Do ‘Story Physics’ work in Fantasy?

An interview with A-list sci-fi and (now) fantasy author Kay Kenyon.

Kay’s new novel — her first fantasy after a string of highly successful science fiction titles — is just out.  It’s called A Thousand Perfect Things, I’ve read it, it’s stellar.

This interview puts Kay Kenyon on the firing line for her claim that she always uses the principals of story architecture and story physics for engineering a story. This can be risky, because in execution most authors adapt this stuff to an extent that they are no longer recognizable.  After reading the story, however, I think what she has to share on this topic is of value.

So we’re going to take her brand new historical fantasy and deconstruct it without giving away too much of the plot.

How can we do this? Veeeery carefully.

Larry: I read an advance copy of the book, and I loved it. One thing I’ve gotta say–apropos of this post topic–the plot is really out there.

Kay: It is. The story treats with magical terrorism, love, mutiny, Victorian repression, the British Raj, silver tigers, kraken, ancient ghosts, a bridge across the ocean and palace intrigues in the court of a rana.

Larry: So boil down the concept. Pitch us.

Kay: What if a young Victorian woman, denied access to the halls of science, decides to use forbidden magic to make her mark–and to do so must cross a great oceanic bridge to an altered India of magic, thereby taking on the Raj, a mutiny and the impossible quest for perfection?

Larry: Complicated, and very compelling. With all that complexity, the story might have come apart at the seams (scenes?) if you didn’t nail it structurally. Did it hold together during the drafting process?  Notice any difference in applying the principles in fantasy versus your sci-fi wheelhouse?

Kay: Story structure is needed as much in fantasy as in any genre. Plot milestones keep a fantasist on target.

Larry: I definitely saw story engineering at work in A Thousand Perfect Things. For example, Plot Point 1. I’ll let you tell it: Where is the point where the hero’s quest (in this case, Tori Harding’s) is defined–in context to an antagonist force?

Kay. On pages 48-53.

Larry: A little early, perhaps?

Kay: Agreed. But I’m pleased with the work that scene did. It was also the inciting incident. The regiment is going to the land of magic, and Tori–previously beaten down and hopeless–sees a fortuitous chance to insert herself in the enterprise. She crosses over a bridge to the magical world determined to own the magic properties of a certain object.

We know what she has to gain or lose: her desperate desire to thwart her enemies and be recognized in her scientific field. She will seek a mysterious source of power that will break open the closed ranks of male scientific culture. If caught, she knows she’ll be hauled back home. But really, death awaits. . . as we’ve seen from the antagonist by this point.

Larry: That was a critical scene… the approach to the bridge, with it’s bizarre properties, the regiment setting out. But your best use of the major plot points, I believe, was the midpoint.

Kay: I think so, too. This was on page 157-164, a sequence of scenes that reveals the missing piece of information hidden by a conspiracy. Tori has been a wanderer in Part II, responding haphazardly to opposition. At the midpoint, higher stakes are revealed, and she becomes a warrior in pursuit of her quest. She must become a fighter, because she’s now pursued by a calamity.

Larry: So in your 300 page book, you are spot-on in the delivery of a scene that shifts the context of the conflict. And it’s a doosey.

Kay: The midpoint scene reveals a context that the reader has known. The reader watches Tori as a wanderer, saying wake up, wake up! Now she does, because of new, horrifying information.

Larry: I’d really like to tell what happened, but…

Kay: I’d have to kill you.

Larry: Well, it would be too late, but let’s move on to Plot Point II. That was a scene that I can imagine being a trailer in a movie.

Kay: Me too, let us hope! Any inside contacts?

OK, so on page 207, at 67% into the story, we hit Plot Point II. A a few beats early of the 75% ideal. In this scene Tori has a life-altering experience. Major spoiler here, so all I can say is Plot Point II changes her forever. It’s a major reversal.

Larry: The next few scenes unravel that new information and give it meaning, so this plot point is more spread out than others. But the job is accomplished. I’m starting to be a believer. You’re using these milestones, even amid the magic.

Kay: Hand-waving and winging it never works. Not even in fantasy. I planned for Tori to receive the last piece of the puzzle at this point. Everything in the novel drives toward this scene.

Larry: But you flipped things. Sometimes what the hero thinks they wanted isn’t it. That’s tricky stuff. But the plot still pursues the same thing, only now it’s in a totally different context. Meanwhile, the stakes build even higher.

Kay: Even though I flipped the goal, I still have to show that what the hero now wants is worth all the build up. Tori becomes a a true hero/martyr in pursuit of her goal, even though an altered goal, one intertwined with her original quest.

Larry: And now for the final act. Where does Part 4 begin?

Kay: When the heroine knows the thing that she has to sacrifice, and has changed enough, conquered inner demons enough, to do it. She marches into the hands of her enemies. But she has a secret strength. It may save her, but she can’t count on it.

Larry: The ending was tricky, though. It was a time of war, and though it had been building, did we lose sight of what we were after?

Kay: The ending is complex. Tori makes a fateful choice that reflects the resolution of her inner conflicts. It plays out against a tidal wave of events that has been approaching throughout the book. Although Tori does become a minor player in this disaster, she is the driving force in her own transformation. And she enters the larger fray a mythical figure. Guns are trained upon her on the beach. . .

Larry: Stop there, no spoilers allowed.

Kay: I worked to give the final pages an emotional punch. Tori has one last thing to decide. It happens on the last page. I think the reader will feel it viscerally. I hope satisfied.

Larry: I appreciate you sharing your journey with us, and providing a real-life example of what happens when a proven pro like yourself proactively applies story architecture to an already potent story landscape.

One of the best ways to learn these principles is to see it applied.  Which makes A Thousand Perfect Things a clinic for writers, as well as a deliriously rewarding ride for readers.

*****

A Thousand Perfect Things is an epic tale of magic in a re-imagined England and India, when a Victorian woman takes on the scientific establishment, place intrigues, ghosts and a great mutiny–by marshaling the powers of magic. Now available in trade paper and to pre-order in eBook. Pub date: August 27. For a limited time, the eBook is offered at a special price of $3.99.

This is Kay Kenyon’s first fantasy after ten novels of science fiction.

Twitter: @KayKenyon, Facebook: Kay Kenyon, Author or her website: www.kaykenyon.com/novels

 

*****

This is Kay Kenyon’s first fantasy after ten novels of science fiction. Connect with her on TwitterFaceBook or her website

10 Comments

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10 Responses to Do ‘Story Physics’ work in Fantasy?

  1. Excellent breakdown! I haven’t read this novel yet, but I’ve read Bright of the Sky — Kay is an excellent storyteller! I’ll definitely have a peek at this book. It sounds intriguing.

    I can also attest to the claim that story physics works in fantasy. I just released the fourth (& final) book in my fantasy series and applied the principles of story architecture while outlining & writing it. I’m pretty sure it’s the best book in the series, largely because the events come at the right time and with the right focus. Story Engineering and Story Physics are my new favorite writing books.

  2. Martha

    Ahhhh . . . a mini lesson in Story Physics, right here in your interview with Kay. Thank you both.
    I made notes as I read, and am going right to my shapeless manuscript to fix what I sense is wrong with it. Thank you again for starting off my day with a boost.

  3. Werner

    That concept sounded suspiciously like a premise.

  4. zlsasnett

    Wow, Larry. Just wow. I can’t decide if this was more brilliantly done (and I think it is brilliantly done) or if this was more timely (which I also think it is).

    Based on the strength of this interview, I bought the book and can’t wait to read it and then go back over the questions and answers to see a book I’m interested in broken down to the story structure parts.

  5. Poll Mak

    Firstly: Great Post and thanks for your showing us Story Engineering and Physcs in fantasy fiction Kay.
    And thank you Larry for writing Story Engineering and Story Physics. I bought your books to help me with writing my fantasy book (Which after some story Physics and Engineering analysis, is now a trilogy. Thanks Larry! Lol I am glad.) I got your books because I was stuck and needed help. I can see clearly now, the scope of my story and how it will be a trilogy and not just a single book. Although I could change that I suppose.

    (Looking forward to the Audio book versions of Story Engineering and Story Physics, Larry., hint, hint)

    And now for my Epic on the need for Story Engineering and Story Physics in Fantasy Fiction. (Just some thoughts, really!):

    Fantasy stories are very, very long, often spanning many books with many characters and creatures mixed in with many plots and sub plots. And that is not even looking that the world building and magic systems used which are like two additional characters in the mix and have their own Story Physics and Engineering principles.

    In Fantasy books there is a lot going on and I do not see how getting a story down in a virgin draft is possible using the pantster method. It just could NOT work. (I have tried and the Dragons will eat you!) There would be a lot of reverse engineering happening to find and get the story down using the pantster method in Fantasy Fiction..

    It seems like for successful published fantasy stories today, your book needs to be laid out in a planning system (an outline) where you can consciously or unconsciously cover all Story Engineering and Story physics elements to make your epic story work! (Or take you can that same amount of time Tolkien took to write Lord of the Rings. 12 years I believe.)

    I think for Fantasy Books, Story Engineering and Physics are very much needed. Mandatory!
    In the detailed outlining process that is often used by fantasy writers, Story Physics and Story Engineering principles are I believed discovered and added through the story conjuring process. This outline also helps the author see where his story is lacking (missing Physics and Engineering) before writing the first draft. The author may not label the missing elements in terms of Story Physics and Engineering, but the Author will know when his story is lacking because of his outline. (Or his editor will.)

    Fantasy writers that I know and whose stories I have read, who use a formal planning structure in their writing include Patrick Rothfuss, Joe Abercrombie, Jim Butcher and Peter V Brett as well as Brandon Sanderson, who is known to meticulously outlining his books before starting the first draft.

    And let’s not forget that the Wheel of Time series of books would have never been completed if the great Robert Jordan did not plan and outline the wheel of time series of books. Robert Jordon died before finishing the series. and his story outlining laid the ground work for Brandon Sanderson to finish the books. Robert Jordan was a master of his craft and through his story planning he got all the story Engineering and Physics elements down before writing each book in the wheel of time series.

    In today’s Fantasy publishing world, I am sure all the successful published pros use detailed outlining on some level, so that they can complete deadlines and get paid while delivering amazing stories. Outlines make it easier to see Story Physics and Story Engineering and thus making it easier for the Fantasy author to finish his 12 book epic.

    The end.

  6. What I like most is seeing how Kay’s flexibility in positioning the elements didn’t unhinge the structure. I can be too rigid about anything measured in percentages, so it’s helpful to be reminded that there’s wiggle room.

  7. Really glad this was helpful to folks even without benefit of people having read the book yet! I think this a testimony to how much your articulation of structure is by now familiar to writers, Larry.

    And Joel: I was worried about PP1 a bit, since I think Larry makes a solid case that it shouldn’t come too early, before we care about the major character and her stakes. So I asked self if I had pulled that off in the first pages, and I answered *self-justifying* “yes”! Flexibility is important as long as you recognize the risks of skewering too far from good Physics.

  8. I think “Story Physics” apply to any genre. I finished a Christian-friendly science fiction novel (currently on my first edit) and the physics applied. Moreover, I’m also working on a church history and found the Physics were a huge help. My initial notes and plans were incredibly dry. But, now I’m finding some characters, some plot points, etc.

    I had figured a a chunk of “Story Physics” out by 9 novels’ worth of failure. Mr. Brooks gave me names for parts, gave me an actual system, and actually caused the creation of my villain in novel #10. I wish this had been around when I started writing, but I might not have had the experience and humility to listen back then.

    I never thought to apply it to my church history until late this summer when a nice lady at church asked when I would be done. I knew it was failing, and that was why it wasn’t done. Something in one of the posts here struck a chord at that time. I’m starting over, but now I think I can do it. The history of a rural church that is 15 miles from the nearest paved road and still doesn’t have running water isn’t as exciting as my science fiction, but it does have compelling people, and I’m lucky enough to have one of them still alive and active at age 96. For his sake, I want to finish the history before Christmas.

    So yes, “Story Physics” absolutely apply everywhere.

    By the way: a history book which really follows the “Story Physics” is the “Guns of August” by Barbara Tuchman. It is compelling reading that explores the opening days of the First World War.

  9. “in execution most authors adapt this stuff (story architecture and story physics) to an extent that they are no longer recognizable.” –Larry

    My take away.

    1. SA and SP are most powerful when the author has internalized both. Once internalized to the author they will also be internalized in the story. Powerful story.

    2. Practically, without structure, even with the underpinnings granted by the “history” in Ms. Kenyon’s fantasy, I’m guessing three – five stories would have demanded to be told from the complexety her concept described.

    Excellent interview. Thank you.

  10. MikeR

    Jason, when you say to me …

    “The history of a rural church that is 15 miles from the nearest paved road and still doesn’t have running water […] does have compelling people, and […] one of them still [is] alive and active at age 96. For his sake … I want to finish the history before Christmas.”

    … I want to stand in line to buy a copy of your story. (Especially if you can arrange for my copy to be autographed by that lady/gentleman.)

    And here’s why: because this is a =real= story, about =real= people, who actually lived in a situation that (I daresay …) very few “fiction writers” would ever have dreamed of.

    Can “fiction writing / story physics” actually apply, to something that is ACTUALLY REAL? “You betcha!” As (aspiring …) fiction writers, we strive to present our (imagined) stories in “a compelling way.” How ever much so more so, then, do such principles apply to the stories of Actual Lives.