BWF: Building Castles in the Air

Last weekend I was thrilled to attend the Brisbane Writer’s Festival. I attended four workshops over three days, talked to established authors, beginning writers and everyone in between,  and thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to immerse myself fully in the art and craft of writing.

The second workshop I attended was Building Castles in the Air with Kate Forsyth. The write-up on the BWF page talked about “creating believable worlds” and the like, and my understanding was that this would be a world about… well, creating believable worlds. World-Building, if you like. As it turns out, that wasn’t the focus at all. The focus was on the broader topic of Writing Fantasy. But I’m not complaining — the actual session was even more amazing than I expected.

Here are my Top 3 take-aways.

1. What do you need to ADD?

In a very broad sense, a story can be broken down to three elements, each with a distinct purpose.

  • ACTION is the engine that drives the plot.
  • DESCRIPTION conjures the world.
  • DIALOGUE adds sparkle, wit and personality.

Kate’s advice was for every page of the story to have at least some of each element. Without action, a scene doesn’t drive the plot forward. Without description, you end up with “talking heads” in nowheresville. And without dialogue, you have no character to your story. So if something doesn’t seem to be working, look over each page and see if there’s anything you need to ADD.

2. What role do your characters play?

Every story has a cast of characters. You can’t even have a story without at least two characters. (Keeping in mind that a “character” doesn’t necessarily need to be human.) While you don’t need to have a character fulfill every potential role, I found it incredibly useful to think about which role my minor characters play and how I can use them to their full potential within that role. Perhaps you will, too.

Potential Cast of Characters:

  • Hero: The protagonist; the most important person in the story.
  • Villain: The antagonist; the second most important person in the story.
  • Sidekick: Often acts as a foil to the hero; may sacrifice himself for the hero.
  • Mentor
  • Friends & Allies
  • Enemies & Cohorts
  • Complication: Someone with no malicious intent who inadvertently makes things harder on the hero.
  • Animal Friend: A “lesser being” who offers unconditional comfort; may sacrifice himself for the hero.
  • Secret Friend: Someone you suspect of working against the hero, who is secretly a friend.
  • Hidden Enemy: Someone you think is a friend, who is secretly working against the hero.

3. What’s your ideal pace?

Amongst all the other great information, Kate talked briefly about pacing. One of the tricks to effectively control the story’s pacing is sentence length.

A full stop (aka: a period, for all you North Americans) = a breath. Back in the early years of learning to read, that’s what we were taught. When you see a full stop/period, you pause in your reading and take a breath. It’s such an ingrained part of our reading that we instinctively do it, even when we’re not reading out loud.

And that is why we’re told to use short sentences during dramatic and action-packed times in our story. Lots of short sentences means lots of full stops. Lots of full stops means faster breathing. Faster breathing means a faster heart rate. Simply by changing the sentence structure, it’s possible to make the reader feel like they’re in a dangerous or high-risk situation.

Alternately, of course, lots of long, slow sentences will slow the reader’s breathing rate and heart rate and lull them into a sense of peace and comfort. 

About Kate Forsyth

Kate Forsyth is the author of 25 books for children, young adults and adults, most of them either Fantasy or Historical Fiction. Her books have been sold in 13 different countries around the world, including the US, Canada, the UK, Germany, Russia, Japan and Italy, and regularly feature in the fantasy bestselling lists. She is best known for her Witches of Eileanan books, The Gypsy Crown series for children and her time travel adventure, The Puzzle Ring. Her most recent novel for adults is Bitter Greens, a retelling of the Rapunzel fairytale, interwoven with the dramatic, true life story of the woman who first told the tale, 17th century French writer, Charlotte-Rose de la Force.

In real life, Kate is was funny, down-to-earth, pragmatic, and as genuine as it’s possible to get. If you ever have the chance to take a class or workshop with Kate, I urge you to do so. You won’t regret it.

Did you already know these things? Or are they are interesting to you as they are to me?

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “BWF: Building Castles in the Air

  1. Very good point about action, description, and dialogue (“ADD” sounds like a psychiatric disorder to me), though I don’t think every page always needs all three. Hemingway often had pages with all description, or all dialogue. But you do need all three (and Hemingway’s story always had all three). As Alice asked, “What is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?”

    Also, I do have to point out that Ms. Forsyth is obviously not a mystery writer, since she missed one important character role: suspects! 🙂

    • You can’t go wrong living by Alice’s quotes really, can you? 🙂 I have to admit, Hemingway is not an author I like reading. (I know, shoot me now.) I get so bored with description when I’m reading. I often skip any description that goes for more than two or three sentences so I can get back to the “good stuff”. I think there’s a balance to ADD (which is such a neat acronym, even if it sounds like a psychiatric disorder) and not every genre or style of writing is going to need all three on each page. But it’s worth having a look and consciously making the decision. It’s the times where you don’t realise you’ve just spent three pages doing nothing but describing the hero walking across the room that the story starts to feel like it’s not working.

      Hahaha. She’d probably have a comeback about suspects being a mix of Complications, Secret Friends, and Hidden Enemies. But no, she’s not a mystery writer. 🙂

  2. Wonderful information and some great refreshers. I particularly valued the reminder to use short sentences during the action. I bookmarked this one for future reference. Thank you!

  3. I hadn’t thought about the connection between the pace of the writing and the pace of breath stimulated by full stops – very useful! Thank you.

  4. Pingback: R U OK? « coffee2words

  5. The part about pacing is interesting. I never thought about it before – how we have a physical reaction to our reading pace, but it makes sense. I’m not a workshop person – but these posts might change my mind.

    • I love that concept, because it just highlights how powerful writing and words really are. With the proper application of black marks on white paper, we can create the same physical effect as a million dollar Hollywood sound stage and all that goes with it.

      Hang on, I suddenly feel the need to quote Marvel comics: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

  6. Pingback: Five Reasons to Attend Writing Conferences, Conventions and Festivals | The Happy Logophile

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