Feb 1, 2016

Writing Book: The Fantasy Fiction Formula by Deborah Chester


The Fantasy Fiction Formula is a great writing book by Jim Butcher's mentor. I love Butcher's Dresden Files series, and when I saw the book mentioned on his site, I had to get it, and I wasn't disappointed.

This book is geared towards genre writers, and you get what is says on the cover: well-written, practical advice. The examples have to do with wizards and werewolves, and Chester's style is fun and entertaining. If you've read a lot of writing books, most of the information is familiar, but Chester's approach is very useful, with examples that help illustrate the point she's trying to make. The great thing is, you get examples of both the wrong way and the right way, which makes it easier to spot your own mistakes.

I found the book useful and learned a few new tricks, but the best thing for me was that it describes the process of writing a story or novel from start to finish, and it helped me fuse all the information floating around my brain into one concise whole. If you've already written a book or two, you probably don't need this, but for beginners trying to write speculative fiction this is worth every penny.

The first thing I'm going to try is the SPOOC method for testing story premises. The acronym comes from Situation, Protagonist, Objective, Opponent, Climax. When you combine them, you'll get a two-sentence plot summary. So Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone might look  something like this:

Situation: When he finds out that someone is after the Philosopher's stone hidden in Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry
Protagonist: Harry Potter
Objective: vows to keep it safe.
But can he stop
Opponent: the evil Lord Voldemort
Climax: from stealing it and coming back?

The character-building and revision questions are also useful, and the story structure sections are easy to understand.

In conclusion: one of the best writing books I've read. Go ahead and get this if you're a genre writer. Into science fiction or horror? Don't let the fantasy bit scare you off; you'll still get plenty of use from this. Highly recommended.

(If you're a literary writer, you will probably hate this and feel like the book is trying to box you in. If the concept of plot makes you dry-heave, move along. This is not the writing book you're looking for.)


  1. Hi Anna,
    Thanks for writing this post. I just got the "FFF" book and am really happy with it so far. I too love Jim Butcher's work (though I enjoyed Codex Alera even more than the 4 Dresden books I've read so far) and got Chester's book after seeing the post on his site, like you.

    I have a question about the SPOOC method though. I actually just got to that section (page 19) so maybe it will become clear later on, but is it okay for the 2-sentence SPOOC synopsis to contain major spoilers? From Chester's examples I couldn't tell if the Antagonist, Objective and Climax are supposed to all be apparent in the story's beginning (first 3 chapters). But I think in a lot of books, the final version of these (the main antagonist, the main objective, what the final climax will be) is not revealed until much later.

    For example, in Dresden - Fool Moon (the werewolf one; **spoiler alert if you haven't read it!**), Harry doesn't find out that his main antagonist is actually the FBI agent until quite late in the book; and only a very astute reader would figure it out any earlier. Similarly, Harry Potter only slowly finds out about the philosopher's stone, Voldemort's presence at Hogwarts, etc.

    Thanks in advance for any insight you have!

  2. Hi again Ana,
    Hoping my previous comment will get approved, otherwise this may not make much sense. **Spoiler alert for Dresden Files #4 Summer Knight**

    Here's my attempt at working through SPOOC for Summer Knight. I had a lot of trouble with the Objective but once I started writing the SPOOC sentences I realized that the Objective has to be known in the beginning (first 3-5 chapters) because of how it comes in the first of the two SPOOC sentences. I think I'll try a few more books -- maybe more traditional fantasy ones rather than Dresden -- before trying to apply to my own story idea.

    Summer Knight (Dresden Files #4) - SPOOC
    Who is the protagonist? Harry Dresden, a wizard
    Who is the primary vilain? Aurora, the Summer Lady (note we don't find this out until quite late in the story, though she is introduced in the first half)
    What does the protagonist want above all else? Well, at first it seems like he wants to find the cure for his girlfriend Susan's vampirism, but I guess by the end he wants to stop the faerie-maggedon that is Aurora is about it cause. In the middle he wants to find the killer (who turns out to be Aurora) so that he can save himself from the White Council's justice of turning him over to the Red Court vampires. It's only towards the very end (the scene where the Gatekeeper asked him if he would end his quest now, or keep trying to stop Aurora) that he really decides to stop Aurora above all else.
    What does the primary antagonist want? Aurora wants to disrupt the balance of power between the faerie realms, triggering a devastating war, so that one side will win and end the conflict.
    Who wins at the story's conclusion and how? Harry wins by stopping Aurora from sacrificing Lily.

    So that one was okay except for the "objective" -- is it really okay for the objective to not be revealed until just before the climax?

    SPOOC plot equation (2 sentences): When the White Council rules that he will be handed over to his enemies if he doesn't deliver, Chicago wizard-for-hire Harry Dresden must find the faerie Winter Knight's killer (to avoid becoming vampire food). But can he solve the mystery on time when the powerful Summer Lady Aurora threatens to trigger a faerie war with devastating consequences?

    You can see that Harry's final objective wouldn't make sense in the 2-sentence structure because it has to be a direct result of the Situation in the first sentence. Does that make sense?

    1. Hi Mike!
      Yeah, it's quite tricky when you try to put theory to practice. I think it doesn't matter if there are spoilers, because the SPOOC method is a tool for the writer to test his/her story premise, so it differs from a logline in that you're not using it to sell the story or hook the reader. If the SPOOC works, then you probably have all the necessary components of a story. (Or that's how I understood it.)
      Butcher's plots are quite twisty and complicated (but that's why I love his work), kudos on the Summer Knight SPOOC! There's lots of side plots in the book, but I also think that's the main plot. I agree that it's very difficult to boil that particular book down to just two sentences. If you wanted to stick the Lady Aurora bit in the "situation" sentence, you'd need a really long sentence. The method isn't a good fit for literary novels, either: if you tried it on Ulysses you might sprain something:)

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