The Strife Ray

(An old LJ post recycled for a friend.)

Fantasy as a genre seems to exist to transfer the Fantasy Vision from the head of the author into those of their readers. Look! Look! Here’s my Gate of the Death. Cool isn’t it? Look at all those dancing skelingtons!

Alas, fantasy authors have a harder time than artists and filmmakers in the same genre. Where they have visuals, music and mood, the writer has only what I call the STRIFE RAY. Pray allow me to demonstrate.

Try reading this at the normal pace:

The forest fell away and the Vale of the Little Happy People opened up before Torahg. A great river oozed along the valley bottom, feeding the many ditches which in turn watered the fields of miscweed. A herd of white unicorns gambolled amongst the cultivated flowers, swirling around the bases of the lazily spinning windmills. Further off, a natural hill or mound rose from the flood plain. Little cottages dotted its sides. At the crest rose a squat temple box-like temple. Before its open wooden doors, diminutive natives danced in a circle, no doubt celebrating a rustic wedding.

Oh dear god(s)! This is how a lot of published fantasy is written. How far did you get? I have difficulty reading it end-to-end, and I wrote it.


An artist could have just painted the scene. A film director could have pumped up the Hans Zimmer score and swept the camera through the bucolic Vale. No worries about maintaining tension: watching costs us no  effort, and – if the script and directing are good – we know that Something Is About To Happen.

Writers don’t have these luxuries. Reading takes effort. The reader quickly tires of a passage which doesn’t reward them with some visceral kick. Then they skip it, and so much for the Burning Fantasy Vision™.

The only thing guaranteed to stop the readers from skipping the descriptive bits is CONFLICT. (Why conflict is so compelling is a question for better minds than mine.) No matter how wonderful your Burning Fantasy Vision™, nobody will really see it unless you tip red-hot conflict over the top.

Warning: This is a bit like tipping burning petrol over your granny’s flowerbeds to improve their night visibility – it can leave your cosy utopia charred and corpse-strewn.

So, the landscape’s been daubed with conflict. Now, like Ming the Merciless, the Fantasy writer must roll out the Strife Ray in order to illuminate it.

Similar to active radar, the Strife Ray illuminates wherever you aim it. However, if it doesn’t reflect hot conflict, it dims, or – worse! – switches off entirely, leaving the reader with a vague, fleeting impression of that part of your vision.

So, let’s point the Strife Ray at the Vale of the Little Happy People… oh, bugger. We can’t, we haven’t got a conflict.

Grant me a second while I open can of ready made conflict… there… and splash some over the valley and its cute flora and fauna. Right. So now I boot up the Strife Ray and here we go…

Daylight shone between the great oaks. Torahg raised his hand to halt the Hero Riders. Heart in mouth, he inched to the edge of the forest and peered down through the screen of miscweed.

There below was the Vale of the Little Happy People. Already war galleys tore up the great river, prows gouging the placid surface, archers scattering arrows over the fields. Unicorns fled the river banks. Some of the white-skinned creatures tripped in the irrigation ditches and plunged into the high miscweed, never to rise again.

Torahg registered a bitter taste in his mouth. “We’re too late. Mount up lads and watch out for ditches!” He led his charger into the neat rows of miscweed, swung into the saddle and set off at a trot for the valley bottom. From behind came the reassuring thunder of the hooves trampling the crops.

Now the Warriors of Doom disgorged from their galleys. Windmills smoked, blazed, then turned into columns of fire.

Toragh glanced at the cottages which dotted the low hill above the flood plain. The Little People went about their normal business. Outside the boxlike temple which crowned natural mound, diminutive dancers even circled a bride and groom as if life would go on as it always did.

He gritted his teeth. If their way of life was so special, why wouldn’t they defend it? But, he’d made himself into their overlord. If he ever wanted to bed Pixy, he needed to prove he was more than yet another robber baron.

A band of warriors came into view, toasting live Little Person on the embers of a windmill.

Toragh grinned. Sometimes duty was pleasure. He drew his sword. To his rear, fifty snicks answered the gesture. He filled his lungs with the damp river valley air and bellowed, “Charge!”

Not perfect by any means. (I bill for perfection.) But I think the Strife Ray brings alive the Vale of the Little People: the forest, the miscweed, the river, the unicorns, the ditches, the windmills, then finally the Little People and their Quaint Rustic Customs.

Of course, the Strife Ray destroys most of the things it touches, but – hey! – that serves the little peaceniks right. 🙂



Writer. Swordsman. CLICK TO SEE MY BOOKS !

Posted in Writing Tips
One comment on “The Strife Ray
  1. Geoff Hart says:

    It’s certainly true that opening up a can of whup-ass can invigorate anotherwise dry tale, but what may be less obvious is that the same technique can be applied without bloodshed. Think of all your favorite witty banter from books and movies and you’ll get the idea.

    For example, one of my favorite lines in Joss Wedon’s Avengers movie is when Captain America clashes verbal swords with Ironman:
    Cap: “Big man in a suit of armor. Take that off and what are you?”
    Stark: “Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.”

    Or an older remark from Babylon 5 that’s among my favorites of all time: “Ah, arrogance and stupidity all in the same package. How efficient of you.” (I try not to be that efficient, but don’t always succeed.)

    In one sense, no blood is spilled. In another, Cap and the human admiral who bore the brunt of these assaults lie eviscerated on the floor, while everyone else in the room falls over laughing rather than trying to administer first aid. The pen may or may not be mightier than the sword, but the cutting remark from a sharp tongue can be every bit as painful — and, in the right circumstances, just as damaging.

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