Unless you've been able to enroll in Deborah Chester
's graduate course at the University of Oklahoma, you'll have missed what her students rate
as helpful (4.6/5) and clear (4.8/5) graduate-level instruction. With more than forty books published in a dizzying range of genres, Prof. Chester knows how to create fiction that will sell. And if you doubt this is teachable, consider the words of her student Jim Butcher – whose first-published book Storm Front was written in her class, using the novel-crafting techniques introduced to him by Deb Chester. In interview after interview, he's explained (e.g., here
) that "Debbie Chester taught me everything I know about writing" and (frequently, both speaking
and in his forward to Deborah Chester's newest book) that he directed his suspicion of her techniques into proving them wrong – by faithfully executing them to show just what kind of product would result. The result, of course, was the bestselling Dresden Files.
But now, Prof. Chester offers her instruction to the rest of us. The Fantasy Fiction Formula
tells would-be writers (as many advisors do) that it's important to understand their main characters so they feel authentic. But she goes further, giving concrete guidance exactly what this means. Chester's chapter on characters concludes with a seventy-five-point character design checklist to make sure you know how to test the depth of your understanding of your characters, and give you guidance what you need to know to be able to craft scenes that show them in believable color and in full dimension. It's this concrete connection to the process, and the detail in how to execute her instructions, that separates her work from the more theoretical guidance one finds in some of the popular works on writing. Similar guidance exists in hooks: what kinds of hooks exist are presented in a table – together with the parts of a manuscript each hook is best employed.
Chester's book contains guidance entirely consistent with that one can find in established gems on writing, like Robert McKee's Story: Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting
. But Chester's work is specifically directed at novelists, and the creation of salable novels. Reading Jeffrey Schechter's entertaining My Story Can Beat Up Your Story
can provide great insight the magic of effective movie-length presentations, but The Fantasy Fiction Formula doesn't require transposition from a foreign medium or leave one scratching one's head how to compact the commanded number of plot points into a salable-length novel. Chester's chapter on viewpoint addresses techniques that screenplay advice wouldn't offer because their medium is so different. The Fantasy Fiction Formula's entire focus is on writing novels – and that means developing characters as only novels can develop them. It means using tools available to novelists, and employing them as they are best put to use in novels. Specific guidance aids recognition and avoidance of novel-writing pitfalls. Each chapter includes execises and drills to ensure you get a chance to try techniques yourself, often by analyzing works you can find in print. I recommend McKee and Schechter both – but for someone planning a fantasy novel, Chester's book delivers some of the exact same high-quality advice (characters need goals that matter; readers must care about the stakes; etc.) but delivers each with specific focus on the written product the fantasy novelist is actually trying to make.
And it's not just a 50,000-foot view of the forest, and an invitation to sally forth. The Fantasy Fiction Formula is a detailed navigational guide, in which Chester moves between the micro and the macro to help writers craft a coherent, immersive, fully-developed whole. The anatomy of a scene is buttressed on the micro side by instructions how to assemble scenes from actions and characters' reactions, and on the macro side by scene architecture and the pursuit of novel-length plots and subplots. The specific order of events in a character's reaction is detailed so readers can process with the character what the author needs them to understand to proceed. Dialogue has its own chapter, and two chapters address the creation and evolution of the conflicts you will need to build your scenes. Chester discusses how to introduce characters – describing several methods, and their application. Examples abound. Clear rules govern climactic reversal, both in design and employment. Golden advice shows how to recognize and fix broken scenes. Three chapters deal with the novel's middle – a graveyard that swallows so many promising works based on ideas readers would really love to see executed well. Resolving novels' story problems is addressed with the same care as the scene problems, to help authors deliver fantasy readers a proper reward for their hours of investment – and ensure they put in a good word to their friends, and come back themselves.
Chester's formula encourages and supports what she helped Butcher achieve: readable, fast action built of action/reaction units that advance a character with a meaningful goal through scene after scene of disaster and disappointment until, after a clamactic high-stakes character-defining decision, the story goal has been reached. There's more, but why spoil a good thing? If you intend writing novels, you should have a copy yourself – even if there's no magic in the scenes, Chester can show you the magic that gets it right on the page. It's not a matter of chance. It's ritual magic, and Chester lays out the spell.