Your characters need to earn the things they need to succeed in their own stories.

Don’t let anything come too easily, and in most genre fiction, at least, I mean anything and everything must feel that it came at the cost of significant effort. If not, it’s not worth including in the story.

I’ll refer you back to a previous post on why you don’t need to cover every little minute detail of a character’s experience—we don’t need to follow them into the bathroom or see every little twitch and itch—but anything and everything we do see should, at least in a small way, actually move the story forwardStephen King said, “When I sit down to write, my job is to move the story. If there is such a thing as pace in writing, and if people read me because they’re getting a story that’s paced a certain way, it’s because they sense I want to get to where I’m going. I don’t want to dawdle around and look at the scenery.”

And anything that moves the story forward should come at some cost.

That doesn’t mean you need a string of redshirts to kill in order to get your hero across the street… unless it does mean that. Are the enemy operatives shooting down from the rooftops, and the hero’s secret weapon is in the Starbucks across the street? If so, maybe a member of the hero’s team does need to take a bullet for the sake of the story, so the hero gets to the Starbucks across the street and activates the secret weapon, but damn it, Ensign Smith paid for that with her life!

That sounds like more fun than: The enemy soldiers took positions on the rooftops so Galen pushed the button on the secret weapon and they all instantly returned to the Otherverse. Galen finished his coffee in peace.

Wow. Galen… pushed a button.

Galen was never really in danger.

There was nothing at stake in the enemy soldiers taking up position on the rooftops.

All Galen’s doing is enjoying a coffee, which is…

Not a story!

Please, I beg you, look for anything like this in your writing and shoot it dead from the rooftops!

I know that secret weapon example is goofy and weird, but you might be surprised how often I see stories that actually contain some variation of this, at least: The hero has to get from Point A to Point B and to get there he travels through the forest, passes a lake, goes up a hill then back down, turns left at the intersection, and gets to Point B just before dark.

And nothing happens along the way.

So then why am I reading this?

And that one sentence is bad enough. I’ve read chapters in which this uneventful journey is rendered in torturous, tedious detail, accomplishing nothing in terms of the narrative.

Look, I know you’ve drawn a map, on which is placed the Throughwood Forest, Lake Inconsequence, Ordinary Hill, and the intersection of This Road and That Road. That’s swell. But you have to seriously ask yourself this question:

Do my readers give a fraction of a shit?

“The first principle of aesthetics is either interest or suspense,” said author John Cheever. “You can’t expect to communicate with anyone if you’re a bore.”

That said, if Galen leaves Point A and is beset upon by forest glimps in the Throughwood Forest and they eat his left foot—now there’s a reason to take your readers through that forest.

Galen manages to fight off the glimps, and, bleeding, crawls to the edge of Lake Inconsequence, where he washes his wound and gets a drink of its healing waters, so at least he’s no longer bleeding to death.

Meanwhile, a lake squid had eaten his horse, so now Galen, has to climb Ordinary Hill on his knees, which would be fine except a pack of hill wolves are circling him the whole time. The wolves nipping at his heels, he makes it to the other side and rolls down the hill while tossing the last of his throwing knives to wound a few of the wolves and scare off the pack.

At the bottom of the hill, a young maiden, out picking berries, helps Galen to his feet and gives him a ride on her donkey the rest of the way to Point B, but Galen gets weird vibes from this maiden, who vanishes just at the entrance to Point B, whispering, “We will meet again…”

That makes the journey something Galen had to get through in order to earn whatever it is he finds at Point B, and we, your readers, are left hoping it was worth a foot.

Now, all that’s not to say that every trip from here to there has to be so hard-fought. There is too much of a good thing, as Ray Bradbury told us: “If you’re not careful in tragedy, one extra rape, one extra incest, one extra murder and it’s hoo-haw time all of a sudden.” So then in this case, maybe Chapter 3 ends with: “Galen rode out of the gates of Point A.” And Chapter 4 begins with: “Entering Point B just as the sun set, Galen noticed that…” 

Just remember: If it’s important to the story, make your characters (hero and villain alike) earn it. If it’s not important to the story, skip it.

—Philip Athans

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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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