One Rule to Ring them all


As usual, this blog is based on my own experience and your mileage may vary. This blog is intended for unpublished writers who are seeking traditional publication in the modern fantasy market.
So, what’s your fantasy about?

  • It’s about a war
  • It’s about a guy learning magic
  • A farmboy is the chosen one…?

It might be. But also, it’s not. Or at least, that’s only the tool you’re using to craft the thing that does matter.

On writing forums and within writing groups, there are many topics that come up over and over. Characterisation, word count, third person vs. first person, structure… and I can’t help but feel that the most important aspect of story crafting is largely missed. It’s not generally taught, and it’s not generally understood.

Reader Experience

That’s not really all that surprising. I missed it myself for about fifteen of the years that I spent writing. What finally caused me to understand it was when I decided to look at why books that are so often snobbishly trashed (you know what I mean – 50 Shades, Jack Reacher, The Da Vinci Code etc.) are also some of the most popular books on the market. The moment I did, I felt that the quality of my own writing multiplied exponentially overnight.


I liked both of the pictured books, but if you didn’t, you should still try to understand why they are so successful.
When we craft stories, we usually start from a perspective of “I want to write a story about demons,” or “I want to tell Jane’s story.” But whatever it is that inspires you, I recommend taking a step back from your work in progress and asking yourself: What is the Reader Experience that I’m creating?

Both Child and Brown have the same thing in common (and something that’s very often lacking in fantasy writing): they make you want to turn the page. Every time you get to the end of a page, you want to read the next. That’s the power they have, because their writers thought about who might want to read their book, and why they would want to read it.

If those books didn’t work for you personally, then you need to accept that for millions, they do. And that’s worth understanding. I’m tired of people badmouthing the 50 Shades and Da Vinci Codes and I think that as a writer, whilst we may roll our eyes at the subject matter of 50 Shades, we should recognise that it provided a valuable experience for many readers. And let’s not forget the $millions for its writer.
About three years ago I read a particular fantasy series, which I shan’t name. On paper I should have enjoyed it. It had Viking-type warriors, magic, war, conflict – and yet, it didn’t pull me on to keep reading. Why? All of the individual components were there.
The reason was that whilst you can take a bunch of good ingredients, you haven’t necessarily made a cake that I want to eat.

One place where people begin to understand reader experience is when they discuss three act structure. The three act structure is really a crutch however, for those that don’t grasp reader experience as a concept. It tells you precisely where to lay your highs and your lows, what needs to happen to give that experience – but you don’t need to follow the three act structure. It’s better to grasp the principles behind it instead and then apply them yourself.

So what’s the One Rule?

Each and every time you write a chapter, ask yourself what the reader is going to get out of it and why it will make them want to read the next one.

It’s not enough that the scene is necessary to the overall plot. You need to provide the experience that you want your reader to have. That might mean that there’s tension. It might mean that it gives them an aching sense of nostalgia. It might mean that it scares them. But you need to know what the reader experience is going to be, not just assume that the reader will keep going. I confess that I’m terrible at sticking with things. If your book doesn’t grab me in the first 20%, I won’t keep on with it. I don’t have time in my life for books that don’t give me a powerful experience.
So what are the experiences that stuck with me? Here’s three from the much longer list I could make:

  • Legend by David Gemmell. The experience? Refusing to surrender. Never giving up. Feeling that principle is worth dying for. He gave me that feeling as a young person, and I loved it.
  • The Farseer trilogy by Robin Hobb. The experience? The ache, the sadness, the full immersion into the life of an unfortunate, mistreated soul who is full of love but flawed and hurts those around him.
  • The Broken Empire by Mark Lawrence. The experience? A ride on the back of someone who is so divorced from modern morality, so unashamedly a sociopath (Jorg, not Mark…) that we get to experience a kind of cruel abandon in the liberty his lack of morality gives him.

The best thing is that when you understand that it’s reader experience that you’re creating, all those other things – character, pace, structure, tone, and the ability to mercilessly delete thousands of unnecessary words – they all become obvious to you.
So turn back to your book, and don’t tell me about its magic system. Don’t tell me it’s about a war. Don’t tell me that it’s about learning to be a wizard. It’s none of those things; those are just the mediums that you’re using to transmit the experience. If you take hold of that and run with it, you’re going to get a lot more mileage out of what you write – or at least, I did.

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Published by EdMcDonald

Ed McDonald is the author of The Raven's Mark series of novels. He currently lives in the UK. Find me at

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