How to Avoid Common Errors in Fantasy Fiction

It is just painful for me to read certain writing errors. Although I rarely encounter them when I read old classics, these errors are common in many books on sale now, and in the work of many new writers, my early work included. I explain my irritation here, in the hopes that the following problems will become much rarer.


Place quotation marks around dialog. “I like quotation marks,” she said. I have seen fiction where the author has made the stylistic decision to place dialog in italics rather than quotation marks. This is hard to read and can get confusing unless the speaker is identified each time they say something.

One should never identify the speaker if he can help it.

“Why do you like quotation marks?” he asked.

“Quotation marks are fun.” she said.

“Oh, my.” He furrowed his brow. “I suppose they are,” he answered.

“Aren’t they just?” she beamed.

We are not idiots. We can figure out who is talking. The job of the writer is to intrude on the imagination as little as possible. Real people don’t say after everything they say “he said,” she said. Words like “said” usually do not need to be said unless it is unclear who is talking. Even then, a writer should use descriptive verbs like “beamed,” “snickered,” “barked,” “asked,” and “ventured.”

For clarity, each speaker’s dialog gets its own paragraph. This can still be confusing when the characters speak for long periods of time and there are multiple paragraphs in a row by the same speaker. In that case, there should be a quotation mark at the beginning of each new paragraph by any speaker, and a quotation mark at the end of the last paragraph by a speaker.

Punctuation is another matter. As far as I can tell, “‘You smell of feet.’ said he.” and “‘You smell of feet,’ said he.” are both perfectly legitimate. However, commas (,) and periods (.) always go inside closing quotation marks. Colons (:) and semicolons (;) are never inside closing punctuation marks. Question marks (?) and exclamation points (!) only go inside closing punctuation marks when they apply to the last sentence inside the punctuation marks.

Adjectives and Adverbs

Lately, especially among new writers, it has become very common to tell the audience exactly what they should be imagining.

“I say, Florence!” Sir Ripley exclaimed, tugging at his cravat. “I simply must know where the new pig came from.”

“Oh” she snorted, peeking coyly over her fan, “All the popular families have one.”

“But where did it come from?” Ripley, his face flushed and red, had become more serious.

Florence glanced fearfully at her father. “I was a present.”

“Where can I return the blasted pig?” Sir Ripley thundered, outraged.

“Well…” There was an awkward silence. Florence, confident at first, was beginning to doubt the wisdom of hiding the pig in the bathtub.

Firstly, the writer’s job is to reflect reality. Ideally, the audience should be able to guess what is going on from the dialog. An adult audience is probably as intelligent as the writer, and children are smarter than we give them credit for. Secondly, it is very bad form to include an adjective phrase after each quote or description time and time again–or to do anything time and time again.

Fantasy Words

The pale wyrm slunk toward them. Its pale eyes pulsated red.

“Desist, yon cowardly beast!” Glormindal commanded. The rest of the fellowship shrank against wall of the dwarven cave. Even Glormindal’s elvish steed struggled against his halter.

“We must decipher the runes!” Frondly cried, “Or the secret of the sword will be lost forever!”

The wyrm slithered forward.

” When the broach gleams crimson, the blade is in sight. When the mead hall is flaming, you will find the knife!”

Glormindal pinned the wyrm to the floor and placed a saddle on it. “Let us go forth and ignite the hall!”

Unless you are a scholar of ancient or middle English (as Tolkien was), I advise that you do not try to re-create the dialect of the period. This applies to fancy sounding words (wyrm, pierce, crimson, hall, fellowship, lad, merrily), and any word you do not use in ordinary conversation. Unless you use a word often, you will probably use it wrong.

Do not write awkward phrases that sound old and dignified. (He had very much doubted that such a small place as this might contain such a wonder as that which now stood before him.) Most of the time, the stilted language in flowery sentences is very poor English and uses unnecessary words. You might recreate the rhythm of Old English, but if you do not model your prose after Beowulf, Chaucer’s work, Dicken’s work, and old court opinions (which are often kept on record), or some other period writing, the rhythm will be obviously fake.

Unless you are British/French/etc., do not use British/French/etc. spellings (colour, analyse, recognise, amateur, grey, etc.), because if you do not also abide by their grammatical rules and use all their variant spellings, the writing will not appear to be British/French/whatever. Moreover, perfect imitation of another country’s grammar is very hard to do.

These are only a few things to keep in mind when writing fantasy. A lot of the habits mentioned will be hard to break. The main point is to write. Take advice and avoid errors if you can, but do a lot of writing, read a lot of old books, and try editing. It also helps to know a fair amount of grammar.

Finally, you don’t mind being mocked, this and this are absolutely hilarious and make some good points about writing.


2 thoughts on “How to Avoid Common Errors in Fantasy Fiction

  1. If you limited your vocabulary to only those words you use in daily speech, your writing would be chatty and dull. How often do you use “beamed” in conversation?

    On an unrelated note, is there another way to spell “amateur” that I’m missing?

  2. Maybe I use a lot of words in ordinary speech that I shouldn’t. The point was not to limit yourself to words you only use in conversation, but mainly to words with which you are familiar and have used before. Some people, notably a few writers on use a lot of long words to sound scholarly, but end up using them wrong because they used a thesaurus to find them and are not actually familiar with their nuances of meaning.
    “So, I was sitting there holding this box of chocolates and Sarah just stood in the doorway and beamed at me.” Alternatively, you might use the word when talking about Star Treck/other sci-fi.

    No, this was error on my part. “Amateur” is the correct spelling, I was under the delusion, like so many others, that it was spelled “amature.”

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