of independent escapades put together the pieces of the Final Solution (er… so to speak), but sometimes the adventures merely contribute spiritual learning, or something as prosaic as knowing whether to go north or south. A good example would be the Belgariad by David Eddings, or, even more so, its sequel, the Mallorean – both travelogues of escapades that bring the heroes one step closer to their destiny. But the problem of the saga is twofold: if the minor cadences don’t seem relevent enough, the reader can forget what the main cadence is meant to be (sometimes, as with some sword and sorcery, this may be done on purpose, with the main cadence being an almost mythical thing that is only barely glimpsed – in the comic SF series Red Dwarf, the central quest to return to Earth is essentially irrelevent to 90% of the episodes, and exists mostly as a framing device); if they seem to relevent, the reader can get frustrated with the lack of progress. “Oh gods, not another evil wizard blocking the route!”; “Oh gods, not another strange old man who knows a secret crucial to the success of the heroes!”

The saga form has, of course, been used well: The Book of the New Sun is essentially a saga.

The solution to all these problems is the epic form, the near-summation of fantasy structure. Here, the problem of pacing is solved through multiple viewpoints – while the meditative cadence progresses, other characters can contribute the minor cadences that maintain pace and interest. Unlike in the picaresque, these characters do not just pop up for their chapter, but are around the whole time, so we invest in them more. They are usually connected to the main character to share the investment. The classic example is LoTR: from the sundering of the fellowship, Frodo and Sam’s plot is almost entirely without incident until the end (the exception being the interlude at Cirith Ungol), with the excitement provided by cadences from three other viewpoints (Merry, Pippin, and Aragorn).

The epic form is the foundation of most epic fantasy, on account of its versatility. Cadences can occur simultaneously, and be of very different natures, with the interaction allowing event-lines that otherwise would be dull (long meditations by one character) or even unacceptable to modern audiences (one character tracing a tragic arc can be acceptable if others are being heroic). The number of viewpoints can be extremely high – the Wheel of Time has at least major six viewpoints, while A Song of Ice and Fire has thirteen major viewpoints and half a dozen others that may or may not become major. Here we can see the return of the karmic form as part of the epic form – in the first volume of ASOIAF, for instance, the two sympathetic viewpoints of Tyrion and Catelyn are directly antagonistic for large sections of the novel, with the successes of one creating problems for the other.

However, there is one critical flaw – the fact we have to care more about the main cadence, and its viewpoint character. In LotR, for instance, I must timidly admit that by the end I didn’t care much about Frodo and Sam, and much prefered to read about Pippin. Partly this was due to the flawed structure (there is far too large a chunk of F&S in the last book without relief), but it is in inherent danger in the structure. The solution is the dynastic form – the realisation that it is not only people who can be viewpoints. Families, too, can have story arcs, and nations, and species. In ASOIAF, accordingly, the Stark, Lannister and Targaryen families all have their own arcs, and the prime cadence is the story of Westeros struggling with internal disunity in the face of the inhuman threat of the Others. Because we care about the individuals, we care about the dynasty, and so we care about the main cadence – without having, necessarily, to care about the individual character who overcomes the main problem, if, indeed, it is only one character. I care about Westeros saving itself, and about the Starks returning to security – it doesn’t matter much if Dany is instrumental in saving Westeros, or if Bran is instrumental in saving the Starks (or vice versa, for that matter), because even if I don’t care about those viewpoints much, I do care about the higher-level viewpoint.

I don’t deny that the dynastic form can occur outside fantasy, but I think that it is particularly well suited to it (as it allows scales of conflict rarely seen in reality, and hence more levels of development) – and that is one reason why fantasy has a future. Or should have.


Anyway, to recap, I think there are the following structural forms for longer works (both novels and series and series of series):

– Sequel form: variations on a theme

– Opposing form: negation of the first cadence by the second

– Prequel form: attaching a leach-like cadence that gets much of its impact from the main cadence

– Trilogy form: a distinct and smaller cadence followed by a larger one that builds on the conclusions of the first

– Mythic form: multiple cadences without progression, linked by background details or tangential causality

– Karmic form: the consequences of one resolution set up a problem for a new viewpoint

– Meditation form: a cadence elongated by a long period of little action

– Picaresque form: a meditation embellished by numerous unconnected cadences, often by minor viewpoints

– Saga form: a meditation textured by numerous major cadences, each of which contributes to the final resolution

– Epic form: multiple connected and invested viewpoints supply minor cadences while major cadence builds – the main cadential viewpoint can follow meditation, saga or picaresque arcs. It need not always be clear in advance which viewpoint will turn out to be the important one.

– Dynastic form: non-personal viewpoints are added. No single viewpoint need bear the main cadence, and no character need be ‘the main character’.


5 thoughts on “Fantasy and Structure

  1. Khvaragh says:

    It’s really nice to an intellectual look at an oft-derided fiction genre. I can’t say how much I’ve had people look at me like I’m crazy when I say I read such “trash.” I especially like your breakdown of the types of fantasy beyond the purely sub-genre classifications of “dark fantasy,” “steam-punk,” “epic,” etc. which really don’t address anything beyond basic characteristics.
    I wonder if there’s anything culturally determined or influenced by the existence or lack thereof of this genre; in Egypt (as a personal example) and the Arab world in general, there is really no such thing as fantasy novels; the closest you get is pieces of magical realism like the Seven Heavens short story of Naguib Mahfouz. People here just don’t seem to be interested in the idea because it’s (to quote an actual comment I got) “fake.” Well, DUH!

  2. Ing says:

    Just like to say; I found this post really interesting.

  3. vacuouswastrel says:

    I think the power of fantasy (widely defined) is that it can examine the real world more closely by getting rid of distracting factors, and holding steady the elements that you want to look at. I’ve just watched an episode of Battlestar Galactica, for instance, about the abuse of prisoners of war – and the fact that they’re robots makes it easier to empathise with the abusers than it would be if they were human. Or the issues of ends and means become a lot starker when against the background of the survival of the human species.

    This can be, and has been, abused to advance reactionary policies – it’s easy to engineer your setting to make your views look right – but it need not be. At its best, fantasy can explore issues that otherwise could not be explored. A Canticle for Leibowitz, for instance, spends much of it time dealing with the debates of the middle ages – but the fact that in that world they are the second middle ages, that everythig has been done once before and failed that time, lends an entirely new dimension to their dilemmas, and one that could not be produced in non-fantasy fiction [and incidentally I think it’s wrong to view fantasy as a subset of writing – I think non-fantasy is the special case genre in a limitless sea of varied fantasies].

    And then there is the happy coincidence that fantasy readers have grown accustomed to a more sophisticated and extended form of story.

    Ing: glad to hear it!

  4. Bill Ectric says:

    I like the pointless metaphysical question re persistence through time!

    Well, I actually like the entire piece, but especially that.

  5. vacuouswastrel says:

    Thank you!
    That’s what a philosophical education is for, you know – knowing obscure pairs of words differing by only a few letters that have differing, and sometimes directly opposite meanings. I’ll have to do some posts on immanant vs imminant, or noumenal vs numinal…

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